In fact, that was something of an understatement. Danny couldn't think of a time that a Hunt had gone more wrong more quickly. He was, of course, mindful of his own mortality on some level, always aware that each Hunt he went on could be his last. But he'd never before faced the spectre of his own death with such grim certainty.
It kinda sucked.
"So what do we call it?" Rusty asked, his crystal blue eyes nearly colorless in the vibrant orange glow of the approaching flames. "Salamander? Fire drake? Mini-dragon?"
The creature was only about as long as Danny was tall, not including its whip-thin tail, but since its entire body was covered in a thin veneer of flames, it seemed a lot more formidable than its appearance of an overgrown lizard would have otherwise indicated. Add to that the fact that it had managed to completely surround the two Hunters with violently burning foliage, and Danny figured that putting a name to the thing was the least of their worries.
"Doesn't much matter when we're going to be dead in about ten minutes," he snapped, scowling. He didn't want to shuffle off this mortal coil in any way whatsoever, but burning to death was a nasty way to go. He kind of hoped that the smoke inhalation would get him first. The only problem with that idea was that the fire was burning so hot that there really wasn't much smoke.
The circle of flames was tightening around them. Danny could practically feel his nose hairs crisping, and the salamander-drake-whatever was just sitting there, crouched in front of them, its gold-glowing eyes fixed on the two men. There was no mistaking the fact that it intended them to die and Danny really, really wanted to take it out. Hell, he'd settle for dousing it, at this point. But he hadn't brought so much as a bottle of drinking water along with him when they'd gone out night-hiking in the woods. Rusty probably had his trusty flask of holy water, but it would've taken a lot more than that to quench the flames. The Sandy River was less than twelve feet away from the edge of the blaze, but it might as well be in another world. There was no way Danny and Rusty were going to be able to reach it.
"Oh, ye of little faith," Rusty intoned, sounding amused, and Danny turned to eyeball his partner incredulously. Perhaps the threat of inescapable death had driven Rusty mad. That was the only explanation Danny could see for his unfathomable optimism.
He opened his mouth to render a scathing response in this vein, but then he had to snap it closed when something slammed into him with enough force to drive him to his knees.
He had no idea what had just happened, but he did know that his eyes, nostrils, and mouth were filled with frigid water, his senses were reeling, and what the hell had just happened?!
Everything was chaos in Danny's head for an instant, physical sensations and external stimulation so far from what his brain expected, that it took him almost a full minute to pull himself back together and figure out what was going on around him.
The first thing he noticed was that the heat of the flames had vanished. Even though his eyes were squeezed closed, Danny knew that. In fact, once he could hear past the roar of adrenaline that surged in his ears, he caught the distinct hiss and crackle of burning wood that had been suddenly submerged.
Secondly, as he opened his eyes, he saw that the fire salamander was gone. No more was it crouched before them like a malevolent totem, willing them dead and exercising the power to make that happen. There was a trail of deeper, darker char that slithered away into the half-consumed underbrush, and Danny knew it was too much to hope that the monster had been destroyed.
Thirdly, Danny recognized the fact that he and Rusty were soaked through. Their hair was plastered to their heads, they blinked away streamers of water that coursed down their faces, their clothes were saturated, and they were both on their hands and knees in a huge puddle that was rapidly becoming mud, and which had definitely not been there before. As glad as he was not to be burning to death -- and he was very, very glad -- Danny felt that this had been a rather uncomfortable manner of rescue. His down jacket was going to take a week to dry, and he'd be lucky if he didn't catch pneumonia on the way back to their hotel.
On the other hand, Rusty might have to toss that purple monstrosity he called a shirt, since its dye appeared to be running down and staining his jeans... so maybe this wasn't a total loss.
They got to their feet and Rusty shook his head like a dog.
"We're not dead," Danny remarked to his partner inanely. Rusty was just as wet as he was, scrubbing water out of his face with a broad hand. He wasn't paying Danny any attention, though, his bright eyes fixed on the trees between them and the river. That wasn't the direction the fire salamander had gone, so Danny wondered what he was looking at. Or for.
"What happened, anyway?" Danny wondered, glancing up. The night sky was clear, thick with glowing stars, and not a cloud hovered overhead. There were no fire fighting planes out for a late flight, nothing to indicate what might have just pelted them with gallons of water. Not that he was ungrateful for the rescue, but he kind of wanted to know how it'd happened. "Feels like someone dumped the river on us."
"Something like that," Rusty said, his voice low, then he stepped forward, easily, carefully. Danny went on alert, but did his best to hide that fact. Rusty's body language meant that he was stalking something skittish, and Danny had to remain relaxed and calm, to avoid spooking... whatever it was Rusty was after.
Clearly, Rusty had a better idea of what had just happened than Danny had... but Danny was used to that. He'd learned to let Rusty take the lead, do his thing, and he usually tried not to get in the way. Because generally his partner knew what he was doing.
Curiosity, though, drove Danny to follow Rusty, past the edge of the burn, slogging through sooty, silty mud, and then almost down to the river. Whatever had happened had to have been supernatural -- they'd have heard if the Sandy River was prone to tidal waves -- and his partner might need back-up.
Well, okay, maybe not so much, Danny realized, as he watched Rusty squat down in front of a young boy who was huddled at the base of a tall oak tree, arms locked around his updrawn legs, huge, dark eyes peering up at them over his knees. The kid was wearing a pair of jeans and what looked like a teeshirt, but had no shoes on over his stained socks, and wasn't wearing a coat or jacket even though the night air was definitely chilly, right on the river like they were.
"Hey there," Rusty greeted smoothly, as though he and Danny hadn't just almost been killed by a fire salamander, as though they weren't both soaked to the skin, and as though it wasn't highly likely that this boy was responsible for them being both alive and wet. It would've been too much of a coincidence to believe that he just happened to be here -- he had to be connected. "You all right?"
The kid just stared at him, pulling his legs more tightly against his torso, but raising his head to rest his chin on his knees. His body language was a little less tense but still not welcoming. Danny had seen Rusty deal with enough headaches to recognize the lines creased between the kid's brows, even though his mouth remained resolutely shut. His gaze flickered to Danny, but Rusty seemed to have largely caught and captured his attention. Danny figured that was good; Rusty was some better than he was at dealing with children... not to say much.
"Let's get back to our hotel," Rusty offered, standing in one smooth motion and holding down his right hand. "Get you into something warm, get me and Danny dry. You want something to eat?"
The kid's expression lightened, though he still looked like he was in pain, and he uncurled, taking Rusty's hand and allowing himself to be pulled to his feet.
Once he was standing, Danny realized that the boy was older than he'd initially thought. Probably in his early teens, though he looked too skinny, and held himself like a much younger child who was uneasy and wary with strangers.
"Are you going to be able to walk?" Rusty asked, sounding concerned. Danny thought at first that he meant because their foundling was stocking-footed, but when the boy nodded, then swayed and clutched at his head, almost falling into Rusty, he realized that there was another reason.
"Rusty could give you a piggy-back ride," Danny offered, then grinned unrepentantly at the glare the kid shot him. The boy was very pretty, with symmetrical features, plump lips, and large eyes. His hair was tangled and mussed, his clothes stained, and he looked like he'd been making his way through the woods for a while before they'd found him. Or, rather, before he had found them. "Thank you for the rescue, by the way," he said, meaning it sincerely, even if his words came off sounding a little flippant. "We'd be dead now if it wasn't for you."
The kid blinked at him, his eye color impossible to distinguish in the darkness of the night, but intelligence shining through clearly. He might not be talking to them, but he clearly had all his wits about him.
"Come on, then," Rusty said, holding out his hand and half turning, away from the river, toward the path back to their vehicle.
The kid eyeballed his hand for a long moment, then wrapped his arms around himself and stepped forward. Rusty shrugged, then motioned Danny to lead the way. Fortunately, they hadn't made it too far into the trees around the river before finding themselves ambushed by the salamander, but by the time they broke out of the wood, the kid was leaning on Rusty, even though Rusty was still soaking wet and the kid was clearly leery of strangers.
There was their car, a '63 Ford Falcon that had seen better days but ran like a dream, and Danny didn't think he'd ever been happier to see it. They'd gone out on a "quick" recon trip, carrying an EMF meter and the GPS system that Rusty scorned -- but, hey, not everyone had a compass in their heads, and what if the two of them got separated in the woods? -- dressed for cold weather, but they were drenched now. Danny was shivering, his jaw clenched to keep his teeth from chattering, and it wasn't weakness; it was simply the result of being doused in who-knew-how-much river water in the middle of the night. He could not wait to get back to their hotel room!
Danny peeled off his jacket, throwing it in the trunk, then followed it with his shirt. The entire surface of his upper torso beaded in gooseflesh, and he quickly grabbed a dirty sweatshirt he'd tossed in the trunk, God, practically a month ago, and despite the fact that it was stained and kinda smelly, he felt worlds better once he had it on.
Next he snagged the thick army blanket he and Rusty kept behind the roadside kit for emergencies. Because if this wasn't an emergency, Danny didn't know what qualified.
Coming around to where Rusty and the kid were standing beside the open back door, he draped the blanket over the kid's shoulders. Now that he was close enough to see in the car's interior light, the kid was damp too, if not as drenched as they were, his feet, face, and elbows smeared with drying mud, and he was shivering not so faintly, his pupils dilated.
"Is he going to be okay?" Danny asked Rusty, as much concerned when then kid didn't cringe away from him as he was by his shocky appearance.
Rusty grimaced, but nodded. "We need to get him warm, dry, and safe. And food will help. I think he's mostly reacting to using more of his power than he should have."
Danny didn't ask how Rusty knew that, instead gently helping the kid to fold himself into the backseat while Rusty peeled off his own jacket and pitched it in the trunk with Danny's. Unlike Danny, he didn't have a spare shirt and was left to shiver in his still-soaked gaudy purple top. Danny felt very little sympathy, for which he blamed the shirt.
Once he was in the backseat, the teen curled up, hunched under the blanket, his head pillowed on their spare weapons duffel, trembling and looking miserable.
"I'm glad he did, though," Danny mumbled, closing the door far more carefully than he usually did.
"It's nice to be alive and not dead," Rusty agreed, climbing into the passenger's side in the front. "Let's go.
Danny quickly circled the car and flopped in the driver's seat, turning the key in the ignition and then cranking the heat up as far as it would go.
It took a while, what with all three of them needing hot showers, clean clothes, and Rusty making a huge pizza order, but finally Danny came down to the matter of trying to figure out who the boy was.
It was obvious that he belonged to somebody. His clothes were new and unworn, far too light for the weather outside. He was slim and looked fragile; not delicate, but he clearly hadn't been roughing it lately. Somebody somewhere was sure to be missing him, and Danny wasn't a cruel man; he'd like to see the boy reunited with his family or whoever.
Right now he was curled up on one of the beds, wearing one of Rusty's less garish sweaters over a long sleeved teeshirt that might belong to either of them -- they weren't sure -- and a pair of Danny's sweatpants, a thick pair that had a drawstring at the waist. He was swimming in the borrowed clothes, but it wasn't as though he would be going to be going anywhere any time soon. His trembling had eased some as he warmed up, but he was still pale and shaky, and Danny would be glad when the food got there. His eyes were wide, the whites showing all around clear green irises and dilated pupils, tracking Danny and Rusty as they moved around the hotel room.
"He didn't have a wallet or a cell phone on him," Danny said quietly to Rusty once they had a moment to breathe. He'd helped the kid get dressed after his shower, since he'd lost the coin toss and Rusty'd had second dibs -- their guest, of course, bathing first. Then, while Danny had steamed himself in the gloriously hot shower, Rusty had ordered pizza. That had all worked out pretty smoothly, but now they had to figure out who the kid was, and who he belonged to.
"I know who he is," Rusty said, sinking to sit at the foot of the bed the kid wasn't lying on.
Danny boggled. "What? How do you--?"
Rusty rolled his eyes, which Danny thought was supremely unfair. It wasn't as though the kid'd had his name written in his underwear. Danny had checked; and, actually the boy hadn't been wearing underwear. Which was a little disturbing, but that was the kid's business, not Danny's.
"I've been in touch with Bobby Singer recently," was Rusty's explanation. Like that was supposed to mean something.
Rusty rolled his eyes again, and to prevent himself from smacking his partner upside the head as he so richly deserved, Danny glanced over at the boy in question. They were talking about him as though he wasn't there, but that was all right, because he'd curled up on the pillows and dozed off. Danny knew they'd have to wake him for food, but from the way his brow was creased even in sleep, he needed his rest. And maybe some aspirin with his late night meal.
"Bobby was telling me that John Winchester had just recently found his missing son. In the Northwest."
"Huh." Danny sat down at the tiny table the hotel room boasted. He frowned. He'd heard of Winchester; his Hunt for the demon that turned out to be Azazel. He'd heard that Winchester had found a way to destroy Azazel, which everyone thought was pretty fucking impressive. And now that Rusty mentioned it, he very vaguely recalled something about one of Winchester's sons going missing, or being abducted, or something. Winchester was so solitary and closed-mouthed, though, with a bad reputation among Hunters -- not for being a bad guy, but for being terrible to try to work with -- that Danny didn't know anything more than that. "You sure this is him?"
"I'm certain," Rusty nodded firmly, and Danny didn't press for more details. Chances were Rusty wouldn't be able to put it into words anyway, and then they'd both end up frustrated.
"So, I guess we should call John Winchester now," Danny said. Asshole or not, the man would have to be frantic at this point.
"Nope." Rusty declared.
Danny stared at his partner, who gazed back disingenuously. Danny noticed that Rusty had more lines around his eyes than he'd had the last time Danny had really looked at him. Well, neither of them was getting younger, but they were both still quite attractive. "Why not?" he finally gave in and asked Rusty flatly.
"He wouldn't pick up."
Danny stared at Rusty some more. By all rights Rusty's head -- or his own -- ought to explode. Nothing happened, though, and after a long moment he sighed heavily. "You know that I hate it when you do that, right?"
Rusty said nothing, just offered a rueful quirk of his lips.
Danny glowered, but he had at least one ace up his sleeve, even though Rusty seemed to have been created solely to confound him at every turn. "Does that have anything to do with that text message you sent him two weeks ago?" Never mind that it was mostly a guess. An educated guess, though.
Now it was Rusty's turn to stare. His mouth fell open and his brows drew down. Evidently Danny had guessed right. He usually did. "You read my sent messages?"
Danny didn't know why his partner even bothered to look mildly outraged. "Uh, yeah, how else would I know about it?" He grinned unrepentantly. "So what was that all about?"
"Just a friendly warning," Rusty grunted, plucking at his lower lip and staring into the distance. "Didn't do any good."
"Well, of course not!" Danny burst out vehemently, loudly enough to make their foundling jerk in his sleep. He tried to tone it down a little as he continued, exasperated beyond all belief. "There was absolutely nothing in that text that could have helped John Winchester, and you know it! You just enjoy being cryptic!"
Rusty looked displeased by this declaration, but at that moment there was a knock at the door. The pizza was there. Danny was a little surprised that Rusty had been able to find a place in a small town like Troutdale that was willing to deliver at an hour that was fast leaving midnight behind... but if it involved food, there was very little that Rusty couldn't manage.
"You wake him and get some food and water in him," Rusty instructed while Danny paid and took the pizza boxes. "I'm going to give Bobby Singer a call."
At least, Danny thought, it was a little gratifying to know that Rusty was taking this seriously.
If he hadn't been, there wouldn't have been anything that would have come before pizza.
Sam hadn't thought that it was actually possible to go insane from worry. But it was now a good five hours since Dean had gone missing, and his brain had seemed to just shut down. He couldn't... do anything. He couldn't even think.
As soon as he'd seen the door hanging open his stomach had plummeted. But he'd still been hoping.... A quick perusal of the room and its attached bathroom had quickly established that there was no Dean. Sam had looked again, going so far as to lift the bed's skirting -- which was pointless, since like most hotel beds, the frame was solid and bolted to the floor, leaving no space underneath -- and then he'd really begun to panic.
It was like it had been when Dean had first been taken by the Melusine, only a million times worse. Because this time Sam didn't know where his brother had gone, who might have taken him. This time he had been responsible for taking care of Dean. This time Dean was broken and damaged and weak, not a strong young man like he'd been the first time. Sam felt as though he was going to begin screaming and never be able to stop.
He saw Dean's jacket and plaid hanging over the back of the chair and his sneakers still tumbled in front of the bed, and his heart clenched. Did that mean that Dean had been taken and hadn't just wandered away? And even if he'd left of his own volition -- there was no way he'd have opened the door to a stranger, right? -- that meant he was barefoot and without warm clothing!
This thought galvanized Sam out of the shocked fugue he'd seemed to have fallen into, and he jerked into action. It was better to get moving than to stand there and scream. Though if he didn't find Dean quickly he was probably going to wind up talking to the police either way; if he began screaming and couldn't stop, someone else would call the cops, and if he couldn't find his brother, he'd fucking file a missing persons report himself. Sure, that might not be a brilliant idea, here in the Northwest, so close to where Dean had been being held captive in that church -- where Sam, John, and Bobby had shot and killed the men holding him -- but Sam was going to need all the help he could get.
Damn Dad, anyway, for calling his sons out here and then going missing!
The hotel was surrounded by asphalt, of course, so there were no tracks. Sam hoped that Dean had simply wandered away, as he had been prone to do in the past. He'd thought that his brother was doing better about that, but it was the preferable possibility to that of Dean being abducted by human predators. Sam didn't even want to give that a moment's consideration, his brain shying away from the very thought.
Never mind that a cold, confused, frightened Dean wandering lost was more than likely to attract the worst sort of attention from the worst sort of people....
Sam felt his gorge rising, bile stinging hot at the back of his throat, but he swallowed it down. He didn't have time to vomit -- he needed to get out there and find his brother!!
He'd done his best. Asking at the hotel office hadn't gotten him anything but a fearful look. Which was totally unfair because, sure, he might seem a little crazed to the clerk, but his younger brother was missing! Surely the woman should have been sympathetic!
He'd ranged further afield, but there were too many streets around the hotel and Sam had no clue which way Dean might have gone. Questioning the few people that were out this late netted him absolutely nothing helpful, and he was seriously considering going to the police. They had more manpower than he did, if only he could convince them of how critical this situation was without giving so much away that they'd connect Dean to the boy that the Seattle police were looking for and... and... well, shit.
With a chill, Sam realized that he might be on his own, might not dare to approach the authorities. It was only then that he gave in and called Bobby. He'd been avoiding it, because, dammit, Bobby had told him not to leave the hotel room. Sam hadn't thought he'd meant it literally, but now that he'd done it and the worst had happened, he really hadn't wanted to have to confess.
There wasn't anything for it, though. Curling up against the wall in the hotel room, leaving the door open in the vain hope that Dean might waltz back in and blithely ask Sam what was wrong, he called Bobby.
Perhaps due to the frantic tone of Sam's voice, Bobby restrained the "I told you so" that he was due, and instead did the best he could to calm Sam and offer what help and support he could from a distance. He was driving through the night, but still wasn't going to be reaching Troutdale any time soon. It'd still be a good eighteen hours even if he didn't stop for sleep, and he really should, just for safety's sake.
"He probably left of his own accord," Bobby reassured Sam when he voiced his fears that Dean had been abducted by humans again, his gruff voice a calming rumble. He sounded tired but so certain of what he was saying that Sam took comfort. As much as he could with Dean still missing. "Yer by a river, right? Remember last time we were in Oregon? I'd head for the water."
Sam felt as though he'd been stung by a sharp jolt of electricity; in fact, he found that he'd leapt to his feet before he even realized. "Of course!" he blurted and hung up before Bobby could say anything more. It was rude, but he was panicking, and Bobby's suggestion had rung true.
There was only one problem with that. Troutdale was actually set between two rivers. Once again Sam despaired.
"Well, where's the nearest body of water to ya, y'idjit?" Bobby prompted when Sam called him back. "Fer the love of all things golden, don't make things harder than they have to be!"
Sam hung up again and got on his laptop. Within moments he had what he needed, and then he was torn.
What he wanted to do was pack the Impala and tear out of there, headed for the river, hoping to find Dean along the way -- he'd been missing for hours, but he was on foot, after all.
But what if he left the hotel room and Dean managed to make it back there? He'd find Sam gone, their stuff gone, his beloved car gone....
This was the point at which Sam's brain seemed to shut down with a whimper rather than a bang. Even with the likely prospect that Bobby had given him, he felt as though he'd lost all hope. He needed to get out there and find Dean, but he couldn't get himself moving. He was stuck, he was huddled in a little ball beside Dean's discarded sneakers, about three seconds away from weeping hysterically, and he knew he had to get out there and find Dean, but his brain had frozen over on him and he just couldn't move.
At this point his phone rang, snapping him out of it. He expected it to be Bobby, nudging him, asking him if he was on his way to the river yet, but when he looked at the screen he didn't recognize the number.
"Hello?" he answered it warily.
"Sam Winchester?" It was a male voice, warm and completely nonthreatening, the tone rather gentle, actually, but all of Sam's nerves were on end, and screaming still felt like an option.
"Yeah," he got out, but the enormity of his failure to protect his brother was beginning to hit him all over again, and his throat closed up before he could ask who was calling and why.
"This is Rusty Connor," the man said smoothly, as though Sam had actually managed to articulate his questions. "I got your number from Bobby Singer. I think my partner and I have found someone who's very important to you."
Sam tried to speak, but his emotions rose up, choking him to the point that he wasn't even sure he could continue breathing, much less talk. Relief was an almost painful burst in his chest, shooting through his entire body, making him feel lightheaded, hurting him with its intensity. At the same time, natural distrust and suspicion surged, because he was a Winchester and Dad had trained them never to trust anyone, not even him.
Sam had always trusted Dean, though. Even when Dean hadn't been able to trust Sam not to hurt him, not to leave.
"We're staying at the Sandy River Inn," Rusty informed him, his calm, even tone soothing Sam's overstimulated brain a little. "In room thirteen. Your brother is fine, but I'm sure he'll feel better once you get here."
"He didn't get any dinner," Sam surprised himself by saying, as though that was the most important thing. But he was just glad he was finally able to get some words out. So incredibly stunned and glad to know that Dean had been found.
"We're feeding him some pizza right now," this Rusty assured him. "He was down by the river, chilled and confused, but we're taking good care of him. Still, I'm sure that you'll both be a lot happier once you get here."
Sam couldn't have agreed more. "Sandy River Inn, room thirteen?" he verified.
"That's right." Rusty gave him instructions on how to get there, for which Sam was grateful. He hadn't the mental capacity to be looking up directions online right now. "See you in a few."
As soon as he hung up, Sam was on the line with Bobby.
"Danny and Rusty," his friend confirmed. "They're Hunters, in the area for a ghost or something. Really good guys, Sam. Dean couldn't have gotten luckier than to run across them. Especially since Rusty knew to call me."
"Why didn't Dean have them call me?" Sam wanted to know, throwing the few things scattered through the hotel room into a duffel and heading for the Impala. To hell with the Motel-6. He wasn't going to be coming back here!
"Well, from what Rusty says, Dean's clammed up again," Bobby explained. "Rusty says he's doing okay, but he ain't talkin' and he's a little dazed. Hardly surprising, since he's with a coupla strangers right now. But he'll probably be all right once you get there."
"And you're vouching for these guys?" Sam sought to clarify, slamming into the Impala and peeling out the Motel-6 lot. Even though Bobby'd said that they were cool, Sam thought of Dean alone with a couple of male Hunters and his skin crawled. He wasn't sure if it was concern, jealousy, or just overprotectiveness. He was pretty sure that it wasn't a healthy reaction, in any case, but he wasn't able to help himself. He didn't want anyone but him getting their hands on his brother!
"Absolutely," Bobby replied without hesitation. "I've worked with 'em a few times, even. They're sharp, reliable, and just plain good folk. Don't let anything they say convince you otherwise."
Sam's brows rose at this last sentence, but he was driving in the dark, in a strange town, in an agitated state, and he should probably get off the phone. Even if he sort of felt as though Bobby was his lifeline to sanity.
And then he really did have to hang up, because he was driving through the middle of the town in the middle of the night, looking for a sign for the Sandy River Inn, and he was going to wreck the Impala if he didn't put the phone down and pay attention to his driving. And that wouldn't help his brother at all.
"I'm coming, Dean!"
Rusty had the hotel door open before Sam Winchester reached it. He knew that Dean -- and more importantly, Dean's headache -- would thank him sparing them all the frenzied pounding that his older brother otherwise would have unleashed on the innocent wood.
Not that he blamed the young man, much. From what Bobby had told him, what he could surmise from Dean's situation at the river, what rumors he'd heard, and what his dreams had told him, he knew that he and Danny were dealing with a couple of rather emotionally unstable young men. Not necessarily in a bad way, but, well, there you were.
The sleek black Impala now parked next to the Falcon made it look small and dirty, but it was the figure barreling up the walkway and toward the hotel room that really captured and held Rusty's attention. He quirked a brow.
Sam Winchester was a lot taller than he had been expecting, for some reason. Neither Danny nor Rusty was a short man, but Winchester dwarfed them both. He was a healthy young man, by all appearances, powerful and attractive, with broad shoulders and most of his height in his legs. Rusty shook his head, wondering if there'd be enough room for all four of them in their not exactly generous hotel room. At least Sam's younger brother didn't take up much space, being a compact teenage only verging on his first growth spurt.
Once they had told Dean that his brother was on his way he had warmed up to them immensely. Or maybe it was just that he had been getting over his shock, and as he'd begun stuffing his face with pizza, he'd been gaining his strength back as well.
He'd given Rusty a sharp, knowing look, and Rusty had been able to feel Dean's shields slamming into place. Not that he'd minded. He usually kept his own as thick as he could manage, and he certainly had no plans to go trawling through Dean Winchester's head. It would no doubt be a painful, jaggedy place. The boy was doing all right, but he had all too clearly been broken by whatever had happened to him after his abduction two years ago.
Rusty knew a little more about that than he'd shared with Danny, but it was Winchester business and there was no reason for Danny to know more than he already did, unless one of the Winchesters decided to talk to him about it. Rusty didn't really want to know as much as he did.
Inexplicably, it had been Danny to whom Dean had seemed to gravitate. Not that Rusty had minded in the slightest but Danny had seemed a little disconcerted by the boy's apparent choice. When the older Hunter had settled on the bed, a conscientious distance from their foundling, it had been Dean who had scooted closer until he was curled up beside Danny. Maybe that had had something to do with the fact that Danny had been holding the box with the pepperoni pizza in it... but Rusty suspected that this Dean Winchester was just a good judge of character.
So they had settled back against the headboard and pillows, sharing body heat and pizza, until Rusty had sensed the other Winchester brother on his way and had risen to open the door.
"Where's my--" Sam managed to blurt as he reached the threshold, but that was as far as he got before;
Rusty took a quick step back to avoid the hurtling teenage boy. Dean Winchester was briefly airborne, Sam Winchester caught him up in long, powerful arms, and then Rusty turned away, to give the brothers a moment alone.
Danny was staring, wide-eyed, but after a moment he coughed and looked away, flushing faintly. Rusty quirked a brow -- there wasn't much that could embarrass Danny -- but when he returned his attention to the Winchester boys in order to usher them inside they were locked into a mostly innocuous embrace... if Dean's legs being wrapped around his brother's waist could be considered innocent. Rusty figured it could be chalked up to enthusiasm easily enough, and he couldn't help grinning. It was nice to see a little life in the wilting flower they'd found along the banks of the Sandy River.
"Come on in," he invited Sam, waving them inside. "We have pizza."
Sam nodded over his brother's head and reluctantly loosed Dean, his eyes doing a wary once-over of the room, stuttering over Danny, who was still lounging on one of the beds. Rusty didn't take offense, even though he was sure that Bobby Singer had vouched for them. If he'd had a younger brother in the state Dean Winchester was in, he'd probably have been feeling more than a little overprotective too.
"Thank you," Sam said, and even though it managed to sound grudging, neither Danny nor Rusty took offense. That might have something to do with Sam's red-rimmed eyes and drawn, pale features. He was a good looking young man -- not pretty, like his brother, more handsome -- but it was clear that they were not seeing him at his best.
"Danny Taylor," Danny said, rising and wiping pepperoni grease off his fingers before offering Sam his hand, as Rusty shut the door behind them. "Sorry we're meeting like this, but I'm glad we were able to get a hold of you after finding your brother."
Sam paused, seeming to eye Danny's proffered hand warily, and just before the moment could grow awkward, just before it edged over from hesitation into rudeness, Dean elbowed his older brother in the ribs.
"They're the good guys, Sammy," Dean said, his youthful voice a little husky but clear. Rusty was glad to know that the boy could speak; he'd been beginning to wonder.
"I-- yeah," Sam responded, starting and blinking, then grinning sheepishly as he took Danny's hand and gave it a firm shake. "Thank-- Thank you for taking care of Dean and for contacting me so quickly."
Sam and Dean didn't look much alike, but the fact that they were brothers was as clear to Rusty as the bond between them. The existence of the bond and its... flavor, for lack of a better word... had Rusty raising his brows a little. But, again, it wasn't his place to judge.
They had the same eye color, clear green, bright and observant, and they both had brown hair, but that was about as far as the similarities went. Both had clean, pleasing features, strong jaws, high cheekbones, but the bone structure was subtly different. Sam's cleft chin wasn't quite as pronounced as Dean's, and he had deep dimples that showed even though his smile had been a little weak. Their eye shape wasn't the same, even if the shade was, Sam's being more slanted and Dean's wide and surrounded by almost feminine long, thick lashes.
"That was all Rusty," Danny demurred, gesturing for Sam to seat himself on the bed and offering what was left of the pizza. It was a testament to how quickly Sam had gotten here after Rusty had called him that the pizza was still warm. "We're just lucky he knew to call Bobby Singer."
Sam shot Rusty a look that he recognized; he got it often enough from those who didn't know about or understand his powers. Hell, he still got it from Danny sometimes, and after nearly ten years of partnership, you'd think Danny would be used to him by now.
"We need to talk," Rusty segued abruptly, not willing to explain how he knew to contact Bobby, and since there wasn't really any smooth way to turn the conversation to what had happened down at the river.
Sam sank down onto the bed and Dean curled next to him. He'd refused to take the painkillers they'd offered him -- probably a good idea not to accept pills from strange men, Rusty had to admit -- but between the pizza, the water they'd gotten him to drink, and his reunion with his brother, he seemed to be doing much better.
Rusty took the chair Danny had been sitting in earlier, and Danny was left to either stand or sit on the other bed. With a grimace he did the latter, no doubt realizing that if he remained standing he'd probably come off as kind of menacing, which might spook Sam. The older Winchester brother looked like he was running on fumes, and he hadn't made a move toward the pizza.
"Sammy, eat," Dean instructed with another nudge, and Sam did, even though his gaze never left Rusty's. Rusty was mildly impressed; not everyone could meet his eyes steadily. But then, Sam Winchester exuded a sense of having reached his limit, more than once, and having nothing left to lose.
At least he had seemed to calm some, now that he had his brother at his side and his arm locked around Dean's smaller body. It was a little funny, Rusty thought. Between their words so far and their body language, he might almost have thought that Dean was the older brother. He filed that notion away for later, because there was something about it that rang true, and turned his concentration to the matter at hand.
"Danny and I almost bought it tonight," he said, not bothering to sugarcoat it, because it was true, and the Winchesters had grown up Hunters, they knew what was what. "Dean saved us."
"He--" Sam's shocked expression probably would have been a little insulting to Dean, if he hadn't been so busy eating more pizza. Rusty had trouble telling if he was even paying attention to what was being said about him.
"We came here on a Hunt," Danny broke in. "We thought it was a simple haunting, but, boy, were we wrong."
"Disastrously wrong," Rusty elaborated, not ashamed to admit it. Normally they would have done their homework better, not rushed right out into the path of danger, but he'd been distracted by his dreams and the sense of building tension in the entire area, spiritual unease that felt like a growing storm front, only on a supernatural level, clouding his senses. Of course, Danny had no such excuse, but it had clearly been meant to be, that they meet Dean and possibly both Winchesters, so Rusty would cut his partner a little slack.
"It wasn't a ghost," Danny continued, leaning his elbows on his knees and lacing his hands together between them. "Turned out to be a fire drake, a salamander, a fire lizard... what have you."
"I'm going with fire salamander," Rusty said, and Danny shrugged easily. Rusty could read him like a book; as far as Danny was concerned, putting a name to the thing was the least of their worries. Since he completely agreed, and because Sam's eyes seemed to be glazing over a little with fatigue, he continued. "Anyway, we were tramping through the woods around the Sandy River like a couple of idiots, and before we knew it the thing had us pinned."
"How so?" Sam asked, proving that he was still with them, was actually paying attention to the conversation. His half-eaten slice of pizza hung limp in one hand, the other still wrapped around his brother.
"Surrounded us with flames," Danny said, shivering at the memory of how close they'd actually come to dying. "The trees and underbrush all around us were burning, and there was no way out."
"We were toast," Rusty agreed unironically, not without his own internal shudder. "At least, we were until Dean dumped a couple hundred gallons of river water on our heads."
"He-- What?" Sam blinked.
Rusty and Danny exchanged a glance and cracked a pair of matching grins. "It might have been more than that," Danny allowed. "We weren't exactly in a position to measure."
"I-- He--" Sam's mouth was hanging open, and then he closed it with a snap, his jaw tightening. "What makes you think it was Dean?" he asked, his tone hard and defensive.
Rusty didn't blame him. Danny and Rusty were Hunters. Hunters destroyed supernatural things. What Rusty had claimed Dean had done was decidedly supernatural; it certainly wasn't something a normal teenage boy could do.
"I could sense his psychic imprint on the action," Rusty admitted, and if Sam hadn't been so exhausted and stressed out, he'd probably have been able to pick up on the fact that Rusty had powers too, even though he hadn't come right out and said so in as many words.
"Relax, Sam," Danny put in, his voice warm and mellow. Soothing, Rusty had always thought, and he used it to good effect now. "We'd have to be awfully ungrateful bastards not to appreciate the fact that Dean used whatever ability he has to save our lives."
Sam sat there silently a moment, digesting this, but Dean swallowed the last of his pizza and licked his greasy lips. "I couldn't let you guys die," he said, speaking directly to Danny and Rusty for the first time, glancing back and forth between the two of them. "I had to save you. Even though it made my head hurt, a lot."
"Yeah," Danny agree as Rusty nodded. "I know that sometimes Rusty gets a migraine when he's had one of those dreams."
Sam's gaze snapped to Rusty at this declaration. Rusty glared at Danny. He'd come perilously close to saying too much, and didn't even have the decency to look sheepish about it. Bastard.
"I didn't know... Dean, I knew you could manipulate water a little," Sam spoke directly to his brother, sounding a little breathless. "But I didn't think you could do that."
"That's why it hurt my head," Dean said, touching his temple with careful fingertips. "But it's easier here; the water sings louder because we're closer to Her."
"To who?" Sam demanded, his tone urgent. When Dean silently shook his head, his eyes wide, Sam's jaw clenched. Rusty didn't mistake the fear on the young man's face for anger, even though they were close to the same emotion. "Does that have anything to do with why you left the hotel room, Dean?"
"I'm sorry, Sammy," Dean said in a small voice, gnawing at his lower lip. Rusty had been able to tell from what he'd been able to pick up that the boy was sort of broken. But it wasn't just in his head, it was reflected in his speech patterns too. Not to a shocking amount. And he wasn't lacking in any way, certainly wasn't short any intelligence or wit. But he was a little off, and it showed. "I didn't mean to leave. But the song got in my head and the next I knew I was outside, in the dark. I didn't know how to get back to you because you were too far away, so I went down by the water."
Rusty could tell that Sam was hanging on by a thread, about ready to snap, and he didn't really feel the need to see what form the breakdown would take.
"Hey," he spoke up, breaking into the brothers' conversation easily. Sam Winchester was terrified, for his brother. And Rusty knew that being afraid for someone when there was nothing you could do was absolutely draining. "We've got two beds here and it's nearing the ass-crack of morning. You're both wiped out. Why don't you stay here instead of going back to wherever you were staying?"
Sam blinked at him, and his eyes were glazed over to the extent that Rusty almost expected to see him nod off right where he was sitting, right in the middle of their conversation.
"It's the least we can offer, seeing as we owe our lives to Dean," Danny put in.
"I... yeah." Sam tossed the uneaten half-slice of pizza in his hand back in the box. "Thank you. I wasn't going to go back to the place we were at anyway."
"It wasn't a nice place," Dean said, wrinkling his nose. "This room is warm and friendly and has good people in it."
Rusty grinned and Danny chuckled, shaking his head at the blithe designation, but neither of them argued.
"You boys can use the bathroom first," Rusty offered. He had to call Bobby Singer back, as he'd promised. Besides, he and Danny were weary from trecking through the woods and nearly being barbecued before being slammed with a supernatural water balloon, blimp-sized, but they weren't on the verge of passing out, the way the Winchester boys appeared to be.
Danny cleaned up the pizza and other dinner detritus while Sam went out to the Impala briefly to grab a duffel. Then the two Winchesters vanished into the bathroom and Rusty called Bobby.
"We'll keep an eye on 'em for you until you get here," he promised the seasoned Hunter confidently.
"Good," Bobby grunted, sounding as tired as Sam had looked. "I'm stopping for the night, then, before I wreck. Can't get there in a hurry if I'm in a hospital or a body bag."
"True words," Rusty agreed cheerfully, then hung up.
The Winchester brothers emerged from the bathroom with gratifying swiftness. Sam was wearing a pair of worn pajama bottoms and an even more worn, faded Slayers teeshirt. Dean had changed out of the clothing borrowed from Rusty and Danny, into another teeshirt that was less worn, but just as obviously Sam's. It had no band logo, was just a soft grey with a couple of bleach spots near the hem, and Rusty was going to assume that Dean had on a pair of boxers underneath it.
"Which...?" Sam paused, glancing at both the beds. Neither was made, both had Rusty's clothes scattered over their surfaces, and all the pillows were on the one further from the door.
"Go ahead and take that one," Rusty said, indicating the second one. Not that he suspected the Winchesters would sneak off on them, but he figured the more space between Dean and another supernatural-hazed walk, the better. He grabbed his clothes, Danny reclaimed two of the pillows, and then they both collected their own nightwear.
Sam tucked Dean under the covers, but it wasn't until both Danny and Rusty were heading into the bathroom that he slowly slid under the covers himself. He was still leery, and Rusty couldn't blame him, but exhaustion trumped all. Once Sam Winchester had enfolded his brother in his arms and hunched under the covers, Rusty almost wouldn't have known there were two people in the bed. He could understand the need, though. Sam Winchester would have to have been insanely frantic when his brother had gone missing earlier that night.
As Rusty flicked off the lights for the brothers, he realized that Danny hadn't really said anything since he'd joined Rusty in offering to share their room. And Danny was usually the more loquacious of the two of them.
Danny maintained his unusual silence as they both repaired to the bathroom, closing the door between themselves and the Winchesters. Rusty knew that Danny had something to say; he was only waiting to see what it was.
They changed, awkwardly in the small space, then brushed their teeth at the same time. Danny didn't say anything until they were both finished. Rusty didn't interrupt.
"Brothers, huh?" Danny finally muttered, rinsing his toothbrush and knocking it against the edge of the sink, concentrating on this task.
"Without a doubt," Rusty replied, even though the question had been meant more than a little rhetorically.
"Eh." Danny shrugged, meeting Rusty's gaze in the mirror without hesitation. "To each their own. It's not any business of mine."
Rusty smiled broadly, bumping his shoulder against Danny's in silent approbation. That was why he put up with him, even at his worst; Danny always came through when it mattered, and he was a good guy.
Of course, according to Dean, they were both the "good guys". Rusty liked that. It was a good feeling.
Unfortunately, now they were going to have to live up to that name.