No Man Can Tether Time


Dean thought, This is my life now.

***

Dean drove into town past the warehouses and truck stops, making note of the information subconsciously. Industrial section, northeast entry. It would mean cheap motels, cheap beer, and the sort of people who noticed things that regular, ordinary people never did.

They wouldn't be as eagle-eyed as the runaway kids living on the street. Those kids saw almost as much as a hunter could; they just didn't always know what to do about the ghosts and monsters they encountered. The hard-working, road-travelling type wasn't as sharp as the professional criminal, either, who made it a point of knowing everyone and everything that crossed his territory: human, demon, or in-between. But the people he'd find here saw and understood enough that it made Dean wary about staying too long.

He was in town for what ought to be a simple poltergeist. He and Dad had both read all the available newspaper articles, coming independently to the same conclusion. Afterward, Dad had just flipped the most recent newspaper clippings to Dean, his only comment being, "You should get there by sundown."

Dean hadn't needed more of an order than that. He'd been hunting on his own more often than not for nearly six months--sometimes meeting up with Dad between jobs and sometimes running two or three together. As he drove further into the small city of Placerville, he fingered the cell phone in his jacket pocket.

Made good time, he thought about saying. Still two hours before sunset, and he hadn't really broken the speed limit much. But he hesitated, then put his hand back on the steering wheel.

He hadn't quite figured out when to call. When not to. His dad never said a word about it either way--never anything more in their conversations than the hunt, the road, the cities they were both seeing. They traded information on diners to avoid and gunsmiths to see again, and never once did his dad say that he might think twice about bothering him.

But neither did he ever say he was glad Dean had called.

It wasn't the sort of chick flick thing Dean expected from John Winchester--and it was why he left his phone where it was. He drove down the two-lane highway, past the growing edges of strip malls and outlet stores, signs and billboards appearing in English and another language Dean didn't recognise. Asian, maybe, but for all he knew it was Swahili.

He decided to head further north before finding a place to stay. The house he'd be investigating was near the centre of town, but the map showed a long, loping interstate that cut directly through downtown, and not more than a mile from his destination. Dean figured he'd use the interstate to get wherever he needed to go. It was usually a hell of a lot easier than navigating surface streets, at least if you knew how to deal with semis doing the limit and sports cars doing 90 and frightened girls in compacts driving just over 35 in the right-hand lane.

Cities were exactly why Dean loved driving the long, open roads: state highways and back roads that wound through fields and mountains and never seeing another pair of headlights for hours. In town he'd always pick an interstate over a city street on his first day there, because, if there was one thing he hated more than a hard hunt, it was getting lost on the way to it.

Sam had always-- Dean cut himself off and studied the street signs, digging for his map in the debris on the front seat. Highway 50, and he changed lanes with a signal as an afterthought, then turned the radio up loud.

***

The motel he found was a tiny one, barely ten rooms in all. But the doors were bright green, which allowed Dean to check 'green' off his list. He hadn't managed to find motels in order, but he was doing a fair job of ticking off each colour of the rainbow. Purple and orange were proving difficult; Dean thought about finding a job in Hawaii or Vegas, to see if he could swing those stubborn two.

When he scrawled Herbert Danson's name on the credit slip, he gave the woman behind the counter a wide smile. Added half a wink, and she blushed right back; when she handed over the keys, Dean let his fingers touch lightly against hers. She was easily 45, maybe even 50, and Dean knew that she'd probably given up seeing a young stud like him give her a second look.

It might not mean a discount on the motel bill--as if he cared if Herbert could afford the rates. But when he dropped by wondering if there was any place he could find some laundry soap, and did they have a newspaper he could borrow, the smile might just buy him an easy favour.

Might not come to anything, but it didn't cost him anything to put a little in the bank, and a charmed woman was always easier to handle than one who wanted to run him out of town with his own shotgun.

Not that the one didn't ever turn into the other.

Dean forgot all about her, though, as he headed for his room. He stopped at his car long enough to grab two duffels, one with clothes and one with his gear. He found his door--bright, obnoxious green, which made him grin--and let himself in. He paused at the threshold, glancing around and letting the room's atmosphere soak in. The air was dry and smelled strongly of cherry-scented cleanser. The room felt like a million just like it, and Dean stepped inside with a tiny sigh of relief.

No hauntings here, no evil vibes of something waiting just behind the door. If it was embarrassing to get lost trying to find a hunt, it was worse to get jumped by something in his own motel room the second he hit town. Dean dumped his clothes duffel on the bed and propped the other on the floor. He opened it and took out the salt, packed right on the top.

It was quick work to secure the room, salting the doors and windows, and adding a few symbols in brown Sharpie along the faucets in the bathroom. As he headed back out to the bedroom, he opened his mouth and got as far as "Hey, S--" when he caught himself.

Maybe it was a good thing Dad wasn't there.

Almost a year, now, that Sam was gone. Staying gone, from the look of it. That first morning after, Dad and Dean had packed up the car, not exchanging a single word. They'd hunted, fast and hard, never staying in a single town longer than needed to hunt the monster down and catch a quick nap when the job was done. Then they'd been off again, driving to the next hunt, staying too busy to ever talk about Sam--trying to outrun the space they carried right in the car along with them.

Dad hadn't said a word when he'd driven them to Palo Alto a few weeks after Sam had left. Hadn't said a word as they found Sam's dorm and sat in the car at midnight, watching. Dean had counted the windows and figured out which one was his brother's; they'd sat there until one a.m., then Dad had turned the car around, and they'd driven to Arizona.

The trip had repeated itself early December; they'd seen Sam's mutant-tall head among a crowd of students. Neither had suggested going over to say hello. Six months later Dad had sent Dean on his first real solo hunt--two entire states away from where his dad was headed.

Dean hadn't blinked; he'd known he was good and ready, certainly old enough to be working on his own. Old enough to have finished with a fancy college like Stanford, even, off on his own and holding down a job and paying rent and whatever else it was that his little brother was after.

That first hunt alone, Dean had called his dad five times. Checking in, letting him know how things were going. Never quite asking questions, but getting a bit of advice here and there. Dean had gradually stopped calling--all but the last time--when the job was done.

His fingers still itched, though, and even as he set out his gear and studied the map again, he found his hand straying towards his jacket pocket and the cell phone. Nothing much to say, he knew, and his dad would be busy with his own hunt. They weren't sure what it was killing dogs and cats in the small country town, but when the locals were baffled and the pets' blood was found smeared on the sides of barns and granaries, they figured it was worth looking into.

Dean found the street he wanted on the map and double-checked his weapons. A quick scouting trip tonight, see what was going on at the house. Tomorrow he'd make plans to dispose of the thing, unless the opportunity presented itself tonight. He slipped his knife into the scabbard in his left boot, followed that with one between his shoulder blades. A gun in his waistband and the shotgun at hand in the front seat of the car, hidden underneath the street map, finished the conventional weaponry.

His jacket pockets held a squirt bottle of holy water and a canister of salt, and with everything in place he was ready to go. Dean pulled a strawberry sucker out from the pocket with the holy water, unwrapping it as he pulled the motel door shut behind him. Sam had always hogged the good flavours; when he'd actually stepped foot on the bus, Dean had promised he would eat every single strawberry and watermelon flavoured sucker he could find.

It hadn't stopped Sam from going.

***

Three days later Dean finally called his dad. He got voicemail, which worried him a little, but he left a message saying he'd got the thing cleaned out of the house, and the homeowners were none the wiser. Dean had snuck in and snuck out while they were gone for the evening, helping himself to a slice of chocolate pie he'd found in the fridge as his payment.

He only had to wait half an hour before his dad called back, then it was off to meet in Brixby, a small town halfway between them. Dean heard the phone click off before he'd realised he'd opened mouth to say more; he closed his phone and chucked the words, half-formed. He checked out of the little motel, leaving with clean clothes that smelled like summer rain and felt of fabric softener, and with a new copy of an AC/DC cassette he'd worn out several miles ago. Maggie had waved as he'd headed for the car, smiling from the motel office.

Dean hadn't even slept with her, though if her daughter had been three years older, he'd have been all over her. It definitely would have led to the shotgun out of town, but Dean knew it would have been worth it.

He aimed for the highway, Maggie and her daughter slipping from his mind as he focussed on the road. He reached down and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, knocking one out and lighting it, then rolled down the window and leaned back and drove.

Ten hours later the car smelled like beer and pizza, and Dean was perched on the hood with his phone to his ear. He'd reached Bixby and checked the first motel in the book, but his dad's car wasn't there. Dean figured he'd made better time and had gone across the street for dinner. He'd taken it back to the motel, sitting in the car and waiting--just in case his dad drove past.

An hour later and Dean was holding his phone, wondering how long it took before bugging his dad became a nuisance, and how long before a nuisance became 'Don't you think you're old enough to handle this on your own.'

He took another drink of his beer, chased it down with the last bit of pizza crust. He thought about lighting a cigarette, but the last time his dad had caught him had been three years before. There hadn't been a lecture, or even orders to throw the things away. Just another one of those looks his dad was so good at, which said everything and nothing all at the same time.

Dean knew that, as long as he could run without wheezing or coughing up a lung, he was fine, just like he knew someday soon he'd have to give them up all together if he wanted to hang onto his edge. For now he compromised with letting his dad pretend he didn't know Dean was smoking, and throwing in 50 extra push-ups in the mornings.

Or early afternoons. It wasn't like he owned an alarm clock.

Dean kept staring down at his phone, finally just flipping it open and letting his finger rest over the '2'. Dad's number was on speed dial--Sammy's was as well, but Dean hadn't called it in over a year. For a moment Dean saw his finger move over the '3'. So easy to press down, wait for his brother to answer--if he would. Shoot the breeze and see if Sammy was still gung ho for the normal life, maybe let the inevitable bitching distract Dean from the fact that his dad was two hours late.

Shaking his head, he laughed and snapped the phone closed. As if he were that neurotic, he told himself snidely. That he'd break a year's silence with his bratty little brother to agonise over his dad being two hours late. Two hours, and apparently he turned into a ten-year-old girl. Dean shook his head again and rooted around in the pizza box for any crumbs he might have missed. He'd got used to his dad being gone for over a day by the time he was nine. Two hours late was just stopping at a bar and being distracted by a pretty girl, or a lucrative pool game.

It was nothing, and Dean told himself he should get off his ass and go back a couple streets to the bar he'd seen there. Bikes and old clunkers in the parking lot, which meant more dangerous game than the easy pickings in a kiddie bar. Dean didn't mind the challenge, and, even if he didn't score big, any cash he could get was better than nothing.

He was just sliding off the hood of the car to head around to the driver's side door when his phone rang. The readout said 'Dad', and Dean was grinning when he answered.

"I'm in Indiana," was the first thing his dad said.

Dean frowned. "Indiana?" Not exactly on the way to Bixby, but not entirely out of the way... if you veered north for two hours.

"Heard about something that might need taking care of," his dad answered, his voice calm and distracted. Dean could hear the car's engine as his dad drove.

"You want me to head up and meet you?" Dean stood up, already reminding himself which direction to take to catch the highway east. He'd be several hours behind his dad, but--

"No need. It just looks like a haunting. Why don't you head down to Alabama, see if you can pick up that Kayeri we lost last year. It's almost time for the rainy season; you should be able to pick up its trail easily enough."

Dean nodded, swallowed, then said softly, "Yes, sir."

"I'll give you a call when I'm done here," his dad said, and Dean was able to wish him luck before he heard the click of the phone.

He listened to the dial tone for a second, then he closed his phone and put it away.

Dean picked up the empty can of beer and the empty pizza box, carrying them over to the dumpster. He was glad, now, he hadn't yet got a room; he slid behind the wheel of his car and, without a look back, drove away. When he found the highway, he turned south, and as he left Bixby, he reached over and turned up the radio.

Dean reached into a pocket for a sucker, then instead moved his hand to the pack of cigarettes. After another moment he left both alone and simply gripped the steering wheel and focussed on the road.

The End