Disclaimer: Nope. I am not Eric Kripke, and, therefore, I don't own Supernatural. But hey, that's just life.

A/N: I think this is the longest chapter I've ever written ... WHOO! :D I've been typing like mad for the past hour, revising this, adding that, so please prepare for more mistakes than usual. Enjoy! See warnings in chapter one.

Please review!

When Mary died, John wasn't prepared to take care of two young boys, much less a baby. Elizabeth took Sam for the weekend and just … never brought him back.
At the time, John thought it was for the best; sixteen years later, it seems it didn't much matter anyway.


Bobby had filled John and Dean in on the cult's MO on the way to the town, via cell phones, since John had insisted on taking two cars "Just in case …" John didn't expect much trouble, but being prepared was never a bad thing, especially when humans were concerned; adding a human element to any equation meant adding an element of uncertainty, and John had learned long ago to ignore the odds and focus on worst case scenarios.

Ingrid was an unassuming town, small and dainty. It had all of the basics; a cozy, probably family-run hotel, a grocery store, a scattering of houses and apartment buildings – it seemed to be an unspoken law that you must have window planters hanging from every window – and a restaurant … with a smashed-in front door. John, Bobby, and Dean went there first.

A man, a woman in her early twenties, and two sleepy-eyed police officers were gathered around the storefront. One of the officers had his notebook out while the other one asked the girl questions. The man seemed to be there mostly for moral support; he had an arm around the girl's shoulders and looked about old enough to be her father.

Bobby broke off from John and Dean and slipped away behind the store, hoping to pick up some clues about what happened that the police might not want to share with passing strangers.

John walked confidently up to the scene, Dean following just behind him.

"Good evening, Officers; what happened here?" John's tone was no-nonsense and had a ring of authority. All four people looked up at him in confusion. Dean smirked.

The taller of the police glanced awkwardly between the two newcomers, his mouth opening and closing a few times without sound. "Who are you?" he asked finally. The effort he was putting into sounding commanding was almost painful to Dean, who prided himself on his subtlety in a con.

John puffed himself up arrogantly. "We are with the State troopers; Officers Brandon and Harshaw. Who are you?"

The shorter policeman shouldered his way past what was must have been the rookie. "I'm Officer Kelly, this is Officer North. What are you doing in the area, Officers?"

"Nothing in particular; just finished a drug bust over in Logan County. Harshaw here has been undercover for the last three months; we were on our way home when we saw lights on and thought we'd check it out. I thought it might be kids." If Dean hadn't known for a fact John was lying out of his ass, he would've believed his father. The small-town cops certainly bought the story; hook, line, and sinker.

Kelly nodded sagely. His double chin waggled as his head bobbed up and down. "Ah, yeah; I worked undercover for a while, back in Logan County, actually. Tell me, is Pete Runner still there? He was a card."

John shook his head. His expression fell ten feet. "No, no, he's not there anymore. He was gone before I joined the troopers, but I heard he gave his life real heroically; took a bullet for a civilian in a bank robbery from hell." John smiled sympathetically at Kelly. "Sorry, man."

Kelly smiled sadly, probably thinking back on old memories. "Good 'ol Pete; he never did know when to call it quits." Kelly took a deep breath. North patted him on the back; Kelly offered him an appreciative smile. He turned back to John. "So what can I do for you, Officers? We have it pretty much covered here; fairly straightforward break-in; open and shut case, really."

John moved a few steps back from the building, as though surveying it. "What did the perp take?" he asked. He nodded as Kelly launched into an in-depth report on the incident and everything they knew so far, which was basically only that a break-in had, apparently, occurred and they had no suspects.

While John distracted the local fuzz, Dean slipped inside the store. The man seemed to have left, but the girl was there, sweeping up broken glass. She looked up when Dean entered.

Dean cleared his throat. "Don't you think you should leave that? Have the police gone over the scene for clues yet?"

The girl scoffed. "What is this, Law and Order? They aren't gonna find anything. It was some punk kid; he didn't even take anything." She eyed Dean. Normally, Dean enjoyed when women looked at him, but he was getting the distinct impression that she wasn't ogling him so much as sizing him up for a fight.

Her glare was growing steadily more uncomfortable, and Dean found himself a little bit tongue-tied. "Oh," he said lamely. He would've cursed at how idiotic he sounded, but the girl just laughed.

"Yeah, 'oh.' We don't get a lot of crime around here; I'm sure you can imagine. Anything out of the ordinary draws attention, no matter how inconsequential." She shrugged. "I'm Valerie, by the way."

Dean grinned. He loosened up considerably with the small prize of her name. "Dean Harshaw, State trooper. But I disagree; a pretty girl's shop being violated is far from inconsequential. In fact, if you'd like, I could open a State investigation, get to the bottom of this." Dean kept his tone teasing, flirting lightly. His father would kill him later, but he couldn't very well ignore a hot chick just sitting there, waiting to be swept off her feet. Living in a small town, Dean guessed she didn't get to see a lot of new faces.

A moment of sheer panic spread across Valerie's face. It was gone before Dean could process its presence and she was smiling again. She matched his teasing with her own. "Ooh, that'd be wonderful. But I don't want to be a bother; I'm sure you have enough to do, getting cats out of trees, helping old ladies cross the street …" Her eyes sparkled an alluring shade of blue.

Dean could almost forget what he had seen, but that wasn't in his training.

He hid his surprise, pretending he hadn't seen her friendly mask slip. He moved to the bar, taking a seat on a stool that had, curiously, had left out; the other four stools were pushed close to the counter. "Please; getting cats out of trees is the fire department's job. And helping old ladies across is street is just good manners."

Valerie gave a fake little gasp, placing her hand over her mouth. "My, my; a gentleman." She grinned.

Dean made a half-bow from his seat. "Indeed. I pride myself on my many gentlemanly qualities. For example, I always pay for dinner. I've also been known to get the door for my date and kiss her hand before bidding her goodnight."

Valerie moved to lean against the bar beside Dean. She placed her mouth by his ear, dropping her voice to a whisper. "That's funny; I didn't peg you as a take-it-slow kind of guy."

Dean turned his head slightly and whispered back. "Well, maybe you shouldn't judge people before you get to know them."

"Mmmhmm," Valerie giggled. She pushed off the counter and stooped the pick up the dust pan. Dean grinned at the view he got of her denim-clad rear; she had a pink butterfly sewn in sequins on the right buttock pocket.

"Dean! We're leaving; the local police have this one under control." John stuck his head in the door, frowning at what he saw.

Dean jumped up guiltily. His legs caught in the stool and he nearly face-planted. It was only his quick reflexes that kept him from the floor.

Valerie giggled again, hiding her smile behind her hand. John neither grinned nor giggled, and Dean knew he was in serious trouble.

"Let's go, Romeo." John shouted. Dean blushed – just barely, and in a manly way – and ran out after him, sparing a second to glance back at Valerie over his shoulder. She waved and smiled sweetly at him. He grinned back and winked cheekily.

John's voice called out a final warning and Dean booked it to the truck.

XXX

John Winchester was not amused. It was one thing to goof off a little between hunts, but Dean should know better than to let his focus slip like that in the middle of an investigation. Not to mention the fact that while he was staring at some girl's rear she had been sweeping up potentially valuable clues right from under his nose. No, John Winchester was not amused.

Dean slid into the truck, grinning brightly. He turned to find John staring straight ahead. "Dad, I think that girl's hiding something." He announced.

John didn't glance over, just grunted and backed the car out into the street.

They pulled onto the main road again under a heavy silence as Dean tried to figure out what had his father so ticked off. Of course Dean expected John to be mad, but John usually just went ahead and yelled and got it over with. This brewing quietly was new; it unnerved Dean. He cleared his throat loudly. John looked over.

"What, Dean?" John growled. He quickly returned his gaze to the road.

Dean shifted. "Is something wrong?" he asked nervously.

John huffed out an impatient breath. He turned onto a side road. "What would be wrong? I walk in to find you flirting in the middle of a con; what could be wrong with that?"

"You know, sarcasm doesn't suit you." Dean said, matter-of-factly. John didn't smile. Dean felt his own grin slip. He tried again. "Look, Dad, I wasn't goofing off. Yeah, I was flirting, but I was also gathering evidence. Like I said, something was off about that girl; she blew off the robbery like it was no big deal, and when I mentioned opening an investigation she panicked."

That drew John's attention. He looked at Dean and lifted an eyebrow. "Panicked how?"

Dean shrugged. "It was only there for a second, but she completely flipped out. She tried to cover it; that's what tipped me off. And there was just something … weird, about her. I'd bet if we took the EMF in there it'd go crazy." Adrenaline began pumping through Dean's veins again as he thought about the creepy restaurant. He wasn't able to sense supernatural activity with the power of his mind, or anything, but the place gave him the creeps; everything from the creepy mounted fish to the suspiciously passive owner. Dean had learned to trust his instincts, and his instincts told him to salt and burn the place.

"Did you notice anything else, or is this all supposition?" John demanded. From his tone, it was clear he was still royally ticked. John Winchester could turn grudge-carrying into an Olympic sport.

Dean nodded eagerly. "Yeah, one of the bar stools was out; someone was in there tonight. Scuffmarks around the doorway indicate a fight, but you would've seen that …" Dean paused for a moment, thinking. "And the girl was fully dressed, so the robbery didn't wake her up."

John allowed a small, proud smile, and Dean realized he had probably noticed all of those things and was just testing him. As if to confirm Dean's unspoken conclusion, John nodded curtly; "You're right; there was a fight outside. Both parties knew what they were doing, but it didn't last long. I think one of the fighters was the girl; you may have noticed the small cut on her left cheek, and the way she held her left wrist."

Truth be told, Dean hadn't noticed the cut; must have been covered with makeup. He had seen the careful way she moved her arm, though. It had definitely been broken. Dean knew how that felt, and he had picked up on the injury immediately.

"Good work, Dean." John acknowledged. "We'll have to wait and see what Bobby found, but I'd say we definitely have a place to start."

Dean leaned back in his seat, grinning once again.

XXX

Bobby was waiting for them at the meet-up spot, about five miles down the road. They were closer to the mountain here, and it loomed over them. The night painted the scene in chill shades of blue and black. Overhead, the moon was just beginning to wane.

"What kept ya?" Bobby demanded gruffly. He pushed off from his Chevelle and ambled over to join the Winchesters by the truck. All three gathered around the front end. Dean leaned against the car; John and Bobby stood free and alert.

John glanced briefly at Dean. "We ran into a few … distractions."

Dean tried not to blush as Bobby raised an eyebrow, but thankfully didn't comment. "I didn't find anything behind the store, 'cept some tooti-fruti candles, but that doesn't necessarily mean the girl is involved with the cult."

John grinned tightly, but there was no amusement in the expression. "Yeah, well, that combined with what Dean found does." Bobby gestured for him to continue, and John drew a deep breath. "The girl's wrist was broken, and there were signs of a struggle out front, but she said she didn't even see the kid who broke in. Dean said someone else had been there, and stuck around for a while, too. The girl didn't want an investigation, and she had ceremonial candles in her dumpster; sounds pretty guilty to me."

"Well … shit." Bobby pulled off his hat and then quickly slapped it back on. "Guess we found our way in, then."

Dean shook his head. "No," he said, drawing curious stares from both other men. "She was already suspicious; if we go back now she's gonna spoke and then we'll never find out where they meet."

"What if that shop is the meet-'n-greet central? Maybe we should go back an' check it out again."

Bobby and Dean turned to John, seeking a third opinion. John was studying a crack in his truck's windshield intently, as though all the secrets of the universe were somehow contained in the tiny spider fracture, words no one could see written in the minute lines traced across the glass.

"Dad?" Dean prompted, "What do you think?"

"I think," John looked up. "We should take a look at Bobby's map, and see if we can't figure it out without letting on we're wise to the bastards who've been killing children. I don't wanna give them any time to regroup or get away. We are taking these people down."

There was no argument from either Dean or Bobby, and soon the map of the immediate area was spread out on the hood of John's truck. All three men leaned over it, scrutinizing the lay of the land.

After a moment, Dean pointed. "There. A cave, five miles from town; if ever there was a good place to hole up between kills, that'd be it."

John agreed, Bobby wasn't opposed to checking it out, and it didn't take long to figure the quickest way there and get back on the road.

As they bumped along, drawing ever closer to the ominous-looking mountain, Dean couldn't help fidgeting a little. He was pretty sure the rock only looked so freaky-ass terrifying because it was dark out; shadows did weird things to even the most harmless places. But it still had him on edge.

It was only a fifteen minute drive, and all too soon they were parked again and walking single file towards the very, very dark-and-creepy cave. Dean walked with caution behind Bobby; John was behind him, watching their backs, the only betrayal of his presence the whisper of his breath. Dean often wished he was half the hunter his father was, especially on nights like tonight.

They were all going to need to bring their A-game for this one; nothing like stumbling around in the dark to make you paranoid enough to shoot your partner or, worse yet, any innocent bystanders that got in the way. No more children had gone missing since the last one, who had turned up dead a week ago, so Dean didn't think collateral damage was going to be an issue, but he really didn't want to shoot his dad or Bobby, either.

And then there was the question of where, exactly, was Sam … Sam, the kid Dean had never met, and yet who shared his last name and had somehow worked his way into Dean's heart until the thought of not recovering him was absolutely unbearable. Dean told himself it was because Sam was Bobby's friend, and that meant something, but it just seemed … insufficient to describe the pull in his gut, the desperation to see the kid was alright.

Dean shook the feeling off and concentrated on his approach, eyes wary for signs of trouble.

The closer they came to the mouth of the cave, the harder it became for Dean to breath. A quick glance at John and Bobby showed that they were feeling it, too. The air was getting thicker. An acrid smell hung about them, and Dean could almost feel it seeping into his pores.

Bobby signaled that he was going in. Dean tightened his grip on his stun gun and kept to Bobby's tail.

The passage was narrow, belying the wide and tall entrance. Dean soon had to crouch, and his shoulders brushed against the slick walls. The stone was damp, and all three hunters had to concentrate to keep from slipping. After a few turned corners, the moonlight faded behind them and they were plunged into complete darkness which, paired with the suffocating smell that still filled the air, had them all glancing pointlessly over shoulders hunched against invisible threats. Only the tiny penlight Bobby had in his vest pocket saved them from going completely crazy in the blackness, but, not knowing how far in they'd have to go, Bobby insisted on only using it every few minutes to check their course, trying to save battery power.

The tunnel began to curve down after what Dean counted as three and a half minutes. If it had been hard to maintain stable footing before, now it was all but impossible. To make matters worse, the smell was growing stronger. Dean covered his mouth and nose with his left forearm. He gagged.

John gave a light shove between Dean's shoulders, an order to quiet. Dean complied without protest. They all knew that surprise was their only advantage here. If the cult heard them coming, they would be at the mercy of a bunch of psychopathic murderers; not somewhere they wanted to be.

Bobby turned on his light, and a split in the tunnel was reveal. To the right, it angled further down; to the left, it continued flat, but soon twisted around a corner and out of sight. Neither way was very appealing.

Bobby stopped and glanced back. His face was scarcely illuminated by the muted light, and his arched eyebrow was a silent question. Right or left? Down in the dark or around an unknown bend?

John jerked his head left. Bobby nodded and made the turn, Dean and John right behind him.

The chanting reached their ears first. It was haunting, otherworldly in a way that made Dean's skin crawl, and he had seen and heard some pretty scary shit in his life. It began to pick up in volume as they rounded the corner, growing until the power of it had all three hunters gripping their ears. The sound bounced off the walls, adding to the crescendo; still they pressed on.

Light began chasing shadows across their path, and Dean was a little afraid they'd be found out before they ever set foot in the cult's main gathering space. Some of the burning smell was explained as torches appeared every few feet, illuminating the tunnel and the symbols alternately carved and painted on the walls. Most of it was simple charms, but a few of the things Dean recognized had his skin crawling with the desire to turn tail and run as far from here as fast as possible. But he didn't.

As they finally came out of the semi-dark tunnel and into a large, open, fire-lit room, the sight that greeted them had all three seeing red and moving out of the shadows before conscious thought had even fully registered what they were seeing.

They had finally found Sam Winchester.

TBC