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The Listeners

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There is a crack in everything, the songwriter said.

Certainly there are cracks in Sam Winchester. My whole time there I heard things scampering, like mice in the walls.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For me the relevant crack was a hairline flaw in an otherwise effective anti-possession tattoo. A cat scratch, or a brush with a blackberry patch, some injury too small for Sam to notice. I let myself in and made myself at home. Uncomfortable, transient lodgings weren’t new to me. I lived that way even before, researching the book that I sold my soul for.

 

Ten years had seemed like sufficient time to finish. But I hadn’t yet mastered working to a deadline. Hellhounds found me dithering among piles of notes.

Hell imposes discipline. I learned much under the knife, more wielding it. I was surprisingly good. I’d always searched things out. I was no Dean Winchester, no master’s precocious best pupil, but I did well.

We had talent scouts, well-placed moles, honey traps, agents provocateurs. My specialty was solid data. I made myself useful and didn’t indulge in loyalties. I emerged from the wars alive.

Time, I thought, to pursue my own research.

 

My work room was small and austere: desk, chair, locked filing cabinets. It would take time to pick the locks. Sam came in from time to time to file something. He wasn’t inclined to socialize. Of course, technically, he didn’t know I was there.

I had the spiders for company. Unlike the mice, who never emerged to make my acquaintance, they hung openly in their webs. One was impressive, a curiosity, an albino black widow, pure white splashed with rose-red. The other was discreetly grey.

They didn’t interrupt. But possessing Sam Winchester is like stowing away on the Titanic.

 

I was sorting documents (I’d accessed one of the drawers that morning) when a splintering shock jarred me. When the dust settled there was a branch transecting my workspace. (Not, I noted, an iceberg.) It could have been a beam, already integrated in the structure, if it weren’t for the holes in the walls and the fallen plaster. The branch was living; lichen, moss, ants, caterpillar-chewed leaves.

I was here to understand workings, not to observe events. The branch was clearly an event, though it might be becoming a working. But I went upstairs to look. I was curious.

 

It’s unsettling, looking through a host’s eyes. It was especially unsettling to see bloody wood protruding from my, his chest.

For all his drawers and spiders Sam had a literal streak. The branch signified being impaled by a branch.

I was terrified.

Why? My host’s death couldn’t harm me. Perhaps I feared because Sam did. But that, too, was surprising. Sam was accustomed to dying. The fear could have been for Dean, battling a hairy thing at the edge of Sam’s vision. And it was, partly. But the bitter adrenaline mixed with the blood in his mouth was for himself.

 

I went down slowly, thinking. This was risky, but intriguing. Sam was now dependent on my presence. I couldn’t heal, but I could power the engines, maintain enough structure for him to live. Just as well he should owe me, because …

His steps stumbled on the stairs. He brushed by without glancing, as he usually did, at the webs in the corners, and fumbled his keys. The bottle he drew from the drawer caught the light, deep black-red.

In my clerking days I had worked with several like him. I watched his hands shake as he drew the stopper.

 

Not exactly like him, you might say. Laudanum or whisky to combat boredom is different from demon blood. And Sam hadn’t invited me to move in, or asked for a stick through his lung. What I was seeing was symbolic dramatization of an involuntary and hellish predicament.

But I saw his hands shake as he drew out the stopper. I saw the bottle he kept in a drawer.

If I’d thought about it I wouldn’t have been sure that his own blood, given a demon in him, would work. Now I knew. It might make a footnote in my book.

 

Sam came down sometimes after that, to talk. And to get out his bottle, of course. Now that I was an unpleasant reality rather than a shadow of suspicion he seemed almost at ease with me.

Something had changed in me as well. I traced it to that moment of shared fear. It’s a thing one learns in hell, what it’s like to fear something even after it’s happened.

Sympathy’s an impediment; understanding is useful. I learned that in hell, too. I let Sam talk. Workings would emerge from his account of events. The branch’s leaves rustled above us companionably.

 

“We’re being followed, you know.” Sam was nervous, jittery, intermittently hostile. The blood and the situation both contributed.

“Are we?” I said.

“A wood spirit, we think. Not the thing Dean killed. Like, literally, a spirit made of wood.”

“I’d leave it alone. You want to get somewhere you can get that branch out of your chest.”

I could keep things going for years, but Sam’s tolerance for occupation by demons and branches had limits. And I’d noticed that the branch’s manifestation was growing new leaves. Some insect had left rows of tiny, translucent eggs on the underside of one.

 

“If it lets us leave,” Sam said. “its beast killed me, after all, give or take. You know, when I didn’t die, I thought it was something different. Then I tasted the blood.”

He glanced, almost clinically, at the bottle. He never took more than one hit.

“I’d rather have died before being possessed again, before being back on the blood,” he added, to me and the cobwebs. “But I’m not up for dying after. Dean’s not getting taken out by a wood spirit, either. I’m not going down with a fucking branch through my chest. I really hate dying.”

 

“Demons can’t heal.” Sam knew that. “To avoid dying, you’ll need your angelic friend.”

Which would be the end of my stay.

“Cas is the plan, when we’re out,” said Sam. “Though according to Dean impalement’s no big deal. Dr Sexy could totally fix it.” Sam paused. “When that’s done, if you’re not gone, I’ll drain myself and crush you.”

No one could doubt — I never doubted — that Sam was that dangerous and that self-destructive. But he turned his face, watching an ant on the branch. He knew I’d seen the shabby addict with a bottle in a drawer.

 

“Has Dean figured out why you’re still alive?” If Dean was thinking in terms of doctors, he might not have.

Sam shrugged.

“Dean’s better at denial than I am. He has flair. I just have a lot of practice. And it’s true, you know. People do survive impalement. The dangerous part comes when you take the thing out.”

That was to my address, or maybe the spiders’. The grey one hung as usual, a small, quiet weight at the heart of its web. But the white one let itself down on a jerky thread to hover just over Sam’s shoulder.

 

I took a trip upstairs to see the spirit myself.

I glimpsed it from the corners of Sam’s eyes. A human shape sculpted from barbed wire — ghost of the trenches — except this was briars, wood. It blended into the trees.

I was watching so closely I missed Sam’s footing. He tripped. I caught bark, scraping Sam’s hand. Dean hauled at my elbow, face tight. Know, no; suspect, yes. He must have hated me for preempting a deal. But Sam was walking. That should have made Dean happy.

Sam sucked his scratched hand absently. I felt the small jolt, like espresso.

 

Within the hour we came to a hedge, or an army. It was hard to tell. It could have been a line of the briar people.

Dean had a machete. Sam had his own strength, and the blood, and me. But a mortally wounded body is a drag, even with demonic fuel. Our hands were torn. Binding tendrils caught around ankles and wrists. The fear was rising in Sam, and anger, and frustration. I didn’t want to share Sam’s fear again. I should smoke out before it caught me. But I’d left my notes on the desk. I headed down.

 

Sam followed. Not chasing my help. To visit the spiders. The spider.

I knew the story of Charlotte’s Web because Sam did. That drawer wasn’t locked. Sam backed against the wall while he read the web’s message, though, more like a pig smelling the slaughterhouse than like someone consulting a friend.

WOOD SPIRIT. ITS FLESH, YOUR BLOOD. YOU KNOW THIS ONE, SAM.

So Sam knew who and what his spider oracles were. I made a note. It seemed I wasn’t leaving. I have no interest in events, but I’d stay for workings.

Sam dashed back up the stairs. I followed.

 

Dean hadn’t noticed our absence. Sam’s Lucifer consult had passed at the speed of thought. And Dean had enough to concern him. Briars bound his hands and were tightening round his throat.

Sam’s right hand was free. He grasped the bloodied branch at his chest. Dean’s eyes widened.

“Don’t take the fucking impale-stick out, Sam. Trust me. I saw it on Dr. Sexy. You take that thing out, you die.”

“It’s OK, Dean,” said Sam. No doubt he’d have used that same placation if this were suicide. The branch pulled free with a sucking scrape. Blood flooded Sam’s mouth.

 

Event: Sam stabbed the briar-man’s heart with bloody wood. The briar-man died.

Event: the hedge let us go.

Event: Dean saw his brother’s eyes go black. It can’t have been a surprise. Dean must have known Dr Sexy’s information was unreliable.

Event: I stayed and kept Sam alive. Dean acquiesced.

Workings: I ordered my notes, Sam silent at my shoulder. He was nervous. He hated my presence, but my absence would mean withdrawal from his own blood. He started at the scamper of mice in the walls and when the spiders darted out to wrap their trapped flies.

 

Castiel met us at the car.

“There’s a demon in Sam,” he said.

“Yeah. It kept him alive, so it gets to live. Heal him, Cas. The demon’s just leaving. Right?”

“Yes,” I said. Dean’s threats, like Sam’s, were effective. I turned. Then I paused.

“Sam carries traces of angels,” I said. “Can you remove them?”

Castiel shook his head.

“I tried, with Gadreel, some time ago. Sam wouldn’t survive the process.”

“Sam’s afraid of them.”

He used them, too, but I didn’t tell Castiel that. It didn’t negate the other.

“I’m sorry,” said Castiel. “There’s nothing to be done.”

 

I went down to gather my papers. Nothing remained of the branch but a scatter of twigs. I stuck them in a glass on the desk.

I didn’t see Sam. He’d be in some other room, being healed by an angel. I considered leaving a note. Sam had given me avenues for investigation. There’d been that shared moment of fear.

I pondered the blank page. No, not blank. Cursive tendrils were looping across it from the twigs in their impromptu vase.

Curious. One day I might return to examine their workings. I’d never found out what the mice were, either.