Dean strode down the Chicago street, hands deep in his pockets, shoulders hunched against the cold wind. The light changed and he stood huddled on the street corner. The isolated pause, with nothing but the noise of wind and traffic in his ears, gave the memory the chance to ambush him once more. It wasn't far from here, where it happened. A few blocks over, maybe. He hadn't quite engraved the city's street map onto his neurons yet. Just a regular street, residential district. Not even a part of town where you watched your back and maintained tactical distance from everyone nearby.
The case had been a cake-walk. Vengeful spirit teamed up with a poltergeist. Salt, burn and talk that poor messed-up kid's parents into investing in some heavy-duty therapy for her. Done. They were on their way back to the car. He couldn't remember what they were talking about. Post-concussion amnesia, the medical type called it. Whatever. He remembered the important part, the horrible part. The screech and bang of a speeding car jumping the curb. Sam's scream. Figures he wouldn't have gotten that part knocked out of his head.
Or the next memories, of Sam almost bleeding out on the sidewalk before the damn ambulance got through traffic. The days on days in the hospital. The big chunk of lost muscle that maimed Sam's thigh. The infection that scared the hell out of everyone till it cleared. The solemn verdict that his brother would never walk right again. That he was facing weeks in a wheelchair, then more on a walker, then maybe crutches, all with a side order of heavy physical therapy. And after that? They'll replace his knee joint and he'll get to start it all over again, so that if he works hard and is real lucky, he'll end up walking with a bad limp on a stout cane.
The light changed, and Dean trudged on. He had to find a job, any job. Their time in one of the hospital's charity apartments was ticking down to hours now. He did not want to have to wheel his brother into a friggin' homeless shelter. It was bad enough to walk out that door and leave Sam alone and largely helpless now, in a nicer place than they'd stayed in for years.
“Hey fella. You sure look like you could use a friend.” The male voice was friendly sounding, maybe even sincere.
Dean turned to see a young Asian guy sitting on a stoop, holding a couple of pudgy, wiggling puppies up under his chin.
“Got some right here,” the fellow grinned. “Your BFF for life, guaranteed.”
Dean started to shake his head, brush the guy off with some friendly come-back. But memories jumped him again.
“Please, Daddy! He's small! He won't eat much! I'll take care of him, I promise!” Sammy clutched the grubby little puppy tight to his chest. The little dog craned its head to lick under his chin.
John's face softened, but there was sadness in his eyes. “I'm so sorry, son. I wish I could say yes, but I can't. It's not what's best for the little guy. We live on the road, and in motel rooms, son. Most of them won't allow pets, and it would be cruelty to keep him shut up in the car all the time. Dogs need room to run, and grass and dirt to dig in. We just can't keep a pet right now. Maybe someday, when we can settle down again.”
He reached for the puppy. “Let me have him, Sammy. I'll take him to the Animal Shelter. They'll clean him up and feed him and find him a real good home.”
“You'll make them promise?” Sammy's grip on the puppy loosened, but he didn't obey just yet.
“I will,” John nodded.
“I want to go with you.” Sammy got that stubborn set to his face and Dean held his breath. “So I can see it myself, and make sure they ain't lyin'.”
“Ok, son. That's kind and brave of you. Let's go.” John gave Sammy's shoulder a squeeze. “Dean, you comin'?”
“No, sir. I'd rather stay here.” He didn't want to see all the dogs in cages. He didn't want to see Sammy's face when he saw all the dogs in cages.
What he did see was Sammy's face, looking back at him as they pulled away. It was the same forlorn, lonely expression he'd seen on Sam's face this morning, looking down on him from the apartment window as he'd left for another day of begging for work.
A sharp yip drew him out of his forced march down memory lane. He looked down to see a plump little puppy straining to drag its belly over the top of the cardboard box that corralled it and its litter-mates. With one mighty heave, the pup tumbled free and landed on the toes of his boots. It jumped up to put its paws on his shins, its curly little tail waggling to a blur.
How could he not pick it up? He had to keep it from running out into traffic or something, right? The little dog was soft, and warm and so very, very alive and happy. It gave eager little whimpers of joy and wriggled in his hands. Dean found himself cradling it against his chest, and the puppy mumbled canine endearments and licked him sloppily about the chin.
“That's the pick of the litter,” the man grinned, setting the puppies he'd held back down into the box. “Smart and lively and real affectionate. Looks to me like your decision's been made for ya. You want to take him? Free to a good home, dude. Take care of him, that's all I ask.”
Instead of “No, thanks,” or a laugh and a joke and a re-boxed puppy, Dean found himself tipping the little mutt over to check the undercarriage. “A boy, huh? That's good.”
He did have one last misgiving. Well, two. “How big's this guy gonna get?”
“Oh, not too big. About this high,” the man indicated a spot on his shin just below the knee. “Maybe twenty pounds, max?”
“Uh... He'll really be my brother's dog. If he doesn't want it, will you be here later?”
The man shook his head, his friendly expression taking on a harder cast. “Nuh uh, dude. This is a one time only opportunity. You take that little man with you, he's yours. Your brother don't want him? You gotta give the puppy away or take it to the shelter or something.”
Oh, what the hell. Wasn't like they were living in the car any longer, and how much could one small puppy eat, anyway? “Thanks, I guess.”
“Best friend you'll ever have, I promise.”
No, that spot was already taken permanently. Dean tucked the puppy into his coat for warmth and headed on up the street to the car. He did wonder what the hell had come over him. Maybe it was part of that whole post-concussion deal. At least it would give Sam something to think about besides his busted up leg and regrets.
Sam had pulled his wheelchair up to the table and was staring at his computer screen, head propped on one hand, a listless, dreary expression on his face. He barely glanced over when Dean came in.
“Got you something,” Dean rattled one of the paper bags he had in his hand.
“Yeah, thanks. Set it on the table. I'll get to it in a minute.”
Sam never had an appetite these days. Dean was pretty sure he'd thrown out more of Sam's picked-over food lately than what Sam had eaten of it. “But first you have to play the take-out lottery. What'll it be? Bag number one?” He flourished the big paper bag containing Chinese food. “Or bag number two?”
“Dean,” Sam grumbled, lifting his head to look at him finally. His annoyed frown turned suspicious. “That bag is moving.”
“Bag number two it is!” Dean plopped it into Sam's lap, careful of his bandaged, brace-caged thigh.
Sam drew back on instinct, then grabbed for the wildly rocking bag before it pitched itself off onto the floor.
“What the?!” Sam reached into the brown-paper grocery bag and pulled out the puppy. He held it up, face to face, and the little dog yipped and wiggled, its tongue flapping in a futile attempt to slobber all over Sam's nose while its little corkscrew tail beat against his fingers.
Any misgivings vanished then, because Sam laughed. Not a grin, not a wry chuff, not a short chuckle-- but a full-on, eyes-crinkled belly laugh. How long had it been since he'd heard that?
“Where did you get him?” Sam grinned, eyes still bright. He set the pup on his lap and it climbed the front of his shirt to stick its head under the edge of his t-shirt collar.
“Some guy was giving them away in front of his building,” Dean shrugged. “I figured you could use some company while I'm out pounding the pavement.”
“We can really keep him?” Sam blurted, and for one eternal second he looked nine, not twenty-nine.
“Sure,” Dean shrugged. “I remember how you always wanted a dog.” He sat down and opened up the food.
Sam actually picked up a set of chopsticks and put food into his mouth. The puppy braced its paws on the edge of the table and whined. Sam picked out some meat from the box of almond chicken and put it on the lid of his to-go cup.
He deposited the pup on the tabletop beside it, and they both chuckled at the mumbly noises of delight the little dog made as he gobbled the treat down. “He's got your table manners.”
“At least he didn't land in the middle of the moo-goo gai pan,” Dean grinned.
“He'd clean it up for us,” Sam shrugged, and his smile flickered an instant before coming back full-power.
“What're you goin' to name him?”
Sam ran his hand over the pup's back and gave him more chicken and a dab of white rice. “Well, I've already fed him and held him and squeezed him, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to love him-- so I'll name him George.”
It was Dean's turn to feel nine again. They were watching Bugs Bunny cartoons, sitting on the worn carpet with big bowls of Froot-Loops in their laps.
“What are you going to name him?” Dean asked, pointing with his spoon at the dirty, scrawny puppy curled up on a towel in the corner.
'...I will love him and pet him and squeeze him and name him George!' the goofy monster on TV exclaimed while man-handling a struggling Bugs.
“George!” Sam crowed with a laugh. “Hey, George! Come 'ere, boy!”
The puppy jumped up and took a running leap from his towel. Right into Sam's cereal bowl. Sam blinked away milk and looked at Dean, wide-eyed and shocked. The puppy jumped out of the bowl, which turned it over and Sam sprang up, soaked to the knees and spotted with colorful soggy o's. Pretty much just like George.
Dean laughed so hard, milk came out his nose. Sam relaxed then, and started laughing too. George wagged his skinny string of a tail and cleaned up the mess. Well, most of it. Then he peed on the rug....
The puppy licked the cup lid clean off the edge of the table and then peered into the abyss to watch it land. Dean softly whistled and it scrabbled across to him, paws sliding on the slick surface.
“I'll tell you one thing,” he said as he laid a piece of beef in front of George II. “We can't afford to keep feeding him Chinese. If you're up to it after we eat, look up one of those Pet-Marts and we'll go get him some food and a collar and stuff.”
“I'm up to it,” Sam nodded, and he did look perkier than he had in weeks. “We can take him with us. I think those places give puppy shots and wormer, and he needs those too.”
Three hours later, Sam was inserted back onto the front seat, George was bouncing back and forth across it dragging his new leash, and Dean wheeled the shopping cart to the back to load the bags into the trunk. One small puppy might not eat much, but buying food, and a collar and a leash and a ball and half a dozen other accessories for one small puppy bit a bigger chunk out of their dwindling cache than Dean was comfortable parting with.
“Hey, Dean-- how 'bout us and Georgie-Porgie here go find some pie before we head back?” George climbed up onto the back of the front seat and barked at him through the window like he was seconding the notion. Sam smiled, then laughed out loud again.
Crazy little mutt was worth every red cent.
Almost to the second after they got back into the apartment and unloaded, Dean's phone rang. He didn't recognize the number. He stuck a finger in his ear against George's excited barking as he answered.
“Is this Mr. Dean Relf?” the woman asked, her voice professional and cool.
“This is Ms. Jones, from the HR department of Collins' Construction. I'm calling in regard to your recent interview.”
He hardly dared hope, but why else would she call? “Yes ma'am?”
“We were impressed with your experience and references, Mr. Relf. Would you be able to report to work Monday at six AM?”
“Yes ma'am!” he answered with a massive sense of relief. She gave him a few details of where to park and where to report, then he hung up.
Sam let George win their game of tug this time. “Good news, I hope?”
“You better believe it! I got a job, Sammy-- a great one!” He let out a whoop of joy and slapped hands with Sam and George jumped and bounced like a wind-up toy.
Two days before their housing deadline, Sam came wheeling out of the physical therapy room with a big grin on his face. Which was a first, considering that it was pretty much medieval torture in there for him still.
“What happened,” Dean chuckled, and leaned closer. “Fall face first into those spectacular knockers finally?”
Sam shook his head. “Sadly, no. But this will last longer-- she gave me a lead on an apartment. Handicapped accessible, rent-controlled and pets-allowed. She called already and talked the landlord into holding it for us until we can go over and take a look.”
Dean's eyebrows rose. “I know what she does for you, but damn, Sam-- what have you done for her to rate that?”
“I dunno,” Sam shrugged and popped a wheelie as they went down the hall to the elevator. “Irresistible charm under pressure, maybe?” He gave Dean a wink.
Dean trusted runs of good luck far less than he trusted runs of bad, but he wasn't about to question this streak too closely. Wasn't like they weren't long over-due for their fair share of decent fortune. Maybe the cosmic tide had turned for them. Maybe leaving the life was what they were supposed to do-- even if they had to be pushed out of it, literally thrashing and screaming.
The apartment was better than they'd hoped, old and furnished with equally worn and shabby furniture but clean, and spacious as most pre-war spaces were. Rent-controlled was the part that had them signing on the dotted line, though, and they probably would have even if it had been some cat-piss perfumed roach motel for that price. George marched through the apartment the day they moved, growling with his fluffy hackles up, checking out every corner and cranny. Dean rushed ahead of him, checking all those nooks and crannies for mouse traps, mothballs, rat poison, or anything else left behind that might get the pooch in trouble.
Once they were pretty sure the place was puppy-proof, they let him alone. George dragged a section of a month old Tribune into the bathroom onto the tile and squatted. He was praised lavishly for his genius and rewarded with liver bits.
Life settled into a routine for them, then. He went to work, Sam went to therapy. George got a semi-official wink and nudge as a 'therapy dog in training' so he was a constant passenger in Sam's wheelchair and then learned quickly where his best spot was, when Sam graduated to a walker. Shortly after that, Sam found a job too, ghost-writing for web-sites. The irony of that job title wasn't lost on either of them.
“Damn it, George!” Sam removed the pup's paws from the keyboard for what felt like the tenth time in as many minutes. “Go lay down!”
George gave him full-bore wounded eyes instead, then reached out a tentative paw and inserted cxxxxxxxxvxcv into Sam's document.
Undo. Save. Sam sighed, and gave in to the inevitable. He opened a blank file. “Look, mutt. You want to type? We'll type.”
He plopped George onto his little rump in his lap, and took the pup's fore-paws. One toe at at time got gently pressed to type 'Sam loves George,' as he spelled it out and then read it back to the dog. “There? Happy now?”
As soon as his paws were released, George hopped down and went about his own business. Sam closed the file and went back to his.
The noise of ripping paper didn't register until Dean came in from work. “Dude! Your dog is shredding my porn!”
George came barreling around the ottoman, a section of a torn page clamped in his teeth, one printed with a large red M and part of a silicone-enhanced breast. He made a break for Sam's bedroom. Dean was in hot pursuit. It was Dean who let out a yelp, though.
“What the heck--” Sam heaved himself up and clumped his way with his walker across the apartment.
Dean was staring down at George. “Sam-- your dog can spell.”
George dropped the fragment with the M. It landed at the end of a ransom-note rumba line of other scraps wobbling over the carpet.
G E O R G E L O V E S S A M
“I know you've been teaching him tricks, but... whoa. This is... way beyond stupid pet tricks. This is at circus-act level,” Dean said. “But did you have to teach him to rip apart the anniversary issue of Busty to do it?”
Sam shook his head. “Dean, I didn't teach him this. Come, sit, shake, roll over and speak is as far as we've gotten.”
George looked up at them both, tongue lolling, tail wagging, obviously pleased and expecting lavish praise and probably generous offerings of liver-bits. Dean pivoted and flung the closet door open. He dug through one of the duffels and came out with the EMF detector. He pointed it at George. It screamed like a banshee, the lights solid and the needle pegged.
Sam dropped onto the bed and groaned. “Oh no. George, what are you?”
Dean snatched up George by the nape of the neck. “We're sure as hell gonna find out.”
George let out a frightened yip and squirmed, but Dean didn't let him go. He grabbed up the duffel with his other hand and headed for the bathroom.
“Dean, don't hurt him!” Sam followed as fast as he was able. He got into the hall in time to see Dean drop George none too gently into the bathtub.
“I'm sorry, Sam,” Dean told him, as George scrabbled against the porcelain behind him. “I know I brought this thing in, and you've gotten attached to it. Hell, I'm attached to him too-- but whatever he is, he's no dog.”
“That doesn't mean he's dangerous!”
Dean gave him a scathingly skeptical glare and turned back to George. He flung a splash of holy water over the dog. George sneezed and shook his fur but he didn't smoke or burst into flames.
George obviously didn't like the taste of the salt Dean forced into his mouth then, but there was nothing at all supernatural about his reaction to it touching his tongue.
“Enough!” Sam roared when Dean drew his silver-plated knife.
“I wasn't going to cut him. Much.”
Sam squeezed by him, the walker making a pretty effective barricade. He scooped up George. “How about not cutting him at all? Here, give me the damn thing!”
Dean handed the knife over. Sam stroked George, crooning to the little... whatever... until George stopped shivering. He laid the flat of the knife against the patch of bare skin on George's belly. There was no reaction whatsoever.
He handed the knife back without comment. Dean slid it into the sheath. “So, whatever he is, it's nothing we've encountered before.”
“Right. And there's no reason to jump to the conclusion that he's something ferocious in disguise,” Sam gritted. “Dammit, Dean, he's slept in my bed for weeks now and been with me almost every waking minute!”
Dean reached out to George. He wasn't surprised that George growled and showed his teeth, but he was surprised, and maybe a little guilty, that George whimpered when he kept petting him, and pushed against his hand, as if trying to say he was sorry.
“Tell me again where you got him?” Sam asked.
“From some young Asian guy. Japanese, maybe. He was sitting on a stoop and he had a box of these puppies, giving them away. There was nothing that set off my weirdometer. I figured they were just mutts, y'know, the result of an ambitious neighbor dog getting through their fence or something. Maybe a chow or a husky, some mix like that with something smaller, since he said George would only hit about twenty pounds.” Dean shook his head. “I'm gonna go see if I can find the dude. You... keep that thing locked in the bathroom till we find out what it is. Would you at least do that, please?”
“Sure.” Sam waited until Dean left, then made his way slowly back to his computer, George trailing in his wake, his curly little tail unwound and tucked up between his hinds. Sam dropped into his chair and George whimpered again, looking up at him with doleful eyes.
“Come on up. I still trust you.”
George bounced up into his lap, careful as always of the sore spots. He grumbled doggily and curled up in Sam's lap.
“I've always thought you looked too refined to be a mutt,” Sam murmured. He brought up Google and on a hunch, typed in 'dog breeds Japan.' “Hey, there's only six,” he informed a sleepy George. Out of those six, one he eliminated right away as it was a mastiff type that looked more like one of those wrinkled dogs from China. Three of the others turned out to be too big, and another was eliminated because they were always white. But one was a perfect match. Some of the puppy pictures could easily have been of George himself.
“Well, squirt, you're a Shiba-inu,” Sam reported. George yawned. Old news to him, Sam supposed. “But there's not one word about Shibas being literate or setting off EMF detectors. Anything you want to share, boy-- just between you and me?”
George tucked his nose up under a paw and went to sleep. “Guess I'm on my own, then.”
Sam typed in 'dog supernatural Japan.' As he scanned the first few pages listed on the engine, he shook his head. “Fastest solve ever. But I still don't know what we need to do about you....”
When all else fails, sleep on it. Sam gathered up George and made it over to the couch. He stretched out, and George snuggled in beside him. Sam was asleep almost as fast as he was.
“Why am I not surprised?” Dean muttered when he walked back in and saw George curled beside Sam on the couch. George lifted his head and gave one short bark, then hopped down, stretched and came over begging for a scratch behind the ears just as he'd always gotten when Dean came home.
Before he thought better of it, Dean obliged. “Hey! You found anything?”
Sam snorted and roused up. “Yeah, I did. Did you find our mystery monster-pusher?”
“Vanished into thin air, him and his live-in girlfriend, right after we got George. Left no forwarding address or clues to where they were headed.”
“Oh.” Sam glanced down at George. “Eww.”
“Eww? Why eww?” Dean stepped around the little dog as if George had suddenly turned into George-waste-product.
“Take a look at those pages I printed out.”
Dean grabbed them out of the printer and dropped into his chair. He read, his face drawing up with every page. “Oh this is just nasty! You're thinking he's half-human?”
“It fits best,” Sam nodded. “Though I don't know if he's technically half-human. It sounds more like some sort of supernatural embryo transfer.”
“Oh, like that's any prettier,” Dean scoffed, dropping the sheets like they were fouled. “Holy shit, can you imagine what that poor girl must have gone through? Giving birth to puppies?”
“She had to know. It says the eldest daughter of every inugami-suji-- the bloodlines possessed by an inugami-- would give birth to a litter of inugamis on her first pregnancy, instead of a human child. Even today, in some parts of Japan, families will search a potential bride's heritage to make certain she's not inugami-suji.”
“But she might not have known. I mean, how much do most people walking the streets know about their heritage? Regardless I doubt popping out puppies is an event that makes the family newsletter. Either way, man, it's disgustingly creepy and sick.” He eyed George with more distaste than before. “How do we dump this little freak?”
George deserted him to scamper up onto the couch and wedge himself in behind the shelter of Sam's back.
Sam felt pretty uneasy, and even he wasn't sure how that uncomfortable feeling was portioned out over this spectrum of unpleasant concepts. “I don't think we have any reason to.” He felt his shoulders draw up closer to his ears. “Or even if we can.”
“What?” Dean leaned forward, and his expression never boded well for anything that came after. “Are you telling me we're stuck taking care of some... dog-spirit-demi-god whatever for the rest of our lives?”
“George's life,” Sam put in quickly. “I don't find anything that indicates inugami live much longer than normal dogs. But yeah, we may be stuck with him. It's said that they're very intelligent...”
“Obviously. The dog freakin' reads.”
“And loyal, and protective. They bring prosperity to their owners.”
“Oh crap. Our jobs. This apartment. Figures that was too much good luck to be chance. Ok, hit me with the b-side.”
“B-side is, they were originally created as deliverers of vengeance. Once they destroy the target they're sent after, or if they're angered or mistreated by their owners-- they can possess their owner.”
“Oh, that's just friggin' great! Haven't we been down that road enough for ten or twelve lifetimes already?”
“True. But there's an upside even to that. It doesn't sound like the inugami takes total control like a demon does. In fact, it grants the person it's inhabiting fast healing and perfect health.”
“With the low, low price tag of?”
“Acting like a dog. Sometimes.”
Dean dragged his hand over his face. “I don't know whether to laugh, cry or throw up.”
“How about we both take a breath and think this through,” Sam offered. “Look, we're not going to send George to rip out somebody's throat, so the vengeance caveat is off the table. We're certainly not going to mistreat the little guy, and unless you start slinging him into the bathtub and shoving salt down his throat on a regular basis, I think we can rule out pissing him off to epic proportions. So, he probably will never feel the need to possess either of us.”
“You're saying it's all A-side for us?”
“Looks that way to me, yeah.”
George poked his nose out from behind Sam's back. Dean glared at him and George retreated back into his makeshift cave. “Ok, there is one other aspect to this we-- well, you, especially-- need to think long and hard about.”
Sam tilted his head with a puzzled frown. “What?”
“If I'm reading the lore right,” Dean tapped the discarded pages, “Then owning an inugami automatically makes you inugami-mochi-- which means, when you marry and have kids, you've also set up a cozy little inugami-suji to keep the species perkin' along. Right?”
Sam nodded. He'd thought through this too. Didn't mean he was any more comfortable discussing it-- or even thinking about it.
“Now, how are you-- or I-- supposed to explain to some unsuspecting woman that if she hooks up with us, she might well have grand-dogs instead of grand-babies some day?”
“I'm twenty-nine, and permanently disabled. You're thirty-three and have had what, one relationship that lasted more than a month? I don't think that's a scenario we're gonna have to deal with.”
“If that thing--”
“Whatever. If George keeps bringing us luck, Sammy, I wouldn't count on the whole monastic future plan working out for you.”
“True, but he doesn't officially belong to me.”
George slid out from behind Sam and slithered down off the couch and across the floor as if on a ninja raid. He eased himself up onto Dean's chair and inserted himself between thigh and chair arm, just as he'd done every evening.
“You sure about that?” Sam smiled.
“Shut up.” Dean kicked the pages off the ottoman onto the floor.
Right as he dropped his head back and closed his eyes, Sam dropped the last bomb. “We do have one other, more immediate concern.”
“What's that?” Dean groaned, barely slitting his eyes.
“You said there were what, two other puppies in that box?”
“Three.” Dean's head came up so fast, it probably bordered on whiplash. “Oh no. Oh hell no. Yes, we ought to round 'em up, but we are not keeping them.”
The puppy eyes he got then didn't come from George.
“Sam, we're NOT.”