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This could have gone another way, Sam realizes too late. Her hair is bright enough to hide the flush to her cheeks, and her eyes, already beady, don’t change much for their tears. But her accent’s slipped from its strange affectations, all television perfect, into something much, much older. Sam can hardly understand her.

But he thinks she says, “Please don’t.”

 

--

 

They’re near Elkins, because this is where Dean said he wants to be. They’re hunting a marten in particular, because Rowena said Sam needs one.

Four months ago, Dean slaughtered four people in Pontiac, Illinois.

“The fuck is a marten, anyway?” Dean asks, though they’re already sitting in a makeshift blind, a thick fuss of brittle oak brought down by last month’s vernal floods. He’s done the same image search Sam has.

“It’s a mustelid,” Sam says anyway, reciting the Google sidebar. His hamstrings ache from crouching, but the sun’s only just now beginning to fade. They settled in early so the woods would forget their disruption, but Sam’s really hoping their small crepuscular friend is an early riser because he’s not sure how much more of this he can stand. He’s started measuring time in half-minute increments because that’s as long as he can go without checking his watch. He’s not sure how Dean’s holding it together.

“If it’s the size of a cat, shoot it,” says Sam.

“What if it’s a cat?”

Sam frowns. It’s a strange question, coming from Dean. Sam wrests his gaze from his watch (which has helpfully informed him that they have advanced from civil to nautical twilight) and turns toward his brother.

There’s not much to see in the dark, though Sam’s attention catches on ephemera for a moment and he realizes his vision in the dark really isn’t what it used to be. He can make out the fuzzy impression of Dean’s hair as it years toward the last of the sun, but the rest of him is an indistinguishable blue-gray just like the tree he’s slumped against. He looks either bored or dead.

“Then you shoot a cat,” Sam says tersely. “All right, get up. We’re never gonna get a good shot off in the dark, anyway--Plan B.”

In Sam’s head, Dean says, But we barely did Plan A, insert old school pop culture reference here, because Sam has forever relied on him to step up as the voice of reason, whenever Sam abdicates that throne.

In whatever Allegheny woods this is, Sam’s blue-gray says nothing.

“What?” says Sam.

“I said, your cat, your call,” says Dean.

“It’s a mustelid,” says Sam.

 

--

 

Rowena talks to herself when she’s alone in her warehouse. She lies on the drainage grates on the ground and tells stories--Sam knows because when he comes, the imprint of it stays on her cheek. Lately it’s begun to bruise, and the sharper edges scar. Apparently old flesh is very fragile, like paper.

It hadn’t initially occurred to Sam that she might need to eat, because Crowley never had. And he still suspects she doesn’t, really. For the first week her body twists and dessicates but it never quite dies, and if Sam’s always been amenable to the intense interchangeability between monster and human (good monsters live), he figures it must go both ways (bad humans die). He doesn’t care what happens to Rowena.

Or Randy and those sharks from Illinois.

“You don’t hate me, you know,” Rowena declares one day, slower in picking herself up from the ground and only too eager to let him see it. Her cheek is pink and checkerboarded, and she plays up her weakness. “You’re just a shade more than a tad confused. I know the feeling--but banish that now, and the next hundred years are butter.”

This, Sam is not confused about: Dean is going to live.

“Dear boy,” says Rowena. “My dear boy. We make an excellent team.”

“I chained you to a table,” Sam reminds her.

Rowena titters. “Aye, and I was angry about that.”

She doesn’t elaborate.

Sam pulls a takeout bag from his coat and drops it on her table.

This still doesn’t mean he cares what happens to Rowena. But all the way out to his car, Sam listens to Rowena tell her hoagie and chips a little tale, her voice made loud and chamber-like by the hollowness below her.

I was a butcher’s girl, once, she says.

We were nearer to things then, and death wasn’t so terrible. Myself, I had twelve brothers, off and on. Ah, but it’s not the plague or the starvation that’s so different about us then and now--just the blood. People aren’t so fond of blood these days.

It’s troubling, is all I mean. Because we all descend from a certain man, a certain mark; I just think most of us have forgotten our legacy. Mostly little flop-haired boys. I had a son once, qui’ a bit like that, but he grew up the King of Hell, you know. ‘Course now his time is all but ended, but there’s monarchy for you. There’s always a few new kings waiting.

You see, wee little ham, and you, sorry cheese--we don’t butcher for the blood.

We just need to eat.

 

--

 

The skin of this marten is magic, and desperate to let everyone know it. There have been reports, poorly documented, of trees coming alive in the Allegheny woods. Rumor has it felled branches take up arms and peat moss swallows hunters whole. Even the deer shit grows a mind of its own.

“That’s the stupidest, moonshiniest thing I’ve ever heard,” says Dean--which, speaking honestly, is an exaggeration. But whether it takes that crown or not, he says, “All right, let’s go.”

Sam closes his laptop, though it hadn’t even been on. There’s a big telescope down in West Virginia, and there’s no cell service, no WiFi. If the forest comes alive and the trees really do have eyes, only this speck of West Virginia’s likely to ever know. Apparently big science and black magic go together.

None the wiser, Dean drives east, and Sam battles motion sickness in a way Dean finds exceptionally amusing.

When Sam closes his eyes, his mind reels with the aftershocks of Rowena’s spell.

“This book is printed on human skin, you realize,” she’d said.

Yes, Sam did realize.

“Very Old World,” she’d said, with the round, nostalgic warmth people generally reserved for old prom photos and baby pictures. Then she’d said Sam would need the skin of a marten, which in the scheme of things seemed like a bit of a let down.

“We didn’t have the privilege of your Spangles and Freddy’s. Would you waste meat on a silly spell if you had a boy and a wee babe to feed?” Rowena asked, when she caught Sam’s expression.

Then she’d smiled. “Oh, indeed, and I as well. Don’t you fret about that; you’re in good company, Sam.”

“Hey Sam,” says Dean, calling Sam back to the wind of their mountain road and the fact that, no matter what Dean says, the Impala was not designed for this off-roading shit.

“What,” says Sam, steeling himself for more slapstick. From here since Kansas Dean has dutifully filled their time with drivel, the friendly superficiality of which Sam has either found a comfort or a curse, he hasn’t decided. It’s better than silence and worse than real talk, real Dean; but none of their real talk is anything they want to talk about.

“If a marten has magic skin, and can World of Warcraft anything it touches, what happens if we turn it inside out?” Dean asks.

What, indeed. It’s eerie, sometimes, the places Dean’s mind goes. He’d have made an excellent witch.

“I really don’t know, Dean,” says Sam. “And that’s fucking disgusting.”

Dean grins. “If you wanna toss your cookies, we just passed a nice turnout. Maybe we can take this road in reverse. Sounds fun, don’t it, Sammy?”

 

--

 

Rowena remembers a lot about her girlhood. At least, she’s crooned far more about her fifth year into her drainage grate than Sam could tell you about his. She has the memory of someone who’s spent several centuries hoping one day someone might listen.

“I’m just here for the spell,” Sam says, which shuts her up. He puts her food on the table.

Rowena turns toward it dully, but brightens when she sees it’s in a golden box. Inside, she finds herbed shrimp, hair-like pasta, delicate nibs of asparagus. “Oh, so you are,” she enunciates, baring her teeth as though in preparation for her feast.

“I felt like Italian,” Sam says.

“You’ve a fine palate in there somewhere, then,” says Rowena. The praise is almost honest. “So let me show you where your marten is. Would you lend me your eyes?”

After a moment, when Sam hasn’t betrayed a response, she says, “It’s just a bit of translocation, darling. It’s not as if I need them on a platter.”

 

--

 

“Hey,” says Sam. “You good?”

For all Dean’s begun to speak in sick puppy similes, if Sam is tasked to think on it Dean’s more like a large, predatory cat. He spends a long time not doing much of anything, and then one critical, nightmare moment doing a lot. Sam always blinks and misses it. But he’s generally around for the fallout, and right now it’s like all the fight Dean and the mark have pent up reached some maximum capacity and overheated. And finding a quiet way to detonate has run Dean ragged over-early.

They actually haven’t killed their marten yet. They haven’t even seen it.

Still, sundowning is sundowning, and Sam knows it when he sees it.

Of course, if Sam says, Stop, let’s rest, then the mark backs off and spares its host. Bides its time and strengthens its hold. If they don’t stop, and instead they kill a marten, then the mark backs off and praises its host. Takes this opportunity to strengthen its hold. It’s not really what it does that ever changes.

It’s like a week ago when Sam and Castiel had had their brief heart-to-heart. Claire had just ridden into her sunset, and Dean had gone to hit the can.

Dean slammed a man’s head into a table, Castiel explained, or failed to. I realize this isn’t new behavior, Castiel had said, but--

And then Sam stopped him. I get it, Sam said. I know what you mean. What the mark does to Dean never changes. What Dean does never changes either, really. But it’s different, it’s different. Sam promises himself it’s different.

In the present, Dean waves Sam away. He bends, resting his palms on his thighs without relinquishing his knife. (Given the darkness, they’ve opted for a more traditional kill. Or at least that’s what Sam’s suggested. It occurs to him he probably needs his marten more or less intact.)

“Fuck,” Dean breathes.

“It must be really hard,” Sam hazards, conciliatory. “To do what you’re doing.” By which he means, resist the mark, but he can’t quite bring himself to say it. He’d rather just sound like an idiot. He figures he’s already adopted that tone, the one that makes him feel like he’s encouraging an abstaining alcoholic. It’s the tone he’d used on Brady so many years ago, for all that had done. It’s one he’d always meant to spare Dean, had Dean ever seriously considered going dry--or drier, anyway. But here they are, and that tone just comes out of his mouth.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Dean says.

This takes Sam by surprise. He’s not sure why, though he knows why he’d like to be.

“I’m going to try to lure out the marten,” he says finally. His voice is tight and thin, which makes him feel a lot like Dean’s very little brother. “Stay here.”

 

--

 

“You said you were a butcher’s girl,” says Sam, bringing the last of Rowena’s meals before he and Dean hit Elkins, and after that, Sam hopes, an ending. “What does that have to do with the spell?”

Tonight he’s brought her Thai, from a place he remembers Kevin liking. It’s either a betrayal or a throwaway kindness, and Sam’s not sure which disappoints him more. But Rowena natters something approving about “Oriental” and misses this moral quandry.

“I knew you’d be a sharp listener,” Rowena says, after Sam denies her her utensils.

“I’m only here for the spell,” he reminds her.

“Of course you are.” Rowena closes her Styrofoam container over the steam and savory smell of her rations. “One does with magical marten the same as one does with the plain sort. Make use of its--properties.”

“Right,” says Sam.

“There’s no catch,” she assures him. Rowena never seems quite sure what to do with Sam’s impassivity. She keeps expecting his impassioned honesty, the vital desperation that led him to her, and promised her son’s death. It’s as though she’s only now begun to realize Sam might make good on his promise. There’s a faltering glimmer in her eyes when that realization comes. Then she accepts it gladly.

For a moment, Sam thinks, she’d been almost human to him. The little butcher’s girl with her twelve dead brothers, her girlhood of daisy chains and blood pacts. A young peasant with an unwanted child and a coven unwilling to shoulder such shame. He’d almost felt chastened. Almost ready to backtrack on all this insanity.

But it would be a mistake to pity her.

“It surely would,” Rowena agrees. “All the same, the spell is simple. Witchcraft began in the kitchen, you know? And what was a kitchen in my time but a pile of stones in the fen, blood hissing on the spit--oh, don’t go yet. Chopticks, chopsticks, please--”

Sam surrenders the chopsticks. He finds it very difficult not to pity her when she does things like this. But before he leaves, she says, “We’re all born to blood, Sam; it’s in the very meat of us to know how to deal with it. But I think we never truly know its worth ‘til we’re well and truly covered in it.”

The pity drains from him just like blood.

 

--

 

Sam’s not sure what he expected. After all, the Apocalypse sounded with the pop of two skulls, one quick after the other. A arrival of a marten, even a magical one, probably didn’t warrant much fanfare.

But he’s no sooner sprinkled the contents of a hex bag onto the ground than he finds himself face to face with a very plain looking European pine marten (Martes martes), golden frill at its neck and bright red tongue hissing the bounds of his territory.

We’re very territorial, us Old World things, Rowena had said. Legacies of conquest and such-like. It won’t hold back if there’s other magics about.

Sam stares into the marten’s moist, beady eyes, which reflect the moon like china saucers. (Astronomical twilight.)

It’s not even midnight, and Sam is one act of witchcraft away from saving his brother and it is the size of a cat--and a scrawny one at that.

He raises his knife.

The marten yowls.

Sam half expects the ground to pull itself from under him, open into a wide crevasse and suck him into a pagan underworld. For the trees to tear him limb from limb. For the fungal spores in his nose to activate and militate, ripping the skin from his face and the arteries from his neck as they charge outward.

The ground does rumble, like a fracking earthquake. Small and insipid and difficult to get aroused about. The marten glows from within, its fur turning translucent with the light, but other than that it doesn’t seem to do much.

Sam can see the small thing’s ribs.

Then, out of the darkness, Dean’s long knife comes down on the marten’s head. For some reason he’s used the flat of it, with enough force to liquefy its skull. Unbeheaded and unbleeding, the magic marten twitches and seizes. It’s going to die slow.

“Five points for Judeo-Christianity,” says Dean. “Suck it, pagans.”

 

--

 

“You’re making me feel like I hit your dog with my car,” Dean tells him later, as though that were the worst thing he could imagine ever doing.

Sam has experienced both sides of that particular simile.

He’s also elected to ride home with the marten’s carcass in his lap. Even dead, and wrapped in a shroud, he can tell it’s a potent thing. The threads of the shroud are beginning to ensorcel themselves, he’s pretty sure. They wriggle not like earthworms, but like the parasitic kind he can imagine breeding in his stomach lining.

“I need to make sure it doesn’t go anywhere,” Sam says.

Dean says, “And why are we keeping it?”

something something Castiel, says Sam. He’s found that for Dean, Castiel is an excellent explanation for just about anything.

True to form, Dean says, um, okay. Then he says something about candy-ass animal control, and something about disappointment, and something about heading south, because the swamps are rife with vampires and while we’re here we should do something about that, right, Sammy? get in a good kill, snag some biscuits and gravy, that sort of thing.

“I think it was hungry,” Sam says. His marten is smaller than a cat.

Dean shrugs. “I’d be, too, if people tried to take me out every time I woke up for a snack.”

Seven hours later, when they are disemboweling a nest in Arkansas, Sam asks himself if this is the message he’s meant to take from all this.

It had better not be.

 

--

 

“Who will bring me my breakfast, then?” Rowena asks.

“You’d better hope it’s me,” says Sam. “We need a marten, I’ll get a marten. So if you’re omitting something that might slow me down, you better talk now.”

Rowena nods. “It’s a very simple spell--all the old ones are. Get us a marten and we’ll take all the magic right out of your brother. It leaves very little room for gray areas.”

 

--

 

It’s something like a macabre easter egg hunt, what they do to that nest in Arkansas. Meaning, Sam finds and takes as many vampires as he can, but leaves enough for Dean to take the edge off. It makes Sam sick and it’s not about the blood.

When the last head rolls, Dean sinks to his knees, a serialized continuation of what he’d done, too early, back in West Virginia. Or maybe it’s a flashback to the way he’d been in Pontiac. Whichever it is, all it means to Sam right now is that Dean’s getting worse; in a way that’s hard to explain, Dean’s getting worse. The mark is taking more of his brother and giving itself back double, and he’s fucking losing his brother. If Dean’s plan is still to go down swinging, it will be a lot like killing a hungry marten, Sam surmises bleakly. There won’t be much left.

“Hey, we’re not done yet,” Sam garbles into Dean’s shoulder, as he tries to heave him to standing. With the first tug he succeeds only in improving Dean’s posture. “We’re not done yet.”

Dean mumbles something back about Sam being covered in blood and Sam definitely needing a shower. “Uh huh,” Sam agrees. “Okay. Okay, hey, come on.”

They still have to dispose of the scene of their crime, Sam reminds him. Dean perks up at this. He’s always been quick to start a hunt and slow to leave it, after all.

“Just let them arrest me,” Sam remembers saying, at age fourteen.

Dean had smacked him in the face with an empty water jug.

“What are we gonna do about all this blood?” Dean asks, at age thirty-six. He already knows what they’re not going to do about all that blood.

“It’s fine. They won’t know what to do with it, either,” Sam says anyway.

“They” meaning other vampires. “They” meaning law enforcement. “They” meaning anyone.

Sam pulls Dean to his feet, Dean’s muscles tensing and working alongside him this time. “Come on, we’re not done yet. It’s not over when the fight ends, remember? Remember--”

 

--

 

“Chicken not take kindly to its poached eggs?” Rowena comments, when Sam arrives a full day and a half later than her breakfast time. He’s clean of blood but not of wear, and he hasn’t slept in two days. He has with him a hot plate, a wok, and a bottle of whiskey. (“Just for flavor, dear.”)

“I’m just here for the spell,” he says, for what he hopes is the final time.

Rowena’s stomach growls. “Very well, then, let’s get started. As a hunter, I trust you’ve skinned a wee thing like this before?”

She’s correctly guessed Sam hasn’t. “And aren’t you glad now I was a butcher’s girl, then.” She smiles. “Cut here.”

Sam takes a pair of thick shears to the marten’s neck and severs it. A few more incisions, and then Rowena says, “Puncture.”

Rowena does not announce the sharp jerk she gives the marten’s skin, which slips it from the rest of the body like shucked corn. Sam finds the pelt in Rowena’s hands and the meat, miserably purple, in his own.

Her cuffs, as if repelled by the marten’s stronger magic, fall to the ground.

And see, this is exactly the sort of complication Sam’s been holding his breath for.

But Rowena just rolls her wrists and holds the pelt out. “You’ll want to burn this, to get the fire proper stoked for the spell.”

Sam does.

“You’re looking for this monster of yours in all the wrong places,” Rowena says, because Sam’s silence is oppressive. “You’ll never find him if all you do is look around the room.”

“I’m just here for the spell,” says Sam, because apparently the last time was not the last time. “I don’t want your advice.”

“Oh, but desire means so many things these days,” she says. “When I was a girl, we hadn’t as many choices. ‘Want’ was only ever ‘need.’ ”

“Right. You need five-star penthouses and Michelin dinners.”

“Clever boy. But tell me, when it comes to dear brother, would you be willing to settle? A one-star Dean, with a wee slice of ham and a sad speck of cheese?”

 

--

 

“Say something.”

As demands go, there are worse ones. But Sam has enough on his plate as it is. The marten slips in his lap as he merges onto the freeway and Sam jags the car a little too far left; for a moment he’d thought the marten was making a break for it. “I’m driving,” he says.

“Yeah, so say something. How’s life, how’s The Good Wife? How many miles are left in the tank? Anything, man.” Dean sounds more than a little desperate, and it’d be a mistake to stop at frenetic. He draws in a shuddering breath. His exhalation sounds it’s been pushed down a flight of stairs, one quick sharp pant after the other. What’s grotesque about all this is that come tomorrow morning, he’ll be able to act like nothing’s wrong again. At least for a little while.

It’s hard to judge the breaking point of an intermittent disaster.

“Distract me,” Dean says finally. “Man, I feel like I’m gonna explode. I can’t, anymore, I can’t--”

Sam doesn’t know what to say. He opts for, “Yes, you can.”

 

--

 

Rowena proffers the skillet, with the limp, gamey slices of marten sliding about in their sauce. (He’d been able to see its ribs.) “All it takes is a bite.”

“One bite?” Sam doesn’t temper his skepticism.

“Please. A good witch doesn’t need the whole apple.”

She’s proud of this. Sam can understand that.

Then Sam tells her to eat.

Just a taste.

One bite.

She keeps saying she’s hungry, after all.

Rowena pales. “You said--”

“That I’d kill Crowley,” Sam finishes. “Don’t worry, there’s more than enough for all of you.”

“You’re just like them.” Her accusation falls bluntly. Sam’s not sure what she means by it. He gets the impression that this means he’s not as good a listener as Rowena had hoped.

“Magic is all I have left, it’s-- If you take that magic out of Dean, what exactly do you think is going to be left? You think it hasn’t burned him through?”

“Eat it,” Sam says again.

“All right, clever boy, you’ve had it out of me. But that’s all the truth I have to tell. Now let’s--”

Rowena’s stomach growls.

“I think you might be hungry,” Sam says, and draws closer.

“Magic is all I have left in the world. Please, don’t--it’s all that’s left in the world.”

She’s shaking. He knows that he should stop, and doesn’t.

“It’s all that’s left for your brother,” says Rowena.

“No,” says Sam. He’s going to shove a thin worm of meat into Rowena’s mouth, steaming and bloody. “No, Dean has me.”

 

“Does he?”

 

--

 

Dean is screaming Sam’s name.