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.
Sam swallowed down the lump in his throat and stared at the crying, shaking kid huddled against the wall. "Max," Sam said, "it's gonna be okay. We're not here to hurt you."
Max clutched at his own hair. "Who are you? Why did you break into my house? My dad's gonna be home soon, and if he finds you here, he—"
"I need your help." Sam crouched down, trying to appear smaller. He was used to being taller than most people, but Max was tiny—so frail he would have looked younger than twenty-three, if it weren't for his eyes. His eyes were wary and wounded and not the least bit childlike. It was clear Max had seen some things in his life that left him incapable of innocence anymore.
"My...help?" Max stared at Sam, his voice still thick with tears. "Help with what?"
"I know what you can do, Max. I've seen it."
"What are you talking about?" Max shifted a glance to some arbitrary spot on the floor, sniffling.
"Your power. I saw you move the mug across the counter without touching it."
"Were you sp–spying on me?"
Brady snorted behind them.
Sam glared over his shoulder at the demon and turned back to Max. "Not exactly. I'm..." he smiled just a bit, "I'm like you. I mean I can't do what you do, but I have an ability too."
"I have these dreams, and sometimes they come true. I saw you, Max. I know that you've been practicing, and I know what you're planning on doing." Sam had fallen asleep less than an hour into the drive away from Stanford, and dreamt of a pale-skinned frightened boy who watched his father enter their garage and made sure he'd never, ever leave. When Sam woke up he told Brady what he'd seen. They changed their course to Saginaw to stop Max before it was too late.
Max stared straight at Sam with wide eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I think you know." Sam took a breath and looked at Max earnestly. "I know what you're planning on doing to your father."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Sam narrowed his eyes and said, "Yes. You do." He wasn't going to let this poor kid ruin his whole life by killing someone. No matter what had happened, there had to be a better way. "We're going to help you. We're going to make sure that what I saw doesn't happen."
"What do you want from me?" Max asked, wiping at his nose with a shaking hand.
"I need to do what you can do."
"You want me to...teach you?" Max asked.
Sam nodded. "Something like that."
"I don't even know how; I just figured out I could do this a few months ago!" Max looked over Sam's shoulder at Brady nervously.
Sam tried to think of something to say, anything that would calm Max down. "I wish I could explain it all, but it's better if you don't know, believe me. This will be over soon, and you can forget you ever saw us." He forced himself to broaden his smile, in what he hoped was a disarming gesture and added, "You can be normal again."
Behind them, Brady cleared his throat and moved to stand next to Sam.
"Wait! What are you—" Max began to pull away.
"It’s okay. This isn't going to hurt. Much." Brady held up his hand and Max froze in place, mouth slightly agape and eyes caught wide in fear.
Max was in some sort of stasis—he couldn't even scream—but his breathing became more and more panicked, and his frantic gaze darted from Brady to Sam and back again.
"Keeneelah vehmehdeh keeneelah," Brady chanted. He walked towards Max and held up a beaten metal chalice. Sam didn’t even know where Brady had pulled the thing from; it was just suddenly there. "Keeneelah vehmehdeh keeneelah."
"Maybe we should—" Sam started to say. His pulse jumped when the kid’s face contorted in pain. "You said this wouldn't hurt him!"
"Zod ireda deh homil efafafe," Brady said, his voice growing in volume and authority, pressing the cup against Max's chest. The container slowly began to fill with blood. Miniscule spots of red, as fine as pepper, bloomed through Max’s shirt and somehow, through the walls of the chalice. "Keeneelah vehmehdeh keeneelah!" Brady boomed once more, and pulled the cup away.
Max's eyes fell shut and his gasps slowed. Freed from Brady's hold, he slid to the floor. Immediately Sam was crouching there, a hand to Max’s throat, feeling for signs of life. He found them, all right: a leaping pulse, deep even breaths. Max was simply unconscious, the amount of blood on his shirt negligible. Sam had made bigger messes with nosebleeds.
He stood back up, and Brady handed him the chalice. "No I didn't. I said it wouldn't kill him. He's alive, isn't he?"
Sam tore his eyes away from Max. He blinked at Brady, dumbfounded, and stared down at the cup in his hands.
It certainly looked important enough to be a valuable relic. Ancient, hand-forged and weathered to a dusky patina, the metal was almost warm in Sam’s palms, and he detected faint humming, vibrations that felt like pins and needles. A few, scant tablespoons of blood quivered in the bottom of the bowl. Max's blood. Azazel's blood.
"Drink up," Brady said, "before it gets cold."
Sam curled his lip. This was nine kinds of wrong. Drink up? Saliva pooled at the root of his tongue and he wanted to gag. But Brady nodded his head and touched a finger to the bottom of the chalice, nudging it upwards. Sam looked at Max's slumped form one more time. He closed his eyes and on the back of his lids, he saw Jess on the ceiling. He saw her beautiful spun-gold hair fanned out and singeing. He remembered the unmistakable stink of burning human flesh. He felt the breath-stealing heat as it came at him in waves.
And then he brought the cup up to his lips, and drank.
The way Dad had raised them, Sam knew far too well what a mouthful of his own blood tasted like. Max's blood had the same metallic aftertaste that blood always had, but there was something else...bitter and foul and disturbingly familiar. Sulfur, Sam thought, and then he forgot about the taste altogether as something inside of him awoke. He sunk to his knees and let the empty cup fall to the floor. It bounced off the linoleum in slow motion, landed again, and rolled to a stop at Brady's feet.
The demon picked it up and grinned, his black eyes shining.
Brady had told Sam that his dreams were only a small part of Azazel’s gift, but he wouldn't be able to access the rest on his own. The few drops Azazel had given him weren't enough to do any real damage.
When the extracted blood ran down Sam’s throat, he realized, with perfect clarity, exactly what Brady had meant. Azazel’s power roared to life inside of him, claiming Max's ability as its own. It thrummed through Sam, fevered and hungry. The air around him began to quiver, waking to life and taking on force. Everything shattered—the windows, the lights, even the mug on the countertop.
The din woke Max, and he scuttled backwards into the corner, whimpering.
Sam dragged himself upright, and leaned against the countertop. His brain felt too big for his skull and his whole damned body was shaking, but he felt good…like he'd run a race and won. He tried to turn towards Max, to make sure he was okay, but then his gaze got stuck mid-turn. He looked down at his hand, pushing against the countertop and thought he could see something...almost like a double-image, a hazy outline of shadow around his skin. He moved his finger and watched the shadow swirl around it, like a little cloud.
Brady smiled at Max as he crouched down beside him. "How ya doing? You feel okay? Sam wants to be sure you're okay."
Max, trembling, shook his head. He hugged his knees tightly and began to sob. “Th–that was...all I had. How am I supposed to protect myself now?"
Brady smiled reassuringly and patted him on the cheek. "Aw, come on. We won't leave you defenseless. Will we, Sam?" He reached into Sam's jacket, pulled out his gun, wiped it thoroughly with the corner of his shirt, and handed it to Max.
Sam watched Max wrap his bony fingers around the handle of the gun and wondered, distantly, why he felt like something was wrong. He turned back towards the counter and looked at the shattered pieces of the mug.
"Take care of yourself, kid," Brady said to Max. He stood up and turned back to Sam. "We should get going."
Sam knew Brady was trying to tell him something, but the pieces of the mug were still quivering, and there were shadows dancing through the air.
"Sam." Brady snapped his fingers in front of Sam's face.
"We need to go. You blew out all the windows. We're not going to stay here and wait around for the sirens, are we?"
"No." Sam shook his head. "No, you're right. We should…we should go." He looked at Max one more time, and then followed Brady out the back door.
"You gave him my gun?" Sam snarled, shoving Brady against the wall. A cloud of dust shook free from the impact. The house they were staying in was old, abandoned, and dark, but it was also out in the middle of nowhere, which made it safe. They’d stayed here for two nights. Sam barely even remembered the first one—he couldn’t even remember leaving Max’s house. "What the hell's wrong with you?"
Brady laughed, and pulled down on Sam's arms, right by the elbow joint, until he let go. "I'm a demon, Sam. You don't have to worry about your prints or anything, I took care of it."
"Prints!" Sam pointed at the newspaper on the table and yelled, "He blew his fucking brains out, and you think I'm worried about whether my prints are on the gun?"
"Well...yeah." Brady shrugged.
"Max killed himself because of what we did to him."
"No. I don't care how you spin this, we're done."
Brady ran his hands through his hair in frustration and sighed. "Max was a broken kid. He was gonna off himself one way or another."
"How would you know?"
"Trust me, I know."
"Trust you?" Sam folded his arms across his chest and said, "No. I should have never trusted you. Get out." He walked over to the door (what was left of it anyway), and opened it.
"Get OUT!" Sam screamed and the old walls of the house groaned in protest as his rage pushed against them.
Brady nodded and said, "See you soon," before vanishing.
Dreaming wasn't something Sam had looked forward to in a long time. Most nights when he felt himself falling asleep, he hoped he could get rest without dreaming, or at least not remember his dreams when he woke. Too often he dreamt of Jess, consumed by flame right before his eyes. Even on the nights he didn’t dream of her, he still dreamt of death. The deaths of random strangers he’d never seen before.
The night after he’d kicked Brady out, Sam dreamt of a man his age, with long black hair, tied back in a braid. He was standing in a forest, watching a deer.
Sam walked up behind the stranger to get a closer look at the deer. The man sensed him coming, turned to him in confusion and asked, "What are you doing here?" The deer fled, frightened off by the noise.
"Who are you?" Sam asked.
The man stared at him, with dark brown eyes that looked almost black in the moonlight. "Liam. My name's Liam."
"Liam. I'm Sam." Sam reached out his hand and Liam shook it. It felt odd. The feeling of flesh against flesh was missing, but when he took Liam's hand he felt something—a familiar energy, and then suddenly he knew. "You're like me."
"I am?" Liam asked.
Sam nodded. "You have a psychic ability, right?"
Liam smiled, "You’re in my psychic ability, dude."
Liam spread his arms out and said, "This...this is mine. I can do anything I want in my dreams, and I can go into other people's dreams too."
Sam nodded, impressed. "You can pull other people into your dreams too, apparently."
"I knew there were others out there, like me." Liam shook his head. "Every night for the last three weeks, I've been coming here and calling out, trying to find the others." He grinned at Sam. "You're the first one to answer."
Even though it was night-time in Liam's dreamscape, the moon was full and the forest was well-lit. Sam followed Liam down a path through the trees until they got to a lake.
"This is beautiful," Sam said, watching the moon's reflection in the water. "Your gift is amazing."
"Thanks. It is, I guess." Liam looked out at the water with Sam and asked, "What can you do?"
Sam shook his head, "I can move things with my mind, and I have dreams, but...nothing like this. I guess they're more like warnings."
"Oh yeah?" Liam looked at Sam oddly. "Did you dream about this?"
"What do you mean?" Sam asked, and then he was drowning. Something had flung him through the air so quickly, so violently that he couldn’t draw breath before he hit the lake. Why would he have to, it was only a dream, it was only a dream…
Sam struggled against the water and swam back up to the surface. Liam was standing on the shore watching him.
"He says I have to stop you."
Sam coughed out a mouthful of tasteless water. Almost right, the feel was like water, but water was never so empty. "Who does?"
"The man with the yellow eyes."
Sam's fear and confusion vanished instantly and his rage came flooding back. "You've seen him?"
Liam nodded, smiling, "He visits me every night. In my dreams. He tells me he has plans for me, but that you're going to ruin everything." He laughed and said, "You know it took me forever to figure out where you were. I found your brother easy enough, but you..."
Sam dove back under the water and swam for the shore. When he came back up, he pulled as much of the water in the lake as he could with him, knocking Liam onto the ground with the force of the tidal wave. He walked over to Liam who was lying on the wet ground, coughing up water. "What did you do to my brother?"
Liam laughed, rolled over onto his knees and stood up, brushing the dirt and leaves off of his pants. "Nothing. I just watched his dreams—trying to find you." He stood up and smirked at Sam. "Your brother has some weird dreams."
Sam grabbed Liam by the throat and growled, "If you hurt him, I will hunt you down and kill you."
Liam rolled his eyes and the ground beneath them buckled, throwing Sam off balance.
Sam landed on his ass in the dirt and glared at Liam.
"I'm God here!" Liam announced, arms spread wide. "You can't win. Not in here."
"You're probably right," Sam said. He reached out with his mind, grabbed Liam and flung him against a tree, as hard as he could. Dreamscape or not, his power didn't seem to care. He walked over to where Liam had fallen and dropped down on top of him, pinning him under his weight with his knee. He wrapped his fingers around Liam's throat and squeezed. "So let's take this outside."
"No," Liam said, his voice weak under the pressure of Sam's fingers. "No. You can't do this."
Sam sneered and tightened his grip. "The next time you see him, tell the yellow-eyed man he's right."
Liam's eyes rolled back into his head and he dissolved into nothingness along with the forest around them.
Sam woke up in a cold sweat, reached for his phone and called Dean. The phone rang once, twice, three times, and Sam's heart beat faster with every ring.
"Sammy?" Dean answered groggily. "It's four in the morning...what's wrong?"
"Sorry. Sorry, I just–I just wanted to be sure you were okay."
"Yeah Sammy, I'm good." Dean let out a loud yawn. "You know, you never told me how that interview went."
The tears of relief in Sam's eyes came unbidden, and he chewed on his lip to keep his voice steady. "The interview," Sam laughed weakly. "The interview went great; if I keep my grades up, they'll give me a free ride."
"Way to go. that's awesome." Dean paused for a moment and added,"Did you ask them about maybe taking some time off?"
"Yeah. Yeah, they said I could, but I think..." Sam cleared his throat, "…I think I need to just keep going. Keep doing what I'm doing."
"Jess would've wanted that, Sammy." Dean paused. "I mean, you knew her better than me, obviously. I just mean—"
"I know what you—" Sam started to say.
"She would've wanted you to be happy. You deserve it Sam."
The exhaustion of the day and the self-loathing that lying to Dean brought on made Sam's head ache. He pushed against his temple and said, "Thank you."
"Brady still watching out for you?"
Sam let out a huff. “Yeah. Yeah he sure is."
"Good. Tell that douche I owe him a beer next time I stop by."
"Yeah, okay." Sam ran his hand through his hair. "Dean...this is gonna sound crazy, but can you do me a favor?"
"Crazy? Coming from you?" Dean chuckled.
"Don’t go back to sleep, okay? Please?"
"I'm pretty tired, man."
Dean was quiet for a second and when he spoke again, his voice was tinged with worry. "Okay. You got it. I'll go grab some coffee or something."
"When can I go to sleep again? In a week?" Dean tried to make a joke of it.
"Tonight," Sam said resolutely. "You can sleep again tonight." He swallowed hard and wrapped it quickly. "Bye, Dean."
Sam ended the call, stared at his phone for a few heavy seconds, and then called Brady.
Manning, Colorado made Golconda look like a bustling metropolis. It wasn't just empty, it was abandoned—shops boarded up, buildings in the fifth decade of disrepair. The place was practically a ghost town.
The emptiness in the air, coupled with Sam’s phone call from the previous night, turned what should’ve been a merry vampire-slaying party into a stone drag. Keeping the phone call a secret from Dad was making him irritable. Additionally, he was dead tired, even though he’d nodded off at dawn despite Sam’s weird request to stay awake. Nothing had happened, so Dean was left wondering exactly what had triggered Sam’s worry. Did he have one of his freaky so-called premonitions? If so, this one had been a dud. Hopefully, Daniel Elkins believed in the glories of caffeine and kept plenty on hand.
Dean followed Dad's truck as he pulled down a dirt side-road, swearing at himself when the Impala jostled roughly across the uneven ground. "Sorry, baby."
Elkins didn't exactly welcome them in with open arms. He gave John a nod that was half respect and half old-but-unforgotten anger.
Dean followed Dad in, and raised his hand in silent greeting.
Elkins’ decorator must’ve taken a page from the Bobby Singer playbook, with the notable exception of paneling instead of faded wallpaper. Books sat stacked in leaning towers, piles of miscellaneous refuse heaped in every corner, and the whole place smelled of smoke and bourbon and old paper. The glassy eyes of the head of an eight-point stag, mounted over a cluttered desk, followed the men across the room. Sorta gave Dean the creeps, to be honest. He half expected it to spring to life and start speaking in tongues.
The old hunter paused to let the Winchesters pass, staring at Dean with a scrunched expression. "Ain’t I met you before?"
Dean shook his head and smiled, confused. "No sir, I don't think so. Pretty sure I'd remember meeting the best vampire hunter on the planet."
Elkins let out a guffaw. "Is that what your daddy told you? Heh." He looked over at John and said, "We ain't countin' Albuquerque then, are we?"
John smirked. "Everybody has their off days." The Winchesters trailed Elkins into the kitchen and John sat down at the small, scarred table, pushing aside mugs of stale morning coffee. Dean stood point at his father’s left shoulder. "Hear you’re having dog trouble?"
"Craziest damn thing. I was out looking for a vampire nest—found it too, finally." Elkins shook his head, a gray shock of hair falling over his brow. "I come back home and the place was just…torn to shreds." He nodded back towards the living room. "My bookshelves were knocked over, my safe cracked open and bent in half…hell, they even ripped up my damn mattress."
"What were they looking for?" Dean asked.
Elkins chuckled. "Something they ain't never gonna get."
John stared at the old hunter as if the man had just dropped a sack of puppies in the river. "You son of a bitch."
"You mind your tone with me—” Elkins growled.
"You've had it this whole time?"
Elkins glared, his expression guarded until a small smile started to break through. "Had what?" he asked.
"You know damned well what!" John slammed his hands on the table and stood up.
"Dad?" Dean looked back and forth between the men, ready to step up if need be. He had a gun tucked into the back of his jeans and he’d pull it in a New York minute.
Elkins raised a brow at Dean before leveling his gaze back to John. “Maybe I do, maybe I don't. What I do have is a huge nest of vampires twenty miles from here and I ain't taking 'em all down by myself. If you and your boy help me clean out that nest, maybe I'll remember where I put it."
Dad shook his head and laughed dryly. Dean exhaled hard; he didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath.
"Dammit, Elkins. We would've helped you anyway."
"He was a monster. You should have put him down," Brady said under his breath, walking next to Sam on the sidewalk.
"He's human," Sam said wearily. "I took care of it. He won't hurt anybody anymore."
"You know, I'm still impressed you got into his head."
Sam looked at Brady, confused. "What do you mean?"
"Well usually, you guys are immune to each other. That's why he couldn't find you in the first place."
"Maybe when we took Azazel's blood out of him, he stopped being immune."
Brady snorted. "Well obviously, genius. No, I mean before that. You got into
his head all on your own. Found him in his dream before you ever knew who he
"He said he was calling for me, for us." Sam clenched his fist, remembering what else Liam had told him. "He threatened my brother. He said Azazel came to him in his dreams, told him that I had to be stopped."
"Huh. Well that explains it then."
"It does?" Sam snapped.
"Azazel let you in. He probably thought Liam was going to take you down easy."
Sam felt a wave of cold satisfaction run through him. "He was wrong."
"Damn right he was," Brady said, leering at Sam.
Fighting Liam had been exhausting. He couldn't do nearly as much awake as he could asleep, so taking his blood hadn't been all that difficult once they'd pinned him down. Liam fell asleep after the ritual, just like Max had. Sam wanted to be sure that he couldn't do anymore damage, so—still reeling with the rush of Azazel's blood—Sam forced himself into Liam's dream with all the grace of a battering ram. He found Liam huddled by a tree. The dreamscape looked off; it was the same forest, but it had lost everything that made it feel so real. The richness of the colors, the smells, and the textures had all been dulled down into muted shades of grey.
Sam solidified the tree Liam was leaning against and brought its roots out of the ground. He made the roots wrap around Liam's arms, legs and chest, and sent them back down into the ground.
Liam didn't even try to fight back. His gaze was unfocused and his eyes were glassy.
"I'll let you go in a day or two," Sam said crouching down beside him. "Once I'm sure you can't hurt anybody anymore."
"What happens when you let him go?" Brady asked.
Sam's jaw twitched.
The night after he'd taken Liam's power he'd looked in on Dean's dreams. He didn't stay long, just long enough to be sure he was safe, and that Liam was nowhere to be seen. He'd left Dean's dream, his brother none the wiser, and walked back into Liam's forest.
Liam was as pale as the ash-colored earth he laid on and when Sam looked for a pulse, he nearly couldn't find one. He felt a weak flutter under his thumb and imagined he saw Liam's eyes shift ever so slightly, looking towards him. 'One more night,' Sam thought. 'Just to be safe.'
Brady looked up at the street sign they'd just passed, and turned left. "You don't think he's gonna hunt you down? Or Dean?"
"If he even thinks about it, I'll stop him," Sam growled.
"Okay. Whatever you say, champ." Brady stopped walking. "Here we are: Holy Trinity Cemetery."
"Can't we just do..." Sam pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting back the headache he'd come to identify with the new powers weaving themselves deeper into him. "Whatever it is you do? Teleport or—”
"Sure! And while we're at it, let's sky-write 'Sam was here!' so Azazel knows exactly where we were and exactly where we're headed!" Brady shook his head and added, more quietly, "Look. I hate traveling like a human. It takes forever and it's boring, but it's safe. He can't track us this way."
"But you did it at Liam's.”
"That was a ten foot hop. Doesn't cause much of a ripple in the space-time continuum. You need to brush up on your metaphysics, buddy."
Sam looked at the gates of the cemetery. "You know, this city, Colma—it's an actual necropolis. The dead outnumber the living by over a thousand to one."
Brady snorted, and clapped Sam on the back. "See, that's why you're such a hit with the ladies."
They walked up the sloping main road past ornate marble crypts, monoliths and statues of weeping angels. The cemetery was enormous, and well-maintained. Brady turned to the left and Sam followed him towards an open grave—a burial.
"Tell me who we're here for again?" Sam asked through gritted teeth. "And why we had to interrupt them at a funeral?"
"Calm yourself, prissy-pants." Brady pointed to their right, uphill, towards a small, discreet shed. "We're here for the groundskeeper, Hans Müller."
Sam followed Brady up the hill and stopped in his tracks when he saw a man with hair so blonde it looked white lying on the grass, next to the shed. "Is he...okay?"
Brady walked a few steps closer to the man and kicked at his boot. "Yeah, he's just napping. Hans here likes to self-medicate." He kicked Hans again, this time in the shin. "Don't you, Hans?"
Hans let out a weak wince of protest and sat up, groggily. He blinked up at Brady, shielding his eyes from the sun. Then he turned to Sam, back to Brady and scrambled backwards in an undignified crab-walk until he hit the side of the shed. "What are you? Holy God, what are you?"
"See, Hans here, he has very special gift.” Brady put his hand against the shed and looked down at the man. "He can see anyone's true face."
Sam looked at Brady and wondered, not for the first time, what a demon really looked like. He sat on the grass and looked at Hans, holding up his hands in a calming gesture and said, "It's okay. Brady, he's...not like us, but he's here to help."
"No," Hans said, shaking his head. "No, I can see him. I can see what he is."
"I'll just give you two some room." Brady rolled his eyes and pushed off the shed, walking away from them.
Hans looked glassy-eyed at Sam. "I can see what you are."
Sam swallowed. "What am I?"
"You're like me," Hans laughed, an unsettled noise. "You're cursed."
Sam nodded. "You're right. I'm cursed, just like you, but I can help you."
"Nobody can help me. I have prayed every day for God to lift this curse from me, but it just...gets worse. Every day I look in the mirror and I can see..."
"Brady," Sam said, quietly, knowing Brady would hear him. "It's time."
Unlike the telekinesis, which had flooded Sam's system so thoroughly it took him hours of practice with Brady just to rein it in, the power he'd taken from Hans was just there. The ability to see the way Hans had felt as if it had always been there. Sam left the cemetery with Brady and turned towards the demon as soon as they were outside of the gates. It had started raining, and between the heavy drops, the far-too-close lightning and the dizzying rush of Azazel's blood, it took Sam a full minute to realize he was actually seeing Brady for the first time.
The demon's true face bled out through human skin—easier to see when the lightning crashed, like the darkness of his soul was backlit.
Sam had prepared himself for the worst, or so he'd thought. He'd imagined demons as corrupted, dead things with hideous deformed faces and empty eyes. Brady just looked off. His eyes were black underneath their pale blue exterior, and his mouth was stretched just a little bit too wide.
When Brady spoke to Sam, his lips pulled back to reveal pointed teeth and his words spilled out like ichors, sliding down his chin and reaching out for Sam with tendrils of black smoke. Sam took a step back and Brady laughed. His already-twisted mouth opened wider, revealing a long, oil-slicked tongue and for just a second, Sam could see flames covering the demon's whole body.
"You alright, Sam?" Brady asked. "Need to take a breather?"
Sam shook his head. "No. Let's keep going. South. You said the next one was south. San Diego."
Brady nodded. "She'll still be there tomorrow. We can take a break if you—”
"I don't want a break!" Sam yelled, over the crash of thunder.
"Okay. You're the boss," said the demon, hands like long, bony, claws lifted in a soothing gesture. "Do you want to catch a train? Borrow a car?"
Sam watched a woman—human, just a human—walk past them and flinched when he saw her steel-faced expression shimmer and shift into a feral scream. He turned to Brady and said, "A car. Let's take a car."
Lily Hammond was sitting in the corner of 'Becky's Beans' coffee shop.
Sam recognized her immediately. It wasn't just the brief flicker of yellow he saw in her eyes when she let out a heavy sigh—a duller shade of the same yellow he'd caught in his own eyes in the side mirror of the car—it was the pain of loss. Beneath her skin, beneath her shaky but quiet exterior, there was a pain so deep her eyes looked like they were bleeding. When she brought her coffee mug to her lips, Sam noticed her hands; they looked like they were glowing, ever so slightly. The light he saw in Lily's hands pulsed with a slow, steady rhythm. A heart-beat.
Brady walked over to the counter and ordered himself a triple-shot espresso, and a mocha with extra whipped cream, for Sam. "Thanks," he said when the barista handed him his drinks, and she smiled at him pleasantly, forgetting all about the $5.86 he owed.
"I hate whipped cream," Sam said when Brady put the mocha in front of him. He'd picked a table in the corner with a clear view of Lily.
"I know you do." Brady picked up three packets of sugar from the little black box on the table, tore them all open at once and poured them into his espresso cup. Then he took three more packets and repeated the procedure.
"That's disgusting.” Sam gave Brady a flat stare.
"I like sugar."
Sam took his spoon and scooped out as much of the whipped cream from his mocha as he could. Then he dropped the whole dollop into Brady's cup.
Brady kept grinning and took a sip of his espresso, wiping the excess whipped cream off his mouth with the back of his hand. "See, unlike you, I appreciate the finer things."
"Did you pay for these?"
"You're cute." The demon folded his hands and rested them on the table. "Money is a human construct. People will do anything for it because they need it to do...just about anything. I don't. Neither do you."
The mug of mocha was still far too hot to drink. Sam tapped his fingertips on its handle, watching Lily. "Last time I checked, I still had to pay for breakfast."
Brady chuckled. "Wait until we get to Guthrie..."
Lily stood up from her table, put on her coat, and headed for the door.
Sam stood up from the table and followed her.
Brady drank down Sam's mocha in one long gulp, and went after them.
Sam followed Lily back to her apartment building and 'accidentally' bumped into her by the mailboxes. He introduced himself as a student of SDU and said he was there to look at the sublet.
She shook her head saying she didn't know about any apartments for rent in the building. Sam apologized, said he must have gotten the wrong number and told her he was sorry to hear about Amy's death. Lily's skin turned even paler and she opened her mouth as if to speak, but didn't say a word.
Amy was Lily's girlfriend. She'd passed away just over a week ago when Lily accidentally touched her bare skin.
Since taking Liam's power, Sam's dreams had been different. They didn't come to him randomly anymore but if he focused on anyone, even if all he had was a name, he could slip into their dreams.
Brady had told Sam about Lily as soon as they'd started heading west from Michigan, and he'd seen enough of her tragic life to understand that her gift was a curse. She stopped hearts with a touch. She'd killed her pet, two close friends and her girlfriend, all within the last few months.
Sam reached for Lily's shoulder, trying to offer comfort, but Lily flinched back, yelled, "Don't touch me!", and ran up the stairs.
After a minute, Sam followed her up the stairs and waited by her apartment door until Brady let him in. The demon cocked an eyebrow at him and Sam shook his head. "Let me handle this one."
Brady rolled his eyes but followed Sam into Lily's kitchen. She was standing by the sink, quietly crying, fingers curled over the edge of the counter.
Sam took a breath. "It's not your fault, Lily. None of it is."
Lily whipped around and looked from one man to the other in panic. "How did you get in here?" She yanked open the drawer to her left and snatched out a kitchen knife. "How do you know my name? Who are you?"
Brady laughed, pointing at the knife. "I like this one! She's feisty." He opened his fingers and Lily's knife flew from her grasp into Brady's hand. The demon brought the knife straight down, lodging it in the kitchen’s butcher-block countertop. Lily stared at her empty hand, dumbfounded, and brought it up to her mouth. She was shaking.
“We’re here to help,” Sam said, taking a few careful steps in Lily’s direction.
She shook her head frantically. “You can’t help me. You don’t know what I’ve done.”
Sam nodded. “I do. I know exactly what you’ve done, because you dream about it every night. Every single night.”
“That doesn’t make any—”
“I’m like you.” Sam sat on one of the stools in the kitchen, far enough away, he hoped, to not appear threatening. “I have gifts. Like you.”
“Gifts?” Lily laughed bitterly. “What I have is a curse. I would do anything to be normal. Anything.”
Brady clapped his hands together. “Well, then you’re in luck!”
Sam resisted the urge to turn and glare at him, keeping his eyes on Lily instead. He’d wanted to handle this a certain way and the demon wasn’t making it any easier. He kept his voice steady and sincere. “We can free you from your curse, Lily. If that’s what you want.”
Lily nodded, and rubbed at her nose angrily. “What I want is Amy back! What I want is for everything to be like it was a year ago before I turned into some kind of grade-A freak.”
“I know. Look I…” Sam bit his lip before continuing, “…I lost someone too. My girlfriend. I was going to ask her to marry me.”
Lily’s eyes softened and she blinked as a tear tracked down her cheek. “I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t get to save her, and I couldn’t help you save Amy, but I can help you. I can make sure that you never hurt anybody else again. That has to count for something, right?”
Lily took a few hesitant steps towards Sam and sat on the stool next to him. “What do I have to do?”
Brady put the chalice down on the countertop and smiled. “All you have to do is trust us.”
“Trust you. I don’t even know you.” Lily sniffed and shook her head. “I must be crazy. You two broke into my apartment and I’m sitting here talking to you.”
“You’re not crazy,” Sam said. “And you’re not a freak. You’re just…infected.”
“With what? A virus?” Lily paled.
“Something like that.” Sam looked over to Brady and gave him a nod. Explaining things further was just going to get Lily more wound up. After the ritual, she’d be calmer. They could talk more then.
“Keenelah vehmehdeh keeneelah,” Brady began chanting.
Sam tuned out the rest of Brady’s words and watched Lily’s eyes droop slowly shut. She slumped forward, resting her arm and head on the edge of the wooden kitchen countertop. Her arm was stretched out towards Sam, fingers slightly curled and her palm turned up. Little drops of blood started rolling down her arm and pooling in her hand.
The chalice slid towards Lily’s upturned hand as Brady finished chanting. The blood rose out of her hand and floated through the air as a fine mist, until it was sucked into the cup. Sam watched the soft light of the metal pulse in time with Lily’s heart and then stop as the last drop of Azazel’s blood joined the rest. He brought the chalice to his lips, and drank.
The blood ran down Sam’s throat, warm and bitter with sulfur. He closed his eyes as Lily’s power became his. Through the pleasant fog in his mind, he felt his heart beat louder and louder. When he opened his eyes again, his hands looked like they were glowing, pulsing with a whole new kind of energy. He realized, at that instant, that Lily’s gift wasn’t about death. It was about life. She could take it away, and—if she acted quickly enough—she could give it back.
“Lily,” Sam said quietly. You could have saved them. You could have saved all of them.
But when Lily opened her sad brown eyes, and Sam saw a flicker of hope, all he said was, “You’re cured.”
Brady grabbed the chalice and tucked it back into whatever trans-dimensional jacket-pocket he kept it hidden in. He grabbed one of the apples from the bowl on the counter and took a big bite out of it, making a loud, crunching noise.
Lily reached her shaking hand out towards Sam’s, flinching back just before touching his skin.
Sam took a steady breath, pulled his new power back deep inside to keep it under control, and took her hand. He brought her fingers up to his cheek and said, “It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay.”
Lily stared at her hand. She traced her fingers down his cheek and then lifted them away, staring at them a few seconds more. “Why didn’t you come sooner? If you’d come a month ago…” Her face flickered between rage and despair, and then crumpled. “If you’d come two weeks ago, Amy would still…”
Sam watched Lily’s shoulders shudder as she lost herself to her sorrow. Part of him wanted to reach out and pull her towards him, offering whatever comfort he could…but underneath that he was furious. She was right. He should have come sooner, he should have stopped this, he should have saved Lily sooner, he should have saved Jess and he could have if he hadn’t fought so damn hard to be normal. He stood up and looked at Lily one last before turning and leaving her apartment.
As it so happened, by ‘help’ Elkins had in mind a total burn-out.
They opted to wait until the next morning to launch their assault, making full use of the sun’s handy combustion power. Dean was dragging ass anyways, after Sam’s crazy-cakes phone call the night before.
The vampires were holed up in a barn, not the most glamorous of nests but then bloodsucking wasn’t a generally recognized hobby of the wealthy. Despite the bright blue sky, it was cold – so cold Dean’s breath froze on his lips and made the tips of his ears sting. He reasoned that vampires weren’t bugged by a change in temperature. Guess dead was dead.
His clothes and hair smelled of smoke; back at the trucks before they’d scouted up on the decrepit structure, Elkins had lit a thick braid of dried sage and let the resulting smoke wash over the lot of them, obscuring the warm, tasty smell of humanity. Once, Dean had attended a Native American smudging ritual that had actually managed to rid a split-level ranch of a haunting. Since then, he’d always appreciated the smell of burning sage.
That fragrance, and spotting a posse of wild turkeys alongside the road, had reminded Dean it was, in fact, Thanksgiving Day. While the Winchesters hardly stood on ceremony, the brothers had always taken the trouble to phone, even if it was just to exchange voicemails. And that was what Dean had been forced to do: Leave a message after the tone. He didn’t like it one bit, but he didn’t have the time to brood. There were bloodsuckers to fry.
Elkins’ words plumed white as he spoke, his voice a low rumble that carried an edge of thrill. “Alright, here’s the deal. I’ll circle ‘round the barn with a gas can. The fleas should be sleepin’ but that don’t mean they won’t wake up. Sun’s a bitch, but it won’t keep ‘em inside if push comes to shove. Fire, on the other hand…” Elkins grinned, and slapped a Molotov cocktail into Dean’s palm. “Soon as you see me at the last corner, light up and let loose. It’ll take ‘em a few minutes to get their shit together then they’ll be tryin’ to get out the door, day-blind. Be like shootin’ fish in a barrel.”
John nodded tersely, not nearly as confident as Elkins appeared. The two hunters were cut from very different cloth, that was damned clear to Dean. And as stoked as Dean was to be hunting a fiend as legendary as a vampire, he shared John’s ill ease. Something wasn’t sitting right. He sensed it in the pit of his stomach, a familiar ping of warning. He caught Dad’s eye, raised a brow in question but John simply nodded again and clamped a hand on his shoulder.
“You good, son? Got your lighter?”
Dean found himself saying “Yes, sir” before he could figure out what else to say.
John and Elkins clambered away, low to the ground; John kept to the edge of the woods behind broad trunks and thickets while Elkins beat a path to the barn, moving like a man half his age. Dean had no choice but to play his part.
The absurdly cheerful sunshine belied the gravity of what they were doing here. Gasoline’s sharp stink cut the air and again, Dean couldn’t shake the feeling that something was about to go distinctly ass-backwards. He’d long since learned to listen to that little voice, but being half the age and farther away than everyone else in this fine piece of arson, he was in no position to throw a flag on the play.
Dean watched Elkins douse the walls and disappear around the back of the building. His dad crawled along the west side, around the corner. Within minutes, smoke drifted into sight and flames began licking the edge of the barn like a living thing, chasing the spilt gas.
He heard shuffling from inside, the thud of bodies hitting the earth. Smoke billowed. The barn door flew wide, shaking the whole face of the structure, and something stumbled out. Man, monster, Dean wasn’t immediately certain until the thing squinted up and hissed. Yeah, that sealed the deal. Dean lit his rag-stuffed bottle and lobbed it at the vampire’s chest. His toss went high and the bottle cracked against the vamp’s skull before exploding. Sucked to be him. It. Whatever.
He grabbed his bow from the ground and notched off arrows—soaked in dead man’s blood—at the creatures stumbling from the building as his father and Elkins began lopping off heads. The barn sizzled and creaked. It was messy, manic business, monitoring the living from the dead, but Dean did so with a desperate focus. If there was one thing he didn’t dare do, it was hit the wrong body.
But when the girl staggered from the building, Dean pulled his shot. He knew her. Maybe? Shit, no, maybe she just looked like—
John raised his machete in a great arc, the blade gory and glistening red in the mid-morning sun.
“NO, DAD!” Dean leapt from concealment.
John hesitated. The girl, crying real tears and bleeding her own blood from bites all over her neck and arms, looked up at him and wobbled.
“Damn, she’s human. Cover me.” John dropped his blade and caught her as she fainted, Dean still spearing arrows into the chest of every leech that snarled into the sunshine.
The heat and smoke was almost smothering, forcing the Winchesters and the girl back towards the trees. Vampires weren’t spilling from the barn anymore and Dean could only hope they’d gotten the last of them.
The building groaned and listed as its rotting, load-bearing beams were consumed by the fire. The groans turned into one massive scream and the whole thing collapsed in on itself. Plumes of black and a shower of sparks filled the clearing.
Dean hunched his shoulders to the storm. When the din ebbed, he looked through stinging eyes to the disaster, smoke so thick it was almost corporeal. Daniel Elkins erupted from the mess, coughing, sooty, limping, and grinning like the cat that ate the canary. Dean still couldn’t help but feel wrong about all of it. There was another human; he knew it. Just. Knew. It.
His father was lightly smacking the girl’s cheeks, rousing her. She sputtered and darted confusion from John to the sky to what was left of the barn. And she began trembling.
“D–did you…did you f–find…oh, God, where’s Cameron? Where’s my boyfriend?” She shrieked and the barn crumpled further, punctuating her misery. Nothing was living through that. Not man, not bloodsucker.
Not Cameron, who had been trapped inside.
Dean raked a sweaty palm through his hair. Well, fuck.
That evening, the three of them hit a local bar to celebrate the holiday with all the other displaced folk. It could’ve been hellishly depressing except that the beer was cold and the jukebox played Credence Clearwater Revival and the bartender was hot. She was a little closer to John’s age than his son’s, but that didn’t make it a deal-breaker.
John sat in the customary quiet he always did on days when families should be together. Still, he wore a hazy smile and even shot a couple of games of pool. Won one, lost one. Dean could tell the game he lost was deliberate.
Dean was working his way into the bartender’s favor when he saw Dad answer his phone. He paused to watch his father’s bearing for any sign it was bad news, that something had happened to Sam (Dean checked his own phone to be sure he hadn’t missed a call) or Old Yeller had been spotted, kicking orphans.
Quite the contrary; John’s eyes lit up. He spoke, nodded, even laughed. Dean begged a moment from the bartender and joined his dad at their table. Elkins was off entertaining some of the locals with stories that involved explosive hand gestures. Dean didn’t even want to know.
“You got it, Stormy. We’ll catch you tomorrow. Late, though. It’s not gonna be early rising for either of us.”
Dean grabbed a handful of peanuts-in-the-shell and sat down, brows quirked askance. “Stormy Saunders? Crazy weather dude?”
To be fair, most hunters were on the far side of crazy and Stormy fit right in. The guy’s specialty, as one might’ve supposed, was weather phenomena. When he wasn’t recording bizarre, unexplained meteorological conditions, he was chasing tornadoes in an armored car he’d named Betty. And he played a mean game of poker.
“He’s driving through Utah. Heard we’d been chasing omens, and he’s got a groundswell of ‘em.”
“All of a sudden?”
John nodded, dropping his phone back in a pocket. A switch had been flipped and he looked deadly serious, all the pleasantry drained from his face. His eyes shone with lethal interest, scalpel-sharp. “Lightning, out of nowhere. Mysterious blasts of wind. Birds dropping from the sky, dead. All over the place, and yeah, all of a sudden.”
John’s intensity made Dean uneasy but he’d still let Dad draw up the plans. And he’d still follow. “Okay. So what now?”
“We meet Stormy outside of Provo, get the intel. He said most of the activity was in Nebraska and Michigan. We’ll need to separate from there.”
“Dad, you sure you wanna split—?”
“Yes,” was all John said, and ended the discussion.
As if on cue, the hefty gray clouds that had been blotting out the sun parted, and Betty rumbled into the rest area parking lot. The vehicle looked more like a mechanical armadillo than a Chevy, riveted plates and metal rubbing metal. It must’ve weighed a good four tons, lurching to a clumsy stop before a hatch opened—Dean couldn’t rightly call it a ‘door’—and Stormy Saunders squeezed out. There was a flash of hand-painted sigils on the inside of the portal before it thudded shut.
Stormy got bigger every time Dean saw him. He was nearly as tall as Sam and easily thrice as wide. His wild black hair got bigger, too, grown to the point it hung half-way down his back like some Disney princess. The only delicate thing about Stormy was the wire-rimmed glasses perched on the tip of his nose.
He pumped Dad’s extended hand in both of his, overtly pleased to see the Winchesters.
“John! How the hell are ya?”
“Stormy…” John couldn’t help but give up a grin.
Oh God, here it comes. Dean steeled himself but still felt ribs groan when Stormy wrapped him in meaty arms and squeezed.
He released Dean and cast a glance around. “Where’s little Sammy?”
“School,” John said, wandering over towards a nearby picnic shelter as the heavens clouded over again and snow began to drift down in lazy spits.
“Oh, that’s right. Big man on campus now, huh? Cool, cool.” Stormy joined John at the table and sat. The wood creaked dubiously. “Right, so. What the hell’s going on, you ask? Because I’m asking’ too. Check out this shit.” Stormy spread a folded piece of paper on the table. In flowery script was a list of coordinates and their locations, along with corresponding notes in the margins. “First thing that pinged on my radar was up in Saginaw, Michigan. Reports of dry lightning. No clouds, no heat, no reason. And there was this micro-burst of wind that blew out windows, in one particular neighborhood. Awesome, right?”
Dean joined the conversation on John’s side of the table, to balance Stormy’s ballast. “Awesome. And when was this?”
“Almost a week ago. I didn’t really think much of it until the same lightning showed up a few days later in Seattle, Washington. Again, not the right climes for this sort of event. Oh, oh! Annnnnd, the coast was slammed by a rogue mini-tsunami.” Stormy made a swooping gesture with his hands and the page went fluttering into Dean’s chest. “No causative earthquake. Came out of nowhere.”
John grabbed the page and smoothed it out again, skimming. “What’s this? In Nebraska?”
“Yup. Same time as Seattle. Sudden temperature fluctuation. Went from frost to mid-seventies in the course of ONE. HOUR. Almost got lost in the shuffle except, you know, there’s this crazy meteorologist in Lincoln—”
“Crazy? By your standards?” Dean broke in.
“Yeah, man, he makes me look like a tax accountant. He found not only the temperature thing, but a rash of still-born calves.”
“Demons’ handiwork.” John sounded almost pleased.
“Maybe.” Stormy lowered his voice and tapped the paper. “Cut to right around Thanksgiving Day. Northern lights are spotted. In San Francisco. No, nothing weird there at all. The last thing I’ve got is birds dropping out of the sky dead in San Diego. Oh, and more lightning. At first they were saying it was a sonic boom of some sort, but that’s bullshit. I checked with my guys in the military; no one was doing any sonic testing yesterday.”
The group sat in silence for a moment, digesting the information. The snow was starting to pick up and Dean stuffed his hands in his pockets, pressing his arms close to his body. Stormy noticed and buffed Dean’s shoulder with a grapefruit-sized fist. “You need a layer of padding, there, slim.”
John’s face was as dark as Dean had ever seen it. He picked up the paper and gave it a little shake. “Can we take this?”
“‘Course,” Stormy said. “All yours.”
Nodding his appreciation, John stood up and made it clear he was ready to be on his way. No moss grew on John Winchester when he decided it was time to get shit done; Dean knew this well.
They thanked Stormy, watched Betty slowly get up enough speed to merge onto the highway, and within minutes, Dean was heading northeast, to the Wolverine State. John had decided to hit Nebraska, and Dean didn’t ask why. That was Sam’s department, and Sam wasn’t here.
Cantaloupes, Jo reasoned, were roughly the size and weight of the human head, right?
She lobbed a melon from hand to hand, considering. The wind was weak, which was perfect for her little warm-up. The sky stretched into a great expanse of clean blue, but stung any exposed skin with the bite of winter. Nonetheless, she pulled off her mittens and snagged them on the broken spindles of an old fence that had once kept the wildlife off the Roadhouse grounds. Her mom had long since stopped caring about the bears and deer in favor of warding off less typical pests. Like puca and wendigo. The fence was little more than a ruin these days, and certainly wouldn’t keep out a monster. That’s what the hexbags, herbs, and silver were for.
Jo balanced the melon in her left hand and grabbed her machete—a gift from Gordon—with her right. The long knife was a far more comfortable fit than the fruit. She narrowed her eyes upwards, lips pressed tight. After a couple of small, test tosses, she let fly the melon high into the air, straight up. It came down fast, but not as fast as the machete slid sideways. It whistled a cut through empty space and then, the cantaloupe. There was a thunk, the tiniest whoosh, and a pair of plops after the fruit split sharply in two. Stringy orange innards hit the frozen ground. Jo smiled.
She hitched up her jeans and picked another melon from the big box she’d stolen from the bar’s kitchen. Ellen would never admit to it, but Jo knew her mother liked cooking for the hunters who passed time at the Roadhouse. Each haggard face had a story and it never ended with anyone riding off into the sunset. If she could put a good meal in their belly that was one less thing to worry about. They were Jo’s extended family, for better or worse.
This week, the patrons were getting barbeque and fruit salad. Maybe homemade cornbread if the Harvelles were feeling especially generous.
Jo chucked another melon into the air but the creak of the Roadhouse’s rear screen door distracted her just enough to skew her timing. She skimmed the rind, barely scalping the damned thing. Well, crap. That might’ve taken off a vampire’s ear, at best. Just enough of a nuisance to piss it off.
Ash. Jo huffed and turned her head, watching him amble his way around bits of broken fence. She glanced at her watch. “You’re up early. It’s only 2:15.”
“Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise, some smart dude said.” He flipped his long, dirty blonde hair, squinting as though the sun caused him grief. He was wearing the same jeans and tattered flannel shirt he had on the night before. A pair of bottles dangled from his fingers, and he offered one to Jo. “Heard something.”
“Yeah?” She uncapped the beer on her belt buckle, flipping the lid off into the brush. “Something interesting? Or did ‘Dr. Sexy MD’ get some nurse knocked up again?”
Ash didn’t bother to look offended. He swapped bottles with Jo, forcing her to uncap the second one too. “Dr. Sexy has learned to wrap that rascal, so…no. I mean interesting interesting. If you think The Tall Man is interesting. And I know ya do.” He took a long, slow swallow of beer.
Jo cocked a brow, stabbed her big knife into a stump, and waited for Ash to continue. The redneck genius really loved an audience.
“Was tracking this hellacious lightning storm outside of San Diego. You know, ‘Nature’s Wrath’-caliber lightning? And there was another sighting of those two guys, one of ‘em supposedly seven feet tall. Though I highly suspect that’s hyperbole. Or just some chick freakin’ out. Anywho, another kid dies the next day. Pinprick bleeds all over her skin. Called in the CDC but they don’t find diddlysquat. Nada. Zippo.”
“She a psychic?”
“Affirmative. Did some Facebook surfing and three of her friends had bit it in the past six months. All of ‘em sudden. Heart attacks. And Miss Lily Hammond felt responsible, afraid to touch anyone. Said for folks to stay away. Far, far away.”
Jo hmphed and took a drag on her beer.
“Shame, too. Lily was a bettie—”
Ash tipped his beer and shut his trap, starting to shiver without his coat.
Jo took pity on him and grabbed her knife and gloves. She’d come back for the melons later. “What are we up to now, is that four?”
Ash nodded and trailed her back inside. “Yes, ma’am.”
Dammit, this was a case. Her kind of case. But Jo couldn’t do a thing about it, what with her mother forbidding her to leave even though Ellen knew full well her daughter was as strong willed as she was.
Additionally, it would’ve been lame to chase the deaths all over the country. By the time she could get to a crime scene, the cops would already have the site scrubbed clean and the victim autopsied or cremated. The trail would be gone stone cold, because it always did. The killer was so careful.
Jo had to get more dirt on this Tall Man. She had to figure out a way to predict his next murder, or hope she got lucky and Ash picked up his tells at a town nearby. Jo might just get there in time. But then what?
She secured the machete carefully back in its sheath behind the bar and shrugged out of her coat. The Roadhouse was nearly empty, save two dusty men who were quietly talking at one of the corner booths. Jud and Theo. Locals. Came in at least three times a week to get lunch or booze or just hang out. Not hunters, but they knew to keep their business to themselves. Jud was the nephew of the local sheriff, which came in handy every now and again.
Settling in on his favorite stool, Ash sifted through a disheveled stack of papers, manila envelopes and files liberally peppered with Post-it notes. He pushed a particular page at Jo. “Miss Lily.”
Jo scanned the sheet, chewing the inside of her cheek. “So. Lily was…an accidental killing machine? She just stopped people’s hearts?”
“Seems to be the yakkity-smack on the street.”
“Weird. And she was twenty-two?”
“Mmmhmm. Just like the others”
“So, Little Miss Heart Attack was—”
But Jo got cut off by a quick ahem from Ash and he scrambled to collect the mess of a file. The barroom brightened briefly as the front door opened and closed, and boot-steps rapped on the wooden floor. Had to be Ellen.
A quick glance confirmed that suspicion. Ellen had an armload of groceries in brown paper bags, and she plopped them on the bar with a wise glare at the two of them.
“Better not be what I think it is,” she said dryly.
“No, ma’am!” Ash croaked, smashing the paperwork to his chest and disappearing down the bar’s back hall with the incriminating evidence.
Jo rolled her eyes as any good, petulant daughter would and moved down the bar to help unload supplies.
“Mom. Don’t worry; I’m not going anywhere. Some people paint. I…collect urban legends on strange murders, okay? It’s in the genes.”
Ellen got very still, her expression unreadable. She stared at her daughter until Jo felt her face color with heat. Ellen sighed and brushed the wispy blonde hair from Jo’s shoulder.
“I know, baby. I just—” Ellen stopped herself and her eyes got steely again. “I will spank the both of you if you do something stupid. Just so’s you know.”
Jo gave her mother the most winning of smiles. “I know, Momma.”
Dean kept looking at the sag in the seat next to him, the place where Sam’s ass had worn a crater. There were even dents in the dash, the perfect shape of Sam’s stupid knees. The trees painted moving stripes of shadow across the leather, road noise and engine growl serving as hard proof of forward progress. He should’ve been on top of the world. Hell, he’d just cleaned out a fat nest of vampires and Elkins had begrudgingly given Dad what he’d promised. A gun.
A very special gun.
But Dean didn’t even want to throw a cassette in the tape player. The Impala felt vacant. It wasn’t like this was something new; he’d been driving without Sam for four years, following in his father’s wake, eyes trained on the tailgate of the big black truck. Dean knew every faint dent, every curve of the thing, right down to the self-repaired scrape put there by a brush with an RV in a Days Inn parking lot.
California must’ve reset the meter, got Dean wanting his brother’s company all over again. That, and those two unintentional deaths at the barn. They shouldn’t have happened. Dean couldn’t help but feel he’d missed something, some bit of information or clue or telltale sign, and maybe if Sam’s big brain had been there with them, he’d have caught it. The whole affair left Dean twitchy and clinging to the hunt’s adrenaline long after it should’ve leached away.
Impulsively, Dean fished his phone from a pocket and dialed Sam's number. It wasn't until the phone rang for the third time that he remembered Sam hadn't returned his last few calls. He hadn't heard a peep from Sam since that last bizarre exchange at 4am, over a week ago. Dean felt a twinge in his chest when he thought this call was about to go to voicemail too, but then he heard Sam answer.
Dean pushed past the stilted tone in Sam's voice. "Dude. You'll never believe it. Guess what Dad and I killed yesterday?"
"Vampires! They're real, man. We took down a whole nest of them. How crazy is that?"
"Wow. Yeah. That's pretty crazy."
The pang in Dean’s chest didn’t loosen. He hated this. It felt like he suddenly didn't even know how to talk to Sam anymore. Or some B-movie pod creature was wearing his brother’s skin, aping his speech without any real soul behind it. Dean supposed it could still be depression over Jess, but not even that rang true. Regardless, he wasn’t going to let Sam off the hook yet. "It gets better. We found something—something that can kill the demon."
The phone was quiet for a few moments before Sam spoke again. "What did you find?"
"A gun. The gun, Sammy. The Colt. It's not a legend; we’ve got it."
"The Colt?" For the first time, Sam seemed interested in what Dean had to say.
"Yeah." Dean pressed the phone tighter to his ear when he thought he heard an odd sound in the background: a deep mechanical moan, almost like a train. No, a foghorn. "You by the water?"
"You really think this gun can kill the demon?"
"Dad does." Dean added quickly, "How are you? Is everything —" Dean cut himself off and started over. "How's school?"
"School's fine," Sam said. "Listen, Dean, I'm glad you called, but I gotta go. Talk soon, okay?"
Dean swallowed, tightening his hand on the steering wheel. "Yeah, okay Sammy."
But the call had already ended. It was going to be long drive to Saginaw.
Sam slipped the phone back into his jacket pocket and turned to Brady, who was standing by the edge of the pier staring out at the little island that held Alcatraz.
"What do you know about the Colt?" he asked, walking up next to the demon.
The seagulls gathered around them left, squawking loudly.
Brady snorted, "Bedtime story hunters tell each other—a magic gun that can kill anything, including us."
"Dean and my dad...they have it."
"No shit." Brady let out a low whistle, "How'd they pull that off, exactly?"
Sam shrugged, "Does it matter? What I want to know is, can it kill Azazel?"
"No way to know for sure. Maybe?" Brady shook his head, "We'd have to get close enough to him to find out, which means we'd have to make sure he doesn't know we're coming."
"But it could work..."
"Yeah it could," Brady let out a frustrated huff, "if he doesn't see the gun and yank it away from you first, or throw you into a tree, or kill you with a thought."
Sam swallowed, "I just thought that maybe we should consider the Colt as an alternative to..." he waved his hands around at loss for a gesture that could encompass 'blood-letting psychics all across the USA.'
"Sam no. No way. Think about it. You'd need to land a killing shot on your first try. I know you're good, you and your brother were raised to kill, but this isn't aregular hunt. Azazel is the king of Hell. He was Lucifer's right hand. We don't even know the Colt would work on him, for starters, and even if we did that doesn't change the fact that he could choke you with your own intestines before you ever pull the trigger!" Brady put his hand on Sam's shoulder and said, "This...what we're doing…it's the only way to be sure you can take him down. We only get one chance. You have to make it count. You have to be
"Strong enough." Sam repeated. He'd barely been strong enough to take down Liam, but he’d done it (with Brady's help), and the world was better off for it. Some of the psychics were dangerous, and if Sam could take away their weapons that was the best thing to do. They'd get another chance at a normal life and they wouldn't be as much of a threat to anyone else.
Then there was Lily. The relief on her face was still fresh in Sam's mind. She'd been grateful they'd freed her from her curse and had asked them why they hadn't come sooner. Maybe this was the only way to kill Azazel. If he could help the psychics like her, make their lives a little easier by freeing them from their curse, and get strong enough to take down Azazel in the process, then there really wasn't any reason to stop. Sam shook his head, chasing away the memory of Max and his frightened eyes and asked, "Who's next?
Dean grabbed the most obnoxiously colored power drink and cellophane-wrapped microwave meal he could find in the gas-n-go. He heard Sam’s scoff in his head as he threw the goods on the counter—You know, the nutritional value of that shit is less than week-old, road-kill ‘possum, Dean—adding a local paper to the pile as an impulse buy.
The Impala had sucked down her gasoline lunch and Dean slid back into the driver's seat, slapping open the newspaper. He'd been following his favorite highway, I-69, and had just crossed the border into Michigan. Flipping through the pages to the weather section, it appeared the bizarre, cloudless lightning didn’t seem to be continuing anywhere in the state, least of all Saginaw. One trick pony. Great.
Dean had the niggling feeling Dad was sending him on a wild goose chase anyway, giving him the farthest and oldest omens to track. Researching Ground Zero was important, sure, but still sat uncomfortably with Dean as Dad went after the fresher scent.
He wolfed down the pre-fab food, slugged back the bright green swill and was about to throw the newspaper into the backseat when his eyes snagged on a name in a lesser headline. Max Miller.
Dean read the article four separate times. He was regrettably accustomed to reading about suicides, but this one felt horribly familiar.
Saginaw, Michigan; Max Miller, age 22, was found dead late last Saturday evening from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The only son of Jim Miller and step-mother Alice, Max worked at the Bridgeport Public Library. Neighbors and acquaintances said that Max was "a good kid," but "had it rough." Witnesses mentioned numerous domestic disputes, which were later confirmed by authorities. One neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous, reported hearing the gunshot late Tuesday afternoon. Other witnesses reported seeing two men at the Miller residence earlier that day, but when found, Max was alone. His parents devastated by the loss and had no comment. If anyone has any information, please contact the Saginaw Police Department at…
"Max..."Dean whispered to himself, drumming fingers on the steering wheel. God-damned déjà vu, all over again. That name meant something. Once more, there was an elusive spark of recollection on the edge of Dean's memory…someone crying and…a knife? Floating, as though held by an unseen hand. What the hell? Dean grabbed at the scene but it slithered away, burying itself back in a fog he could never seem to shake.
In Dean’s World of Something’s Wonky, this was the top of the food chain. A car horn bleated from behind him, to move away from the pump. Dean growled an “All right, all right,” and got back on the road.
Even though a little voice in the back of his brain was whispering, “Not right, not right…at all….”
The light looked different the closer Dean got to California. It was true what they said about it, about its clarity and its way of making colors look super-intense and pure…unless you were circling Los Angeles, of course, then it just looked like dirty milk.
Michigan had been gray and unwell, heavy with the threat of winter and cold to the core. The overt quaintness of Saginaw hadn’t helped, one big Americana creepshow with a side-order of Stepford Wives. Women in aprons with perfectly coiffed hair always gave Dean the heebie-jeebies, and Mrs. Miller had been no exception.
Dean’d been more than a little troubled when the coordinates he’d taken from Stormy turned out to be the Miller’s back yard. No way that was a coincidence.
The missus had been overly-gracious to him; masquerading as a priest never hurt. Max was a high-strung boy; he never fit in. He was always quiet and didn’t have many friends. We don’t know where he got the gun. I…I never keep guns in the house. Dean had been certain Mrs. Miller was hiding a healing black eye under all that make-up. Maybe that’s why Max never had many friends. Mr. Miller liked to make things hurt.
There’d been no unexplained EMFs on the property and whatever residual clues might’ve remained had long since been scrubbed away; the house was spotless. Max was buried, and as far as the cops were concerned the case was closed. Dean had perused the police report and noted, with casual interest, that Max had shot himself with the same sort of gun Sam carried.
Dean had left Michigan with far fewer answers and far more questions than he’d like. He begrudgingly admitted he was glad to see California.
Jo turned when she saw the door to the kitchen open.
"You know I don't mean to give you a hard time," her mom said, thumping a rack of clean pint glasses onto the bar.
"I know," Jo sighed, "and I know you're just worried I'm gonna get myself hurt, but Momma, I—"
"Hurt? No, I ain't worried you're gonna get hurt; I'm worried you're gonna get yourself killed!" Ellen ran her fingers through her hair in frustration.
Sliding open a cooler case, Jo began filling it with the glassware, chewing the inside of her cheek to keep from commenting on her mom’s omnipresent worry.
"I just…I don't want to lose you too."
There was such quiet sadness in her mom's voice, it made Jo wonder if something crappy had happened earlier today. Had her mother run into one of Dad’s old friends at the gas station? Was it an anniversary Jo didn’t know about? Ellen’s eyes were dark and steadfast, watching Jo with all her twenty-some-odd years of motherhood leveled in a straight line at her daughter.
Resigned, Jo put a hand on her mom’s arm. "You won't. I promise.”
“What about this stupid case you and Ash are pretending not to work on?”
Boy, she won’t let it drop, will she? “I told you. I’m just collecting info."
Ellen shook her head. "You can't lie worth a crap, you know that, right?"
“Momma!” Jo quirked a grin. "I'm not lying. Besides, Tall Man ain't anywhere near us as far as I can figure."
"Good. He better keep his distance, too."
"Or what?" Jo teased.
Ellen chuckled and left the bar to wipe down the tables. "You know I can do a whole lot more with my knife than chop onions, right?"
If Jo didn’t love her momma so damned much, she’d have felt downright smothered by all this paranoia. Though God’s honest truth, Jo knew Ellen had every right to feel as she did.
It was only a tiny sin of omission, that bit about “collecting info.” Right now, sure, Jo was simply gathering fun facts about a serial killer. Well, possible serial killer; there were still a ton of mysteries surrounding the guy, like was he actually killing these psychic kids, or was he just some sort of big ol’ deathwatch beetle?
If he came within 100 miles of the Roadhouse, Jo had every intention of chasing the case but until then, she would keep fattening his file with every scrap of hunter gossip she could get her hands on.
Jo grabbed the recently emptied glass pallet and nearly bounced into Ash when she spun around to return it to the kitchen. He’d managed to sneak up on her, and Ash was not famous for his stealth. Dammit, this did not bode well for her hunting career.
“Where’s Momma Bear?” he whispered, hooded eyes roaming around the barroom. He was doing a bang-up job of feigning nonchalance, given his healthy respect for Ellen’s temper.
Jo jutted her chin towards the jukebox in response. Ellen was buffing clean the old Wurlitzer of last night’s spilt beer.
Ash nodded, cast another glance around the area, and slipped a folded paper into Jo’s hand. “Burn after reading, you got that, Double-Oh Jo?”
Biting back a grin, Jo gave him a stern salute and Ash disappeared back down the hallway before Ellen so much as smelled him.
“Hey, Momma, gonna go to dry storage for straws, okay?”
Jo took her super-secret note to the locked closet where they kept shelves of paper products and take-out containers and anything else that didn’t fit in the kitchen. The cubby didn’t have a light so Jo left the door ajar, her back to the outside.
It was a copy of a CDC health advisory, dated today, still warm from the printer.
Distributed via Health Network Alert Network
November, 27th 2005 9:30 AM EST
The CDC has issued the following alert:
A potentially deadly toxin is in the process of being identified on the West Coast. What was initially suspected to be an unknown variant of the influenza virus has affected at least three individuals in the last 72 hours. Symptoms include high fever, fatigue, depression, paranoia, loss of appetite, minor blood loss centralized around the heart and chest resulting in the appearance of what has been described as 'blood sweat,' followed by a spike in white blood cells.
So far, three affected individuals have been identified: one from Seattle, Washington; one from San Francisco, CA and one from San Diego, CA. The patients in all three known cases died within 48 hours of exposure. If you notice any of these symptoms, please contact your physician immediately. These symptoms are not believed to be the result of a contagious virus and should be reported immediately.
Those were the Tall Man victims, she just knew it. Way too coincidental to be otherwise. What the hell was he doing to them? He had to have known what Jo (and Ash) did, that the kids had all been ‘gifted’ in some fashion. Why else would he have gone after them? What was his take-away from all this? And dammit, why didn’t he roam closer to Nebraska?
“Joanna Beth! You still in that pantry?”
Jo hurriedly folded the page and stuffed it in her pocket. “Yes, Momma!”
“Bring out some toothpicks too, could you?”
“Before Hell freezes over.”
Dean drove onto Route 84 and fought the urge to pull out his cell phone again. He was less than twenty minutes away from Stanford and there was still a tiny (okay, maybe not that tiny) part of him that really wanted to let Sam know he was on his way. Then again, Sam hadn't answered his phone, or called Dean back once since they last talked about the Colt. Not even on Thanksgiving. Not like Thanksgiving was a sacred holiday in the Winchester household or anything—usually just slightly better than the usual take-out and a celebratory round of beer—but still. Usually Sam had found the time to give Dean a call, tell him he missed him, or tell him he didn't, or something.
Dean turned up the music to drown out his anger and tried to appreciate the rather spectacular view instead. He was driving across the Dumbarton Bridge, the water was the exact color of turquoise and the morning sky was clear. It was beautiful really, but Dean felt unsettled and on edge.
Something was up with Sam; Dean was sure of it. He wasn't dead. Dean would know if he was. He just would.
He didn't know what classes Sam had on Mondays, or any days for that matter, but he figured if he nosed around the campus long enough he'd find him. He was a damned good tracker after all.
Six hours later, Dean started to worry. He'd looked everywhere, he'd even asked everywhere and Sam was nowhere to be found. The most worrisome answer had come from the Registrar's office. They kept a university directory for all faculty and students and would let you leave a message for anybody there. They had Sam Winchester in the directory, sure enough, but he lived off-campus. The wiry dude working the counter offered Dean Sam's email address, and Dean had to force his smile wider just to keep from punching him. I have his phone number you jackass, how's an e-mail gonna help?
Dean almost turned and left so he wouldn't lose his temper, but then he had a thought. He turned back to the counter. "How about Tyson Brady? Do you have a number for him or an e-mail or anything?" The guy behind the counter smiled and said, "Brady? Man...he throws killer parties. Lives off-campus in this sweet split-level..."
"Does he now?" Dean smirked back across the counter. "Is he throwing any this week?"
"No. Dude, it's weird. He, like, dropped off the face of the Earth or something. Nobody's heard a peep from him in two weeks."
Dean chewed on his lip as the gears in his head did an unhappy dance. "Okay, well thanks anyway, man." He turned to leave, determined to find out everything he could about Sam's former roommate.
Sam looked across the picnic table at Brady. "Are you gonna answer that?"
Brady pulled out his buzzing cell phone and stared at it for a long moment, then put it on the wooden table. It vibrated steadily, moving slowly over the uneven surface as it buzzed.
"Guess not then?"
"I don't know that number," Brady said, watching an ant crawl out of the way of the moving cell phone. He held his hand out over the ant and brought one finger straight down, crushing the little bug.
Sam tilted his head to the side and looked at Brady's phone. "3235" He spun the phone around. "That's...Dean."
"Your brother?" Brady asked, flicking the squashed ant off his fingertip with his thumb.
Sam spun the phone around and stared at it as the display blinked, then showed 1 new voicemail message.
"How'd he get my number?" The demon frowned, flipping the phone open and bringing it to his ear.
"He's good at his job," Sam answered, swallowing. If Dean had decided to call Brady, it could only mean one of two things. Either he was starting to get worried about Sam not returning his calls, or...
"He knows you left school," Brady said, listening to the voicemail. He smirked, closed the phone and handed it to Sam. "Want to give it a listen? Your bro sounds pretty worried about you. Maybe you should give him a call back—let him know you're doing okay."
Sam laughed bitterly. "Yeah, sure. And what the hell am I supposed to tell him?"
"Tell him you're fine. Tell him you decided to take a break after all. Tell him you're with me."
"Right. That'll just piss him off."
"You think? Whatever. You know best. Just tell him something, before he decides he has to track you down."
"Too late for that," Sam muttered and pulled out his cell phone. Seven saved messages—all of them from Dean. The one from Thanksgiving had been the hardest one to hear. Dean had sounded like he'd been drinking—spending all that time on the road with Dad couldn't be good for his liver—but he'd also sounded so sad. Sam wanted to talk to Dean. He missed his brother, far more than he wanted to admit. The problem was that he was a shitty liar. He always had been, and if he called Dean back whenever the ache in his heart got too bad to ignore then Dean would know something was wrong. He already knew. The last time they'd spoken, when Dean had told him about the Colt, Sam could hear the suspicion and worry in every word. He didn't know what Dean thought was going on, but no matter what, it had to be better than—
"Sweet, merciless Lucifer will you PLEASE just call the guy back?" Brady groaned. "We're on a schedule here, you know."
Sam glared at Brady and looked at his phone again. He scrolled down to Dean's number and put his thumb on the call button, but he couldn't press down.
"Supergirl gets done with her shift in ten minutes. We should go introduce ourselves."
"Supergirl?" Sam asked, making a face.
"Well, she doesn't wear the costume, sadly, but she does fly. Sorta."
"She can fly?" The ten-year old in Sam—as cynical as he was, even back then—got excited. For just a second.
Brady stood up from the picnic table and shrugged. "Technically, no. She can solidify air though, meaning she can walk on it, so it looks like she's floating."
Sam stared at the demon. "Wait, I don't get it. How is that useful?"
"I'll throw you off a cliff tomorrow and you can find out. How's that sound?"
Sam flipped Brady the bird and put his phone back in his pocket. He'd call back, he just had to figure out what to say first. More importantly...how to say it.
“Nothing. Not a God-damned anything.” John threw the motel room key across one of the beds and dropped down on the edge of the mattress.
His shoulders were stooped with an invisible weight, spilling off like his own personal gravity and dragging everything, everyone, down with him. Dean often considered this Dad’s superpower: the ability to emote surliness in a palpable force. Came in handy when they needed to intimidate a reluctant informant or sentient monster, not so spiffy when it was just him and his son in a room alone together.
“It’s okay, Dad. Those sons of bitches know we’re on their heels; they’re being careful. Covering their tracks.”
John pulled his hands through his hair, scratching at his beard and hissing breath through his teeth. Nothing Dean could say would pacify him, and not just because Dean wasn’t good at sympathy—if anyone could get through to John Winchester, it was his eldest—but because Dean had nothing positive to add. Dean bore no good news either, and John could surely sense that.
The atmosphere in the room was thick, desperate. It stunk of professional-grade disinfectant and mildew. Dean wanted nothing more than fix this crap with his dad. Hell, he’d even put just a fucking band-aid on the situation if it meant cutting the tension the smallest bit.
So he did what he had to. He lied to his father.
“Saw Sammy in California.”
John looked up slowly. Something flickered in his eye; might’ve been hope. “How is he?”
“He’s doing good. I mean, not great, but better. He was swimming in mid-terms but seemed to be…yanno…” Dean had to keep the lies to the minimum because another one of his father’s superpowers was truth detection. Dean had yet to beat his father in poker, even once.
“Good, good.” John nodded and a trivial amount of gloom eased. But that was all right; Dean would take it.
“Hey. Why don’t you grab the first shower and I’ll get us a pizza. Been a long few days.”
John Winchester smiled, and it was saddest thing Dean had seen in nearly a lifetime. The ploy worked, though. John dropped his coat on a chair and lost himself in a hot shower for an hour. Dean procured pizza and beer. They watched television, cleaned weapons, and gradually faded into sleep after midnight, listening to the people in the room next door laughing and occasionally thumping the wall. On the bright side, at least it wasn’t a screaming infant.
Saginaw. Colma. San Diego. Seattle. Dean tried again to sort through the jumbled mess of facts and fears bouncing around in his skull. He stared out at the road, watching Dad's truck signal an upcoming turn, and followed him onto yet another highway, still lost in thought.
The CDC report about the deadly toxin had been weird enough to grab Dean's attention all on its own. Three cities all with victims the same age, all dead within a few days of each other. It was exactly his kind of weird, but that wasn't the part that bothered him. It was everything else.
He started with the second reported case, in San Francisco, or more specifically, Colma—the closest of Stormy's omen hotspots to Stanford, where there'd been no sign of Sam. People had reported seeing the Northern lights above San Francisco, but Stormy insisted that the lights and the massive thunderstorm earlier the same day were connected and that Colma, just south of San Francisco, was the origin.
When Dean had gone to San Francisco General as a CDC agent, checking to see if there'd been any other cases, he'd gotten a little more info. The San Francisco toxin victim, Hans Müller, who'd worked in one of Colma's cemeteries as a groundskeeper, had been found dead in his apartment. They'd brought him in and examined the body, finding no clear cause of death but a whole string of bizarre abnormalities. The lab-work itself had been unusual, but the oddest part was that his whole chest was covered in tiny holes. The holes were concentrated on the skin above his heart and hadn't scabbed. The blood just hadn't been able to congeal, which made little sense.
Dean stopped by the cemetery to find out more, and nearly wished he hadn't. The other groundskeeper, Phil, had known Hans for a few years and noted he'd gotten really weird over the last few months.
"It's not like he was an outgoing guy to begin with, you know?" the elder groundskeeper said. "He was quiet, and didn't like people much, but all of a sudden he just...he changed. Kept talking about how he could see people now, see them for what they really were." The old man shook his head and a strand of his white hair fell over his eye. He’d pushed it back and added, "When I found him that night…last night I ever saw him..." He stopped talking and his chin quivered.
The air felt like it got ten degrees cooler as Dean waited for the man to continue.
"He said he'd seen the Devil."
Phil nodded and wiped a tear from his eye. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone so scared in my life. I walked him home that night. He didn't live far..." the man pointed vaguely downhill. "All the way back he kept saying things that didn't make any sense."
"What else did he say?" Dean asked.
"He said they'd answered his prayers, but now he was blind. It didn't make any sense. His eyes were fine."
Dean's phone jangled and yanked him out of his memories. It was his generic ring and he didn't have a clue as to the number’s source. His arms prickled with gooseflesh as he answered.
"Dean," said the man on the other end of the line. Dean almost didn’t recognize the speaker; the voice was thin and uncomfortable, trying to sound casual but failing miserably.
"Pastor Jim?" Fellow hunter, family friend, Pastor Jim Murphy was one of the few people John Winchester had ever trusted with his boys. Those folks were rare; Dean could count them all on one hand.
"Listen, tell your father it's—”
An ear-busting slam came from the phone and Dean flinched. He heard a woman speaking in the background. "That's not what I told you to say. You get one more chance, Jim."
The pastor spoke again, more quietly. "Let me speak to your father."
"Jim, what's wrong?" Dean demanded. He heard a crackling sound and then a different voice came over the phone, the mystery woman.
"Who is this?" Dean flashed the Impala's high-beams once, twice, three times, signaling Dad to pull over. He saw the truck's brakes pump in response.
The woman huffed, annoyed. "You must be Dean. Lemme speak to your dad. It's time for the grown-ups to talk."
"Who are you?" Dean asked again. Ahead of him, Dad pulled the truck off the road and onto the grass. Dean followed, bringing the Impala to a lurching halt, and climbed out.
"Hand the phone to your father. Right now." In the background, Jim made a strained, choking sound.
John was jogging from the truck, brows lifted in unspoken confusion but Dean just shoved the phone at him. He didn’t have answers for his dad anyway.
His stomach knotting, Dean struggled to hear the other side of the discussion, but there was wind and road noise and he could only make out a few words.
Dean watched his dad's face carefully for clues. Clearly, this was bad. When Dad flipped the phone shut and struggled to level his breathing, Dean knew what had happened before one word was spoken.
"Son, I…Jim's dead."
Dean felt punched. "But who?”
"I don't know. She said her name was Meg, but the way she spoke—” John shook his head, dragged a hand over his beard, “—it's a demon, Dean. I'm sure of it."
"What does it want?"
Looking at the sky and blinking hard, John paused a moment before answering. "The Colt. I don't know how, but they know we have it."
"How could they know? We didn't tell anybody!" Dean said angrily. The only one he'd told was Sam.
That was it.
It was a cold day when Gordon walked back into the Roadhouse. He brought a blast of ice-wind in with him when he opened the door, and Jo stepped a little closer to the space heater by her feet. She smiled when Gordon caught her eyes, grabbed a glass from the shelf behind her and poured him a beer from the tap.
Gordon Walker was a hunter. A damned good one. He'd started coming to the Roadhouse when Jo was 15. She'd liked him right off the bat. He knew what he was doing, and he never tried to flirt with her, unlike some of the others—too stupid to know that her mom could sense a bad pickup line from ten miles away and had the ability to manifest right on cue. The best part about Gordon, though, was that he treated her with respect.
Even now, when she was twenty years old and an honest-to-God grown-up, most hunters didn't see Jo as an equal. They were nice to her and knew to be polite, especially when her momma was around, but they didn't see Jo as anything but Ellen and Bill's daughter.
Her father died on the job, so far back Jo had still been in pigtails. Her memories of him got foggier every year. She remembered the smell of leather, ashes, and beer—strong hugs, dark green eyes and a warm smile. More than anything, she wanted to keep and honor the few memories remaining of him. He was a hunter, and so was she.
Gordon understood that. He recognized a kindred spirit and had taken her on a hunt when she was sixteen. He'd been tracking a rawhead in nearby Myrtle, but needed help luring it out into the open. Jo'd still been young enough to attract its attention; rawheads only fed on children. She'd known the risks and even though she'd been more scared than she would have ever admitted, she would never back down.
The stakeout had dragged on with no sign of the beast and Gordon decided they should widen their sweep. It was possible the rawhead had seen them and took to ground. They’d split up, circling around one of the houses they hadn't checked yet. Jo had run right into trouble, but it wasn't the kind with an ever-bleeding head and jagged yellow-teeth. It had been much, much worse.
Her mom had yelled so loud, Jo still couldn't believe nobody had come out to see what the hell was going on. She'd accused Gordon of using Jo as bait and ordered him to get the "bloody, ever-loving hell away from my daughter and don't you ever darken my doorway again!"
So it had been a long time since Jo had seen Gordon. Just over five years. He'd been smart with his timing; her mom had left for a supply run and wouldn't be back for a good two or three hours.
"Haven't seen you in a while," she said as Gordon sat down at the bar right across from her. She nudged the beer towards him. "How've you been?"
"I've been busy." Gordon grinned at her, all white teeth and secrets. "What have you been up to?"
She shrugged. "Hunting."
"Is that a fact?" Gordon chuckled. "What changed Ellen’s mind?"
"Nothing. I'm an adult. She can't keep me here forever."
Gordon raised an eyebrow and smirked.
Jo let out a huff and crossed her arms over her chest. "Okay, we had a huge blow out. I left home for a while and she decided she'd rather have me come back." Jo tossed a towel over her shoulder and leaned her elbows on the bar. "What brings you here? Taking a mighty big risk."
"I know. I saw your ma leave in the truck. What've you heard about humans with psychic powers?"
Jo cocked her head but played it cool. "I know that they exist."
"What do you know about them being murdered?"
Her mouth twitched. "You mean the 'Tall Man' murders, right?"
"Tall Man?" Gordon shook his head and took a swallow of beer. "Never heard of him."
Jo pushed back a proud grin and reached underneath the counter to pop open the false bottom she'd built into one of the drawers. She slid the thick folder out slowly and placed it on the counter in front of Gordon. "That's what the press is calling him, based on bystander chatter. The cops can't seem to get a real bead on him, except that all his victims were born in ’83. We know they were also ‘gifted’ in one way or another. And witnesses? Weren’t hardly any, and the ones who’ll talk can't seem to remember squat. It’s like a mental block. I think we can both guess why."
"Because this Tall Man's not human," Gordon said, eyes going just a little colder.
"Anything else connecting the victims?"
"Well, Ash cracked into a couple of government sites. The bodies had these little—" Jo fluttered her fingertips over a bare arm "—little bleeds all over. I've been combing books and old cases and the only thing I can guess at is some kind of paranormal Ebola virus. Or a ghost sickness, maybe? This last one, though…" She shuffled through the paperwork, frowning. "Well, shit, Ash must not have printed it out. This last one in Johnson, Tennessee—"
Jo narrowed her eyes. "What?"
Gordon opened his mouth again but caught himself, chuckling uncomfortably. "Okay, you got me. I have heard of the Tall Man."
"And you're hiding this from me because…?" Jo snapped.
"Hell, I don't know, Jo. I'm an antisocial loner with poor judgment; ask anyone who's met me."
"Funny, Gordon. Are you afraid I'm gonna steal your case?"
"What? No. Come on, calm down." He quirked his head in the direction of the pool table, where two men were in the middle of a game of Eight Ball and just might be within earshot. Jo started to object but Gordon lifted his hand. "I knew you'd want to come with me. And I can't have that."
"Why not?" she asked in a harsh whisper.
"Your mother would end me, that's why."
"I'm not a child that needs to be coddled, Gordon!"
"You are her child, Jo. I won't take you away from her."
Jo was still scowling when she collected the file from the bar, piling it in a big mess out of Gordon's reach. She even cleared away his beer. "Good-bye, Gordon. You can leave now."
"And don't come back."
“Okay, okay. Hang on. At least maybe I can give you something to work with.” He pleaded with his eyes. “A good description?”
“Of…?” Jo stomped a boot; he knew how to push her buttons and that was miles away from fair.
“Him. The Tall Man.”
“Someone got a good look?” One day her curiosity would likely get her killed, but that day wasn’t today. Jo took a step closer. “I thought no one could remember what he looked like. Except that, yanno, he was tall.”
Gordon tapped his temple, leaning in conspiratorially. “He wasn’t always covering his tracks so well, not with the early deaths. Took me a while to put it together. Thank God for nosey neighbors. He’s tall, half a head taller than me, so…maybe 6’5”? Longish brown hair, all shoulders. Young in the face. Sometimes with another guy: lighter hair, well-dressed. My source said the taller one was stumbling, looked disoriented, and that’s what called attention to them.”
“Huh. So there’s two guys? Well that’s weird.”
“Not always two. Later reports only noted the taller one. Beyond that, it gets really foggy.”
“He’s getting cagier.”
Gordon nodded grimly and stood. “So. You still hate me, Jo?”
“No, Gordon, guess I don’t,” Jo sighed, giving him a reluctant smile. “But Momma still does so you’d best be scootin’. Sooner rather then later.”
"I got a bad feeling about this," Dean said again as he looked at the farmhouse off in the distance. This was the address Meg had sent them to—just outside of Tabernash, Colorado.
John laughed darkly. "You'd be crazy not to, but we don't have much choice. After what she did to Jim..."
Dad was right about that. Meg had threatened to kill every hunter the Winchesters had ever had contact with, all of them including Ellen and Jo. "I know, but this has to be a trap, right?"
"It is. We just gotta be smart about walking into it." The elder Winchester pulled out his Colt—not the Colt, which was hidden in his boot but his regular Colt MK IV—and started walking towards the farmhouse. "Remember what I told you. We gotta be careful about how we fight her too."
"Right, ‘cause she's possessing some poor girl who might still be alive." Dean let out a frustrated breath. "It's gonna be hard to fight her off without hurting her."
"We'll do our best not to hurt her. But if push comes to shove, we have to protect ourselves and we have to protect the Colt. It's the only weapon we've got against the yellow-eyed bastard."
When they got to the door of the old farmhouse, Dean's gut feeling went from bad to 'Oh Hell no.'
They walked in slowly, eyes sharp for anything, anything at all.
"Howdy boys," said a woman, closing the door behind them. Wasn’t exactly a surprise.
Dean turned towards her voice. She was pretty and small with short blonde hair that made her look a helluva lot more innocent than she was. No. That's just the girl she's wearing.
"You must be Meg," said John.
"And you must be John Winchester."
Meg’s smile reminded Dean of a wolf. He wrapped his fingers tighter around his shotgun. He'd filled the shells with a mixture of salt and a powdered blend of frankincense and myrrh, an old trick Pastor Jim had taught them. It wouldn't kill a demon, but it would sting like a mother.
"Show me the gun," Meg demanded.
"Which gun do you wanna see, lady?" Dean held up his shotgun.
"Funny. John, tell your boy to go wait outside while we talk business."
"Dean won't be any trouble.” John cut a warning glance to his son.
Meg scoffed. "I'm sure he's a good little cub scout, but he waits outside." Her eyes flipped to a bottomless black. "Or...I paint the wall with his innards."
"Dad?" Dean asked warily.
"It'll be okay. Do as she says."
Meg smirked at Dean, and her black eyes followed him as he left.
Dean stood with his back against the wall, and listened. He could make out muffled voices but not the words themselves. He walked over to the sacks of rock salt Dad had stashed beside a near tree, and cut a slit in one of the bags with his knife. He went back to the house and started pouring the salt in an even line around the perimeter. Meg would get the Colt from Dad; they just had to be sure she couldn't leave with it.
When he got close to one of the windows in the back, he crouched down low, hidden from view. He could hear Meg's voice clearly.
"Cut the crap, Winchester. Give me the Colt now."
It took all of Dean's will-power not to sneak a look through the window but he couldn't risk being seen, not before he was done with his task. He kept walking and only peeked back over his shoulder once—just in time to see a weak light inside start to flicker. He picked up the pace and hurried to finish the circle.
Dean added an extra line of salt by the threshold of the door and went back inside.
John and Meg turned and stared at him.
"I told you to wait outside, son," said Dad.
Dean shrugged. "I got bored."
"Well in that case, welcome to the party," Meg jeered, turning her back on them and walking further into the house.
Dean watched her go until she disappeared into the shadows, moving closer to John. "What happened?"
"I've still got the Colt. Did you do what I told you?" Dad asked, watching for Meg's return.
"Good. Now when she comes back—"
"You boys talking about me?" Meg was smiling as she walked back into the light. She was carrying something. Someone. She stopped a few feet away from John and Dean and let the man she was holding fall to the ground with a painful thump.
John took a step closer, misery reflected in his heavy stare. "Caleb?"
Dean tilted his head to get a better look at the man's face. It was Caleb. "What did you—?”
Caleb whimpered and his arm twitched weakly.
"He's nice and sleepy, but he's unharmed. For now."
"Unharmed?" Dean snapped. "You just dropped him on his head!"
Meg nudged Caleb with her boot and mused, "It doesn't really matter."
"Cut the crap, why did you bring Caleb here?" John snarled.
"Oh come on, John. Don't play dumb." Meg sighed heavily. "You said you'd give me the Colt—”
"I meant it."
“—but I have to test it, don't I?"
"Test?" John shook his head.
Smirking, Meg bent over and picked up Caleb's arm. She shoved back his sleeve and turned his forearm into the light, revealing an angry red burn in the shape of a circle with a small line in it, almost like a 'Q'. A brand. "I've got a friend of mine riding shotgun in your buddy here. Locked him in tight."
"Why the hell would I give you the Colt then?" John yelled. "As soon as I hand it to you, you’re gonna kill Caleb!"
"Nothing gets past you," Meg said, bemused. "Don't worry, John. I'll absolve you of all guilt." She grinned at him, flicked her eyes towards the ceiling and added, "He's all yours."
Dean felt his stomach go cold a second before the shadows in the ceiling came alive. They flooded down, heading for John, and flowed straight into him—through his eyes and his mouth. He screamed, his voice garbled by the smoke as he fell to his knees.
Meg cocked her head to the side. "How is it in there?"
"Feels...real self-righteous." The demon settled his shoulders inside of John Winchester and put his hand on the floor, pushing himself up to standing. He opened his eyes, his pale, yellow eyes, and grinned. At Dean.
"You son of a bitch," Dean whispered.
"Is that anyway to talk to your father?" asked the yellow-eyed demon. "I raised you better than that."
"Get out of my dad. Now." Dean growled, and aimed his shotgun at the demon's chest. It would hurt, but it wouldn't kill.
"Or what? You'll shoot me?" The demon chuckled. He bent down, reached into John's boot and pulled the Colt from its holster. "This is the only gun that'd do any real damage." He held the revolver to the light and looked at it with disgust. "You have no idea what a pain in my ass this thing's been." He leveled the Colt at Caleb's prone form and fired. The hunter's body lit up bright gold and red, and the demon inside of him screamed right along with Caleb before they both fell silent.
"We have a winner," said Meg.
Dean's lips twitched angrily, and it took every ounce of his willpower to not shoot both demons just on principle. Instead he forced his voice to stay steady. "Let him go, or I swear to God—”
John's yellow eyes flashed at Dean, sending him flying backwards into the wall. "What? What are you and God gonna do?" He spun the Colt around his finger. "The only weapon that can kill me is the one I'm holding."
Meg snorted behind him and Yellow Eyes spun to glare at her. She looked down at the floor for a second, maybe contrite, and then back up, all humor gone from her face.
Dean watched them desperately and tried to calculate how quickly Meg would have her hand on his throat if he tried to knock the Colt from John's grip. The odds were not in his favor. Shit, he couldn't even move his arms away from the wall. "Fine. You know what? You're right. I don't have a way to kill you. You have what you want; you could at least answer one question for me."
The demon chuckled. "And what would that be?"
"I want to know why. Why'd you kill Mom?" Dean said, swallowing past the lump in his throat. "Why'd you kill Jess?"
"You mean besides the simple joy of watching their pretty faces melt?" The thing inside John grinned. "Because they got in the way."
"In the way of what?"
"My plans for Sammy," said the demon, and he slid the Colt into John's side holster.
Meg rolled her eyes and let out a weary sigh.
Yellow-eyes spun to face her, yelling. "I don't care what you think. You already failed me! Your little pets didn't find this gun. You couldn't even get John to hand it over. No, Daddy had to come in and clean up your mess. Again. Now, you'll do as you're told, or I'll send you right back down to the Pit, is that understood?"
"Fine," Meg sniped. She spun on her heel and stalked towards the door. She let out an amused chuckle and made a fist, causing some kind of freakishly small tornado that blew the white, powdery line away from the threshold. "Salt. Cute," she said, and kept right on going.
Dean couldn't stop staring at his possessed father. "You stay away from Sam."
John shrugged and said, "Me? I've kept my distance from him." He put his palms on the wall, one hand to either side of Dean's head, and leaned in close. "I'm not the one culling the herd. I'm not the one stacking the odds in Sam's favor."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Yellow Eyes grinned. "You think your brother's just an overgrown puppy? Wouldn't hurt a fly?" He laughed, deep and cruel. "Yeah...that's what I was starting to think too. Turns out we were both wrong."
"You mind just getting this all over with? I'm not gonna spend the next hour trying to translate the cryptic load of bullshit coming out of your mouth." Dean sneered defiantly.
"Funny. But that's your M.O., isn't it? Mask all that nasty pain. Mask the truth." The demon tilted his head, watching Dean closely.
"Oh yeah? What's that?"
"You fight and you fight for this family, but the truth is, they don't need you. Not like you need them. Sam…he's clearly John's favorite. Even when they fight, that's more concern than he's ever shown you."
Dean wet his lips and glared at the demon. "You're full of crap."
"Right." Yellow Eyes smirked. "None of what I said is true? It doesn't cut you up inside?" His smirk turned into a toothy grin. "How does that make you feel?"
Dean clenched his eyes shut in pain as something cut across his stomach, sharp and searing. He could feel blood spill out of the wound, drenching his shirt and pooling in his waistband.
"I asked you a question, Dean." The thing kept grinning. "How do you feel?"
The hurt inside Dean doubled as the force pushed deeper and deeper. "Dad,” he gritted out, "don't you let it kill me. Dad, please…" He started coughing as blood welled up inside his mouth.
The demon's grin finally faltered and John staggered away from the wall. He pleaded hoarsely, "Stop. Stop." And when he looked up at his son again, his eyes were brown, and human.
Dean slid down the wall, hands cupping his belly, barely standing. "Dad?" he rasped. "Is he—?”
John shook his head. "I can't hold him back for long." He reached into his holster and pulled out the Colt, shoving it at Dean. "Take the gun, and go."
"Dad, I'm not gonna just let—”
"Run! NOW, Dean," John yelled.
Dean watched his father fall to his knees, and ran.
By the time they arrived at Lafayette, Indiana, Sam and Brady had a bizarrely efficient rhythm down. In most cases, Sam found that explaining to their targets what he and Brady were about to do only made things worse. Since the extraction ritual put the psychics to sleep—which made everything much simpler—they'd developed a system. Brady would enter the home, make sure there was nobody else around, let Sam in and start the ritual as soon as Sam walked through the door. In most cases, Sam only had to wait a minute or two before the cup filled and the psychic dropped unconscious.
They hadn't had any difficulty in weeks, and they'd gotten way too careless.
Sam waited outside Scott's house in the neat little suburban backyard, while Brady checked inside. It was broad daylight and the neighborhood was thrumming with the sounds of life, but the Careys had built a secluded little backyard oasis. A tall, cedar privacy fence circled the property, dotted every so often with plastic butterflies. Sam had the place to himself, drawn to an old hammock that stretched between two leafless trees, remembering the summer when he was nine.
Somehow, they'd ended up at a campground while Dad hunted a chupacabra. Right after Sam clambered into a hammock to catch a long overdue nap, Dean had snuck up and folded the hammock around him like a huge cocoon, and spun him until he thought he was going to puke.
It hadn’t been funny at the time, except to Dean, and it still wasn’t funny now but for a very different reason. Sam smiled pensively and pushed down the ache of loss he felt whenever he thought of his brother. He walked a step closer to the hammock, and heard a loud pop go off behind him. Right behind him. Immediately thereafter, two more pops sounded, for a total of three. His torso jolted and initially, he was clueless; it didn’t make sense. Then the pain bloomed, quick and sharp, and he turned around, clutching at his chest. His hand felt slick and when he looked down, he saw blood—red and yellow and black and finally a sickly white—coursing over his fingers. He landed in the grass, trying to will the blood to stop leaking, urging it to return and draw back inside. The sky was starting to tunnel, closing in, when Sam saw Brady appear behind a skinny, twitching kid. The kid had a gun.
The demon grabbed the gun and brought it crashing down on the kid's temple. Stepping over the unconscious body, Brady reached Sam's side just before everything went forcibly, and terrifyingly, dark.
The world was spiraling. Dean slammed into the Impala, the cold metal of a gun in one hand, the hot spill of his own blood in the other. This was an impossible decision. Impossible, unfair, and he couldn’t make it. He’d taken the Colt and ran, just as his father had asked, but now the call was Dean’s. No choice; he wasn’t leaving his dad.
He stumbled back to the farmhouse, half-assedly looking for Meg even though she wouldn’t be hanging around; she wasn’t stupid. He tore open the door, leaving red everywhere he touched, and was met with dead silence.
“Dad!” he barked. The effort set his gut on fire.
Nothing moved, save the dust motes that drifted in the wan sunlight from a broken window.
“Dad,” Dean said again, this time without urgency.
Caleb hadn’t moved, lying in the middle of a wide, dark puddle. Dean corrected himself; it wasn’t Caleb anymore, it was just a vacant shell.
His head swam again, black spots beginning to dance in front of this eyes and heart pounding so hard he thought it might break through his ribs or shoot out the slice in his belly.
What do I do what do I do? He just wanted to sit and think, to fold up under his own weight and think for a God-damned minute, but if he did that, he’d never get up again. This could not be an option.
He wished he could call Sam but fuck, no, that wasn’t an option either. Every bad vibe in his body congealed around Sammy: Jess’ death, Mom’s death, the Tall Man and his handiwork, ol’ Yellow Eyes’ supposed ‘plans’—none of it should’ve made sense and yet somehow, it still did.
Dean felt his eyes start to sting and a moan catch in his throat. He’d been alone before, but this was a fresh new hell. Fellow hunters, family friends, had lost their lives over this and he didn’t know why. His brother was slipping away and his dad…shit, his dad. His dad was being puppet-mastered by an adversary that wasn’t even human. How the fuck do you fight that?
He caught himself on a banister, almost toppling, and his boot kicked the butt of the shotgun he’d dropped earlier, when the demon had stuck him to the wall like a frog on a dissecting tray. Dean winced, tucking the Colt in the back of his jeans, and stooped painfully to retrieve the firearm. As a joke, twelve-year-old Sam had carved a smiley face into the stock of the shotgun. Dean had never sanded it off.
He made a decision right then and there: he’d pick up and he’d carry on, stop thinking and just do. This was his family; this was his life.
After patting down Caleb, who’d been picked clean by the demons, Dean made a brief search of the house. He found nothing but telltale drifts of yellow powder at some of the windows. Sulfur.
Once outside, he raised his blood-heavy shirt and inspected the cut on his belly in the mid-day sun. Yeah, it certainly needed stitches and maybe he could sew himself up if he could get his hands to quit shaking. It wasn’t as deep as he’d feared, though. For once, he was relieved he had a just a little meat around his middle and the gash didn’t bite though the muscle wall. If this had been Sam, they’d be picking up innards right now.
He patched himself up with a few butterfly bandages and choked down painkillers, dry. After swapping his ruined shirt for an unstained one, he unfolded a map on the hood of the Impala and stared at North America, displayed in print and the pastel colors of each state. There was no one he trusted in Wyoming and he sure as hell wasn’t going back to Kansas but the next state over, Nebraska, was home to the Roadhouse.
Dean felt a brand new thrill of panic at the possibility someone at Harvelle’s was on Yellow Eyes’ hit list too. That settled it.
Using his own spare key, Dean hid his father’s Sierra Grande in the nearby woods, first emptying the bed of every single weapon and piling the arsenal into the trunk of his car. He stripped the truck of all personalizing items and tucked Dad’s journal in his jacket pocket. He didn’t bother with the license plates; they weren’t legitimate anyways.
Without a single look back, he left that fucking farmhouse in the dust and made a straight shot to Arcadia, Nebraska—Home to Hunters Everywhere—praying the whole time he wouldn’t find a burned-out shell when he got there.
The first thing that hit Sam when he became conscious again was the smell in the air—blood and sulfur. He heard a warped slur of voices near him, arguing, as his brain filled with pain and cement. A hand grabbed him by the chin and held something cold and metallic against his lips. The odor of blood was so close, and Sam wanted it so bad, but his body just wasn't listening to him.
"Drink this," Brady said. At least Sam was fairly certain it was Brady; who else would be force-feeding him O-positive?
Sam moaned and tried to open his eyes but his lids weighed a ton. He managed to crack one halfway open and then the other. The demon and his human skin both wore nearly identical expressions of concern, though the Brady inside looked even more panicked. There was someone else behind him—a woman with two faces looking out through her skin—one demon, one human.
"Drink!" Brady insisted and pushed the brim of the chalice against Sam's teeth. The woman standing behind him moved closer and stared at Sam with stark, black eyes.
Sam opened his mouth and drank. It was supposed to be chicken soup. Dean always gave him chicken soup when he got hurt or had a fever. And Sam was certainly hurting, but he couldn't remember—
Brady tilted the chalice up further and poured the blood into Sam's mouth.
He kept swallowing, and the pain disappeared as if some great hand had swept it away, nothing more than a vague inconvenience. Sam was left groggy and befuddled, and though greatly improved, still a long way from functional. His eyes fluttered and focused on a dirty, cobwebbed ceiling. When had they gone inside? And where the ever-loving hell was inside? He was distantly aware that there was more blood running down his throat than the few spoonfuls he usually got. A lot more.
"This is such a bad idea," said the woman, tucking her short, blonde hair behind one ear. She turned away from them and added, "You're an idiot."
"Shut up, Meg. What are you even still doing here?" Brady tilted the chalice up and smiled at Sam. "Good. Good job, Sam. You'll feel better soon."
"You know the hunters already figured out this isn't a disease. They have a name for him. You don't think the rest of the humans are going to start getting suspicious when two bodies from different states turn up dead together?"
Sam followed this ‘Meg’ person’s gaze as she glared down at an unfamiliar pair of motionless figures, piled against a wall. From the looks of the place, they’d landed in an abandoned house but it was getting dark, and the shadows were growing long. Sam couldn’t see with clarity much more than his immediate surroundings.
"No, I don't, because you're going to help me make sure that doesn't happen. Take Miranda and Scott back to their own homes." Brady continued to feed Sam the contents of the cup, even as Sam struggled in vain to lift his head off the floor.
"Right, I’ll just bring them back home. It’s not like anybody would have noticed that they’ve both been missing for the last two days! Oh, and I'm sure nobody heard the gun go off at Scott’s house either.” The blonde woman let out a patronizing sigh and snapped, "This wasn't the plan."
"I'm improvising," Brady grumbled, slipping a hand under the back of Sam’s neck. "If you think it's such a bad plan, then leave."
Sam swallowed the rest of the blood and Brady pulled the cup away.
"I’m not bringing them back to their homes. Not while they’re still breathing, anyway. They talk and we’ll have a real problem.” Meg blew a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. “The humans—police, hunters whatever—they’re all going to start going after Sam. You know that, right?"
"Then we'll just have to move faster, until they're not a threat anymore."
The woman's voice raised a decibel. "Faster? Are you insane? You're way ahead of schedule as is. This is crazy! It's dangerous!"
Sam felt curiously removed from the conversation zinging over his head. The blood settled in his belly, warm and satisfying. Awash with contentment that he probably should’ve questioned, Sam simply didn’t. It wasn’t worth the effort. He licked the last few drops from his lips and decided now was the perfect time to drift right back to sleep. Brady, apparently, had a different plan.
There was a light pressure on Sam’s chest, and he thought that for a moment Brady had set his hand there, fingers splayed wide. This theory proved wrong, however, when a sudden and violent tug exploded in Sam’s chest. A hot sear ripped through him and his eyes snapped open, back arching off the floor and fingers scraping splinters from the rough wood.
Brady was holding his hand over Sam's chest, his mouth thinned in concentration.
Something small and metallic tore loose from inside of Sam. It snapped into Brady's waiting hand, slick and red. "Sorry, Sam. That idiot's aim was a little too good. One of the bullets got lodged in—"
Suddenly, Sam's mind exploded and he howled. The pleasure from the blood turned into white-hot fury, unfocused and impossible to contain. Two opposing forces coursed through him, one knitting his flesh back together, making him whole, and the other violent and desperate to lash out. There was something else too, something that made his heart race and his body feel far too small. It pressed against his very being, against the walls of the room, and Sam gasped, trying to find the air, the space, to breathe. His skin twitched and tingled, the hairs on his arms lifting.
There was a loud, cracking noise and from the other side of the room, the sound of voices crying out in pain.
"Shit," Brady said, standing up and backing away from Sam.
"I fucking told you!" snapped the woman. "Let's go before —”
Sam thrashed in agony as the area flooded with energy. The room lit up flash-bang bright, and for just a moment, Sam knew what it was like to be a storm.
Then there was nothing.
It was a peculiar Wednesday night when the guy blew into the Roadhouse. Peculiar because the snow that had smothered the far northern part of the state missed Arcadia in favor of wind, hail and thunder. Jo fiddled with busywork—polishing glasses, restocking coasters. She hated the way the windows jittered and pinged with ice flecks, and how the heavens rumbled like celestial indigestion. But she and Ash had been tracking strange weather conditions for the past few months and if this storm meant the Tall Man was nearby, she’d forgive Mother Nature anything, even if it took out a neon letter from the sign over the porch outside.
The door smacked open, shoved by the wind, forcing the newcomer to muscle it shut again. Young guy, not much older than Jo. She’d never seen him before but he looked like every other customer in the joint: boots, layers of flannel and denim and toughness, and a wary dart to his eye that said he didn’t miss much. He was tallish, slightly bow-legged and compact, and from the way he carried himself Jo could tell he was packing firearms. She was pretty sure he was a hunter of something, preternatural or otherwise.
He brushed the sleet out of his sandy hair, leaving it in wet bristles. When he caught her staring, he made a beeline for the bar and tried damned hard to smile around exhaustion. Jo felt something flutter in her belly, and she couldn’t be sure if it was trouble or sympathy or something a little less polite.
“Some night, huh?” Jo said, grabbing a clean rag to buff off a spot for him at the bar.
He pulled up a stool and sat, barely stifling a wince. “Yeah. Some night.”
Now that he was closer, she noted how truly wrung-out he looked; he must’ve been driving for hours, maybe days. He had that sort of zombified, dry-eyed stare and dark circles, a dirty shade of purple, that suggested more than a little missing sleep. There might even have been bruises. His knuckles were red and swollen too; maybe he’d been in a knock-down drag-out. Jo fancied she was good at ferreting out patrons’ business.
“Coffee or beer?” she asked.
“Ah. Shitty day?” She turned and grabbed a bottle of one of the top-shelf brands; she’d decided he’d earned it.
“Oh, darlin’, you don’t know the half of it,” he chuckled humorlessly, and Jo saw his jaw tighten when he shifted position.
She poured him a double. “Try me.”
“Nah. Some things are just better left unsaid.” He lifted his glass. “To absent friends…”
Jo had poured herself a shot, and clinked it against his. “To absent friends.”
They drank in tandem, both hissing and grinning at the burn.
Just about then, Ellen came out from the kitchen with burgers and baskets of fries for the corner table. Jo quickly palmed her empty shotglass and the guy smirked again, wrinkling the corners of his weary eyes.
“My mom,” Jo mouthed soundlessly.
“Wait, is that Ellen Harvelle?”
“Yeah…” she squinted at him, trying to place his face but nope, not a flicker of recognition.
“Well now, this doesn’t seem fair. Can I at least get a name from you?” Whatever initial attraction she’d felt for him was solidly punted by suspicion.
He hesitated but didn’t seem to have the energy to be evasive. “Dean.”
Ellen Harvelle’s radar had pinged, apparently. She’d come up behind his left side, square-shouldered and narrow-eyed. For once, Jo was glad for her mother’s keen over-protectiveness. “Winchester? John’s boy?”
The guy—Dean—turned quickly and all the color bleached from his face. He shuddered once and toppled over backwards. If not for Ellen, he would’ve hit the floor, hard. Jo shot from around the bar and caught his other arm; this Dean wasn’t a fly-weight.
With the aid of Ash and Jud, the sheriff’s nephew, they wrangled him into one of the back rooms the Roadhouse kept for occasional overnight guests. It wasn’t much more than a bare light bulb, a flimsy cot and a lettuce crate for a bedside stand, but it’d do. Ash’s room was just around the corner.
He woke up as Jo was pulling off his leather jacket, bleary and objecting with about as much gumption as a baby deer. Ellen pressed a cool, damp rag to his forehead and murmured something about him feeling too warm, and it didn’t take them long to figure out why. The poor patch-job across his belly hid an angry slash, pink around the edges and seeping blood and serum through an ineffectual gauze wrap.
Ellen sent Jud out to watch the bar and Ash to retrieve whiskey and the first aid kit as Jo checked him over for any other festering wounds.
“Dean?” Ellen said softly, despite her hard expression.
He blinked up at her and grunted, his eyes nearly crossing with the effort. He was sweating and pale as a fish belly. The cut on his abdomen seemed to be the worst of his external injuries, apart from the odd fresh bruise or scrape. If something had sprung a leak inside, though, he was in trouble: they had no way of dealing with that.
Jo flipped open the little pocketknife she carried, and Dean started struggling all over again.
“Settle, there, cowboy. I’m just gonna cut your shirt off,” Jo said. He stared at her long and hard, then finally flopped back down, stilling. She slipped the blade up under his t-shirt and split the garment open wide. When she moved to pull off the doodad he wore on a leather cord around his neck, his hand snapped up and caught her wrist. It took a lot of effort on his part, she could tell. “Okay, okay. I won’t touch the jewelry. Relax, before you have a stroke on top of it all.”
Ellen took the medkit from Ash and opened it up on her lap. She fished out fresh bandages, antiseptic, and a suture kit, setting the items on the pillow for easy access.
“Damn, that’s gonna leave a mark,” Ash said pointedly, squinting and hovering over the damage. Jo batted him away.
If this Dean wasn’t a hunter, he should’ve been. His skin was dotted with freckles and a load of old, difficult-to-explain scars that looked a lot like bite wounds and claw scrapes. He was in exceptionally good shape—quite the tough guy—but he’d lost a lot of blood and hadn’t taken particular care with the cleanliness of his wound. Or maybe whatever had made the cut wasn’t exactly human.
Jo and her mom had patched up more than a few unfortunate casualties of too much beer, too little brain, as well as the occasional hunter who stumbled into the Roadhouse after a hunt gone wrong. They worked quickly and quietly, Ellen cleaning the wound thoroughly despite Dean’s gasps and shivers and Jo threading a curved needle for the stitchwork. Jo was better at the detailed stuff; her mom probably needed reading glasses but wouldn’t admit to it.
Ash handed Jo the liquor. She gave the wound a splash for luck then sat Dean up long enough to allow him a few long swallows. He was going to need it.
After the first three stitches, Dean had the good graces to pass out. Thank God, Elvis, or whoever the hell looked out for fools and baby animals, Jo said to herself.
Dean’s eyes felt like burrs drifting in some sort of dry-ice fog, which made about as much sense as anything else. At first, he thought he was tied down and then he realized he was just too fucking sore and weak to move. His midsection was stiff and incredibly tender, and the room refused to swim into focus. Since his vision wouldn’t rally, he let his eyes drift shut again and stopped trying. His ears worked just fine, though – providing his brain would get on board with the plan.
The muffled strains of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” drifted through the walls and Dean found the song selection thoroughly unfunny. Seemed he couldn’t get his sense of humor to rally either.
The last thing he remembered was the taste of whiskey. Backtracking from there, his memory surrendered up a short blonde, then he recalled driving, chewing up the road in a panic to get somewhere, anywhere, because…Dad.
Dean’s eyes crawled open again and a bit of the fog lifted. His limbs were still leaden, and he realized there were voices in the room from some spot behind him, out of sight. Women’s voices. They spoke softly, but he could swear he heard “Winchester” mentioned at least twice.
He ran his tongue over his lips and said “Hello?” but it came out more of a squeak. A manly squeak, he hoped.
The voices hushed and footsteps approached. A face emerged from the glare of a naked light bulb—the blonde from before—the bartender, he recalled, though she still looked far too young to be serving booze to anyone.
“Well, about time,” she smiled and Dean made a miserable attempt to smile back. His teeth were so fuzzy and dry, though, his lips stuck.
“Bet your belly hurts like a sonuvabitch,” she continued, lifting a threadbare blanket to peek at his torso.
“Hope I still have my pants,” Dean croaked.
Now the other woman stepped into view, arms folded over her chest, unyielding. “Nope. And we’ve got your gun, too.”
Shit, the Colt. Dean had every intention of sitting upright but that wasn’t happening anytime soon. Nothing but his head moved; it came a few sad inches off the pillow before collapsing back down.
The older woman—Ellen, he barely remembered—huffed a sigh and her eyes softened. She wasn’t particularly tall or broad, but she had the rigid posture of someone who could kick his ass if she put half a mind to it, even on one of Dean’s better days. Which this wasn’t, so he wisely stayed still. “Almost three days. What took a chunk out of your middle, son?”
Son. Dean’s heart rate kicked up a notch with instant dread for Dad, which made his belly throb in bright agony and he breathed deep through his nose to force some small bit of calm.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he managed to grind out.
He had no idea how much the Harvelle women knew of his father’s business, supernatural or otherwise. He was as sure as he could be that the Roadhouse was hunter-friendly, but maybe that simply meant the proprietors were happy to turn a blind eye to strange goings-on and since they were out in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere, the local law gave them a wide berth. John had once worked with a Bill Harvelle but maybe Bill didn’t involve his wife and daughter in the dangerous stuff.
He also knew Bill was dead. There might’ve been more in Dad’s journal about Mr. Harvelle but Dean hadn’t gotten that far yet. Decoding the journal was like catching frogs with your bare hands: slippery and messy and sometimes, just plain impossible. Frankly, until the yellow-eyed fucker had run off in Dad’s skin, Dean wasn’t allowed access to the journal anyway. It was a scary peek into John Winchester’s brain, and Dean wasn’t altogether thrilled to get in there.
Jo leaned forward, elbows resting lightly on the edge of the bed. “We noticed the sigils on the gun. We know what they’re for. Non timebo mala. I will fear no evil…” Her face got serious. “So what are you hunting, Dean Winchester?”
Where to begin? Ellen was hovering over Jo’s shoulder, the grim press of her lips reading all kinds of unhappy.
“A demon is skin-riding my dad,” he said hoarsely, fists bunching in the blankets.
Ellen’s mood shifted into something Dean couldn’t read, but he could feel it. It felt like things unspoken, like skeletons peeking out of closets. “Jo, would you go get Dean some water to drink, please?” Her voice was tight.
Jo flashed a glance from Dean to her mother but obeyed without objection. When she’d left the room, Ellen took her place at Dean’s bedside.
“That gun is the Colt, isn’t it? The Colt?”
Dean swallowed hard and nodded.
“I thought that thing was just a legend, like the Holy Grail. Or Excalibur.”
“No, ma’am.” There was no such thing as ‘legend’ in Dean’s line of work.
Ellen was so close he could see the fine wrinkles around her eyes, the odd shoot of gray through her brunette hair. He couldn’t help but sweat a little under the scrutiny; Dean made the connection that Bill Harvelle had, indeed, included his widow in hunting business.
“So. You planning on going after this thing by yourself?”
Dean shifted uncomfortably, and it wasn’t just the slice in his stomach that was giving him grief. “I haven’t really gotten that far but…yeah?”
Ellen shook her head. “And that’s why you came here? To hunt by yourself?”
“Umm.” Dean was fresh out of fibs and he just didn’t have the energy to drum up more.
“Mmmhmm.” Ellen studied him hard. “Back before…back before Bill—Jo’s daddy—died, John told him about the Colt. I overheard them talking one night. So I know what it does. And I know why your father wanted it.” Sympathy flickered across Ellen’s face, only to vanish again in a blink. “But Jo doesn’t know. Hell, she doesn’t even know Bill and John were…friends.” That last word felt dragged out, kicking and screaming.
When Ellen didn’t continue, Dean made up his mind to scour John’s journal thoroughly for any scrap on Bill Harvelle, as soon as he could move. “Dad never said much about your husband. I’m…I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“Please, it’s Ellen,” she said tersely, and then sighed, patting Dean’s arm. He felt like shit and probably looked no better, might’ve tugged at her heartstrings a tad. “I’d just rather you didn’t get Jo messed up in scouting demons. Call me over-protective.” Ellen gave a faint smile that made Dean nod immediately. Of course he got it. There were times he’d wished Dad had made the same choice, especially with Sam. Almost always with Sam. “In fact, if I catch you involving my daughter, I’ll put enough buckshot in your pants to make you rattle when you piss. When you’re back amongst the living, you can hit up any one of the other hunters passing through for help. You got it?”
Dean nodded. Lots.
Jo returned with water and Ellen gave Dean a last, light warning glance before wandering out.
As soon as Ellen disappeared down the hall, Dean was peeling back the blankets and trying to get upright. It was adorable.
Jo let him struggle for nearly a minute before she unfolded her arms and held out the bottled water.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” he said blearily. “I have to piss like a racehorse so if you could just…” The patient waved a hand in irritation and hobbled two steps, bent at the waist like an old man, before his knees buckled.
Jo debated letting his dumb ass kiss the floor, but he might pop her perfectly even stitches. She jumped forward and levered him back to the bed, feeling him shake. Sweat was already slicking his forehead and he smelled three days ripe. Jo certainly sympathized with his predicament; that still didn’t mean she was willing to let him re-injure himself just to shake the dew off his lily.
He sat heavily with a grunt and a shiver. Every bit of his body language telegraphed ‘surly’, until he noticed what he was wearing. Jo had appropriated a pair of Ash’s boxers—clean—and Dean didn’t look any too impressed by the hearts and rosebuds printed all over them.
“Here.” She reached under the bed and pulled out a squat brass urn. It’d been sitting around the Roadhouse for as long as Jo could remember and came in handy for lots of things: a spittoon when Doc Riggins insisted on chewing Skoal, a make-shift vase for flowers (not that there was much call for one at Harvelle’s but they did have a bachelorette party for RitaJane Pope last summer and filled it with peonies as a centerpiece), and of course, a chamberpot for Dean Winchester.
Dean looked at the container, appalled. “Oh, no no, I am not—”
“Look. You ain’t got nothin’ I haven’t seen before.” Jo left the pot by Dean’s stocking feet. “Who do you think’s been cleaning you up the past three days, hmm?”
He shut his mouth and scowled, not exactly blushing, then the frown turned into a shit-eatin’ grin as he clearly cycled through the idea of a pretty young blonde with a nice warm washcloth. Probably in lingerie, given the look on his face.
“Oh, don’t flatter yourself, pinky.” Jo rolled her eyes. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Do me a favor and aim, okay?”
“Hey, I always hit my target,” he said gamely, but she could tell by the hunch of his shoulders he was hurting something fierce.
When she returned, he was back under the covers and propped up by a few old goosedown pillows. Peeing must’ve plumb worn him out. His hair stuck up every which-way and his eyes were bloodshot and droopy. And green. She noticed for the first time he had green eyes, like her dad.
She held out her hand, palm up, and in it sat a pile of pills: antibiotics and a pair of yellow, oblong tablets that made the hurt go away. He took them without dithering, washing them down with a swig from the bottled water Jo had left.
He’d feel better shortly, and Jo was gladder than she’d like to admit that he was awake enough to complain. The past few days had been full of worry and fever. He’d sweated through and soiled innumerable sheets and t-shirts, to the point Jo was sick to death of laundry. In his delirium, he’d been going on and on about demons and storms, his father and someone named Sam. His wound had looked worrisome until just this morning, when the angry pink skin finally lost its heat.
Springs creaked as Jo sat down on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry about your father.”
“Me too,” he said with a wan smile. His gaze sharpened marginally and the fingers of his free hand twitched in his lap. “Has anyone heard…anything? Anything that might…?”
“I don’t think so. Sorry. Again.”
He sighed and wilted back into the pillows. “Peachy.”
“Hey, I know what it’s like to lose your dad,” Jo said gently, picking at a snag in the blanket. He probably didn’t want to hear her pathetic life story, but the moment felt weird and weighty, and Jo figured misery loved company. Maybe she could help him; maybe she could make her father’s death mean something, in whatever remote way. Besides, Dean owed her for the whole Florence Nightingale routine. The least he could do was lay there and listen. “My dad was killed on a hunt. I barely remember him; I might’ve been four? But I still feel him like a little hole in my heart and it bleeds every once in a while. So if I can do anything, if I can help…”
She looked up at him and his eyes had closed, mouth open slightly, wheezing a light snore. Jo breathed a little laugh and ran fingers over his forehead. He felt cool, if a tad greasy. Good. She slipped the half-empty bottle from his grip and tucked his hands under the covers. She’d probably dig out a second blanket for him later.
As night firmly took hold, the wind howled and pummeled the Roadhouse. They were predicting record lows tonight, possibly snow, certainly black ice. It was going to be a nasty one.
“See here? Abnormal plant growth. Like, shit-tons of it. Makes kudzu look like a rare and delightful orchid. And then lightning again. Su-prize, su-prize.” Ash had his laptop open on the bar, wires sprouting from places no computer had any business sprouting them. Jo squinted over his shoulder as he scrolled through the report, mindful to avoid said wires; the last time she accidentally touched one, she very nearly got electro-shock therapy.
“Where?” she asked.
“The Tall Man’s avoiding us.”
Ash grunted. “Maybe we’re just not psychic enough for the fucker.”
A distinctly non-girlie voice issued from the doorway to the back rooms. “What fucker?”
Jo spun around, brows hoisted. “Well, lookee there; it lives.” It was already after the lunch rush, if one could call a dozen locals a ‘rush’. Half an hour ago, she’d checked on Dean and he’d still been drooling in his sleep.
He looked groggy and sloe-eyed, but had managed to struggle into the jeans and old wool sweater she’d left for him. And socks.
Ash casually closed the computer as Jo poured Dean a Coke from the soda gun. Perfectly choreographed misdirection. She sat the glass on a coaster and gestured him to a stool.
“Sit down before you fall over. How you feeling?”
“Like someone tried to shanghai a kidney and left me in a bathtub full of ice.” He gimped over to the seat and hoisted himself up with no small amount of grimacing. A hand curled around the glass but he just sat there and wobbled for a second, collecting his breath. His skin still had a disconcertingly waxy sheen.
“You hungry?” Jo plucked a toothpick from the stack on the bar and slipped it between her teeth.
Dean seemed to consider the question, eventually nodding.
“Awesome. Gimme a sec.” She trotted to the kitchen, leaving Ash and Dean pointedly not staring at each other.
Jo wasn’t gone but a few minutes. There was still venison stew leftover from the daily special and she set a bowl of it in front of Dean, with a spoon sticking out of the steaming stuff. Along with it, Jo added a slab of homemade bread and a foil-wrapped pat of butter. He instantly brightened and hung his nose over the vapors, smiling in earnest for the first time since he’d stumbled into the Roadhouse. Jo patted herself on the back; guess it was true what they said about the way to a man’s heart.
He shoveled in mouthfuls like he hadn’t eaten in three days. Which, okay, was the truth. Jo and Ash watched in mild awe until he felt their eyes on him and pulled a face. “What? It’s good, okay?” This last was said with a crust of bread hanging out of his mouth.
Ash lifted his hands in surrender, implying an unspoken well, excuuuuse me.
Dean reminded Jo a little of a stray dog, in sore need of kibble and a good grooming. “I just don’t want you over-doing it, right outta the gate. I’ve wiped up your messes enough to last a lifetime.”
Dean made a show of slowing his roll, poking at the Coke. “Can I get a beer?”
“Not on top of the painkillers,” Jo countered, tonguing her toothpick.
“Fine. So what about this Tall Man?”
Ash’s expression shifted to he’s alllll yours and folded his arms over his chest expectantly.
Jo hissed under her breath. “Crap.”
“Watch for Ellen,” Jo directed Ash—to which he saluted—and she took a few steps closer to Dean’s corner of the bar. “Okay, so maybe I might be working a case. Sort of. You heard of the Tall Man?”
“Nope,” Dean said between chews.
Jo examined him hard because getting the truth from hunters was like pulling teeth; Gordon was recent living proof of this. “The deaths of a bunch of psychics? Freaky lightning storms? Ring any bells?”
The movement of spoon-to-mouth slowed almost imperceptibly and he nodded. “That, I do know. Been keeping half an eye on that junk myself.”
“So what’d you dig up?” Jo leaned in, not beyond offering Dean a little flash of cleavage beneath the ‘v’ of her t-shirt to loosen his tongue.
No dice. He kept his eyes trained on the stew, pushing around bits of potato. “Haven’t made heads or tails of it, really. You know, just talk coming down the grapevine.”
That was bullshit, Jo knew it. Maybe if Dean had been feeling 100%, he could’ve sold that lie, but he wasn’t so he didn’t. Jo’s interest was piqued to the ceiling.
He “hmmed?” and glanced up, eyes full of fatigue and distraction.
“Look. You don’t know me from Adam or Eve or whoever, but you were really messed up when you came in here, and I don’t just mean your belly. Hell, you still are.” Jo pinched the toothpick between her fingers and tapped it restlessly on the bar. “Lone hunters get themselves killed. That’s what happened to my pop. If you need help, you’ve just gotta ask.”
“Thanks, but I don’t need help.”
“Fine. So what about this Sam?”
Turnabout was fair play, and now she had his attention. He got as still as stone, his eyes boring into her with fresh energy that fairly screamed warning. He didn’t say a word.
Jo wasn’t daunted, even though maybe she should’ve been. More than a few hunters had snapped and gone postal or ate their own gun. It wasn’t a calling for the entirely sane, after all. “You talk in your sleep. Especially when you’re running a 104-degree fever.” She tried to look enigmatic, make him think she knew more than she did. If the cleavage didn’t work, maybe a good poker-face would.
“He’s my brother.”
“He a hunter too?”
“Dunno. Used to be.” Dean glared at his soda.
“You don’t talk anymore?”
“Look, Jo, I told you it was none of your GOD-DAMNED business.” The effort it took to reign in his obvious anger also made his middle twinge, Jo could see from the resulting cringe. She was sorry she pushed, but only a little.
Ash stood up and drew back his shoulders. He was ropy as an old chicken wing, but that didn’t keep him from getting booted out of MIT for fighting, and he’d stand up for Jo without a second thought. Not that she couldn’t handle herself just fine.
The front door clattered open and cold air and daylight flooded into the barroom.
“Momma Bear at two o’clock.” Ash coughed, and quickly pushed the laptop across the bar to Jo, who slipped the computer under the cash register in one fluid motion.
Ellen was bundled in winterwear and lugging a huge bag of halite. “Little help, here? But not you, darlin’; wouldn’t want you busting a stitch.” This, directed toward Dean.
“No problem; not feeling stellar anyway,” he murmured, and eased off the barstool, heading back to the bedroom without much more than an appreciative nod to Ellen for her concern.
“There’s more in the truck, if you two feel like making yourselves useful.” This, directed toward Jo and Ash.
Conversation over, Jo snarked inwardly. For now.
Sam’s dreams were fevered and covered in a sickly yellow haze. He dreamt of blood on his tongue, running down into him and spreading through his veins, which lit up red, then yellow and bright white like lightning. He could feel power arcing through him, pumping in and out of his heart and through every cell in his too-small body. He opened his eyes, or he thought he did, and saw Brady staring back at him. The demon was watching him like he was waiting for something, black eyes unblinking and inhuman. Sam heard Brady’s heart beating and he could smell blood and power and it was close, so close. Brady stood up and disappeared, and Sam fell back asleep. If he’d ever been awake.
He dreamt of yellow eyes and fire and Jess burning and screaming. He saw himself lying on the bed, useless and frightened and weak. He watched her burn, watched her die, and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it. He was powerless, but he wasn’t, was he? Not anymore. He could do things now and he did. He watched Jess burning and held his hand out to her and said, “Jess, it’s okay. It’s gonna be okay.” The ceiling lowered itself, or maybe he floated up to her. She took his hand and the second he touched her, the fire vanished and she was fine, she was fine. She was unmarred and beautiful and smiling at him. “It’s okay.” Sam told her and wrapped his arms around her as tightly as he could.
She kissed him on the neck and whispered in his ear. “I know. I know, Sam. I know what you are. I know who you are.”
Sam pulled back from Jess just far enough to look at her. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Her blue eyes filled with sorrow.
“Jess, what—” Sam reached his hand out to cup her cheek and ran his thumb over her skin, wiping away the tear that was rolling slowly down.
She closed her eyes and when she opened them again they were yellow streaked with white. She laughed. It was a cruel sound. It cut into Sam’s bones and made him want to double over in pain. He let out an anguished cry and Jess laughed louder as flames poured out of her eyes and covered them both. The fire turned from bright yellow and white to orange to a deep dark red. The flames grew teeth and tongues, licked at Sam’s skin, opened it up, slipped inside and flowed through him.
His heart pounded faster and stronger, so much stronger.
Sam woke up again or he thought he did. He was in the Impala and Dean was next to him, driving and singing. "She's a kindhearted lady. She studies evil all the time.”
Dean's enthusiastic singing made Sam smile, and mumble, "I miss you."
Dean ignored him, and kept singing, ”She's a kindhearted woman. She studies evil all the time."
"I'm sorry, Dean. I'm sorry I haven't..." Sam trailed off, frustrated that Dean wasn't even reacting to him. "Dean," he said again, louder. "At least look at me, man."
Dean tapped the steering wheel with his fingers in time to the beat but didn't acknowledge Sam. He sang loudly and kept driving, even though the road had disappeared and there was nowhere left to go. They were driving through a fog-filled sky, nothing interesting about it...but still Dean stared straight ahead, smiling to himself.
Rage came unbidden, flowing through Sam's veins and spilled out in words, loud and angry. "Look at me!"
Dean turned to look at Sam, and rapid-fire his face shifted from contented to confused to frightened. "Sammy?"
Sam smiled and his power thrummed through him, flowing toward Dean as Sam reached his hand out to his brother. The moment Sam's hand touched Dean, everything changed. Dean froze solid, his skin flickering bright white and pale grey. "No," Sam said, and grabbed Dean's arm tighter until it crumbled away under his grip, nothing but ashes.
"No!" Sam yelled. "Dean, I'm sorry. Don't—”
Dean's face fell apart slowly, more of him scattering with every word Sam spoke, each breath dissolving him further.
Sam pulled his hand back and slammed himself against the Impala's door as hard as he could, terrified of losing Dean completely. The door gave way behind him and broke off, hurtling into the sky. Sam held onto the edge of the car's frame as the wind pushed past him, shattering the driver's side window and tearing what was left of Dean apart. The air filled with ash and Sam closed his eyes screaming, "Stop. Stop!"
“Stop what?” asked a voice, rough with whiskey and familiar.
Sam opened his eyes and saw his father staring back at him. He looked around, disoriented, trying to figure out what had happened to the car and to Dean.
“What is it you want to stop, exactly?” his father asked, walking past Sam, across the wooden floor of the old empty bar. He sat down on one of the bar stools and rested his elbows on the counter behind him.
“Dad?” Sam asked. “What are you…?”
“Good question.” John watched Sam intently. “Better question: what are you?” He punctuated the last word with his finger, pointing at Sam.
Sam felt a sharp pain in his side, looked down and saw a thick red line forming across his midsection, sliding across him from right to left. He lifted his shirt up and watched his open skin knit back together as quickly as it had been cut. He looked back up at his father who was grinning at him, his teeth too white and his eyes gleaming yellow.
“You…” Sam tried to walk towards the demon, but his legs were caught in the floor. The wood had closed around his ankles and was pulling him down, down, down. Sam looked back at Azazel, who was watching him struggle with mild interest.
Anger hit Sam, so pure it felt like salvation. Lightning poured out of his hands, his eyes and his skin and he gave it purpose, sending it after the yellow-eyed demon, surrounding him in a web of light. The floorboards around Sam’s legs shattered and he walked forwards, wrapping his hands around Azazel’s throat.
“Sam, stop!” the demon begged, his voice weakening. “Stop,” he said again. And he sounded like Brady.
Sam woke up. He had Brady by the throat, and the air around him smelled like ozone.
The next few days consisted of little more than eating and healing. Oatmeal or toast, the daily lunch special, bar-food dinners of fried whatever. He would let Jo examine his bandages but avoided her eyes and only answered in testy, single syllables. Dean knew he was being a real pill, but frankly, he didn’t give two fucks.
He’d sit at the end of the bar and watch people come and go. The hunters, he spotted straight off. He knew their suspicious glower, the way they kept their backs to the wall and a gun, knife or flask within easy reach. He listened as they talked amongst themselves but never managed to scrap up anything he didn’t already know, the same old omens. Yesterday’s news.
When he tried to sleep, he dreamed about black eyes and bleeding fathers and throttling Sam to within an inch of his life. In the morning, when the thin December sun broke through the holes in the curtains, he felt like he hadn’t slept at all.
Dean would’ve picked up and left, blown this popsicle stand, if he’d had one good clue which direction to head. At least here, something might ping on Ash’s radar. The waiting was wrecking him though, sapping his hope and testing his humor, but it also bought him time to put his belly back together again. As long as he kept looking at it that way, he could screw up some patience.
The Harvelles would allow him beer now that he was nearly off the Percocet, which Dean found vaguely condescending. Jo would keep her distance when she wasn’t playing nursemaid, hardly looking at him sideways. It reminded Dean all too much of Sam’s sulking, and how the kid could pull a silent treatment with absurd resolve…like the asshole was doing right now, in fact. Not that Jo should shoulder any blame; Dean was being a fairly comprehensive douchebag to her at the moment. Sam, however, had no God-damned excuse.
One Wednesday morning, or at least he guessed it was Wednesday, Dean awoke to an unfamiliar jingling sound, something tinkling like glass breaking in the bar beyond his adopted bedroom. He pulled on his own clothes—someone had long-since gotten all the dirty laundry from the Impala and washed it, probably Jo—and with a gun in hand, padded cold-footed out into the hall.
He heard voices, laughter, tables being scraped about. As Dean blinked away what was passing for sleep, he recognized the glassy sound as bells. He tucked the gun into the waist of his jeans.
A huge, fresh evergreen stood propped up in the corner by the jukebox, almost overcoming the odor of old beer and wood smoke. Cardboard boxes brimming with glittery things were open on the floor: tinsel and garland and ornaments and bright silver jinglebells.
“What…what’s the date?” He almost didn’t recognize his own voice.
Every face in the room looked up at him, and Ellen smiled. “December 22nd, honey.”
He moved in, circumnavigating boxes, trailing his hand over the prickly garland. Even Ash and a few of the locals were helping to deck the halls, fumbling wire fish-hooks into metallic-colored bulbs and untangling, with thick fingers, snarls of holiday lights.
Dean didn’t want to acknowledge how much time had passed. He didn’t want to admit he was stuck. But time had passed – was still passing – and it was almost Christmas and he didn’t know where his family was. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he steadied himself on a chair. He hated that his eyes were starting to sting and that he tasted salt on the back of his tongue.
Jo was still watching him while everyone else had gone back to the business of decorating. She unraveled herself from a rope of fake holly and walked over to Dean carefully, as though he was some skittish colt that would bolt if the wind blew funny.
“Hey,” she said softly.
Dean dragged in a breath and got his shit together. He pushed back the guilt and obsession that had nowhere to vent, put a lid on it, and forced a smile. “Hey.”
She lifted her hand and in it was a gold and silver plastic angel trailing an electrical cord. It was roughly the size of a small traffic cone. “I could use someone tall right about now.”
Dean took the tree-topper. He traced its fading, metallic wings with the meat of his thumb. The thing was probably ten years old and epitomized the word ‘tacky’. Apparently, they expected him to stick a tree up an angel’s ass. “Well, then, I s’pose I should make myself useful.”
“Funny,” Dean snorted.
He had to stand on a chair to accomplish his mission. Jo plugged in the cord and the angel flickered until Dean fiddled with the bulb in its torso and the light held steady. A small, warm glow pinkened the angel’s cheeks and sparkled the halo. Not that Dean had done anything earth-shattering, but the whole affair solicited a hyperbolic round of applause.
“Couldn’t have done it without ya,” Jo grinned, offering him a mug of coffee to which Ash promptly added a slug of Irish whiskey. No wonder they were all slap-happy about impaling angels on evergreens.
Dean sipped his spiked coffee, staring at the angel. He couldn’t tell if the strange curl in his stomach was the booze, or memories of holidays past. After some consideration, he decided it was neither. Liquor was never his problem, and the Winchesters seldom did Christmas, let alone a tree with electric decorations. It was that stupid déjà vu business he’d been feeling, off and on, since he’d left Sam after Jess’ funeral…clarity just out of memory’s reach. Again.
Rows and rows of angels. No, not angels. Dolls. Dolls? And not just any doll, but those creepy old-fashioned ones that followed you with their beady little eyes when your crossed the room and—
“Dean? You okay? You look a little wobbly, there.” Jo had set a hand on his arm and was watching him with concern.
“What? Oh, yeah. Fine, I’m fine. Just a little too much coffee in my whiskey, is all.” He tried on a smile, and found—to his fascination—it didn’t fit at all poorly when he looked down on Jo. In fact, looking at her made him forget the dolls and belly ache and missing things for just a heartbeat.
It was a luxury, one perhaps he couldn’t afford, but Dean let his thoughts stray from his dad and his brother for just one afternoon. And mostly, it was accidental. Unhooking from the habit of playing guard-and-rescue dog didn’t come easily, but he’d more than earned it. He was exhausted from staying all worked up, drowning in anxiety.
It happened almost without him realizing it. Another Irish coffee down the hatch, the last of the paper snowflakes stuck to the windows, a sprig of preserved mistletoe (the real McCoy) tacked to a beam over the piss-poor excuse for a dance floor, and Dean was actually beginning to unwind.
He’d managed a game of pool with Ash, who kept coughing every time Dean attempted a shot. Ellen served grilled ham and cheese sandwiches for a late lunch, garnished with dill pickles from the gargantuan jar behind the bar, “on the house” for anyone who had helped decorate. Someone had swapped the old 45’s from the jukebox for seasonal songs, and as the sun slanted low in the sky and lazy gobs of snow began drifting from the heavens, Burl Ives asked the burning question, “But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?”
“Bet you don’t remember Rudolf’s girlfriend’s name,” Jo challenged, waving a left-over pickle.
“Watch where you point that thing.” Dean redirected the tip of the pickle, ignoring the trivia.
“Right. You don’t know.”
“What? I do too know.”
Jo arched a brow because that didn’t make a lick of sense. “Whatever…”
“What’cha wanna bet, hmm?” Dean had graduated to whiskey, no coffee, and rolled an empty shot glass between his fingers as he leveled a narrow grin at her.
“Loser shovels the parking lot tomorrow.” The weather reports were predicting some serious white by morning.
The front door to the Roadhouse slammed open, bullied by the winter wind. Surly faces glared at the bitter cold that accompanied two men Dean recognized from recent Roadhouse visits as local hunters. His type of hunter. They forced the door shut and shook off snow. Folks went back to their drinks and the hunters sidled up to the bar.
Ellen set aside a dishtowel and greeted the men. “Harry. Abe. What can I get you boys?”
“Something strong, Ms. Harvelle,” said the bigger of the two. They were both on the young side, but old enough to drink. Their faces stayed serious and they kept their coats on as Ellen poured them two slugs of house whiskey.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost…” Ellen wasn’t joking. She mother-henned her hunters without getting in their way; apparently, it was just her nature. And when she thought a hunter looked like he’d seen a ghost? He probably had.
Jo and Dean both shut up to eavesdrop, watching each other conspiratorially.
“You heard about Stormy Saunders?” Harry or Abe asked. Dean didn’t know which was which.
“Stormy? Hell, he hasn’t been through here in months.”
“Won’t be back again, either…” mumbled the other.
A prickle traced over Dean’s skin, and he sat up taller. All the spit left his mouth.
Ellen frowned. “Why? What happened?”
The hunters exchanged loaded glances. “No one’s rightly sure. We were supposed to meet him outside of Omaha, something about a pair of poltergeists…”
“Dumb fucks,” Dean growled. “Poltergeists don’t run in pairs.”
Jo hushed him and Abe, or Harry, continued uninterrupted.
“…we figured something weren’t right when we saw all that lightning, out of nowhere. This time of year? Damned freaky.” He paused to throw back the whiskey, giving a hard shudder. “We found his truck, you know that big-ass thing with all the armor and protective runes? Door wide open. Stormy…he’d been dragged off into the field…”
Both men fell silent, staring at their hands on the bartop.
“What?” This time, Dean didn’t growl; he demanded. “What happened to him?”
“Dean...” Jo warned, but it fell on deaf ears.
Dean lurched off his stool and approached the hunters.
One of the men, the larger of the two, glared at Dean like he had a horn growing out of his forehead. “Look, buddy, this ain’t your—”
“Yes, it is my business because Stormy was a friend.”
Ellen interjected herself into the sudden tension with a hand reaching across the bar to Dean’s shoulder. “Now, boys. We’re all friends here. Abe, Harry, this is Dean. He hunts too. No need to go ‘Alpha male’ all over the situation.” When a few seconds had passed and no one started throwing punches, she pulled her arm back. “Go on, Abe.”
Abe assessed Dean suspiciously but picked up where he’d left off.
“Best I can figure is he knew whoever killed him. Or else he wouldn’t a’come out of the truck. They…they cut his tongue out first, from the looks of it. All the blood in his mouth. Then they sliced him—” Abe ran his thumb over his broad middle, left to right “—across the belly. Deep and wide.”
Harry turned a noticeable shade of green as he looked at his whiskey. “He was still…steaming…when we found ‘im.”
“Did you guys see anyone else? Really tall guy? Long-ish brown hair?” Jo seemed inordinately excited by the notion that Stormy was a fresh kill, and Dean could only stare at her. All of a sudden, he wanted to throw up.
“Tall Man?” Abe raised his brow and shook his head. “Ain’t you heard? Tall Man’s dead.”
Dean felt his stomach lurch again. “What?”
“What are you talking about, Abe?” Jo asked, sitting down on the stool next to him.
Harry emptied his shot glass, slamming it down on the bar and smarting from the burn. “Heard tell he got himself shot about a week ago and he ain’t been seen since. One of the psychics he was after got him.”
“Guess that one was extra-psychic,” Abe scoffed.
“You sure? How do you know?” Dean demanded. He knew he sounded way too concerned, way too much of an asshole, but he had to figure this out. Rumors and coincidences were beginning to connect in ways that Dean did not enjoy, not even a little. “I mean, Mr. Superbad Serial Killer that sucks the blood outta psychics like a swarm of mosquitoes gets offed by a bullet? Just doesn’t compute.”
Abe bristled and glared daggers at Dean, managing to look both dense and dangerous, all in one fell swoop. “Hey, you got your sources, we got ours.”
Ellen shifted again, making her presence known, and the temperature of the conversation cooled back to something that, if not cordial, was at least cooperative.
“I don’t know, man; I still ain’t sure he’s really gone,” Harry muttered, staring forlornly into his empty glass. “Ms. Harvelle, any chance I could get a refill?”
Ellen’s furrowed brow softened and she smiled at the hunter. “I don’t know, Harry, you got two bucks on you?”
Harry reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and tossed it onto the bar.
“He can’t be dead,” Jo muttered.
Ellen turned towards her daughter, smile flattening to a thin line.
“I mean…” Jo chewed her lip. “It’s unlikely that he’s dead, what with those two missing psychics.”
“Missin’?” Abe asked, staring at her, curious.
“Yep. One from Lafayette, Indiana and one from Louisiana.”
“Where in Louisiana?” Harry asked.
“Alexandria,” Jo said, avoiding her mom’s eyes.
Dean did not like where his mind was going. There were troubling thoughts bouncing around in his gray matter, and he plumb refused to sort them out. All he was ready to admit was that the Tall Man being alive was far better than the alternative. Any other suppositions? Well, he didn’t think he’d ever be ready for those. “How long have they been missing?”
Jo smirked. “Oddly enough, ‘bout a week.”
“Son of a bitch,” Abe said. “So what, he’s…hiding somewhere, getting patched up?”
Harry nodded. “Either way…wasn’t him killed Stormy. Couldn’t have been.”
“Technically speaking, they’re not missing anymore,” Ash piped up from across the room.
“What’s that, Ash?” Ellen asked, looking just about as displeased with him as she was with her daughter.
He cleared his throat and ambled over to the far side of the bar. He propped his elbow onto the bar-top and leaned his chin on his hand. “Miranda Dobson from Alexandria, Louisiana was found dead in her home Wednesday night.”
“Tall Man?” Jo asked.
“Well, that’s the weird part,” Ash said. “She died from electrocution. They found her in her bathroom, fried to a crisp.”
Dean canted back, lifting his chin. “Electrocution? None of the other psychics died that way, did they?”
“Nope.” Ash over-enunciated the “p,” making a little popping sound. He grabbed a handful of bar-nuts from the bowl nearest to him and tossed one in his mouth. “It gets weirder. The other psychic that was missing —”
“Scott Carey,” Jo said.
Ash nodded. “Scott was found Wednesday night too. In his bedroom. Electrocuted. That’s not the weird part though.”
“Jesus, it’s not?” Abe gawked, blinking at Ash.
“The weirdest part is that Scott was Mister Lightning-fingers. His neighbors said he electrocuted their cat, just by touching it.”
“What the hell?” Harry muttered. “Wait so…are the psychics turning on each other or somethin’?”
“That’d be new,” Jo said. “Up until now, there haven’t been any reports of them even interacting with each other.”
“Alright, that does it!” Ellen slapped her wet dishtowel onto the bar-top and everyone jumped. She glared at Jo, then Ash, and her voice dropped in none-too-subtle warning. “The three of us are gonna have a serious talk about your extra-curricular activities later, but right now you answer me one thing.”
Ash stood up ramrod straight. “Yes ma’am.”
“Where the hell are you gettin’ all this intel?” she demanded.
Dean raised his eyebrows and turned towards Ash, just as eager as Ellen to hear the answer.
“I uh…” Ash popped a few more nuts in his mouth and chewed on them, clearly stalling. “I sorta set up a tracking system.”
“Trackin’ what?” Ellen asked.
Dean could practically see the ice in her words.
“Well, first I figured out a pattern to identify the psychics. Born in ’83, certain other things…” Ash glanced over to Dean, and then stared back down at his bowl of bar-nuts. “But I’m also tracking omens.”
“Omens like the kind Stormy was tracking?”
Ash nodded. “Yeah, starting to think maybe that wasn’t such a good idea, considering…”
Ellen leaned towards Ash, an angry fingertip mere inches from his nose. “We need to talk. Now.”
Jo stood up quickly, the barstool screeching across the floor. “Mom, why don’t we—you, me and Ash—go out back and talk things over. No need to make our guests uncomfortable. Right?” She pasted on an insincere smile and stomped out through the kitchen, not so much as throwing a single glance over her shoulder to see if anyone was following.
Dean let loose a low whistle. This wasn’t gonna be pretty. He heard them yelling at each other through a wall and two doors, picking out only the loudest words which seemed to be “your father” and “lose you” and “I am not a child”. Ash was markedly quiet; he wasn’t a fool, despite appearances.
Left alone with Abe, Harry, and his own thoughts, Dean felt another cog turn, another gear slip into place. Born in ’83. Sam was born in ’83. Sam was missing from school, apparently on some roadtrip with that blue-blood, Brady, which was so unlike Sam it felt like kidnapping. Sam wasn’t answering his phone, but if he was dead, Dean would know it. He’d feel it deeper than his bones. Sam, Sam, Sam. God-damn it, Sam, what the fuck have you gotten yourself into?
Dean helped himself to another drink and dared Abe and/or Harry to say word one about it.
Jo spent the morning walking on eggshells, so it was with great appreciation that she took the joint from Ash, briefly acknowledging to herself that it was far too early in the day to be smoking anything, let alone Ash’s radioactive-grade weed.
They were skulking on the back porch of the Roadhouse. It was almost eleven o’clock and Jo would be roped into lunch duty any second now. Best get in a few lungfuls of happy before she had to face her mother again.
Yesterday’s argument still left her feeling puffy-eyed and impatient. She didn’t begrudge her mom the right to be fearful for her daughter’s life, not one bit. But Jo would be a legal adult in every state shortly and didn’t intend to stay at the Roadhouse any longer than she had to. Ellen was just going to have to get her brain wrapped around that. And she would, eventually. No choice.
The backdoor creaked and Ash flipped the joint off into a snow bank, where it barely sizzled before snuffing out entirely.
“Whoa, hey, don’t quit your illegal activities on my account,” Dean said, hands stuffed into his coat pockets and breath instantly vaporizing.
Ash cast a wistful gaze to the snow bank.
“You ready to shovel the parking lot?” Jo greeted Dean.
“Aw, now, that dog don’t hunt, Jo. We never officially made that bet.”
“Because you don’t know—”
“Clarice. Clarice was Rudolf’s girlfriend.”
Snorting, Ash held out his fist to Dean, waiting for the return-bump. Dean rolled his eyes and obliged.
“You looked that up last night, admit it!” Jo said, half-grinning. She wouldn’t have made him clear the damned lot anyways, even with the plow attached to Mom’s pick-up. Not the entire thing.
“Nah, Sammy used to watch that stupid show every Christmas. Until he was, like, nineteen.”
“Mmm. I always wished I had a brother.”
Dean chuffed, and Jo noted his eyes lost a little life. The past few days had been incredibly long and hard on Dean and Jo found herself wishing she could offer him just a moment’s peace.
He was looking better, no question, but he looked best when he was smiling and his eyes were crinkling with crow’s feet, but he really hadn’t found much to smile about lately. When she could surprise one out of him, though, Jo decided it was like panning for gold in a muddy stream and coming up with a hefty nugget, rare and worth a whole week’s wage.
Ash cleared his throat and Jo realized she’d been staring. “So. This hermano of yours—” he coaxed “—wouldn’t happen to be psychic, would he?”
Dean scowled into the winter-white distance, raked his hand through his hair, and that was answer enough.
“You’re afraid that something might be after your brother. That’s why you’ve been tracking the omens, and by default, the Tall Man?” It wasn’t really a question, because Jo was just stating what she saw as the obvious. She was wrong.
“No,” Dean said tersely. “I…I think he might be the Tall Man.”
Jo didn’t have to look at Ash to know he was gawking at Dean, too. The space between them was so quiet she could hear the ice creaking in the eaves.
Dean let their staring continue until it clearly got on his last nerve and he pulled out his wallet. Tucked into the back, nestled between a forger’s treasure trove of IDs—fake ones, Jo was quite certain—was a photo. Dean carefully unfolded it and showed it to his stunned audience.
Ash leaned in, squinted, chewed his cheek and finally nodded. “Yup. Fits the Tall Man ‘glamour shot’.”
He wasn’t wrong. Jo pinched the old photo delicately between two fingers. Dean looked younger in the picture, relaxed, his arm slung across the shoulders of another guy who was taller by probably a good four inches, and Dean was by no means short. He was lanky, shaggy-haired, and trying very hard not to bust out laughing—this must be Sam. His eyes were darker and tilted, cheekbones angular over deep dimples. He looked not a thing like Dean.
“You sure you two are brothers?” she jabbed, but Dean barely cracked a smile. Jo refolded the photo and slipped it back to him. “Okay. So what makes you think your brother might be, well—”
“America’s latest great serial killer? Call it a hunch.”
“Don’t be an asshole, Winchester. If you want our help—”
“I told you before: I don’t want your help.”
Jo stepped in, closing the gap between them. “No, you said it was none of my God-damned business, and I beg to differ. You and I have been following the same omens, the same weird phenomena, but I happen to have the best tracker this side of the Grand Tetons.” Jo hooked a thumb at Ash “So if you’re smart, you’ll let me help.” She jutted her chin up and dared him to say no.
“No.” He moved to step around her.
Was everyone going out of their way to annoy her this week? Jo grabbed his elbow with enough force to spin him, probably because he didn’t have all the strength of his core muscles at his disposal. Too bad. “Fine. Be stubborn. But you need me. You’ve got no where else to turn, Dean Winchester.”
“Dammit nothing, Dean. We’re your ace in the hole. Besides, I just may have a way to find your dad.” She released his arm and stepped away, pulling open the backdoor.
Jo shot a glance over her shoulder, drumming fingers on the wood. “Call it a hunch.” And she let herself into the Roadhouse before Dean could say another word.
Dean rolled his eyes and watched Jo’s ass twitch back into the Roadhouse. No amount of visual pleading was going to get Ash on his side, here. The so-called genius was fixing Dean with a dead stare, part all your problem, bud and part you dick.
Begrudgingly, Dean followed her in, cutting through to the kitchen. Jo was already tying an apron around her waist and Ellen was elbows-deep in a pot of something that smelled like a little piece of heaven. From all outward signs, it was chili.
Despite the fact Jo had taken an enormous knife from the magnetic strip stuck to the wall, Dean sidled up beside her. “Jo, I’m sorry. I just…”
She shoved the handle of the knife into his palm and steered him to a big plastic cutting board and a pile of onions. “Get choppin’. I know you can use that thing.”
He made to speak but came up dry. Guess it was cryin’ time. Dean shrugged out of his coat, threw it in a corner and commenced slicing.
Ellen cut Dean a glance across the counter before she gave the pot a last stir and moved away from the stove. Dean did not want to get on Ellen’s bad side in any way, shape or form. He had no doubt she could make compost out of him and not a soul at the Roadhouse would think to question his sudden disappearance. He was duly relieved when she left the kitchen.
Apparently so was Jo, from the way she visibly relaxed. But she wasn’t ready to give in just yet. She stayed shuttered and tight-lipped, grating cheese with a sort of vengeance.
They worked in silence, Dean’s eyes stinging until he got fed up with all the tension and tears. He swiped at his face with a sleeve, stabbing the knife into one of the huge, white bulbs. “I mean it. I’m sorry; I was out of line.”
“Damn straight you were, crybaby,” Jo mumbled.
“Absolutely. I was a total jerk.” He had a fleeting mental picture of Sam saying the same thing time and again from the passenger seat of the Impala. Jerk. Dean blinked away the mirage. “So what’s this idea you have to find Dad?”
Jo huffed a sigh. “Okay. I put in a call to Bobby Singer.”
“Bobby?” Dean frowned, squinting through an onion-induced haze. “Damn, I haven’t talked to Bobby in years. He agreed to help?”
This would’ve been a surprise, given that Bobby was often openly dubious of John’s parenting style. The older hunter and Dad didn’t part on good terms, the summer of Dean’s thirteenth year. Bobby Singer was the one person in Dean’s childhood who treated Dean like a child, and for that, he would always think of the man with great fondness. Bobby, despite a crotchety outward appearance, had shown Dean how to throw a softball, thread a worm onto a fishing hook, hell, he’d taught Sam ‘rock, paper, scissors’ but maybe that wasn’t something to thank him for. Sam always won. Didn’t he?
Jo kept her voice low. “I was pretty sketchy about the situation; didn’t want Bobby tattling to Mom. I told him I was collecting information on different varieties of demons for another hunter, that we were putting together an ‘infernal dictionary,’ complete with sigils. Told him I was just trying to be helpful, especially given Stormy’s accident.”
“And he bought that?”
“Yup. He sent me a mess of files…and I do mean ‘mess’. I skimmed ‘em this morning, and I think there’s some good stuff in there. Native American demons, lightning spirits that show up with demons, crossroads deal-makers—”
Dean found himself grinning, Cheshire Cat wide. This was the first inkling of a lead he’d had since he’d hit the Roadhouse. After lunch, he’d get Dad’s journal and cross-reference Bobby’s information and maybe (please, maybe) something would shake out. Before he knew it, he had Jo by the shoulders and was planting a big, grateful kiss on her lips.
She stiffened. And then…didn’t any more.
The kitchen door swung open and Ellen bustled in. Her bootsteps stuttered and Jo and Dean sprung apart like a firecracker.
Oh, shit. Dean felt his face flush hot. Stupid onions.
Ellen cleared her throat. “That garnish had better be done.”
Jo scooped up a great handful of shredded cheddar and plopped it into a metal bowl. “It is, Momma.”
Dean snuck a sideways glance; Jo’s cheeks were scarlet as she bit back a smile.
Dreams dripped through Dean’s twilight sleep, full of black smoke and even blacker eyes, always on his tail no matter how fast he ran, how hard he drove. Whatever being created demons had an incredible imagination, and each damned flavor of fiend oozed from the corners of Dean’s subconscious, barely visible but undoubtedly there. He could shoot them with antique guns or blast them with holy water and it only made them angrier and more determined to follow him…here.
He stormed the porch of the Roadhouse and flung the door open. It was so fucking quiet inside he could hear the blood pound in his ears and the timbers creak under his boots like old bones. The lights were off and the moon was a dead sliver, shedding hardly a glow. Brittle sounds scuttled in the shadows, and then a single whimper. He knew it was Jo; it had to be Jo. As he slipped the Colt from his jacket and leveled the gun ahead, aiming with his hearing, he felt another presence.
Someone else lurked in the black, by the jukebox, which suddenly flared to life and color. A coin chunked into the machine. Music filled the room, whiskey-rough —“One Good Man”, Janis Joplin—and when Dean’s eyes grew accustomed to the brightness, there was Sam. He’d know that silhouette in a room full of silhouettes. Sam had his back to the bar, long fingers drumming on the top of the Wurlitzer.
Dean felt the scar on his stomach twinge, and he kept the gun raised but it was starting to shake. “Sam? What the hell?”
Sam didn’t speak, just lifted his head. Wasn’t like him not to speak.
“Come on, Sammy. Whatcha doing here?” You’re scaring me, man.
“I know…” Sam said softly, having read Dean’s mind. Just like that.
Dean cocked back the hammer of the Colt. “Turn around.”
“Why? Can’t shoot me in the back?”
Sam did, slowly. His eyes were the color of the sun, golden and striated with churning bits of white. Lightning danced in his gaze. Dean’s finger tensed, pinched against the trigger. This…this was all wrong. Not possible. Not his brother. Not his Sam.
Movement flickered at the edge of his vision and in his periphery, he thought he saw blonde hair and blood. His finger spasmed and there was a blast, loud enough to pitch him out of the dream and nearly onto the floor, heart thundering with the shock.
Dean darted a befuddled glance around the room before it landed on his bedroom door, and Jo entering. She had a cup of coffee and a plate with a muffin in her hands, a book at her feet where apparently her knee had bumped it from the edge of a chair.
The room was littered with papers and books from Dean’s all-night research. Ash had provided much of the reading material, with one notable exception: Dad’s journal. The world-weary, leather-bound book was tented open on the bed beside him.
“Hey.” He groaned, pulling himself upright, much to the complaint of his back. He was still wearing his outfit from yesterday, and it smelled at least that old.
Jo stepped over piles of clothes and shoes on the floor, shoving aside papers to sit on the corner of the mattress.
“It’s almost one o’clock. Thought you might want breakfast before lunch.”
Dean smiled blearily and used a beer cap to mark his place in the journal, just after the section briefing crossroads demons and how to deal with them. “Thanks, Martha Stewart. You’re the hostess with the mostest.”
“Mmmhmm.” Jo forced the food and drink into his now-empty hands. “Make any headway? Or just a mess?”
“Little of both, if I’m lucky.” He noted with some satisfaction she’d brought the coffee black, his preferred treatment. Good start to the day, which he could surely use after that image of Sam, yellow-eyed and leering, had branded itself into his brain. “Did you know there are Native American demon beavers? Of all things.”
“I did not,” Jo assured him, absently filtering through a stack of hand-written notes. “Though I can be fairly certain that’s not what took your dad.”
“Agreed. It was not a hell-spawned rodent who meat-suited Dad.”
Jo pinched her brows, copper-brown eyes keen and slightly frustrated. “Who, then?”
He shouldn’t involve her. The less she knew, the safer she’d stay. After Caleb and Pastor Jim and Stormy, it was highly ill-advised to be on the same team as a Winchester. Dean sure as hell didn’t want a whole damned demon army marching into the Roadhouse and napalming the place with unholy fire. There’d been enough collateral damage already.
“All I know is he’s got yellow eyes, not black. And he loves to fuck with my family.” Dean stared down at the muffin, still untouched. “He killed my mom when Sammy was a baby. That’s what set my dad off, hunting.” That’s when the world went all wrong-shaped.
Jo paused a beat, blinking. “Wow. Your very own hereditary demon. That’s quite a family heirloom.”
“I mean, you guys must be something pretty fancy to get that big-time a baddie into our plane of existence and crashing your party.”
“Yeah, thanks, I didn’t think of that.”
Dean’s surliness didn’t thwart Jo; she jabbed at his shin and kept right on brain-storming. “Okay, so you can’t force him to show. Is there something he wants? Something that can lure him out, maybe? Why’d he take your dad anyway?”
“I don’t know, Jo, I really don’t,” Dean lied. Panic began to squeeze his throat but he chased it gone with a swallow of hot coffee.
“So that fancy gun in the safe ain’t no big thing after all?”
Dean groaned. Jo was too damned smart for her own good, subversion or no. “We think it’ll kill him. I’m sure he wants to get his mitts on it. But he’s not stupid; he knows I won’t just hand over the gun in exchange for Dad. If…if Dad’s even still alive.”
“Don’t think that way,” she said quickly.
“I know, but—”
“But nothing! Wouldn’t you know it if your dad was dead already?”
Dean shrugged. He really wasn’t sure. The panic crept back.
“How about enemies of this yellow-eyed bastard? Is there someone else you might be able to deal with, a demon whose identity you do know and who might want a promotion?”
“Maybe one. But she goes by her human name: Meg. Can’t summon with that.”
However, a notion tickled at Dean’s thoughts, and it wasn’t just the panic talking. It was something Jo said. And something – Dean ran his fingers over his father’s journal – something he’d read, right before he had nodded off last night.
He must’ve started to look glassy-eyed and vague because Jo stood up, hands on her hips. “Why don’t you take a break from all this for five minutes? Grab a shower. Come out and help me and Mom work on dinner.”
Dean scrubbed a hand over his face. Yeah, it was official. He stunk. “Dinner? Already?”
Jo’s expression softened. “Yeah. It’s kinda special. Christmas Eve.”
“It’s…Christmas? Damn. It’s Christmas.”
She gave him a careful smile, maybe a touch sad, before turning and leaving, tugging the door shut behind.
“Christmas. Well, isn’t that dandy,” Dean murmured. Then he picked up Dad’s journal, thumbed back a few pages, and found something to smile about. He smiled like a man making peace with his Maker before facing the firing squad.
Jo fussed over a basket of silly fake poinsettias and set it in the center of the table in their private dining room, which was just a small addition off the kitchen where the Harvelles could eat in peace or hide out when they’d had enough of the bar. A wide-mouthed taxidermied bass oversaw the area from the wall, and someone had hung a Christmas ornament from a hook snagged on its open maw.
It had started to snow again, blotting out the sun, and when Jo flipped on the overhead light, she saw Dean in the doorway.
He was watching her with a cryptic expression on his face, not quite melancholy but damned close. His hair was wet and combed, clothes clean…hell, he’d even shaved. But his eyes were dark with something unreadable.
Jo smoothed a hand over her own hair, abruptly self-conscious though she couldn’t place why.
No, that was fibbing to herself; she knew why, but she didn’t want to make a stink about it. Who wouldn’t find him attractive, what with his muscle and scars and a nose that had probably been broken at least once and eye-lashes that were too pretty for his own good? So what if she’d seen enough of him to know he had freckles dusting his shoulders and feet and the tops of his thighs?
She cleared her throat and gave a last fluff to the centerpiece, corralling her feelings before she blushed so hard, he wouldn’t need to be psychic to know what she was thinking.
“You okay?” she asked.
He didn’t say anything, didn’t advance into the room. He just stood there, staring. His jaw twitched and she knew he was clenching his teeth. Then, his eyes got all shiny and liquid.
It kinda scared her.
“Don’t answer,” Jo said, lifting a hand. “Come on. I’ll give you something to do.” She grabbed his elbow as she brushed by, steering him into the kitchen.
Her mom was fussing with the goose, basting the enormous, mahogany-colored bird, aromatic steam filling the air. It was certainly oversized for the small number of folks expected for dinner, but no one dared complain. Ellen grinned as Jo wrapped a white, restaurant-issue apron around Dean’s waist, tying it off in a big bow.
“Do you like yams? I like yams,” Jo said, pressing a peeler into his hand.
He exhaled hard, and the tense line of his shoulders curved just a smidgeon. Jo got her own peeler and stood beside him. She rolled a yam in his direction.
That’s the way they stayed until dinner, working wordlessly, companionably. As long as he kept busy, Jo reasoned, he’d be fine. He wouldn’t miss his family too much. And she was right.
For dinner, it was the Harvelle women, Ash and Dean, and Jud and his uncle, the sheriff. The sheriff and his nephew had a standing invitation to holidays at the Roadhouse, not just because they were the local law, but because Sheriff McCook was a widower and a little sweet on Ellen. They liked to flirt, even if it made Jo roll her eyes. Nothing ever came of it, she didn’t think.
The table waited with their hands in their laps until Ellen sat down and chastised them all soundly for thinking she was going to pray over the spread. Eventually, every hand was moving, passing plates and serving dishes and wickered bottles of Chianti.
Nebraska was royal blue beyond the frosted windows. Dusk crept up on the landscape and snow began to accumulate in rolling blankets. By contrast, the light in the room was golden, flickering with mismatched candles that sat between baskets of rolls and bowls of carrots, bright pink candied apples, and brussel sprouts that only Ellen would eat. Though Dean was polite enough to take a few.
Ash raised his wine and led a toast, something rambling about never forgetting to live and looking to the stars that Jo was certain he’d cribbed from Oscar Wilde. But it was sweet and loopily eloquent. Everyone lifted their glasses to the center of the table and looked to each other the way you did when feelings outshone the words that spurred them.
To absent friends… Jo said to herself, out of habit. And family.
Jo slid a glance to her left, to Dean. He was forcing a smile. His jaw tensed again, a spasm betraying the levity of the moment, and Jo found his hand underneath the table. At first, he didn’t grip back, and she was on the verge of feeling foolish about the gesture but the Harvelle women were obstinate. She tugged his fingers and they twitched, then curled. Rough and dry, his palm pressed to Jo’s and they threaded fingers. His breath released in a stutter but he didn’t stop smiling. Neither did Jo.
Eventually, Jo released his hand to finish dinner and afterwards, help return the leftovers and empty dishes to the kitchen. She didn’t mind; she desperately needed to stretch her full stomach and shake off one-too-many glasses of wine. The men could tackle the dishwashing later and they would, too, if they knew what was good for ‘em.
When she returned, the sheriff was regaling the table with his latest Stupid Tourist Story. A database administrator from Boston had gotten spooked by a mule deer, of all things, and found himself stuck in a sink hole. The man had pinned so many bear bells onto his clothing, it sounded like Doreen Chapman was down there with him. This was only funny if you knew Doreen, and everyone in Arcadia did. She gave local belly dancing lessons and was fond of wearing her jingly garb everywhere, as advertising. She was self-taught and a tad past her prime, but she did have her fair share of belly and boy, could she make it dance.
Dean, though, was nowhere to be seen.
Jo caught her mother’s eye and Ellen quirked a nod towards the barroom.
Pausing to lean on the doorframe, Jo watched him at the bar. It was dark, save for the vague blue radiance of a cell phone, cast upwards on his face. The air was cold and silent, the taps disassembled and the neon turned off for the next day and a half while Christmas spun itself out.
Jo knew whom he was calling, or had called, or was thinking of calling: his mysterious Sam. The brother he had misplaced, who worried and baffled him, whom Dean so clearly missed he could barely bring himself to speak his name.
Dean was frowning down at the phone, swimming in an isolated glow against a moonless dark. Jo shivered, wrapped her arms around herself. Snow had been blowing in fits and starts all evening, caught on the sills of the windows and moaning across the parking lot. She walked into the room heavily so he could hear her boots and not be startled when she appeared, suddenly, from the shadows. He didn’t look up, but he snapped the phone closed. It was a hollow, broken sound. Matched his eyes.
He stayed huddled at the bar, even as Jo plugged in the Wurlitzer and stained-glass colors cut over the scuffed floor. The machine hummed softly, flickered. Jo fished a coin from her jeans and dropped it in. She skimmed the song selections, none of which was a recent radio hit because the old juke still played vinyl, and that’s the way they liked it.
The static of the needle hitting the record hissed for a few seconds before Elvis Presley’s voice echoed out into the Roadhouse. He was determined to have a ‘Blue Christmas’ for a whole host of reasons that he proceeded to describe, in song.
Jo ambled over to Dean, who was still sitting with his heels hooked on the rungs of a barstool. He was fingering the tiny brass bauble he wore around his neck. Jo hadn’t yet researched the symbol, but it wore the totemic feel of something sacred. Might’ve been a ward or a talisman, or it might only have been important to Dean and Dean alone. Hunters were a superstitious lot.
She took a chance again and caught his roaming fingers in her own, and he didn’t pull away this time, either. The brass was warm. She tugged at him gently, insistently. He balked, looking at her with a pinched expression that Jo didn’t buy for one red cent. She kept tugging his hand and he exhaled, defeated.
He rocked off his perch and let her steer him to the small patch of illumination cast by the jukebox. Jo slipped her right hand into his, her left over his shoulder. Stubborn cuss, he just stood there as she stared up at him, unblinking. She hazarded a small smile and started to sway, pressing into him, forcing him to respond or else look like a big, dumb tree. Eventually he caved, followed her lead, but he couldn’t seem to bring himself to smile. Something caught at the corner of his lip, pulled, a flicker of tightly-held emotion.
Jo put that out there, telegraphing the sentiment through her fingertips playing across the tense, bunched muscle in his shoulder to the hair that tickled at his nape, in need of a trim. It’s okay, it’s…okay…
He curled a little, maybe trying to make their height difference less difficult, maybe surrendering to the magic of Elvis. Or maybe he was melting down, and needed someone to be present as he let loose all that worry and fear and guilt, so painfully caught inside. Maybe that hitch she felt in his chest when he dropped a hand to her waist was just a sigh. And maybe the warm wetness she sensed on her neck as he closed in around her wasn’t tears, not at all.
Jo let him stifle sobs into her shoulder, because here in this moment, he was safe. It was a good place to be weak. She didn’t object when he hauled her up, effortless, and slid his mouth along her jaw to kiss her so hard, they knocked teeth. She tasted salt on his lips and red wine on his tongue. The Wurlitzer ran out of song, and Jo wrapped her legs around his waist, hooking boots, kissing him until his backside bumped into her bedroom door.
"You really don't remember?" Brady asked.
He didn't even know what day it was. He thought maybe they'd been staying in the abandoned old house for a week, but he just couldn't be sure. Brady had spent at least three days teaching Sam how to use his new powers, and it hadn't gone well; electricity was a bitch to master. He was fairly certain they'd had a functioning light or two in the house at some point, but it was as dark in there now as it was out here in the unclaimed land behind it.
Sam shook his head. "I remember waking up in pain and you were there." He felt the rain start to soak the hems of his jeans. They were walking through a large field and an earlier storm had left the high grass heavy with water.
"It's probably for the best. That little jackass shot you three times. Missed your heart, though,“ the demon growled. "I shouldn't have left you alone."
"Scott?" Sam remembered as he saw a quick flash, like a photo-negative, of a kid holding a gun that looked too big for his hand. "Is he okay?"
Brady stopped walking and stared at Sam. "He shot you...and you want to know if he's okay?" He groaned and looked skyward. "No, he's not okay. In fact, I made sure he wasn't okay, and you want to know why?"
Sam looked down at his feet and then turned to face Brady. The demon's eyes were flashing, glimmering black catching the moon's light.
"It's my job to keep you safe!" Brady snapped.
No. It isn't. Sam thought, and remembered another voice, his brother's voice, telling him the same thing over and over for as long as he could remember.
"I'm not gonna give one of Azazel's failed experiments another chance to take you down."
"What happens when they find the body?"
Brady's lip twitched, and the demon’s long tongue flicked out, quick and sharp. "I took care of it." He dragged in a deep breath and said, more quietly, "At least from now on, you'll heal quickly. We'll head to Wisconsin next. There's a woman who can make her skin impenetrable at will…should come in handy."
"There was somebody else in the room with you, another demon." Sam remembered another set of black eyes watching him like a zoo animal.
"An ally. One of the few we have."
"That woman," Sam said, “she was possessed. I saw the demon inside of her, and I saw her. She was trapped in her own body."
Brady nodded and shrugged. "Yeah. That's how it usually works."
"But not with you?"
"I'm no different. This is a human's body. Did you really think I was the same Brady that you knew freshman year? After everything I did when I came back new and improved..." He laughed loudly. "Oh come on! You can't possibly be that stupid. What happened to that big brain of yours, Sam?"
Sam watched Brady-the-Fiend grin a toothy smile at him while the host body's mouth stayed closed. "So, why are you the only one in there now?"
"Well the human body can only take so much. You kill it...” he waved his hands in a half-circle, “…and the soul tends to follow."
Sam stepped closer and lowered his voice. "How did he die?"
Brady shook his head. "Remember Lily? Poor sweet Lily." He smirked. "That night, how many times did you practice stopping and starting my heart?"
"No." Sam’s mouth went suddenly dry. "I didn't—”
"Remember when you left me 'dead' for ten whole minutes, just to see if you could start me up again?" Brady was still grinning.
Sam fought back the sick and panicked guilt threatening to overwhelm him, fingers twitching at his sides. "But…you were talking to me, the whole time."
Brady snorted. "It's just a meat-puppet. Doesn't matter if it's occupied or not."
"I killed h–him?" Sam's legs threatened to give out, and he tasted bile in the back of his throat. "I didn't even know, I—”
The demon's peals of laughter rang out far too loudly. Finally, Brady's amusement died down and he put a hand on Sam's shoulder. "Nah. I'm just messing with you. I killed that spineless pansy the minute I set up shop." He winked at Sam, and added, "I don't like to share." He moved his hand from Sam's shoulder to pat him on the cheek, but instead found himself hurtling backwards. He soared into a giant oak, connecting with a heavy thump and hung as though speared to it.
Sam stepped to the base of the tree. Brady squirmed ineffectively against the unseen force pinning him there, the cords in his neck taut with the effort, but that didn’t last long. Sam simply tilted his head, and slammed Brady down to earth with a mere thought. It sounded like several bones cracked.
Brady smiled up at Sam with blood pouring out of his nose and mouth. "Is that all you got?" he chortled wetly.
"No," Sam said, crouching down next to the demon. He grabbed Brady by the hair, yanking his head back until his mouth was forced open. He pressed his palm hard over Brady's lips and thousands of volts of electricity pulsed down the bastard’s throat.
The demon's screams were muffled but thick with pain. Sam didn't stop until Brady’s skin started to char and curl. When he finally let go, Brady flopped face-first onto the wet ground, sizzling. He pushed himself up and glared at Sam, eyes unsurprisingly black. "That hurt, you asshole."
Sam smiled tightly and said, "Don't fuck with me. Don't lie to me again. Ever. Are we clear?"
Brady snarled and coughed up a mouthful of ash. He stood up and shook himself like a wet dog, shedding singed hair and flakes of burnt skin. "Crystal."
The Roadhouse was slow to stir on Christmas morning; it wasn’t like Santa Claus or St. Nick or Krampus visited the place, leaving behind presents for good little children or spiriting away the naughty ones. Had the latter been true, Dean wagered he and Jo would’ve been long gone by now.
Long, blonde hairs were catching in his stubble and he shifted his chin to settle on the top of Jo’s head, freeing his arm from under her as it coursed with pins and needles. The cast-iron bedframe creaked and Jo spooned up to him, tucked in tight, such a tiny damned thing whose delicacy was simply a ruse. Jo was nothing like fragile; she proved that last night. Dean had bruises in the shape of her fingerprints as testimony.
She felt him shift, murmured softly and her fingers twined through the amulet’s cord. He never took the thing off, ever, though he nearly chipped a tooth with it sometime around midnight.
“Howdy,” Dean whispered, blowing breath across her face. Morning breath. Jo winced herself awake.
“Christ, what died in your mouth?”
“You did,” he chuckled and felt her cheek pull in a smirk, pressed against his bare chest.
They lay together, just listening to each other breathe. Dean couldn’t fathom the time; the light cracking in through Jo’s curtains was crisp and colorless, too bright to be dawn but the stillness about it, and the quiet throughout the building, told him it was still way too early.
Wind tremored the glass panes and shuddered his bones. He pulled Jo closer for warmth, staring at the pictures she had tacked to her bedroom wall, photos of Ellen and Ash, a gang of men with a shot deer hoisted between them, and a man who looked a lot like Jo. Dean guessed it was Bill Harvelle. He had given his daughter her bright blonde hair and strong nose, but Bill’s eyes were light-colored, trusting and earnest.
She’d said he had been killed on a hunt, when she was little; she never really got to know him. As far as she probably knew, he was a hero. He certainly looked the part. Dean drifted his fingers across Jo’s shoulder, and thought about his own father. And about what he was going to do just as soon as he could find the nearest, desolate crossroads. He caught himself scowling.
So did Jo. “Penny for your thoughts?” She had shifted slightly, chin perched on his collarbone, mindful of the healing belly wound and staring at him in that disconcerting way of cats. Like she wanted to steal his soul when he yawned.
“That your dad?” Dean jerked his chin toward the picture.
Jo nodded. “He never liked having his picture taken, Mom says. So this is one of the few photos we have of him.”
John was the same way. Dean owned one lone, decaying Polaroid of a rare family fishing trip; he’d caught a rainbow trout and Sammy, all of seven years old, had insisted on taking a picture to immortalize the occasion. Nearly cut off everyone’s heads. It stayed in the back of Dean’s wallet, folded into neat little quarters, beside the one he kept of him and Sam, taken the summer before the asshole left for Stanford.
“We’ll find him. We’ll get him back.” Jo promised. How the hell did she do that, read him like a dime-store novel? Maybe Jo was psychic after all, and Sam would come sniffing around the Roadhouse…one less problem to solve. If only.
“Think so?” Dean said, even though he knew damned well, he would. He would get John back; all he needed was an hour of additional research, some hoodoo cross-referencing. Maybe Ash, the fountain of obscure knowledge, knew something about something.
“Yeah, I do.” Jo untangled herself and slipped out from under the quilt, padding bare-ass naked to the robe that hung from a small hook on the back of her bedroom door.
Dean liked the view. He liked it a lot. “Me too.”
Jo cinched the robe tight and looked at him over her shoulder. Her eyes narrowed. “You got any ideas? Where we should look?”
Dean shrugged. He should’ve told her “no,” should’ve lied outright, but untruths failed him as he watched her pull her hair from the collar and tip-toe hurriedly into her boots.
“Okay,” Jo said, fists on her hips. “What’ve you got baking in that oven of yours?”
“I don’t even…” He spread his fingers wide, feigning innocence.
Jo stalked to the bedside and caught his face in her small hands, razing him with her gaze and daring him to lie again. “Just. Don’t.”
Dean’s mouth moved to speak but he thought better of it. Especially when her lips pressed to his and their noses bumped and he was reminded, again, how amazing she tasted, even first thing in morning.
Jo broke away and turned to leave, probably heading for the bathroom because Lord knew he had to hit the can, too. Jo’s timing, however, couldn’t have been better in disproving Dean’s psychic theory. When she opened the door, there was Ellen, passing by, wearing her own big fuzzy bathrobe.
She paused, eyes jumping from daughter, to Dean, and back again. Jo slipped past, chirping a “Merry Christmas, Mamma!”
Dean crept the covers higher up on his chest, mumbling something considerably less festive.
By design or accident, Dean didn’t run into the proprietor of the Roadhouse again that morning. But just in case, he decided to start breakfast for any who wanted it. Surely, Ellen couldn’t be mad at him after scrambled eggs, toast and bacon, right?
Dean looked up from his skillet as Jo entered the kitchen, dressed. He’d figured out the big, old industrial stove and was working on the one menu he could make with confidence, short of a bowl of cereal. Truly, he was starving after last night’s gymnastics.
“Where’s your ma?” he asked, as casually as he could manage.
“Probably carving your name on a shell and loading up the shotgun,” she said, nudging his elbow.
“Oh, that’s just great.”
“Kidding. She’s more of a knife person.”
Jo’s good-natured ribbing was infectious…at least he hoped it was ribbing. Dean tossed a fistful of shredded cheese into the skillet and grinned. “Hope she’s fast ‘cause I can run like a jackrabbit when the mood hits me.”
“Best of luck, there, bucko. You can’t outrun birdshot.” Jo reached across him for the salt and pepper. “So. What’s your plan for getting your father back?”
Dean rocked back on his heel. “You do not give up, do you?”
“Nope, not a little.”
“Jo, this is not—”
“I would do it for my mom if I were in your shoes so don’t even try it.”
Well, she had him there. Dean patiently set the spatula aside and looked hard at Jo. “I really have no way of knowing where Dad is. Ol’ Yellow Eyes isn’t your garden-variety monster; he doesn’t operate on any level we know. He’s not…trackable. He doesn’t exactly leave a slime trail.”
“But…I still have a couple of goodies worth somethin’.”
“For one.” Dean felt the tickle of sweat along the back of his neck and scrubbed it away. “Thing is, we need it; it’s the one pea-shooter we own that can kill just about anything. But Old Yeller ain’t the only deal in town.”
She stomped a boot, her brows pulling. “I don’t get it.”
“Where’s the nearest crossroads?”
Jo got clear on his plan real quick. “No. Dean, you are not using your soul as a bargaining chip to swap for your pa—”
“You said it yourself; if it was Ellen, you’d deal in a heartbeat.”
“But this is your eternal soul we’re talking about, here!”
“Look, from all the research I’ve done, I’ll get ten years. Ten years. That’s a helluva chunk of time; I may not even live that long. And if I do? That’s plenty of wiggle room to find a loophole.”
Jo’s cheeks flushed with color. “You can’t be serious!”
“As a heart attack,” Dean swore, hand to his chest. “And since you’ve weaseled it out of me, I need some help.”
“What? No. No way.”
“Aw, come on.”
“I’ll ask Ash; he’ll say yes—”
“Shit. All right.” She didn’t look happy. Her glare drilled daggers into his soul—that precious, ill-defined, invaluable ingredient of humanity—and Jo heaved a mighty sigh. “What do you need?”
“I’ve got most of the summoning figured out, pieced together from my dad’s journal, but it’s missing a few key components. I’ve gotta make sure I have this right because odds are, I’ll only get one shot at it.”
“This is so against my better judgment, just going on record with that.”
“I know, I know.”
“Fine, I’ll see what I can dig up,” Jo huffed. “Eggs.”
Dean blinked. “Eggs?”
“You’re burning them.” Jo turned on her heel, leaving Dean alone with the mess that used to be his breakfast.
"We have to be careful from now on," Sam said, determined. "No more accidents." Guthrie, Oklahoma would be a new start for them. He still felt guilty about Scott. Brady had said they'd had no choice, but there was always a choice. Always. Moreover, he couldn't shake the feeling, vague as the memory was, that there had been another body slumped against the wall before he blacked out. "No more deaths."
"Right," Brady said, rolling his eyes only slightly. "Wouldn't want that."
"This isn't a joke," Sam insisted. "I'm serious. I don't want anybody else dying because of me, even if—”
"Even if Azazel tells them to kill you, Sam?" Brady snapped. "Is that what you were going to say?" He rolled his head in a half circle, his neck making popping noises, and took a breath before saying, "They're collateral damage. You're beating yourself up over their deaths, but they were all damned anyway. You set them free. Without Azazel's mark, he has no claim on them."
"You're talking like they all died," Sam said quietly. "Is there something you want to tell me, Brady?"
Brady scoffed, and disappeared into the apartment of one Andrew Gallagher.
Sam shook his head and made for the fire escape. He climbed up to the third floor with practiced ease and slid open the kitchen window without ever laying hands on it, thanks to the mojo he stole from the kid in Saginaw. He clambered inside the apartment and followed the sound of Brady chanting. When he turned the corner into the living room, he saw not one, but two men on the floor, their shirts speckled with blood.
"Double-shot for you today, Sammy." Brady handed him the chalice.
"Don't call me that." Sam grimaced and downed the blood as quickly as he could. He didn't want to stay any longer than he had to.
Brady whooped with a grin, clapping. “That’s how it’s done! Wham, bam, thank ya, ma’am.” He spun on his heel and turned towards the door. “Let’s go.”
But Sam didn’t get two steps before the blood hit his brain like a freight train. His knees buckled and he sunk to the floor. Too much. Too fast.
"Sam?" Brady paused, frowning.
Sam’s power, it grew and grew. It slithered through his mind and folded around a brand new skill, slotting it into place amongst all the others. The power felt like a sentient thing, moving on its own volition and surety; it knew where to put these gifts and Sam had no say in the matter. Gasping, he slapped a hand flat to the floor to keep himself from keeling over.
As suddenly as it had flared, the rush faded and slid back down from euphoria into little more than a rapid heart-beat and a pleasant numbness of thought. "Yeah," Sam said, blinking hard, pushing himself back up to his feet. "I'm…I’m good."
Brady narrowed his eyes, skeptical, but that hardly lasted a New York minute.
Outside, there was an abrupt crash of thunder, so close the floor of the apartment shook with it. The sky—what they could see of it through the curtains covering the windows—lit up as lightning crackled through the clouds.
"Sam?" said a startled voice in front of him. It was one of the bloodied psychics, crumpled on the floor. "You're…he said you were coming. He warned us."
Sam looked down at the man's pale blue eyes. "Who?" His lips curled in anger. "Azazel?"
"The man with the yellow eyes," he said and slid himself closer to his fallen companion, hesitantly shifting his gaze away from Sam. "Andy? Andy!" His voice grew loud with panic and he tried to shake the other into consciousness.
Brady snapped his fingers to get Sam’s attention. "Hey, let's get out of here," he said tensely.
"Andy! Wake up!" The man turned to Sam, yelling, "What did you do to my brother?"
"My twin! He didn't even know until I told him, he didn't even—”
The other man jerked awake and blinked, staring up at Sam. His eyes widened and his feet pushed against the floor as he tried to move away. He got as far as the corner, two whole feet. "It's you."
Sam canted his head, eyes drawn into wary slits. "Did the yellow-eyed man warn you about me, too?"
"He didn't have to. We knew you were coming for us. You're coming for all of us. Picking us off like flies," said the one called Andy.
"What do you mean?" Sam asked. Max had been unfortunate, and Scott...
"What? Wait, you mean you don't know?" Andy gawked. "Ansem, how can he not know?"
Ansem's blue eyes flicked towards Brady and back to Sam. "They're all dead, you freak. Do you not remember killing all those people?"
Sam's heart started pounding so loudly he could barely hear his own voice as he stuttered, "N–no, they...Max...he shot himself, and Liam...I let him go—”
"Liam?" Ansem snapped. "The dream-walker? The one you left to die trapped in his own mind?"
"I let him go!" Sam repeated, shaking his head in denial.
"What about Scott?" Andy cut in. "We warned him about you. We told him to be ready, and then he turns up days later burnt to a crisp! Electrocution my ass. You're a goddamn—" his voice cut off, replaced by a wheezing noise, and he clutched desperately at his throat.
Brady walked up next to Sam, hand outstretched, and slowly tightened his grip.
"I didn't..." Sam trailed off. His vision was filling with spots and bright flickering things he couldn't quite see.
"Let my brother go!" Ansem bellowed, throwing himself at Brady. He didn't make it more than half a foot before an unseen force slammed him against the wall, and hung him, suspended, right above his choking brother.
"Brady," Sam warned, "let them go. Now."
The demon sneered, lowering his arm.
Ansem fell to the ground, barely missing Andy who was gasping and red-faced but breathing again.
"I didn't kill anyone," Sam insisted. "I'm just doing what I have to do. So I can stop Azazel."
"You're a monster," Ansem said tightly, his eyes seething.
"You're still alive, aren't you?" Brady asked. He walked closer to Ansem, who flinched, and added, "Do you want to stay that way?"
"Brady!" Sam snapped. "Be quiet."
Brady's jaw slammed shut and he glared at Sam. The demon inside had no mouth, but his eyes burned with a cold fury.
"You're a monster," Ansem said again, but much of the aggression was gone in lieu of outright terror. "He was right about you. He was right about everything."
"No." Sam’s head twitched. The confusion and despair inside of him twisted together until he couldn't tell one from the other. Rage, familiar and unstoppable, coursed through him in time with his heartbeat, consuming everything in its path.
"He said when you came for us, you'd have his eyes...and you do. He said you were like him, but worse. You're going to kill us all. You—”
"Stop talking," Sam said. "Just be quiet."
Ansem turned to Andy, mouth wide in silent horror. He was screaming without making any noise at all.
The sparks on the periphery of Sam's vision melted away into a faintly red blur and something in the back of his brain let go.
Andy clutched at Ansem's shoulders. He was crying, and his sobs grew heavy and loud.
"Don't." Sam took a step towards them, unsteady on his feet. "Don't do that."
Brady caught Sam by the arm and kept him upright.
"Don't cry, Andy…just stop," Sam mumbled and let Brady turn him towards the door. "Both of you. Just. Stop."
Brady and Sam walked out of the living room, through the short hall to the kitchen.
Andy and Ansem sagged to the floor, dead.
Jo carted in an armload of cheap champagne in preparation for New Year’s festivities at the Roadhouse. If she could finagle it, she’d make everyone wear stupid party hats, too. And take pictures, for fun and blackmail.
Especially of those two. She smiled to herself, watching Dean and Ash trying to out-shark each other at the pool table. From all appearances, Dean was riding rough-shod over Ash, which didn’t surprise her one bit. Despite the angles and mathematics of the sport, Ash was a shitty pool player. Blackjack was his territory. He counted cards.
She stacked the bottles in a cooler, made a quick pass over the patrons at the bar to be sure they were happy and their glasses were full, then meandered over to the game. Sidling up behind Dean, she smoothly palmed his ass right when he was finessing a shot. Worked like a charm; the ball jawed, refusing to drop into the pocket.
Ash threw devil’s horns, as if it was his mighty skill that made Dean blow the shot. Judging from Dean’s shit-eatin’ grin, though, he didn’t mind one bit.
Copping a feel wasn’t the only reason Jo interrupted the game. It took a few days and too many long-distance phone calls to sources in the Deep South, but she finally had a reliable ritual to lure a crossroads demon. Didn’t mean she’d changed her mind and thought the idea was a good one, but they’d crunched the numbers and it was the best plan they could manage. The more time they wasted, the more likely it was that John Winchester was dead. She’d be a hypocrite if she tried to keep Dean from saving his father, whether the scheme worked or not.
“I’ve got news,” she said against Dean’s ear, just to feel him shiver.
He turned and arched a brow, to which Jo nodded: serious business. Dean handed Ash his cue stick and followed her to an empty table.
“The recipe.” Jo slid him a scrap of paper.
Dean picked it up and gave it a cursory read. “Does the cat have to be black?”
“Does a wendigo shit in the woods? Yes, it has to be black. And here’s the part most people don’t even know about: after you bury the components, mark the dirt with a five-spot—” Jo slipped a pen from behind her ear and drew an ‘x’ and five dots in a particular order on the back of the paper “—and then walk away. Don’t look back. If the demon feels you’re worth dealing with, he’ll show up.”
Dean took the note again and fiddled it between his fingers. For a moment, he looked so desperate, Jo wouldn’t have denied him anything. His eyes were dry, though, and his voice resolute. “This…this has to work. I’ve got nothin’ else.”
“I know. It sucks.” Jo tapped the pen to her lip. As much as she didn’t want Dean to pull this ridiculously dangerous stunt, she knew what he had to do. He had to try. “I wish there was some other way.”
He shrugged, staring at his hands. “It is what it is.”
“Look, I was thinking, we could draw Devil’s Traps everywhere. Around the crossroads, in the dirt. We might luck into some leverage, get him stuck so he’d have to deal with you.”
Sitting up straight, Dean tucked the paper into his shirt pocket. “What’s this ‘we’ business? You’re not drawing anything for anybody, ‘cept maybe a beer for Billy Bob over there.”
“Oh come on, Dean, I’m not a novice! There’s no sin against having back-up. Nothing in the lore says you have to be alone when you talk to the asshole.”
A fresh and frightening voice spoke up sharply, approaching fast, just as Ash was waving to the table in mild panic.
“Joanna Beth. You and I need to have a word.”
Mom. This was becoming a dangerous habit.
Jo exhaled and pressed her eyes shut.
“NOW, young lady.”
Dean half-stood, his expression suddenly turning sincere, which he did not wear comfortably. “Ellen, she’s not coming with me.”
“Damn straight she’s not. Ever.” The words shot at him like poisoned darts and he winced at her obvious affront. Ellen grabbed Jo by the arm and pulled her away, something oddly fragile caught in her eyes.
Dean finished standing and stiffened his shoulders. “Ellen—”
She ignored him like he didn’t even exist, her fist cuffed around Jo’s wrist, nails digging into the tender skin.
This wasn’t sitting well with Jo. It was high time the world granted her the right to make some of her own decisions; she didn’t need uninvited direction from every damned person in her life. Ellen got maybe ten, fifteen feet before Jo dug her heels in and refused to go any farther.
“Okay, is this about what you saw the other day? Me and Dean? Because I’m a big girl now and I promise I won’t get myself—”
“Yes, but not over…over that,” Ellen hissed. “I’m not thrilled you two are bumpin’ uglies but that is the least of my concerns.”
Jo tried to tug free; Ellen was unyielding. Most of the regulars knew to keep their noses to themselves when the Harvelles were having a ‘discussion’, so despite the drama, no one seemed to be watching. Except Dean. “Then what are the concerns, Momma? Is this about hunting? Again?”
“I do not want you going after John Winchester with that boy.”
“Neither does he, if it’s any consolation.”
“Good. Then this discussion is over.”
“Not hardly, Momma. Don’t I get a say? Damn it, I’m not made of sugar! I won’t melt just ‘cause I’m out of your sight. Don’t you think it’s worth it, for Dean to get his father back? Besides, he wouldn’t put me in danger—”
“That’s exactly what your daddy thought!” Ellen’s eyes got liquid and she clamped her mouth shut, stopping any further words from spilling out. She released Jo’s wrist and turned away.
“Whoa, wait. What?” Now it was Jo’s turn to grab her mother.
Ellen’s shoulders sagged and when she faced her daughter again, her lips were trembling, if only slightly. It wasn’t something Ellen did often, and Jo’s skin tingled right at the base of her neck when she saw it. “Your daddy had a partner on his last hunt,” Ellen said tightly.
“I thought Dad worked alone?”
“He did. And this guy usually did too, but Bill thought he could trust him. Big mistake.”
Jo’s gaze darted to Dean, who was staring at the two women with a conspicuous lack of guile. “That guy was John Winchester, wasn’t it?” she asked, praying her mother could deny the charge.
She couldn’t. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m just afraid…like father, like son.”
The tingle that had started at her nape coursed down Jo’s spine, right to the tips of her fingers, which made them itch to grab something sharp and metal, and shove it into something soft and Winchester. Ellen’s lips worked in a silent objection as Jo strode purposefully back to Dean.
He stood up and took a breath at Jo’s approach. “So?” he said, forgetting to exhale.
Jo felt heat hit her face and she glared up at him. It was all she could do to keep from putting a fist into his nose. “Did you know?”
“Know…?” Dean looked thoroughly confused for a moment, then he didn’t anymore. He raked a hand through his hair, hissing air between his teeth.
“You did. Fucker.” She shoved his chest and stormed away. Ash took a sizable step back to allow Jo plenty of room to pass. He also made certain to keep his pool cue well out of her reach.
Sam woke up in the middle of the night, in a car. Not home. Not the Impala. Not Dean. Not a nightmare. Brady had borrowed an SUV of some sort—overly big, but with enough legroom, even for somebody Sam's size. He heard the demon talking to him over the muted sound of the thunderstorm outside, but didn't move. He didn't even open his eyes, not ready to face the yellow pupils he'd see reflected back at him in the glass of the passenger window.
"I wasn't lying. Not really," Brady was saying. "I mean I didn't know the ritual would kill them. Not at first."
The ritual. Sam's mouth watered at the memory of the blood and he waited for the inevitable wave of nausea and self-hate that always followed the instinctive reaction. It never came.
"Turns out…" Brady let out a nervous laugh and started drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, "…they can't survive without Azazel's blood." The demon's voice sounded rushed, like his words were tripping over themselves on the way out. "I guess that's why he feeds it to them so young, because then they can't live without it. They can't—"
"Why are you telling me all this?" Sam asked.
"You told me to tell you everything I knew about Azazel's chosen."
Now Sam vaguely remembered giving the order before he nodded off to sleep; had Brady been blabbering all this time? He turned towards the demon before opening his eyes, and couldn’t help but notice the way Brady flinched when he did. "Where are we headed?"
"East," Brady said. "You told me to go east."
Sam turned back towards the window and pointedly ignored the yellow dots in the glass. He watched the lightning strike a few miles away. "How long have we been driving?"
Guthrie, Oklahoma; Arkansas; Tennessee; North Carolina... Thunder rumbled again and Sam closed his eyes, wishing it would stop. "We're in North Carolina?"
"Just crossed the border an hour ago."
Sam glared at the latest strike of lightning. "Did the thunderstorm follow us through all four states?"
The SUV lurched to the side as Brady rushed to comply. He stopped the car on the side of the highway.
Sam opened the door and threw himself out into the rain. He could hear the driver's side door open and close.
"Wait! Sam, where are you going?" Brady yelled. His shoes made a loud squelching noise as they hit the muddy grass.
"It won't stop," Sam said, and kept walking towards the lightning. "I keep telling it to stop, and it won't. Maybe I need to get closer."
Brady's footsteps silenced for a minute and he stuttered, "Wait, what do you–you mean the lightning?" He laughed and said, "That's not…I mean you can't control that! None of Azazel's kids can control the weather.”
Sam held up his hand, flexed his fingers, and sparks of electricity danced between them like living, glowing spiderwebs. "Scott begs to differ."
"That's electricity. It isn't—" Brady hurried to catch up with Sam, "—it's not the same. Sam!" The demon put his hand on Sam's shoulder. "Wait!"
Sam turned on Brady and watched him take a step back. "I said 'stop' to Andy and Ansem, and they did."
"That's not the same thing."
"Hop on one foot."
Brady frowned and he did, indeed, jump up and down, wavering as the wet earth sunk beneath his foot. "Is this really necessary?"
"They obeyed. You obey. Why won't the storm?" Sam turned away from him. "You can stop hopping now."
The demon stayed where he was and yelled, "Because it isn't yours to command, Sam. It never will be!"
That stopped Sam in his tracks. "Why not?" he asked, watching his breath curl up into the air.
Brady walked closer, approaching carefully. "Down-below, it's ours. It'll be yours soon enough, and Earth—" he moved next to Sam and smiled weakly, "—Earth is our playground, but up there—” he pointed at the sky, "—it’s theirs."
Sam felt an odd crushing sensation in his chest and wondered what it meant. "The storm followed us…followed me through four states."
The demon nodded. "The storm's a warning."
"They're afraid." Brady forced his meatsuit to grin. The demon inside was shaking, black eyes darting left and right like he was afraid of being overheard. "They're afraid of what you're becoming, and they're too chicken-shit to come down here themselves and do something about it."
Lightning struck down again, close, only a hundred feet away and Sam suddenly sprinted towards it.
"NO! Sam, stop!" Brady screamed.
The Roadhouse wasn’t at a crossroads, but it didn’t take Dean long to find one. He had an almost sixth sense about these things, places where the Veil was thinnest and freaky otherworldly events could happen. Occupational hazard.
It didn’t have trembling, dry yarrow sprouting from the gutters or an ominous view of a decaying cemetery. It was the middle of the middle of fucking nowhere, mind-numbing stretches of road shooting off in the four cardinal directions. To the west, ugly clouds were beginning to coalesce, fat and dirty and loaded. Even though it was solidly winter, Dean wouldn’t have put it past Mother Nature to shit out a tornado right about now.
He pulled the Impala off onto a shoulder and left the engine running, the headlights cutting beams through the dusk. He’d already made preparations, which included taking a mallet from the trunk of the car (mallets were excellent when blunt force trauma was the only way to get the job done, could crush a skull like a malted milk ball), and weighed its heft in his hand. He walked to the bull’s-eye of the four roads, planted his feet, and laid waste to the already-crumbling asphalt. In this land of eternal winds and brutal storms, roads didn’t stand much of a chance, let alone against a Winchester with a cudgel and a grudge.
His belly complained, the barely-healed muscle twinging with every swing, every thud. The rocky material cracked into chunks, and Dean dropped to his knees, pulling away debris until raw earth was exposed. He set aside the mallet, winded. Frozen air ached in his chest; guess he should’ve been grateful the snow had, at least, blown clear of the road.
The box was nothing fancy, didn’t need to be. It was small and tarnished and might’ve been an old sewing kit at some point. The contents, however, were presently more valuable than gold: a tiny picture of himself, cut from a fake animal-control officer ID; a few rare coins just in case the demon was a greedy fucker; the leg-bone of a black cat he’d begged from a taxidermist in Arcadia (big business, taxidermy, in this neck of the woods); a small, corked bottle of graveyard dirt and a hank of dried weed: yarrow.
He slipped the box into the hole he’d dug and covered it with gravel.
He even tamped it down good with the heel of his boot. The wind whistled but he remained alone.
“Hey,” he yelled into the dark, turning, scanning what little he could see of the landscape from the Impala’s glow. The wind might’ve picked up a tad, maybe. “Come on, you son of a bitch. Easy pickings, here.”
Someone cleared their throat behind him.
Dean spun, his hand automatically reaching for the gun tucked at the small of his back. The car sputtered and died, along with her headlights. A nigh-full moon cast just enough brightness to see.
"Dean Winchester. Your family's making quite the name for itself." The demon smiled at him almost wistfully.
To call her drop-dead gorgeous was an understatement…and a fallacy, as most things involved with the dead and dying were far from this appealing. With her curves, hair as dark as sin and a skimpy black dress that ignored winter’s bite, she was inarguably a looker. Regardless, Dean wanted to smash her in the face with a fist.
Sensing this, the demon's eyes turned crimson and her smile turned wicked.
She wet her lips and took a few steps forward, but stopped suddenly. Her shoulders twitched as her feet stuck in place and a curse formed on her lips.
Now it was Dean’s turn to grin.
Barely visible in the earth under her six-inch stilettos was a thin tracing of linework. Dean’s handwriting was little more than chicken scratch, but when he drew a Devil’s Trap? He had all the precision of a surgeon. She snapped a glare at him, pushing at the invisible barrier.
"I don’t think so, sister,” he said, trying to keep his temper under wraps. He had to play it smart. Crossroads demons could grant just about any wish, but they were demons, and they'd screw you over just as quickly as their black-eyed brethren. “What do you know of my family?”
She bared her teeth at him, so very white against the red lipstick. "Your father's been quite entertaining. He tried to break free from Azazel's hold over and over..." She clucked her tongue. “But he's just not that easy to shrug off."
Azazel. So that was the son of a bitch who was infesting his father. "I want to make a deal."
"Do you now?" she eased back, crossed her arms over her chest, eyeing him. "What makes you think you have anything I want?"
"I want that yellow-eyed shitbag to let my father go. Bring Dad back here, and—" Dean's mouth twitched, "—and in ten years, you get my soul."
The demon cackled.
Dean watched her laugh and canted his head, aping a cockiness he didn’t come close to feeling. "What's so damned funny?"
"You're asking me to betray the King of Hell. You actually think your soul is that special?"
"Well, yeah. You make deals for souls and I’ve got a red-hot one—"
"For a profit!" she spat at him angrily. "You're not worth risking my own neck. Certainly not for ten years, are you joking?"
"Fine then. Eight years. You give me eight more years, and all you have to do is free my dad and bring him back to me."
"You make it sound so easy. No deal."
Five years ago, they'd been a family. Sam and Dad had been bickering almost non-stop, but at least they'd been together. Five years from now seemed like a long time. He could change things in five years. He and Dad could find Sam. Get him away from Brady, whom Dean was going to kill a thousand times over once he got his hands on him. They could save Sam, and then Dad would have Sam and Sam would have Dad. They’d fought before, but after everything that had happened…
Five years was long enough.
"You bring my dad back with nobody riding him, and he stays alive."
"Eventually, yeah, but I mean I don't want you dicking us over by bringing him back here just to have some other demon come and kill him."
The demon chewed on this, eyes narrowed in shrewd consideration. "If he dies by anything other than natural means, the deal is void. Fair enough?”
Dean nodded. "Five years."
“Fine. It’s a deal.” The words slid off her tongue like poisoned honey. Dean felt his gut ache, and it wasn’t the wound. “Now either let me out of this mouse trap or get your pretty ass over here. You owe me a kiss to seal our agreement."
The few steps he took to reach the demon felt miles long. He stared into her hell-colored eyes and took a deep breath. He'd made his decision.
"Oooh,” she chuckled, as Dean grabbed her by the wrist, scuffed the border of the Devil’s Trap with his heel and pulled her close.
Kissing the demon was nothing like kissing Jo. He tasted ashes and sulfur and felt something prickling his skin.
When the demon pulled back, she smiled. "Say hi to Daddy for me."
The air felt like it gasped around them, and she was gone. On the ground, where she'd stood less than a second before, was John Winchester.
His father groaned softly, an arm twitched, but beyond that John looked like he could barely move.
"Dad?" Dean dropped, rolled him onto his back. "Dad, look at me.”
John managed another grunt of pain and cracked open his eyes, beyond drained, the familiar wear-and-tear lines on his face more deeply etched. "Dean," he said, attempting a smile. He shuddered and his eyes dropped shut again.
No matter how much he coaxed him, Dean couldn't bring his father around. With no small amount of effort, Dean hoisted John up off the ground, just enough to get some leverage. Dean’s gut was still aching but fuck that. He got a good grip under John’s armpits and dragged him, as carefully as he could, back to the Impala.
Dean left his father leaning against the side of the car as he opened the rear door. Straining hard, he hauled John up, into the back seat, folded his legs at a careful angle, and shut him in.
More out of breath than he liked to admit, Dean limped to the driver's seat and slid behind the wheel. He headed back to the Roadhouse, because where the hell else was he going to go? He had to get John somewhere safe, somewhere he could regroup.
When they pulled into the parking lot, he slowed the Impala down to a crawl, cut the lights, and followed the track of the moon. It wasn’t like he thought he could keep his father's return a secret for long, but he couldn’t deal with the Harvelles at this particular moment. If he could simply buy a little time, maybe the ladies’ moods would soften, lessening the chance they’d kick Dean straight out into the snow and then shoot John in the head like a horse with a broken leg.
Preemptively, he snuck around to the rear door of the Roadhouse, opened it, and poked his head in. The back rooms appeared to be empty. Ellen and Jo’s bedrooms were both closed up tight as per usual; they liked their privacy. Ash’s door was wide open, but the absolute quiet indicated he, too, was elsewhere.
Dean opened the door to his own borrowed room, pushed back the drapes to let some small amount of light in, and went back out to get his dad.
After what felt like an hour of lugging John’s unresponsive body step by agonizing step, he stopped to wheeze against the outer wall of the Roadhouse and muttered, “You could ease off the peanuts a little, Dad.” Which Dean would never have said aloud had John been conscious. Small pleasures.
With a grunt and an eye-roll, he got moving again, manhandling his father down the hallway and into his room. He took the last few steps as quickly as possible, kicking the door shut with his heel. Dean lugged John’s torso half onto the cot, too fatigued to be tender at this point, lifted John’s legs off the ground and flopped the entirety of his body onto its side.
Keeerist, he was sweating. Dean scraped a sleeve across his brow and sat heavily on the edge of the bed. John’s eyes stayed shut. Dean put the back of his hand on his father’s forehead and frowned. Great. He’d been too distracted trying to get John indoors to be sure, but now he was certain that his father felt way too hot to the touch.
Water. Water would be good. Dean tiptoed back out of the room, grabbed an old pitcher from a closet and filled it with water from the bathroom at the end of the hall. He grabbed two clean hand-towels from under the sink as an afterthought and when he stepped back out into the hall, sure as shootin’, there was Ellen standing at the door to his room, stock-still.
Dean set his jaw and walked forward, side-stepping Ellen, avoiding her eyes. If she had something to say, she could damned well say it but Dean wasn’t going to invite the conversation. He placed the pitcher on the crate next to his bed and after shoving aside piles of books and papers, made space for a chair at the footboard.
He lifted up his father’s right leg, slipped off the boot and did the same with the left. Gently, he rolled up the cuff as high as it would go and draped a cool, damp washcloth around John’s calf, repeating the procedure with the other leg. He knew it wasn’t standard fever protocol, but when he was a kid, they’d had a German babysitter not long after Mom had…gone…and Mrs. Schmidt had done this when Dean’d contracted some stupid virus kids always got. It had felt good, and Dad more than deserved some comfort here.
At least Yellow Eyes—Azazel—had taken decent care of John’s body, probably out of some twisted sense of vanity or pride.
He could feel Ellen watching him, but she didn’t say a word.
Dean had fallen asleep sitting upright, but jerked awake when he heard his father say, “I’m so sorry, Dean. God I’m so sorry.”
“Dad?” He shifted the chair closer. “How’re you feeling?” A bleary glance at his watch revealed he’d been asleep almost two hours.
“Like I got hit by a semi.” John pushed himself back against the pillow, lifting slightly. “Are you okay? Last thing I remember, I—” his eyes lost focus, drifting to stare at some vague spot on the bed, “—he, that yellow-eyed bastard, was slicing you up. You sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah.” Dean nodded and swallowed down the lump in his throat. “Yeah, Dad, I’m fine. Ellen and Jo patched me up real good.”
John blinked, his gaze snapping up to his son. “Harvelle? Ellen and Joanna?”
“They helped you get me back?”
Dean opened his mouth to answer, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. He wasn’t the least bit ready for company; certainly, neither was his dad. “Yeah?” he called back.
The door opened a crack and a second later, Jo pushed through with a tray of food. It smelled better than anything had the right to, some sort of stew or soup, and Dean’s stomach growled audibly in spite of itself.
“I heard that,” she grinned, putting the tray down on the ersatz bedside table. “Thought you two could use a midnight snack.”
Dean‘s mouth watered almost ferociously. “You’re amazing.”
“I know. It might be Mom’s soup, but I am the one who poured it into the bowls, so…”
“They’re nice bowls,” Dean said, and he wasn’t fibbing either.
“Joanna—” John broke in, quietly.
Jo’s eyes flicked over to him, and Dean noticed for the first time she’d been avoiding looking at his father.
“Glad you’re okay,” she said, and turned back towards the door without further chit-chat. It couldn’t have been clearer that she had things to say to John Winchester, but refrained. Thank God. “I’ll let you two get caught up. Holler if you need anything.”
Dean followed her out and wanted to give her hand a squeeze, a hug, some gesture of appreciation but he wasn’t sure what she’d tolerate. He defaulted to a murmured thanks and simply shut the door behind her.
Returning to the bedside, he picked up a bowl of soup and sat down again. He was so damned hungry, he nearly drooled like a starved hound. “You should eat, Dad. Ellen is one helluva cook.”
“She is.” John sat up straighter but it took so much effort, his face lost all color. He didn’t reach for a bowl or a spoon; he just suffered there, watching Dean eat. Finally, he spoke. And it was exactly what Dean had been fearing.
“Son, what’d you do?”
Dean shrugged, slowing his chew. “I got you away from Azazel.”
John let out a huff, half growl, half bitter laugh. “Yeah. I get that. How?”
“We, uh, found a spell. Tricky son of a bitch, but we pulled it off. Kind of like a reverse exorcism, you know? Pulls the human away from the demon.”
“There’s only one way this could’ve gone down.” John shut his eyes for a long moment and when he opened them again, the gaze that he leveled at his eldest son was heavy with sorrow. “What did it cost you?”
Dean blew over the soup, watching the steam billow up and obscure his father’s face for a second. “Nothing I wasn’t willing to pay.”
“Dean,” he said under his breath.
“Tell me what Azazel wants with Sam.”
John stared at him and blinked. His eyes were still red-tinged, bloodshot and bruised with unrelenting fatigue. He swallowed and shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Bullshit,” Dean snapped, throwing disbelief right back at his father. “You can’t keep this from me, I need to know—”
“So do I!” John snarled, suddenly livid. “You think I don’t know you’re lying to me? Demons don’t deal fair. Whatever you agreed to, it wasn’t worth it.” His breath hitched and the fury lost its footing. “You should’ve left me where I was.”
“Yeah, so sue me.” Dean thumped the bowl back on the tray, too pissed off to eat. “I couldn’t deal, all right? I lost Sam already, I can’t—” he coughed, raking a hand down his face. “I can’t do this alone.”
“You lost Sam? I thought he was at school.” He looked up at Dean. “You lied to me.” His face shifted through indignation and anger before crumpling into grief, aging him a miserable ten years.
“Dad, I’m sorry.”
“You can’t find him?”
Dean shook his head. “He doesn’t want to be found. He won’t answer the phone, he won’t tell me where he is.” Dean swallowed back frustration, rubbing his eyes. “He’s different, Dad. Last time I talked to him it was just…it felt wrong.”
“It’s not his fault,” John said, almost inaudibly. “None of this is. It’s all…so much bigger than I thought. So much worse.”
“Alright. You gotta tell me what you know.” Dean stalked back to his chair, pushed it aside and sat on the edge of the bed. “You have to tell me everything, okay?”
John nodded, exhaled hard. “Azazel’s got plans for Sam. Big plans. Has since the night…the night your mother died. He came for Sam that night. He did something to him.”
“What’d he do?” Dean was terrified to ask, but he had to.
“I don’t know. A spell, maybe? Whatever it was, the point was to get Sam to see things his way.”
“What? His way?” Dean was used to feeling anger when he thought of the yellow-eyed son of a bitch that had ruined his family, but seldom thought to ask why?
“He wants an army. He wants to bring Hell to Earth.” John sunk back onto his pillow. “He’s convinced Sam is going to be his general. Lead that army. He needs Sam to ‘open the door.’ Whatever that means.”
“But Sam wouldn’t…” Dean squeezed his eyes shut, trying to sort out the noise in his mind. All the facts he had on what Sam had been up to, and all of the theories—each one more horrible than the next—pointed to the same damned thing. Despite all of it, when he looked back up at his father, all he could say was, “He’s not one of them.”
John locked eyes with Dean. “I hope you’re right, son. I’m counting on it.”
Brady was talking at him again.
"I think this is a valuable lesson really." The demon plopped down next to Sam and leaned against the wall of the empty barn. "What have we learned from this? We've learned that while arguably unpleasant, lightning can't actually kill you. Which is a good thing!"
Not a good thing, Sam thought to himself. Nothing good.
"Plus," Brady chuckled, "I mean you walked right into their light show; that's a challenge if I ever saw one. And...you survived." He raised an eyebrow at Sam. "You don't get how big a deal that is, do you?"
If they wanted me dead I'd be dead, but they don't. They don't. Sam closed his eyes against the sun and reached for his jacket pocket.
"Sam. Say something." Brady looked towards him nervously. "You haven't said a word in three days. I get that you're upset, okay? But what's done is done; it doesn't change anything. Right?"
Sam pulled his hand back out of his pocket and stared at Brady. "I lost it."
Brady smiled, the demon leered. "Happens to the best of us."
Sam stood up, and Brady followed suit. "I don't even know when...I know I had it before I got shot."
The demon looked confused. "Wait, what did you have?"
Sam stuck his hands in his jacket pockets again and turned them inside out. "The box. The box for the ring I got Jess."
"It was in my pocket."
"Your beige jacket? The one you were wearing when Scott shot you?"
"The bullets tore it up pretty good. It was ruined." Brady tilted his head, contemplation playing over his face. "I'm pretty sure it burned with the rest of that house where we brought you to heal."
"Burned," Sam repeated. "Jess burned too. Mom burned. Everything burns."
Brady swallowed, the demon's overwide mouth twitched. "Do you want me to go look for it?" he asked. "I can go get it. Or...do you want the ring? You buried it with Jess right, if you want I—"
"If you go within ten miles of her grave I'll flay the skin from your bones and feed it to you."
Brady held up his hands and chuckled. "Yeah, as fun as that sounds, I'll pass." He sighed and looked at Sam fondly, with fear. "I just want to help."
"Then tell me who’s next."
Dad only had to lean against Dean for a few steps when they walked out into the main room of the Roadhouse for dinner. Jo had offered to bring the food to them, but John insisted they join the others, grumping, “My legs work. I’m just tired, not wounded.”
The Harvelles and Ash had been laughing about something or other, but when John walked through the door to the private dining room, all three fell silent. Dean, following his father, snagged Jo’s attention. “You talking about me?”
Jo stifled a smirk and the mood in the room picked back up. “Of course. I was just telling Ash how your love of food is too friggin’ ginormous for someone who’s such a crappy cook.”
“Once. I burned the eggs one time. That doesn’t mean I can’t cook!” Dean plunked down next to her, throwing an arm over the back of her chair. Plates, glasses, silverware and a basket of rolls had already found their way to the table.
Dean caught Dad looking from him to Jo with an odd little half-smile before he eased down into the remaining open seat, next to Ash, across from Ellen.
Almost immediately, Ellen stood up. “I’m gonna bring out the rest of the stuff. Joanna Beth, come help me with the roast, will you?”
“Okay, Mamma.” She gave Dean a slightly apologetic smile. “Be right back.”
The men watched the women walk through the door to the kitchen. When it swung closed again, Ash turned back to the rest of the table, looked from John to Dean and nodded to himself. “Aw’right, who needs a beer?”
John raised one finger, silently. Dean raised two. Ash gave a salute and walked out to the bar. Through the doorway, they watched as Ash, with the sort of skill normally reserved for gymnasts, put one hand on the bartop, stepped up on the crossbeam of the nearest stool, and propelled himself up and over the counter.
“I’ll give that an ‘eight’,” Dean said, eyebrows raised.
“Next time I’ll stick my landing.” Ash ducked down and when he popped back up a few seconds later, he was holding three bottles. “Special occasion calls for a special beer.” He walked back to the dining room and offered his guests a drink, each.
“Special occasion?” John asked, taking one.
Dean grabbed the other and eyed it warily. “Genesee Cream Ale…what the hell is this?”
“Best damn beer you’ve ever tasted, my friend,” Ash assured him. “Drink it slow. Savor it. I’ve only got seven more left and they don’t distribute locally.” He popped open a bottle and held it under his nose, closing his eyes.
The kitchen door opened and Jo walked back in, carrying a lamb roast on a massive serving platter. She set it down in the center of the table with a thump and turned back towards the kitchen. “Mom, you got the potatoes?”
“I do, baby, thanks,” Ellen said, walking out balancing a big bowl of baby potatoes in one hand and dish of green beans in the other.
Dean didn’t miss his dad’s eyes following Ellen all the way back to the table and he wondered, again, just how much water had passed under their collective bridge. Bill and John had been friends once, that much he knew. Then Bill had died…gotten himself killed. And Dad had been there. Understandably, he housed guilt over that; it was written in the sad cant of John’s brows when he looked at Ellen Harvelle, and even a little when he watched Jo. But none of that could’ve been Dad’s fault, right?
Ellen put the vegetables down on the table, pulled a large carving knife seemingly out of thin air, and cut into the roast. “Help yourselves,” she said. “I’m gonna grab some iced tea from the kitchen.”
“Sit down Momma. I’ll get it.” Jo insisted.
Dean watched Jo watching Ellen; they were having an uncomfortable kind of silent conversation, in addition to the spoken one.
“That’s okay, Joanna—”
Jo stood up and gave her mother a look. “I got it.”
Ellen sat down stiffly and forced a smile at her daughter. “Thanks. Honey.”
Ash finished scooping potatoes onto his plate and handed the bowl to Dean, who was tempted to take the whole damned lot of them when the smell of butter and rosemary hit his nostrils. His appetite was back up to full throttle.
The vegetables made their way around the table in complete silence and ended up near Jo’s plate just as she came back in with two pitchers of iced tea.
She sat back down and raised her eyebrows at Dean.
Dean smiled his most charming smile. “These potatoes smell delicious, Ellen.”
“They’re from last season’s crop,” Ellen said, cutting into her slab of roast. Her eyes didn’t leave the plate once.
They ate in silence for minutes that felt like hours until Ash leaned back in his chair and drank from his beer. He looked at John, set the bottle back on the table emptied, and asked, “So what’s it like having a demon ride your skin?”
Ellen dropped her fork on her plate, and Dean nearly choked on his green beans.
Dad cleared his throat and took a careful sip of beer. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.” He folded his hands together, fingers pressed so tightly the tips went white. “I was trapped in my own head. I saw everything that son of a bitch was doing…”
Dean felt Dad’s eyes on him and stared down at his roast lamb. He knew it wasn’t Dad’s fault. He didn’t need an apology, least of all a public one.
“…but I couldn’t do a thing to stop him.”
“You did though,” Dean said. “You stopped him.”
“Not fast enough. You got hurt.”
“Possession’s called possession for a reason,” Ash mused, nodding. “Most people say you can’t do anything but wait it out. If you got through at all, even for a second…that’s a pretty big deal.”
Dean went from wanting to strangle Ash to considering the guy for sainthood. How the hell did he do that? Say entirely the wrong thing one second, only to come out with Dalai Lama-esque wisdom the next? Must be a gift.
“Did you learn anything?” Jo asked quietly.
Dean stared at her and saw Dad doing the same.
“I mean, it was in your head; did you see anything? What it wanted or…why it took you?”
“I have my theories.” John shook his head. “But I don’t think I saw anything that son of a bitch didn’t want me to see.”
Dad had always operated on a ‘need to know’ basis, even with Dean and Sam. But Dean knew his father’s tells: the precise, wary way he touched things, the subtle warning in his gaze. You don’t spend your entire life with someone and not know when they’re holding back information. Azazel revealed things to John Winchester, Dean was convinced. There were topics yet to be discussed, but Dad certainly wasn’t going to do that in a room full of…well, not strangers. Not anymore.
“It either wants the Colt, or it wants Sam, or both, right?” Jo asked. Dean bumped her leg under the table, cautioning her to ease up.
John stared at her like she’d grown a second head while Dean tried to think of something to say to get the conversation back in safer waters. “Uh…”
“Me thinks you hit the nail on the ol’ noggin, JoJo.” Ash tapped his temple with one finger. “I wonder if El Demonico knows what Tall Man’s been doin’?
“Dean,” John said, his voice low and tight. “What are they talking about?”
Dean balanced the end of his fork on his plate and spun it between his fingers. “We need to uh…fill you in on some stuff.”
They were South. New Mexico. It was warmer here and Sam hadn't put on a jacket since he'd lost the beige one. He had another in his duffel along with six shirts and three pairs of jeans.
It had taken him nearly a month of traveling with Brady to realize that the demon had taken to doing the laundry while Sam slept. He nearly asked him about it on three separate occasions, but decided against it, determined to believe that the apparent lack of a spike in laundromat-related deaths meant Brady was really just doing the laundry and not anything malicious. Until he came out of the shower, dug through his bag, and found a clean shirt he didn't recognize.
"This isn't my shirt," Sam frowned, holding the black t-shirt out in front of him.
"It's your size," Brady said, and popped another pistachio into his mouth. He was sprawled out backwards on the motel bed, with his feet resting on the pillow.
"Get your shoes off of my pillow."
Brady rolled off the bed and glared at Sam. "We're not even gonna be here tonight."
"Doesn't matter. It's the principle of the thing."
"Oh." Brady raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. "Well yeah, we are pretty principled people, aren't we?"
"We're not people."
The demon grinned wide. "That is the smartest thing you've said in weeks." He tilted his head to the side. “What made you see the light?”
“My reflection.” Sam turned away from the demon and went back into the bathroom to grab his things. The mirror was still fogged up, but Sam could see the yellow glint of his eyes when he walked past it. They looked diffuse in the milky glass, like two anemic stars.
Sam packed his duffel while Brady went out to the parking lot to pick a car. They weren’t going far. Jason Gellan was only about ten miles away. He’d started driving towards them six hours ago, when Sam had slipped into his dreams and told him where he needed to be. Sam closed the motel room door behind him and got into the Jeep Brady had jacked.
They drove to the long-abandoned gas station without saying a word. Sam spent the time practicing. His powers were blending in the most interesting ways all on their own. Complimentary gifts like dream-walking and mind control went hand in hand, but he’d discovered that if he intentionally tried to combine two that weren’t a natural fit, he got even better results. He’d figured out how to make a perfect sphere of solidified air easily enough, but filling it with electricity was tricky. It took him nearly eight minutes to get it right.
“We’re here,” Brady said, looking out the windshield at Jason.
The guy was standing in front of the empty skeleton of an anonymous building, signage long since gone, glancing about in obvious confusion. Brady got out of the Jeep and started walking towards him, kicking up clouds of dirt.
Sam squeezed the little ball of air until it popped and the electrical current tickled back into his fingers. He opened the passenger-side door and went to stand next to Brady, who had the chalice out and was already midway through the ritual’s chant.
Jason, a slight man with dark curls and darker eyes, collapsed to the ground, more than a little dust puffing up into the air as he landed heavily on the dry earth.
Brady handed the chalice to Sam and he drank the precious drops, feeling his body get warm, feverish. He could feel the sun beating down on his skin and for just a second, he thought he could see its core, feel its destructive force devouring everything it touched. It burned, it burned, it burned.
When Sam let go of the empty chalice, his hands were literally aflame, but he wasn’t blistering. He lifted his fingers up in front of his face and watched the flames grow higher and larger. The fire spilled back down his forearms, engulfing his entire body until it ran down his legs and onto the dry earth itself. The fire hungrily took hold of the dry grass that infested the old gas station, consuming Jason within seconds, and in less than a minute the building itself was an inferno. Sam stood and watched it all and didn’t feel a thing.
When the fire made its way to the Jeep, the smell of melting plastic and gasoline mixed with the already heavy scent of burning wood and flesh. Brady looked from the car to Sam and said, “You’re gonna need some new clothes.”
“That’s everything?” John asked.
Dean nodded. Telling Dad everything he, Jo and Ash had pulled together about Sam’s extra-curricular activities had taken a lot out of him. At first he’d wished Jo and Ash would go away. They had, eventually, but not until about an hour ago. The only ones left now were John, Dean, Ellen and a nearly empty bottle of Jack. Ellen had moved back to the bar and was cleaning every square inch of it.
“Dad…” Dean rubbed his knuckles against his forehead trying to get at the sore spot just between his eyes, but it was just out of reach. “There has to be something we do to get through to him. We can’t just–just sit here.” He felt as if he should have been angrier, like his last words should have been shouted, but he was so damned tired.
“We’ll find him. And we’ll save him.” John said it like it was the easiest thing in the world.
Like Sam wanted to be saved. “How?” There was the anger.
“We’ll figure it out, son. First we have to find him.” Dad brought his glass up to his lips and finished off the last of his whiskey.
Dean rolled his empty tumbler between his fingers morosely. “He doesn’t want to be found.”
“I don’t care,” John said, his voice low and furious. “No child of mine is going to throw his life away because of that yellow-eyed son of a bitch.” He looked right at Dean and said. “It’s not his fault, and it’s not your fault. You got that?”
“Yeah.” Dean nodded, and hated the lump in his throat even more that the ache in his head.
From behind them, Ellen cleared her throat. “I’m gonna hit the sack. You two just remember to kill the lights when you’re done. Electricity doesn’t grow on trees.”
“Thanks, Ellen,” John said, offering her a drained smile.
She nodded at them and hung her cleaning rag over the faucet in the bar sink before disappearing into the kitchen.
John turned back to Dean. “We can find Sam. We’ll use a tracking spell if we have to.”
“We’ll find him, and then what? Tell him killing people is wrong?” Dean rubbed his hands over his eyes again, fighting against his body’s exhaustion. “I don’t even know where to start.”
“You find him,” John said, standing up. “I’ll take care of the rest. We need to sleep first, though. Not gonna be able to help anybody if we’re dead on our feet.”
Dean stared up at his father, another protest on the tip of his tongue, but he kept his mouth shut, simply nodding. He even forced out a measly smile.
Dad put his hand on Dean’s shoulder and murmured, “Night, son,” before leaving the barroom.
As Elena's power aligned itself inside of him, Sam felt an instant change in his perception, just like all those weeks ago when he'd taken Hans' sight. Her gift was language; there was no word, no syllable in any tongue that was hidden from Sam. Not anymore. He let himself sink back in the armchair, and reveled in the bliss of the blood for a few seconds.
Brady picked up Elena and laid her on the couch. As an afterthought, he stuck a pillow under her head.
Sam blinked at him. "What are you doing?"
"You said to make sure she was comfortable."
Satisfied, Sam rested his eyes again.
"Are we spending the night?"
"No," Sam said. He looked down into the empty chalice, and turned it by the stem, slowly rolling it between his fingers, reciting Brady's Enochian chant in his mind as an afterthought. He stopped toying with the cup and put it down on the coffee table.
Brady reached for the chalice, but Sam batted his hand away with a thought. The demon laughed nervously. "Is there a problem? Do you need a refill?"
"Later." Sam lolled his head around to consider the demon, tapping a fingertip to his chin. "You know, all this time, I thought you meant the cup."
"I'm sorry, what the hell are you—"
Sam pointed at the chalice. "The spell. ‘Blood calls to blood.’ I thought that was the vessel." He locked eyes with Brady. "But that's not what you meant at all...is it?"
Brady broke the gaze and looked down at the unholy relic. "No."
"Homil efafafe." Sam flicked his fingers and pulled them in again. The metal cup flew into his hand obediently. “I'm the vessel. The true vessel."
The demon nodded, but stood where he was.
"For what? For whom?"
Brady's black eyes met Sam's and he answered, carefully, "For Hell. You're the heir."
Sam leaned forward and narrowed his eyes, prompting the demon to go on.
"Azazel's heir," Brady answered. "But he…he isn't going to give up the throne. Not now, not ever."
"I don't want the throne. I just want Azazel's head."
“He won’t give that up either.” The demon smiled stiffly. "When you kill him, Hell will be yours."
Sam nodded thoughtfully, and ran his finger along the edge of the chalice. He pictured it filling with blood over and over, but there were only a handful of psychics left, barely enough to fill the cup halfway. "So tell me, does the spell have to be spoken by a demon? Is there something special about a demon using the language of angels that makes it work?"
"No," Brady said, watching Sam's finger move along the rim of the cup.
"What would happen if I said the spell?"
The demon swallowed and answered, "Blood calls to blood. You wouldn't even need the spell. Just—" he stopped mid-sentence.
"Just. What?" Sam asked, his voice low. "This?" He held up the chalice.
Brady shook his head. "No. You could use a Dixie cup if you wanted, it doesn't matter. It's you, Sam. You're why the spell works."
Sam raised his eyebrows and leaned forward to put the chalice back on the table. "So...what do I need you for?"
Brady's face twitched, the demon's mouth dropped open in shock and he said, "I watch your back. I look out for you! I've saved your life, over and over."
"You have. You've been a good...friend." Sam stood up and walked over to Elena, watching her breathing get slower and weaker. He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. Her eyes flew open and she let out one final breath. Sam stood back up and turned to face Brady. "So then why are you lying to me?"
"I'm not. What do you mean?"
"More importantly, how are you lying to me?" Sam asked as he moved closer to Brady.
"I'm not lying, Sam."
"You have to do what I tell you to do."
Brady lifted his chin. "Maybe. Or maybe you're not as strong as you think you are."
"You want to test me?"
The demon's eyes sparked with defiance but he didn’t answer.
"You know these powers are amazing, really," Sam said, lifting his hands and looking at his fingers. "I mean, on their own they're pretty impressive, but when you mix 'em all up..." he laughed suddenly, a sharp sound. "Last night, when I was sleeping, I took a look around. Poked my head in and out of people's minds, looking for Azazel's mark." He smirked. "I can see so damn far now. And you know what I saw?"
Brady swallowed. "What?"
"Ava Wilson?" Brady asked, shaking his head.
"You've never heard of her? Psychic, lives in Peoria, controls demons with her mind." Sam glared at Brady, his rage making it feel like his eyes were burning with cold fire. Maybe they were.
"Sam. Stop being so damn paranoid for a minute. I can't lie to you. You just said so yourself. Azazel never told me about anybody named Ava. If she can control demons, then that's probably why, don't you think?"
Sam's fingers twitched and fire started to spread between them, licking its way up his forearm. He smiled as the flames tickled his skin. "Let's say I believe you. Let's say that somehow Azazel failed to tell you about her. Don't you think that alone makes her pretty fucking important?"
"Then we'll go to her next! We can leave right now."
Sam nodded, turning to leave. "Bring the chalice. For old time's sake." He brushed his hand against the doorframe and the flames spilled off his arm, spreading out wide across the wallpaper.
Brady vanished just before the fire enveloped the whole room.
"Listen up," Ash announced as he walked back into the main room of the Roadhouse. "I found somethin'."
Dean blinked, looking up at Ash, still far too worn out for even a flicker of hope. "Yeah? What'd you find?" He had nodded off at a booth after Dad went to bed, and dreamt of cold muddy ground beneath his knees and blood on his hands.
They’d set up a cot in Dean’s room so John could keep using the narrow twin, but Dean’s brain wouldn’t shut down enough to allow for honest sleep. He couldn’t ignore the stress or what-ifs or what-nows. Having to rehash everything he’d figured out about Sam—to Dad of all people—had put him in that nasty spot where he was too exhausted to move but too agitated to call it a night.
Ash grabbed a chair, spun it around backwards, and sat at the end of the table. “A spell. An old one; it was in Sumerian. Tricky to translate, but I got it. We need a few things though."
"What do we need?" Jo had wandered in behind Ash and was inviting herself into the discussion. No surprise there.
"We need his blood, and we need something he owned."
"His blood," Dean repeated and ran his fingers through his hair, clenching his eyes shut. "How the hell are we gonna get that?"
Ash smirked and pulled out a pocket knife. He snicked it open and pointed it at Dean.
"Think that'll work?" Jo asked.
"Blood's a powerful thing. You're his brother, Dean. You're his blood." Ash flipped his knife shut again and slapped it down on the table. "Now what do you have of his?"
Dean sat up a little straighter and considered the question. He probably had a few of Sam's things stashed in the trunk of the Impala. There was a knife or two, and those throwing stars Sam had bought and never used after that one unfortunate incident.
"Preferably something we can tie to a string, the smaller the better."
Dean clutched at his shirt, almost by reflex, and felt the amulet's metal against his skin. He hesitated, then pulled it free of the collar, up and over his head, offering it to Ash. "How about this?"
Ash stared at the horned head and narrowed his eyes. "Sam gave that to you?"
"Yeah. When we were kids." Dean gingerly dropped it into Ash's hand. "I want that back."
"Sure, man. We just need to borrow its mojo for a little bit."
"Awesome,” Jo said, standing up. "Now we need a map, right?"
Ash nodded. "That'd be good to start with, yeah. You got one of the whole country?"
"I've got, like, eight in my car," Dean said, walking towards the door. He stepped out into the cold night, instantly shivering as a gust of wind whipped through the thin fabric of his henley. When he touched the handle of the Impala's passenger-side door—Sam always kept the maps obsessively neat—he had the briefest flash of Sam folding a map down. Dean closed his eyes like that would somehow jog more of the memory. It worked.
"Maybe we shouldn't have left Stanford so soon," Sam was saying, over the wails of 'Hot Blooded' playing on the stereo.
"Sam, we dug around there for a week," Dean heard himself say. "We came up with nothing. If you wanna find the thing that killed Jessica—"
"We gotta find Dad first."
Dean opened his eyes again and winced at the pain lashing through his skull. Focusing on remembering fucking hurt. And the cold didn’t help.
"We gotta find Dad first," Dean repeated, clinging onto the last memory of Sam's voice, as if saying it over and over again would prevent it from slipping away as quickly as all the others had. "Well Sammy, I found Dad, but where the hell are you?" Dean rifled through the maps in the glove compartment and found what he was looking for.
He pulled out Sam's favorite map and hesitated. Sam's gonna be pissed if we ruin this, he considered, followed immediately by, Fuck him.
Dean walked back inside, clutching the map. He slapped it on the table where Ash had started assembling the spell's other ingredients: herbs, a mortar and pestle, four black candles and a piece of chalk.
"Okay..." Ash said, more to himself than anyone in particular. "Almost ready."
Jo pointed at the herbs in the mortar bowl. "Want me to crush?"
"Crush away, mamacita." Ash picked up the piece of chalk, the map and the amulet, and walked over to the left side of the main room, stopping by the kitchen door. "Y'all coming or what?"
Dean grabbed the four candles and followed Jo, who was working the pestle over the herbs while she walked through the kitchen door and into the storage room.
Ash was already crouched over the floor, sketching a large circle. "Candles. Here, here," he pointed at spots on the circle, "here and here."
Dean put the thick candles down as instructed and turned to look at Jo.
She smiled back at him, a mix of sorrow and fondness playing across her features. "Where do you want the seasonings, Ash?"
"Right above the map." Ash unfolded the large map, lining its corners up with the four candles. He took the chalk again and started writing around the paper's borders.
Jo leaned down and set the herb bowl above the top edge.
"Something wrong?" Dean asked, watching Ash sit back on his heels.
"Nah," he said, flicking his hair back over his shoulder. "Just trying to remember the Sumerian word for 'guide.'"
"You don't have the spell text written down somewhere?"
"Well yeah, in Greek, not Sumerian," he pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned forward again, continuing to write. "Sorry, I just taught myself Sumerian, like, three months ago," he chuckled. "Not totally fluent yet."
Dean turned to Jo and made a face, silently begging the question, 'Is he for real?'
"Ash is a genius," Jo said gravely.
"And don't you forget it. Okay, we're ready." Ash held out his hand. "Fire."
Dean pulled out his lighter and dropped it into the other man's palm.
Ash lit the four candles then stood, looking over his shoulder at Dean. “Okay, compadre, your turn.”
“Wait. What?” Dean stammered.
“Final ingredient,” Ash said.
Jo opened her pocket knife and took Dean’s hand. “We just need a few drops.”
Dean jerked his hand back.
“Don’t be a baby.”
“I’m not, I just…I’d prefer to do the stabbing.” Dean took the blade from Jo. “If you don’t mind.”
She smirked and took a step back, holding up her hands in mock-surrender.
Dean knelt down next to the map and pierced the tip of his third finger with the point of the knife.
“Right into the herbs, there,” Ash directed, watching him.
Dean held his bleeding finger out over the bowl and watched three thick, red drops fall into the mix. He sat back and sucked on his fingertip, tasting the iron on his tongue.
“Alrighty. Here goes.” Ash held the amulet above the herb bowl. ”Redu asar anna halqu ahu. Zamani asru redu anna. Halqu ahu.” He flinched as the herbs stared to smolder.
Dean raised an eyebrow. Dried plants didn’t usually combust just from being talked at.
Ash held the amulet over the herb bowl one more time and repeated the last two words: “Halqu ahu.” A thick plume of smoke rose up from the bowl, covering the amulet completely. Ash coughed and put his hands down on the map.
Jo took a few steps closer to the circle and knelt down on Ash’s other side. “Did it work?”
The amulet, which had landed on the outer edge of the map, jerked forward until its black cord was straining against Ash’s hold.
“Whoa…” he said, and lifted his hand up, letting go of the cord.
Dean watched the amulet fly across the map, stop somewhere under the Great Lakes and flip, so that the chin of the horned head was pointing straight down. Like an arrow. He cocked his head to the side and leaned forward. “Huh.”
“Peoria, Indiana,” Jo read. “There’s a Peoria in Indiana? And Sam’s there?”
Dean stood up. “Let’s go.”
“Hold on there, cowboy,” Ash said. “I need a little time to make this more portable.”
“Yeah, well…” Ash shrugged his shoulders. “I mean, you don’t think he’s gonna just stay put, do you?”
Dean had to give him that. “Nope. Guess you’re right. How much time do you need?”
Ash stuck out the tip of his tongue and thought. “Forty-two minutes.”
“You got it,” Jo said. “We’ll get packed.”
When they got to Ava’s bedroom, she was crying. Sam figured she was upset because of the bloody corpse beside her.
“Huh,” Brady said as he followed Sam into the room. “Can’t say I was expecting that.”
Ava’s head jerked up and she glared at Brady and Sam. Her eyes were glassy and blood-shot.
Sam walked around to her side of the bed, cocked his head and asked, “Did you do this?”
The woman brought her shaking hand up to her temple and squeezed her eyes shut. “You told me to. You said I had to protect my fiancé.” She looked at Sam again. “Now he’s dead!”
“I told you to?” Sam asked, curious.
“I–In my dream.”
“What else did I tell you to do?” Sam sat down next to her, his voice mild.
She sobbed quietly, but didn’t answer.
“Ava,” Sam said, and that mildness ebbed, growing heavy with power. “Show me your dream.”
The woman’s eyes went wide as Sam replayed her memories. She’d seen him, or what looked like him: Azazel wearing Sam’s face.
Sam felt an odd thrill run through him. Bloodlust. Azazel was afraid of him. That had to be why he was getting more creative in warning the psychics. He was getting them prepared, giving them back-up. That was new. Not that it made a difference.
Brady handed Sam the chalice and leaned down over the corpse next to Ava. It was — it used to be — a man. His chest had been slashed to ribbons and several ribs were sticking out at odd angles. "Acheri demon, right?"
Acheri demons were one of the few demon breeds that could manifest without possessing a host. Hellhounds were similar, from a metaphysical standpoint, but Hellhounds had the added ability to grab hold of a soul itself, not just the body that housed it. Brady had given Sam a primer on all of Hell’s species, though there were several that couldn’t exist at all outside of Hell itself. Sam hadn’t ever seen an Acheri or its handiwork until now.
The corpse lying next to Ava was missing a good chunk of its torso, its entrails scooped out. Brady leaned over the open ribcage and inhaled deeply.
"Yeah...definitely Acheri,” he chuckled. "Vicious, but they have the attention span of a gnat." He looked at Ava and narrowed his eyes. "Did you fall asleep or something?"
Ava blinked at him as a tear ran down her cheek.
Brady whistled. "Wow. That's a pretty staggering amount of stupid." He stepped away from her bed and clapped Sam on his shoulder. "She's all yours, champ."
Sam smiled stiffly at Brady, then turned back to Ava and held the old metal cup out towards her.
Ava's body unfolded itself against her will and she started whimpering in fear.
"Shh," Sam whispered, holding a finger up to his lips. He set the chalice down on Ava, who'd fallen silent, balancing it right on top of her sternum. The cup started to glow faintly as it filled with blood.
Ava stopped moving and her eyes drifted shut.
Sam picked up the chalice and downed its contents in one long pull. He nearly smiled at the contented feeling her blood and its power gave him. "Going somewhere, Brady?" he asked without turning around.
"No. Of course not," Brady said quickly.
Sam took a deep breath and pivoted, eyeing Brady. The demon was really starting to test his patience. "You were trying to leave."
"What? No I wasn't—"
"Don't. Lie. To me." Sam growled, letting his words solidify the air, trapping Brady like an insect in amber. He put his hand on Brady's shoulder and stared at him, watching the demon inside look around frantically, struggling to find a way out.
"Let go of me," Brady snapped.
Sam's lips quirked and he lifted his hands. He made a flicking motion with his fingers and sent Brady crashing through Ava's bedroom window. Walking over to the shattered, jagged glass, he grinned down at the demon.
Dean hadn’t come into her life at the top of his game. He’d practically crawled in, lucky to get to the Roadhouse alive. She’d seen him weak as a kitten and angry as a bull, but she had never seen him as forlorn and frantic as he looked that morning, standing at the door to his room. She’d packed her bag in under three minutes, a new record, and was about to grab Dean so they could get a move on before Mom woke up.
He was standing just outside the doorway, like he didn’t want to set foot inside, and when she walked up to him and asked what was wrong, he didn’t even answer. He just turned and headed for the kitchen.
Jo barely had time to process the problem when she heard her mother gasp and something metallic clatter to the floor in the distance. Pushing through her momentary stupor, she bolted to the kitchen and saw Dean with his forearm shoved against Ellen’s throat. He had her pinned to the wall, right next to the stove. Jo saw red. “DEAN!”
“Tell me where he is. Right now!” Dean demanded, his voice full of gravel and desperation.
Ellen’s mouth trembled and her eyes were shining, but not with fear…with sorrow. She looked Dean squarely in the eye and said, “No.”
Jo grabbed the scruff of his shirt and yanked backwards with all her might. She heard fabric rip. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
He spun, rage spilling off him in waves. “Dad’s gone. Again. And your mom knows something.”
“Yeah? And you think shoving her against the wall is the best way to get her to talk to you?” Jo got right back in his face, unafraid.
“He wouldn’t have just left without telling me. Not unless—” Dean’s chin quivered, words caught, and he fell silent.
“What? Unless what?”
Dean slammed his hand on the nearby countertop and shoved past her, back out into the Roadhouse proper.
Jo let him go. The shithead clearly needed to calm his ass down, or she’d do it for him. With a sawed-off. Jo turned to her mom and held out a hand. She wrapped her fingers around Ellen’s shoulder and pulled her close. Her mom was shaking. “You’re gonna tell me what happened, right?” Jo said quietly.
Ellen pulled away, just enough to see her daughter, and wiped the back of her hand across her nose. “No, I’m not. But what I will tell you is that nobody should have to watch their child die. Not ever.” She straightened and took a deep breath. “John’s doing what he has to, and don’t you dare try to stop him.”
It was freezing cold outside, but Dean welcomed it. He was so God-damned mad, his blood felt like lava. His breath steamed into the air as he barreled over to the Impala. Ash still needed another twenty minutes before they’d be ready to roll; Dean didn’t think he could wait that long. Peoria was nearly ten hours away and they had no idea where Sam was headed after that. Dean threw open the trunk with way more force than necessary and then felt bad, muttering, “Sorry, baby. I’m not mad at you.”
He combed through the contents, trying to figure out what he needed on him. The only weapon he knew Azazel was afraid of was the Colt…and a quick check in the Roadhouse’s safe confirmed John had taken it with him. Dean’s jaw clenched again when he thought of his father.
“You want me to come back later?” Ash’s voice said from the other side of the car.
Dean glared across the roof and saw Ash sitting on the hood. “Get your scrawny ass off of my car.”
Ash coughed and pushed himself forward slowly with one hand, carefully balancing what looked like a half-exploded laptop in the other.
"What the hell happened to that thing?" Dean asked, staring at the computer.
"I upgraded it." Ash preened. "Now I've got it running the spell algorithm on top of the tracking protocols I already had set up."
"Algorithm? I thought magic was, like, magic, you know? Not math."
"Well, yeah, man...” Ash turned the laptop carefully so Dean could see the display. The amulet's cord was hanging from the tiny latch hook at the top of the computer, and the bottom of the amulet itself was pointed near the center of the screen, which was displaying a map of the US. "It's a little of both, really. All magic does is, like, let you temporarily redefine the laws of physics, make it operate under a new set of parameters. Kind of like...nature's hack."
Dean blinked at Ash, mystified, then glanced over the screen. "So right now, Sam's in Indiana?”
Ash nodded. “Moved halfway across the state since we first tracked him. He’s heading west.”
“Works for me.” Dean folded his arms across his chest, finally feeling the cold. “Let’s meet him halfway.”
The door to the Roadhouse swung wide open and Jo came out carrying a duffel bag and wearing a frown. She walked straight to the passenger door of the Impala, opened it and sat down in Sam’s seat without saying a single word.
Dean tried to catch her eye but she had her bag on her lap, unzipped, and was sorting through her extensive collection of knives, guns and protective charms. Dean pondered asking her if he could toss her bag into the trunk where all the other weapons were, but decided against it since she struck him as being in a rather stabby mood. He also knew he deserved a small stabbing or two after losing his temper on Ellen, but hoped he could delay that until after they found Sam and Dad.
Ash raised his eyebrows and commandeered the backseat without saying a word. He sat propped against the driver-side door with his legs across the seat, laptop balanced on his knees.
Dean slid behind the steering wheel, looked sidelong at Jo who was still staring into her duffel bag, started the engine and pulled out onto the road.
"Tell me again why you think you get a say in this?" Sam asked, glaring at Brady. He'd tried to be patient, but the demon made it difficult sometimes.
"I don't care how far away he is. I want you to go get him for me." Sam took a few steps towards Brady, the worn floorboards of the abandoned house creaking under his feet in protest.
"If I travel that far, that fast, without my meatsuit, Azazel is going to notice. We're going to draw attention to you. I'm trying to keep you—"
"You have ten seconds left to cooperate. Otherwise, I'll play puppet-master again."
Brady snorted, shook his head and opened his mouth wide. The demon inside collected itself then poured out of the body—a thick, black cloud sparking with power and hate.
Sam rolled his shoulders and rocked his head left to right, working out the crick in his neck. This was it. Brady was about to bring him the last of Azazel's chosen: Jake Talley, currently stationed in Afghanistan. After this, Sam had to be ready to take on Azazel. He'd been getting stronger every hour of every day, the near constant influx of the blood from the last of the psychics keeping his power changing and growing.
He could sense demons now, feel them flitting across the Earth. There were only a few dozen, but Sam still couldn't sense Azazel among them. If Azazel could still hide from him, then Sam wasn't strong enough yet. He cracked the knuckles in his right hand, letting a small shower of sparks fly when he spread his fingers wide. If this last psychic didn't do the trick, then he'd have to consider other options.
Sam stared at Brady's empty body wondering how long it could stay unoccupied before rigor mortis would set in, or if that would even happen in a body that had been possessed by a demon for so long.
As if on cue, there was a faint smell of sulfur and Sam felt Brady reappear behind him.
"See?" Brady said in another man’s voice. "I know how to play nice."
Sam smirked and spun around, touching the chalice to Jake Talley’s chest in one swift motion.
Jake's eyes went wide, and the demon inside struggled to break free, as the cup filled rapidly, right to the brim.
Sam gulped the blood hungrily and his body bloomed with strength: superhuman, otherworldly might. Jake's gift pumped through his veins, through his muscles, and Sam felt like his body was finally, finally catching up to his mind. There was so much more blood though, and the taste changed from the usual, metallic sting of the chosen, to something entirely different. And wonderful.
Jake sank to the floor as the demon inside jerked and thrashed, and red streamed out of his skin, raining up the stem of the chalice, filling it just as quickly as Sam could drink.
Sam fell to his knees as a wholly new kind of energy inundated his mind. Everything he'd learned, everything he could do was nothing compared to this. His power fed on the energy from the blood until Sam felt like a star about to go supernova. As the last few drops from the chalice ran down his throat he distantly heard Brady gasp, with Brady's voice.
Making itself at home again in its familiar body, the demon sat up and looked at Sam. "Well? How do you feel?"
The blood pounded through Sam's veins, amplifying everything. "Like a god," he said, his voice making the walls quiver.
Brady's smile was forced and his eyes were locked on Sam. He was waiting for something.
Sam stood up, supporting himself on the wall. His fingers tingled oddly, and when he looked at them he could see them pulsing with energy…not just pale yellow anymore, but streaked with black and white. He pulled his hand away from the wall and closed his fingers, making a fist. The force retracted and flowed back into his arm, up through his veins and into his heart. "I don't think you can lie to me anymore." Sam said quietly as he walked to Brady. He pushed into the demon's mind and started looking around. Almost immediately, he felt resistance. Most of Brady's thoughts were as easy to sift through—and just as insignificant—as fine sand, but right in the middle was a lockbox made of titanium and covered in a sickly shade of yellow. "He's protecting you," Sam realized, and his voice sounded just as confused as he felt.
The demon's body didn't move a muscle. His face was frozen, but underneath the skin, the demon was screaming.
Sam heard every word.
'Help me. Azazel, get me out of here. NOW!' Brady screamed. 'Don't let him see.'
The air behind Brady wobbled for a split second and then tore open, a hairline fracture running from the ceiling to the floor. Then a hand reached through and grabbed the demon's shoulder.
"No," Sam said and took a hold of Brady's arm.
Brady screamed within and without, the demon inside thrashing wildly.
Sam pulled back hard until the hand trying to tug Brady through time and space withdrew.
There was a muted thump as Brady collapsed, like a marionette with its strings cut. The demon was asleep.
Sam was pretty sure demons never slept. He'd never seen Brady so much as take a catnap.
The tear in reality widened, to the sound of a low, amused laugh. The hand reappeared, followed by the rest of the body it belonged to. "Howdy, son," said John, grinning at Sam, amber eyes shining.
"Dad…" Sam said in shock. The demon inside of his father looked like nothing he'd seen before. It wasn't pure, oily black like the others; it was blinding yellow, shot through with white and black tendrils. It radiated malice and power, and it was smiling at him.
"Sammy. It's good to see you."
"What did you do to my father? Where's Dean?" Sam's heart pounded in panic, "What did you do to Dean?" How long had it been since he'd checked on his brother? Three days ago...maybe four...
"Your brother's fine," said the demon. "I haven't hurt a single hair on his head. Well. Not today, anyway. And your daddy—he agreed to this. In fact, this was all his idea."
Sam could barely see his father's soul. It looked like it was suffocating under the weight of the demon's presence. John was alive, but unconscious. "Let him go."
Azazel laughed, and cocked an eyebrow. "Make me."
The power inside of Sam was eager to answer the challenge and rushed down Sam's arms. He raised his hands out towards Azazel and let the energy loose, intent on pushing the demon out of his father's body. Wave after wave poured out through him, charging the entire room. Sam smiled as he felt his power crash into Azazel's. The demon was strong, but so was he. So was he. He pushed harder and harder, imagining what he was going to do once he could get his hands around the demon's real throat. The air crackled with energy and smelled like a storm. Sam could hardly see. It took all of his concentration to keep the barrage going, but he thought he'd felt Azazel move back...just an inch. He pushed one more time, with every bit of himself, but had to let his arms drop back down, exhausted.
His father's voice chuckled. "Is that all you got?"
Sam, dizzy with the exertion, glared at Azazel.
The demon shook his head and smirked. "Good try. You're just not ready for the major leagues yet, Sam."
"Get out of my father. Now."
Azazel held up his hands and laughed. "Or what? What are you gonna do, exactly? Wow me with another light-show?"
Sam's mouth twisted in anger; he couldn't think of a thing to say. He'd tried. He'd used all the power at his disposal and he hadn't left a mark. He'd failed.
"Anyway, since when do you care? You and your Pops weren't exactly on the best of terms, from what he tells me."
"He's my father."
Azazel nodded. "Family loyalty. I can respect that." The demon walked past Sam and moved to the boarded up window in the back of the house. He grabbed hold of one of the planks of wood, pulled it off and tossed it onto the floor, then repeated the process with the other two planks. He took a deep breath and looked outside at the pink-tinged dusk sky. "Nice night, ain't it?"
"What do you want?" Sam exhaled sourly. "Just take Brady and go. That's why you're here, isn't it?"
The demon spun on Sam, grinning. "Oh, no; he's all yours."
"But...you were protecting him. There are things in his head I can't see because you won't let me."
"I bet that pisses you off," Azazel said. "He blew his cover, which makes him useless to me. Go ahead and take a good, long look, but before you do, let me make you an offer."
Sam stared at him in disbelief. "An offer? You killed Jessica. You killed my mother. You're possessing my father. What the hell makes you think—?"
"Sam," said the demon, yellow eyes lighting up with glee. "I don't want you to be discouraged." He leaned forward and squeezed Sam's biceps. "You're strong. Real strong, and honestly, you've always been my favorite." He let go of Sam's arms and gestured at the open window. "All those other kids, they would've burned out eventually. You deserve every drop you took from them. All three dozen of them."
Had there really been that many?
"All I want is for you to take your place by my side."
Sam watched Azazel leer and felt the rage inside of him start to burn. Flames licked at his fingertips. "I hate you. I'm going to rip you apart."
"Sure you are, champ," the demon said. He looked down at the fire surrounding Sam's fingertips. "Put your little sparklers away; that's just embarrassing."
The flames disappeared but Sam was far too furious to know if he'd willed them away, or Azazel had.
"You're not strong enough to take me down. You know that. Now, you've got two choices." He pointed at Brady's slumped form. "You can keep drinking the blood of bottom-feeders. Packs a hell of a punch for you. Drink enough of them and you'll pound me into dust." He nodded his chin towards the dimming sky outside. "I'm their king, but if you keep beating your chest like the mountain gorilla you are, I'm sure some of them will switch sides."
There were dozens of demons on Earth, and Sam knew where each and every one of them was. He could find them all and drink them all down. He could control them too, for a short while—one at a time, maybe more. It had gotten easier and easier with Brady.
Azazel shrugged. "But the effects are temporary and coming down is gonna hurt like a bitch. It might even kill you."
"I don't care."
The demon scoffed, "It doesn't have to be that way, Sam. My blood is forever." He grinned wide. "Think of how strong you got from the few measly drops you took from those kids."
Sam swallowed as he watched Azazel push his father's thumbnail deep into his wrist.
"Now, just imagine what you'd be like if you had a few pints, right from the source." The demon pulled his thumb away and held his bleeding wrist out in front of Sam. "You'll be stronger than my whole army put together. You and I, we can bend the whole world to our will."
"No. I don't—"
"Not just Earth. Everything. With you by my side, we can bring down Heaven, and when we do, Sam…you can have your pretty little Jessica back."
Sam had his hand around his father's throat so fast he didn't even remember moving. "You killed her. You're the one who took her from me. You don't get to use her as a bargaining chip. You don't even get to say her name."
Azazel laughed, pried Sam's fingers loose and pulled Sam's hand away from his throat easily. He pushed Sam's arm back down and shook his head. "I can't take all the credit for that one."
Sam's face fell as he tried to understand what the demon was saying, and realized it could only mean one thing.
"I did kill your mommy though. That was all me." He smiled. "And you want to know why?"
"I killed her so that you and I would end up right here, right now."
"Why?" Sam felt something wet trickling down his cheeks. He'd thought he'd forgotten how to cry. "Why didn't you just take me from my crib then? Dean could have had a normal life. He would have had Mom and Dad; he would have been fine."
"Dean. It always comes back to Dean for you, doesn't it?" Azazel snorted. "He's lucky to have a brother like you. Always so worried about his safety. Always looking out for him. Bet you were as happy as I was when you found out he got himself his own pretty little blonde thing. Weren't you?" He waggled his eyebrows at Sam.
The last time Sam had looked in on Dean's dreams, his brother had been alone. How long ago had it been? Why couldn't he remember?
"Did you forget to check up on your bro? Were you too busy?" Azazel clucked his tongue. "Well, I'm sure he's fine. Next time you see him, tell him Dad says 'hi'." The demon turned his back on Sam, facing the window.
"If you hurt him, I swear I'll—"
"Oh don't worry. I don't need anything else from him." The demon looked back over his shoulder at Sam and winked. "I just need you," he said, and then he was gone.
“Dean,” Jo said. She looked over at him, hands white-knuckling the steering wheel like he’d get there faster if he just held on tight enough.
Dean didn’t even hear her.
“Dean!” she said again, louder.
“What?” he snapped.
Behind them Ash mumbled something in his sleep and yawned, loudly.
“You’re going ninety-five. Cops like to pull people over on this stretch. Take it down a notch.”
The car slowed down to ninety-two and Dean’s mouth tightened grimly. “Hey Ash. Mind checking our heading, or you too busy dreaming about touring with Skynyrd?”
Jo turned around and watched Ash rouse, sit up and pull the franken-laptop onto his lap. He blinked a few times. “Uh…yeah. Right on track. He's about nine hours away." Ash tilted his head to the side. "Near Champaign, IL."
“Illinois? Shit, how'd he move that fast?” Dean muttered, pushing his foot down on the pedal harder.
"Hey, at least he's heading towards us," Ash said and stretched mightily.
Jo was quiet, but she couldn't help wondering if Sam heading for them was a good thing.
Brady woke up a few minutes after Azazel left.
Sam watched, sitting backwards on the one wooden chair the abandoned house held. He folded his left arm over the edge of the chair-back and leaned his chin there. His right arm was hanging straight down, and he toyed with the empty chalice in his hand.
The demon's eyes went from confusion to panic as soon as he saw Sam. He sat up and scrambled to his feet.
"You're not going anywhere," Sam said.
Brady slammed backwards against the wall and started to levitate up it, slowly. "Sam, just let me explain, please. I deserve that much, don't I? "
Sam canted his head and narrowed his eyes.
Screams echoed through the house as Brady lit up on the inside. Blood started to trickle from his nose and his eyes.
Sam snuffed out the flames, watching the drops of blood hit the floor and roll right into the chalice.
"I know what he must have told you, but I'm not on his side anymore. I'm on yours," the demon pleaded.
Sam brought the cup to his lips.
Brady's skin split open in a dozen different places at once. Red ran down the sides of his face, soaked through his shirt and pearled off of the fabric again as it was pulled into the chalice.
"You're going to win. You are so much stronger than Azazel thought you'd be. You don't trust me anymore— fine, but think about it— it would be stupid of me not to back the winner. When everything's said and done, you're gonna be the one left standing. You know it, and I know it."
Sam drank deeply until the blood stopped flowing, and let the chalice fall to the floor. He looked at Brady again and gestured with his finger.
The screaming demon, burning again, slid further up the wall.
"Is this what you did to her?" Sam asked. "Speak."
Gasping as the pain cut off abruptly, Brady begged, "Sam—"
"Answer the question. Tell me what you did to her. Show me."
The demon let out an anguished grunt of pain as Sam tore his mind wide open.
Jess opened the door, smiling, as beautiful as Sam remembered, and invited Brady in. Brady followed Jess into the kitchen, and she handed him one of the cookies she'd just taken out of the oven. He ate it, smiling, and then grabbed her arm and dragged her into the bedroom.
Jess screamed and fought to pull free of Brady's grasp, but he was strong and she was just a human. He kissed her roughly, and pulled back to say, "I get what Sam sees in you. Really, I do." Then his eyes flipped black and he shoved Jess away from him. She was thrown across the room, against the wall, and started to slide slowly up to the ceiling. Jess screamed and started to cry in terror as Brady stood below her, grinning. "Don't worry. Sam will be here soon. I'll give you two a chance to say good-bye."
Sam saw himself come into the bedroom and flop onto the bed. He opened his eyes, saw Jess bleed and burn, and started shouting.
Brady looked at Sam defiantly and choked out, "I still remember how she tasted."
The ceiling caught fire. Sam's rage took hold of the demon he'd known as Brady and tore him apart until there was nothing left.
Dean drummed his fingers against the steering wheel nervously. He wanted to go faster. Sam was less than eight hours away according to Ash’s map and that meant in eight hours, Dean would finally see his brother again and he’d finally get to ask him what the fuck he thought he was doing.
Or he’d finally get to smack some sense into the kid and make him snap out of it. Maybe it wasn’t his fault at all. Maybe it was all Brady’s fault. Dean looked forward to wringing Brady’s neck. It was an eminently wringable neck.
Or maybe, it wasn’t Brady’s fault. Maybe Sam had done whatever he’d done all on his own, for some damn good reason that he’d give to Dean in excruciating detail. Dean would listen and nod and tell Sam it was going to be okay, and then he’d punch him for ever letting it get this bad.
Maybe Dad was with Sam. Maybe Dad had already found him. Maybe he’d get to wherever Sam was and find them at each other’s throats like the good old days, when all they had to argue over was how bow-hunting was more important than soccer.
Maybe he was too late. Maybe he’d get to Sam and it wouldn’t matter. He pinched his eyes shut just for a second and forced them back open, glaring at the lines on the highway like they held the answer.
He jerked when Jo put her hand on his leg and squeezed gently. She smiled at him, and it mirrored the sadness he felt.
Sam looked in on Dean right after wiping Brady from existence. With so much ‘go juice’ in his system, Sam didn't even need a dream to enter anymore; he just closed his eyes, thought of Dean and saw him.
His brother was in the Impala with a young blonde woman riding shotgun and a skinny guy wearing flannel over an Iron Maiden t-shirt asleep in the back seat. Dean's eyes flicked back and forth across the windshield, almost as if he could see Sam's spirit crouching on the hood of the car, staring in at them.
Dean's soul was furious and terrified, filled with love and rage in equal measure. It was Dean as he always was, only amplified, but there was something new. Dean's entire soul was covered in demonic script, a hodge-podge of Latin, broken Enochian, Sumerian and sigils of every magical language known and unknown to man.
On Dean's forehead was a timer, counting down his remaining days with one faint shift in character at a time, one second at a time: four years, 359 days, eight hours, forty-seven minutes and thirty-one seconds. Thirty seconds. Twenty-nine...
Sam's rage flared out but he tamped it back down quickly when the car stereo started to spark. The last thing Dean needed was for his favorite Led Zeppelin tape to catch fire.
"Dammit!" Dean yelled when he saw the stereo sparking. "It's not even on!"
"Umm..."Ash sat up, and tapped Dean on the shoulder. “You're gonna want to pull over."
"What? Why?" Dean asked, irritated. He could swap out the tape deck if he had to, but when was he going to get the chance?
"'Cause I think your bro's here," Ash said quietly.
"Here? What do you mean ‘here’?"
Jo turned in her seat and squinted over at Ash.
The Impala swerved to the right as Dean cut across two lanes and pulled onto the narrow shoulder.
Ash spun the computer around so Jo and Dean could see the amulet, and where it was pointing.
"Zoom in on that," Jo said.
Ash pressed a few buttons and enlarged the map until they could see all the nearby streets by name. "This is us,” Ash said, lifting the amulet with his fingers and pointing at a small black rectangle on the map. "And this—" he let go of the amulet and it swung for a moment, then tilted to its side and floated up until it was pointed at the rectangle, "—is him."
Sam read the rest of the script trailing down Dean's shoulders and arms. The lettering covered all of him, and it was beautiful and infuriating in equal parts. It was a contract, a crossroads deal. Sam might not have officially started law school, but he knew legalese when he saw it. There was clause after clause, citing the specifics of what Dean had asked for and what he'd agreed to in exchange: their father back, freed from Azazel's possession, in exchange for Dean's own soul.
It wasn't that simple though.
Dean had been careful, or at least he'd tried to be. He’d asked for—and received—his father back as agreed upon on New Year's Day. In exchange, Dean's soul would go to Hell in five years. Their father was to remain physically unharmed. If John died from unnatural causes, the contract itself was null and void.
Sam forced himself to keep reading, careful not to react too strongly. Dean had been sloppy. He hadn't known it, of course, but he'd left the crossroads demon with far too many loopholes…and they were all spelled out underneath his skin. Recipient did not specify that his father was to remain unpossessed, only unharmed. Recipient did not specify that his father remain with him after being returned. Recipient did not specify that he himself had to remain physically unharmed. Recipient did not state any additional demands. Recipient did not forbid a transfer of contract. Recipient did not forbid a contract override from a different party. Recipient understands terms are non-negotiable and that any further requests or attempts at renegotiation will shorten his time-package.
Sam withdrew from Dean's mind, unable to keep his fury at bay any longer. He opened his eyes again and looked at the blackened interior of the house. The empty, burnt husk that used to be Brady was still stuck to the ceiling. He stood up, walked over to the open window and let out a low whistle.
"Sammy?" Dean said, feeling only a little ridiculous. "You here?"
The amulet quivered and then shot up off of the laptop display, hovering straight above the hook its cord was attached to. Right across from Ash's nose.
"Zoom out, zoom out!" Jo said, knocking her hand against Ash's.
Ash nodded and hit a few keys on the keyboard until they could see all of Nebraska, then the neighboring states: Iowa, Kansas, Missouri. He blinked, grimaced, then said, “Uh…yeah. You’re gonna want to take the next exit.”
“Why?” Dean had a bad feeling about this.
“We need to turn around, and go to…Wyoming.”
“Thought you said he was here!"
“He was,” Ash said. "At least I think he was. Now he’s in Wyoming.”
"Then why'd you say he was here?" Dean roared, despite the little voice in his head telling him Ash wasn’t full of shit. He hadn't seen Sam, but he'd felt...something. He could've sworn he'd heard Sam's voice saying, ‘Dammit, Dean.’
"Could've been a glitch, I guess," Ash shrugged. "But...my stuff don't glitch."
"Whatever. Wyoming." Dean gunned the engine and peel back out onto the highway.
Azazel was still wearing Dad's skin. He grinned when he saw Sam approaching and yelled, "That's my boy!", stretching his arms out wide like he wanted a hug.
Sam kept walking until he was standing directly across from the demon. Azazel stood in front of a marble crypt, its doors heavy and ornate, and behind it...Sam thought he could feel Hell.
Azazel's eyes flashed brighter as he looked Sam up and down. "Well, somebody's been eating his Wheaties." John's soul stirred, his eyes flickering open weakly for just a moment, just long enough to see Sam. "You ready to play ball, Sammy?"
Sam nodded. Azazel's soul wasn't as overwhelming as it had seemed the last time. He looked dimmer somehow, which made it easier to see his father's soul, and the words burned into it, his own pact with Azazel.
"I don't see you drawing a line in the sand," Azazel said, narrowing his eyes. "You just waitin' for that one perfect moment? Trying to catch me off guard?"
"No," Sam said. "I want to know what you need me to do."
"Is that a fact?" asked the demon, his father's eyes opened again, his expression twisting in horror.
Azazel's glee spread across his face. "What made you change your mind?"
"I want her back," Sam said, and his heart felt heavy with the truth of it.
The demon nodded. "You know, people—your people—like to say: 'Pride goeth before the fall.' What they don't get is that Lucifer fell for love, not pride." He looked at Sam oddly and bowed his head ever so slightly. "Okay then. Glad to have you on board."
Sam took a deep breath, reminding himself that this was the only option left. He had to be strong enough, just long enough to set things right, just long enough to end it. "What do you need me to do?"
"I want my army. This little peashooter here—" Azazel said, pulling the Colt out of John's holster, "— is a key." He took a step to his right and gestured at the crypt. "Hell can't set Hell free, but you've still got a foot in both worlds. I need you to open the door." He held the gun out to Sam.
Sam wrapped his hand around the Colt, felt its weight. "You took the bullets out?"
The demon let go of the gun and laughed loudly. "I've been called many things, most of them true, but I've never been called a fool."
Flipping the cylinder open, Sam checked that the Colt's chambers were, indeed, empty. He flipped it shut again and tucked the gun into his waistband. "Thank you for this," he said. "I have a few more requests I'll need addressed before I open your door."
Azazel twisted John's mouth into all-too-familiar scorn, while Dad himself smiled in relief. "Here it comes..." the demon muttered under his breath. "And what might those be?"
"My brother's deal. Let him out of it, right now."
"I do that, and Daddy drops dead."
The demon's voice hitched. "And...you don't care about that?"
"I know you won't free both. You've got their contracts lined up perfectly. I can't save both, so...I choose Dean."
Azazel tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Nope. Sorry, not gonna happen."
"Why not?" Sam asked through gritted teeth.
"Because if I free Dean, then I have no leverage left, do I?" The demon took a deep breath and smiled. "Tell you what, you free my army and I'll transfer ownership of the contract to you. Then you can do whatever you want with it."
It. Sam's fist clenched and the ground beneath his feet began to tremble.
"Plus, think about it, how's Dean gonna feel when he figures out you killed Daddy?"
"I'll handle Dean," Sam snarled.
"Anything else, Sam?" Azazel asked, grinning.
"Just one more thing." Sam took a step towards the demon. "I want what you promised me. I want more than a 'few measly drops.'"
"After you open the door," Azazel bristled, his eyes flashed angrily. "Do that and you can drink your fill."
Sam laughed bitterly. "What's to stop your army from killing me the moment they've been set free?"
"I'll stop them," said the demon, his expression flat.
"And I'm supposed to trust you now?" Sam asked incredulously. "After everything you've done to me? To my family?"
Azazel let out a low growl and snapped, "I did it for you, Sam, and if you only knew…if you really understood what that meant…"
"Enlighten me," Sam watched the demon closely. It looked almost nervous.
The demon smiled again. "You’ve nearly leveled the playing field already. You can take down hundreds of them, easy."
Sam raised an eyebrow. "And how many demons am I setting free? Thousands? Millions?" He shook his head. "I can hold my own, but for how long? You said it yourself: the power I get from them is temporary. Yours is forever."
John’s chest expanded as Azazel took a deep breath. “Fine,” he said. “You get one pint now, and a second after you open the gate. Is that acceptable to you?”
Sam nearly chortled at how perfectly Azazel mimicked his father’s oft-seen irritated expression. He nodded and said, “Yeah, that works.”
The demon ran his father’s nail along the inside of his wrist, drawing a thick line of red, and offered it out to Sam.
The blood pulsed with power—flickers of yellow, black and white energy running through it. Sam latched onto the wound and drank. Deep. Time stopped, and all he could feel and hear was his own heart, pounding loud, slow and strong. Azazel’s skin closed under his teeth and Sam pulled back, his tongue cleaning the last traces of it off his lips.
The night sky above flashed white, spider webs of lightning pulsing like veins behind the clouds.
“Open…the door…” said the demon, his patience wearing thin.
Sam looked at Azazel, his father’s brown eyes, filled with sorrow, looking back through the demon’s yellow, and dodged his head, once. He walked to the crypt, up to the two heavy metal doors, put the gun into the center of the ornate lock—a puzzle-pieced pentacle—and turned the key.
Weighty disks creaked as the lock turned and the pentacle aligned. A searing crimson light ran up between the two doors and exploded outwards as they swung wide open. The blast grew brighter and brighter until it was smothered by a massive cloud of black demonic smoke that poured out into the world.
Azazel’s grin spread, broad and mean, and he roared with laughter. It sounded like triumph and bloodshed.
The Impala came screeching to a halt and Dean winced inwardly, realizing he’d probably compromised the tires. He’d driven as fast as he could, cops be damned, but luckily nobody had been around to care on that last, lone stretch of highway bringing them to the old cowboy cemetery.
Dean climbed out of the car and looked back at Ash, who slammed the back door shut behind him and nodded, ready to go.
The air felt thick and heavy, like it did before a storm. The sky above them was cloudless, though…until all of a sudden, it wasn’t. An enormous black swarm spilled out onto the sky like ink, making the blue of night stand out in stark contrast.
“What the hell is that?” Dean asked in an unsteady voice. Even as he said it, he knew. It was Hell. Hell had been set free and it was bleeding into the world, ready to tear it apart one soul at a time.
“We’re too late,” Jo gasped. “Aren’t we?”
“Maybe. Doesn’t change anything.” He ran toward the demonic cloud, as fast as his legs would carry him, bounding across the cemetery until he saw where the smoke was coming from: a crypt, the doors. He slid to a halt two dozen feet from the seething mass and braced his hands on his thighs, leaning to catch his breath.
“Any ideas on how we, you know, stop that?” Ash asked, pulling up beside him.
Last to arrive, Jo caught up, panting. “Well, it’s a door, ain’t it? Let’s start by tryin' to close it.”
Ash shrugged, arched his brows to Dean, and they all took off again in accord. It seemed as good, or foolish, a plan as any.
They dodged headstones and uneven crags in the earth until Dean pulled up short, giving them all pause.
For a heartbeat, there was a break in the demon stream and he saw two figures standing in the center of it all. Two figures he’d recognize anywhere.
Dad and Sam.
Dean's mouth opened to yell something, anything. Instead he fell silent as he saw both of them turn to face him with identical yellow-eyed stares.
“Well, speak of the devil,” said the demon, looking to his right.
Sam followed his gaze and saw Dean, mouth agape and disbelieving, staring back at them. No, damn it! he swore inwardly. You aren’t supposed to be here. You aren’t supposed to see this. Sam scowled and focused on the air between them, willing it to congeal and become solid enough to keep Dean from getting too close. To keep him safe.
The hellish smoke flowed heavier around them, leaving Sam standing across from Azazel, his father, in the center of a twisted homage to the parting of the Red Sea. He watched the ocean of demons grow larger and wider and found he couldn’t keep count of how many souls made up the dark mass.
Azazel grinned at the storm surrounding them. “Thank you, Sam. Now let’s get this show on the road.” He waggled his eyebrows and turned away from the crypt, away from the Sam, heading right for the smoke.
Sam’s lip curled in disgust. He shouldn’t have expected Azazel to have any honor. He hadn’t. “What about Dean’s contract? What about the blood?”
The demon stopped walking and chuckled, but he didn’t turn around. “Patience, son. Patience.”
“No,” Sam said resolutely. “I’m not going anywhere until I get what you promised me.”
Azazel laughed even louder and walked into the demon swarm. “Do whatever you want, kiddo.”
“That’s the plan,” Sam murmured, watching the giant black cloud grow larger and larger as Azazel walked into its midst. The demons were all still hovering in the cemetery, waiting to be led. Waiting for their orders. Sam brought two fingers to his lips and whistled.
The snarls were barely audible over the constant thrum of Hell’s power. The howls, however, rang out crystal clear. Inky smoke parted and rose up around Sam as he walked, the demons moving as one, unifying into a single malevolent cloud. An audience.
On the ground, pinned to the wet earth by the large claws and teeth of two Hellhounds, was Azazel, yellow eyes shining with fury.
“Let me go, you stupid mutts!” he yelled. His right leg was twisted at an odd angle, and his left shoulder was being pushed firmly into the soil.
“They’re not here for you,” Sam said, looking down at him. “They’re here for my father.”
“His contract didn’t say anything about early retrieval!”
“Exactly. It didn’t forbid it either.” Sam leaned forwards and scratched one of the Hellhounds behind the ears. “I wasn’t sure if I could control these lil’ guys, but as it turns out…they’re demons too.”
Azazel's eyes blazed as he struggled against the hounds. His expression oozed frustration and he made not an inch of headway, fighting ineffectually for release.
Sam quirked a grin. "They're tenacious. But then, they're not the only ones holding you down."
"You're gonna tire out eventually, champ. Parts of you are still human. Well, for now anyway."
Sam gestured vaguely with one hand. “I’m not even touching you.”
The demon’s eyes shimmered, yellow and white undulating, as it tried to decipher Sam’s words. Sam felt it shift focus inwardly, and he sensed its growing panic. “No…that’s not possible. He’s just meat. Your father is nothing. He’s just a man.”
“I guess somebody forgot to tell him that.” Sam crouched down next to Azazel. “Dad and I have had our differences, but if there's one thing we agree on, it’s you. Not to mention...he’s my blood.”
Azazel recoiled, the demon trying to pull back and extract itself from John’s body.
Sam grabbed hold of his father’s right wrist, locked eyes with him and whispered, “Keeneelah vehmehdeh Keeneelah.”
John’s forearm tore open wide, blood bright and crackling with power spilling out onto his skin. Sam brought the wound to his mouth and latched on.
Dean snapped out of his stupor and started forward again—to Sam and Dad and the endless stream of evil pouring out of the Devil's Gate
He ran until he smacked into a wall, or what felt like one. It staggered him back, and he held his hand out until he felt something invisible, softer than stone but just as immobile.
"Sammy!" he yelled, pounding against the force. "Dad!" He looked around frantically, realizing he’d lost sight of Jo and Ash, grateful when he spotted them crouched together by an old dead tree. Their eyes were fixed on the crypt.
Dean was about to join them when he heard the howling. A shudder ran up his spine and spread over every inch of his body…like breath on his skin. He swallowed and looked towards the sound, which had traveled right up to where he’d last seen Sam and Dad.
As he stared at it, the demonic cloud lifted. It rose up, forming a giant, churning canopy above Sam, who was striding forward with his shoulders back, his head up and his eyes glowing like embers. Watching Sam move with such surety, Dean had to wonder if it was really him, or if the yellow-eyed demon had somehow figured out a way to possess two people at once. There wasn’t so much as a hint of the gawky, hyperaware brother Dean had spent his entire life protecting. Sam wasn’t making himself less threatening by hunching his shoulders in a slouch; he’d somehow achieved the exact opposite. He looked taller and broader. Sam moved like a predator.
He stopped next to a body on the ground. Next to Dad, who was still alive and still possessed, yellow eyes glowing furiously.
Dean pounded against the air, the dread in his gut growing as he watched Sam drop to his knees, and bite into Dad’s arm.
What. The. Fuck.
Azazel growled in anger as Sam drained the blood from his body. Quickly, so quickly.
A much weaker voice spoke quietly, “Son.”
His father’s voice. Sam looked into John’s brown eyes but never let go of Azazel’s wrist, never let go of the flow of power.
“You know how this ends, don’t you?” asked John.
His father’s eyes filled with tears. “End it.”
Sam closed his eyes and kept drinking. There was so much blood, Sam wondered if he could take it all in, but he could and he did and he was the sun, he was the world, and there wasn’t a God-damned thing in existence that he couldn’t do if he wanted to. And he wanted to.
“Sam,” Azazel pleaded. “You don’t want to do this. You need me on your side. You don’t honestly think they’ll pick you over their king, do you?” He struggled against the hounds’ hold. “Sam…let me go!”
His light was so dim now.
“Dean’s contract. It’s yours.”
Sam pulled back from John’s arm, wiped his hand across his mouth and licked off the last few stray drops. The Hellhounds whined and vanished. Sam smiled as he took a hold of Azazel himself the twisted soul, fallen angel, demon king, nothing but smoke and crushed him into smoldering dust.
Unable to withstand the backlash of Azazel’s destruction, his father’s soul flickered out and died.
“It is now,” Sam said. He looked over to where Dean stood, still trying to reach him, even now. After everything. He watched the contract fade out of Dean’s soul, one letter at a time, until there was nothing left but Dean.
Above him, the demons writhed, bloodlust barely held in check. They had watched him kill Azazel. The King is dead. Long live the King. The cloud started expanding—long tendrils reaching out into the air—ready to grab Dean and the others, heading for the outskirts of the cemetery and out into the rest of the world. They were ready to tear the world to shreds and were waiting for his word.
Sam looked up at the suffocated sky and said, “Where do you think you’re going?”
The blackness streamed down to the earth and back into the open crypt as all of the demons were drawn, screaming, back through Hell’s gaping maw. They fought back, trying to break free, desperate to stay.
Sam raised his hand out towards the few stragglers, the strongest ones, still clinging desperately to the sky, and pulled them down. He turned, forcing the demonic mass back through the gate. He moved slowly with the effort, each step harder than the next. When he finally reached the gate itself, he walked through, and closed the doors behind him.
As Dean watched Sam snare the thick, Hell-spawned pollution and pull it all inside with him, as the great doors clanked shut, the invisible barrier disappeared. There was a great exhale of the world’s breath, and the wall was no more.
Dean fell forward, stumbling. His desperation was immediate and without bounds, and he howled his brother’s name like an expletive, a curse. He couldn’t be at all certain what was happening, this formless tragedy wreathed in black and blood and suddenly, he felt his surroundings tilt sideways.
Jo and Ash stepped up, grabbed an arm on either side but he strained against them. It took all their collective strength to hold him, and it still wasn’t enough.
Dean tore free and ran blind. He slammed off gravestones and his boots caught on clods of root and weed in the ill-kept cemetery, rocketing like a cannonball against the sealed crypt.
Too little, too late.
“NO,” he barked into the airless crack between the doors. His knuckles split as he pounded until the pain got too deep. “No, God, no…” After that, he continued to wail with the flats of his hands, palms bruising on the ornamentation.
“Dean,” Jo said sternly, at his left ear. “It’s over.”
He turned to her and wanted to tell her all the thousands of reasons she was wrong, because Sam wasn’t gone and neither was Dad and everything he’d just seen was a fucking nightmare and it wasn’t real. It wasn’t.
It couldn’t be.
Jo rubbed a thumb across his cheekbone, tears spilling over the edge of her lashes, and he realized his face was wet, too. Tears, blood, sweat, he didn’t care.
“This isn’t real,” he managed. “It doesn’t make sense, it isn’t supposed to be this way, Jo. It isn’t.”
She looked at him, smiling so sad and sweet.
A bemused voice asked him, “Was this not what you wanted?”
It wasn’t Jo’s voice, or his own. Or anyone’s he recognized.
It was inside his head.
The night closed in fast. It swallowed him whole and dropped him to his knees. Scenes ripped through his skull—pieces of dreams stuttering in front of his wide-open eyes. They blotted out Jo, the dirty sky, the cemetery…everything.
Dean held Sam close. He pulled his arms tighter around him and felt the sticky warmth of blood on his palm. Sam’s blood, soaking his coat from the deep wound at the small of his back. Dean had stopped screaming. He couldn't talk anymore, he couldn't think anything beyond No. No no no no no no no. He felt a touch on his shoulder, Bobby trying to comfort him or pull him away, but he couldn't move. If he moved, then this was real, and it wasn't. It couldn't be. No. I should've saved you. I should've shot that asshole before he got anywhere near you. I should have found you days ago. It's my job to keep you safe. It's my job. I should have kept you safe, I should have kept you out of this life. I should never have taken you from Stanford. I wish I'd have just let you live your life. I wish...
All those weeks of feeling an uncanny familiarity, the vertigo of things off-kilter and not as they should be, compacted into this moment of stunned realization. It had all been actual memory. It had all happened. Twice.
And something in his head laughed, something ancient, capricious, and powerful beyond understanding. Something had seen fit to listen to Dean when he’d made that wish.
“Dean. Dean!” Jo cried, hands squeezing his arms tight and shaking him hard.
He blinked, caught his breath. Ash was staring at him with obvious concern, Jo with something like panic. But Dean felt more centered than he had in a good two months. It made sense and no sense, all at once. A handful of tepid stars dotted the night, and Dean knew something, someone, was watching.
The Colt lay on the ground at his feet and he stooped to pick it up. The gun was warm in his shredded hand, almost humming.
He pulled Jo close, pressed his lips to her temple. She was shivering.
“It’s okay,” he murmured, almost smiling. “This ain’t over yet.”