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In a Cursed Hour

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Los Angeles, California: January 14, 2006

 

 

For all that it’s massive and impossible and that there’s still zero sign of their dad, after a long and frustrating meander over six hundred miles of freeway, Sam has to give California this: it’s warm. Not that Dean seems to be appreciating it, of course.

“Where to next?” Dean says, nails rattling a quick beat on the metal table. He’s hunched forward over the journal, shoulders practically around his ears, still in his grey suit jacket despite the sunshine pouring over the patio. At least he left the peacoat in the car. “Arizona, right? Not that far of a drive.”

“Hey, could you relax?” Sam says, and rolls his eyes when Dean’s eyebrows form a predictable knot. He leans back, deliberately, as the waitress comes over to refill his iced tea, and looks up. Palm trees and barely a breeze, January like he’s never had it. A beat, a little respite. “Look, I want to find Dad too, man. Obviously, I do. But there’s something going on here, and we ought to check it out. Miranda seemed to think it was the real deal.”

Dean’s lips thin and he looks away, off to street where the LA traffic’s been streaming steadily by. Maybe not the prettiest outdoor dining in the world, but Sam’s taking advantage of all the good weather he can get. Good tacos and the opportunity to watch Dean try salsa that didn’t come from a jar of Pace is a bonus. “Shouldn’t be dealing with her,” he says, after a too-long pause. Sam sighs, and Dean sends him a sharp little glance. “I know you don’t care, Sam, but if she tells her dad who she’s been talking to, they’ll know I’m not at the bunker, and then—”

“She won’t,” Sam says, cutting him off, and when Dean’s jaw just clenches Sam sits up, says it more firmly, honest. “She won’t, man. I’m telling you, she’s not your typical legacy. She’s not going to go tattling to the Letters, trust me.”

Dean shrugs, clearly still on edge, but Sam’s had a long week too and he doesn’t have any more placating left in him. He watches Dean twine his empty straw wrapper around his finger, and then back the other way so it’s like a second white ring above the platinum one. “Why don’t you ask the waitress for more salsa,” he says, and doesn’t hide his smile. “I think there’s an habanero one you could try while we’re waiting.”

If they were about fifteen years younger Dean would probably be sticking his tongue out, by his expression. Instead he goes for the more dignified option of flicking ice water at Sam and then, when Sam squawks, stands up and announces that he’s going to the restroom, and Sam wipes his face and watches Dean navigate around the cheerful orange and teal tile tables, a slim grey-suited shadow that’s still really out of place.

He’s getting better, at least. After St. Louis they hit Boulder’s chapterhouse, and though there were no real hints of their dad they did pick up hints of a weird couple of deaths in Fort Collins, and that was a ghost it was easy to find and put down. By mutual agreement they swung wide around Boise and the potential awkwardness there, and with fake passports went all the way up to Vancouver’s chapterhouse so Sam could ostensibly check on the lore Dean had sent along to Granger, their second, and ask the same set of questions that have become familiar in his mouth, the mix of truth and lies coming out with practiced ease. Portland, then, and then San Francisco, and it was the same song, different verse: Warder Winchester—yes, he’s my father—yes, I was planning to meet up with him, but we seem to have missed each other, have you seen—have you heard—and coming back to Dean wherever he was waiting with nothing, and watching his eyes tighten.

Even with no word, they’ve found cases, things that are too small for the Letters—or, rather, things they don’t bother to see. A skinwalker, outside Eugene, that nearly tore out Dean’s calf muscle before Sam managed to wriggle free of his ropes and got it with a silver bullet; a werewolf in San Francisco that takes them almost two weeks to figure out, chafing at the delay but with even Dean unable to let go, after seeing the heartless corpse in the morgue. That one they took out together, Sam holding the thing down with a spelled silk rope they’d enchanted full of weakness, and the wolf snarled helpless while Dean put it out of its misery. Hard nights, and a few times Sam was sure in a breathless moment that Dean would die, or that he would—but they lived, and they kept living, and they just… worked, together. Like that first case, back in Portsmouth. It’s rough, frightening sometimes, but they click. Partners, just like Sam had daydreamed they’d be, years ago. So, maybe no sign of Dad still, and that’s a frustration, but—it could be a lot worse.

A lot worse, he thinks now. He’s pleasantly full of good food, and he could maybe go for a beer, except that they’re still working. Maybe Warder Miyamoto hadn’t had even an inkling of what their dad’s been up to—and really, Sam’s starting to think they should just abandon the west coast entirely—but he’d been good natured, and loaned Sam a history of demonic possessions (for Sam’s “prep for initiation,” the smiling acceptance of which still brought bile to the back of his throat), and introduced his daughter, a skinny unsmiling girl whose eyes found the mostly-hidden bandage on Sam’s wrist and snapped in with laser-focus, just like that.

She caught him alone, when the Warder had gone back up to his office, hidden in the too-large space inside the supposedly abandoned building by the Avila Adobe. A crowd of tourists swirling through the market, snapping pictures of the oldest house in Los Angeles, and Sam was heading back to the coffeeshop where he’d left Dean when a little hand gripped his forearm, and there was Miranda, blinking up at him. Not frowning, anymore.

Miranda picked the restaurant, a neutral spot in Pasadena, far enough from the chapterhouse downtown that there’s no chance anyone would see them meeting. Doesn’t mean Dean’s any less antsy about it, though. He sits back down at the table and he’s rigid as a two-by-four, his eyes flicking up any time someone comes out onto the patio. Sam sighs, sits up. “If you can’t relax, at least try not to freak her out.”

“Who’s relaxed?” Dean mutters, swirling his straw around his ice water.

A light breeze has picked up, and Sam moves his glass to stop a napkin fluttering off the table. Dean tracks the movement with his eyes, jumps when the door jingles open again. Ridiculous. Sam nudges his knee under the table and Dean flinches, but looks straight at him. “It’s going to be fine,” Sam says, firmly. “But she’s like eighteen years old, okay, you need to not be weird.”

He gets a scowl, but then it’s too late to say anything else—the next opening of the door actually is Miranda, in jeans and a girly t-shirt with a kitten on it like she’s in incognito mode as a normal teenager, her hair up in a high ponytail. Far from the private school girl uniform she was stuffed into, back at the chapterhouse. Sam waves and Dean sits up straighter, jaw clenching, while she arrows across the patio and drops right into the third seat they’ve left open for her. “Sam,” she says, like a sigh of relief, and he smiles, encouraging. “Sorry I’m late.”

“No big deal,” he says, and puts enough warmth in it that he hopes she believes it. “I know it can be hard to get away from the chapterhouse sometimes.”

She makes a little disgusted sound and he grins, but the waitress comes over then, asking if she wants anything to drink. Under the little polite exchange he kicks Dean’s ankle, and Dean’s cheek sucks in on the right side like he’s biting it, but he looks up from where he’s been just staring at the tabletop.

“So—” Miranda starts, and presses her lips together, cuts herself off. She shakes her head, straight black eyebrows drawing into a frown. “God. I don’t even know what to ask.”

Sam sits forward, tugs up the sleeve on his hoodie, shows her the bandage Dean rewrapped that morning. “You wanted to know how I got this,” Sam says, and her eyes go right to it, again. “Hey, it’s okay. Like you said, earlier—there’s a lot more world out there than the Letters are willing to admit to.”

She looks up at him and she doesn’t smile, but her face relaxes, like: yes. Just like on the street, hours ago. There was such an instant snap of recognition, while she stood blank-faced under the Warder’s effusive comments about how clever she was, how he was so excited for her to go through initiation when she graduated college. Someone else who hadn’t bought in to the cosseted, bland life.

“This is my brother, Dean,” Sam says, and she nods at Dean but doesn’t seem to have any kind of reaction to his name. Dean’s lips tighten, anyway. Paranoid. “He’s Letters-trained, too. We’ve been traveling around, and we’ve been hunting.”

She takes a deep breath and says, “Okay. Hunting what?” and then they’re off.

They talk for a long time. Sam tells her about the werewolf, and about the skinwalker. About the ghosts. Enough detail to show that it’s real, that they’ve used the training they got growing up inside the Letters to save people, to destroy the bad things and not just study them to death. She listens seriously, her mouth a flat line to match the straight line of her frown—soaking it in, absorbing everything. She asks questions, a few times: and the Warder didn’t assign a hunter? the chapterhouse didn’t assist?—and even if Sam sees a kindred spirit here, he doesn’t tell her that they’ve been lying to the warders through their teeth. Even so, it’s true. The warders didn’t help, because the warders didn’t care. There was always another vengeful spirit, and unless something unusual was keeping them from rest they didn’t merit special study.

“So,” Sam says, when she’s frowning into her lemonade. “Are you interested in hunting?”

Dean kicks him, this time, and it’s not a gentle nudge. Sam winces and smacks his leg in quick retribution, but Miranda doesn’t seem to notice, still staring into her cup. “I don’t know,” she says, after a pause. She flicks the few loose strands of hair that escaped her ponytail back behind her ears. “My dad doesn’t like hunting. Thinks hunters are—stupid.” She glances up, quick between them. “Um, sorry.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve heard it,” Sam says, with a smile he hopes is reassuring. “My dad—he said pretty much the same stuff, the whole time I was growing up. Funny, huh. They never really get that all that crap they say just makes the forbidden thing sound better.”

Miranda shrugs, but it’s agreement. Dean leans back in his chair, folding his arms over his chest. He still hasn’t really said a word, other than brief responses when Sam asks for clarification on a hunt detail, trying to draw him out into acting like a normal person. Well, if he wants to act like a weirdo mute, let him.

“I actually—” Miranda starts, and shakes her head. Takes a deep breath. “I, um, I was in the antechamber when one of the adepts came in and told my dad about this, this potential hunt.”

Sam sits forward. “Something around here?”

She nods, and sort of—squirms, in her seat, like she’s embarrassed. “I took notes,” she says, wrinkling her nose, and Sam could hug her.

Her notebook’s very private school, ruthlessly organized with color coding and sharp neat handwriting. Some of it’s in hiragana, though mostly it’s English, and she flicks past sections with tabs for AP Calculus, AP World History, AP Physics, and in AP French she flips a page and there, just under the pink highlighting on usage for the subjunctive, there’s a bulleted list. Deux morts dans le bois des anges, Sam reads, and he looks up at her to find her thumbnail between her teeth, but she’s looking steadily right back at him.

“Did you do the research?” he says, and she shrugs, nods. He grins, looking over at Dean, who’s in full blank mask mode. “Okay. Let’s figure out what we’re dealing with, then.”

*

There’s about a billion crappy motels in Los Angeles and the one they find isn’t the worst, but it’s not the best. Dean’s pretending to glare at the big brown water stain on the ceiling, but Sam’s known him his whole life, more or less, and he’s not fooled. “You’re pissed,” he says, dumping his backpack on his bed.

“I’m not anything,” Dean says, neutral, and Sam sighs.

“Okay, so tell me why you’re trying to set the ceiling on fire.” Dean frowns, drops his chin. Sam spreads his hands, sitting down. “You don’t want to take the job? You heard Miranda, her dad just ignored it. Three deaths and he’s leaving it to the Forest Service.”

“It sounds like a problem,” Dean says, and doesn’t sound like he’s being sarcastic. Handful of hunts done together and he understands, at least. Both the need to save people, and the rush from doing it. “We should definitely look into it.”

“Okay,” Sam says, trailing it out in that way he knows is annoying. Dean gives him a look, and goes over to the tiny table, shrugging out of his suit jacket. There’s sweat on the back of his neck, his white shirt a little transparent. “Seriously, what.”

Beat of quiet, while Dean settles his jacket with obsessive neatness on the back of the chair, plucking the sleeves so they fall smoothly. Always more anal when he’s agitated. “Miranda,” he says, finally. “You shouldn’t be encouraging her to hunt.”

Yeah. That’s about what Sam expected. At least Dean finally said it, without holding onto silent resentment for god knows how long. “She’s just going to come along with us,” he says, leaning back on his hands. “She’ll stay back, it won’t be bad. From what she told us it sounds like a ghost, anyway—we’re pretty much going to be hiking to find the bones, that’s it. Anyway—she’s eighteen, almost nineteen. That’s old enough to be out from under Daddy’s thumb.”

“Miyamoto’s cautious, not cruel,” Dean says. He’s rolling up his sleeves, not meeting Sam’s eyes. “I’ve talked to him a few times, he’s fine. You’re acting like he’s some awful authoritarian.”

Sam snorts. “How much do you think the rest of the Letters know about how Dad raised us?” he says, and then Dean really does look over, frowning, before his eyes drop to the carpet. “Not exactly sunshine and gumdrops, but I’m sure no one thought anything different.”

True, he doesn’t know what Miranda’s day to day is like, exactly. He does know about rigid expectations, a personality being crushed under the weight of them. And a big clue, that in the sterile, bland sunlit air of the Los Angeles chapterhouse, with Miyamoto smiling at him and laying a heavy paternal hand on the uniformed shoulder of his only child, she grasped at the one unperfect detail Sam had to offer and literally followed him into the street, needing to know: are you really a Man of Letters? Are you different? Are you free?

Dean doesn’t say anything, for a minute, and Sam sighs, again. “I just want to give her the option,” he says. “She reminds me of some of those Harvard kids I used to meet, the ones who have their whole lives set out in front of them. She should be able to make a real choice, don’t you think?”

Silence, before Dean says, “I guess,” and it’s flat, uncompromising. A way to end the conversation, not to agree.

Sam chews on the inside of his cheek and thinks about arguing more, but—what’s the point? No matter how many different ways and paths they see, no matter that they’re actually actively rebelling with every hour they spend outside the safety of the bunker, Dean just can’t admit that their dad might have been wrong. Like there’s some edict handed down from a distant god, and questioning it will lead to… who knows what. He shakes his head, stands up. “Whatever. I’m taking a shower. Miranda’s going to text me a place we can meet, tomorrow morning. Unless you want to rat her out to her dad, she’s coming.”

No response by the time the bathroom door closes behind him, and he turns the shower to a steady lukewarm sputter, lets the water soak into him. Maybe a day spent with someone else who’s gone through what they have will let Dean see the light; maybe not. Either way, it’s a hunt. Putting down the bad stuff is a better way to spend their day than any of the available alternatives. If they can’t track down Dad, at least Sam can do exactly what Dad never wanted him to do.

*

“This kind of weather’s not natural,” Dean says. “It’s January, people shouldn’t be wearing shorts.”

Sam snorts, smiling where Dean can’t see. They’re waiting in a strip-mall parking lot and Dean’s clutching a coffee from the nearby Peet’s in both hands. He’s sitting on the Impala’s hood, slumped, and he’s no happier than he was yesterday but Sam’s determined to ignore it. Thursday morning, most of the shops in the strip aren’t quite open yet, but the streets are busy. Sam hasn’t seen a street yet in this town that wasn’t.

For his own part, he’s at least not in shorts—jeans and boots and a hoodie, comfortable again after all the suit-wearing for lying to the Warders. After huge protests, Dean is actually wearing a pair of jeans that Sam got at a thrift place that ended up being a little too short in the leg. Quite the concession, although not as much of one as the low boots Sam had to almost wrestle him to buy. Casual wear isn’t something Dean’s probably ever going to be comfortable with, but Sam put the prospect of nearly ruining another suit in front of him and reminded him of the blisters after the trek around Lake Manitoc, and won. He’ll probably get blisters in the new boots, too, but at least he’s not going to be scrambling up the side of a mountain in Oxfords. Halfway’s better than nothing.

An older-model Mercedes pulls into the lot, dark tinting on the windows that Sam’s guessing is a little less than road legal. When Miranda steps out, she’s not in her school uniform, but her hiking outfit’s as unscuffed as Dean’s and looks like it came from Nordstrom. Sam bites down on a grin, stands up straight, nods at her. She nods back, serious as anything, and fetches a leather backpack from the trunk. “I’m supposed to be at orchestra practice until five,” she says, “and then I have a tutoring session from six to eight, so my dad doesn’t expect me home until nine or so.”

“Wow,” Sam says. “I wouldn’t think you’d need the tutoring.”

She blinks, frowns. “Oh. No, I’m the tutor. But I already cancelled on my students, so it’s fine. We’ll do a make-up session on Saturday.”

“That’s nice,” Dean says, from behind Sam, and Sam glances back to find him standing, coffee still clutched close. Maybe Miranda’s not totally on board with the Letters crap, but she’s got more in common with Dean than Dean probably realizes.

“So,” Miranda says. She looks back and forth between them, a little line etched between her eyebrows that Sam’s pretty sure is going to be permanent. “Are we ready to go?”

*

The research she’d already done and what Sam and Dean were able to supplement pointed to the deaths happening in and around the Strawberry Peak hiking area. In the Impala, Sam drives, Miranda taking the back and making no comment about the fact that the car’s a dinosaur. From the passenger seat, Dean reviews the points of interest they’d been able to find about the mountains: the usual hikers getting lost and then found too late, a guy mauled by a cat, a shooting four years ago. A police report, a dead body out in the bottom of a little canyon, the bones picked clean. As they drive up the narrow road toward the ranger station, they only pass one truck coming the other direction. Not a lot of hikers out on a weekday. Funny, Sam thinks. Such a little distance away from civilization and the wild’s just there, waiting.

The guy staffing the information center at the parking lot is a little bored, a little helpful. He gives Miranda a map and a quizzical smile, glancing over her head at Sam and Dean waiting behind her, but he also gives up directions to the trails they’re looking for. Dean shoulders the backpack Sam bought, squinting into the sun and then looking around at the shallow peaks around them. “Okay?” Sam says, and Dean glances at him, shrugs, and Sam sighs and leads the way, Miranda behind him and Dean, presumably, picking up the rear.

Doesn’t take long to get off asphalt, onto dirt. The trail’s fenced for a little while, meant to be an easy day-hiking loop according to the map, but it gets harder, rougher, the further out they go. “The newspaper said that the second man was found about halfway to the saddle,” Miranda says. A boulder makes a natural step down in the trail; Sam hops it easy, and turns to see if Miranda needs help, but she’s keeping up. Behind her, Dean’s scanning the slopes of the hills around them. Scrubby bushes and spiky yucca hug the sides of the trail, trees popping up only occasionally, and Miranda pauses by one, brushing her fingers over mostly-bare twigs. “Do you—” she starts, and stops just as abruptly.

It’s a bright, pretty day. A few clouds hang over where the city must be, but out here it’s so quiet Sam can hear the crunch of dirt as Miranda shifts her weight, the thump as Dean finally climbs down from that boulder. “Come on,” he says, tipping his head at the trail, and she walks beside him then, Dean following quietly behind. “What’s up?”

She shrugs. “Do you think we’ll really find something?” He pushes aside an overreaching bush, lets her take a step ahead on a narrow bit of trail. “My dad was so sure that this was nothing, that’s all.”

“It might be nothing,” Sam says, and she frowns over her shoulder at him. “Hey, just being honest. People die all the time and it doesn’t have to be a ghost, you know?” She rolls her eyes, keeps walking. First time she’s actually felt like a teenager. “But it’s always worth it to check. If someone else died out here, what are the odds it’d be natural? And how crappy would we feel, knowing we hadn’t tried to do something about it?”

“Interventionist ideology,” Miranda says. She untwists her ponytail, redoes it as she walks. “I wrote a paper on this for AP Government. Doesn’t always work out well.”

Behind them, Dean huffs. Sam ignores that. “Yeah, maybe not,” he says. “But it’s better than guilt.” She doesn’t respond, and Sam lets it go for another few minutes of quiet walking. There’s water running, somewhere out of sight, and there’s a great view of the canyon ahead. Some kind of bird chitters in the tree they pass, and a breeze picks up that smells like—he doesn’t know. Dirt, green things. Kansas was all farms, and even with his trip around the country he didn’t spend much time in the outdoors. It’s surprisingly nice. Maybe he’ll convince Dean they need to go camping, sometime.

They’re not moving that fast, but they’re not exactly stopping to enjoy the scenery either. In quiet, they hike up a mostly-smooth switchback path until they arrive at a narrow canyon, a gully with slim trees that crisscross the dirt with shadows. Sam’s panting a little, Dean too, but Miranda seems unaffected, her eyes sharp as she scans the sides of the path for—anything. That answer hadn’t satisfied much, when she was giving Sam the third degree. So you don’t know what we’ll find? she’d said, and Sam could only shrug. Research only gave them so much; it took going out into the field, getting your hands dirty, to really find out what was going on, most of the time. Dean hadn’t liked that answer much, either.

Two hours out and they’ve hiked further down into the canyons around the peak. According to the forest service’s trail guide there was a fire here, and the trees remaining are skeletal, black-and-white with no leaves. Miranda perches on a fallen log, sipping at water from her steel bottle, and Sam nudges Dean until he unshoulders his backpack. Water, and beef jerky, and a little away from their guest Dean says, out of nowhere, “Her dad’s a good guy.”

Sam sputters, halfway through a swallow, and coughs. “What?” he says, wiping his mouth.

Dean shrugs, jerky. He’s looking at the dead trees, at the tumbled ground, anywhere else. “I just—you said, yesterday. And I know you can’t know everything about everybody, but he’s not the bad guy. He wants something for his kid. That’s not villain material, Sam.”

He’s saying it matter-of-fact, but he’s obvious. Sam recaps the water bottle, glances at Miranda where she’s frowning down at her notebook. “Wanting something for your kid and forcing them into something, that’s two different things.” Dean’s jaw flexes and Sam tips his head back, not annoyed as much as actually, surprisingly, curious. “Do you not—get that? Like—really?”

“I’m not an idiot,” Dean says. The sharpness in his voice cuts guilt into Sam’s gut, but he moves on before Sam can say anything. “We’re putting her in danger and it’s not really for her. That’s all I’m saying. You want to make this about you and Dad, that’s your business, but leave her out of it.”

He shoulders his backpack and walks off, back toward Miranda on the trail, and she’s on her feet immediately, ready to go. Dean gestures for her to lead and she does, not hesitating, and there’s nothing for Sam to do but take up the rear, sour in the back of his throat. Not fair, how Dean can still do that. So many years since Sam was a little kid getting scolded; it shouldn’t feel the same.

Another half hour, another bumpy mile of trail, elevation changing fast. They switch up position and Sam takes the lead, after a while, Dean falling back. They’re getting close to where one of the men was found, dead a weak with his body drying out in the late-summer sun. The coroner said that his heart stopped—a sure sign that the coroner had absolutely no idea what actually killed him. The man after that wasn’t found for much longer, and animals had torn at him, rains had washed away any evidence. No real clues to work from, but they were healthy guys and they died on the same stretch of trail, alone. Sam’s fought the undead over less.

“Keep an eye out,” Sam says. “We’re getting close to where it happened, so be on the lookout for anything strange. Maybe bones, or a grave. Anything weird, okay?” Miranda nods. So serious. No wonder she’s such a good student. Sam starts with looking under the branches of the scraggly bushes, poking around in the dirt, and Miranda copies him, staying close. “So. What are you thinking?”

A frown, over the top of a bush. “About what?”

Sam shrugs, moving over to a cracked boulder, poking through its shadows. “About the Letters, I guess. Do you even want to go through initiation? You don’t have to, you know, even if you’re a legacy. I never did.”

“The work is important,” she says, but fast enough that it’s by rote. She goes down to her knees in the dirt, brushing at something, but it turns out to be only more broken-up stone and she licks her lips, frowning now at the ground. “The knowledge saves people. Hunters do, too, I suppose.”

“We try,” Sam says, and glances over his shoulder to find Dean a dozen yards back with a cloth laid out on a rock, squinting at some components Sam can’t see. Some spell to find an unquiet spirit, maybe. “The job has pretty much no benefits and it can be dangerous, I’m not going to lie about that. But the saving people part, that’s—it makes it easier to keep going. Makes the world less bleak.”

Maybe giving too much away, there. No reason to unload on a high school girl. She doesn’t seem to notice, but shakes her head and moves forward, searching diligently. Sam can only follow, and hope Dean keeps up. If it turns out to be nothing, that won’t do much for his argument.

They’re close to the peak, the ridge in front of them, when a cloud passes in front of the sun. Two o’clock, nearly, and Miranda’s map shows them right between the sites where the bodies were found. Sam wipes his forehead, looking around, and it’s total chance that he turns in time to see the way the landscape shifts, grey rock glinting, and he frowns. Optical illusion—until what he’s seeing resolves from grey rock into grey arms, grey thin chest, grey hollow face with eyes that open into blackness and Sam opens his mouth, shouts, but it’s leaping, its fingers scratch at him, it’s—here—

Sammy he hears, shouted somewhere, but there’s cold dry skin scraping over his face as awful and cringe-inducing as a snake and he stumbles backwards, falls, heaving, but the thing’s—on him, grappled and scrabbling, icy against his scalp, its breath coming thin and sharp and too fast in his ear, blocking everything else out. A monster—that’s all he can think. A monster, and it latches teeth into his—his cheek, what the fuck, sharp abrupt pain as it punctures—he kicks but he can’t see, a grey fog obscures his vision, his fingers nerveless, his heart thudding thick with panic all he can hear, and he thinks in some dim distant sense that he is going to die, now, that after everything—it’ll be now, and on some mountainside, and the girl watching, and Dean. An end. His lips move, pointlessly.

For a long moment he doesn’t understand what’s happened. He blinks, stares up. Blue resolves out of grey. His cheek is wet. Small hands, patting his face, and he picks up his arms like they’re a stranger’s, waves them, but Miranda’s saying, “Sam, Sam! Come on, stay awake, okay, he’s—he’s going to take care of it, stay here—” and he breathes like he’s just come out of an icy lake, his heart shuddering. He blinks furiously, shakes his head, and there’s—yes, that’s Miranda, her face white with shock but still with that line between her eyebrows, serious, all her attention right here.

He turns his head—Dean. He can’t see— “Where—?” he gets out, and Miranda says, “He’s—look, he’s fine—” and slides her little hand under his neck, lifts him enough. Dean, kneeling over the body of—of the thing, some monster he’s never heard of, some nightmare leaping out of a sunny day, ready and desperate to take everything. Sam’s cheek is wet but he can’t feel his legs, his hands distant, and he licks his lips and finds them dry, no moisture on his tongue, and he whispers, Dean, and then Dean’s there, moving Miranda out of the way, his hand on Sam’s throat, his eyes wide but steady.

Murmurs of Greek, a smear of something that burns on Sam’s face. Dean pricks his thumb and drags blood over Sam’s lower lip and life returns to Sam in fits and starts, his fingers curling into Dean’s shirt, his back arching. “That’s it,” Dean says, encouraging like Sam’s just managed his first incantation, and over his shoulder Miranda’s eyes are black hollows, her hand over her mouth, but when Sam starts to shudder and Dean hauls him up into a hug, squeezing hard enough that it hurts past all the blood shockily returning to his extremities, Miranda turns away, and Sam’s faculties come back to him enough that he can tell she’s crying. He holds onto Dean. Right now, sucking in air is all he can manage.

When he’s back to himself, Miranda’s wiped her face, and Dean’s dabbing at the bite in Sam’s cheek with a holy water-soaked cloth, and the monster’s dead. Dead, and Sam barely got a look at it. The whole thing took less than ten minutes. He sits with his back against a rock, staring at its body twisted on the path. Right there in the sunlight. Monsters are supposed to come out at night, is all he can think.

“I think I’ve read about these,” Dean says. Filling air. Miranda’s sitting with her knees folded up against her chest, her back fully turned against the corpse. “One of those legends that never fully gets pinned down. Too many folk stories, not enough detail. A snatcher. Doesn’t take anything, but people die. A day-walking jiangshi, maybe, but scholars can’t agree.”

“Dean,” Sam says, all he can muster in protest, but it’s enough to clack Dean’s mouth closed, and he focuses on Sam’s face. Life draining. That sounds about right. More esoteric and more direct than a vampire. Lost, somehow, in this random wilderness, and desperate for what life it could get. The body’s mostly humanoid. Thin and grey and skulking.  From here Sam can see the bullet holes: two in the head, two in the chest. He couldn’t hear the shots. It must have been so loud, echoing out here among the chaparral and stone. A little overboard, Dean.

When Dean’s finished fussing he squeezes Sam’s shoulder, hard, and then wipes his own face. Sam takes a deep breath and struggles upward, sits on the wind-smoothed top of the rock. The spell worked, but he feels like he could sleep for a year. Super convenient to be five miles from the car.

Miranda’s looking at nothing. Sam licks his lips, sips at the water Dean pressed into his hand, and while Dean’s repacking the backpack he says, “Hey,” and she doesn’t look up. “Miranda. Are you okay?”

That gets her attention. She stares at him, and then away, out at the view. Pretty, out here, but that’s not what’s on her mind. Dean touches his leg and shakes his head, and Sam could argue—Sam probably would have argued—but he’s tired, and anyway. They killed a monster. All that’s left is to clean it up. The job’s done. The day should feel saved.

*

The walk back is a lot longer and a lot quieter. Sam’s strength seems to be seeping back but the inclines hurt, and by the time they’re back to the parking lot, the creature burnt and the evidence hidden, the sun’s down and they’re moving by flashlight. Dean takes the wheel and Sam doesn’t argue, slumping into the passenger seat feeling like five miles was more like fifty. In the back, Miranda still isn’t talking, and once they’re out past the ranger station and moving down through the hills at a sedate, careful speed, Sam licks his lips and says, “So, first hunt.”

Dean looks at him across the seat. Miranda doesn’t respond.

He turns, muscles pulling painfully, and looks over the bench seat at her. Looking out the window, her mouth a flat line. “Okay, so it wasn’t—maybe not the best experience. Fast, though.” It’s frail humor. Her expression doesn’t change, and next to him Dean’s face has gone thunderous. Sam sighs. “I’m fine,” he says, for both their benefit. “This is why you hunt with a partner.”

That gets him a glance, at least, before Dean settles both hands more firmly at ten and two and glares out at road, picked out in their headlights.

Winding road, the mountains rising and falling around them in the gathered dark. Sam needs a gallon of water and a gallon of beer, and a shower, and to sleep. They’re going to get back on the road for their dad and they’re no closer.

When the city lights appear abruptly around a corner, Miranda says, from the backseat, “My mom wasn’t in the Letters.” Sam doesn’t turn around. Dean’s hands flex on the steering wheel. “She had a PhD in cultural anthropology, she was faculty at UCLA.”

They pass an In-and-Out, of all things. Sam turns his head, talks over his shoulder. “She died?”

“Aneurysm,” Miranda says, and then says nothing else for almost a mile of city driving. Streetlights and random neon, Mexican restaurants, tire stores. Boring normal-world stuff, the things Sam had ached for, in some ways. People on the streets, cars everywhere. Dean’s a better driver, with more practice in traffic, though he’s stiff and watchful, still not knowing his boundaries. Sam lets him handle it and watches the city, feels the road under the tires. He’s tired.

He doesn’t know why Miranda told them that. About her mom. For the first time in—too long, he finds himself thinking seriously about their mother. Dad was always destined for the Letters, Sam knows that, that’s family mythology. The long line of their forebears, back past the founding of the country, traced through the membership logs. Genealogy, father to son. Their mom wasn’t a member either, though. From a hunting family, and she gave it up to marry a young academic. How different her life could’ve been. He wonders, looking out the window, and maybe for the first time that he can remember, what she would’ve thought. Him out in the world, hunting. Would she have been proud?

They pull into the strip mall. Miranda’s car is still there, thank god. She gets out and so does Sam, and Dean curses under his breath and gets out, too, and takes Miranda’s backpack from Sam when he lifts it. It weighs like five pounds but, whatever. Dean can take it, if it gives him something to do.

“Sorry if this freaked you out,” Sam says. He leans against the hood of her car, watching her fiddle with her keys. “I promise it’s not always so—intense.”

“Right,” she says, and looks up, but she looks right at the mark on his cheek.

“I’m fine,” he says, again.

Miranda licks her lips, presses them into a flat bloodless line. Over her shoulder, Dean stows her bag in her backseat and gives Sam a warning look over her head—what?—but he’s already moving away, going back to the Impala.

“Thanks for following my research,” Miranda says, almost formal. Sam nods and she frowns, shakes her head. “It’s just—there’s the Letters, and there’s the hunters, and there’s no room for—” She huffs, frustrated somehow. “I don’t know. Today didn’t help. I just—everything’s always about this… horrible stuff. You almost died, Sam.” She says it almost accusing. Sam must make some kind of face, because she makes one right back and then closes her eyes, shakes her head again, swipes her bangs off her face. “Sorry. I just—I want to go home. My dad will be missing me.”

“Maybe for the best not to tell him about this one,” Sam says, grimacing, and she actually snorts.

“Yeah, thanks,” she says. She looks over at Dean, out of earshot, and keeps looking at him while she talks to Sam. “He wants me safe. I want to be safe, too, it’s just…” She shrugs one shoulder, glances at Sam, looks down at the ground.

Safe. Yeah, a lot of things get ground down under safe. Sam sighs. “Well, you have my number,” he says. “If you ever want to talk—”

“Yeah,” she interrupts, and gives a quick fake smile, and then gets into her car. The engine purrs to life, sedate, and she sits there for a moment before she looks up, flicks her fingers at Sam, reverses away—and is gone, folded into evening traffic, like she was never there in the first place.

Sam chews the inside of his cheek. God, he’s tired. How do these days just keep getting longer.

When he comes over to the Impala, Dean’s arms are folded over his chest, his face set in neutral. Faker. “So?” Dean says.

“So what,” Sam says, and gets into the passenger side, slumping down. A pause, before the other door opens, and Dean’s weight shifts the bench seat. Sam rubs his hands over his face, and he catches the bite, setting up a fresh flush of stinging hurt. Dean’s waiting, for something, but Sam doesn’t have anything to give. “I’m starving.”

Pause again, but the engine turns over. Roar of noise. Not a car that most of the Warders Sam’s met would pick. He wonders again, why their dad picked it, whenever he did.

Taco place again, one that Dean picks simply by turning in. Sam picks at his carne asada, his carnitas, while Dean inhales his al pastor platter. He does a better job on the beer.

The motel. Faint cigarette smell that Sam notices tonight when he didn’t before. Someone didn’t read the signs posted all over everything. Dean drops his jacket on the table, rubs over the back of his head, turns and looks at Sam and says, “Sam, don’t—don’t do that again.”

“Do what,” Sam says, and feels immediately like a petulant teenager. He falls onto his bed, shoves his sneakers off over the edge to drop down to the musty carpet, double-thump.

“That was dangerous, today.” Sam sighs, looks at the ceiling. Dean’s voice is pitched so—reasonable. “Not just the hunt, going in without enough preparation, though I don’t want to do that either, if we can avoid it. With Miranda. It put our position in jeopardy.”

“Here I thought you were worried about her safety,” Sam says, waspish even to his own ears.

Dean appears in his peripheral vision, standing in the gap between the two beds. “Don’t twist it,” he says, firm in a way Dean almost—never is, a sharp edge to him that Sam forgot he could even have. He blinks, lifts up on his elbows. “You know what I meant. We’re looking for Dad, because we need him for whatever’s coming. Whatever the demon—or whatever it is—whatever it’s up to, we need him on our side. Don’t pick fights with him when he’s not even here. It’s pointless, and you’re smarter than that.”

Sam sits up all the way. “It wasn’t about that. Miranda deserved—”

“A choice, right.” Dean raises his eyebrows. “Meaning your choice. To hunt. What if she wanted to go to college? Wanted to become a doctor, or—hell, a baker. You weren’t trying to offer her a choice, you were trying to take her away from her dad. They’re the only family each other has left. There’s something to be said for loyalty, even if you don’t—”

He cuts himself off, his cheek sucking in on one side. Sam stares at him, gut all turned over.

“Anyway,” Dean says, quieter. “We’ll head out in the morning. Arizona next.”

The bathroom door closes with barely a sound. Sam wraps his arms around his knees, looks at the ugly wallpaper, listens while the shower turns on. He imagines Miranda getting accepted somewhere—Stanford, Brown, Harvard. Holding the letter, and her dad perhaps thinking she’ll major in history, in philosophy, in anthropology, even. Her looking at him and knowing that there’s a decision coming down the pipe. A life lived—and would she be forced to cut off contact, if she made a different choice? Would she lose her family, all in one horrible night?

Loyalty. Right. When they find Dad, Sam’s going to have some things to say.