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"If you're looking for somewhere someone might disappear a bunch of young hotties to," Dean said through a mouthful of pie, pulling his fork out of his mouth and gesturing pointedly out through the diner's spotted window, "can't get much creepier than that." And having declared it creepy, he retracted his fork and reapplied himself to dessert with vigour.

Sam furrowed his brow, looked up from his newspaper, followed Dean's fork with his eyes and then immediately felt his face pinch up into an irritated grimace. The shop window -- if it was a shop, although the longer he looked the surer he was that it was actually some kind of gallery -- was full of lifelike, staring mannequins, all arranged around a decorative scroll that was written upon in... Sam wasn't quite sure. Chinese, maybe. East Asian languages weren't a strength of his -- give him Latin or Old French any day.

"Could you please take this seriously," he said, stiff and frustrated.

Dean put his fork down with a clatter and finally met Sam's gaze with an expression between exasperation and hostility. "Fine," he said, waving the hand he'd been using to eat. "You want serious? It's a normal, human serial killer. A regular whackjob. And while we're wasting time," he smacked Sam's newspaper where it lay on the sticky table between them, "playing cop, there's actual hunts out there that we're not doing."

Sam scowled harder. That was not 'seriously'. "Dean," he began.

Dean looked away from him, already annoyed at his patient tone. "Sam," he responded. "There's no bodies. There's no witnesses. There's no locked doors, no sulfur smells, no weird signs, no fires on the hills at night, no rumour of local haunted buildings, no strange historical tragedies -- no goddamn desecrated Indian burial grounds--"

Sam fought the knee-jerk reflex to interrupt. He breathed out.

"There's nothing here, Sammy. Hell, maybe all of them packed up and left." He gestured widely then, indicating the room, by which motion Sam inferred he meant to encompass the whole town. "Can't blame them."

"Fifteen people didn't 'pack up and leave'," Sam insisted, in a tone that he would -- privately, if not to Dean -- admit might be a little pissy. "Two of them left their stoves on, and no one took their keys."

It had been the small details that had drawn Sam to this case in the first place. For a situation where not one single body had cropped up -- not been dumped a town over, not washed up anywhere; there'd not even been an upswing in mysterious unidentified bodies in the morgues across the tri-state area -- it had seemed downright weird that not even the simplest measures had been taken to make the abductions look... less like abductions. How hard was it to turn someone's stove off? To grab their housekeys and wallet? For a killer who was evidently determined not to leave a trace of a body? Unless you weren't the kind of killer who thought like a regular human criminal, of course. Or maybe if you didn't have opposable thumbs.

Dean, of course, had a different view. "So he's doing something with them. He's got a big garage freezer or something. Hell, I don't know, Sammy! Who knows what a sicko like that's thinking?"

Sam did not bother to explain how simplistic and unlikely that was. Dean was convinced he was right, and in Sam's experience that meant he'd remain convinced regardless of what Sam said, until overwhelming evidence proved him wrong.

It didn't help that Sam wasn't completely certain that these missing people couldn't be the work of a garden variety human. He thought it deserves investigation, and his instincts were screaming at him -- but he knew better than to tell Dean that. They both knew where Sam's instincts came from.

"Fine," he said finally, folding his newspaper. "We poke around here for today, check things out a little -- if nothing comes up, we can get on the road tomorrow morning."

Dean could respond to compromise. Sometimes. Occasionally.

He did then, at any rate. He heaved a huge, put-upon sigh. "Fine. But don't get pissy when I say 'I told you so'," he warned, waving his mostly- empty coffee cup at Sam.

"Fine," Sam agreed. If there really was anything, a day should be long enough to make Dean feel equally suspicious. "Here." Sam shoved over a clipping from last week's news, printed from an internet page. "Latest missing person. Steven Redford."

Dean took it. "Track and field superstar," he murmured, raising his eyebrows at the photo in the article. "Either his coach is about four feet tall, or that guy's as big as you are."

"That's from last year. He was nineteen and six-five," Sam supplied. He'd been checking the reports of John Does at local hospitals and morgues. A corpse that tall wouldn't be hard to find -- and yet.

Other than his uncommon height, Redford followed the pattern: eighteen to twenty six, very fit, no medical problems to speak of. Everything else, from sex and occupation to ethnic background, didn't seem to signify much to the... monster. Killer. Whatever it was. They weren't even always locals. Some of the missing people had just been driving through on their way somewhere else and stopped for gas and a night's sleep.

"Okay," said Dean slowly. "Assuming it is some kind of creepy crawly -- and I'm not saying it is -- but if we assume it is --" Sam rolled his eyes "-- we're looking for something that isolates its victims, then drugs them or something, so there's no struggle. And it's strong enough to carry this guy. How much do you weigh, Sammy? No," he added, with a huff of laughter at Sam's facial expression, "serious question."

He was smiling, though, which Sam took to mean that, serious question or not, Dean would later give him shit just for caring enough to know.

It was a good question though. Stoves might have been left on, but not one of the reports Sam had accessed on the local sheriff's database had mentioned drag marks. Dean was a strong guy, and above average height himself, but Sam -- unfortunately -- knew that he hadn't been able to carry Sam easily since he'd been about fourteen. These days there were dragging feet and cursing involved.

"About two fifteen," he said slowly.

Dean gave a low whistle. "That's a lot of pounds to carry out to your car, even. You wanna watch the calories in that salad," he added, swiping his fingertip through the crumbs of his decimated peach pie.

Sam made a face, but chose to take the high road and ignore that comment.

"So Redford's probably about that much, at least," he waved vaguely at the picture, leaning back into the squeaky fake leather of his seat. "So it has to be something that can pick up, say, at least two fifteen without a problem."

"Unless it can make them walk, somehow," Sam said pensively.

Dean wrinkled his nose. "Illusions or something? You think something's one thing when it's another?"

Or just mind control, Sam thought, but didn't say. He just nodded. "Something like that."

It wasn't much to go on, but these details and MO did eliminate some of the things they'd seen. It couldn't be anything mindless and violent, or else there'd be bodies. Certainly no vengeance spirits or child-eating shtriga. It could have been a demon, in that it was technically all within the capacity of one, but it didn't feel right. Nothing that required a body of water. Vampires had the strength, but the missing bodies didn't line up with Sam's experience of vampire nests, and besides, they were practically extinct. Not a garden-variety ghost, either...

Peripherally Sam noticed the waitress putting a stack of pancakes in front of another customer and peering over at their cups. "More coffee, boys?"

"Yeah, thanks," Dean said.

Sam glanced over at her. She was a greying fifty-something with dark circles under her eyes, a slight paunch, and a tight, thin mouth. As far as becoming a victim went, she clearly had nothing to worry about.

"Okay, seriously, what is that place?" Dean asked, finally, jabbing his finger at the window again.

"What's what, love?" The waitress poured another cup of the diner's limitless filter coffee into Dean's mug, and followed what they were looking at out her window. Then she, too, wrinkled her nose. "Oh. That."

"Yeah," Dean drawled out. "That."

"Some kind of... display piece, or something. Don't look at me, boys. The owner moved here almost a year ago and they've been staring at me from across the sidewalk ever since."

Despite Dean's tongue in cheek suggestion that the creepy doll shop might have something to do with the missing people, that actually fit into Sam's timeline pretty much exactly. "Eleven months?" he prompted. "Have you met the owner?"

"Yeah, about that long... I s'pose... Yes, he comes in here for coffee some mornings. Weird name. Foreigner, you know? 'Say-Sorry', or something."

The waitress didn't sound thrilled about her new customer. Sam raised his eyebrows. Say Sorry? That sounded, uh, ominous.

"No accounting for taste, I guess," she said, with an affected shrug -- a gesture that got across her discomfort without actually looking as judgmental about it as she clearly was. Sam watched her thoughtfully.

"Say Sorry. Huh." Dean was making a similarly unimpressed expression, but he met Sam's eyes instead. Sam tilted his head, and Dean nodded a little. Yeah, that was weird. "What's a guy who keeps those things even like?" Dean wondered.

The waitress -- her name tag said Donna -- shrugged. "Quiet, mostly. Gets pissy if his coffee takes more than three minutes, mind. But quiet. Polite. Just don't ask him about the damn dolls," she added as an afterthought. "Not so quiet about those."

"Do you know how we can contact him?" Sam asked. A weird foreigner with a deeply improbable name who had mysteriously arrived at the same time as the disappearances started seemed like the sort of coincidence they should take a look at.

"Sure. He's in there, couple days a week -- rearranges that mess -- and he's got a workshop out, uh, past the old churchyard. It's where he makes those things, I guess?"

Sam turned his newspaper over and pulled a pen out of his bag. "Can you give us directions?"

Donna the waitress did, and Sam scribbled them down. The 'old churchyard' had sounded promising, initially, as far as supernatural leads were concerned. Abandoned churchyards were well within the Winchester wheelhouse. But it was evidently a well maintained local cemetery with a church attached -- the 'new churchyard' was just on the other side of the building, where the town still had room for more headstones on the property.

"...Why?" Donna asked, after Sam had written her directions onto the border of an article, "What, you wanna buy one?"

"See if he does commissions," Dean lied blithely. "Our sister'd love a doll that looked just like her."

The waitress tilted her head, and then made a face and shrugged again. "Like I said," she said, "there's no accounting for taste. You want another slice of pie?"

Dean eyed his plate contemplatively.

"We're fine, thanks," said Sam. "We'd better get going."

Dean shot him an annoyed look. "I'll get a slice to go," he said, contrarily. "Did I see you had a blueberry pie up there too?"

"Peach or blueberry, make them both myself," Donna said, which made Sam revise his initial assessment of her job. Waitress and cook, maybe. Hell, maybe she even owned the place.

He waited impatiently while Donna boxed up a slice of blueberry pie, drumming his fingers on the counter and shooting annoyed looks at Dean's back while he chatted and paid.

"What," Dean said, when they were finally leaving.

"I didn't say anything," said Sam, who knew damn well he'd communicated his impatience in other ways.

Dean gave him a long, steady look, but subsided back into companionable silence. The Impala stuck out like a sore thumb among the local pickups and light duty trucks with their big dark bullbars and dusty paint. Even as they approached, Sam saw a middle aged couple was looking at it -- a woman, gesturing at it emphatically, and her partner, listening fondly but with an expression of profound cluelessness.

"It's a beautiful car," she said, both embarrassed and defiant, when she realised Dean was unlocking it and not just walking past.

"Yep," he said, unoffended but subtly wary. "You've got good taste."

Dean drove, as he pretty much always did unless he was injured, drunk or had to sleep. In this case, Sam didn't mind so much -- he was the one with the directions. He squinted at his writing on the newspaper as Dean pulled out from the curb.

"Think she was too interested?" he wondered. Sometimes it was weird, just wondering if people on the street were genuine. He'd never worried about it at Stanford, but that had been a different world. Hunters were professionally suspicious.

"Hey, maybe she really just had good taste," Dean said, rubbing the steering wheel with his thumb like he was soothing away any offence that the car might have taken to Sam's question.

"Maybe," said Sam. "Alright, left here."

Dean turned.

The church was a pleasantly picturesque building and the tiny old churchyard had been kept meticulously tidy. There were headstones decorated with clumsily home made bunches of flowers. Sam guessed that didn't mean much, in the scheme of things, but a well maintained cemetery that was frequently visited by family of the dead did start to attract obvious attention as soon as something went wrong.

Beyond that, the road wound into the local forest. The pitted pavement stopped about twenty feet past the tree line, and from there it was just bumpy dirt. The trees closed overhead. Despite despite the natural smells of damp leaf litter and clean earth, the dense canopy have the forest a dim and claustrophobic air.

Following Donna's directions got them far enough. As the dirt path tapered even thinner and Dean had to pull up, Sam got a glimpse of a hut in a clearing through the dark and grasping branches.

"There," he said, jerking his chin.

Dean looked over. "Not a guy who loves company," he decided, twirling his keys around his finger. "Guess weirdo artists are like that."

Sam rolled his eyes. He'd met plenty of art students at college who weren't 'weird' by any stretch. He rolled his shoulders. "Let's go see if we can talk to this guy."

They traipsed up to the hut, a mildly dilapidated building of wood that sagged at one side. It did not seem roomy, and Sam eyed the door. He wasn't completely convinced he'd be able to go inside without ducking down.

He took a look around the outside, but it was all a regular and mundane sort of creepy: a little rotted wood here, a squished trail of grass where someone had traipsed back and forth to the hut over and over.

Dean strolled to the door and knocked. Then he turned his face back to Sam and widened his eyes pointedly, so Sam stopped snooping and came to stand in front as though he was a respectable person who didn't suspect the guy inside of being some kind of monster.

The guy who opened the door was not what Sam had been expecting.

Sam was used to being taller than everyone he met, but "Say-Sorry" had to be an entire foot shorter than him. East Asian, presumably, which reminded Sam of the scroll he'd seen in the window of the gallery -- and pale and thin, with a tumbling mop of hair dyed rusty red.

"I don't know you. Do you want something?" he said flatly.

He was holding a mug of what looked like oil in his hands. It certainly had the same multicoloured sheen Sam associated with oil, and moved too viscously in the mug to be tea or water.

His eyes flicked between Sam and Dean, but it was hard to tell if he felt nervous seeing two big, unexpected guys show up at his door to loom. It was hard to tell if he felt anything at all, actually, his face was so inexpressive.

"Yeah, actually," Dean said, "you're the guy who makes those dolls in town? Across from the diner? Say-sorry?"

"Sasori," the man said. His face didn't change. The way he said it was different: 'Sa-so-ri', with a hollower A sound, and the emphasis on the first and last syllables rather than the middle one.

There was something about the man's expression that wasn't quite right -- something around the eyes, Sam was sure. They didn't... move as he expected, or something, in their sockets.

"Christo," said Sam, experientially, and the man's dark eyes shifted to him, but nothing else happened.

"Bless you," said Dean, drily. Sam shot him an unimpressed look. What was he meant to do?

"They're puppets," the man corrected, disinterested in the byplay. "And yes. They're mine."

Dean looked like he could not have given any fewer shits about the differences between puppets and dolls.

"The waitress at the diner said you made them," he said. "We wanted to ask you a bit about them.

Sasori was wearing a ring, too, a fancy one with a carved purple rock in it. Sam noticed it because, from where he was standing, it looked like it was made of silver. Not a demon, not anything that responded to silver...

"My art," Sasori said, eyeing them thoughtfully. His gaze flicked from Sam's feet to his head and back, and he finally stepped back from the doorway. "Come on, then," he said, and gestured them in.

Dean waggled his eyebrows at Sam as they crossed the threshold and headed into the little hut.

Sam made a face right back at him. Whatever made Sasori look at Sam like that, he didn't think it was... whatever interest Dean was implying with his stupid eyebrows.

Sam ducked to get through the doorway, and straightened only cautiously once inside. It was just high enough to fit him. Inside was surprisingly well lit -- and no spot more so than the work table in the far corner, covered in what looked like the debris of Sasori's art: sharp implements, wooden dust, long coils of catgut and piles of half-rolled paper covered in tiny, meticulous calligraphy in a language that Sam didn't read.

"What about it," Sasori prompted impatiently. He'd let them in just fine, but he wasn't at any pains to make them comfortable. Where grieving housewives and tired sherrifs alike had let Sam into their houses and sat him down with a cup of coffee and whatever they had on hand, Sasori sipped from his own mug and didn't even suggest they find a seat -- which was lucky, because there was exactly one seat in the place.

Sam guessed Sasori did not get a lot of company, and he got the distinct impression that he didn't want to encourage any company he did get to linger.

Now was the time Dean or Sam -- ideally both -- had to start feigning an interest in dolls.

Sam smiled. "I saw your, uh, art in the window downtown -- I write for a style blog," he said, "so that's really interesting to me."

"Do you," said Sasori, in a voice that made it very hard to tell whether or not he was buying that lie.

"Oh, yeah. It's his hobby. He's really popular," Dean said. Pretending to be interested in dolls was kind of hard; pretending to be proud of Sam was a lot easier.

"I was hoping to take some photos, hear a little about your, uh, process." Was a process what artists did? All Sam could think was fair treatment through the regular judicial system, but he was pretty sure artists called it a process too -- "Maybe you could tell me a little about the tools you're using, that kind of thing."

Sasori sipped his oil or tea or whatever it was. His facial expression didn't change once, but he nevertheless projected a sense of dull, cynical amusement.

Despite that, he answered all of Sam's made up questions quite seriously.

He showed Sam the hand he'd been working on at his table, a big, heavy-jointed thing that had been so finely articulated as to move in a way that felt stiff but almost human. For a second Sam thought it was human, but upon careful inspection, supervised by Sasori staring like a hawk, each joint seemed clearly mechanical. The wrist end was wrapped up. "To preserve the bare joint," Sasori said.

"This project will feature a larger frame," he added reflectively, putting his own hand down next to the much larger puppet one. His fingers seemed delicate next to it.

When he turned back to return the hand to its spot on the table, Dean whipped a hand out and put a drop of something into the oily drink in Sasori's mug. When he drank again, nothing happened.

Maybe he was completely human, and his arrival meeting Sam's timeline perfectly was actually just some crazy coincidence. Sam resisted the idea of crazy coincidence, but he wasn't getting any inhuman vibes from Sasori. Weird vibes, absolutely. And maybe even regular human serial killer vibes, to be perfectly honest -- but not inhuman.

"Art movements are trash," Sasori was saying, holding forth with an awful lot of confidence for someone who presumably had to be part of one. "The interpretation and reinterpretation of what art "is" implies a transience incompatible with the fundamental nature of true art."

"Right," said Sam. It wasn't his job to understand what the hell he was talking about, he reminded himself. He just had to sound less bewildered than he felt. "That's certainly a perspective."

No wonder this guy lived all alone in the woods. Even an artists' commune wouldn't take him.

"Well, god, look at the time -- if we can, I'd love to see your gallery tomorrow morning," Sam lied. Making dolls obviously took a lot of skill, but he had seen enough for about three lifetimes.

Sasori didn't seem to care much one way or the other. He watched Sam with unsettlingly intent eyes as they shook hands and left.

Sam flexed his fingers. Sasori's hand had been cool to the touch, and stiff. It felt almost exactly like the puppet's.

They were quiet in the Impala on the way back, after Dean had made the tasteless but apparently obligatory crack about Sasori's leering at Sam. The car rumbled over the dirt road until they hit bitumen again, and then Dean relaxed back into his seat.

For a few long minutes it was just the purr of a big engine and the soft vibration over the blacktop.

"I think he's human," Sam said finally.

"Silver ring. Didn't respond to the name of God, didn't respond to dead man's blood--"

"Is that what that was?" Sam frowned. "Where did you even get that?" It definitely hadn't been in their supplies.

"It's dead man's blood, Sam." Dean drawled. "Where do you think I got it?"

Sam rolled his eyes. Never mind. Just Dean, casually violating the dead and storing their blood in his pockets, then. Never mind.

"I didn't really notice anything weird from him," he said finally.

"Oh," Dean paused for a deep breath out, fingers clenching and releasing on the steering wheel, "no, he's weird. He's weird. And he's suspicious as hell. But he's human, and I don't think that he could take a kitten, let alone a big guy like Redford. No drag marks anywhere, either -- even outside."

Sam nodded. He'd gotten the impression that Sasori was -- yeah, uh, "eccentric", was what he thought you were supposed to say about artists, rather than "weird as hell" -- but also... pretty wholly focused on making dolls.

Humans, he figured, were barely important enough for Sasori to notice, let alone to specifically hunt down and kill. Although, there'd been the way he watched Sam...

But Dean was right, too. The guy was tiny.

"It still seems like there's something going on," he said, chewing his bottom lip.

"I don't like the feel of this one either," Dean admitted slowly. "But think about it: what do we really have here? A bunch of missing people, no bodies, no witnesses -- our only lead doesn't seem even physically capable of the job, and if he was, he's not even -- he's human, Sammy."

"You think someone's helping him?" Sam asked pensively.

"I don't think that guy would piss on another human being if he was on fire, let alone convince someone to help him commit a murder."

Sam sighed. Yeah. That sounded about right. "Alright, drop me off in town -- I'll hit the library, see what else I can dig up. Otherwise we'll leave in the morning."

Dean hummed. "Don't want to go shoot some dolls with your new best friend after all?"

Sam levelled a dark look at him, and Dean smirked unrepentantly. One of the most annoying things about Dean consistently being the driver was that it meant Sam couldn't shove him when he opened his stupid fat mouth.

After Dean had let him out on the sidewalk beside the multipurpose town hall and local public library, he thought to wonder why it was that Sasori had answered all his questions but never once bothered to ask for the URL of his blog. But by then he'd already dismissed him as a possible lead, and headed into the library to find out if there was something significant that the police reports wouldn't have noted.

There wasn't. He combed through for hours, but he didn't find anything. And Dean's patience wasn't going to be endless.

It nagged at him, but perhaps it really was just a regular, human, garden-variety serial killer -- one who could be handled by regular, human, garden-variety law enforcement.

Sam left when the library closed, texted Dean for his lift, and shook his head when his brother asked if there'd been any progress. Dean hadn't gotten anywhere with pressuring Redford's coach, several parents and siblings of other victims, or one of the local school administrators, either.

"I don't think this one's on our side of the fence," Sam finally admitted.

"I told you so," said Dean, presumably out of the need to meet some kind of obligatory quota they assigned you when you got to be an older sibling.

But he didn't sound as satisfied as he should have, having said it.

"Leave in the morning?" he asked.

Sam wondered if he was hoping Sam would argue with him. He just shook his head. "Yeah. I've got nothing."

So Dean nodded.

The pair headed to a motel for the night, a dingy little place completely interchangable with every other motel Sam had stayed in. They got two beds in a room and traipsed up an exceptionally narrow flight of stairs to get there.

Dean dumped his bag on the worn armchair in one corner and sprawled out like a starfish on the bed nearest the door before Sam had even finished clearing the door jamb. His feet didn't dangle off or anything.

"Guess I'm taking the window," Sam said

Nothing new occurred to Sam about the case between a shower and a meal, and then he crawled into his bed while Dean was still in the shower. He was sure there was something here that he just wasn't seeing...

Sam fell asleep.

He woke up three hours later, after midnight, seized suddenly with the certainty that he knew exactly what he had to do.

Sam threw back the covers and got to his feet. He did not put his shoes on or grab his jacket or his phone -- this was too important. He walked right past where Dean slept, quietly unlocked the door, and left.

It was cold outside. The road was icy on his bare feet and the air seemed freezing through his shirt. Sam ignored it all. He put one foot in front of the other and headed right out into the road.

Everything smelled of encroaching rain, and the night was particularly dark because the clouds obscured the moon and stars.

Sam started walking.

The rain broke from the clouds above into a drizzle at first, but an hour later it seemed like the sky was falling. His hair dripped into his eyes and his skin prickled with the chill of the water, and on he walked.

Sasori was waiting for him.

"You're late," he said, eyeing Sam up and down.

Sam had not realised they'd had an appointment. He shivered. "I," he began, in confusion, and then stopped. "I'm sorry?" he said finally.

This was the hut all the way out in the woods -- it had to be ten, twelve miles from the motel. Sam's feet hurt, but when he looked down he was still surprised to see the blood.

Sasori hummed, still sounding annoyed, but he took a step back and gestured Sam inside.

Sam followed him like a puppet, drawn on a string.

Sasori flicked his fingers. Though he didn't touch it, the door of the hut closed behind Sam. That might have been attributable to the storm, but the click of a lock certainly wasn't.

He made a gesture with two fingers in front of his face, then, and --

It was as though a veil was drawn back from Sam's mind.

Sam had experienced a lot, but he had never yet come across a creature with so few tells who could so easily manipulate him. If Sasori could do this to a skilled, wary hunter who knew what was out there, what chance did anybody else have?

A bolt of icy terror went through him. His heart rate, slowing finally from his mad hike to the hut, spiked violently. He felt hot with the sudden, gut-clenching rush of adrenalin.

He tried to lunge, to throw himself right at Sasori, but he couldn't move.

"You -- What did you do?" he demanded.

"Genjutsu," said Sasori, without much urgency. He turned away -- so he was really confident in whatever it was that was holding Sam, apparently -- to run his hands over the implements on his work bench. There was something else there now, something much bigger than what Sam had seen earlier that day, although god only knew where Sasori had stashed it in the interim. It was covered by a sheet, and not quite big enough to be a dead body.

'Genjutsu' wasn't a word that meant anything to Sam, but he tried to remember it. Something East Asian. Some kind of spell, or -- or something.

"It has a particularly strong effect on those with low chakra reserves and weak will," he said, soft and bland, like he was giving a lecture on a subject he'd covered a hundred times already.

"What," said Sam, who knew very well that 'weak willed' was not one of his personal failings.

"Most of the people here have made poor subjects due to their extremely low chakra reserves," Sasori was saying, "but you've... a little extra, or..." he looked back at Sam. His dark eyes gleamed in the light. "Something like a bloodline limit, if such a thing exists in this world."

So, some kind of East Asian monster from another "world", Sam thought frantically, trying to remember his lore. He'd read Journey to the West once -- or, well, he'd flipped through it, at least. Was there a prayer or a mantra you could recite? Something from one of the sutras? Would any such thing work without the knowledge and belief to back it? An exorcism tended not to work well if you didn't know what you were saying at all --

"Your feet must hurt," Sasori said blandly.

The comment was innocuous, and its truth was self evident, but Sam still clenched his jaw shut. He'd been taught too well, for too long, not to show his belly to strange things that came for him after dark.

"They won't for much longer," Sasori promised.

"What are you going to do?"

"Perfect you."

He reached out and waved one hand, and the sheet covering the big thing on his work bench fell away.

He'd been right: it had been too small to cover a whole body. It worked pretty well for an upper torso, though.

Oh, thought Sam. That was where Redford had gone. Dead, after all.

His eyes were glassy and devoid of intelligence, but he was in astonishingly good condition for a dead guy.

"This happens when you get to the brain removal, if you use people with such low reserves," Sasori said placidly, rubbing one finger down the body's lax face. "Heart's chakra only keeps a body's spirit inside if the vessel has enough..."

"Chakra," Sam repeated.

"Mmm. You're special, aren't you? Among the people in this world, here," Sasori mused. "You must be."

His expression never once changed, but he picked up a long and slender implement with a wickedly sharp tip, and seemed to consider it against the topography of Sam's face.

Sam tried to move again. A finger, a hand, anything. His muscles did not contract, and his limbs didn't budge at all, but a whine of effort came from his mouth.

"Be quiet. You were already late, and my patience isn't limitless. We have to get started."

Sasori touched his cheek gently, and then produced a delicate little brush and marked the spot with ink.

"Maybe," Sam said in a strained voice, as his panic rose and rose, "we can talk about this."

"Shh." His hand, cold and with hideously stiff skin, slid down Sam's jaw affectionately. "You're going to be so beautiful," he said. His face had all the expression of someone watching paint dry, but his voice was rich and aching. His hand splayed across Sam's face then. It seemed too small for him to be as strong as he'd seemed. "You're going to be beautiful forever," he promised.

"Wait," said Sam, muffled against the hard skin of Sasori's palm.

That was as far as he got. Sasori's cold fingers lit up with a soft green light, and then -- nothing.

Sam woke up with smoke in his throat.

He blinked his eyes open and regretted it. Not only was the smoke too thick to see though, it got immediately into his eyes and made them smart and water.

He felt disoriented and he wasn't entirely sure where he was for a second --

But then there were hands on him, familiar, rough hands, and a voice was yelling in his ear, "Sam! Get up! Sam!"

Dean, that was Dean. There was warm, orange-red light, the acrid smell of burning plastics and the choking rush of woodsmoke, and Sam was confused as hell, but Dean grabbed him and said, "Get up, Sam, move, move, go!"

And so Sam moved and moved and went, automatically obedient to the familiar sound of Dean's urgent voice in that tone. He stumbled through the smoke and the overturned furniture until Dean shoved his head down roughly, shoved him out the door of Sasori's weird little hut--

Something moved, lurching in the fire, a person, small and deliberate --

"Go." Dean's voice cracked like a gunshot.

Wait, Sam thought, dazed, no, that was an actual gunshot.

"Go!" Dean yelled again. "Get the hell out of here, Sam!"

Two more gunshots. His ears rang.

Sam hit the forest floor running. His feet did not hurt. He wasn't sure why he thought they should, but they didn't.

Sam's memories sorted themselves out while he was sitting bunched up in the passenger seat of the Impala, with his forehead resting on the dash above the glovebox like the rumble of the car engine would shake him back into order.

In their rearview mirror, smoke rose into the sky, polluting the golden pink dawn horizon.

It had turned out that Dean had woken up about an hour after Sam had left, tapped into some mysterious big brother instinct, and stormed out to find Sam.

He'd found him. There'd been a fight. He'd shot Sasori until he ran out of bullets. And the hut had been set on fire.

Since there hadn't been any fire before, Sam had to assume that had been intentional on Dean's part.

"He was more worried about those weird scrolls than anything else after I set the place alight," Dean said. He wasn't concerned by a bit of light arson, but Sam wondered vaguely about the wisdom of setting fires in the woods. "But," he added, "I shot him. And I definitely didn't see him leave."

"He might have crawled out of there," Sam said. He finally straightened up. He knew he was exhausted, but his body actually felt fine -- more or less. There was a weird itch or ache here and there, but he knew he'd gotten off lightly considering the situation.

"Or," said Dean, a little pointedly, a little strained, "maybe he's good and dead."

Sam clicked his tongue. It seemed to stick to his mouth for a second too long, and he curled it experimentally. Strange. "I'm not saying he won't be," he said patiently. "I'm just saying, it's possible he survived."

"What, we shot him -- solid chest shots, by the way -- and left him in a burning building but maybe he survived?"

"It wouldn't hurt to do a refresher on East Asian creatures, anyway," Sam insisted. "Chakra and... Mudras and stuff. Just -- because, I'm saying, what if he did survive. You think he's going to just go happily on his way?"

Ugh, his tongue felt completely wrong. What was that?

"Dammit, Sammy," muttered Dean. "Let's just take this one, okay? The guy's whole workshop burned down, he's dead..." He trailed off, as though he already knew it was too much to hope for that their lives would turn out to not be absolutely bullshit for once.

Sam decided not to push. They both knew that, while it was better to be together and on the road in their car, safety was rarely assured. Safety wasn't part of the family business. "Sure," he agreed, uncertainly. "I guess."

His tongue clicked on the S. Annoying. He shoved his fingers into his mouth. Something was wrong with it -- something at the joint, he thought idly.

"What are you doing?" Dean shot him a weird look.

"Hmm? Ah, it'sh shticking," Sam said, and then after a second of further poking, he decided it was the joint. He needed to... lubricate it, or something.

He dug his thumb into the joint of his jaw and carefully detached the bottom half with a soft click. Then he reached in and unscrewed his tongue, twisting it to release it.

With his jaw in his lap, Sam peered into the inside of the tip of his tongue. The twist closure of the joint was fine for most purposes, but fluids could really gum it up over time... He scraped the inside with his nails.

"Sammy, seriously, what the hell are you doing?" Dean asked, and then he glanced over.

The car swerved wildly, tires screeching in protest, and Dean made a noise that sounded almost the same. "SAM," he yelled.

Sam's shoulder slammed into the inside of the door. He yelped.

"Geang?" Sam said, and then made an annoyed noise, because of course his jaw was still in his lap and he sounded incoherent.

He clicked the tip of his tongue into place, and then smoothly slotted his jaw back in. Dean had pulled over, and had traded his horrified for fumbling for his handgun.

"Dean?" Sam repeated, now that his jaw was slotted back into place and he could speak clearly again.

"Dean, are you okay?"

The gun was aimed at Sam then, right at his head, and he froze. "... Dean?"

"What the hell, Sam?" said Dean. The barrel shook, and his pupils were huge in his eyes. His voice was hoarse and trembling.

Sam remained perfectly still. Perfectly still -- his lungs did not move, his heart did not beat. He realised this at the same time as Dean did, and he felt his face shift automatically, articulated joints and cables under the stiff dead skin, to express his consternation.

It had seemed so natural, so normal and innate, that he hadn't even thought about it. He'd just removed his body parts as though he was a modular piece of furniture. It had felt like -- stretching, or perhaps scratching his head.

"Sam. What the hell?" Dean said, much, much louder. Sam's ears should have been ringing, but they didn't.

"I think," Sam said, and he wanted to swallow but he didn't need to, not anymore, and he'd never known that he could panic without feeling his own pulse race.

He felt about six years old again, and he met Dean's pale green eyes with his own glazed ones, feeling absolutely lost.

His voice came out smoothly, though: "Dean, I think something's wrong with me."

"Jesus Christ," snarled Dean, "you think?" He put the safety back on and shoved his gun away. Clearly he wasn't going to shoot his brother on propose, so there was no point waving it around and shooting him by accident.

 They stayed there, pulled over, in stiff and panicked silence for a few long seconds, which elongated into minutes while Sam flexed and clenched his cold, stiff fingers and shuddered to think of the articulated mechanics that might be working beneath his skin.

"Dean," he started.

"Goddammit, Sammy!" Dean growled, this time with extra feeling. He smacked the steering wheel in frustration -- open-handed, so as not to actually damage the car. "Goddammit!

"Fine," Dean said from between his clenched jaws. "Fine! Where do we go to learn about -- madras, or whatever it is?"

Sam felt strange, creaking new parts of his body relax at Dean's sudden capitulation. "I don't know. We need a library."

Dean sighed through his teeth and scowled ferociously, but he pulled the Impala back out onto the road and began driving.