Author's Notes: Thanks to logophilos for the beta!
Summary: During the summer that he is 17, Dean is supposed to be working as a lifeguard, not a hunter. But his most important job may be looking after Sam.
A blast of heat hit Dean's face as he opened the front door. The sun shone down from a cloudless, bleached sky. Behind him, a muted voice invited someone to "come on down!"
"Sammy!" Dean yelled over his shoulder. "Shut that off and come on if you don't want to walk."
There was a pause. Sweat trickled down Dean's temple as he started down the concrete steps. He was almost at the car when the screen door behind him creaked open and crashed shut in rapid succession, and the heavy thud of gigantor feet in soccer cleats pounded after him. Without looking back, Dean slid into the Impala and started the engine. He'd gotten as far as letting the car roll back a few inches when the passenger door was yanked open. A blue duffel bag came flying in and all but hit him in the face. Five and a half feet of gangly, tousle-headed thirteen-year-old tumbled into the passenger seat after the bag.
"Jerk," Sammy said with conviction.
"Asshole. You got everything you need?"
"Maybe. I'd know if I didn't have to rush out of the house."
Dean rolled his eyes as he backed out of the driveway. "You'd know if you packed your kit last night instead of waiting till the last minute."
Sammy made an old-man huffing noise, one that had become more common since he'd hit thirteen. Dean bit back a comment. Arguments were a lot more common, too, and it was just too hot.
"You coming to the pool after you get done?" He pulled up beside the park where Sammy's soccer camp was being held.
Sammy shrugged. "Maybe."
He flung open the door. Then he was gone, running toward the crowd of boys and a few older men in the center of the park's ball field. Dean spent a second hoping that the coaches made his little brother run several laps around the field before the need to be on time for work cut into his daydream. The pool was only a block down the street, but he was cutting it close.
As he pulled up, he saw a baby blue Miata sitting smugly in the parking lot next to the "Lamden Municipal Pool" sign. Great. First person in the pool office for the day got to pick the radio station. Thanks to Sammy's slowness, Dean was doomed to listen to Top 40 crap all day.
The pool office was already humid, the sharp smell of chlorine hanging almost tangibly in the air. Someone on the radio was crooning about "killing me softly," which Dean would have been more than happy to do if he could have gotten his hands on the singer. Over the music he heard someone running water in the girls' showers. Probably Alli, owner of the chick car outside. As the water turned off, he realized that she was humming along with the radio. Of course.
He shucked his shirt and the jeans he wore over his swim trunks, folding them so that the jeans pocket with his knife was on top and easily accessible. Putting the clothes and his car keys in the cubby assigned to him, he went out to skim off the layer of kamikaze bugs that had accumulated overnight.
Dean winced. "Morning, Alli."
The blonde girl with the perky ponytail gave him a wave as she vanished back into the office. He had no idea why she thought he needed a nickname, but nothing he'd said had convinced her he just wasn't a Dino kind of guy. He hoped his dad never caught wind of the name. Sammy already gave him enough hell as it was.
By the time he was done cleaning the pool, the other four lifeguards had arrived. Billy and Juan took on the boys' showers, while Tracy came out to help Dean set out the lawn chairs and pick up the trash that had attached itself to the base of the chain link fence.
"You missed an awesome party down on the river bank last night," she told him as they walked back toward the office. "Lucky for you, we're doing it again tonight. My friend Matt's bringing some booze, someone'll have music, probably a bonfire. What do you say?"
Dean was tempted. Not just by the party, but by Tracy, who hated Top 40 music, thought the Impala was the coolest car in town, and had deep brown eyes he could probably drown in if he looked long enough. She was going to college in the fall and had made it clear she wasn't looking for a long-term boyfriend, but Dean got the impression she wouldn't mind testing out just how big the Impala's back seat really was.
"Yeah, maybe." He shrugged. "Let me see what's going on at home, okay?"
She grinned. "Sure. I'll swing by your house on my way and see if you're going."
Before long, the first of Alli's mixed rugrat group started trickling in. They were tiny and shrill-voiced and prone to running toward the pool without any regard for how deep the water was, but when Alli blew her whistle, they all lined up and stared at her with wide eyes, waiting for her directions. The rugrats' moms staked out lawn chairs and sat chatting to each other or their cell phones. The one with the red hair stripped down to her bikini, glancing in Dean's direction several times as she rubbed sunscreen across her shoulders. Dean grinned as he leaned on the half-door that led into the office. Tracy leaned around to see what he was staring at and snorted.
"You do not need that kind of trouble."
Dean grunted in agreement. Being a lifeguard was kind of mind-numbingly boring after going on hunts with his dad, but the job was the only thing keeping Sammy and him in hot dogs and mac'n'cheese. The last thing he needed was an insulted housewife and her angry husband demanding he get fired.
After the rugrats came Dean's seven-to-tens. They reminded him of a whole posse of Sammys watching him as if he’d invented water, except for the tow-headed twins that were like a pair of Deans. Those two could escape to the deep end faster than Dean could turn around and notice they were gone. He got Billy and Tracy to throw floaters into the water and told the kids to swim after them until even the twins looked worn out. An exhausting hour later, he took his break while Alli took the older girls' group, and then it was time to open up for the afternoon free-swim.
Sam threw his duffel bag onto the couch and paused for a minute in front of the box fan, letting the air blow his sweaty bangs back. It was as close to air conditioning as their house got, and it felt like heaven. Dropping down on the couch, he pulled off his cleats and socks and stuck his bare feet up in front of the fan as well. Blissfully closing his eyes, he stayed still until the air started to feel warm again.
Next stop was the kitchen, where he pulled bread and grape jelly out of the refrigerator and a tub of peanut butter out of the cabinet. He made one sandwich and took a huge bite, savoring the cool sweetness of the jelly. Three more bites and several licks of his fingers later, the sandwich was gone. He made three more, wrapping two in a paper towel and sticking them in a plastic grocery sack. The third, he wolfed down as he wiped jelly and crumbs off the counter. They might not live in the best places, Dad always said, but he'd be damned if they were going to invite roaches in to live with them. Sam had a suspicion Dad would rather face a house full of poltergeists than a roach any day.
After a quick change into non-sweaty socks and sneakers, he set out for the pool. The air was filled with the whir of cicadas and the acrid scent of melting tar from the road. Sam kept to the sidewalk, not wanting to ruin his new high tops. His feet had finally gotten too big to wear Dean's cast-offs, and not too many shoes in his size showed up in the thrift shops. Sam was ready to take all the Bigfoot comments Dean wanted to make in return for shoes that smelled like new leather and didn't have a single scuff to mar the bright white and blue sides. No way was he getting anything on them that wouldn't wash off.
Dean was in the pool office when Sam arrived. Digging down into a cooler, Dean pulled out a dripping can of Coke and handed it to Sam, taking the bag of sandwiches in exchange. They went out to the bench in front of the pool building and sat quietly while Dean devoured his sandwiches and Sam rolled the Coke can across his forehead.
"Next summer, we need to convince Dad to go to the North Pole," Sam said. "Texas is too damn hot."
"Watch your language," Dean said, even though he cussed all the time. "How was soccer?"
"We learned the Puskas move. It's this really cool fake-out where you kind of pull the ball to you and then go off to the left so the other guy is left hanging." Sam moved his foot to demonstrate, but he suspected from Dean's faint smirk he looked like he was doing the Hokey-Pokey. "It looks better with a ball."
"And Coach did this really cool trick where you kick the ball up and balance it on your head, and then you flip it up and bend over, and it lands on the back of your neck. I couldn't get it to stay on my forehead, but Coach says it just takes practice."
"Good thing you have so much hair. It'll cushion your brain."
Dean grinned. "I better get back in there. You want to come swim?"
"I'm gonna meet Jimmy and Darren at the field and work on some of the stuff we learned today. Maybe we'll come back later to cool off." The thought of his friends reminded Sam of something. "Hey, Jimmy wants me to come to the Russian Festival this weekend with him and his family. Can I go?"
"Where is it?"
"That big open area behind the soccer field. He said there's food and games and stuff kind of like a state fair. And he said they always have a queen of the fair who wears a bikini and floats down the river in a raft." Sam found lately he was in favor of bikinis.
"Sounds like my kind of festival." Dean smirked. "I may even go myself."
"So I can go?"
Dean shrugged. "Long as nothing comes up."
Sam grimaced. He knew all about things coming up, usually in the form of Dad saying they had to pick up and move across the country to bust some ghosts. But Dad had promised they could stay here for at least the summer so Sam could do the soccer camp, and Sam had a secret hope maybe they'd even get to stay through next school year.
"Hey, Dino," Alli called, leaning out the glass door. "It's your shift on the chairs."
Dean's expression dared Sam to say something about the nickname. Sam didn't feel much like being called "Pammy" or "Spammy" or whatever else Dean came up with, so he just gave Dean his best innocent look.
"I'm coming." Dean ruffled Sam's hair, which he knew Sam hated and did, Sam was convinced, as much as he possibly could. "Keep your eyes open."
Which was Dean's--and Dad's--way of saying, "Don't get in trouble with the locals, don't get eaten by any monsters, and don't forget you're a Winchester."
Sam didn't figure he'd ever forget any of those things, but he also didn't think he could get Dean or Dad not to give him the warning anyway. At least they let him go off by himself now. That had taken forever to convince them to do.
And, anyway, if saying the words could maybe keep them all a little safer, Sam didn't really mind.
"You too," he said and jogged off to meet his friends.
The city park that housed both the swimming pool and soccer field was at least a couple of blocks long. It also had a playground, a baseball diamond, and an open, grassy area that stretched behind it down to the river. A line of trees grew along the river bank, keeping the water shaded and cool even in mid-summer. By the time Sam arrived, Jimmy, Darren, and Darren's little brother Diquan were all waiting for him at the swings. Jimmy and Darren had been best friends before Sam moved to town, and they had pulled Sam into their circle when they found out that he liked soccer and science as much as they did. Diquan simply followed wherever Darren went, making up for being ten by talking constantly about everything.
"Hey, Sam, what's up?" Jimmy called.
"Hey," Sam called back.
Darren raised a hand briefly in greeting. He was a man of few words, possibly because Diquan had used them all up.
"Sam the man, the man with a plan." Diquan kicked the soccer ball against the poll of the swing set, catching it with his feet as it rolled back toward him. "What's up, Sam?"
"Hey, Diquan. You been practicing those moves I showed you?"
Diquan flashed a bright grin. "I am the move master!"
Darren rolled his eyes. "Y'all want to get practicing before the move master here kicks our ball into the river?"
But it ended up being Sam, almost an hour later, who sent the ball hurtling with impressive speed toward the tree line on the bank of the river. With a resigned sigh, he trotted off after it.
There was an almost immediate difference as soon as he stepped under the shade of the trees. A cool breeze drifted past him, rustling the leaves and carrying the scents of water and growing things. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the sudden gloom. He picked his way carefully over vines and tree roots, trying to avoid getting any muck on his high tops as he tried to see where the ball had gone.
Branches shifted in the wind, letting rays of sunlight through to glint off the water. He squinted against the eye-watering brightness. He thought he saw a movement on the far bank of the river and froze, thinking that maybe a deer or rabbit was coming to drink. In the stillness, he heard the low sound of a woman humming. She stepped into sight a moment later, long blonde hair hanging down to her waist. Her white sundress almost glowed against the shaded background. She paused when she saw Sam, and then she smiled. He felt a funny little jump in his stomach that wasn't quite like feeling sick.
"Hello," she called.
"Hi." That seemed like a stupid response, so he added, "I'm looking for my ball."
The words seemed to replay themselves over and over in the endless silence that stretched after he stopped talking. He felt the heat creeping up his cheeks. He hoped the gloom was enough to disguise it.
"My soccer ball," he continued desperately. "We were playing and I kicked it to hard and it rolled down here."
The lady was still smiling.
"I haven't seen it," she said. "But perhaps it rolled into the water? Come on down, I'll help you look."
Resting a hand for balance on one of the exposed tree roots nearby, she climbed gracefully down the river bank. She didn't seem to mind that her bare feet sank into the mud, but Sam looked down at his shoes and grimaced.
"No, that's okay, I'm sure it's up here." He looked around, finally spotting a familiar black and white shape under a bush. "Look! It's right here!"
In a hurry to get away from the lady before he made an even bigger fool of himself, he snatched up the ball and turned back toward the field. He was almost in the sunlight again when he remembered his manners.
"Oh, and thanks!" he called, giving her a little wave.
She laughed and waved back. As he ran back to his friends, he heard her humming again.
A river of orange and gold spilled across the western horizon as Dean settled on the front steps with his tool kit. His shop teacher from the previous school year had claimed that he could make a walkie-talkie out of a pair of old cordless phones and an in-line coupler, and Dean was determined to figure out how. He was pretty sure he just had to solder a few wires to create a through-connection. The trick would be figuring out which wires.
Through the screen door Dean could hear the clatter of the dishes Sammy was washing and the sound of the TV--Who knows what time it is? Tool time! The oppressive heat of the day had eased as the sun began to set. Crickets chirped, and weird orange bugs buzzed the porch light. Sammy laughed at something on the TV, a sound that made Dean smile reflexively. Down the street, a pair of toddlers splashed in a wading pool, while kids of various ages cruised the neighborhood on their bikes. They scattered out of the way as a beat up red Corolla drove down the street and pulled into the driveway behind the Impala.
Tracy, dressed in Daisy Dukes and white tube top that showed off her lifeguard tan, stepped out of the car and walked over to lean on the porch steps’ railing.
"Hey." She gave the mess around Dean a curious glance. "What're you making?"
Dean shrugged. "Nothing, yet. You still headed to that party?"
"Yeah. You coming?"
Dean glanced over his shoulder at the house. Sammy would probably be pissed that Dean was going off without him, but what the hell. Dean ought to get to hang out with people his own age every once in a while.
"Let me go tell my brother I'm leaving."
Sammy, as Dean had expected, did the old-man huffing thing again and rolled his eyes, but he didn't give Dean too much grief. His only real objection was, "What if Dad calls while you're gone?"
Dean sighed. "He called last night, so he's not due to check in until tomorrow."
"But what if he calls?"
"Then tell him I went to a party, dude. It's not like I'm going to lie to him about it."
"He'll be mad."
Dean shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. You're going to spread the salt after I leave, right? And lock the doors?"
Sammy's eyes rolled again. They'd been getting a real workout since puberty had hit.
"So you'll be safe, and I've got my knife, holy water, and ass-kicking skills like Chuck Norris, so I'll be safe. I think he'll be okay with it."
"It's your ass if he isn't."
"Watch your mouth."
Sammy huffed again.
"See you later." Dean hurried out the door before Sammy could think up any more arguments.
Tracy was waiting in the car, checking her hair in the rearview mirror. She smiled as Dean got in.
"Yeah, he's fine. Probably stay up late and watch some stupid horror movie."
Tracy quirked an eyebrow as she backed out of the driveway. "He won't get scared?"
Dean snorted. "He likes to make a list of all the things they get wrong."
It was dark by the time they turned onto a gravel road that took them through the woods toward the river. Dean knew from looking at maps when Dad said they were moving to Lamden, that the river formed a c-shape around half of the city before wandering off to the east. There were, according to Tracy, some natural clearings that made prime party spots once you got outside of the city limits. It wasn't long before Dean saw the flicker of flames ahead of them, and then they pulled into an open area where five or six cars were already parked. Music was blasting from someone's boombox, and voices and laughter rang out over the crackle of the fire.
"Looks like everyone's already here," Tracy said as they got out. She grabbed Dean's hand and pulled him down toward the bonfire. "Watch your step. There's tree roots and shit everywhere."
The party was already in full swing. Brad, a guy Dean knew from his science class, was manning a two-liter Sprite bottle that Dean guessed had something stronger than soda in it. It wasn't long before Dean found himself with a can of vodka-laced Coke in one hand, dancing with a girl he'd never met before. It was fun, just laughing and talking with people and not having to worry about Sammy or Dad or whether or not there was a vengeful spirit hanging around.
He probably should have guessed it wouldn't last. The party couldn't have been going for more than a couple of hours when one of the guys spotted lights about half a mile up the river.
"That looks like cops, doesn't it?" Brad said. "Let's go see what's going on."
Dean was pretty good at walking through woods at night, although he usually hadn't drunk anything alcoholic beforehand. The others were more drunk and less practiced. It was sheer luck that no one actually fell into the river. As it was, there were some bushes that would never be the same.
They came into a clearing that was bright with floodlights and the red and blue strobes on several cop cars, an ambulance, and a fire truck. An officer came to meet them, carrying a flashlight and looking harried. With a practiced ease Dean couldn't help being impressed by, the group of kids pushed their drunker members to the back. Dean faded back with them. The last thing he needed was police attention. Brad, looking remarkably sober, stepped forward to be the spokesman.
"What are you kids doing out here?"
"We were just having a little party down the river," Brad pointed in the direction they'd come, "and we saw the lights. What happened?"
The answer became obvious a moment later when two men came up from the river bank, carrying a stretcher with a body bag lying on it. Next to Dean, Tracy made a soft noise in her throat and grabbed Dean's hand. Dean squeezed her fingers absently, wondering what had killed the person in the bag. Odds were, it was a police case, not one for his family, but he'd been hunting with his dad for too long not to feel a sort of professional curiosity.
"Who is it?" one of the other girls asked.
"I'm afraid we can't release that information," the officer said. "Did any of you see or hear anything out of the ordinary?"
There was a chorus of "No, sir," and "Nothing, sir."
"Then go on and get out of here before you mess up the crime scene." The officer turned, then looked back over his shoulder at them. "Make sure everyone has a safe ride home, you hear?"
"Yes, sir," Brad replied.
Someone in the back of the group giggled, and someone else hissed, "Shh!" Nobody moved until the officer had gone back down to the river.
The walk back was more subdued than the previous trip. Tracy's hand felt cold in Dean's, and the woods seemed almost impenetrably dark after the bright floodlights. No one spoke until they were back around their bonfire. It had died down, but a couple of the boys threw logs on it to get it going again. The Sprite bottle had made the rounds before anyone spoke.
"I bet it was Lindsay," one of the girls said with a sniffle. "She was taking Danny's death really hard, and--"
"Amy! Don't say that!" Tracy pressed her hand to her mouth. "Lindsay wouldn't--"
"Didn't you see where we were?" Amy demanded. "Lovers' Leap? If she wanted to--to join Danny or something, where else would she go?"
"Just don't say that. Not until we know who it really was."
That killed whatever was left of the party mood. People began to trickle away. Dean wrapped an arm around Tracy's shoulder.
"Want me to drive home?"
She leaned against him and nodded. "Damn it, this is--"
"Hey." He pulled her closer. "You don't know that it was your friend."
Dean started them walking toward the car. He was torn between sympathy and the need to get more information. Lucky for him, he could accomplish both aims without too much trouble.
"You want to talk about it?"
Tracy waited until they got in the car before she replied. "Lindsay is a friend of mine. Danny was a few years older than her. They'd dated for a long time. They were talking about getting married, but then Danny's dad was killed in a car wreck last Christmas. Danny was really a mess after that. Lindsay was always worried about him, but I don't think anyone thought he'd--"
"Kill himself?" Dean supplied when she fell silent.
Tracy nodded. "He drowned himself. Some kids found him in the river right there behind the park by the pool." She fell silent for a moment, then made a sound like a whimper. "Oh, God. Dean, I tried to get Lindsay to come to the party tonight. I thought it might take her mind off things. She said she had something to do, something important. Oh, God."
They had reached Dean's house, but he didn't shut off the car as he pulled up to the curb.
"Trace, listen. Let me drive you home, and then I'll just walk back here. I don't think you should be driving like this."
Tracy shook her head. "No. I need to go over to Lindsay's. I'll be okay. Don't worry."
Dean wished he could be as positive as he watched her drive off.
The porch light and a lamp in the living room had been left on for him. Ducking bugs enamored of the light, Dean let himself in. He nodded approvingly at the thick line of salt the door disrupted as he edged it back in place with his foot. Sammy was good at setting up the protections. Even so, Dean did an automatic check of the windows and back door, winding up in the room he shared with Sammy.
Before he'd even turned the light on, Dean knew something was wrong. Sammy didn't stir as light flooded the room. He was sprawled on top of the covers, the t-shirt and boxers he slept in soaked with sweat. His face was flushed and scrunched up, as if he was having a nightmare.
Pressing his palm to Sammy's forehead, Dean winced. Too hot. He went to the kitchen for a bowl and glass and filled them both with water, then stopped in the bathroom for a washcloth and some Tylenol. Setting everything on the floor by the bed, he sat on the edge of the mattress and shook Sammy's shoulder.
"Hey, Sammy. Sammy? Time to wake up."
Dazed eyes drifted open. "Dean?"
"Hey." Dean reached down to soak the washcloth in the bowl of water, wringing it out before folding it and putting it on Sammy's forehead. "How you feeling?"
"Dean? What's wrong?"
"You're sick, dude. Think you can sit up and take some Tylenol?"
Sammy frowned. "Dean? You need to stay out of the water."
"What water?" Dean popped the top of the Tylenol bottle and shook two pills into his hand. "Here, sit up."
Sammy moved obediently, but his expression stayed worried. "I don't want you to drown."
Dean froze, flashing back on the body bag and the dark surface of the river. He shook his head. No way could Sammy know about that.
"You're still dreaming. Come on, take these."
He handed Sammy the Tylenol and the glass of water. Sammy swallowed the pills and lay back down, his eyes already closing.
"Promise you'll stay out of the water?" His voice was thin with sleep.
"Yeah, Sammy. No swimming tonight, I promise."
Dean grabbed the blanket off his own bed and spread it over Sammy, not wanting him to get a chill as he slept. Stripping down to his boxers and t-shirt, Dean soaked the cloth for Sammy's forehead again. The fever felt a bit lower already. It was probably just a twenty-four hour bug that would be gone by the next day, but Dean still hated that he'd left Sammy alone when he was sick. Not that Sammy had acted sick before Dean left. Dean sighed and scrubbed at his eyes. It had been a long night. He stretched out on the bed, wanting to be where he could feel any change in Sammy's condition.
The whisper of Sammy's breathing in his ear and the low whir of the box fan were pulling him down to sleep. With one last check of Sammy's temperature--definitely cooler now--Dean closed his eyes and let himself fall asleep.
As Sam got older, he was finding more and more things about life that weren't fair. Case in point: Dean insisted he stay home from soccer camp because, according to Dean, Sam had been running a fever last night. Except Sam didn't remember running a fever, just waking up with Dean lying beside him practically smothering him with a blanket. Sam was pretty sure he'd know if he'd been sick the night before. It was his body, after all.
But Dean had a look on his face like the one Dad got when Sam and Dean had been fighting in the back seat for about a mile more than Dad could take. Sam knew the look meant he wasn't going to soccer camp that day. He just saw no reason to make Dean's life easier, since Dean was ruining his.
"Look," Dean said finally, his teeth gritted. "I'll drop you off at the library, okay? It's air conditioned and you can read all day. It'll be like geek heaven."
"I'd rather go to the library after soccer camp."
"Well, that's not happening, so suck it up and get in the car."
"It's not fair." Sam started for the car with maybe a little more stomp in his step than normal. "Today's the last day of camp this week because they're setting up for that Russian Festival. If I don't go today, I won't get any practice for five whole days!"
"That's what the backyard is for."
Sam threw himself into the passenger seat and slammed the door. "It's not the same."
Dean's sigh could be heard from the porch where he was locking the door.
Sam kept silent on the drive to the library. Dean's expression and the blast of Black Sabbath from the stereo weren't exactly inviting, and anyway Sam didn't want him to think he was forgiven. Maybe Dean even felt a little bit guilty, because he pulled the car to a stop outside the library and shut off the engine. He pulled his wallet from his back pocket and handed Sam a twenty dollar bill.
"Get yourself some lunch later on. Do some research for me while you're here and you can keep the change."
"What kind of research?" Sam asked. Research usually meant a job, and Dad had told Dean no jobs while he was gone. Dean wasn't afraid to break most rules, but he never went against one of Dad's direct orders.
"There've been a couple of drownings in the river recently. One was last night while I was at that party. It may be nothing, but I think we should see if there's a pattern that suggests our kind of thing."
"But Dad said--"
"I didn't say we'd do anything without checking with Dad first. I just want to know if there's anything there." Dean waved the twenty in Sam's face. "You want this or not?"
Sam took it. "What if I find something?"
"Then we'll talk to Dad before we do anything, okay?" Dean rolled his eyes. "You're such a grandma."
"You watch your mouth, sonny," Sam said in his best old-woman voice.
Dean grinned. "Go on. I'm going to be late."
The red brick library looked like a building George Washington would have stood in front of to sign something important. A pair of benches sat in the shade of a large oak tree near the entrance. Inside was cool and hushed, the whisper of the two middle-aged ladies at the front desk and the low sound of someone reading to a child blending into a pleasant background hum. Sam immediately felt at home. Libraries might look different from one city to another, but the atmosphere was somehow always the same.
Sam had started doing research not too long after he'd found out what his dad really did for a living. Sam was still a little kid back then, and the knowledge that his dad was fighting monsters had scared him so bad that sometimes he felt like he couldn't breathe. He couldn't talk to his dad or Dean because neither of them ever got scared. So he'd gone to the school library and found a book on monsters, and set out to learn everything he could so he could be just as brave. By the time he was ten, he was doing a lot of the background research for his dad's hunts, and his teachers were always commenting on how well he knew how to use a library. Sam thought that was a little silly. It wasn't like the Dewey decimal system was rocket science, and card catalogs--or computers when he got lucky--weren't that complicated either. It was mostly just a matter of knowing what kind of information was needed and where that information could be found.
Today he headed for the reference room at the back of the library. Dean wanted to know if there was a pattern to the drownings, which meant his best bet was to search through the microfilm copies of the city newspaper. Since Sam had made friends with the reference librarian, Mrs. Patterson, when he was doing a school report earlier that year, she just smiled and waved him on without even giving him a chance to tell her the story he'd made up about doing a project for a summer school challenge class. Mentally filing the story away for later, he sat down with the first of many microfilm spools and began to skim for stories of drownings.
Hours later, Sam was convinced that Lamden was the most boring city in Texas, if not the entire South. Sure, there were the usual robberies, car wrecks, and politics. There were even reports of people drowning in the river, especially in the years before someone had built a lake several miles north to help control flooding. But in between those totally normal, non-supernatural incidents, the only things that ever seemed to happen were a Christmas parade, the Russian Festival, and the Homecoming football game. The closest thing to paranormal activity he could find was mention of the Jaycees' haunted house. He was totally earning that twenty dollars Dean had paid him just by staying awake while he researched.
He was half-glancing at a 1953 edition and half-thinking about how much more fun he'd be having hanging around with Jimmy and Darren, when he realized that his eyes had somehow jumped from an article about someone drowning to an article about the Russian Festival. The drowning had been attributed to high water from excessive rain, so Sam didn't particularly think the article would do him any good. Even so, he had intended to finish reading it. Frowning at the microfilm screen, he tried to find his place again.
After a second, it became obvious why he'd lost track of what he was reading. Aside, of course, from the mind-numbing boredom of it all. The drowning article was side-by-side with the festival article, and they both contained the same phrase on the same line: "Not since 1937 has there been--"
--so many deaths by drowning in a twelve-month period.
--a summer without a Festival.
Maybe it was a hunch. Maybe his growing headache made him want to find an answer now. Either way, something definitely clicked between the two facts. He gave a mental fist-pump of anticipated triumph as he went off to find the microfilm for 1937.
"I don't know, Sammy," Dean said after listening to his brother's theory. "I mean, sure, I can buy this festival is used to keep some sort of river spirit from being pissed off or whatever. We've seen that before. But how does that relate to this year? The festival is this weekend."
"That's the thing." Sammy sat forward on the couch, his eyes wide with excitement. "The festival is late this year. I couldn't figure that out either at first. But then I checked, and most years it's in early June, usually the first weekend. But here it is almost July and they haven't even had it yet."
"So you're thinking that whatever's in the river is getting stirred up because the festival is late?"
Sammy nodded. "But I don't know what the 'whatever' is."
"Yeah." Dean frowned, trying to remember water-related monsters that might need appeasing. "Well, it's the Russian Festival, right? So let's start with Russian water spirits. Go get the monster book, okay?"
They actually had several different "monster books," but Dean was pretty sure Sammy would know the one with the best information. Dean wasn't sure if Sammy had the books memorized or just had a good instinct for where to look, but if they needed a paranormal creature found, Sammy could usually narrow down the search until they found it.
"Look here," Sammy said after a few minutes. "There're two water spirits listed under 'Russia' that look like they'd fit. 'The vodyanoy is a male spirit that looks like a little old man. He has green hair and a green beard,' blah blah blah, 'he has been known to drown people when angry, so villagers who live near a vodyanoy often set out offerings to appease him.' And then there's the rusalka. 'A female ghost or water demon who lures men into her lair with her bewitching songs.' And look at this: 'In early June, villagers celebrated Rusal'naia, or Rusalka week. The celebration always ended with the ritual banishing of the rusalka.'"
"Like the queen of the Russian Festival being floated down the river?" Dean suggested. "Isn't that what Jimmy told you happened?"
"In a bikini." Sammy nodded, obviously pleased with the idea of the scanty swimwear.
Dean felt a flicker of pride--his little brother was growing up--before forcing his mind back to the task at hand.
"Okay," he said, "so it seems like the rusalka is our best bet. On the plus side, there was a couple of weeks between the first drowning and the second, so there probably won't be another one before the festival. That gives us time to talk to Dad and see what we should do."
"Do you think once the festival happens, the drownings will stop?"
Dean shrugged. "Depends on whether the--what did the book say?--'ritual banishing' has to happen in the first part of June or if it can happen whenever."
Sammy looked worried, his excitement over finding the answer nearly gone. "And whether we're right that it's a rusalka."
"Yeah." Dean scrubbed a hand over his face. It had been a long day. He hadn't gotten much sleep the night before because he kept waking up to check on Sammy, and then he'd arrived at work to find out that Tracy had called in. Dean didn't know, but he suspected that she'd found out bad news about her friend. He'd wanted to go check on her after work. Sammy had been so excited about his discovery, though, that Dean had brought him home and let him spell out his theory. Now, Dean would have liked nothing more than to collapse on the couch in front of the box fan and stare mindlessly at the TV until he fell asleep. He took a moment to regret he wasn't going to get that luxury.
"Listen, I'm going to go check on Tracy. You know the red-headed lifeguard from the pool?"
Sammy raised a knowing eyebrow. "The one you went to the party with last night?"
"Yeah. She was upset last night, and then she didn't come in to work today. I'm going to swing by her house and see if everything's okay. I'll be back by the time Dad calls to check in, okay?"
"You want me to fix you dinner?"
"No, I'll get something when I get back."
As he left, he was a little disgruntled to see Sammy sprawled out in front of the fan, right in the spot Dean would have claimed.
Sam was restless. Dean had only been gone for half an hour, and Sam had already nuked a TV dinner and demolished it. He'd taken some Tylenol that hadn't helped his headache one bit and tried to concentrate on some TV show that started out stupid and just got stupider. Between the heat of the house and his headache, he was feeling kind of sick and really out of sorts. Part of him wanted to go for a walk to get rid of the energy that seemed to be crawling all over his body, while another part just wanted to lie down in front of the fan and not move until fall.
He was trying to do just that when it hit him: the woman by the river! If there was a rusalka or a vodyanoy or whatever, she had to be warned. Sure, Dean had said they probably had time, but what if they didn't? What if he woke up tomorrow morning and found out she’d been drowned? How was he supposed to live with that?
He glanced at the clock in the kitchen. If Dean hadn't come back already, it probably meant he was hanging out with Tracy for a while. Sam was pretty sure he could get down to the river, warn the woman if she was there, and get back before Dean ever got home.
By the time he had run the ten minutes to the park, he was hotter than ever, and his stomach was churning. Wiping sweat off his forehead, he jogged down to the river bank. The cool shade was a relief, and he paused for a moment to enjoy it before he set off to look for the woman.
Standing still, he heard humming coming from down river. Following the sound, he saw the woman sitting on the bank, her bare feet in the water. The wind made the tendrils of blonde hair around her face dance. She looked up at him and smiled.
"Won't you join me?" She held out her hand.
The house was empty. Dean had checked twice, and there was no denying it. The house was fucking empty, and Sammy was who the hell knew where. Except somehow, Dean did know. Sammy was down by the river, because fate seemed determined to snatch his brother away any time Dean wasn't paying careful attention. Dean should have learned that lesson by now.
It was a good thing he didn't run into any cops on the drive to the park. There was no telling how many traffic laws he violated, and he really didn't care. He couldn't be sure this was the section of the river Sammy would have gone to, but it was the closest to their house and as good a starting point as any. He screeched the Impala to a halt in the parking area and grabbed his duffel out of the back seat. It was big enough to hold a shotgun filled with rock salt pellets, a canister of holy water and one of lighter fluid, a box of salt, and a box of matches. Hopefully he wouldn't need anything more than that. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he set out for the river at a dead run.
The sun was setting behind him. Crickets stirred up a racket without any regard to the human crashing through the undergrowth where they lived. Dean swore under his breath as he looked for any sign that Sammy had come this way, wishing for silence so that he might be able to hear something--anything.
And then he did. A low splashing down river. It could have just been a fish or frog, but it was the best clue Dean had. He scrambled over tree roots and through bushes, trying to see through the gloom into the water.
If it hadn't been for Sammy's shoe, he would have passed right by. Sammy's stupid new high tops he was so proud of, that he cleaned every night so they would stay looking pristine. Dean saw one just under the surface of the river and dove without thinking. The water was too murky to see more than vague shapes, but he grabbed at where he thought the shoe should be and caught an ankle.
Dean pulled, and something pulled back. A fury born of fear surged through him. He yanked with all his might, and suddenly he was falling back through the water with an armful of limp, gangly Sammy. Tightening his hold, he surged upward. He scrambled for a foothold and slipped, then recovered. The river water came up to his chest. He could hold Sammy's face up out of it, but it was hard to get a good enough grip to tell if Sammy was breathing.
Then something latched on to Dean's ankle. It yanked him under. He didn't dare let go of Sammy but couldn't push him up toward the surface. Water went up his nose and pressed against his chest. All he could do was hang on to his brother with both arms and kick the living shit out of whatever had a hold of his leg. His vision was going black. He had a brief thought of his dad coming home to find both of his sons dead, of Sammy pale and lifeless, and strength abruptly surged through him. He pulled his knees up and then kicked out with both legs at once. He hit something that didn't feel like the river bottom, and then he broke the surface of the water and Sammy was right beside him.
Dean struck out for the river bank, one hand fisted in Sammy's shirt to pull him along. It was only a few feet, but it seemed like he'd swum a mile before he was finally able to drag Sammy up onto dry ground. By the time he collapsed next where he'd dropped the duffel bag, Sammy was coughing weakly. It was the best sound Dean had heard in a long time.
"Dean?" Sammy croaked, blinking at him in confusion. "Dean, what happened?"
Dean grabbed him, crushing him close and not caring if it was a chick thing to do. The little brat had almost died again. Dean was going to kick his ass as soon as they both stopped shaking.
Sammy seemed content to lean against Dean and just breathe for a few moments, but then a splashing sound from behind made them both tense. Without moving away from Sammy, Dean reached over and unzipped the duffel. He pulled out the shotgun and turned slowly, shifting just enough so that he had room to shoot without getting so far away that something could grab his brother without him knowing. Somewhere in the back of his mind he noticed that the crickets had gone silent.
She came at him in a rush, all blonde hair and white fabric and a beautiful, not-quite-human face. Her teeth were drawn back in a snarl, and red blood bloomed from her chest when he shot her. She screamed as she fell back onto the ground. With a sound that was too much like a human sob, she started to drag herself toward the river.
"Her bones, Dean," Sammy was saying, his voice loud because the shotgun blast was still ringing in both their ears. "I saw her bones before she dragged me down. They're in the hollow at the base of that tree."
The rusalka was near the water, still making that horrible sobbing sound. Dean had to keep his eyes on her. It would have been insane not to. But the way she looked at him, the pain and fear in her face and the way the blonde strands of her hair grew red with blood, hit too close to home.
"Fuck." He kept the shotgun trained on her. "Can you take care of them?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sammy nod. Staggering a bit, Sammy stood and walked over to the duffel bag. He moved out of Dean's line of sight, but Dean knew what his next actions would be. Salt poured onto the bones followed by lighter fluid and a match.
The rusalka, following Sammy's movements with her eyes, flinched and made a dive for the water. Even as Dean pulled the trigger again, she let out a shriek that was anything but human, and then she was gone.
Dean tightened his grip on the shotgun so his hands wouldn't shake. Turning to Sammy, he felt a wash of pride and relief.
"Good job." Dean nodded at the flames that were rising up to lick at the tree trunk. "Only now we have to put it out before it burns down the entire park."
Sammy was quiet as they cleaned up and walked back to the car. Dean kept shooting glances his way, trying to tell if he was more freaked out than he let on.
"What is it?" Dean finally asked when he couldn't take the silence anymore.
Sammy pushed wet bangs out of his face. "I don't know. I just--I don't remember how I got here. I was at home, I remember worrying that the rusalka would hurt someone, and then I was being pulled into the water."
"So you didn't come out here on purpose?" Dean asked. The thought had crossed his mind Sammy might have decided to try to find the rusalka himself, although really that was more something Dean would have done.
"I--" Sammy shook his head. "I don't know. I don't remember."
Dean put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a little shake. "Don't worry about it, okay? She's gone now, you're safe, I'm safe, and we can figure it out in the morning. Okay?"
Sammy obviously wasn't satisfied with that answer, but he gave Dean a faint smile. "Okay."
And then, finally, Dean got to go home and collapse on his couch. Since he hadn't bothered to change his soaked clothes, the air from the fan felt wonderfully chilled. He leaned his head against the back of the couch and sighed.
It was a good thing the phone was on the table next to him, because he wasn't sure he could have moved to answer it otherwise. A familiar, deep voice came over the line, and Dean felt himself truly relax for the first time since he'd realized Sammy was missing.
"Hey, Dad," he said. He glanced over at where Sammy was collapsed on the couch beside him and smiled. "Yeah, we're both fine."