Dean blinked and made the quick realization that his ass was hot. Not hot like “baby’s got back” hot, but hot like “blisters forming on your skin” hot. He set his hand down on black metal and almost heard it hiss.
Brutal California sunshine.
A field of green surrendering into brown, dotted by bleached blocks of stone.
He suffered another lingering moment of confusion before memory slipped into place, ugly as a five-day bender.
He was sitting on the Impala at Alta Mesa Memorial Park, squinting in the direction of a distant figure. It was Sammy, of course. After several more seconds of struggling for the pieces to drop into place, Dean remembered why he was sitting on the blazing hood of the Impala, supervising Sam’s sulk over a fresh rectangle of dirt.
It was a new grave, still too new for a permanent marker, and it belonged to Jessica Moore, Sam's girlfriend. His late girlfriend. Dean had met her only once, and she'd scored high marks in her tiny, cut-off Smurf t-shirt. Dean recalled lots of blonde hair and jeeze, she was tall—legs that went on forever. Had to be tall, or else Sammy would've dwarfed her.
They could’ve made stupidly cute kids, Dean mulled absently.
Kids. He scrubbed a hand through his sweaty hair and there was something about kids, other kids, teasing just beyond the edge of recollection. Exasperating, like a name on the tip of your tongue. Maybe he should just get the hell out of the heat; evidently he wasn’t firing on all cylinders. He should’ve parked under a tree where the sun wouldn’t be boiling his brains or his ass.
Dean shoved off the car and crossed the cemetery, wary not to walk on the graves, hands shoved into his pockets. He felt a wan breeze cool the wet patches on his back.
Looking up when Dean’s shadow fell over the ground, Sam nodded wanly. He was sitting cross-legged on a parched patch of grass, cheeks red from the heat, eyes swollen and glossy with old tears.
“Sammy.” Dean crouched beside him, swallowing back a dry mouthful of pity.
He wasn’t sure what to say anymore. Nothing would put a dent in his brother’s misery because God knew he’d tried. They’d seen so fucking much death in their twenty-some-odd years, more than any person short of a medical professional should have. Desiccated corpses, re-animated bodies, bundles of bones moving on their own accord. They knew death. But this…this was a brand new hell. This was the death of hope, and it was whittling away at Sam from the inside.
“Sammy,” Dean repeated, setting a palm on his brother’s shoulder. “Hey, let’s grab some lunch.” It was almost two o’clock and they hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Even then Sam didn’t eat, just stared at half a mug of burnt coffee from some campus dive.
Not surprising. Sam didn’t seem to be sweating either, and that was never a good sign in Dean’s experience. “Come on. You look like beef jerky. Let’s get a soda at least, yeah?”
Dean wasn’t going to suffer much more of this, for his brother’s sake. He straightened up and tugged at Sam’s collar. “Don’t make me drag you out of here, man. We can come back after it cools down. It’s—” It’s not going anywhere, Sammy. It’ll still be here when we get back. Dean let that half of the comment die on his tongue.
Sam’s shoulders shuddered and expanded as he drew a great breath. Dean expected more of his brother’s customary mule-headedness but Sam nodded. He unfolded from his seat and stood slowly, joints popping. He looked wrung out and finished, as if what he wanted just didn’t matter to the universe anymore. If it ever had.
Regardless, it mattered to Dean.
“Atta boy.” Dean gave his brother’s arm a squeeze before trudging off towards the car. Sam trailed in his wake but hearing him stumble, Dean paused to walk alongside, shoulder to almost-shoulder, just in case. He couldn’t tell if it was the heat or the despair, but this wasn’t a Sam he was used to seeing. The fight was run off. Sam’s cock-eyed self-possession had left the building.
They drove down the cloyingly homey streets, skirting campus, until Dean found a square box of a restaurant on one corner. It was suitably nondescript and usually those sorts of places offered good, greasy comfort food. 'The Rise and Shiner Diner' only featured breakfast and lunch, and the boys were lucky to catch the place still serving.
The hostess took one look at Sam, though, and probably would’ve served them regardless. She brought them coffee without even asking.
Dean flipped open the oversized menu and perused it thoughtfully. So many choices, so little room in his stomach. He settled on The Big Country Breakfast. It came with a home fries, two eggs cooked to order, and three different kinds of pig: sausage, bacon and ham. That sold him.
Sam ordered oatmeal.
“Are you kidding me?” Dean ripped the menu from Sam’s loose fingers and handed it back to the waitress. ‘Bonnie’, according to her tag. “He’ll have the Veggie Benedict. Thanks.”
Sam didn’t even bother to roll his eyes. He cupped his hands around his coffee and stared at the black stuff inside as if it would make Dean go away. Which of course, it didn’t.
“So, Sammy, when are you starting back to class? I mean, I’m not rushing you or anything but if you feel like you need a break, a leave of absence, and you want to come with—”
“It’s Sam. And Dad would love that,” he mumbled sourly.
Sam snorted and stared out the window.
“Dude. He would. He misses you, you shithead. You know Dad; he just plays it close to the vest. How can you honestly believe he wouldn’t want you around, especially now? After this? He’s still your family and he, you know, loves you and all.”
“Seriously, Dean? You heard the last conversation we had. Involved words like ‘pig-headed’ and ‘ungrateful’ and ‘If you leave, don’t come back.’”
“You had a few choice words yourself, if I recall.”
Dean leaned forward across the table, fingers splaying wide on the surface. “No, not ‘whatever’. Look at you. You’re a fucking mess. Let us help you.”
No reply, Sam just kept squinting out the window, eyes bruised and vacant.
“Sammy. SAM. Dad never got to meet Jessica. He wanted to, something fierce, but God you know the life! You feel so responsible for the health and well-being of the ignorant masses, and then there’s the demon and what it did to Mom and—”
“I bought her a ring, Dean.”
Well that shut him right up. Dean sat back as Bonnie set steaming plates of vittles on the table and refreshed the coffees. He wasn’t sure he was hungry anymore. When he’d pondered the pretty rugrats Sam and Jess might’ve made, he wasn’t serious, not really. He didn’t realize how close to the truth he’d actually been. He wished he’d gotten to know Jess better so he could truly share some of the hurt…shoulder some of the burden. As it stood, she was this mystery, the girl who had stolen his little brother’s heart. And she’d taken it to the grave with her.
Quiet hung over the table like a pall. Dean stared at his trio of pork products, feeling fresh new misery on behalf of Sam: the kid he couldn’t protect from life’s hurts, no matter how he tried. Even though Sam had seen fit to get tall and leave and become his own man, Dean wanted to be his brother’s armor. It was one of the shittiest, most helpless feelings in existence. Eventually, Dean couldn’t stand the stillness anymore and picked up a fork to prod at a slab of country ham.
“I didn’t know,” he said, avoiding Sam’s eyes.
“I know you didn’t. Maybe I should’ve told you. Maybe…”
Dean was cutting the meat into lop-sided chunks and stabbing at an egg—bleeding yellow all over the plate—but he paused when Sam didn’t continue his thought. Dean snapped a glance up, irrationally afraid maybe his brother had died of heartbreak right then and there. “Maybe what?”
Sam started to speak, tripping over the words. He pushed his plate to one side and finally stared at Dean, full on. “Maybe I could’ve saved her. Maybe I could’ve stopped it from happening.”
Dean pointed with his fork, dripping yolk. “And if frogs had wings they wouldn’t slap their asses on the ground. Sam, we’ve been over this. What could you have done? Nothing. But Dad’s constantly putting out feelers for any God-damned sliver of intel on that yellow-eyed bastard. We’ll find him if it’s the last thing we do. I promise you—”
“I saw it.”
“I know you did, man. I know. And it was fucking horrible.”
“No, I mean, before. I saw it before.” Sam’s gaze took on a fevered glisten, tears threatening again, his fingers clutching the mug so tight Dean feared the ceramic would crack.
“What, you mean like déjà vu?” Could Sam remember being six-months old, watching their mother combust on the ceiling of his nursery? Not likely, in spite of Sam’s stellar SAT scores.
He looked hard at Dean. Hard and desperate. "No. I dreamt it. Right before it happened. I dreamt it and I didn't pay attention and it came true."
Dean nearly swallowed his own tongue, coughing. He took a swig of coffee and blinked. “You sayin’ you made it happen by dreaming it? Yeah, I don’t think so.”
“I foresaw it, Dean.”
Dean kept blinking. Sam seemed so earnest; he really believed this bunk. Boy, grief can make you think some whackadoo things.
Sam withered and swiped at his eyes. “You don’t believe me.”
Oh, great. Now he feels like a bigger pile of shit. “I believe you’re really upset. Hell, I’d be upset too, but you can’t keep wearin’ all this guilt. You couldn’t have done a damned anything, all right? So just stop seeing blame where there isn’t any.” Dean exercised his best Dad voice, authoritative and whiskey-smooth and do-not-argue-with-me serious. He felt vaguely hypocritical preaching this sort of logic when he’d certainly be doing the very same thing if he was in Sam’s shoes, but it seemed to work. Sammy sighed and put his forehead on his arms, visibly exhausted. Too exhausted to pursue the debate. Dean wadded up his napkin and threw it on a plate, briefly putting his palm on Sam’s shaggy mop. “Hey, you sure you don’t wanna just blow this two-horse town and hit the road?”
Sam wobbled his head. Negatory. “I have an interview,” came his muffled voice.
“Huh. You a local celebrity and forget to tell me?”
“Law school. I have an interview for law school.”
Dean smiled, but the gesture took effort. It pulled crooked at his center. “A lawyer in the family. Damn. Could be handy, I guess.”
“Jess would want me to keep…to keep trying…”
Dean nodded. Of course she would.
They were the last customers in the diner. Bonnie swung by the table, eyeing all the untouched food. “Can I get you some to-go boxes, boys?”
When Dean declined, she left the bill, insisted there was no hurry, and wandered back towards the kitchen, her institutional shoes making slick, squeaky sounds. Dean was fishing cash from his wallet and sliding across the booth when something tapped at the window to his right.
Check that, someone. At first, Dean didn’t recognize the guy, but Sam lifted his head and filled in the blank: “Brady.”
Ah, Sam’s ex-roommate, Tyson Brady. Dean had met him twice, once in passing and the second time at the funeral. Neither instance had impressed Dean much.
The guy—Brady—gave a flap of his hand that wasn’t quite a wave and entered the diner. Bonnie droned “We’re closed,” to which Brady nodded, said something unintelligible, and made a bee-line for the Winchesters. His face was already practicing sympathy which, to Dean’s eye, just made him look constipated.
Dean couldn’t quite put his finger on what didn’t sync up with this Brady person. Sure, he looked like every other Stanford student: tanned, blonde, generic, built like a banker. He seemed inoffensive enough, if a little heavy on the smarminess, which certainly could’ve been part of it. After all, beetle knows its own.
But Dean just couldn’t visualize Brady hauling Sam out of the burning apartment, supposed adrenaline rush or no. Sam still had a good few inches and pounds of muscle on Brady, and would have had his own immovable resolution to stay and rescue his girl. It just didn’t fly. Wild horses couldn’t have dragged Sam from that building. But somehow, this Golden Boy did.
“Hey, Dean.” Brady extended his hand and Dean almost didn’t accept, but Sam was staring. One pump, release. That’s as good as this schmuck was getting. “Glad you could hang around for a while.”
“Well, Sammy is my brother.” Dean smiled dryly.
" 'Sammy'. That's cute." Brady grabbed a chair from a nearby table and sat down at the end of their booth. When Sam huffed—Dean recognized it as his brother's "Ugh, don't start" sound—Brady put his hand on Sam's shoulder. "You okay, man? I'm glad your brother could make it; too bad your dad was busy."
“Yeah, too bad,” Sam murmured.
Dean rolled his eyes and bit the inside of his cheek so hard he nearly drew blood. “Ooookay, let’s just move this conversation into safer waters, shall we?” Dean didn’t want to show this Brady person exactly how a Winchester defended the family name; it usually involved fists and full-body checks. Sam didn’t need that on top of mourning his, God, his almost-fiancé. “I was just trying to talk Sam into taking a break, a road trip. You know, a little R-n-R—”
“Except that it’s never R-n-R with Dad,” Sam said and now Dean wanted to hit him, too.
“Your brother might be right, Sam.” Brady nodded at a mildly surprised Dean. “After you kill that interview, maybe you should spend some time with your family. Take a leave of absence. I’m sure the school has provisions for these kinds of things.”
Sam’s face softened and he seemed to entertain the idea. Dean conceded it wasn’t such a bad plan of action. It would give him plenty of time to prep Dad, smooth the path and try to suggest a few ground rules. Not that Dad would listen but stranger things had been known to happen.
As if on cue, Dean’s phone hummed from his pocket. Dad’s ring. Sam looked at him knowingly and Dean slid out of the booth, dropping the check into Brady’s lap with a grin. “I gotta take this. You two girls don’t leave without me.”
“Hey, son. How’s your brother?”
Dean squinted through the clear California sunshine and found a shady spot within eyeshot of the diner to take the call. He copped a squat on a bench under a tree, already feeling sweat bloom on his nose.
“He’s tough. He’ll make it.” Dean hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. He honestly didn’t know if Sam would bounce back from this. Sam had never been able to shove feelings down like Dean could…put the crap in tidy little mental boxes and slam the lids. Cold storage. What’s more, he wasn’t sure why he was lying to their father about Sam’s state of mind. Some ass-backward sense of brotherhood, he could only guess. And maybe the fact he missed Sam way more than he was willing to admit to anyone, especially himself.
“Wish I could be there but—”
“I know, Dad.” Dean waited a beat before continuing. He heard the growl of a motor in the background, John’s big black monster of a truck. “You could call him, you know. He’s got a phone; you’ve got the number. Talk to him yourself.”
Now it was John’s turn to pause. He sighed weightily and when he spoke, his voice was worn thin. “Where is he now?”
“Don’t worry about it. He’s fine.”
“So what’s up, Dad? Why’d you call?” Dean winced inwardly. He knew his father was stinging yet Dean didn’t feel the compulsion to be nice. He also knew Sam would likely have ripped their father a new asshole if he’d called, simply on principle. That seemed to be their preferred method of communication, snarling at each other’s throats like wolves. Guess he couldn’t blame Dad for not calling. Or maybe he could. Shit, he hated this.
“If Sam is…if you can leave, there’s been a rash of black dog sightings. They don’t usually come in clusters so this worries me. Might mean something bigger on the wind.”
Dean swiped the back of his arm across his forehead and looked back towards the diner. Sam and Brady were just leaving, chatting amicably. Hell, the guy even managed to wheedle a smile from Sammy. His brother liked the douche bag for some reason, no accounting for taste. “Yeah, okay. Gonna take me a few days but I’ll make tracks.” Dean waved to catch Sam’s attention. “You wanna talk to him?”
“Sure. Sure, put him on.”
He tossed Sam the phone as soon as they were in range of each other, mouthing the words Be cool.
“Hi, Dad,” Sam said into the receiver, already settling his eyes into a flat gaze which boded poorly for the conversation. Sam turned away and spoke out of Dean’s earshot. Deliberately, of course. It made Dean squirm inside but he wasn’t about to show that in front of Brady, who was clearly as uncomfortable with the situation as Dean was. They exchanged nothing but awkward sort-of smiles until Sam returned, his cheeks flushed and brow tugged, determinedly dour.
“That went well,” Dean muttered when Sam threw the phone at him.
“He needs you, Dean. Go.”
“I’m fine. Got things to take care of.” And then Sam’s expression softened when he looked, truly looked, at Dean. “I’m fine, I swear. Call me when…whenever. Whenever you can.”
Dean just nodded, toying with his phone. He was already packed up. Never unpacked, really. He didn’t want Sam here without him, but that wasn’t Dean’s call to make. Nothing could budge immovable Sam when he dug in his heels; the kid had been born with a mule’s obstinacy.
Suddenly, Sam caught him in a hug, arms wrapped firmly, chin buried into his shoulder. It caught Dean off-guard, nearly knocked the wind from his lungs and the will from his heart. Dean didn’t pull back until Sam let go, girlie moment be damned. He’d knock Brady’s teeth down his throat if he so much as thought of laughing. Which, to the guy’s slender credit, he didn’t.
“Take care,” Sam said quietly.
“Yeah, Sammy. You too.”
Dean watched his brother go, shoulders sloped, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans and stupid hair flopping with each step. Brady walked alongside.
He’ll be fine, Dean said to himself because he needed to believe it so badly, it made his chest hurt.
Dean played the music loud so he didn’t have to suffer the quiet. He was glad to be moving again, glad that the world was whipping by at 80 miles-an-hour and the road was back humming under his boots. He should’ve been used to that empty seat by now, no one wincing at his singing or slobbering in his sleep against the window until Dean put a wet finger in his ear.
Asinine fucking life, with people dying and arguing and not doing things Dean’s way. Just this once, he wanted to call the shots. All the shots. Wasn’t gonna happen, though.
Dad had phoned with news of a hunt, so off Dean went. Sammy wanted to be a lawyer—a God-damned lawyer, of all things—so Dean let him. The parable of the prodigal son never made a bit of sense when Pastor Jim sermonized on it and Dean loathed it even more now.
“Prodigal this,” Dean grunted and turned the radio up even louder until the windows rattled and his ears pounded.
John was waiting for him just outside of Reno, Nevada, at the Vagabond Inn. It had to be one of the most generic motor lodges Dean had ever set eyes on, and maybe that accounted for the stale sense of familiarity. Or maybe Dean wanted to be anywhere else but this armpit of a motel, with its dingy green roof, senior rates, free HBO and “pets okay.” His room had better not stink of dog piss, that’s all Dean had to say, or someone wasn’t getting a tip.
He found the big black truck around back, with Dad nursing a cigarette out the open door. Dean cut the engine; his ears kept ringing long after the music died.
“Hey, son. How was the drive? How’s Sam?”
Dean considered taking up smoking for about the twenty-ninth time that year and once again, decided he had enough vices in his life already. Maybe he’d exercise one of them and hit a casino later, just like he and Sammy did…wait. No, they never. Sam had never been to Reno. Shit.
“He’s not the same ol’ Sammy,” Dean said, stretching to crack his back in three places. “Just ain’t swinging the world by the tail these days.”
John dropped what was left of his cigarette to the ground, where it bounced under a tire. "Your brother'll pull through. He's strong. Always has been."
"Maybe, Dad, but I'm telling you, this might’ve broke him."
John looked at his firstborn, eyes hooded and inscrutable, and climbed out of the truck. He seemed like he wanted to say something, lips parted, but he shook off the words and reached into the cab, pulling out his familiar old duffel. "Get your bag. Let's check in, grab some dinner and rest up. We’ve got to make hard progress tomorrow before the trail turns cold.”
Dean nodded and turned back towards the Impala to get his stuff.
He knew his father still missed Sam more than life itself. Dad had to be hating the way things went down; that was a given. But equally steadfast was the obstinacy John had bred into his youngest son that prevented either man from bending enough to apologize, or making even a gnat-sized fraction of peace. Jackasses, the both of them.
After registering at the Vagabond under the name McGillicutty, the Winchesters scored a booth at one of those bland, chain steakhouses where you threw your peanut shells on the floor but the waitresses wore tight jeans and that made Dean happy enough.
John wasn’t as fastidious about his data collection as Sam. When he opened the worn folder, papers floated out in seeming disarray, the Bobby Singer method of organization. Dean knew better. His father had every shred of information committed to memory, and part of the reason John kept his files untidy was in case they were discovered. To the uninitiated, it would look like the collected works of a mad man, just scattered enough to give the façade of confusion and obsession. Maybe the latter was true but there was no confusion, not one iota.
He sorted through the pile and pulled out a hand-written page, sliding it across the table to Dean. There were recent dates and locations, all supposed sightings of black dogs. They cut a crooked swath from Las Vegas to Tonopah to here—Sparks, Nevada, just east of Reno. People were shredded, but so were locations. A grave had been dug up, and a grieving family member swore it’d looked like a huge dog had done it; she’d had flowerbeds destroyed in a similar manner by the neighbor’s labradoodle. Labradoodle?
“What the hell is a labradoodle?”
John huffed, almost good-naturedly, and drank his beer. “Don’t know. Some damned breed reserved for people with no sense of pride, I suppose.”
Dean continued to skim the page but after a fashion, a crease of concern cut between his eyes.
“Dad, I’m seeing something here. Or, I mean, I’m not seeing something. There are no first-hand accounts. No one’s actually set eyes on a black dog, but people are still dying. I don’t get it. Aren’t black dogs death omens? And you kinda have to see them to get that point across, right?”
John tilted his head. “There’s that. And all the damage done strikes me oddly. Black dogs typically don’t give a crap about vandalism.”
“Yeah, they get off on fear. Drink it up like Kool-aid. Poltergeist?”
“Not unless they operate out in the middle of nowhere.” John filtered through the paperwork and fished out a news clipping. An abandoned well had been brutally excavated in the middle of the night, and some kid had fallen inside the following day. His name was not ‘Timmy’, Dean noted with vague humor.
The steaks arrived and John closed the file, slipping it into a pack by his feet. Somewhere between the last of a baked potato and a second beer, John looked relaxed enough for Dean to broach a subject that had been chewing on his conscience since Stanford.
He didn’t know how else to creep into it, so Dean just started talking.
“He…Sammy was gonna marry Jess.”
John’s beer paused midway between his empty plate and thinly pressed lips.
Dean plowed onward. “He’d bought her a ring, but he never got around to asking. I’m pretty sure she’d have said yes.”
John did that almost talking thing again but this time, he got the words pushed out. “I didn’t know.”
“That’s what I said.” Dean watched John take a great swallow of beer, watched as his mouth pulled down and his nose got just a little red. “I thought you should know, well, how close he actually came to having his Happily Ever After. To having normal.”
Yeah, laying it on a little heavy but fuck it. Dad needed to know. And if Dean had to play go-between again, then so be it. He would.
It felt as though the air had just gained weight, like twenty pounds of invisible force was suspending and distorting the tinny country music from the overhead speakers. Or maybe it was just supposed to sound that shitty.
John finally set his beer down, drained. He didn’t say a word, but dragged his hand over his face and made a soft sound in his throat. Little more than a grunt, really, but Dean knew what it meant. And it meant his dad got it. Good.
The main courtyard of the Stanford campus was nearly empty. It was 3 a.m., maybe 4, and even the night-owls were indoors but this was when Sam liked it best. Stanford was beautiful at night, really. He walked through the courtyard, in between the science and history buildings and out into the park in the back. There were sequoias, old ones, and the earth was soft with their needles.
Sam let out a long sigh and leaned back against one of the massive trees. It had been a mixed blessing seeing Dean again. Sure, he missed his brother more than he’d expected, and it’d been weird saying good-bye to him so soon. A small part of him didn't understand why he hadn't left with Dean, but the rest of him knew. It wasn't that he wanted to stay away from his brother, or even his father—okay, maybe it was a little about Dad—it was more about Jess. It was that he, personally, had to find out who or what had killed her.
Dean could swear up, down and sideways that Sam’s dream was just grief, the misconception of a memory out of sequence. Sam admitted to an annoying habit of needing control, of needing to feel things were always within his grasp and manageable and not swimming in chaos. So Dean wasn’t totally off-base with his concern, but this time? This time Sam was certain. It wouldn’t let up. It crouched on the edges of every waking thought and wound through his sleep.
Dean also accused Sam of being stubborn. Again, not entirely untrue.
If Brady hadn't pulled him from the blazing apartment, that would've been the end of the story. That whole night was a blur of unpurgeable flame and sirens and stomach-turning panic, and he still couldn’t fathom how Brady had managed to get him out in one piece. For hours afterwards, Sam had stared at the scene, disbelieving. Despite the number of macabre, monstrous things he’d seen in his life, this was beyond the pale. Sam’s mind had gotten stuck on two facts: he'd foreseen Jess die in a dream weeks before it happened, and she'd died the same way Mom had.
It was ironic, really. He'd come here to get away from hunting, and now all he wanted to do—the only thing he could do—was hunt down whatever had killed Jess. If he was right, and he knew he was, then he was hunting the same entity as Dad. This thing had taken everything from Sam: his mother, the chance at a normal life, and Jess, the woman with whom he should’ve been spending the rest of his life.
Sam wrapped his hand around the little box in his coat pocket. He'd been working up the nerve to give her the ring for the last two weeks, and had finally decided when he was going to ask her. It would have been tomorrow night...but instead, he'd buried the ring at her grave. He'd held onto the box, and wasn't even sure why. It sure as hell didn’t give him comfort.
Sam withdrew his hand, rubbed fingers over his weary eyes. Rest refused to come, no matter the hour. The very thought of attempting to sleep felt futile. He shoved off the tree and was heading back towards campus proper when far off, something keened.
He paused, turning, trying to locate the direction of the sound. There were coyote in the hills and it certainly could’ve been one of them, but as a second scream cut the quiet, Sam was quite sure it was human. And much closer than the hills.
He started running to the noise. There was another scream and another, and something hissed. It sounded almost like a hydraulic release of pressure, but somehow organic.
Adrenaline spurred his urgency. He pounded the familiar walkways, tracking the shudder of branches and the sounds of something heavy dragging through the palms, until he bottomed out at one of the university’s prominent landmarks: the mausoleum of the founding family.
He wasn’t surprised. Of course suspicious crap was happening around dead people. Wasn’t that just the way?
The mausoleum came into view, a stoic structure of pale stone lit only by the moon and two small flood lights. The lights cast devious shadows over a pair of statues—sphinxes—one on either side of the weathered brass door.
The night had gone silent. Not even insects were buzzing. And there was definitely no more screaming. Gooseflesh raced over Sam’s arms as he squinted into the swallowing black of the tree-line.
He didn’t have his God-damned gun; for obvious reasons, he wasn’t in the habit of carrying it on campus. His bootknife was all he had. He slipped it from under his pant leg and the blade snicked open, metal catching the moonlight for a split second.
"Holy shit," Sam whispered as red eyes flickered and disappeared, in and out of the foliage like a mirage. What is that?
It occurred to him, in a brief flash of the obvious, that he shouldn’t be hunting anything. Not now, not alone, not out of practice, and sure as hell not coming off of grieving with a tenuous will to thrive. But he hunt would anyway. If he died here, at the steps of a mausoleum with nothing but a pig-sticker clutched in his fist, it would be fitting.
Sam hugged the crypt, slipping through shadows on cat’s paws. Whatever rustled through the trees was big, but not so big it couldn’t navigate the trunks easily. Wendigo? No, too far south and they avoided populated areas. Werewolves didn’t hiss, to his knowledge. A werecat? Yeah, that was far-fetched but so was his life.
Then he saw it. A slice of moonlight had broken though the trees and the creature raced across, seemingly unconcerned by Sam’s presence. A wyvern.
Dean and Dad had hunted a wyvern five years ago and they'd had to call in back-up. It took six hunters to bring the beast down. The problem with wyverns was it was nearly impossible to hurt them. Their skin was as hard as rock. The only thing that could penetrate their natural armor was another wyvern, with their venomous tail-spikes, teeth or talons.
Sam looked at his measly bootknife and grimaced.
But something else was caught in the edge of the moonlight—a distinctly humanoid shape. Shit, that must be what the damned thing is tracking. Sam crouched away from the building and skirted the lawn, following what little movement he could parse from the dark.
He struggled to keep his heart in check, sweat trickling down the side of his face. There was a wet squelch underfoot and what he’d thought was a pile of leaves turned red and viscous, and upon closer inspection, appeared to be intestines. The discovery added ‘nausea’ to the list of Sam’s current concerns.
Pulling out his penlight would simply make him more of a target so he crept into the grove, almost blind, mindful to keep a tree at his back and his ears peeled.
The shadows came alive. A flurry of chaos exploded around him but Sam still couldn’t see jack shit. He backed up hard into a trunk and stayed there, feeling hot breath and branches slamming so bloody close. Grunts, snarls, sounds of a struggle…and he couldn’t do a damned thing but hold his knife at the ready and pray.
It was getting closer. Weight whipped around the canopy immediately overhead and Sam hunched down instinctively. From the rim of his vision he saw an enormous tail, as thick as his thigh, scrape the tree inches from his skull and a shower of bark rained down.
He darted his gaze around in a frantic spin, desperate for visual information. A sliver of bright metal flashed and thunked into something solid. And the scream, Christ the scream, made his heart stutter.
It was a shriek and a roar somehow twisted together, and Sam smelled carrion. His stomach curdled. Wood snapped as the monster careened through the black. It kept snarling. Hurt.
Then someone spoke and it wasn’t Sam. “Come on, you fucker. You want me? Come get me.” He knew the voice, but the context was all wrong. It didn’t make a lick of sense.
Sam pawed through his pocket for his penlight, secrecy be damned, and shot a thin beam of illumination through the copse. The wyvern, what little he could see of it, was splattered in red, vast leathery wings caught close to its back and flashes of fanged maw striking at a man whose back was turned to Sam.
The man held a huge blade, a machete most likely; it was moving far too fast for Sam to be sure. The pair was in this sort of dance, lashing out in turn, trading blood for blood, but the man was prudently avoiding the wyvern’s scorpion-like tail.
They crashed about, wildly unpredictable in the mostly-dark. Sam could just barely follow their movements, but he followed enough to see a great black slithering shape bouldering towards him. He scarcely had time to duck behind a tree and drop down, making himself as small a target as possible. The trunk shuddered, rocking Sam to his core.
The man swore unintelligibly, followed by another colossal thud, a breathless grunt. Then…nothing.
There was a blast like steam escaping, or perhaps a last great exhale of breath. It filled the air with the stink of rancid meat and Sam was forced to cough, swallowing back bile.
“Who’s there?” The voice demanded, still familiar despite its gruff, post-combat wheeze.
Footfalls grew closer. The man was maybe twenty feet away, judging from the sounds. It was too late for Sam to extinguish his light; he was caught. He stood, peeked around the tree, and leveled a piercing beam at the man’s face. And stared.
“Huh. Sam.” Brady was winded and slick with sweat, blood staining his high-end jeans and Abercrombie and Fitch sweatshirt. He wasn’t wielding a machete, as Sam’d surmised, but some manner of exotic blade that radiated a faint, bilious glow. The wyvern twitched under the effects of its own venom, impaled upon its own tail. To say the whole scene looked incongruous was an understatement. “This is…awkward.”
Sam gaped. “Yeah. A little.”
They stared at each other for a few self-conscious moments before the distant echo of sirens, more than likely unrelated to a rogue wyvern slaughter, wailed through the night and compelled them to jump into action. They both knew what needed to be done.
There was a construction site adjacent to the nearby Arboretum. The wyvern, while bigger than a horse, was serpentine and flexible enough to slip inside a dumpster. Sam did not miss the fact Brady carried most of the weight.
Not even trained hunters were this good.
Brady could not be human.
They didn’t speak the entire way back to Brady’s apartment—sticking to alleys and side streets because hello, both of them were wearing monster ichors by this point—but once inside, Sam whirled on him. “Alright. What the hell are you?”
“Jeeze, Sam, do you mind? Can I at least wash my hands?” Brady slipped the weird blade from his sleeve and set it on the breakfast bar of his small galley kitchen, beside a bowl of apples.
Sam was not in a waiting mood. His life was spinning madly out of control and Brady, being whatever the hell he was, couldn’t have been a coincidence. “No. I mind a great fucking deal. Start talking.”
Brady lifted his bloody hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, just untwist your panties for a second, please?” His tone was careful, placating. “I’m here totally for you. To keep you safe.”
“I don’t need a babysitter—”
“Oh, I beg to differ. That wyvern? She was after you.”
“What? I don’t think so. Those things are drawn to raging, malignant evil. I don’t think my inclination to drive fast constitutes that sort of attention. So again I ask: What. Are. You?” Brady was tall, but Sam was taller still and he didn’t think twice about drawing up to his full height and getting in Brady’s face.
That is, until Brady’s eyes flickered an oily, obsidian black.
Sam’s jaw snapped shut.
Sighing, Brady blinked his eyes back to blue. "Look. You're going to hate everything that comes out of my mouth for the next few minutes. But you deserve to know the truth. Let me make this simple. I'm a demon—”
Oh, that was plenty simple for Sam. His hand shot forward and grabbed the huge knife. It wasn’t glowing anymore but Sam figured it would still niche out nice chunks of flesh, which Brady confirmed by taking a fast step back.
“—and I know who killed Jessica."
Sam lost the ability to speak and stared at Brady, dumbfounded.
"I know who killed her, because he sent me here to kill you."
The knife swiped decidedly close to Brady’s throat, and Sam ground out one word: “Who?”
“Azazel, a demon higher up the food chain than me."
"Azazel…" Sam repeated and it tasted like ashes in his mouth. He let the name burn its way down deep into his mind. "Why did he send you to kill me?"
"Because you're one of the few things on this Earth that can kill him."
“Me?” Sam scoffed. "I didn’t think you could kill demons, just exorcise them."
"Well, generally, that's the program but you're different. You're the exception, and that's why you're dangerous. It's Azazel's fault, you know. He made you what you are. Right before he killed your mother."
Brady nodded and used one finger to slowly guide the knife tip away from his throat. "Sam, I know you don't want to hear this. Believe me, if there was any other way, I wouldn’t be risking my neck. I like my neck.”
"Talk," Sam said tersely. His stomach was souring with bile. He really didn’t want to know all the levels of freak Brady was about to spew forth, but what he wanted was no longer important. He had to have answers, even if they stung his ears and filled him with poison.
"Your mother died that night because she walked in on Azazel—”
"In my nursery. She died in my nursery."
Brady hesitated, watching Sam guardedly. "She died because she saw Azazel feeding you his blood."
"His..." Sam felt the room spin. "I have demon blood in me?"
"I'm afraid so," Brady smiled sadly. "But then, you've known you were different for a while now. Haven't you, Sam?"
He wanted to shout at Brady to shut his fucking mouth, wanted to send the God-damned knife sliding sidelong across Brady’s throat but instead, Sam simply said, "Yes."
"The night Jess died, when I pulled you out of that fire, you kept saying 'I should have warned her.'” Brady locked eyes with Sam. "What were you going to warn her about?"
"I saw her die." Sam swallowed. "I had dreams of her dying...just like that. For days before it happened."
"But you didn't say anything to her. Why?"
"Because it was a dream. It didn't mean anything!" Sam snapped.
"It meant everything." Brady ran his hand through his hair and let out a sigh. "Sam, I'm so sorry I wasn't there in time to save her. If I'd known Azazel was going to go after her, I would have—”
"You said he sent you to kill me. Why don't you?" Sam flung his arms wide, eyes stinging. "You're stronger than me; I won't even fight back." He felt a miserable smile tighten across his face, and Sam dropped the knife to the floor.
Brady rolled his eyes. "I don't want to kill you, Sam. I want the same thing you want."
He blinked at Brady, confused.
"He's our king—well, acting king, anyway; has been for centuries—but he's a tyrant. His plans, what he wants to do to this world…he's going to destroy everything."
"And you don't want that because why? You're a good demon?"
Brady snorted. "Hardly. I just like things the way they are." He retrieved his knife and tested its weight in his palm. "Azazel did what he did to you, and the others like you, because he needs one of you on his side. There are certain things in this world that demons can't do—things we can't touch, places we can't go—but a human...a human wouldn't have any trouble at all. So Azazel gave you all a tiny drop of power in the hopes that you'll come to see things his way."
"And then what?"
"And then...you'll stand by his side, lead his army and help decimate the planet."
Sam coughed out a humorless laugh. "Lead his army. Why would any human agree to that?"
Brady paused, canting his head thoughtfully. "You'd be amazed at what power can do to a person."
"You're a demon."
"So why the hell do you care what happens to the world?"
"I like it top-side because it's not Hell. If Azazel gets his way, there won't be any difference between Palo Alto and Perdition." Brady went so far as to sling an arm over Sam's shoulders and whisper conspiratorially in his ear. Sam shuddered. "Right now there are maybe a few dozen demons walking the earth. If Azazel wins, there will be thousands of us, and there aren't a whole lot like me."
The proximity made Sam’s skin crawl, but stronger than that was one thing. "You want Azazel dead?"
"And you can teach me how to kill him?"
"Fine," Sam said quietly. "What do I have to do?"
Dean left Water Hole #1 with a pair of hand-pulled pork sandwiches, a six-pack of Coke and the sneaking suspicion these were not black dogs they were tracking.
After three days of interviews in Winnemucca—he and John masquerading as animal control—they were coming up with a baffling assortment of tales, none of which smacked of witchcraft or graveyards or great beasts with glowing eyes or hell, even rabid St. Bernards named Cujo.
No one had seen squat, the evidence being almost entirely circumstantial. Bodies, torn into ribbons, the carnage heading progressively eastward – that was the big give-away. Beyond that, the only thing the three victims shared was a pit stop at Water Hole #1, which wasn’t the least bit uncommon given its location sixteen miles out of Winnemucca, at the intersection of two barren highways. The killings had ended as abruptly as they’d started, no rhyme or reason.
According to the propaganda, Golconda was once home to several hot springs that had long since been filled in. This left the area with little more than a post office, a motor lodge and a dive bar that doubled as a family restaurant.
The roads were long, flat and nondescript, but at least had the dignity to bottom out into an impressive bank of mountains. Sunset painted the sky shades of spilt blood and violets. Dean tossed a sandwich at his dad who was leaning on the side of his truck, smoking a Marlboro.
“Well?” John dropped the cigarette. It sparked before he crushed the stub out under his boot. He exhaled a stream of toxins and began unwrapping dinner.
“Small town, everyone knows everyone else,” Dean said around a mouthful of sandwich, setting the sodas on the truck’s bumper. The temperature was dropping fast but it felt clean and bracing after long days in the car. “By most accounts, they all had fan-damn-tastic lives. Until they didn’t anymore.”
John grunted and wandered the area, surveying the grounds in the dying light. His eyes narrowed and flicked, telegraphing thoughts into visual gestures, just like Sammy did; must’ve been where the kid learned it. John kicked at a scrub of dried, gold-capped weeds and grunted again. “This stuff look familiar to you?”
“Yeah. Bobby used to have it in his backyard, didn’t he?”
John leveled a heavy gaze at his son, and Dean couldn’t tell if it was due to the yellow weeds or the mention of Bobby Singer. “Devil’s nettle.” John nodded. “Yarrow.”
“Don’t they use that in summoning spells?”
“And pacts. With demons.” John pivoted slowly, looking around in all four directions. “Crossroads demons.”
A gob of pork nearly lodged in Dean’s throat. He wadded up the remains of his sandwich into a ball of foil and lobbed it as far as he could. “Great. So we’re talking what? Hell hounds?”
“And now that they’re done with this year’s batch of deal-making fucknuts, they’ve split?”
John half-smiled at Dean’s word choice. “It’d be nice if it was that easy.”
A hawk or falcon circled overhead and gave an echoing cry, almost lost to dusk. Dean shivered, the cold finally seeping through his leather coat. “Guess we follow the bloodtrail…”
“Yep.” John added his sandwich crusts to Dean’s in the distant low-lying brush and fished out another cigarette.
The desolation was almost palpable, shadows stretching long from the flickering neon of the bar. Dean cracked open a can of pop for a much-needed hit of liquid energy. He almost didn’t want to get back behind the wheel of the Impala with no one riding shotgun. He’d be following right on Dad’s bumper but it wasn’t the same as having a warm body snoring against the passenger-side window, oblivious to the grainy wails of a classic cock-rock mix-tape. Dean thought he’d be used to it by now, but he wasn’t.
John’s cigarette glowed with an inhale, and he reached a hand into his pocket. Dean hadn’t heard the cell phone ring, but he wasn’t listening for it either. Might’ve been on vibrate, as was his father’s habit. “Daniel? What—?” John listened intently, the wind kicking up and tossing his hair.
Dean felt gooseflesh prickle his skin with the threat of undisclosed trouble. John said a few more terse words, carried off on the zephyr, before he closed the phone and turned to his son. “Manning, Colorado.”
“Think so. That was Daniel Elkins.”
“Why do I know that name?”
“Hunter. Knows everything there is to know about vampires, sort of a specialist, I s’pose.”
“Is he okay? Wait, vampires? Seriously?”
John coughed out a humorless laugh. “Seriously. Hardly anyone's seen 'em, mainly thanks to people like Elkins. He’s cut down their numbers drastically over the years."
“Huh. Guess so.” Dean took a swig of Coke, rattling car keys in his other palm. At least now they had a destination, an immediate purpose. Dean was always happiest when he could think as the crow flew, when A led to B led to C…when the road had a terminus, however distant, and he could gear himself up for the Great Eventual.
He and his father exchanged dark glances and nods, and then circled around to their respective rides. Engines gunned, dust roiled. Water Hole #1 grew smaller in the rearview mirror.