Leaving Wyoming, they'd had a purpose, but no plan. Sam did most of the driving, needing to occupy his hands and his senses while he racked his brains for an idea, any idea. Sometimes the road had its own magic, a way of drowning everything unimportant in mile markers and exits and eighteen wheelers, so that the important things could bleed through. All the knowledge he'd been acquiring for almost a quarter of a century, all the knowledge their dad had collected and scrawled in his journal: somewhere in there was the solution, just waiting to make itself known. He let Dean sleep, curled against the passenger door with a jacket pillowed under his head, and tried like hell to cough up a miracle.
He tried, once, to call the crossroad demon himself: waited until he knew Dean was three beers deep at a bar and then went to a place where two dirt roads came together, right-angled. He'd spraypainted a devil's trap around the spot where he buried the box with the graveyard dust and his bikini inspector ID, then carefully swept it over with more dirt and stood in the center. He had an exorcism in his back pocket and no idea how he'd keep the bitch from climbing out of hell again, but he figured the first wave of attack was packing her back home. But she didn't show. The grassland surrounding him whispered, sounding like laughter, and he felt eyes on the back of his neck, maybe the echo of fingernails caressing his cheek. She herself never appeared.
He didn't tell Dean about it, but there were a few things he wasn't telling Dean, things like how he kept waking in nightsweats from dreams of their mother and the yellow-eyed demon, or from dreams of Jake. There were just some things Dean didn't need to be focusing on right now.
Without a plan, their sense of purpose dwindled. Instead of charging triumphantly through the country with Dean's salvation in hand, they put salvation on the backburner and drifted from job to job to job. There was always something they couldn't turn away from, not and continue to look themselves in the eye. In this brave new world, on the other side of the opened gate, the demons and spirits were winning. He and Dean tracked each lead with the grim determination of the last men standing, the only ones left who could do the job -- which, Sam supposed, was almost exactly what they were.
He kept his eye on the lodestar, though. Sometimes Bobby and Ellen called to give them names of contacts they thought could help, none of which ever actually panned out; sometimes they called just to touch base. Sam was polite and appreciative, but secretly hated the feeling they were just counting down, investing what they could of themselves before time ran out. Dean -- well, Dean refused to acknowledge there was anything to count down at all, not seriously, anyway. The second time he made a joke about getting under Halle Berry's skirt before he kicked it, Sam carefully closed his laptop, walked over to where Dean was sprawled on the motel bed clicking the remote, and shoved him to the floor.
"Don't joke," Sam said. "Don't you fucking dare, Dean."
Dean's eyes went round, his mouth slack. Sam could see the half-second of wanting to push back flicker across Dean's face; Sam clenched his hands into two fists, ready for it. But Dean just shut his mouth, hauled himself to his feet and knocked his shoulder into Sam, deliberately, on his way out the door.
There was no joking after that, but there wasn't any talking about it, either. Just Winchesters as usual: breakfast in the motel's diner, research at the county records office, a fire in the town's sole graveyard. Sam knew they would talk eventually, once he'd exhausted all of their options or, for Christ's sake, figured out what to do. But that was a turning that could go either way, 50/50, left fork you're definitely fucked, right fork you're only probably fucked. And until then he was fine with the silence, the limbo. For once, he could see wisdom in not acknowledging the dead end until you were about to crash into it.
That non-confrontation had happened in Oklahoma, a state where even just a stop on the panhandle for a job could drive a man bugfuck. They had two. Before they left Bobby directed them to an exorcism, something they hadn't had to do since the one that had graced Sam with a faint silvery burn mark on his arm and Dean with a bullet scar in his shoulder. It went like clockwork, the demon relinquishing the little girl before they'd even chanted the spell twice. But just before it happened the demon looked straight at Sam with its black eyes and said, dripping with sweet venom: "Have you begun to see the dead yet, dead one?"
In Texas, Dean took the wheel and, without consulting Sam, drove south until they hit the stretch of I-10 where you could do eighty legally. Speed limits didn't really mean anything on the unpopulated highways of the west, but if there was a thing Dean detested possibly more than anything supernatural, it was a Texas state trooper's car crouched on the side of the road. He opened the Impala up with a vengeance, window down, elbow propped, one hand gripping the roof of the car. The wind of the open road rushed in and Sam thought he could actually feel the air between them clear.
But his mind kept circling backward, to the question the demon had asked him.
Texas was broiling, summertime in the south. Hot enough to ride shirtless, backs sticking to the leather seats, sweat trickling into their waistbands. Winchesters didn't deal well with heat so unforgiving; they functioned better with layers, leather and denim and heavy boots. Dean bitched and moaned about it incessantly, and finally just stripped all the way down to his boxers, grinning cheerfully at Sam's disgusted exclamations whenever his fly gaped open.
Sam would have suggested they take a job up north, Maine or something where they'd never actually been. But that smelled a lot like "gotta see X before I die," and for all the mutual hatred between Dean, the heat, and the Texas highway patrol, Dean seemed happy enough to just wander for a while.
They were on the ferry to Galveston, sweating in their clothes again, when Sam blinked and realized where they were. "You know what? We should go to New Orleans," he said.
"Hmm?" Dean was leaning against the railing, staring out at the low sun reflected in the water. "Why?"
"Because if there's any place to get out of a deal with a crossroad demon, that's it. All those hoodoo practitioners, there's gotta be someone who's managed it before."
Dean looked at him for one long beat, then said, "Okay."
They were between credit cards. When the ferry deposited them on the island, they parked by a beach and sat on the sand, working through a six-pack of Shiner Bock bought with the last of their hard-hustled cash. Feeling renewed rather than homeless, Sam leaned back on his elbows in the warm sand, watching a cloud of fireflies in the brush. He thought maybe now they would talk, now that they were closer to a crossroads of options, but Dean just kept taking swallows of his beer, liquid slinging in the bottle, lips smacking. Sam didn't break the silence.
In the morning, the sun rose over the Gulf of Mexico and washed the dirty beach in pink and gold. Sam packed their empty beer bottles back into the carton. Dean led the way back to the car, scratching at a mosquito bite on his hipbone.
Sam got on the phone to Bobby for potential contacts in New Orleans, who promised to dig up what he could. Dean just grunted when Sam reported this to him, and started up the car.
Sam hadn't been back to southern Louisiana since he was a teenager. The roads here were practically all bridge, elevated above the nonstop swamp and algae, dark green vine-choked cypress rising from astonishing bright green water. Not two years earlier the water and wind had come in and laid waste to the land. Dean had seen it just after the hurricane, hunting a voodoo witch doctor taking advantage of the chaos, not knowing that in the meantime their dad was giving him the slip. Sam himself had been on-campus, observing the student rallies and blood drives and fundraisers, still weeks away from dreaming about fire. Dean looked out the window now and whistled. "Man, looks like it's growing back almost exactly the same," he said. "Guess you can't keep the Big Easy down."
Louisiana was where the demon's question was answered. For over a year now Sam had been waiting for the knife to fall with his powers; after Wyoming he'd thought -- maybe -- it was all over. But Louisiana was where things changed. Louisiana was the gateway to the Old South, crammed with the sad angry spirits of slaves, victims of lynchings and highway robberies, women in white walking every other moss-shadowed blacktop, old grandmothers and children who'd died of malaria, yellow fever, dysentery. Sam saw and felt all of them, every single spirit, even the lost ones who hid in the trees and didn't care about being known. They felt the way a moan sounded, chills deep beneath the skin.
Dean's voice got gruffer and gruffer. He stopped asking if Sam was all right, and instead just stopped them completely, at a plantation-turned-lodging an hour from Baton Rouge. It took a while for Sam to get out of the car. Dean had to pull his hands down from his head, sock his shoulder into Sam's armpit and wrap his arm around Sam's waist, working him out from the front seat and onto his legs. "Think you've been putting on weight, Sammy," Dean said. "Stop stealing my damn cheese fries."
"Shut up," Sam managed, teeth chattering. "You're the one who's been flashing the man tits and done-lop for a week now."
"Been checking out my hot body, huh?"
They stumbled into a room at the far end of what looked like a former slave cabin, mostly under Dean's power. Dean dumped Sam onto a thin, mildew-smelling mattress, where he lay there staring at the walls and creaky ceiling fan. "Hey," Sam said, "I thought we were out of plastic."
Dean's voice, coming from somewhere on the other side of the bed, was short. "Always keep one in reserve. Just in case."
Sam had sand in his clothes and his skin was still salt-sticky. He thought about yelling at Dean, saw a girl in a coarse cloth gown emerge from one wall of their room and disappear through the other, just a hairsbreadth from where Dean stood unpacking their duffel bags -- and didn't.
"This isn't right," Dean said. He sat on the edge of Sam's bed, one hand on Sam's shivering shoulder. "We killed the demon. Why's this Haley Joel shit still happening to you?"
"I d-don't know," Sam said, eyes closed, and right then, he didn't much care.
"You still cold? How can you be shivering when it's like a hundred degrees right now?" He felt the back of Dean's hand against his forehead, the metal of his ring warmer than Sam. "You're not feverish or anything."
"'m not sick," Sam said. His teeth chattered. "'s the spirits, not me."
"Yeah, strangely, that doesn't make it sound any better."
Dean yanked the covers down beneath Sam and pulled them back up over him, then stretched out on top of the covers and draped one arm over Sam's chest, where he was shivering the most. Dean was sweating like a stuck pig, sideburns dark and clumped, and he smelled like it, too. But despite the heat, he scooted closer to Sam, pressing his body right up against Sam's side.
"This isn't hugging," Dean warned. "You get any ideas, and I'm feeding your ass to the Swamp Thing." After a minute he started humming, so quiet it was almost tuneless: Some Kind of Monster.
Sam was too wiped to laugh. He tried to focus on Dean's voice above the cacophony of spirits, the one thread of sound that, on any other occasion, he'd totally be giving Dean shit for. What a destiny, indeed: his sanity kept intact by Metallica, his nostrils filled with mildew and brotherly B.O. He reached up and clutched Dean's forearm, tight.
Dean thought they should stay for a while. Sam protested. "I don't need to gather my strength, Dean, I need to find the person who's gonna help us break your contract."
Dean was digging into a to-go container of shrimp and grits, his whole mouth slick with butter. He ignored Sam, slurping around the plastic spoon. "Eat your breakfast. This is tasty."
Sam wasn't hungry at all, even though it'd been almost twenty-four hours since their last meal, but he took a bite under Dean's unsubtle scrutiny. It was rich, spicy, the shrimp coming apart tenderly in his teeth. It tasted like sand.
Dean waited until Sam had swallowed down three spoonfuls. "Look, you can't even function," he started again.
"I'm fine, okay, it just...took some getting used to. I'm fine now."
"Yeah, well, it's daytime now. You know, you didn't start feeling really fucked up 'til the sun set. Makes sense, if there aren't as many spirits around 'til then."
Sam looked out the screendoor at the parade of people walking beneath the trees, dappled with shade, flickering in and out of the sun. They were singing hymns. Still singing, they climbed the steps of the white church on the edge of the property and disappeared inside. As he watched, the church burned to the ground, the congregation screaming and panicked, the doubledoors nailed shut, white-hooded men on horses waiting at every window.
"It's not just at night," Sam whispered.
Dean took one look at him and put down the food, then took Sam's and put that down, too. He hauled Sam to his feet, got him into the bathroom, started running the shower.
"New plan," Dean said. "We get out of Louisiana completely. We don't ever come back." He pushed the shower curtain aside and stuck his hand under the stream. "I got it pretty hot. Think you can wash yourself without falling down?" he asked. "Because I haven't had to give you a bath in about twenty years, and I was kinda enjoying my retirement."
Sam starting pulling off his shirt. "I'm good. Get out of here." Dean went.
He was not, in fact, good. He was pretty much the opposite of good. He leaned against the wall of the shower, letting the scalding water hit him where it could, managing to get shampoo in his hair and soap on his face before his hands fell limply down to his sides. Then, after about fifty years, he cut the water off and padded back into the main room, where Dean had tossed a change of clothes for him on the bed. He could hear Dean just outside the screendoor, opening the trunk, rummaging. The room was empty of their stuff already, except for one food container sitting pointedly on the dresser.
The shower actually seemed to have cleared his head some. He forced down a few more bitefuls of grits, then pushed out onto the cabin porch. Bright sunshine punched him in the eyeballs. He squinted. In the distance, he could hear the hymns again.
"Let's move some ass, sasquatch," Dean said. "If we hustle we can get three states away by tonight. We haven't been to Georgia in a while."
"We're going to New Orleans," Sam said, coming down the steps and shouldering past him.
"Uh, no, we're getting the hell out of here and going someplace that isn't crawling with spirits."
"And where is that exactly, Dean? 'Cause people've been dying all over America pretty much since they first got here." Sam opened the driver's side and slid in.
Dean reached out and caught the door before it could close. "Hell no, Sammy. Move over."
Sam shook his head. "Gimme the keys."
"You're not driving my goddamn car."
"And we're not going to goddamn Georgia."
Dean made an exasperated noise. "How can you want to stay here?"
"We gotta stick to the original plan, Dean. We don't have time to waste anymore."
Dean attempted to glare him down, but to keep arguing about it would mean talking about it. Eventually he just shook his head and said, "Fine. We're going to New Orleans. But I'm driving. You're in no condition."
"How do I know you're not gonna just--"
"Jesus Christ, Sammy! If I say we're going, we're going!"
Sam tried to keep a watchful eye anyway, but he dozed off before they even reached Baton Rouge. The car rumbled beneath him, the sun browned his elbow, and suddenly he was dreaming about Jake. He saw Jake lying in the middle of a desert, combat fatigues blending into the gray and brown. He was bleeding out, gasping. The thirsty sand took the blood from his wounds, hiding it like it had never been. Sam knelt beside Jake, said, Here, let me help you with those, and dug his fingers into Jake's flesh, over and over again, working the bullets from his body. He tossed each one to the ground, where the sand swallowed them. His fingers were bloody all the way to his top knuckles, darker around his nails. Jake screamed and bucked the whole time, and Sam just held him down and said, This will all be over soon.
Sam jerked awake, banging his arm and knee against the door.
Dean glanced over at him, still driving. "Hey man, you okay?"
"Yeah, I--" Sam said automatically. He scrubbed a hand over his face and through his hair, which was already lank and sweaty. Took his hand away and stared at it, turning it over to inspect the unmarked skin.
"You need a haircut, dude," Dean said. "I mean, maybe the shaggy 'do was okay when we were kids, but I made Dad chop mine off when I was six."
Sam ignored him. A green sign whizzed past, announcing New Orleans 10.
"Bobby called," Dean said. "Gave us a name and an address."
"Yeah? Who is it?"
"That's the thing -- Bobby doesn't know her personally, just by reputation. Woman named Adele Navarro."
"I don't remember her from Dad's list of contacts -- you ever heard of her?"
"Nope. But apparently she's pretty connected -- Bobby thinks she can at least point us in a good direction."
"Well, we should trust Bobby," Sam said.
"Sure." Dean shrugged.
Sam stayed quiet for the approach into the city, trying to shake the dream. He hadn't thought about Jake in a while. The first couple of weeks after, every twinge in his back was a reminder, the sight of the wound over his shoulder in the mirror fading from deep purple to greenish brown to, finally, a thin white scar. Then the hunts had come fast and furious, and Sam was too tired to think about anything anymore but getting to the end of each day. The gun kicking in his hands, Jake's hoarse pleading, the way his body had jumped from the impact -- the triumph that had funneled through Sam, the way his mind now skittered from that like a spider -- these had faded from him, just like the bruise.
So he'd come back from the dead and killed a man in return for being killed. High stakes exchanged for more high stakes, on and on it went. Sam knew how Dean's personal economics came down on the matter: Jake had gone darkside, Jake had reaped the rewards. But Dean had also gone to a crossroad to buy Sam back, for the price of one life discounted by a single year, and Sam knew Dean's economics just considered that a long time coming, just other debts coming due. When the time to pay up rolled around, Dean wouldn't be hiding from the hellhounds behind a line of goofer dust, no matter what Sam did. He'd go, and like their dad, he wouldn't just be proud to do it -- he'd be fucking content.
Unfortunately, Sam was unaware of any further plans to let spirits out of hell in the coming year. Their dad had pretty much cashed in on on the only lucky break. Sam shook his head. Their lives were fucked up.
On the radio, Steve Perry was wailing about how the road ain't no place to start a family. Sam thought: you think? while Dean thumped the steering wheel in time with the guitar, oblivious.
He'd been right about New Orleans -- it was cooking. If people had been dying all over America, New Orleans was the ghost town capital. The dead dripped out of buildings, asphalt, sidewalks, doors. Sam wondered if every person who met their end here somehow got snagged on the earth instead of escaping. He gaped at a trio of teenage boys waiting for the light to change, completely oblivious to the chain of prisoners passing through them, deathmarching toward the river. He was still racked with shivers, swaddled in a hooded sweatshirt and jacket while Dean sweated through his T-shirt and stole glances at him, never asking exactly what Sam could see.
They stopped at another light and a woman standing on the corner, grayed out and flickering, locked eyes with Sam. She stepped off the curb, coming straight toward him, and thrust a bloody butcher knife through his open window.
"Fuck, drive!" he hollered, wrenching his body away from her. "Drive, Dean, fucking Christ!"
Dean floored the accelerator, leaving a trail of angrily honking cars in their wake. "What the hell? Sam, what the hell happened?"
Sam gasped and clutched at the dashboard, fingers scrabbling. "A spirit -- she saw me. I think she saw me seeing her."
"You acted like she was trying to grab you or something."
"She was trying to do a lot more than that." He explained, voice shaky, then said, "I mean, we haven't -- we don't know if they could hurt me. Maybe they haven't physically manifested yet, like the kind we hunt, but if I can see them...."
Dean didn't look at all pleased to hear that bit of speculation. "Shit."
"Yeah," Sam said. He ran his hand over his face. "I forgot about the homicide rate in New Orleans. And on top of all the history...."
"Hey, my vote's still outstanding for Georgia -- kudzu and Hotlanta, dude."
"No," Sam said grimly. "We need to do this first."
Adele Navarro lived in a narrow, graying shotgun house in Bywater. She was a tall, dark-complexioned woman, almost Dean's height, with a sharpness about her that got even sharper as she took in their appearances. The angle at which she'd initially opened her screendoor got noticeably more acute before she said, finally, "Help you?"
Sam could practically feel Dean ratcheting up the charm, unfurling what he thought of as his panty-dropping smile. He cut in before Dean could open his mouth. "Hi, my name's Sam Winchester, and this is my brother Dean. A friend gave us your name, thought you could help us out with this problem we have." He looked meaningfully at her.
She frowned at Dean, who was still grinning pleasantly. "Y'all better be talkin' about needin' directions or somethin', because I don't need the law to take care of perverts. I can do that myself."
The grin vanished from Dean's face. "We're not perverts!"
Sam hurried to interject. "No, we heard that you help people with problems that are more, um, supernatural."
The screendoor didn't move. "That ain't me. You lookin' fa Mawmaw Adele. My grandmother."
"Is she here? Can we talk to her?"
"That'd be kinda hard. She passed about twenty-five years ago now."
He and Dean exchanged confused looks. "But, the person who told us about her -- I'm sure he would've heard that she died."
"Yeah, he prob'ly did."
"So then, how would he have thought she could help us?"
"Because y'all don't talk to her yaselves. I do."
He and Dean exchanged even more confused looks. From Dean's expression, Sam pegged him as very near the "okay, scratch this shit" stage of negotiations. With a tone of infinite patience, Dean asked, "O-kay...how?"
"By talking to her spirit," Adele said, equally patient.
Ten minutes later, over glasses of bitter, overbrewed iced tea, Adele was still frowning. "Hold up a second. Y'all want to break a contract with a demon?"
"That's pretty much it," Sam said.
"Can't be done. Crossroads demons don't change their terms."
"One did," Dean said.
She arched one dark eyebrow at him. "And that's why you in the shit pot right now. You made one go against its nature. Bet it couldn't wait to get you trapped like a rat."
Dean gave her a dirty look.
"So, uh," Sam said, "do you think your grandmother could help us?"
"Maybe the Almighty could. Don't know about any lesser power."
"Well, we're not exactly on speaking terms with the Almighty," Dean said, and got to his feet. "Thanks for the drinks."
"Wait," Sam said. "I know you said you don't do stuff like this, but we were told that you -- or your grandmother, I guess -- were connected. And maybe you're right, maybe this is an impossible thing we're trying to do, but we can't just give up. We have to exhaust every possibility. Can't you at least ask her?"
Adele chewed her lip. "She might get tetchy if it ain't somethin' real. Spirit deserves some peace and quiet after twenty-five years."
"We won't take more than ten minutes of her time, I swear. Just please." He looked at Dean, hovering by the screendoor, ostensibly ready to take off as soon as Adele said no.
"Well," Adele said. And closed her eyes.
The little house had been sweltering, the ice in their tea gone as soon as Adele set the glasses on the coffee table. She had left each door open, front and back and inner doors all in a line, so that whatever breeze the house managed to catch could pass straight through the column of rooms. The day being breezeless, though, Sam had begun to feel the heat again, sweating beneath his layers. But as soon as Adele shut her eyes, the front and back doors slammed (Dean jumped and cursed) and Sam felt goosebumps rise all over his skin, a cool breath of air.
There was an old woman standing next to Adele. She put a gnarled hand on Adele's shoulder, brown as a walnut, mottled with age spots. "Mawmaw," Adele said. "There's some people here to get some counsel."
"Sam?" Dean said.
Sam nodded, suddenly hoarse. "Yeah, I can see her."
"You got some kind of sight," Mawmaw Adele said. Her voice was creaky-warm and lilting, like a rocking chair on a porch burnished by afternoon. "You like me, when I was still spittin' and breathin'." She smiled, deep crows' feet at either side of her large dark eyes, and a fine white set of teeth that Sam somehow doubted were ghostly dentures. "Kinda throws you fa while, don't it?"
Adele's eyes flew open. "Y'all didn't tell me y'all could see spirits."
"Not me, it's just him over there," Dean said. He crossed his arms and made no move to sit back down.
Mawmaw Adele patted her granddaughter's shoulder. "This one here can't see nothin'. She only got the hearing. But she been deaf to any spirits 'cept me since she was born."
Adele raised her eyebrows. "That's a blessing."
"Kinda thing happens more'n you think," Mawmaw Adele explained. "When the thing bindin' a spirit to a place does the same to a spirit and a person. Usually it's ya family -- that's how you know it's strong." She patted Adele's shoulder again.
"Well, it's nice to meet you, uh, ma'am," Sam managed.
"Same," Mawmaw Adele said. "And same to ya brother over there, despite he can't see or hear me." She smiled again. "I just like talkin' to a new face. Everyone comes here, they only talk to Adele. Gets lonely."
"Well, if you were gettin' tired of my conversation," Adele said crisply.
"Oh, hush, boo. You bein' rude in front of company."
"Do you know why we're here?" Sam asked.
"I do, fa sho. You asking to change the rules. Not ya boy over there, he knows good and well a contract's a contract. Only you, thinkin' you above it all somehow."
"No," Sam said. "I just think it's a contract that never should have been made in the first place." He avoided Dean's eyes.
"Well, to my mind that's somethin' y'all oughta take up amongst yaselves, instead of tryin' to bend the world to y'own will. Think you the first to want to break they word to a demon? Boy, I lived in N'awlins for eighty-four years before the cancer took me. I seen all kinds, and you no more precious than any."
"Maybe we're not above anyone else, but we hunt evil," Sam said. "Dean saved a man from a bad contract just last year. That's what his whole life has been about, ever since we were kids. I mean, it's gotta count for something."
"All ya brother does is what anyone should be doin'. My advice is, make ya peace, and don't spoil his last days cryin' 'bout somethin' can't be done."
"So you won't help us?" He hadn't realized it could actually be a physical sensation, his heart sinking.
Adele shifted nervously beneath her grandmother's hand, looking between Sam and Dean. "Mawmaw...maybe you could just ask somebody?"
"Waste of time and conversation, people tellin' me what I already know."
"But they got nowhere else to go."
Sam waited a breathless, hanging moment while Mawmaw Adele looked down at her granddaughter, the silence swelling like a water droplet. He tried to still his hands, clutching his knees so hard his knuckles turned white. Dean, shut out from the conversation, shifted in the corner.
"I can't promise anythin'," Mawmaw Adele said finally. "But I'll put the word out, see if I hear somethin' could help you."
"Thank you, that's all I--" Sam started, but Mawmaw Adele interrupted him.
"But y'all best not mistake: this is a soul on the table here, this is life and death and spirit. That ain't small dealin's. Every time a soul gets traded fa somethin', it skims somethin' else off the top. Means ya soul just a little bit less when it's done. And I already told you, didn't I, that ya brother's soul ain't no bigger than anyone else's."
"No, ma'am, I got that," Sam said. He finally, finally dragged his eyes up to meet Dean's, carefully expressionless now except for those things he could never, anymore, hide from Sam. "We got that. This family's done with making deals."
Adele and her grandmother directed them to a Father Ory, a priest who was running something of an unofficial halfway house for spiritual offenders. "Whatever the fuck that means," Dean griped, taking corners more sharply than was strictly necessary. Sam actually thought it sounded fitting -- if he and Dean were anything, he supposed, it was halfway kind of people.
Father Ory was a fifty year old black man wearing paint-spattered jeans and a T-shirt that said, Practice abstinence: Say NO to Bush and Dick. "Y'all must be Sam and Dean. Mawmaw Adele told my poltergeist y'all were gonna pass by."
"Uh," Sam said. "Yeah, that's us. Pleased to meet you. Thanks for letting us crash here."
"Well, sure, I wouldn't turn away anyone in need. C'mon in, we got plenty of room for y'all."
It certainly didn't look like it. There were all kinds of people in the house, lounging on the lumpy sofas with books or watching the fuzzy TV, two groups playing cards at either end of a long dining table, others just milling around, apparently aimless. Most of them were older, closer to Father Ory's age, but Sam spotted a few who seemed as young as teenagers. Nobody looked twice at Sam and Dean as they followed Father Ory into the depths of the house. He got the distinct impression of people keeping to themselves and their own business, occupied well enough with their own particular burdens.
"Hope this'll please," Father Ory said, stopping in a doorway.
It was approximately the size of a shoebox, the two twin beds forced so close together by the walls that the only entry was to climb over the wrought iron frames at their feet. Sam knew he'd be sleeping with his knees bent tonight. "This looks great," he said. "We really appreciate it."
"Toilet's down the hall. If y'all get hungry, anything in the kitchen's up for grabs if it ain't already marked."
"Thanks," Sam said. "Thank you."
"Also, if that poltergeist comes botherin', just tell him he don't want to do that, otherwise I'ma have to reckon wit' him. Sometimes he don't like new people, but I keep him around 'cuz he keeps off other spirits."
Sam had noticed that it was remarkably warmer in the halfway house than pretty much anywhere in the city besides the Navarro house. "Will do," he agreed.
"Y'all take care now."
Sam slung his duffel on the floor and reached up to tug the cord on the ceiling fan. It started to turn, desultory, doing little to disturb the thick, musty air. Dean dropped his own duffel on his bed.
"Well," he said, not looking at Sam, "that was a day. Gonna go take a leak."
Sam bent to his own duffel, joints popping in his back like a string of firecrackers, then straightened slowly with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt in his hands. The twingy ache around the stab wound was long since gone now, but he still tried to treat it carefully, with respect.
He got out of his sweaty, dirty layers and just stood for a moment in his underwear, listening. He could feel Father Ory's poltergeist somewhere in the house, like a murmur in another room. He recognized the feeling now for what it was, probably knew more about it than Missouri Mosely ever could. But it was far enough away that he could push it down, background noise, and move on to other things.
Re-clothed, he got out the journal and searched for a blank spot to write on. With all the hunting they'd been doing lately, they were going to have to add some clean pages soon. Most of the handwriting that wasn't their dad's was his; when Dean wrote things, they tended to be terse, nondescriptive, hard to use for reference later when they were in a pinch and needed to know exactly how many vials of holy water, or whether iron just repelled a thing rather than being fatal to it.
He'd just found a place big enough to start an entry on Adele Navarro, sideways and crowded against the rings in the binder, when Dean came back. He shut the door behind him, walked right up to Sam's bed, and stood waiting there until Sam looked up.
"You know something?" Dean said, his voice hard and flat as a highway. "If I had to do it over, I would. I wouldn't hesitate, no matter how many times. So why don't you give it a goddamn rest about how it was such a goddamn fucking bad deal and now you gotta fix my goddamn fucking stupidity. I got exactly what I wanted."
Sam closed the journal over his finger. "I didn't," he said quietly.
"You weren't around to be asked."
"Which is bullshit. When Dad did it for you--"
"When Dad did it for me he was trying to protect this family. And that's what I was doing, protecting you. Maybe that's never meant a damn thing to you but--"
"What the hell? Why do you think I'm doing all of this? Just 'cause I'm not falling over with gratitude that you're gonna die in seven months doesn't mean I don't care, Dean. It means I fucking well do."
In answer, Dean hauled his duffel off his bed and started rifling through it. His whole body was a snarl.
"Dean, I told you before, protecting this family? It's not just your job, okay, you can't keep holding that over my head like it's something only you can do."
He started scrambling to his feet when Dean abandoned the duffel and made for the door again.
"Where are you going? Dean, we're talking here--"
"Out," Dean said.
Sam reached, before he could think, and grabbed Dean's arm. "Look. It doesn't mean I'm trying to undo what you did. I don't want to die, either, okay? The whole point is that we both walk away from this."
Dean said, roughened, "And if we both don't?"
"Not even an option."
He sort of expected Dean to let him have the last word and for that to be it, the thing finally hashed out between them. But Dean pulled gently away, leaving Sam holding empty space. "I'll be back in a few hours," he said.
His footsteps faded down the hall. Sam just stood and stared at the closed door for a moment, then sighed, got back in bed, and thumbed open the journal again.
When they'd started this, he'd been resistant to the idea that they were a team, that they could excel at anything other than what was important: finding their father and the yellow-eyed son of a bitch who'd killed their mom and Jess. Hunting was something Dad did, something Dean did with Dad, something that used to interrupt Sam's schoolwork whenever they dragged him along as lookout or to carry the extra weapons or to drive when they were both too injured. It was never something he and Dean did on their own, because Dad had always deemed it too dangerous -- better to lock one or both of them in a salt-fortified motel room before he'd let them hunt unsupervised. Not that Sam would have wanted to then, but Dean got quick-blooded and hot-blooded as he got older, bitingly resentful whenever he was stuck babysitting his high school-aged brother while Dad went out to blast some shit back to hell.
When hunting finally did catch up to Sam it was only because things were dangerous enough that he and Dean had to do it themselves, because Dad had disappeared to hunt down the truth about Sam. True, he'd learned pretty quick at Stanford, after the second time something on campus sent him to the occult stacks in the library and later, to the student health center where he lied about falling down a flight of stairs -- technically he had, but he didn't tell them he'd been thrown -- that it wasn't so easy to shake the knowledge and the customs Dad had stamped onto them. The patterns had gotten beneath the skin, might as well be engraved. And yet still, when Dean came to lure him away, he'd been surprised at how easy it was to slip on the full mantle, to be everything Dad had been as a hunter, and more.
It was Jess, of course. After she died, Sam got what drove Dad to do the job, he understood it, but he'd never quite understood how Dean was the other side of that coin, how it wasn't just hero worship and blind faith that made Dean get in the car to drive down each lead. Sam had grown up half-convinced his love for his family was simply default -- he loved them, sure, but it wasn't as if he'd had a choice in the matter; it wasn't enough to inspire Dean's brand of unswerving loyalty. He tried to tell Dean that, just before he left for Stanford, but he didn't have the words and Dean didn't have the notion, and it was like speaking in foreign languages: over before they could get started.
And when Jess died--
He remembered telling Dean, before Dean spun his wheels toward Indiana and Sam stormed off to find a bus to California, that Dean couldn't possibly know what losing her had felt like, that their mother was so long ago it didn't even compare. He hadn't understood until they both lost Dad, together, how it wasn't the time and distance that mattered: it was the person, the shape of the exit wound they made in your life, the way it warped everything that came after. So you didn't choose your family, so what? Once one was lost, all you wanted to do was hold on tighter to whoever was left.
He didn't realize he'd fallen asleep until he opened his eyes in the darkness and heard the springs creaking in the other mattress as Dean climbed into bed. He smelled like cigarette smoke and sweat and cheap perfume. He was close enough for Sam to hear the soft wet sounds of his breathing, the little click in his throat as he swallowed.
"Everything okay?" Dean murmured, and Sam realized, of course, that Dean could hear him, too.
"Yeah," Sam said. "Go to sleep."
Instead, Dean reached over the narrow gap between their beds and pawed drunkenly at Sam's face.
"Dude, gross! I don't know where that hand's been! Did you even wash after?"
"Shut up, Sammy," Dean said. "I wasn't doing that." His hand drifted down to clutch Sam's shoulder. "You're sure, right, you're sure we're okay."
"Yeah, Dean, we're all right. Go to sleep," he repeated.
Dean was breathing heavy and deep in less than a minute. He shifted, and his hand started to slip from Sam's shoulder. Sam caught it before it could fall.
Adele didn't contact them at all for two days. On the first, they scrounged some breakfast in the kitchen, sitting on the wide porch steps licking their spoons clean of cold jambalaya, and Dean said, "Hey man, this chick at the bar last night was telling me about some ghost steamboat you can see right after the sun sets. Said it was a ways upriver. What do you say we take a little drive?"
Sam tapped his spoon against the edge of his bowl. "Nah, I think we should stick around, just in case."
Dean just nodded. "Okay."
Sam didn't quite feel up to adventuring in the city, so they went looking for Father Ory instead, in case he needed some help around the house. "Well, hey, that's pretty kind," Father Ory said, "what kinda skills y'all got?"
Dean said, "I can do auto repair, weapons repair, weapons cleaning, auto cleaning..."
Father Ory grinned. Today his T-shirt read, God is not spelled G.O.P. "Don't got a whole lot in the way of weapons here, but I got some cars about to be on blocks if they don't get somebody wit' the knowhow soon."
"Well, I got the knowhow," Dean said.
Father Ory looked Sam up and down. "How you like gardens, bruh? Look like you'd be a quick 'n discerning weeder."
"Hey, Sammy here's the Jolly Green Giant." Dean clapped him on the back.
Truth be told, he used to kill Jess's houseplants with overwatering before she sat him down and pleaded for their lives, but weeding couldn't be too hard. "Uh, sure," Sam said. "Glad to help any way I can."
And that was how he found himself kneeling in a bed of green bell peppers in the vegetable garden, Father Ory swatting his fingers away from a mysterious leafy-looking thing. "That right there is a stem," Father Ory said. "You don't want to be touchin' that. Else ya dinner gonna be missin' half the peppers it's supposed to."
"Oh, geez, sorry," Sam said, while Dean snickered under the hood of a Ford Ranger a few yards away. "You can probably tell I've never done this before."
"Don't worry about it, bruh." Father Ory grinned. "At least ya learnin' somethin'."
They kept weeding, moving out of the bell peppers and into the tomatoes, morning sun climbing higher until it fell down on them like a hammer of heat. Sam measured the time by Father Ory's humming, metal clanking and frustrated ignition sounds, Dean's muffled curses. His hair was plastered to his head with sweat, and he knew just from looking at his arms that he was getting sunburned, that he'd have a righteous farmer's tan by the end of the day.
"Let's take a break," Father Ory said. "How about some cold drinks?"
He came back out with three blessedly frosty bottles of coke and sat on the Ranger's tailgate, Sam and Dean leaning on the sideboards to either side of him. "So how'd you get into all this, Father?" Sam said, gesturing at the house with his coke. "The house and the people and Mawmaw Adele."
"Yeah," said Dean, "it's kind of a ways past rosaries and confession."
"Well, short answer is, it came to my attention it was needed. Not so short answer is, I used to be one of those in there." He nodded at the house. "Sure I was a priest, but I was young, too, didn't know a damn thing about real good 'n evil." Father Ory took a long sip of coke. "And fa some, a man of the cloth is a specially juicy target. It was too easy to get m'fool self mixed up wit' the wrong side."
"So what happened?" Sam asked.
"I left the Church, left the cloth, started tryin' to live off the work of my own two hands instead of off the breast of God. Hardly anybody in N'awlins at that time could be a friend to a fallen priest, but I was lucky -- people who did help me would gimme chance after chance, kept right on carryin' me even when I shoulda been dropped, time and again. So I wasn't ever on my own, never hit rock bottom, but it came damn close."
"How'd you meet Adele?"
"Her daughter Rosalie. Little Adele wasn't born yet, just gettin' ready to be. And Mawmaw Adele was in the last stages. I finally had some regular work, cookin' the meals fa the patients in the hospital, and Rosalie used to get on m'case about the food. Mawmaw was havin' trouble swallowin' by then. I went in to apologize to her m'self one day, and she just started tellin' me m'whole life story. She knew all about me, down to m'bones. Said the spirits in the hospital told her I was comin'."
"Yeah, I believe it," Sam said. Dean looked like he still had his toe in the water, not quite there yet, but then, he hadn't actually met Mawmaw Adele.
"So what," Dean said, "meeting her turned your life around?"
"Naw, wasn't that easy. I was still pretty messed in the head. But she hung on six months, and we talked every day. When little Adele was born, she asked me to do the christenin'. And then just about the very next day, she passed. That was when I started havin' the idea for the halfway house. A place where people like me could come and get counsel from people like her. Rosalie gimme some help when she passed -- left me a little money, enough to buy this dump after the hurricane run everybody out. Only thing is, I never could find another Mawmaw Adele. All these poor folks get is me."
"I think they got a good deal," Sam said.
Once the weeds were cleared, Father Ory collected some vegetables for dinner and went back into the house to start cooking. Sam exchanged the dirt on his hands for oil and grease, getting under the hood of the Ranger with Dean. "Here, college boy, learn something else if you're so in the mood for it," Dean said, and started pointing out engine parts. He handed Sam the spark plugs to clean, and predictably attempted to sand blast him with the machine afterwards.
"Dean, quit it! That's fucking dangerous."
Dean snickered and rubbed a greasy hand in Sam's hair. "Seriously, dude, your hair's so bad it'll be Braveheart by the end of the week. Come on, I'll even cut it for you for free."
"And you'll fuck it up for cheap kicks. No way I'm letting you near my hair, Dean."
"Like I'd let you go out and represent the Winchester name if you were fugly. Come on, Sammy, don't you trust your older brother?"
"You expect me to give that a serious answer?"
Half an hour later, his hair now wet from the garden hose -- not to mention his clothes, and Dean's as well after wetting his hair turned into an impromptu water fight -- Sam parked his butt on the porch steps and let Dean cut his hair. It being summer, the sun was nowhere near setting; Dean had plenty of light to see what he was doing, and Sam, holding a hand mirror at the ready, had plenty of light to make sure he wasn't doing anything big brother-y.
Dean snipped off what felt like Sam's entire head of hair in back. "Quit your bitching and bend your head forward a little," he said, when Sam squawked in protest. He ran the comb straight down, and snipped a little more.
"Hey, remember that stupid crewcut stage you went through?" Sam said.
"Shut up before I decide to give you one."
When they were kids, their dad had always done this for them, spreading newspaper beneath a motel chair to catch the clippings, each haircut quick and efficient, one after the other. He'd take care of his own, just looking at himself in the mirror, at least until Dean turned fifteen and was deemed responsible enough to return the favor.
Dean was twenty-eight now; Sam himself was twenty-four. Dad had been just a year older than Sam when Dean was born; just a year older than Dean when their mother died, leaving him with the sole care of two boys and the charred out shell of what used to be their home. All he had to fall back on was what he'd been. Surprised by the sudden doubling of his parental duties, he gave orders because that was what he knew. He knew how to survive in wartime, how to track an enemy all the way to its foxhole, how to keep on marching. Everything else he taught his sons, he'd learned the same as those first lessons: with blood, sweat, tears, and not a little bit of alcohol. But at least, Sam supposed, he'd taught them how to take care of each other.
"You remember Dad giving us these?" Sam asked quietly.
Dean came around to Sam's front and combed hair down over his forehead. "Sure do," he said. Sam shut his eyes, listening to the quick snick snick of the scissors. And as if he'd overheard Sam's thoughts, Dean said, "Hey, did I ever tell you my first memory was of Mom taking me to the barbershop?"
"What? No." A bit of hair fell on Sam's lip and he blew it off.
"That was the origin of the floppy-haired 'do for young Winchesters. I hated the idea of getting my hair cut so much, I pitched a fit and she had to take me home. The part I remember is her picking me up from the chair and pulling the wrapper off. She let me grow my hair out after that."
He opened his eyes and looked at Dean. He wanted to say, I think Mom maybe knew something, before she died. What do you remember about that? He said, "So you cried like a little bitch because you were scared of the big man with the scissors?"
"Need I remind you who's holding the scissors now?" Dean brushed his hand through Sam's hair, tousling it into a somewhat more natural shape. "Look in the mirror and tell me that's not a vast improvement."
Dean had left some length on the top and sides, but it was still a marked difference. He looked younger, thinner, half the weight of the world he'd been carrying for the past two years somehow lifted from his face. Dean looked at him, eyebrows raised, mouth shaped like, Not bad, eh? "All right," Sam admitted, "so you're not completely talentless."
"Don't you forget it." Dean got out the clippers and shaped Sam's sideburns, then moved back around to shave his neck. The buzzing metal was strangely soothing, balanced out by Dean's steady fingers holding his head in place.
They swept the porch afterwards, letting Sam's hair fly off to fertilize the yard and become parts of birds' nests. Something spicy and stomach-rumbling was wafting from the screendoor, dinner just about ready. Sam let the slight evening breeze kiss his newly-shorn head and looked out into the yard at the Ranger and the weed-free garden, at Dean leaning against the porch railing with a small smile on his face, and felt the day had been a good and full one.
That night, Dean stayed in, digesting shrimp creole over a game of Texas hold 'em with some of the other residents in the parlor. Sam joined a few hands, then was summarily banned for "using that freaky college brain to count my cards," as Dean put it. Sam swept his pile of coins and cigarettes over to Dean and said, "I'm gonna turn in. Try not to lose it all at once."
He slept restlessly until Dean came in, then settled in deep. His dreams were about Jake, this time standing on his own two feet in a bloodless desert; Jess working on her easel in the art corner they'd set up in the bedroom; the row of houseplants on the windowsill, putting down roots before being consumed by fire; Dad handing Dean a pair of scissors, and Dean stabbing him through the heart.
He came half-awake and heard Dean's voice: "Just a nightmare, Sammy, okay?" Mumbled something back and turned onto his side. His neck felt bare and naked, his back exposed to the night by the slipped-down sheet, but he knew Dean was just an arm's length away. He let his mind sink down again, and this time his dreams didn't wake him.
The next day Father Ory rolled out an '85 Buick LeSabre for them to work on, which lit Dean up like a Christmas tree. He caressed the rusty hood lovingly. "Sammy, look at this -- one of the last legitimate land yachts. Come over here and get acquainted."
"Uh, no, I think I'll let you and the gas-guzzling beast have some private time instead."
Dean snapped him in the ass with a greasy rag. "No need to be jealous."
Sam snorted. "Right."
He was just thinking it was getting on time for dinner when Father Ory came out of the house. "Poltergeist just told me Mawmaw Adele wants to see you."
Dean slid out from underneath the car. "Right now?"
"Not you, bruh. Only Sam here."
He and Dean looked at each other. He tried to think whether it meant a good thing or a bad thing that Dean didn't need to be present for her report, but all of his efforts to reason the former were derailed by the gnawing in his gut. He wiped his hands down and knelt by Dean. "I guess I'll call you if, uh."
"Okay," was all Dean said, like Sam was just going to the grocery store. "Take the Impala."
He drove back to the Navarro house on autopilot, forcing his mind blank the way hard experience had taught him was essential in the preparation for any ordeal (going after Jake in the graveyard, telling Dad and Dean about Stanford, talking to Jess for the first time). Before he knew it, he was knocking on the screendoor, and Adele was there to let him in.
"Hey, Sam, where y'at." Suddenly she was warm with him, edges softened a little, and again his thoughts did that dance, good thing or bad thing, good thing or--
"Hi," he said stupidly. "Your grandmother sent me a message?"
"Hey, dawlin," Mawmaw Adele said, present, just like that. "Don't you look sharp wit' the new haircut 'n all. Adele, why don't you go and get us some tea. Sam, you sit down so we can talk."
He perched on the nearest chair. "Hi," he said again. "Did you, uh, did you get an answer?"
To his infinite relief, she didn't make a pretense for wanting Adele to come back first. "I did and it's complicated," she said. "Now I told you ya brother ain't precious. He just a man like any other. But this wasn't any ordin'ry deal, neither. Seemed like everybody I talked to was sayin' how it wasn't done accordin' to the rules."
"How do you mean?"
"Ya brother was marked," she said. "You and he both, by one of the big powers of the demonkind. Nobody else was s'posed to touch y'all. Nobody was s'posed to even be talkin' to y'all."
"So...you're saying this deal never should have been made?"
"The demon that did it was actin' outside her authority. She knew it, and she did it anyway. Now, y'all took care of the demon that had his mark on y'all, and so you ain't under his hand now, but the rules are the rules. This demon, she been on the hot seat ever since. But there's others in hell think she did 'em a favor. Ya brother's been gettin' away from death fa years now, and there's demons down there just waitin' fa they chance to get a piece of him." She smiled, flashing those strong teeth. "But then there's demons want nothin' to do wit' him, who'd raise they own kind of hell if he ever came to set foot there."
Sam shivered. "So, can we get out of it? I mean, if the contract was ultra vires, it should be voidable, right?"
Mawmaw Adele reached out her hand and laid it over his. He could feel the translucent paper quality of her skin, dry and strangely warm now, for all she was a spirit. "That ain't the way it works," she said. "Only thing can break a contract with a demon is the demon. Don't matter how it came to be agreed to."
"But, if she was never supposed to be able to make it in the first place--"
"I'm sorry, dawlin. The rules are the rules. Been so since the first humans and demons ever talked together." She patted his hand. "But I told you all this 'cause it means there's still some hope."
"How?" His voice cracked in the middle of the word.
"For what I been tellin' you: 'cause there's trouble brewin' in hell over this trade, and it's only gonna get worse. It may be this she-demon'll see fit to break the contract herself."
He wanted to hope, like she'd said; she seemed so sure this was the best news she could have given him. But what did it mean for them practically? A fucking load of nothing. "So, what are we supposed to do in the meantime?" he asked bitterly. "Just wait for the demons to hash it out and then let us know what they decide?"
"Y'all do what y'all been doin', what I said ya brother was always s'posed to be doin'. Huntin' evil, fightin' evil, no more, no less. You lucky y'all fell onto the good path so young. Other people take they whole lives to learn what's right."
"But we've already done more than anyone, we've lost, we've sacrificed--" He stopped, swallowing hard. He heard Dean like an echo, Dean who had said these exact words to him, who was going to have to be told this bullshit and then turn right around and get back in the car so he could keep on hunting. "It's just," Sam said, "you keep saying what we've done doesn't matter, that it doesn't weigh anything on whatever cosmic scale. And it just makes me think -- if we'd just lived like normal people, we wouldn't even be here right now."
Her grip on his hand tightened. "Maybe not here. But you got to remember, you had hell's eyes on you the moment you was born. The fact of us sittin' here havin' a conversation like two normal people should tell you that."
Hearing her say it like that, so matter of fact -- Dean had been finished, ready to quit and take his rest, and he'd said it more than once and Sam had never understood him until now. "My life has never been my own," he said. "Has it."
She held out her other hand. "But not everythin' belongs to the demons. You don't get rewarded just by bein' on the good path, Sam -- that's its own reward. But there's other powers payin' attention to you just the same."
"Meanin' God, boy. God's payin' attention. Even if he ain't assignin' points and takin' points like some football referee, God's still on the watch."
For a moment, he just boggled at her. He'd tried, even after that spirit that had been so convinced it was an angel, to pray a few times, to keep the God connection open. But then he'd woken up on Bobby's floor with Dean staring at him in horror, a fresh burn on his arm and scattered, blood-soaked memories. And he'd felt then that the whole enterprise of prayer had revealed itself as worthless. "That--" he said, "I'm sorry, but I don't know if that's something I believe, anymore."
"It don't matter what you say in ya head, only what you say in ya heart. You might tell ya brother that, too. It pleases the Lord to hear a chorus."
He thought that didn't really reflect well on the Lord, considering all the lone voices, but he didn't say that to her. He just let her hold his hands. When she closed her eyes and began to move her lips, her words rushed and whispery, he closed his eyes, too, forcing his mind completely blank so his heart could speak for him.
But all Sam could feel was: Please.
He took the long way back to the halfway house, floating the Impala through the city streets, watching all the ghosts meandering with the people. A few turned their heads to watch him pass. He felt the coldness of their presence, no less than it had always been, but it didn't lay him out like before. He just looked away from them and moved on, the chill a constant companion, used to it now.
It was just coming on dusk by the time he parked the Impala, the evening embarking on its mysterious time. The house was lit up, warm windows beckoning him, voices audible and the scent of dinner on the breeze. He climbed the porch steps, but a voice stopped him before he opened the door.
"So what'd she say?"
Dean was sitting in a chair at the end of the porch, feet kicked up on the railing. He had a coke bottle hanging from two fingers, another next to his chair which he picked up and passed over to Sam.
Sam swallowed half of it down, lukewarm and nostril-searing. He leaned on the railing next to Dean's feet, glad it was a little too dark to see Dean's expression clearly. "She said it was a bad contract, but she can't help us. It's up to the demon, not us."
Dean nodded, like it was just what he'd been expecting to hear. Not resigned, or pained, or distressed: but like it was just good to have it confirmed. The sight clenched something in Sam's chest.
"We'll keep looking," he said. "This was just one idea, coming here. We've still got a whole country to cover." He thunked his bottle onto the railing. "We've still got plenty of time."
"Nothing but," Dean agreed. He took another swallow of his soda, the liquid smack of his lips on the bottle making Sam remember the beach in Galveston, stretched out on the sand with the fireflies and morning still far off over the edge of the water. For one moment he wished they were both back there, that they'd decided to stay right where they were instead of going forward. Then Dean got to his feet, boots thumping on the porch floor. "So what time do you want to hit the road tomorrow?" he said.
"I guess early. We should let Father Ory know, tell him thanks and all."
"Well, he's in there serving dinner. You can tell him right now."
"Okay. You go ahead. I'll be there in a sec."
Dean opened the screendoor, then stopped and looked back at Sam. "Hey. I'm not planning on leaving you all by yourself if I can help it, dude, your head's screwy enough as it is even with my daily influence. So don't be getting any ideas."
It made Sam smile, in spite of himself. "Okay, Dean."
"Plus God knows what you'd do to my car -- probably trade it in for a Prius or something, Jesus." The screendoor banged in its frame behind Dean, his grumbles fading into the house.
Sam stayed out until the last of the light faded, hiding the Impala in shadows. He and Dean would be on the road again tomorrow, and they were still relying on their emergency plastic which Dean had probably had for months now, which meant it might be flagged already, the dumbass, so they'd have to figure out something else. And there was still the question of two hundred demons roaming free, and all the spirits that were apparently Sam's-eyes-only, and one day when all of this was finished, he and Dean were going to have to talk about Mom. But before then, above all the rest, there was the one thing more important than anything: the Winchesters weren't going to lose anyone else. He knew, somewhere out there, the road was holding the solution for them. They just had to get there together and find it.
He heard Dean's voice again -- "Sammy, you already missed firsts and you're about to miss seconds!" -- so he picked up his coke bottle and went to join him.