Author: cofax (cofax7)
Author's Notes: Spoilers through season 3; set early in season 4. 8,500 words.
Summary: Tickle-Me-Chucky was going down.
There were jobs, Dean Winchester realized, struggling against the cord binding his hands behind his back, that were unpleasant.
And then there were the jobs that really fucking sucked.
A job that resulted in the two Winchesters bound and gagged in a second-grade schoolroom by three demon-possessed puppets definitely fell into the second category.
"Haunting a what?" Dean looked reluctantly away from the blonde with the hips and back at Sam, who was already twisting the laptop around so Dean could see the screen. They were tucked into the one shady spot on the coffee shop's patio, unprepared after two weeks in coastal Oregon to deal with California sun. Dean's underwear still hadn't dried out, and he was having a silent war with Sam over moldy socks. He was pretty sure he was winning.
Sam coughed meaningfully. "A school. Lacrosse Elementary, just down the coast and inland. Furniture's been moved and all the school pets have died."
Okay, Sam wanted a low-key job, but Kindergarten Cop wasn't gonna do it: Dean had his pride. "Guinea pigs and hamsters die, Sam, that's what they do. Remember Mr. Stinky?"
Oh, that worked: Sam gave him the eye-roll. Point for Dean. "Mr. Stinky wasn't eviscerated and left for a classroom of eight-year-olds to find."
Actually, Dean couldn't remember exactly how Mr. Stinky had died; this might be one of the potholes in his mind. There were a lot of things he was having trouble recalling. But then he remembered: Mr. Stinky had escaped and they couldn't find him. When they moved out of the apartment four months later, Dad had found him mummified in Sam's closet. Man, that was gross.
"So they've got a janitor with a sick sense of humor. Doesn't make it supernatural."
"It could if the school was locked up and the janitor was off that night," Sam parried.
"Schoolkids, right." Dean sighed and glanced back at the sidewalk, but the blonde was gone. Then he brightened. "Do they have a picture of the teacher? Cause some elementary school teachers, they're totally hot. I remember one of your teachers, man, Miss Hammersmith, she was smokin' that sweater thing she used to wear..."
Sam rolled his eyes again, but he was smiling as he closed down the laptop and shoved it in his backpack. They were back in the groove. And hey, a haunted schoolroom seemed about right for only the second job since he'd... well. Since Sam had done his thing and Dean had woken up with no voice, six broken ribs, and a set of scars he hadn't brought himself to count yet.
Maybe taking it easy was the way to go.
Lacrosse was one of those small California towns hardly anyone noticed: just another blip on Google Maps between San Francisco and Los Angeles, this one close enough to the coast to be livable in the summer, but far enough inland that the tourists couldn't find it. On the up side, no assholes from Peoria scraping the Impala with an RV the size of a Latin American country; on the down side, no bikinis. Dean called it a wash, and followed Sam into the school office with a shrug, tugging at the navy uniform Sam had insisted he wear.
"PETA doesn't do uniforms, Sam!"
"The cover's not PETA," Sam had repeated, "it's County Animal Control, and we have to look the part. Why are you bitching so much about this? You know how a cover works."
The secretary in the main office, a middle-aged Latina with the unflappable competence of school secretaries everywhere, passed them through to the principal, one Frank Hubert, who was possessed of a nervous attitude and a hall-of-fame combover. He was, however, relieved that someone had come to investigate their problem.
"Some of the parents are getting concerned, you see," he said, as he escorted them down the hall to the classroom in question. "But the Sheriff's office is busy--you heard about the big meth bust, I'm sure. Not to blame any of your colleagues," he added with a meaningful glance at the badge clipped to Dean's pocket. "We appreciate any help you can give."
Dean was still unconvinced that this was a job requiring the Winchesters' special skills. On the other hand, when Hubert opened the door to the classroom, he decided that he was happy spending as much time as necessary investigating this terrible, terrible crime. Because the teacher was a total babe. When they entered the room, Ms. Sanderson was in the middle of a lesson, writing on the chalkboard in large neat print. She stopped mid-word, chalk screeching on the board, and gave Dean a great look at one of the finest racks he had seen since the latest swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. She even had one of those button-up sweaters on, over a knee-length skirt. Jesus, she was all his ninth-grade fantasies rolled into one.
He must have moaned or something, because Sam elbowed him sharply while Hubert made the introductions. The kids all stared--mostly at Sam, who was so ginormous the desks barely came to his knees. It was a large, bright classroom, with shelves and furniture in bright reds and yellows, and a deep shelf at the back of the room holding three empty wire cages.
"Please don't let us interrupt your lesson, Ms. Sanderson," said Sam. "We'll just take a look around, although we may have some questions for you after class, if that's all right." He glanced at Hubert, who nodded benignly and then disappeared, taking his combover and pizza-stained polyester shirt away.
"All right, then," the teacher said, somewhat uncertainly, and turned back to the class. "Class, these gentlemen are here to find out what happened to Doctor Wiggles, so we're going to help them however we can, all right? But first we're going to finish this lesson. Now..."
Dean tuned her out reluctantly and headed for the back of the classroom, already switching on the EMF meter inside his jacket. The cages were empty, but still filled with the furniture of a school pet: cedar shavings, water bowls, and the two smaller cages had hamster wheels. They'd been cleaned up, although when Dean looked down, he saw a spot of blood on the tile floor. The wall above the cages looked it had been recently scrubbed: the orange paint was faded in a circle about two feet across. What was that about?
"Anything?" Sam asked softly over his shoulder.
Dean shrugged, swiveling slowly, and then hesitated. Taking a step forward, he followed the squealing in his ears across ten feet of floor to a tall standing locker painted like much of the rest of the room in sunny yellow. He nodded toward the locker, glancing over his shoulder at the front of the room. One of the kids, a short dark-haired boy in the last row, was watching them. But Ms. Sanderson had her back to them while she wrote on the board, so Dean gingerly lifted the handle and swung the door open.
Most of the shelves contained ordinary school supplies: reams of photocopy paper, stacks of construction paper in a dozen colors, boxes of pencils and crayons, and the like. The bottom section was open, though, and two sturdy plastic crates filled that space. Sam crouched down and pulled one out, revealing a pile of soft material and yarn. "It's a puppet," he said, tugging it out and turning it over in his hands, to reveal a vaguely-human face with big brown plastic eyes and a mop of bright red hair. There was an entrance in the back, and in a moment Sam had his hand up its ass, making it say, "Doood," and flopping its hands around.
Dean twitched, pulling back. "Yeargh," he muttered, over the squeal of the EMF meter. "This thing's busted, I think." He took the headphones off and stuffed the entire assembly in his pocket.
Sam grinned and made the puppet jump, its legs kicking, and sniggered when Dean shuddered. "Dude, what's up? I thought you loved the Muppets."
"That's not a Muppet, okay? Jesus." Dean yanked the puppet off Sam's hand and dropped it back in the bin with the others.
"Fine," said Sam, and started as a bell went off. Suddenly the classroom, which had been quiet but for Ms. Sanderson's soft voice, was a riot of yelling kids, who swarmed to the rear door, swirling around the Winchesters like they were rocks in a stream, and out into the playground. Twenty seconds later, when his ears had stopped ringing, Dean looked around to see only the teacher at the front of the room, and that same dark-haired boy standing by the animal cages. The kid had one hand on the glass of the largest cage, and was looking particularly forlorn.
Dean nodded to Sam. "You see if you can get any other information out of Teach, there," he said, and wandered casually towards the kid.
The boy reminded Dean unsettlingly of Sammy when he was little: hair soft and mop-like, eyes large and dark, wearing a green t-shirt that looked too small and a pair of sagging khaki shorts. At least his sneakers fit. When Dean came up next to him, he looked up for a moment, and then back at the cage.
"You miss 'em, huh?" said Dean. "What was his name?"
"Pedro," said the boy. "Mr. Wiggles was in that cage, but he was a hamster, they're too little. Pedro was a guinea pig, he weighed two pounds and you could hold him if you were good and helped with cleaning up."
"And you were good?"
But the boy shook his head. "I only got to hold him once. But he was really soft. I wish..."
"Billy," said a woman, and Dean turned to see Ms. Sanderson behind him. "Shouldn't you be outside at recess?" Sam stood beside her, with a sheaf of paper in his hand.
Billy gave a huge sigh, touched the cage again, and went to the door. Dean saw him cross the busy schoolyard, but he didn't jump into any of the games of tag or four-square that had started up. "Lonely kid," he said, but Sanderson shook her head.
"Upset kid. His parents are separating, and he's acting out a bit. He really loved the guinea pig, and now... well, I'm just glad he wasn't the one who found it."
"Who did find it, Ms. Sanderson?" asked Sam.
"The janitor," she said, "Ramon Martinez, he found the bodies each time and cleaned up. We, ah," she added, coloring a little, "didn't think the graffiti on the walls needed to be reported."
"Graffiti?" asked Dean.
Sam met Dean's eyes meaningfully and handed across the papers. They were printouts of photographs, shots of the wall above the animal cages, dappled and smeared with dried blood. While the bulk of it looked entirely random, some of the blood clearly formed symbols, most of which Dean recognized--although one of them, clear and blocky in the center of the wall, was distractingly unfamiliar. So much for this not being their kind of job.
He looked back at Ms. Sanderson, who was looking nervous. So far as she knew, the Winchesters were government employees, and she'd just admitted to destroying evidence. "I guess this isn't the kind of stuff you want in the local papers," Dean hazarded, and she nodded quickly, her expression easing. A witchcraft scandal in an elementary school classroom? Probably a career-killer. He switched topics. "So... it wasn't just one instance? When the animals died?"
"No, one day it was the hamster, the next the other hamster, and then yesterday it was the guinea pig. We're getting really worried, and the police really aren't doing much. They don't think it's serious, but the poor kids, it's really upsetting them." Her lips curved down in an attractive frown, the skin on her forehead crumpling in mild distress.
"I can see that," said Sam. "We'll do everything we can to help. Now, can you tell us where we can find Mr. Martinez?"
The janitor was a wash. It was possible that he was lying, but his distress--both at the death of the animals, and the upset it caused the children--seemed legitimate.
"I dunno, Sam, this seems kinda small potatoes for us." Dean threw himself flat on the bed, and grunted when he hit: it was a thin mattress, and he still wasn't completely healed up. The ceiling of the motel room had dingy brown spots on it, with matching stains on the grey-green carpet. They'd stayed in worse places--Dean remembered camping in an abandoned rowhouse in Baltimore last spring to track an incubus, that was fun--but this was not near the top of the list, even if the bathroom did have Playboy bunnies stamped on the towels. At least, he hoped they were bunnies.
He saw Sam's shoulders hunch over the laptop: bagged. Sam wanted small potatoes. He wasn't sure Dean could handle the big stuff, not so soon. But when did Sam get to be in charge, anyway?
"You don't have to protect me, Sammy, I'm good to go." No need to mention the way his shoulder was twinging after the drive down from Oregon.
"I know that, Dean," said Sam, his voice distracted. He was crouched over the laptop like he'd been since they got in the door. He hadn't even taken off the uniform. "But those were summoning symbols. Whatever this is, I don't think it's just a restless spirit. This may be bigger than we thought."
Dean shrugged: bigger was better. Just as long as it wasn't some wendigo or something. Dean had his limits.
He fumbled for the remote and clicked around until he found TVLand: they were doing a Gilligan's Island marathon, which was definitely worth an hour of his attention. Sam ignored him, tapping away at the keyboard and muttering to himself.
Dean woke up with his face mashed against the comforter and Sam tugging at his shoulder. "Dean, I found it. We gotta go."
Half an hour later, armed with coffee and a chocolate-chip cookie the size of his hand, Dean was ready to hear Sam's explanation.
"Back in the 1880s..." Sam started, and Dean snorted.
"Not another history lesson, Sammy! C'mon!" They'd found a donut shop near the freeway offramp, filled with the odor of burned coffee, fat, and sugar. All the amenities.
"Back in the 1880s," repeated Sam with emphasis, and Dean rolled his eyes, dunking half his cookie into his coffee. "James Rindle was the son of a millionaire, and he got really interested in the occult. But somehow, despite his interest, he never met any hunters, or anyone who actually knew anything about the supernatural."
"Like those guys with the tv show," commented Dean, and Sam nodded.
"Yeah, like them. But Rindle had tons of money and a good education, and he spent all his time compiling all the information he could find on the occult. He had an incredible library, better than Bobby's collection, except that most of it was crap."
Dean grinned. "Time-Life books?"
"Pretty much, yeah." Sam tapped at the laptop, scrolling through his notes. "But it gets more interesting, because one of the things he did was take all the most interesting stuff he could find about spells, wards, and symbols, and put it all together into a book."
"But most of it was crap, you said," Dean pointed out.
"Well, yeah, but not everything. Some of what he had was solid. And some of it was just weird: symbols nobody knows the origin of, and some of those really do have power."
Symbols and power and ancient books: this was edging into uncomfortable territory. Dean twitched, and part of his cookie fell into his coffee. "Damn it. Okay, fine, so what does this crazy rich guy have to do with our case? Did he live here?"
Sam shook his head. "No, but someone did who had a copy of the book--Rindle's Grimoire, it's called, and there's only about twenty copies left in existence. It's pretty dangerous, and hunters who find a copy will destroy it if they can. Anyway, turns out there's a copy in the Lacrosse library."
There wasn't any way to get the cookie out; instead, soggy crumbs bobbed to the surface. Dean scowled. "That's great, but how is this connected?"
"Oh, right, well, it's connected because this symbol--" Sam flipped through the papers until he found the strange blocky one Dean hadn't recognized, "--is from Rindle's book. I thought I recognized it, but I had to check with Bobby to make sure. Anyway, the copy at the local library is checked out, but I got the name."
"Okay, fine, but--what kind of power is it, anyway? What's this symbol do?" Symbols had power: they created things, threw up barriers, drew things--creatures, spirits, people--to them. What were they dealing with?
Sam shrugged. "I don't know, and neither does Bobby. We know it comes from Rindle's Grimoire, but nobody knows where he got it. But it obviously has power, because those animals are dead."
"Yeah." Dean ate the second half of the cookie and crumpled his napkin on the table. "Hey, you said you recognized it? How?"
A muscle twitched in Sam's jaw as he closed the laptop and shoved it in his bag. "I saw a copy of the book about six months ago." While he was looking for a way to save Dean, he meant.
Dean ignored that to focus on more important things. "Did you destroy it?"
Sam flushed. "Dean, it was a library book!"
"Wuss." Dean pushed out the bakery door and into the bright afternoon sunshine.
"... isn't that, like, a website or something? Pretty weak, Sammy."
Dean glared when Sam just snickered, but the way Sam kept smiling was, well, a lot better than okay.
The library records, according to Sam, had the grimoire in the possession of a Shana Garcia, of Camino Lane, which made Dean roll his eyes. "It's like calling a road Street Road, it's just stupid."
"Indulge your language geek later, Dean, we're here."
Camino Lane, just off Mission Road, was a narrow road with no sidewalks; one side of the street opened onto a weedy field bordered by a half-toppled barbed-wire fence, and the other was spotted irregularly with seventies-era ranch houses. Several yards had small flower patches, but few were up to the standards of the landscaping on the other side of the highway, just half a mile away.
The lawn at number 752 was knee-deep in foxtails, and the screen door hung unevenly at the front of the house. When they were kids, they'd lived in houses as run-down as this, but Dad had always made them keep the lawn up, and fixed up what he could. You didn't want to stand out too much, didn't want people to notice you. But the Garcia family weren't hunters, and getting noticed maybe didn't matter so much.
There wasn't a car in the driveway, but when Sam rang the bell the inside door opened a few inches behind a chain.
"Yeah?" It was a kid. In fact, Dean was pretty sure that the dark eyes he saw through the crack belonged to Billy, from Ms. Sanderson's class.
He bent down to meet the boy's eyes. "Billy, you remember us, we work for the county and we're trying to stop people from hurting pets like Pedro."
"Yeah..." The boy didn't move, didn't open the door any wider.
"Well, we're looking for Shana. She's not in trouble, but we want to talk to her about a book she got from the library." Shit, this was not comfortable, not with his ribs still healing. Dean tried to adjust his stance without tweaking anything, but shook his head when Sam shifted, silently offering to switch positions.
Billy blinked at Dean, then let his gaze track up and up to Sam's face. "She's not here," he finally said.
"When do you think she'll be home?" asked Sam in his most sympathetic voice.
But the boy just shrugged, his voice closing over, and repeated, "She's not here," before closing the door firmly.
Dean groaned and put a hand on the wall of the house to push himself upright. He shook his head at Sam's questioning look: he was just stiff, he'd get better. He was better, damn it. "So you think she's there?"
Pursing his lips, Sam considered the question as they retreated to the car. "Maybe. But wouldn't she have come to the door?"
The question became moot, though, as they approached the Impala. Because walking toward them, scuffing boots in the dust and broken glass on the shoulder of Camino Lane, was a short figure in a long black hoodie.
"I bet that's her," said Sam. "She's the right age, anyway."
"Great." Dean sighed, turned, and leaned against the car door. "Go do your thing: I'm not emo enough to bond with the high school set." Truth was, teenage girls were suddenly children, and it was freaking him out. Anyone under 20 looked like she was still playing with Barbies. He was not getting old. Twenty-nine wasn't old, damn it.
Shrugging into the uniform jacket so he at least looked respectable, Sam stepped out, holding up his fake badge to the approaching girl. "Shana Garcia?"
He was met with a mistrustful stare under a mop of dark hair striped with hot pink. "Yeah..." Unlike most of the girls they'd seen around town, Shana wasn't in a tiny tank top over low-rider jeans; in fact, Dean couldn't see any skin below the collar of the baggy black t-shirt that said Bikini Kill in faded yellow letters. Her hands were shoved deep in the pockets of her hoodie, and between the hunched shoulders and the emptiness in that house, Dean had a sudden suspicion about why she'd taken that book out of the library.
"I'm John Brower, and I'm with Mission County Animal Control, we're investigating the deaths of some animals in the elementary school..."
She went from skeptical mistrust to guarded interest. "Yeah, I heard about it."
"Right," said Sam. "Well, as part of our investigation we're trying to find a book that the library computer says you took out."
Dean braced himself for a chase, hand on the door handle, but Shana just looked confused. "What book?"
The wifi in the motel room was erratic, and something stank in the bathroom, so they ditched the motel for the evening. After the best tamales Dean had had in years, they found themselves in the one coffee shop in downtown Lacrosse. It was one of the funky independent places, with arty photographs on the walls and a piano in the corner. Dean couldn't believe his luck when he realized they actually had beer on tap at the counter. "Sweet!" he said, as Sam brought two pints back to their table.
"Okay, so let's assume Shana's telling the truth," said Sam. Over his shoulder, the sun was setting behind a line of eucalyptus trees on the far side of the parking lot.
"She's not, though. She's lying about something." Dean wasn't sure what. She had admitted to checking something out that might have been the Grimoire, but whatever it was, she claimed she hadn't seen it since. Libraries weren't really Dean's thing, but he remembered Sammy at twelve, taking home as many books as the librarian would allow, his arms piled high with novels and biographies. And more than once he'd lost one, and Dean had paid for it rather than have Dad call Sam irresponsible. So, yeah, Shana might be on the level about that. But there was something else going on.
Still, "If she's telling the truth, then who drew the symbols?" And killed the animals, too.
"One of the janitors?" Sam suggested. "Billy?"
Dean grunted, not happy with either option. The janitors were too obvious, and he didn't want to believe that little boy would kill any animals. He slumped back in the deep armchair, letting himself relax for the first time all day. Every bar should have chairs like this, all comfy and soft. He took a drink, identified the beer as one of Sam's froofy wheat brews, and made himself think about the job. "We should go back tonight, check the scene."
"You don't think we should go talk to Shana again?"
"She's just a kid, Sam."
Sam pursed his lips, frowning. "When you were her age, you got into plenty of trouble."
"I didn't sacrifice hamsters!"
"No, but you did try to summon a lesser succubus so you could test your stamina--" When Dean choked in outrage, Sam grinned. "So, back to the school. You think it's going to escalate?"
Supernatural activity didn't usually go away on its own, Dean had found. He tapped his fingers on the table restlessly. He really wished they knew what the damned symbol did. "What died first, one of the hamsters?"
Flipping open his folder, Sam checked his notes. "Yeah, hamster, two nights later another hamster, then two nights later the guinea pig."
"So it's going for something bigger again tonight," Dean said. "Maybe a cat?"
"Maybe," said Sam, shrugging. "Can't know until we check it out." But he looked a little uncertain, probably for the same reason Dean was. It sucked to go into a situation blind like this.
Dean swallowed the remainder of his beer. "Let's go, then: we got some small furry animals to protect, little brother!"
As they were pushing out the door into the cool evening--it was weird the way the temperature always dropped so fast after sunset in California--Sam hesitated, nearly turning back into the cafe. After a moment, though, he followed Dean out to the Impala.
"You see that?" Sam asked as Dean pulled out onto Fourth Street, dodging a silver Prius driven by someone yakking on the phone and not watching where he was driving.
"See what?" Damn yuppies with their smug little cars. Dean sneered, but didn't do anything: they were supposed to stay under the authorities' radar, after all. Under everyone's radar, really: they still didn't know if anyone Downstairs had noticed he was missing.
"I thought I saw Shana in the coffee shop," said Sam, glancing back over his shoulder. "Looked like her, anyway."
"Huh," said Dean. "Goth kid, small town: it's either the library or toking up behind the high school gym, right?" But when he looked over at Sam, his brother was just staring out the window, brow furrowed.
It was still early, only about nine, when they got to the elementary school, but the parking lot was empty and no lights were on inside the sprawling one-story building. Habit still made them park around the corner, under a tree, and walk the hundred yards across the playground, sticking to the shadows.
Sam picked a lock that let them into a rear hallway, and in five minutes they were in Ms. Sanderson's classroom again, the bright colors dimmed to grey by the thin light of the street lamps through the windows. Dean turned his flashlight on the back wall, but it looked the same as it had this morning: bare of any symbols above the empty cages.
They split up: Sam went to the head of the classroom to check out the teacher's desk while Dean prowled along the walls, looking for anything out of place. They were missing something, he was sure of it. At least this time, without witnesses, they could search as closely as they liked. Dean put the EMF meter back on and went over the rear of the room again, pausing every time the meter changed in volume.
"Anything?" Sam asked, his voice low but carrying in the silent classroom.
"Whatever was here," Dean said in frustration, "was fucking all over. I can't pinpoint it." He considered pulling the shelving out from the wall to look behind it: there could be something there, maybe.
"Dean," hissed Sam, and the urgency in his voice yanked Dean's head around, free hand reaching for a weapon. But there wasn't anything to see, no spirit or haunt, just Sam standing in the middle of the room among the kids' desks, like an NBA player posing with penguins. Sam's flashlight was aimed at the storage locker they'd looked through this morning. "Dean," repeated Sam, more softly, "was that open when we came in?"
Shit. Dean did draw his weapon, then, and signaling to Sam, moved carefully toward the locker. The classroom, so cheerful and full of energy this morning, was now full of shadows and obstacles, with too many places for something ugly to hide. Or to attack from.
The locker door was ajar, not fully open. Sam took up a position on one side, waited until Dean was ready, and then pulled it the rest of the way open. Both flashlights hit the interior in the same moment.
There was nothing there. Just stacks of construction paper, boxes of pencils, and the plastic bins at the bottom. Dean grunted, extending his weapon to poke at a bit of cloth poking out of the top of one bin.
That was the moment when the masses of cloth fell over his head from behind, blinding him and knocking him sideways. He felt Sam topple into him, felt the flashlight fall and the gun get ripped from his hand.
And heard strange high voices shrieking with laughter.
Being tied up wasn't anything new for Dean, not any more. He gritted his teeth to keep himself from wrenching at his bonds, but he could feel the sweat running down his back. Breathe, he thought, closing his eyes, forcing himself to relax. It wasn't new, but it was the first time since he'd come back--and it seriously wasn't fun.
"Eaph? Eaph, ew aw aight?" Even through the gag, he could hear Sammy's concern.
He nodded sharply, but didn't open his eyes. He could feel the way his heart rate was increasing, pulse pounding in his head, the way his arms were forced behind him reminding him too vividly of things he never wanted to think of again. Sneering voices, pain so fierce he couldn't even breathe, tittering laughter interrupted by the screaming of other lost souls--or himself.
Okay, he had to think about something else. Like what?
Like the fucking puppets, damn it. Puppets, already. Who could have predicted it? He and Sam were never going to live down getting jumped by Tickle-Me-Chucky. Damn, if he could get his hands free, he'd take apart that evil red-haired fucker with his bare hands. Better yet, a switchblade.
Anger was better. Better to think about what he could do to someone else than about what someone could do to him.
But he could feel Sam getting more nervous, hell he could smell Sam's sweat. So he opened his eyes, forced a cocky grin around the gag, and rolled his yes. Brash older brother, right? Fucking crazy situation, but we'll get out of this, Sammy. It loosened something inside when Sammy grinned back and nodded.
There was a rustle at the door and the lights came on; Dean craned his head and saw--oh, shit, the little softheaded bastards were back from wherever they'd gone. They moved in a jerky way, stumbling forward on their cotton-stuffed legs and shapeless feet, their button-eyes blank. How could they even see, he wondered, and then they were gathered around him, looking like refugees from a home-made version of Sesame Street. Harmless and sweet.
"Let's kill them," said the one on the left, girlish in a pink frock with lace at the hem and blonde pigtails. "They're big, it would be a powerful sacrifice." When she spoke, her mouth moved as though there were a hand inside, but with no corresponding expression on her face.
"They're too big," said the red-haired one. "Too much power at once, we're not ready." He sounded disappointed as he said it, but Dean let himself relax a tiny amount. If the puppets weren't going to kill them, he and Sam might be able to get out of this before they were rescued in the morning by the janitors and their humiliation was complete.
The one on the right had green skin and wobbly eyes, as if someone had tried to make a Kermit out of $1.39 worth of dime-store materials. For some reason, the resemblance made him all the more creepy-looking. "No, we save them," he said, and Dean controlled a shudder: his voice was a reedy tenor, far too similar to Jim Henson's to be an accident. "This one," he swung a webbed hand--paw?--at Dean, "is special. He smells of ... something. The Master will want him."
Shit. Dean caught Sam's face go blank, then angry, eyes narrowing. The Master had to be a demon, damn it.
No demons, they had agreed a month ago, when Dean was finally well enough to hit the road. The risk was too great, and they'd paid their price for what happened at the Devil's Gate. They'd take care of the small stuff, let other hunters carry the load for once. Until they knew Dean was safe, that nobody could come after him again, they wouldn't touch anything demon-related. Just to be sure.
It was pathetic. It wasn't what Winchesters did. They didn't let other people carry the load. But Dean didn't care; he wasn't too ashamed to agree, not if it meant they'd be safe for a while longer. He could mostly sleep through the night, now.
The girl-puppet flounced angrily. "But I want him! He smells good."
"Smells like fear," said the frog, and Dean wondered with a touch of hysteria how puppets could smell, anyway--they had no noses.
"Fine," snapped Red. "We'll save them for later. But we need more than a stupid rodent tonight."
"Not a problem," said the frog, and giggled. The others followed suit, the girl twirling as she laughed.
As soon as the sound of their adorable tinkling laughter disappeared down the hallway, Dean wrenched at himself, rolling over and kicking at the plastic chairs around the Reading Circle. It was awkward and it was killing his shoulders, but he could move, rolling lumpily over until he fetched up next to Sam.
"Boot!" he said through the gag, and Sam understood; he felt Sam's fingers tugging at his jeans, pulling out the knife Dean kept in his boot. After that it was less than a minute before they were both free, spitting and wiping their mouths to get rid of the taste of the gags. Sam hovered, patting at Dean as if to make sure he hadn't lost any pieces. It would have been funny, if the look on Sam's face hadn't reminded Dean so much of the day two months ago he woke blinking in the sunlight, Sam chanting, "Deandeandean," as if he'd been saying it for days.
A noise at the door brought them both spinning around, hands reaching for weapons they no longer had. Guns, flashlights, salt and holy water all were gone: all they had was the knife from Dean's boot and a crucifix from Sam's pocket.
But it wasn't the puppets again; it was Shana Garcia, staring at them dumbfounded.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Sam, yanking her into the room and checking the hallway in both directions before he closed the door.
Shana glared. "What are you doing here? With knives!" she added, looking pointedly at Dean's blade.
There was a moment where Sam almost said the truth--and then Dean saw him catch himself. "Wait, you followed us, didn't you?" He added to Dean, "I told you I saw her at the coffee shop!"
"Yeah, I was there," she replied, crossing her arms and cocking one hip. It would have been more impressive if she weren't more than a foot shorter than either of them. "I heard you, too. You don't work for Animal Control. And your name isn't John Brower, I heard him call you Sam!"
Oh, perfect. Just what they needed, to deal with a pissed-off innocent in the middle of a job. Except Dean was pretty sure she wasn't an innocent. "Shana, what did Billy do?" he asked suddenly, the pieces falling into place. She wouldn't be here except to protect someone, like her brother.
Her gaze shot to his face in surprise, but she firmed her lips and said nothing. This was a kid who wasn't comfortable trusting adults, which really wasn't a surprise. She was completely out of place in Lacrosse: Dean figured she was the kind of kid who wasn't ever gonna be happy in a small town in the middle of nowhere.
But Sam was following a different train of thought. "You didn't take out the book, did you," he said. "It was your brother. Why did he want it?" He sounded sympathetic, caring--but the line of his back was anything but relaxed. "What did he do with it? Shana, it's really important."
She sagged a bit, as if about to submit, then without saying a word, turned and sprang for the door. Before Dean could reach her, she was halfway down the hallway, the slapping of her sneakers bouncing off the walls.
"Shit!" She could be heading out and safely home: but it was just as likely she'd run into the damn puppets. Dean grabbed the door frame, grimaced, and then said, "I'll go after her. You find the symbol, it's got to be in here." He was out the door and pounding down the hall before he even heard Sam's reply.
A small elementary school in a small town in California wasn't easy to get lost in. Either you kept following the hallway around in a big U, with a courtyard in the middle, or you left the building. At the first corner, Dean looked out the window into the playground, and then swung right, down the next leg of the U. Halfway down, however, was a doorway on the right, leading out into the courtyard in the middle of the U--and it was open.
He slowed down as he approached, wishing he had another weapon, something with more range than the blade in his hand, no matter how sharp it was. Just before the open door, though, was a janitor's closet--and it was unlocked. There were no weapons inside, of course, but there was a mop. It was something, and it gave him some range. He grabbed it and crept to the next door, peering carefully around the jam to see outside.
There was a flickering light on the nearest wall: it took Dean a moment to realize that it was firelight. A bonfire was burning in the center of the courtyard, next to a picnic table about which were gathered several figures. Between the fire, the table as altar, and the sacrifice, the setup had the entirely familiar, and ugly, feeling of a summoning ritual.
Damn it. The puppets had found their sacrifice; but it wasn't a cat.
Because splayed on the table in the center of the courtyard, surrounded by three puppets -- and his struggling sister -- was Billy Garcia.
"Crap," muttered Dean. "No demons, we said. Damn it."
He swallowed once, hard, then shoved open the door and bolted into the courtyard, howling and swinging the mop as if it were a baseball bat.
He caught the blonde with the mop-end and sent her sailing across the courtyard to hit the wall with a satisfying thump. The redhead had been holding onto Shana somehow, and he let go of her, swinging around to come at Dean. In one hand was one of Sam's knives, gleaming sharp in the light from the open doorway. "Shoulda killed you," Red snarled unsettlingly, his eyes and face showing nothing of the anger in his voice.
Shana tried to grab him as he passed, but he slashed at her and she dodged back.
Dean feinted with the mop, careful to keep his distance. Whatever power animated these things, they were far stronger than they should be--he couldn't afford to close with them.
They also moved faster than they should have, by right: Red took a swing at Dean, dodging under the mop and nearly catching Dean's hip with the knife. "Fuck!" hissed Dean, swerving out of the way. On the other side of the picnic table, he saw Froggie climb onto the table and raise a knife over Billy's torso. "The hell with this!" Moving as fast as he could, Dean feinted again, reversed the mop, and slammed Red sideways, so he was caught against another picnic table. In two breaths he pulled his own knife and stabbed it down hard, impaling Red and pinning him to the table.
Red squealed, thrashing against the knife. When Dean turned to go after Froggie, though, something caught his ankle and he fell hard, catching his head on the nearest bench. The world swam, tilting sideways as he struggled to his feet. He kicked ineffectively at the blonde puppet, who had one hand latched around his ankle and the other on the leg of the picnic table. Dean stared for a moment: she'd lost one button eye and her dress was hanging off one shoulder, exposing only a flat cotton chest.
Someone screamed, the sound echoing off the courtyard walls. Dean wrenched around to see Shana struggling with Froggie on the other picnic table, improbably losing ground. She was a sturdy fourteen-year-old, and yet she wasn't strong enough to pull a ten-ounce assortment of cloth and buttons away from her brother.
The mop was on the ground at Dean's feet: he grabbed it and drove the top end into Blondie's torso. She actually made a noise as if air were being forced out of her lungs, and her hand loosened enough for Dean to pull away.
He took three steps and was reaching for the knife above Billy's writhing body when Froggie suddenly went limp, the knife tumbling free. The knife landed point-down on the table-top, not six inches from Billy's face. Shana fell over backwards onto the ground with a "Woof!" Froggie was limp on the table, still as if he'd never moved at all.
Dean grabbed the knife, and not trusting that the puppet wouldn't spring back up in a moment, grabbed Froggie's head and sliced through the neck with a single stroke. He was prepared for blood, but only cotton fluff came out. When he flung the head down and looked around, he saw Blondie was also flopped loosely on the ground, all animation gone. She was a little girl's rag doll again, no more threatening than a dirty sock.
"Dean!" That was Sam, stumbling through the doorway, awkwardly carrying a child's desk. When he saw Dean upright, the worry on his face cleared to relief.
But Shana demanded, "Help me!" and Sam didn't really need Dean at the moment. Dean helped her free Billy, who'd been tied to the table with the cord from the tether ball set. The boy was gasping and choking, his face streaked with tears and his wrists red where he'd been bound.
"It's okay, you're safe," said Dean, squatting before the boy where he sat on the bench, wrapped in his sister's hoodie. "They're gone--right, Sam?"
"I think so," Sam replied, as he overturned the desk and began to take it apart with regular blows from a hammer he'd found somewhere. "I found the symbol on this desk, and I also found our holy water in the storage locker, along with our weapons. Dowsed it as soon as I found it, but I think we need to burn it just in case."
"Right," said Dean. "Billy," he asked, putting a hand on the boy's shoulder, "was that your desk?"
Shana bristled. "Who cares whose desk it is?"
"Whoever put this symbol on this desk," replied Sam, "started all this." He turned over a large square of wood marked with a blocky symbol scored in pencil, clearly traced over and over again. Across the symbol were two sharp gashes, as if someone had taken a knife to it. "That symbol made it possible for the puppets to come to life: it's a summons symbol, and invested with enough power, through invocation and sacrifice, it can call--" he stopped, with an uncertain glance at Dean. "It can call bad things."
"Worse than the puppets?" asked Shana, pulling Billy close.
The puppets were bad; Dean didn't want to think about how much worse it could have been. Or who The Master was. He swallowed and looked away from the two kids, letting his hand drop to his side.
"Worse," said Sam, and brought the hammer down on the desk top, splitting it into two. He took both pieces and dropped them onto the bonfire, one after the other.
Dean stood up and tossed the remains of Froggie into the fire, as well. "Way worse." He felt Sam look at him, but he just stared at the fire, at the cloth crisping and charring.
It was almost reassuring to learn that Lacrosse's coffee shop had lousy pastries, because otherwise Dean might have moved in. So he pulled apart his blueberry bagel ("If you need the sugar that much, Dean, just get a muffin! A blueberry bagel is a crime against nature."), and built a pyramid on his plate, while Sam drank his wussy green tea and took notes on the laptop.
Bobby had called this morning with a job in Needles: they could get there tonight if they hustled. But Dean didn't really feel like hustling right now. The coffee was good, and he had the sun on his shoulders, and nobody had died last night.
So he was kind of startled when a fat, dusty book thumped down on the table in front of him. The book was accompanied by a black-clad teenager: Shana Garcia, very definitely skipping school.
"Shana," said Sam, looking surprised. "What are you--oh," he added, as he recognized the book. He picked it up and opened it, flipping the pages curiously. It didn't look like most of the grimoires Dean had seen: it just looked like an old novel, with a green cloth cover and embossed binding. He wouldn't have noticed it on a shelf.
"Billy had it in his room," Shana blurted, dragging a chair over and sitting down at the table with them. "He must have swiped it as soon as I got it home."
"Did he say why?" asked Dean. Sometimes, though, kids just did things, to see what would happen.
She twisted her lips and drew circles on the scratched wood of the table. "No, he just. He didn't have a reason. I think he was just bored, and he liked the way it looked. I dunno." But she looked worried, and Dean couldn't blame her: was Billy going to keep doing it, was he compelled to call demons every time he got a pencil in his hand? And it wasn't something Shana could talk to her parents about, either.
Dean thought about the year they lived in Missouri, when Dad broke his leg in Minnesota on a job and left them alone for weeks before he could get back. Sammy'd started talking back to his teachers, getting into fights on the playground, and there wasn't anyone but Dean to look out for him. These kids weren't that alone, but they clearly depended on one another.
"I think it'll be okay once we burn the book," said Sam. He tried to look reassuring, but Dean could tell Sam wasn't absolutely sure.
Damn. There wasn't anything the Winchesters could really do for these kids: Dean could barely look after himself and Sam. And they had to move on, anyway. He looked hard at Shana, noted the stubborn line of her jaw and the solid strength of her body. "You look after your brother." It wasn't a request or a command.
She nodded, gaze fixed on the table, expression fierce. "Yeah."
"Good," said Dean.
They sat there for a minute or two, Dean drinking his coffee and Sam paging through the grimoire. Shana's shoulders slowly dropped as she relaxed into the knowledge that the Winchesters weren't going to punish her for anything. "Thanks for the book," said Sam, finally. "We'll take care of it, so nobody else gets hurt." He glanced at Dean, frowning slightly, then looked back at Shana. "We have to go, but--here's our number, if anything comes up."
Dean nodded and dropped a twenty on the table, as well. "For the library fine," he muttered, when Sam raised an eyebrow. The kid had to get reading material, right?
Shana took the cash and the number with a dubious glance at Dean, and shoved them in her pocket. "So where are you going?" she asked, expression brighter than Dean would have expected. But some kids rebounded fast.
"Heard about a poltergeist in Needles," drawled Dean, just to see her face.
It was beautiful: all open-mouthed astonishment, the distrust and skepticism evaporated. "No shit!"
"No shit," he confirmed, wrapped his napkin around his disassembled bagel, and lobbed it into the garbage. "We gotta roll. You call us if you need anything, 'kay?"
"Yeah, okay," she said, and Dean dropped a hand on her shoulder as they left. She was gonna need all the help she could get. When they got outside, Dean glanced back once and saw her sitting rapt at the table, fingers drumming with enthusiasm on the table-top. There was a kid whose universe had just expanded exponentially.
Dean stretched as they came into the bright sun, ignoring the twinges in his ribs and shoulder. "I think I can handle something tougher than a poltergeist, Sammy."
"Cause you were so successful at taking down those puppets, you mean?"
"Oh, c'mon, I totally had that frog. He was going down."
"Yeah, whatever. Gimme the keys." Sam put out hand.
"Dream on, Sweetums."
So maybe this job hadn't been so bad, after all.
Notes: musesfool wanted evil puppets. I hope you enjoyed them! Many thanks to P. and S. for excellent speedy beta. The town of Lacrosse and Mission County are figments of my imagination. Please note: No rodents of any type were injured in this story.