They’re chasing rumors of a ghost ship on the Great Lakes, about as far North as they can get and still be in Michigan, when Dean disappears. He just steps out for coffee one morning and doesn’t come back.
“You want food?” he asks, propping the door with his ankle. “I could see what they've got at the diner across the street.”
“No, just coffee.”
Two hours later Sam can't ignore the cold gnaw of worry when Dean still hasn’t returned. The keys are still in his pocket, because the place with the really good coffee is only a ten-minute walk away, and Dean should be back by now. Sam calls and leaves a concerned voice mail, keeps his eyes open for any hint of where his brother might’ve gone, and continues looking into the disappearance of some ship called Le Griffon that Sam could really give two shits about. He keeps his twitching to a minimum while he interviews witnesses, does his best to focus on the case through the growing unease, and leaves four more voicemails as the day stretches on and Dean's absence persists.
By day two Sam gives up all pretense of investigating the hunt and focuses everything he's got on being really goddamn freaked out about Dean. Because it’s been two days and he still isn’t answering the dozens of calls Sam has left him. By day three, Dean’s cell doesn’t even ring out before sending him to voicemail, and Sam is running out of places to look and people to question.
On day seven, Sam decides he’s had enough. He’s looked everywhere, torn the whole damn town apart in search of something resembling a trail, and he's got precisely jack squat. There’s nothing else he can do here, so he packs up the car and makes a new plan.
An ominous cloudbank has moved in by the time Sam checks out and throws the last of their gear in the trunk. He’s vibrating with seven straight days of panic, about to climb in the car, get his ass on the interstate and pray for the thousandth time that someone at the Roadhouse can tell him anything, when a shrill “Wait!” makes him freeze and turn.
He watches with eyebrows up to his scalp as a small, plain woman runs straight at him from across the parking lot. She looks like she’s barely legal to drink, young and worried beneath flopping bangs, a small duffel swinging wildly behind her as she moves.
She’s a little out of breath when she reaches him, and he watches her tuck her hair out of her face in a gesture of obvious discomfort. She barely reaches his collarbone, and everything about her is small and nervous. Her face schools into an impressive poker face when she looks up at him.
“Are you Sam?”
“I…” Okay, so that Sam wasn’t expecting. He tries to keep the suspicion from his voice. “Yes. Who--?”
“This is going to sound crazy, but… I’ve been dreaming about you.”
“Thanks,” the girl says, diving gratefully into the steaming mug of coffee as soon as the waitress has walked away. She drains half of it in one long gulp, and Sam takes the moment to study her. Her clothes are nondescript but clean: jeans, sneakers, a baggy t-shirt with a ridiculous picture of a rooster on it. Her hair is short and simple, brown and a little messy. He can't tell what color her eyes are, because they're closed as she downs the crappy coffee like she’s going for some kind of record. He clears his throat when she finally puts the mug down, and when she looks at him her eyes are brown.
“So,” he says when he realizes she’s not going to talk. “You obviously know who I am. Who are you?”
“Karen,” she says, dropping her gaze to stare straight into her mug. “My name is Karen. And no, I don’t. Know who you are, I mean. Not really.” She chews on her lower lip and looks like she’s trying very, very hard to decide how much to tell him.
“You said you’ve been having dreams about me,” he coaxes, putting on his most reassuring face even though she refuses to look at him. “Tell me about them.”
“I can never remember much.” She takes a slower sip of her coffee. “Just… your face. Your name. That car. Lots of pieces that come and go before I can really put my finger on them.”
“How did you find me?”
“Accident?” She looks up with the strangest expression on her face. “I thought I was going crazy when I saw you from the road just now. I almost didn’t come talk to you.”
“Why did you?” he asks, genuinely curious and wanting to know everything he can about this girl who just walked up to him and admitted to prophetic dreams. He’s more than a little suspicious, and their track record with other psychics hasn’t been the best, even if they have finally found a couple that aren’t evil, homicidally insane, or both.
Sam sees that look cross her face again, all heavy and careful, like she’s weighing and calculating and gearing up to admit something dangerous. Or maybe to deliver a convincing performance. But there’s something genuine and a little bit desperate in her eyes, and Sam decides to hear her out.
“I know there are… things out there. Monster things. Stuff that’s not supposed to exist, only it does. Ghosts and curses and… other stuff. I even know how to end some of them.”
“How?” Sam asks, tries to keep the surprise out of his voice.
“My dad,” she says, bites her lip again. “He hunted that shit. Taught me everything he could before he went and got himself killed trying to save someone that didn’t deserve it.”
“Doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.” The look in her eyes says it still hurts like hell, but he keeps his mouth shut. Keeps it shut while she steels herself to say something that looks worse and just waits for her to speak again. When she does, her voice has dropped, and he has to strain to hear her over the chatter of the other patrons. “About a week ago my family’s house burned down. None of them made it. I knew I was in danger, so I hitched a ride out of town the same night.”
“Why would you think you were in danger?” he asks, following her cue and keeping his voice low.
“Because I dreamed it,” she says. She follows up with a bark of incredulous laughter, like it sounds crazy even to her, and her tone goes just a little bit manic. “Before it happened, I mean. And they were supposed to be just dreams, but then they weren’t anymore. I’ve been hitching rides anywhere else ever since. And then I started dreaming your face. And there was this sense of urgency and your name, and it can’t be a coincidence that I just found you like this, right?”
“Okay, first? Breathe.” He waits until she does, and he sets what he hopes is a reassuring hand over hers. “Now. What else can you tell me about these dreams?”
“I… I don’t know. They hurt like hell. And they don’t make any real kind of sense, just bits and pieces. But I have to go with you.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s not possible,” Sam says, and he realizes he really is. Sorry that he can’t do anything to help her, that all he can do is exchange numbers and drive away hoping she’ll be all right. He’s got this feeling, like he should be keeping her close and watching her back, but she’ll be a hell of a lot safer if she’s nowhere near him. “It’s too dangerous. I hunt those things you were talking about. And right now I’m… I have to find someone, and I can’t do that if I’m trying to watch out for you.”
Sam’s hand on hers tightens from reassuring pressure to iron grip before he can curb the response, but she doesn’t so much as flinch. He draws his hand away and in a carefully measured tone asks, “How do you know that?”
“I told you. Bits and pieces.” She’s staring at him now, eyebrows drawn and intense. “I can help you find him. I don’t know how, but I know. I think you need me.”
And that look in her eyes is back, desperate and raw and suddenly so open that Sam feels guilty for his suspicions. She’s terrified, maybe at the thought of getting left behind or maybe something else entirely. Even if she’s lying about the specifics, he’s suddenly sure there’s truth in everything she’s told him.
“Please,” she whispers.
“My family is dead, something is after me, and the only clue I have is this dream telling me I have to stick close to you.” She reaches out, her tiny fingers closing around his wrist. “I can help. Sam, please, you have to let me come with you.” Her voice burns with something familiar, desperation and hope and vengeance all blurring together, and he realizes he can’t say no.
“All right. Okay. Yes. But you do as I say the second I say it, even if it sounds stupid or crazy. I’m not getting you killed.”
“You mean it? I can come?”
“Yeah," he says, quirking an eyebrow. "If you were one of the bad guys your story would suck less.”
“Shut up,” she mutters, but it comes from behind a smile so relieved that Sam has to return it. He grins in spite of his trepidation, in spite of the cold stab of worry that hasn’t left him in a week.
“You need to stop and pick anything up from your hotel or something?” he asks her when they get back to the Impala.
“Nope. This is it.” She points to the duffel and Sam feels horrible for asking. Because her house burned down, and she ran away, and of course all her stuff is gone. He opens the passenger door like a proper gentleman, closes it behind her, and prays he’s not making a gargantuan mistake.
An hour passes on the road, quiet and awkward, and out of the corner of his eye Sam can see his new passenger struggling to think of something to say. Her whole frame is tense as she stares out at the road, throwing glances his way every few minutes. Sam doesn’t know what to talk about either, and he nearly groans in relief when she finally opens her mouth to speak.
“Your car is awesome, dude.”
“It’s my brother’s,” he admits.
“Then your brother’s a stud.”
Sam laughs out loud at that, sparing an amused glance to the side and watching the girl, Karen, stroke almost fondly along the dashboard.
“Do me a favor?” Sam puts his eyes back on the road where they belong. “When you meet him, don’t tell him that. His ego doesn’t need the help.”
Karen snickers, a low wry sound that makes Sam suspect she’s got experience with at least one brother of her own. The thought takes him back into unpleasant territory, recent tragedy confessed over coffee, and his smile slips too quickly from his face. He clears his throat, uncomfortable again, and leans more heavily on the gas.
“There’s music. Under the seat.” Sam half expects to be mocked for the box of cassettes, still almost entirely Dean’s collection because Sam has always been content with the radio. Karen just paws her way through them without complaint.
“Any preference?” she asks.
“Nah. Those are my brother’s, too. You can mess with the radio if there’s nothing you want to listen to.”
Karen shrugs, grabs one from the pile and feeds it in. Zeppelin blasts unexpectedly loud, right at the apex of side two's screechiest song, and she yelps and cranks the volume down to something that won’t split their ears from their heads. Her mumbled apology goes unheeded, because Sam is already laughing again. Dean might like this girl, even if she’s not quite his brother's type. Pretty but plain, dressed conservatively and not wearing any make-up at all. Sam supposes the clothes and the makeup wouldn’t have made it out of the fire, and he wonders if she had to steal the small duffel and the things in it.
He forcibly derails that train of curiosity before he can voice any of it aloud, because it’s none of his business. The silence, when it settles back in, is less painful with music running through it, and Sam can feel the tension draining slowly out of the air.
It’s thirty miles and twenty minutes later when Karen speaks again. Her voice is a little hesitant as she asks, “Will you help me train up? To fight and stuff?”
He very nearly yanks the wheel to the side and pulls off the road right there, but he forces his hands steady and levels his stare harder down the lane of sparse traffic.
“You said you knew how to hunt.” He keeps his tone as even as the rest of him, suddenly angry that he let her talk him into this. How is he supposed to find Dean and baby-sit at the same time? He’s got half a mind to turn around and dump her right back in the parking lot where he found her. It's only an hour and a half behind them.
“Yeah, but… it’s been a long time, okay? And it’s not like I ever had to use any of the shit my dad taught me. I just don’t know how good I’m still gonna be.”
Sam breathes in. Breathes out again. Takes an extra deep breath and is about to explain that he doesn’t have time for this when she cuts hurriedly in.
“Look, I know you want to find your brother fast. I’m not asking you to put everything on hold to make me into a fighting machine, and I promise I’ll stay out of the way until I know what I’m doing.” She’s babbling, and Sam can hear terror in it again, the fear that he'll leave her behind, and her sudden panic makes the lecture crumble in his throat. “I want to be able to help. Maybe when we stop…”
His trepidation dials up a notch, and this bad idea is starting to look like death and disaster in the making, but he doesn’t turn the car around. He also doesn’t complain when she reaches out and turns the music up to just shy of deafening, and the interstate rolls dry beneath them.
Harvelle’s is crowded when they walk in. It’s not quite late, and all the regular patrons are buzzed and noisy. Karen sticks close behind him as Sam works his way towards the bar, claims the stool next to his when he sits.
“Sam!” Jo is in the far corner, and she smiles wide from behind a mess of empty pitchers she’s wrestling towards the kitchen. He smiles back, a little forced and stiff, and watches as she deposits her cargo and weaves her way towards them.
“Hey,” he says, awkward but hopeful, because maybe she can help and that's the whole point.
“Where’s Dean?” she asks. Her smile broadcasts poorly concealed hope of her own, and Sam’s starts blowing away in bits.
“I actually wondered if you might’ve heard something.” He keeps his voice low, decides immediately on the complete and total truth. “He disappeared a week ago.” He watches her eyes widen and her face fall, and then her mostly stoic mask slips into place.
“What happened?” Her voice isn't quite steady, and Sam would feel guilty as hell for worrying her if he weren’t so desperate for any kind of a lead.
“I don’t know. He just stepped out one morning and never stepped back in again.” Sam resists the urge to hyperventilate at saying it aloud. “So you haven’t heard anything? Anything at all about Dean?”
“Not that wasn’t about you both. Stuff you’ve been killing lately. Nothing like this.”
“Oh. I guess… thanks anyway.” A dodgy sort of silence settles between them, shattered by the sound of a throat clearing from Sam’s other side.
“Oh! Sorry. Jo, this is Karen. Karen, Jo.”
“Hi.” Karen reaches an arm around Sam and shakes Jo’s hand. “I didn’t mean to intrude. Just wanted a proper introduction. Pleased to meet you.”
“Yeah. You, too.” Jo’s eyes jump back and forth between the two of them, and Sam doesn’t really have the energy to clarify. A busy Harvelle’s isn’t really a smart place for the ‘so I found another psychic’ discussion anyway.
“Is your mom around?” he asks instead.
“In back. You want me to get her?”
Ellen doesn’t know anything either, but she promises to keep an ear out and then gives them both a pint of whatever’s on tap. Jo keeps her distance, busing tables and throwing curious looks their way as they drink their beer in frustrated silence. Karen gets fidgety first.
“So. Now what, dude?”
Sam drops his head into his hand and stares at the notched wood of the bar. “I don’t know.” He can feel the panic stirring around in his gut, and it wants out. Badly enough that Sam throws a twenty on the table and shoves his way to the exit, leaving Karen to follow because no way in hell is he doing this in a crowded bar, especially one with this clientele.
It’s cool outside, the night touched by wind and whispers and the sound of crickets in the tall grass around the parking lot. Sam walks right out into it and straight for the nearest tree. He just stares at it for long, numbed minutes before letting loose with a growl and a punch that leaves blood and skin on the rough bark. He punches it a second time, winds up for a third when an unexpected pressure at his wrist makes him pull up short.
“Stop that, dumbass!” Karen barks, and he drops the undelivered blow. “That’s not going to goddamn help.”
“He’s gone.” Sam’s voice feels harsh in his own head. “He’s gone, and I don’t have the first fucking clue where to look.”
“We should go back to Michigan. Where I found you, that town with the weird-ass name--”
“Yeah. There. We should go back.” She takes a handkerchief out from somewhere and starts applying pressure to his knuckles. The only light out here comes from the moon and the windows behind them, but it's enough for the blood on his hands to glint wet.
“There’s no point. I searched for a week. He’s not there. There wasn’t even a trail to follow.”
“But you’ve got his car, right?” Her voice conveys a calm certainty, a little bit forced but still reassuring, and he feels his blood settle with each word out of her mouth. “So your best lead is still there. We could start searching in the surrounding counties and work our way out. Yeah?”
It might be bullshit, but it doesn’t sound quite so crazy or hopeless when it’s coming out of someone else's mouth. Sam can breathe again at least, and he takes the handkerchief and wipes away what he can of the bloody mess he's made of his left hand. Nothing is broken except skin, and Sam feels a little bit foolish for his outburst.
“It’s somewhere to start at least, right?” Karen presses, tone careful.
“Yeah. Okay. We can do that.” Sam stares at the moon and chews on his lip, reminds himself that his brother is the most competent bad-ass that ever lived. Dean is fine. He has to be.
Sam follows through on their previous conversation, taking the time to help Karen train up with every overnight stop. It’s practically routine after the first week: drive into town, get a room with two queens, search and dig and question until it’s obvious there’s nothing to be found, and then crash out, frustrated and exhausted. The next morning, find an open patch of grass to spar in, preferably out of sight so Sam doesn’t get arrested for battery. On the way out of town, stop and find an appropriate field to practice with the firearms.
The guns turn out to be the easy part. When he first hands her the shotgun, prepared to give a long, boring review on weapon maintenance, she takes it apart and puts it right back together again. She does the same with the other guns he shows her.
In actual target practice, it takes her a few days to get a feel for them. She snaps at him when he tries to give her pointers about how to deal with the kickback and figures it out mostly by trial and error. Once that hurdle is cleared her aim improves almost instantly. In less than two weeks he feels confident that she could watch his back without accidentally shooting him, and he’s relieved to realize that she wasn’t bluffing about how much she learned from her dad.
The hand-to-hand doesn’t go nearly as well. Sam can tell she knows exactly what she’s doing, but only in theory. The technique is unworkable with her small frame, and she simply doesn’t have the muscle mass necessary to hold her own in a physical fight. Sam bests her easily, time after time after time, as she comes at him with attacks she doesn’t have the strength for. Sam doesn’t have to say it aloud, and they’re only in the second town when she starts ending each day with pushups and crunches and laps around the hotel, but there’s no way it will ever be enough.
“Look,” Sam says on day five. “I don’t mean any disrespect to your dad or what he taught you, but this isn’t working.”
Karen snarls and scowls, tightens her ponytail as she rolls up from the grass. Sam crosses his legs a couple feet away and braces himself.
“What am I supposed to do then?”
“You need to fight more defensively. You keep attacking straight on, and it’s not that you’re doing anything wrong, it’s just… it’s never going to be enough against a real opponent.”
“No shit, dude. I still can’t win against you.”
“You shouldn’t be thinking about it like that, winning and losing. You throw a good punch, and that’ll come in handy when you’ve got the element of surprise. But it’s more important that you know how to get loose of a grapple and out of range.”
“You mean running away.” She’s simmering beneath sweaty bangs, frustration pouring off her like sweat. Sam sympathizes, remembers being fourteen and too small and skinny to keep up with Dean when all he wanted was to not be left behind on yet another hunt.
“Retreat is a perfectly legitimate tactic,” Sam points out rationally. “I appreciate that you want to help, but you’re just going to slow me down if I can’t trust you to get yourself out of danger instead of hurling yourself into it.”
Karen huffs, and he knows he’s hit a nerve.
“You’re small and fast. Those aren't weaknesses, Karen. Let me help you focus on that for awhile, okay?” He keeps his tone deliberately gentle and aims for a reassuring expression, watching carefully for her reaction. The look she gives him is indecipherable, until she rolls her eyes and stands back up.
“Christ, you’re seriously worried about hurting my feelings. I’m not that fragile, okay? Lighten up, Sammy.”
“It’s Sam,” he says, automatic reflex and she gives him a startled look. “Sorry,” he mutters guiltily. “It’s… a long story.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She offers him a hand up from the dirt and squints into the sun. “Nothing wrong with long stories. Sam.”
“Have you had any more of them?” Sam asks one night, hours past sunset and figuring out tomorrow’s route on a wrinkled map.
“More of what?” Karen sounds groggy, but sits up from her cocoon of sheets and comforter nonetheless.
“The dreams. Visions, whatever.”
Karen stills instantly and takes a beat too long to shake her head, no.
“I have them, too, you know.”
Another beat and Karen’s eyes go wide in the lamplight.
“You do?” she asks, voice all cautious hesitance and expression gauging.
“Yeah. And there are others. Psychics with other abilities.” She’s watching him, that same measured look on her face, posture gone stiff. Sam's fingers fidget against the table as he tries to decide how much to share.
“How old are you?” he asks her instead. She seems startled by the question, and her expression shifts to thoughtful, like she’s trying to figure out what possible reason he could have for asking.
“Twenty-two,” she says at last, tilting her head to the side when Sam sighs with relief. She’s too young to fit the pattern. Premonitions of fire aside, it’s entirely possible she has nothing to do with the yellow-eyed demon’s spreading apocalypse. Or everything they thought they knew is wrong, which is sort of a terrifying thought, but that can wait. It can wait until they find Dean, and Sam will ask him what he thinks it means.
“Why?” she asks when the sigh isn’t followed with explanation.
“Nothing. Well, not nothing, but… we think something big might be coming, something to do with all the psychics the same age as me. But we don’t know what, and you’re too young to fit the pattern.”
“That sounds like crazy talk, Sam.”
“Maybe. Anyway, hopefully it’s got nothing to do with you. You're sure you haven't had any more of the dreams?”
“Good. That’s… that’s good.” Sam nods, looks at his hands and pretends he doesn’t feel dark eyes drilling into the side of his head. Karen watches him for a few minutes, the room thick with the silence between them. He exhales quietly when he hears her wriggle her way back under the covers.
“Go to sleep, Sam,” she orders, serious tone rendered ineffective by the yawn that bisects his name.
“Good night, Karen.”
The route doesn’t take more than five minutes to plan, but it’s a full hour later when Sam finally kills the lights and crawls into his own bed.
Just west of Greenbay Sam maxes out his second to last credit card. He takes out a P.O. Box, sends in a pile of applications for both himself and Karen, and makes a note to drop through in a couple weeks. He hesitates but eventually tells her what he’s done, and the illegality of the situation doesn’t seem to faze her. Which makes sense, and Sam immediately decides the rooster t-shirt is too ridiculous not to be stolen.
“Do we need cash?” she asks after he fills her in. “We could hit one of those dives we passed on our way in.”
“You want to go to a bar?” Which isn’t an unusual request in and of itself. They've hung out in a couple bars, more frequently as the weeks have dragged on and the urgency of their search has diminished in direct proportion to the rising sense of futility.
“Yeah. I can hustle a couple games, pool or poker or whatever they’ve got going.”
“You know how to hustle.” Sam tries to keep the disbelief from his voice, he really does. Her exasperated expression tells him he’s failed.
“Told you, Dad taught me everything he could.”
“If you know how to hustle, what were you doing hitching around Michigan with a duffel, a week’s worth of clothes and no money.”
Karen steps in close. Close enough that she has to tilt her head back to meet his eyes, deliberately accentuating the size discrepancy between them.
“Look at me,” she says, hands on her hips. “You think I’m stupid enough to go into that kind of bar alone? Let alone take people’s money and expect to get out with my maidenly honor intact.”
“Sorry.” Sam feels sheepish, the moment awkward as his cheeks burn red and he scratches at the back of his neck. “Wasn’t really thinking. So, hustling, huh?”
Karen smirks and grabs his hand, dragging him to the car and hopping into the passenger seat.
“And with a big, strong boy like you to ogle my back and remind me how long it’s been since I played pool? Candy from babies.” Concern widens her eyes as she turns to regard him seriously. “You do know how to ogle, right?”
Which doesn’t really warrant a response, so Sam snorts and throws the car into reverse, backing out over dust and gravel and driving for the nearest sketchy bar he remembers.
Their path takes them in an outward spiral, as much as it can with state-sized lakes in the way, which isn’t actually much of a spiral at all. But they search their way through dot after dot on the ragged map of the Midwest, and weeks turn into months as they work their strange path through two states and part of Canada. Kenosha, Wisconsin finds them an inadvertent hunt, and the fact that people keep dying stops them from moving immediately on to the next town.
“Nothing on-line. You got anything?” Sam clicks his computer shut and cracks his neck.
“It used to be a seminary, or a monastery or something,” Karen says from the bed, buried in the paper research and trying not to look bored. “Sister Margaret Clare. Apparently she took a dive off the observatory tower.”
“That’s what the police said. Some of the students thought she was pushed.”
“I bet. Does it say where she’s buried?”
“Haven’t found it yet,” she mumbles around the cap of her pen.
“Anything I can do?” he asks, reaching for one of the tomes by her knee.
“Nah, I got it.” She bats him away and glances up suddenly, hopeful mischief in her eyes. “You know what you could do.”
“God, woman, are you ever not hungry?” Karen flings the pen at his head, and he dodges with great skill, finesse, and just a hint of a smile. “Fine, you want tacos or burgers?”
“I want donuts. And my pen back.”
“It’s nine o’clock at night! And you can get your own damn pen. I think it landed under the armoire.”
“If you’re making me find the pen myself, the least you can do is get me donuts. A girl needs her strength, dude.” She isn’t looking up any longer, but he can hear the smirk in her voice.
“Fine,” he caves. Throws in a dramatic sigh for good measure as he heads for the door. “Donuts. You better have found that grave when I get back.”
She does find the grave while he’s gone, though a little more literally than Sam intended. He figures this out when, after a humiliatingly long search for donuts, the hotel room he walks back into is empty. He swears under his breath, a long muttering stream of obscenity that Dean would be proud of, and sets the Krispy Cremes down on the bed nearest the door.
A quick search turns up a note saying she’s gone to salt and burn the bones, having discovered the remains are buried in the cemetery just beneath the tower, a whole 10-minute walk away. Karen’s handwriting is clear and neat, all delicate swoops and careful edges and about the girliest script Sam’s ever seen. The grave’s location is copied on the back of the note, and Sam turns right back out the door.
He works himself up into an embarrassingly agitated state of worry as he jogs. This is the angry ghost of a scary nun, buried right in the cemetery where she landed her fall. What if she figures out what Karen is doing and gets pissed? What if Karen gets hurt because he was too busy finding donuts to watch her back? What if she falls from the tower like a dozen previous victims?
But Karen is perfectly intact when he gets there, the fire blazing fresh and new from a grave of soft dirt. Sam hears himself yelling about unnecessary risk and her promise to follow orders, but she cuts him off with a calm “You never told me not to go.”
His rant deflates, and it’s a stupid loophole but it’s true. He didn’t say “wait for me” as he left, and he realizes he’s going to have to step up his guard if she’s going to be such a stickler for semantics. He still bristles a little, the edge of paranoid concern slow to soften.
“Are you all right?” he asks, since he needs to say something.
“Yeah. Got a goose egg from that tree over there, but she didn’t put up much fight.” She grabs up the equipment and starts walking, pausing to wait for him at a tall, phallic tombstone. He shakes his head when she quirks an eyebrow at him, but the last of his anger drains away.
“I can’t believe you took off without me. Don’t do that again.”
“Whatever.” She rolls her eyes at him. “Your brother ever tell you you’re such a princess?”
Sam feels a twinge in his chest reminding him of the gaping hole where Dean is supposed to be right now, but the sensation’s not so unfamiliar anymore and he just says, “Not so much. He called me a girl a lot. Never a princess, though.”
“Well. Congratulations.” She links her free arm through his and pushes the shovel into his other hand. “You’re a pretty-pretty princess, and I still want donuts.”
Sam finally resigns himself to the failure of their plan when he realizes that they've been to literally every town across two states. He doesn’t want to give up on Dean. He can’t give up on Dean, but he has no idea what comes now. The world seems big, chilling and meaningless without his brother in it, and he’s got no direction to go.
Karen saves him via distraction, finding a new gig in southern Minnesota. It’s nearby, looks bigger than the couple of hunts they stumbled into during their mad spiraling trek. A ghoul, or some kind of banshee maybe. Causing a ruckus, terrorizing a quiet neighborhood and, oh, by the way, killing three people a night and leaving their frozen corpses in the street. They don’t so much put it to rest as exorcise it out of existence, and the neighbors are confused but grateful.
It’s not long before their work as a team is solid and efficient, investigating their way from one hunt to the next and keeping a constant eye out for clues that Sam is slowly coming to fear he’ll never find. They stop at the Roadhouse at irregular but frequent intervals, touching base as much as hoping for information that doesn’t come. They’re taking on hunts that might make Sam nervous even with his brother watching his back, coming out thanks to luck more often than not, but Karen likes to get drunk and brag to Jo about their successes, and Jo doesn’t seem to mind.
They picked up the new batch of credit cards before clearing out of Wisconsin, and Sam notices Karen using hers along with her share of the money from hustling to expand from the tiny duffel she’s had since she found him. He thinks it’s a good thing, figures she wasn’t done mourning the fire and her family and her life before. He hopes it means she’s managed to move on if she’s buying new things.
The new clothes she buys fit her better and make Sam feel sheepishly Neanderthal every time he wants to punch a cashier in the face for looking a little too long. She starts wearing makeup, and before long she’s washing her hair with something that smells like tangerines instead of stealing Sam’s shampoo. She looks downright respectable, and it makes getting information from witnesses easier than Sam realized it could ever be, working with a pretty girl that’s so obviously harmless. Sam’s never been fooled by the ‘harmless,’ but it gets harder to ignore the ‘pretty’ with each passing day.
One Thursday night finds them victorious over a vicious nest of pixies, and they visit a bar to get victoriously drunk.
“Good riddance,” says Karen, raising a toast and scowling dramatically. “To all those nasty little buggers, and their goddamn pointy teeth.” They’re already a couple rounds in, so Sam thinks Karen's salute sounds perfectly eloquent and clinks his mug with hers.
“I’m thinking bee suits next time,” he says, waving the bartender down for two more beers. “Or… bio-hazard suits, or gardening gloves or something.”
“No next time.” She grabs for the new mug and shoves the empty one aside. “No how. I’d rather face down three werewolves than deal with another nest of those suckers.”
“Werewolves have pointier teeth than pixies,” Sam points out reasonably. “And claws. Nasty ones.”
“God damnit,” Karen mutters, thumps her head on the table because her logic is broken and she knows it.
“Anyway, it doesn’t hurt anymore does it? Mine don’t. They just sort of itch.” He draws back his sleeve to examine the rows of red dots, arranged in strange semi-circles up and down his arm. He scrubs at his forehead where he knows there are more. “I must look ridiculous.”
Karen snorts into her beer and says, “Don’t worry, Princess. You’re still the prettiest guy here.” Sam decides he likes the way that sounds, even if she does refuse to stop calling him princess, and he deliberately bumps their shoulders together. His timing is bad and he makes her spill all over her elbow, but she steals his drink in retaliation and it doesn’t matter after that.
On the way out of the bar later Sam feels warm and comfortable, and maybe not quite happy but as close as he’s gotten since Dean disappeared. When Karen links arms with him it just feels right to turn and kiss her, wrap himself around her tiny frame and hold tight. She tastes like the dark beer they’ve been drinking, and she kisses him right back.
Until she stops, pulls away with a laugh and says, “Woah there, watch the hands, dude.”
In the morning they’re both a little bit hung over and a little bit cranky, but they pack their stuff and hit the road anyway. Sam tries to apologize, and Karen won’t let him. Just smiles from behind delicate sunglasses that have to be part of the new Karen, because Sam’s never seen them before.
“I didn’t mind, dude. Really. It just… would’ve been a bad idea.”
“Yeah,” Sam agrees, a little sadly. “Yeah, it would.”
They’re near the Roadhouse when a job goes poorly, and it’s a good thing they’re close. Not pixies this time, but goblins, nastier than the lore gives them credit for, and Sam takes three long, angry claws straight across the chest. The cuts go scary deep, and Karen barely drives fast enough for Jo and Ellen to help patch him up. Sam is drugged high but still not surprised to learn that both of them have EMT training. World like this, bar like theirs, it only makes sense, and he fades unconscious as the sun comes up.
Two days go by before Sam is able to carefully haul his own ass out of bed and wander the bar. He sees Jo and Karen at a table in the corner, expressions serious and conversation intent. They both see him at the same time and look simultaneously away. He doesn’t want to interrupt, especially if they’re talking about him, so instead he wanders outside and then lets Ash tell him in great detail how he hasn’t found any sign of Dean.
It’s another week before Sam is in any shape to spend hours in a car and not regret it. In that time he steers clear whenever he sees the two girls in conversation, even when it’s all easy smiles and high laughter. Because Karen has been putting up with him nonstop since they teamed up. The Roadhouse is the only place she really gets any space to herself, and if she and Jo have gotten close then so much the better.
He sees Jo crying once, a moment he definitely wasn’t supposed to witness. Karen gives her an awkward hug in an attempt at comfort, and Sam feels a twinge of guilt in his gut. He’s almost certain those tears are for Dean, and his failure burns that much hotter at realizing he’s not the only one feeling how that piece is missing.
It irritates him just a little. Because there's no way Jo can begin to comprehend the size of the hole it leaves in Sam, not really, but that doesn’t change the fact that he should have found Dean by now. Should have, and hasn’t, and ‘might still’ is getting farther away with each passing week.
When they head back on the road again, Jo gives them a look he can’t read and disappears through the door without waving goodbye.
One night Sam says the words aloud. That he’s starting to give up hope. He feels a little sick for having spoken the words, but Karen looks at him with quiet understanding.
“It’s been months, and all I’ve got of Dean is his car and all his shit in the back seat.” He swallows hard and rubs at his face, stares at the splotchy blue comforter beneath him. “I know he wouldn’t give up yet. I know it, but it’s starting to feel ridiculous.”
He expects her to pat his head and look at him with pity. Maybe try to talk some sense into him, gently convince him to let go and move on. But there’s no pity in her eyes, and when she finally speaks it’s not what he’s expecting.
“It’s okay to hang on, Sam.” She moves to sit beside him on the bed, drawing her knees up. Her face is determined. “He’s still out there. And we’re going to find him, I can feel it.” She reaches out and sets a hand on his arm, warm and reassuring. “In the meantime, we just keep doing what we’re doing. Hunting and listening. There’s plenty of space in the car for Dean’s shit, right?”
Sam sighs, thick and dark and swimming in guilt, and leans back against the headboard.
“I wish you could meet him. You’re just his type.”
That earns him a quirked eyebrow, half a smirk and she says, “Which means what, exactly?”
“You’re hot. You dig his car. That’s two major requirements met.” He says it with a small smile, feeling a little bit warm and a little bit calmer with knowing he doesn’t have to give up yet. She laughs quietly and draws her hand away, cocking her head to the side to watch him.
“I miss him,” he says, the words whispering out of him of their own volition.
“I know,” says Karen, and then her face falls deep and serious so fast that he wonders if smiles can get whiplash. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“Why are you sorry?”
She chews on her lip for a moment before answering, “Because I haven’t figured it out. Because I’m supposed to be helping you find him, and you still don’t know where he is. That’s why you let me come along in the first place.”
“Karen, no.” He sits up, takes her hand and stares her down. “It’s not like that anymore.”
“I know. It still feels like I lied to you. Like I’m lying to you every time I tell you not to give up hope.”
“You’re not lying to me.”
“You don’t know that.” The words are too quiet, send little chills along his spine, but the look in her eyes is open and raw. Sam finally has to look away, scoots until a few inches separate them and leans less dramatically against the headboard.
“When we find him…” when, not if, because Sam isn’t ready to face the other possibility. “What are you going to do?”
“I… hadn’t really thought about it.” Her startled eyes tell him it's the truth, and he tries hard to smile as he works up his nerve.
“You could stay. With us.” It comes out steady, echoing with quiet hope and saying a hell of a lot more than the words themselves.
Karen smiles and looks a little sad and says, “That would be nice.”
Sam can’t tell what he’s supposed to get out of her response, and it dawns on him that he knows nothing about the life he’s keeping her from, dragging her around like he is.
“How come you never tell me about yourself?” he asks, not able to keep the question in once it occurs to him. “I don’t know anything about your family, or what you would do if you weren’t doing this.”
“Doesn’t really matter now.” Karen draws back in on herself, closes off just enough to make Sam wish he weren’t curious. “They’re gone, and I am doing this, and there’s no place else for me to be.”
“Yeah, but… don’t you think it would help? Talking about them?”
“Sammy, please. You’ve been so good at not pushing me, don’t start now. I’m not ready to talk about that stuff.”
Sam shuts up and kind of really understands. He remembers not wanting to talk about Jess. Not even with Dean, and Dean was his own brother, knew as close to everything as anyone ever could. It’s not until an hour later that he realizes she called him Sammy, and he decides maybe it’s a silly thing to be hung up on after all.
Broad daylight in southern Wyoming, birds and bugs making the usual quiet ruckus from the bushes surrounding the parking lot, and Sam kisses Karen again. No bar this time, and neither of them draws back to put a stop to things as they grow frantic and eager.
A pointed cough from behind Sam is what finally separates them. The mother of a small family two rooms over gives them a pointed look as she stops covering her son’s eyes and drags him in the opposite direction.
Sam tries to backpedal later, put some distance back between them, and isn’t all that surprised when Karen puts her foot down and calls bullshit. Problem is, he’s not sure how to explain it to her. That it’s all him, that everything he touches dies and he can’t bear to see it happen again.
“I see what you’re doing,” she bristles, pokes him in the chest. “You don’t get to make this call for me. You don’t get to just decide I’m not taking this risk. I goddamn know you feel it, too.”
Sam refuses to meet her eyes, only manages to say, “I can’t.” He watches her storm off across the street and draws in a shaky breath.
It’s early yet, and there are witnesses to interview. Sam does it himself, because she’ll come back once she’s cooled off. He has to lay on the extra charm, compensate for his lack of patently harmless female companion. The information he gets is good but not great, and he returns to the hotel to wait for Karen’s return.
Except she doesn’t come back all afternoon, and by sundown Sam can’t ignore the worry churning his stomach into pulp. He calls her cell, bought before they went on their first real hunt, and gets no answer. He doesn’t bother leaving a voicemail. Just sits up all night, back stiff against the carved, wooden headboard and arms wrapped around his knees.
Sometime just before dawn it starts to rain, and Sam listens to the downpour beat against the window. It’s still dark with storm when the door slips open, just after sunup, and Karen steps back into the room. She looks soaked and sorry, as if it’s only just occurred to her that Sam might be freaked out by her absence.
He unfolds from his huddle, legs falling flat along the unmade sheets, and stares at the tiny figure dripping waterfalls over the floor.
“Hey,” Karen says awkwardly.
“Hey,” Sam says back, but his voice is quiet and warm and relieved.
There’s an obvious second of hesitation, quickly conquered as Karen crosses the room, hikes herself onto the bed and straddles Sam’s lap, irrespective of the soggy mess she makes of both bed and occupant.
“I’m sorry,” Sam whispers when she leans close.
“Shut up.” And she kisses him, delicate hands sliding into his hair as she presses close. The morning passes in a blur of slick skin and hungry kisses, hands memorizing the contours of each others’ bodies and lips desperate with heat. Sam learns what Karen's legs feel like wrapped around him in an urging embrace, ankles hard against his back. He groans into the skin of her neck when he comes.
They eventually move to the dry bed and nod off, and the middle of the afternoon finds them slow to wake and still wrapped around each other. Sam laughs softly into her hair when he notices that Karen is still out, drowning in the t-shirt he threw to the ground six hours ago. She must have pulled it on while he slept, and the shirt looks huge, ridiculous on her small frame.
Sam smirks when she blinks groggily awake, and kisses her forehead before he goes to take a shower. He sees her roll right back over and close her eyes as he shuts the bathroom door behind him, surprised at how light he feels.
Because it’s the morning after, or afternoon anyway, and she’s still warm and there and alive, and Sam thinks maybe he can do this after all.
They don’t bother with separate beds after that, because Karen looks at him and asks, “Seriously, why?” They keep hunting, keep searching in between, thanks to that stubborn ember of hope Sam isn’t ready to let die just yet.
And one day Sam says, “I love you.”
She doesn’t say it back, but her face cracks instantly into a wide, goofy grin, and he decides that’s a response he can deal with. He starts saying it a hell of a lot more often, just to see that look.
Karen has been in his life for a year, and he’s been introducing her as his girl for more of it than not, when Sam comes to a decision he thought he’d never reach again.
He doesn’t buy a ring. Because he’s smarter than that, and more than suspects she’ll run for it if he comes at this the wrong way. It will take tactics, patience and possibly a crowbar, but Sam knows with 20x20 certainty that he has to try.
He attacks in the middle of an afternoon, research spread across the bed between them.
“So I’ve been thinking.” He knows she’ll recognize his very-serious voice, and he doesn’t look up when the sound of ruffling papers tells him she’s set her work aside.
“Usually a bad idea,” she points out, something he can’t quite read echoing behind the words, when he doesn’t immediately continue. “And?”
“And I don’t want to hunt forever. For awhile longer, yeah. There’s shit I can’t walk away from, and I can’t give up on Dean yet, but…” he trails off and swallows past the nervous lump in his throat. “Anyway, I want to stop hunting someday. And find somewhere safe to start a family and…” He stops again, twists his fingers around in his lap for a minute before finally, finally getting the words out, barely above a whisper. “Karen, will you marry me?”
When he finally looks up, she’s frozen halfway through reaching out for him. Her eyes are wide with surprise, and her jaw hangs low. It’s about what he expected, and he actually smiles in quiet amusement when the shock persists.
“You don’t have to answer right now,” he quickly assures. “I don’t want you to until you’re sure. Just… think about it?”
She doesn’t respond, of course. Sam wasn’t expecting her to, doesn’t have his hopes set on an answer any time soon either, and he lets it go. He knows she'll think about it, and if he pushes, he all but guarantees she’ll shoot him down.
Sam's not always good at the game of waiting patiently, but when it matters this much, he's a pro.
When Karen starts to withdraw in the weeks that follow, Sam doesn’t fight her on it. He knows he’s just dropped a big one on her, and she needs to process and figure things out. Hell, for all he knows she’s already married, and the thought turns his insides to goo for two straight days.
It's not long after when Karen starts disappearing on him for hours at a time. She always leaves a note, or tells him she's heading out. "Just taking a walk," is all she says when he asks, and he finds himself perpetually torn between frustrated and terrified. She's never gone longer than she predicts, but she starts to wear a quietly haunted look in her eye that freezes the blood in his veins.
Eventually, Sam makes an excuse to visit the Roadhouse. He’s sure there won’t be anything new and useful to learn, either about Dean or a potential hunt, but he wants to put Jo and Karen in the same space again. He hopes talking to someone not him will help, because Karen has drawn so far away in the past couple weeks that he can barely see her through the murky haze of things that are eating at her.
As they pull up into the gravel pit that serves as a parking lot, Karen levels a serious look at him and says, “I know what you’re doing. And you don’t have to, I’m fine.”
“Look, I don’t… I don’t want you to think I’m being impatient.” Because that’s not what this is, and he’s not sure when he started to be this freaked out by the fact that she isn’t telling him anything anymore. “But I’m worried about you, and I know you can’t talk to me about what’s bothering you or you would have by now, and this--”
“It’s not what you think,” she cuts in, voice quick and a little bit off.
“It’s not… Sam, I’ve been thinking about what you said. I have. But that’s not what--”
“I want you to stay,” he cuts her off. Doesn’t mean to interrupt, but he suddenly needs to say it before the world crashes down around him.
“Huh?” Her eyes find him, her face befuddled.
“If you’re going to say no, I don’t want you to think you have to leave. I want you to stay.”
“I love you.”
But this time the words don’t win him the instantaneously wide grin of every previous repetition. This time the smile is small and weak, and maybe even a little bit scared. But it’s there, and Sam tries not to feel terrified as his hands go clammy on the wheel.
“I love you, too,” she whispers.
Sam gapes. Whatever else he might’ve been expecting from this train wreck of a conversation, that wasn’t on the list. He can’t find words or sense or anything else through the shock. She turns and looks at the Roadhouse directly ahead of them.
“Let’s just get out of here,” she says, and Sam doesn’t really know what to say.
So he silently complies. Just picks a direction and they go, and Sam recognizes the tingle in his stomach as hope. He wishes like hell she would talk to him, but she said the words, and Sam realizes just that moment how grateful he is to finally hear them.
They drive straight through the night and stop at a coffee shop with a pile of local newspapers the next day. A quick search finds them a potential hunt, then a convenient hotel to crash out in.
The first day of their investigation passes uneventfully as they narrow their search down to an anonymous corpse in an unmarked grave somewhere north of town. Their hotel is crappy as ever, most of their research has them digging through old missing persons reports and obits in the library, and Sam pretends it doesn’t bother him to see Karen so quiet while they work. When she disappears for three hours on day two, he just holds her close when she comes back and can't think of anything to say.
On day three, buried in a binder of death certificates lifted from the county courthouse, Sam finally finds the answer.
When his “Aha! Here we go!” gets no response, he looks up and sees Karen asleep in her own pile of the research, spread all across the bed amidst old newspapers and crumpled paper.
He decides not to wake her. It’s the middle of the night, and she hasn’t been all that successful at hiding how tired she’s been lately. Sam doesn’t blame her. Whatever it is she’s not talking to him about, whether it’s his offer or something from her past, it doesn’t surprise him that she hasn’t been sleeping well. The grave is in a tiny cemetery, unmarked but beneath a giant willow, and he knows this will be an easy one. So he leaves her a note and heads into the night to salt and burn the bones himself.
When he gets back to the room, dragging mud and dirt and a little bit of ectoplasm with him over the threshold, the sun is coming up and he’s carrying coffee. The room is empty, which sends his heart into a moment of stuttering panic before he sees that his note has been flipped over and recycled.
“Gone for a walk. Back for dinner,” it reads, in Karen’s soft, sloping script. Which could mean either lunch or supper, and either way she won’t be back for hours. But if she needs that much time alone and away from him, Sam tells himself he doesn’t mind. He drinks both coffees, because hers will just get cold, and dives into the menial tasks that follow a successful hunt.
At two that afternoon, Sam has just finished packing up a load of laundry to take down the street when the door opens and the impossible steps through it. The laundry bags flop from his startled hands and he whispers, “Dean!” in a disbelieving breath.
“Sammy.” Dean's voice sounds small and wrong.
“Christo,” says Sam, taking a cautious step forward. But Dean just keeps staring at him, and even if his brother had gotten himself possessed, Sam knows he would have heard about it. They've certainly spent enough time at the Roadhouse in the past year. Which means there’s nothing to combat the surge of pure relief at the sight of Dean, whole and alive and real.
It takes another five minutes of staring, Dean just standing there staring right back, before Sam manages to shake free of his shocked stupor. Once his limbs again acknowledge his commands, he strides straight over and wraps Dean in an enormous hug.
The touch makes Dean go instantly stiff in his arms, but Sam clings, all stubborn relief, until Dean relaxes and returns the gesture.
“God, Dean, where have you been?!” Sam’s voice is a harsh whisper against his brother’s ear, and he chokes on an upsurge of every fear he’s felt in the ragged months since Dean’s disappearance. “I thought you were dead, I thought--”
“Easy, tiger,” Dean says, slips automatically into protective mode and soothes the cascade of too many warring emotions. He pats Sam on the back and runs fingers through his hair, all calm reassurance that he’s right here, and Sam finally manages to breathe.
When he finally lets go, it’s to move for the window and glance outside, sheepishly rubbing his eyes dry. He knows the grin that spreads across his face is wide and stupid, but he also knows he doesn’t give a shit how ridiculous he looks. Dean is back, the raw edges of the world smoothing out with his return, and Karen will walk in any minute now and see it was all worth it. The moment is too thick, too much, too goddamn perfect, and Sam doesn't even try to meet his brother's eyes.
“There’s someone you have to meet,” he says instead, tries to keep the shiver of too much relief out of his voice as he brushes the curtain further aside and scans the street. “She’s not here right now, but she’ll be back soon. I… Dean, I asked her to marry me. You’ll really like her, man. She--”
“Sam, will you stop already?” Dean cuts him off, eyes red and voice wrecked when Sam startles and stares at him. He stops short and watches Dean war with something inside his own skull.
“Dude, you okay?” Sam asks, approaching with quiet concern. “You look pale as hell. Maybe you should--”
“Karen’s not coming back, Sam,” Dean snaps.
And Sam's world tears to a ragged halt.