"A salt line? Really? You think salt's going to keep me away from him?"
"If the salt won't, I will. You think this kind of thing goes down without my say-so?"
"Your say-so. Honey, I hate to spoil your little cock of the walk routine, but we're kind of pressed for time here."
"Oh, I do like it when you use the tough voice. Thing is, though, his soul's mine, fair and square. So, play nice and break the salt line, and he doesn't have to see you ripped to shreds before he goes. You can give him a good bye kiss if you want; promise I won't peek."
"You don't listen very well, do you? I'm not saying good bye. I found out something very interesting, going through my father's things."
"That whole thing with daddy, it really could have turned out a lot better. Oh well, you win some, you lose some. Besides, dead's dead, and daddy is a fucking doornail."
"So he is, but did you really think he'd leave me with nothing? Sorry, 'honey', it doesn't work that way. So play nice and tell me what I want to hear."
The hand that grips Sam's shoulder is unpleasantly cold, and he tries to roll away, burrowing further under the covers. The icy fingers don't let go, shaking at his arm, prodding into his skin; he shivers, still caught in the limbo between awake and not.
"Sam, for fuck's sake, they're going to think I'm murdering you in here. Come on, man, wake up."
He sits up, panting, blanket twisted between his legs, and almost collides with Dean's head. His brother smells like shampoo, and his hair is dripping cold all over Sam's sheets and t-shirt.
"I'm alright," Sam offers quickly, pre-empting the question, and pulls up on the blanket.
"Yeah? You were screaming. Heard you in there, even with the shower going."
"Had a nightmare," Sam mutters, struggling with the quilt. "Get off my blanket. You're wearing a towel, and you're getting water everywhere."
"Yeah," Dean agrees, but doesn't move. "It was a vision, wasn't it? Based on the decibels, I'd say it wasn't all fluffy bunnies and party hats, either. What did you see?"
"Nothing, okay? It wasn't anything like that. Just a really bad dream."
"Just a really bad dream," Dean repeats, raises an eyebrow, considering, and Sam finally succeeds in freeing the blanket from under his legs.
"Go finish your shower, and get some clothes on. We need to get moving," he says, rubbing at his forehead.
Dean gives him a glare, but complies, twists the bathroom door knob viciously, rattles the toothpaste and shaving cream extra loud against the sink.
"Like a small child," Sam sighs to no one in particular, pulls on pants and shirt, ties his sneakers. To his relief, there is a phonebook in the drawer, and he searches through it quickly, pages rustling, until he finds what he needs.
"Dean!" he yells to the bathroom door, "I'm gonna go down to the corner store, you want anything?"
Dean mutters something muffled by toothbrush, spits loudly, and turns on the water.
"Fine!" he tells the doorknob, and walks out into the dull grey morning.
The first two he tries are fakes; Sam can tell as soon as they open their mouths. Chakra alignment, aura tune-up. Guaranteed protection from the evil eye in three easy installments, Visa, Master Card, no personal checks. The third does Tarot spreads and brews thick, spicy coffee in a little brass pot.
"Cardamom and pepper," she clarifies in a practiced voice. "Authentic Turkish blend. I'll read the grinds free of charge, as a first-time bonus." Her full, flowered skirt sweeps the floor, silver bracelets ringing softly as she pours the coffee.
The contents of his cup have a dark, bitter taste, and promise rain, trouble sleeping, and a quarrel with a loved one.
"Stop by and have another with me - any time," she invites, waving him out the door. Sam thinks thirty dollars is far too steep a price for coffee, pepper notwithstanding.
He pulls the ripped phonebook page out of his pocket, smoothes it out on his palm and crosses "The Amber Moon" out with a thick swipe of marker. Zero for three; that finishes out Watertown. As it is, Sam's surprised that a South Dakota city with a population of less than twenty thousand boasts the services of three psychics. Even if two of them are charlatans, and the last is capable of only a weak daily forecast.
On the trek back to the motel, he ducks into a little convenience store, pays for newspapers and a bottle of juice, asks the girl at the counter for the restroom key. Smoothing out the phonebook page one more time, he stares at the "Gift and Specialty Shops" heading for a moment before ripping it and flushing the shreds.
Dean's already packed up the car, and is twirling the keys impatiently around his thumb.
"Took you long enough."
Sam shrugs, sliding into the passenger seat, and unfolds the first newspaper. He is pretending to read an article about an energy summit, but his stomach is tight with disappointment. He knows it was stupid to hope that he would stumble onto something on the very first day; it was even more stupid to hope that some Pagan Club co-ed with blonde dreadlocks and silver bangles would hold the answers to any of his questions. It occurs to him that they've only ever met one truly capable psychic, and even she hadn't been able to perform consistently. Even if she had been, Sam can't imagine calling Missouri and telling her… telling her what? That Dean made a deal with a demon? That he was going to die unless – unless – well, figuring out the "unless" is the problem, isn't it?
It'll be better in a bigger city, he decides; longer phone book, with an actual listing for occult shops and seers, not "Curiosities and Souvenirs".
Over the roar of the car against the pavement, it takes him a minute to realize that Dean is saying something; still, it doesn't sink in until his brother's hand smacks into the center of the newspaper, crumpling it into Sam's lap.
"I said, 'I want my Skittles, bitch'. Twice. Hand them over."
"Why would I have – what?"
"What the fuck, Sam? You know, Skittles. Candy. Comes in a little red packet. Like the kind you said you'd get on your little walk earlier?"
"I forgot," Sam sighs, "um… sorry?"
Dean smacks his hand back onto the steering wheel, lets out an exaggerated sigh.
"How the fuck do you forget your reason for going to the store in the first place?"
Sam holds up the newspaper; the energy summit article is boasting a brand new rip right through the center.
"I said I'd go get newspapers. I really don't remember you asking for candy, sorry."
"Fine," his brother grumbles, "fine! I'll forgive you if… if you let me have half of your juice."
"You hate apple."
"I do not," Dean says and reaches over, waving his hand in front of Sam's nose without taking his eyes off the road. Sam holds out the bottle, watches Dean take a tentative gulp and screw up his face.
"How do you drink this shit, dude?"
He chugs down the rest of the juice with a look of absolute disgust on his face, rolls down his window, and lets the bottle drop. The burst of glass against the pavement sounds like a tiny gunshot, and it makes Sam flinch.
It starts to sprinkle when they cross into Minnesota, and never lets up. Dean keeps on driving, Quiet Riot replacing AC/DC replacing Kansas on the radio, until rain is coming down in heavy grey sheets, somewhere near Rochester.
"Want me to take over?" Sam offers after they exit the Tri Town Diner, and once more when they fill up the car.
Dean shakes his head, and doesn't say a word until they're almost to Wisconsin. The peeling sign on the motel door proclaims they've made a sound lodging decision, but the mattresses are lumpy and Sam's pillow smells like stale smoke. Wind and rain knock relentlessly at the windowpane, and rumbles of distant thunder rival Dean's snoring.
They'll be in Chicago soon enough, Sam thinks, bedsprings creaking against his spine. Chicago has a Chinatown, Sam thinks, staring at the ceiling. Chicago has herb shops and covens and 1-800-psychics and Bobby'd mentioned a man who calls himself a White Sorcerer on Belmont Ave. Longer phonebook, more listings; I'll fix it, Dean, I swear.
"Longer phonebook, more listings," he whispers to lull himself to sleep.
The city meets them with clouds that twist and churn slowly around the skyline, black monolith of the Sears tower standing guard against the wind.
"You wouldn't happen to have an exact address hidden away somewhere in that freaky head of yours?" Dean asks, turning off of the interstate. "'Cause, I don't know about you, but I have no fuckin' idea how we're going to track this thing down. There's, what, three million people out here?"
"Just about," Sam says, watching street signs pass by in the passenger-side mirror, raindrops slithering down the glass.
"Might be more than just one came this way. How many do you think crawled out of that Devil's Gate altogether? Fifty? A hundred? News said people saw 'eerie black clouds' over what, seventeen cities? And Ellen said it was probably more."
"Yeah, Dean, I was there. And I did the math, too. Look, all we know is, there is at least one demon in the city; if it's more, then it's more. Nothing to be done for it now except try to be prepared. Checking if there've been any major power outages reported might be a good place to start."
"Weather's been shitty for days; pretty sure it's all gonna be trees and wind bringing power lines down."
Sam rolls his window down an inch, dips his fingertips into the cold air.
"Most of it probably will be. But if there are any they can't explain, anything the city can't account for…" he trails off, wipes his wet hand on the hem of his sweatshirt.
"Alright," Dean says, unconvinced, and pulls the car into a mostly empty parking lot. "Go get the room; I'll grab dinner, no sense in wasting more time."
In the end, convincing Dean they will cover more ground if they split up proves to be much easier than Sam anticipated. He watches his brother eagerly digging through his stash of IDs and badges in search for just the right ones, whistling as he knots his tie and combs gel through his hair in front of the small mirror, and wonders how he could have missed it before. Dean wants to go out by himself.
Sam doesn't bother cataloguing this new thing between them, the strange, grating discomfort that's all too similar to the first few months after Stanford, except for one glaring difference. After Stanford, hell was behind him. His illusion of a life had come crashing down around him in fire and blood, Jess watching him hit rock bottom from the ceiling. But that's the beauty of rock bottom, Sam thinks, as Dean buttons up his suit jacket and pulls on his cuffs; there is nowhere to go but up. This time, they haven't hit yet. They're pinned on the ceiling, and hell watches from below.
He ties his own tie, folds his shirt collar carefully against the lapels of his suit and feels for the phonebook pages in his pocket, Bobby's list of additional people he should see tucked between them.
The "Good Fortune" is in Chinatown, dried flower arrangements hanging in the dirty windows, door painted an inviting bright red. A bell rings loud and long as Sam steps in, inhaling the shop's sickly sweet incense.
The guy behind the counter is short and squat, with a thin line of beard curling down his chin; he furrows his brows at Sam, fingers a gold charm at his pale throat.
"I'm here to see Madame Fen," Sam tells him, "I called this morning."
The guy mutters something under his breath in what Sam assumes is Chinese, clutches his necklace in a thick fist.
"I made an appointment," Sam repeats. "My name is -"
"No!" the man cuts him off; he's breathing heavily, and a fat droplet of sweat climbs slowly down his nose. "No, no. Fen!" he calls out suddenly, follows it up with more frenzied Chinese. "Fen!"
A door slams upstairs, the old woman running down fast, and she is out of breath as she gets to the bottom floor, steps into the shop from behind a beaded curtain.
"Oh" is all she says when the clerk points in Sam's direction, but her mouth works soundlessly for a few moments, and she holds her small, wrinkled hands in front of her, palms out.
"You no come here," she manages finally, her voice as wizened as the rest of her. "We no help your kind. Go. Not belong here."
"What?" He is so taken aback by her response that his own voice is shaky. "You're not gonna… you don't help 'my kind'? That's just - oh, you've got to be kidding me. You mean you don't deal with non-Chinese? Is that it? 'My kind'?"
She nods, pleased with his understanding, repeats, "Go now. Not belong. Not help your kind."
"How's that even – do you know what year it is out there – never mind. I'll just be showing myself out," he manages, looking down at her grey knotted hair. She nods again, grabs at the door as he exits. Sam turns around just in time to see her putting up a "closed" sign – in English.
"Man, that is just wrong," he mutters to himself as he crosses the street, but he doesn't get very far before he hears the shrill, grating yell.
"Hey. Hey!" a woman screeches behind him. "Hey, I'm talking to you! Yes, you, you fucking si san ba trespasser! Stop!"
"Now I'm trespassing, too?"
Sam whirls around, practically ready to throw a punch, and cannot help it. He starts laughing as the girl hurdles towards him. She is absurd; barely five feet tall, maybe eighteen, but probably not yet, and if she gets any louder, his eardrums are going to burst.
People are staring, giving her a wide berth; a fruit vendor has shoved a crude "back in ten minutes" sign on top of the oranges and retreated into a nearby doorway. Sam has time to notice a "closed" sign going up against the glass there as well, but then she grabs him by the arm, and Sam stops laughing. Static shock travels from her fingers to his skin, makes him shudder.
"What. The. Fuck. Are you doing here, yao-mo-wang?" she hisses, and the street around them quickly empties.
"I, uh… Uh… Do I know you?" Sam can't think of anything else to say, short of "what the fuck is wrong with you people today", and maybe he does mutter that last bit out loud, because she is screaming again, fingers digging into him like claws.
"Ni juede wo hen ben ma? You think I'm stupid? What's wrong with me? What's wrong with you? We had a deal, you stay the fuck out of my business, and I stay the fuck out of yours. So, due respect, what the hell are you doing here, yao-mo-wang?"
"I think you have me confused with someone else," he stammers, shaking his arm loose, but the little woman isn't letting go.
"Confused with someone else," she mocks, "are you fucking serious?"
She mutters something else in Chinese, a smattering of words that are as cryptic as anything that's come out of her mouth so far, "Cao ni ma! Zhao shi zhe does feel different, isn't that fucking wonderful!"
Five angry red welts bloom on his forearm as she releases her grip and sets her fists on her hips, smiles an awkward toothy smile.
"I am so fucking sorry. So, so damn sorry! I don't know what came over me. I, uh, just completely mistook you for somebody else entirely, fuck, I… Listen, I, uh, don't have words enough to apologize. Want me to get you an, I dunno, an icepack, or a band-aid for your arm, or something?"
Sam doesn't want an icepack; Sam wants to get as far away from Chinatown as he possibly can, as fast as his legs will carry him. The sentiment must be showing loud and clear in his expression; the girl is blushing, pulling awkwardly at her shirt.
"Seriously, I am so sorry. I fucked up. Don't go; let me make it up to you, please! Please? What were you doing here, anyway?"
"I was trying to get a reading, over there across the street," he tells her grudgingly. "Obviously, it didn't work out."
She cocks her head, eyes him up and down, mouth still stretched in a fierce grin.
"A reading? Are you fucking serious? That's… fuck, that's something else. A reading, god-fucking-damn!" She suddenly shakes her head, as if remembering something important. "Um. I'm not scoring any forgiveness points with you, am I. Sorry. It's just, the guy I thought you were, the idea of him needing that bitch Fen to do a reading, it's fucking crazy. Fucking, just, insane. Fuck. I say that a lot, I know. Versatile little word you Americans came up with, it rolls off of the tongue so easily, I can't help it. I mean, some people find it pretty offensive, but there's just no substitute. Anyway, I'll read for you."
Sam laughs awkwardly, considers using the versatile little word to tell the girl exactly what she should be doing right now, but she anticipates it.
"I mean it. I said I'd make it up to you, and I will." She digs through her pockets, scrunching up her forehead, until she finds what she is looking for with a triumphant "A-ha! Here you go."
Sam takes the little white card she offers, scans it quickly with his eyes. There are three Chinese characters printed above the words "Grace Bai. Seer", a phone number and an e-mail address. She gestures towards a narrow side street.
"I'll do your reading. Now, step into my office."
The office turns out to be a drafty studio above a closed restaurant; the girl leads Sam up squeaky stairs and kicks open the door. A pale, tattooed man stops flicking through channels as they enter, gets up off of the black leather couch.
"Gu Jing. Please tell me this doesn't mean what I think it does." The man forms his words carefully, eyebrows raised, nips at his bottom lip with sharp white teeth.
"Don't get your panties in a bunch; it's not what it fucking looks like. Fen threw little huang yan here out of her place, and he is all lost, confused, and looking for some guidance and direction."
"And you've taken it upon yourself to provide the, um, guidance and direction? Gu Jing," he runs his hand through short, spiky hair the color of a ripe peach, "since when do we do that?"
"You don't have to do anything except get me a fucking bowl, Hu. There's a bottle of peroxide in the cabinet over there, grab that, too, would you? And some tissues, and the good knife, and there should be band-aids with the peroxide, sometime today, yeah?"
Hu mutters something in Chinese, and she giggles, turning to Sam, motions towards the vacant couch.
"Sit. Get comfy. I'd normally say, 'make yourself at home', but there's a pretty slim chance of you feeling that today. So," she hitches up her sleeves, "how do you wanna do it? Do you want to ask me a question, or just let me tell you what I see? I can start talking once Hu gets his ass over here with my supplies, and you stop me when it gets interesting, maybe get into specifics."
"Specifics," Sam repeats, sinking into the soft, squeaky leather, wonders what sort of story the girl will spin as she plays at being Jeanne Dixon. He is wasting time in Gu Jing's cold apartment, watching her argue with her boyfriend, and he's wasting Dean's time, too. He's already wasted twelve days, eighteen hours and nine minutes, with nothing to show for them but crumpled lists lined with black marker, rotting in trash cans across four states.
"Thanks, Hu, you're a fucking sweetheart," Gu Jing says, taking the bundle from his hands. The man nods, throws a quick little grin in Sam's direction, but only his mouth smiles. Above the pointed nose and sharp cheekbones, his eyes remain narrowed and wary. He sits cross legged on the floor, cocks his head at Sam as the girl sets the porcelain bowl on the coffee table next to the army knife.
"Here, pick a finger. Ring's best, or thumb." She holds out a peroxide-moistened tissue to Sam, swipes a second one over the knife. "Give me your hand and say which one."
"Ring," Sam says in disbelief, and in seconds, she's squeezing the pad of his finger over the bowl, watching the blood drip, counting, one, two, five, seven, nine; Hu shoves the box of band-aids forward. She smears the red over the china, finger-paints a little circle, brings the bowl to her face and sniffs. Her tongue darts out, swishes over the bowl, once, twice, tasting the air, and Sam is relieved when she doesn't lick.
"You Americans have this stupid fucking saying," she offers casually, as if her mouth isn't inches away from a dish glazed with Sam's blood. "Every problem is an opportunity in disguise. Bullshit, right? Ninety nine percent of the time, problem's just a problem, sticks, stones and all. You, mowang, huang yan, you are special. You have that one percent thing working for you."
She dips her finger into the bowl and swirls it around again, making nonsensical patterns; holds her hand to the light, watches the dark red stain over her skin. Her lips wrap around, sink down slowly, and when she talks again, there is a fleck of Sam's blood on her lower lip.
"I get what's happening, now," she exclaims, delighted, "damn, that is fucking glorious. Not unprecedented, of course, but, fuck, these kinds of things are pretty much a once per century occurrence. Anyway, back to your little problem – and I'm telling you, you really have to stop thinking about it like that, because you already have all the solution you'll fucking need. I'm sure it doesn't seem that way, but you've got the 'what' and the 'where' and the 'when', and you think you're missing the 'how'. You aren't, of course, only you haven't figured that out yet. You will, don't worry. As a matter of fucking fact, one of your hows is in the city right now, waiting for you – well, not so much with the waiting, more with the hiding and hoping you'll go away, but you get my point."
"No, actually, I really don't. Listen, Gu Jing… Grace? I appreciate, um, what you're trying to do here, but I'm not angry about the misunderstanding anymore, alright? I'm sure you have more important things to do, and I have to get back to – "
She pours peroxide into the bowl, wipes it down with a tissue.
"Go wash it out," she tells Hu, and he obeys, hopping gracefully to his feet. "Sam," she continues, "you aren't listening to me. I'm trying to tell you something real fucking important here. You have what you need. You just need to learn how to work with it."
She pauses, distinctly pleased with her pretense at a revelation, and Sam decides he's had enough.
"Yeah, thanks. You know, that bunch of bull might have sounded a lot more impressive without all the 'fucking'. The blood thing, that was really good, very flashy, if a bit disgusting. You might want to consider, though, that most people aren't going to just let you cut into them like that. And, I guess, harassing unsuspecting passerby in the street is a valid way of getting customers, if a little extreme – what?"
Gu Jing quirks a plucked eyebrow, trades smiles with Hu.
"I'll take that into account."
"I'll let myself out," he tells her, and she nods.
"Hey, huang yan," she calls after him, "my business hours are Monday through Saturday."
"Yeah. I'll keep that in mind."
He calls Bobby from the street outside, counts the rings, trying to remember the distance from Bobby's kitchen to the phone, from the bedroom, from the porch. Bobby answers on the fifth ring, and from the sound of his "Go ahead," his day hasn't gone much better, either.
"Well, you can count Chicago as a bust," Sam sighs into the cell, feeling drained. "Out of fifteen – no, make that sixteen – eleven were frauds. Two offered to read Tarot, and one of them managed to do a half-way decent job. Figured out that that both my parents died suddenly in related incidents, and spent the better part of the half-hour trying to find a way to phrase that nicely. The fifteenth doesn't work with tourists, only residents of Chinatown."
On the end of the line, Bobby coughs, or maybe chuckles.
"The last one takes the cake, though. She had an entire solicitation routine based around harassment and mistaken identity; unfortunately, she followed it up with the most generic drivel I've heard in a while. 'Every problem is an opportunity in disguise', 'Deep down, you already know what to do, you just need to figure out what it is that you know', that sort of … Shit! Hang on, Bobby."
Sam can't believe he hasn't thought of it earlier; should've realized it the moment Gu Jing plowed into him. He checks his pants pocket, and is pleasantly surprised to find that his wallet is still where he last put it.
"You didn't think you'd come across whatcha looking for so quick, did you, Sam?" Bobby goes on for a few minutes more, lists name after name after name, reminds Sam that Rome wasn't built in a day, assures him that he's got favors to call in and people to hear back from. He is logical and calm and absolutely correct, but Sam doesn't feel any better knowing that. Dean isn't a favor or a city. Even though Sam hasn't ever been to Rome, he is certain that he'd gladly take it apart brick by brick and not bother putting it back together again if there were answers underneath.
When he gets back, tired and more than a little hungry, he sees that Dean is pacing their room like a mechanical sentry, nine steps from corner to corner on the diagonal. He snaps at attention at the click of the lock, marches right up to intercept. There's a look in Dean's eyes, not quite worry, not quite anger, something else stirred into the mix, and that look is focused on Sam, scrutinizing, penetrating. For a moment, Sam feels all of sixteen again, and that feeling doesn't go away as Dean starts to speak.
"Where the fuck were you?" he questions, voice unusually, deceptively calm. He glances at the clock on the nightstand, and they both know that's for emphasis; Dean knows perfectly well what time it is. "Where were you for five hours, not answering your phone?"
"Um, working? Doing research? You know, that thing I said I was going to do?"
"Right, research," Dean says, fiddling with his collar. He's taken off his jacket, tie, and dress shoes; Dean hates suits, knows he has a tendency to look as uncomfortable as he feels wearing them. He pops the top button of the shirt, then the next, and Sam sees the brief glint of amulet in the hollow of his throat before Dean buttons up again, fingers moving reflexively up and down.
"Here," Sam offers up a manila folder full of print-outs, something he put together at the public library branch before moving on to Chinatown. He fans out the weather reports, temperature charts, sunset, moonrise, dew point, barometric pressure, several weeks worth ordered in neat rows.
"It's definitely abnormal, for June. Sudden spike in pressure two days ago, and the –"
Dean nods, pulling the buttons open one more time; the thread on the second one down is worn, stretched out, and the button looks like it's going to spring loose at any moment.
"That took you five hours? We already know there's a demon here, not like we need the confirmation. Dammit!"
The button slips between Dean's fingers, lands on the floor with a small clink and lazily rolls under the bed and out of sight.
"How did you do?" Sam's voice comes out a touch too strained, too defensive, but Dean only shakes his head and pulls his shirttails loose from his pants.
"About as well as you," he sighs, balling the shirt up and aiming for an open bag. "This is a goddamn wild goose chase. I mean, this demon's gotta be here for something, but it's doing what, sitting around and waiting? Hate to say it, but unless there are some deaths or some other majorly freaky shit going down, we got no way to find it." Dean dives head first into a blue tee shirt, and Sam watches the fabric slide over his hair with a crackle of static. "Unless, of course, it decides it wants to find us, which would actually make things a lot easier. Hey, that'd be a first."
Dean doesn't bother going into the bathroom to change; years spent in close quarters have cured both of them of any pretense at modesty. He shimmies out of the dress pants with a sigh of relief and pulls the jeans up his legs. As he bends down, Sam notices a small tear in his boxers, where the waistband is fraying away from the seat, and it jars him, keeps his eyes on his brother for moments longer than necessary.
Dean's things are falling apart, and Sam knows that a week ago, he would hardly have noticed a trifle like a button or a ripping seam. Today it feels disturbingly like an omen. He shoos the thought away, tells himself they've always been tough on clothes as he stares at the curve of Dean's thigh, the small white scar on the back of his left knee. He keeps staring even as the scar and the shorts disappear under a layer of denim, and Dean turns around, zipper going up with a snick.
"I think you, uh, need some new clothes," Sam says, and Dean rolls his eyes, pulls his belt closed around his waist.
"I need a beer," he says, "or six. And I could really go for some onion rings right now. Scratch that, not onion rings, one of those onion blossom things, you know, with the horseradish stuff on top? Come on, I saw a place a couple of blocks that way, big-ass sign in the window for Nickel Night Thursday."
Nickel Night means a five-dollar cover from each of them; Dean does the math and proclaims anything from their fourth bottle on totally worth it. Ted's doesn't have deep-fried whole onions, but beer-battered onion rings are deemed to be a reasonable substitute, and they demolish half the basket waiting for their grinders, another Ted's specialty advertised with a large stenciled sign. "Call 'em hoagies, subs or heroes, we've got 'em," it says in a cheerful red over a listing of meats and vegetables. Dean has a steak bomb; Sam, an eggplant parm, hot and thickly loaded with melted cheese.
There are pool tables in the back; Dean generously buys beers for a couple of college kids he's divested of far more than ten cents over the course of the evening. The place gets packed at around eleven, girls in tank tops, girls with Northwestern, De Paul and Chicago State lettered on their chests, guys in polos and band tees and button-downs, music getting louder over the tiny dance floor.
Sam runs his nails over the label of his fourth beer, peels at the corner until the soggy paper comes off in curling strips. He is too warm and almost unpleasantly full, and his head feels heavy, eyelids drooping. He pushes the bottle aside and rests his chin on his folded hands, watches Dean slide his cue back into the rack and make his way back to the bar in steady energetic steps. It's odd, Sam thinks, that he feels like a sated snake, groggy and dormant after a meal and some drinks, while his brother moves like he hasn't made full use of his cover charge, eyes scanning the crowd, aware and steady.
A redheaded girl smiles at Dean and he smiles back, toothy and welcome; she throws her head back and laughs, Dean's mouth moving a mile a minute. They step closer together, then closer still; all that's left now is more beer and the undoubtedly important decision of bathroom or car, her place or theirs. Sam is certain their room will win out, the least distance for the most comfort.
"I wish this demon would show itself already," Dean'd said earlier. "If there's supposed to be a war coming, why is it waiting around doing nothing?"
Sam had retorted with a sour "be careful what you wish for," but watching Dean's arm settling around the redhead's waist, he ponders the chances of her eyes turning black after a whispered "Christo". One in three million; no way are they that lucky.
The headache hits him as he gets up to use the bathroom; the push of bodies, the dance beat, the smell of beer and perfume and sweat mixing in the hot, stagnant air make yellow spots float through his vision, and he feels his way along the wall like a drunk, clutching at the chipped tile. The vision comes in quick, sharp snaps, a flash of street sign, a red gate, a brick building, then it's gone, and Sam steadies himself against the sink, runs the tap, waiting for the pain to recede.
The water is blessedly cool against his forehead; he pulls wet hands through his hair, presses his fingertips into his skull. Deep breaths, he tells himself, exhaling loud and long, counting each lungful; his head feels better after he reaches fifteen, the pain reduced to a niggling pulse in his temples.
He cups his hands under the tap and swallows a few mouthfuls before going back out into the bar proper; on the floor, Dean is still talking to the redhead, and a second girl has joined them, little jean skirt and dark hair pulled into two short, tight braids. Sam heads straight for the exit, and doesn't feel all that guilty as he pulls his phone from his pocket, thumbing the call button as he steps into the street.
"I found the demon," he says when Dean picks up. "Meet me outside?"
"You gonna try to tell me that was just a dream, too?" Dean asks as they cross the street, stoplights flashing intermittent yellow in the wet night air.
"You know what it was," Sam says, and Dean nods, gives Sam a quick glance from under furrowed brows.
"I'm fine. That's the building. I must've walked by it at least twice today and didn't feel anything out of the ordinary."
"How 'bout now?"
"No, nothing," Sam says, and knows he is wrong as soon as the word leaves his mouth. His head no longer aches, but the strange little pulse is still there, a faint presence that gets louder as they approach the building, broken windows like stains on the brick facade. The bottom floor is boarded up, metal gates pulled shut over a few of the doors, but the third one from the corner is unlocked, just as Sam knew it would be. There are stairs leading up and down to the basement, and Dean switches on a flashlight, drags the beam over dirty, graffiti-covered walls, a printed sign proclaiming the place private property.
"What do you think, up or down?"
"Upstairs," Sam grunts without thinking, but it's the right answer. The pulse feels like it's right on top of him, thumping in his ears, drumming through his veins, frenzied, angry. He kicks in the second door on the left and strides in, Dean on his heels, shotgun and flask of holy water held high.
There is a boy kneeling in the corner, scrawny arms wrapped tightly about his chest, head bent low.
"Mistress, I can't do it," he whimpers without looking up, "she is too strong for me to deal with, please, I –" he looks up; below the short blond curls, the eyes are a dead and solid black, unblinking. When the demon speaks again, the begging has gone out of its voice, replaced with a cool, matter-of-fact tone, disturbingly at odds with its host's small frame.
"Oh, fuck me. It's you," it says, coming to its feet. "I suppose it's too much to hope for that you and Mistress have finally come to an agreement and you're here to lend a helping hand?"
"An agreement with whatever the fuck you work for?" Dean snorts, and the demon grins at him.
"The Winchesters have given up on dealing with demons? Say it ain't so! However, I wasn't referring to you. So," it cocks the boy's head at Sam, "you aren't working with Melchiresa, then. I don't blame you; were I in your position, I'd do the same. Alas, I was made for service, not for lordship, and I haven't time to waste."
The demon lifts up its hands almost lazily, a motion so practiced it needn't follow the palms with its eyes, and the room flies by Sam, the wall viciously meeting the back of his skull. Dean groans in the corner, trying to reach for the shotgun that is no longer in his hands, but the demon only smiles, and the weapon glides obediently towards its feet.
"Huh. You are what she is worried about? No, don't move," the demon says, and Sam's legs limply fold towards the floor. Pain spikes through his ankle as he goes down, and the demon stretches, rolls its shoulders with a satisfied hiss. Its slim hand points at Sam's throat, crooking as if in invitation, and Sam feels those fingers wrapping around his neck, squeezing lightly.
"Just a meatbag," the demon sighs, clenching its fist, and the phantom fingers crush at Sam's throat. He gasps for air, feeling the burn cresting through his chest, his mouth. Red burns through his vision, yellow stains turning fuzzy and black. He is sinking into fire, and when the flames close over his head, she is standing in front of him, a smug little smile crooking her pale face. Not now, he wants to scream, this is not the time for another vision, no – but he hears the words all the same.
"Don't waste his last minutes on empty threats. Come on; break the salt line, and I'll let you have time for a nice good bye."
"Not saying good bye, remember? Do I have to tell you everything twice?"
"Sweetheart, you can say it as many times as you like, but not a one will make it so."
"That's where you're wrong, sister."
"You don't have a sister."
"I guess you're right. Come on, 'sweetheart', I'm giving you a chance to offer back what's mine."
"Remind me again, what's yours here?"
The room floats into painful focus; Sam's tongue fills up his mouth, a sour, hot, swollen thing. A great big bell is ringing in his skull, its weight crushing into his throat, the deafening pulse of it almost drowning out the demon's satisfied voice.
"…not who Mistress sent me for, but who knew the pair of you'd be here? I daresay she'll be happy enough. Stop trying to move, Dean, that's a good boy."
Maybe it's his brother's name on the creature's lips, the burn in his lungs, or the blood hammering in his ears, but something snaps inside him. Sam shoves forward as hard as he can, every fiber of him pushing desperately against the hand denying him air, until he's suddenly drawing a painful, heavy breath. The demon howls as it hits the wall, then lies quiet and perfectly still, and Sam realizes he hasn't moved a muscle.
He stands up slowly, watches Dean do the same, rubs tentatively at his neck. Every breath feels like a lead weight in his chest.
"Just get the devil's trap drawn," he rasps before Dean can say anything about what happened, and pulls the rope out of his bag. He yanks the boy's scrawny wrists together, binding them up tight, then cinches up his ankles and drags the limp body into the middle of the floor.
"Come on, you bastard, wake up so we can get you the hell out of here" Dean prompts, nudging the boy with his boot. "I'd better say the words myself, huh, Sammy?"
Sam only nods through the ache in his throat as the demon's eyes snap open.
"Fool!" the demon spits, struggling against the bonds, but they don't give as Dean begins the exorcism. "You think these words will be enough to undo her? She will break you."
"…in nomine Dei Patris Omnipotentis," Dean growls, "in nomine Jesu."
"Why aren't you saying the words, Samuel? What's got your tongue? I kno-ow, I kno-ow," the demon sing-songs.
Should've gagged him, Sam thinks, and shuts his eyes as the demon lets out a desperate wail.
"Vade, satana, magister omnis fallaciae."
"She will dance on your bones long before your year is up," the demon gurgles, and Dean grits his teeth, says the words louder and louder until he is nearly screaming, "…qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos, et saeculum per ignem!"
Even without opening his eyes, Sam knows the exact moment the demon is cast out. The tugging, niggling point of pressure is gone from his head, but it's not replaced by relief. He feels blind, suddenly helpless, as if their next enemy is right around the corner, lurking undetected. He hears Dean say something vaguely reassuring to the kid, maybe "not your fault" or "let me help" as he unties the ropes, then the patter of feet across the floor, away, down the stairs, and out of earshot.
"Come on, boy wonder, let's get the hell outta here."
It's three in the morning when they get back to the room, and Dean heads straight for his bed.
"I'm fine," he says when Sam offers to patch him up, "real tired, though. That was a long freakin' day."
He unlaces his boots, and is out in moments, hand tucked under his cheek. Sam sits at the computer for a good half hour longer before calling Bobby. Unsurprisingly, the phone goes straight to voicemail, and Sam omits the vast majority of the encounter, letting the machine record only that they exorcized the demon, but not before it mentioned a mistress, the name Melchiresa, and Dean's deal.
"I don't know if this has anything to do with the crossroads demon – it was likely just mocking us – but I've never heard that name before, I'm not coming up with anything useful searching, and I want to be prepared. Thanks, Bobby, good night."
They can hear the cicadas buzzing even before Dean kills the engine; a disturbingly loud hum grinding through the muggy afternoon air.
"Hear that? Can't be a good sign," Dean mutters, feeling for his guns; the smell doesn't hit them until they walk up to the porch, Sam's hand poised to knock on the latched screen door.
"Oh, god, that's awful," he cringes, covering his nose. It's almost sweet, stale, rotten fruit and something else, sickening and harsh, underneath. "Definitely not a good sign. Hey," he raises his voice, calls out through the netting. "Hey, anybody home?"
There's no response. A large, fat fly crawls down the screen as Sam fiddles with the latch; it doesn't quite reach his fingers as the screen door gives, swinging open.
The first body is in the kitchen, arms stretched out over the grimy linoleum tile, flowered dress ripped at the hem and trailing pink thread over the dead girl's skinny pale legs. Dark, old blood crusts over her hands, fingers bent like claws into the floor; more blood stains the back of her dress and her bleached blond hair.
Sam feels the bile rise in his throat, and looks away, thankful he can't see her face, when Dean calls from the living room. More bodies arranged carefully on the couch, a man and a woman leaning into each other in front of the TV like they just sat down to watch, but they're days dead, silent and sightless.
They make their way upstairs; Dean opens a bedroom door and shuts it almost immediately, mouth drawn in a tight, bitten line.
"Don't look in there," he says through his teeth when Sam taps him on the shoulder. "Kids, three of 'em. Nothing we can do."
They find the last one in the master bathroom, a man cramped into the tight space between the toilet and the sink, arms clutched tightly to his chest, grey tongue lolling out between his mangled, broken lips.
"Jesus. Jesus, fuck, what happened here," Sam manages, leaning heavily onto the sink. Dean shakes his head, brows furrowed, and nudges the body with his boot.
"Something really fucked up. Looks like both his legs were broken. Wait, you hear that?" Dean says suddenly, putting out a finger. "Shh."
A door thuds downstairs, then another, followed by steps; Sam listens, head cocked, then nods at his brother.
"Two," he mouths, before they creep out into the hallway, guns at the ready; the footsteps are getting closer, thudding up the creaky staircase.
There is a cross thrust into Sam's face as they turn the corner.
"Christo," yells a striking, dark-skinned woman, short hair brushed away from her face. She grasps the cross with one hand, a large curved dagger with the other; close behind her is a man wielding a heavy shotgun.
"Christo? Man, we're not possessed – hey, hey, you wanna watch where you point that thing," Dean sputters, recoiling from the blade, but neither the woman nor the man put down their weapons.
"Bishop didn't mention anyone else was working this gig," the woman says, eyes flashing back and forth between Sam's face and Dean's.
"Bishop? Big guy, big scar, eye patch, walks with a limp?"
"That'd be him," the man confirms, and Dean grins wide.
"Did a couple jobs with him back in '03," he says, lowering his gun. "Can't believe the old bastard's still kicking around."
They do the introductions outside; Sam catches their names, Isaac and Tamara, but tunes out the rest, Bishop, couple jobs in '03 running endlessly through his mind like a hamster in a wheel. Dean and he have never sat down and talked about what life had been like when Sam'd left for Stanford. He thinks they could describe it in the most general of terms, Sam had Jess and wanted to be a lawyer, Dean and Dad carried on as they always had, what more is there to tell, but it's a gap nevertheless, a piece of Dean he knows nothing about, and probably won't ever, except for in accidental bits and pieces like this. Bishop, big guy, eye patch; he tries to conjure it up, salt and pepper hair and a wicked scar bisecting the man's grizzled cheek, pale white and twisted, pulling on the skin until it disappears under the round swatch of black cloth. Dean had never mentioned him before, and Sam wonders if Dad had been there, if they got along badly, or maybe too well, if Dean had run into him by accident or had been asked along. He doesn't even know what they had been hunting.
Isaac's irate voice breaks through the haze, and Sam blinks, tries to focus on the words as Tamara plants a steadying hand on Isaac's shoulder.
"Honey, everyone makes mistakes. Like you've never done something you weren't proud of."
"Sure," Isaac says, taking a step forward. "Locked my keys in the car a few times, ran a red shirt through with my whites, turned my laundry pink. Never opened a Devil's Gate, though, or let a legion of demons out of hell! There aren't enough hunters in the world as is, without you two fools trying to start a goddamn Apocalypse."
"Oh, hey, why don't you tell us how you really feel," Dean smirks, spreading his hands wide; Sam knows the gesture all too well. To anyone who hasn't lived with Dean long enough to enumerate and catalogue every grin, every pose, he doesn't seem threatening; not yet. It's still looking like cocky bravado, a little annoyance covered up with a little sarcasm, but Sam can see the twitch of vein over Dean's temple, the tense arc of his spine.
"Come on, guys – Dean – this really isn't helping. We –"
Dean cuts him off without so much as a glance, hands balling up into fists.
"Nah. I wanna hear it. Come on, man, let it all out."
They're too close now; another step and it'll be beyond uncomfortably so. Dean cracks his knuckles, and Isaac shakes his head, crooks his mouth in barely concealed disgust.
"You heard me. You brought a demon war down – on all of us. So why don't the two of you just get in that big shiny car and get the hell out of here, before you make any more idiotic mistakes!"
Sam isn't fast enough to stop Dean from throwing a punch; Tamara is pulling at her husband's shirt, yelling his name, but to no effect. A heavy fist finds a cheekbone, another lands on a jaw, sharp tang of blood rising in Sam's nostrils, and god, this is just what they need right now.
"Stop it," he yells, grabbing onto Dean's sleeve, "stop it, damn it, stop!"
A sharp burst of pain blazes through his skull, and Sam falters, presses a hand to his forehead and blinks his eyes, once, twice, until it's gone. When he lifts up his head, Dean is rubbing a finger over his nose, and Isaac is staring at him with something like fear in his eyes, one hand clasping Tamara's tightly.
"What in the hell was that? You did something to me – made me – what the hell kind of hunter are you? You – you made me stop! You –"
Sam stumbles back, opens his mouth to say something, anything, looking helplessly at his brother for some sort of reassurance, but Dean isn't looking at him at all; he is focused back on the house, eyebrows scrunched together, already reaching for his holster.
"Uh, guys," he says, quiet but sharp, "this is definitely not the best time for this, but I think we got company."
Behind the screen door, something's moving.
It's the girl, Sam realizes as they get closer, pink dress hanging loose on her narrow shoulders, and for a moment, relief floods his chest, until he remembers the crook of her fingers, the blood dried onto her skin, the awkward bent of her neck as she lay on the floor, and words and breath catch in his throat.
The girl isn't alone. A little boy clings to her legs, pulls at the back of her bloodied dress as she stumbles through to the porch, a dark gory mess where his face ought to be, thick black ichor sliding down in sickening, terrible droplets.
"Oh, god," Tamara gasps behind him, and the girl's head snaps up, eyes glowing like two burning coals in her dead, grey-mottled face.
"What the fuck are you waiting for," Dean barks, "shoot the damn thing already," and Sam finally forces himself into motion, lifting his gun with a steady hand, the world dissolving into a pattern of step, aim and fire.
Even with silver bullets, they don't go down easy. They aren't anything like the zombie they dealt with last year, a car crash victim raised by an overzealous friend. Barely aware, but they move fast on their mangled limbs, talon-like hands slicing through the air, teeth bared. Sam empties a clip into the dead girl's chest before she finally stays on the ground, eyes rolling back into her skull, hands still uselessly clawing at the dirt. Isaac follows with the shotgun; Dean and Tamara are already inside, "Gotta make sure the rest of them stay down, you take the living room, move, now, now," as they move through the hallways; the smell is worse now than it had been a half-hour ago, and Sam takes shallow, measured breaths as he looks through the door.
The couch in front of the television is empty; he moves along carefully, listening for a telling noise; still, the thing takes him by surprise, thick fingers wrapping around his throat from behind. Ragged, unnaturally sharp nails shred into his skin; he can smell the creature's fetid breath as its mouth opens over his shoulder. Sam kicks out, trying to twist from its grasp when suddenly its hold on him falters.
It hits the floor with a wet, heavy thump, an ornate, curved knife protruding from its misshapen neck, and Sam is about to turn around and thank Tamara for her help when he sees a small, pale hand reaching down to retrieve the dagger.
"Who the hell are you?" he rasps, rubbing at the aching flesh between his throat and shoulder.
The woman cocks her blonde head and wipes the knife blade on the dead man's shirtsleeve before returning it back to a sheath strapped around her left leg.
"I'm the girl who just saved your ass. You should really be more careful. Anyway, I think they're done upstairs, so I'm gonna head."
"Wait," he calls out, as she waves at him from the doorway.
"See you around, Sam."
She's gone before he catches his breath, hands pressed into his sides, and he hears the front door slam just as Tamara walks down the stairs.
"We'll take care of the bodies, but you and your brother had better go, Winchester," she says quickly, trying not to look him in the eye. "And I, for one, would prefer to never see you again."
"I, for one, would prefer to never see you again," Dean mocks as they get in the car. "Man, those two were assholes. Now I remember why I don't play well with other hunters."
"I really spooked them," Sam says quietly, staring ahead into the road. It's just starting to get dark, the sun a thin line of pale pink on the horizon, and the air has gotten cooler, more bearable. "Aren't you, well, worried? Shouldn't we both be?"
"What, about your little mojo display, headache and all? Whatever," Dean shrugs, "bet you can't even do it again."
"Dean, that's not the point," Sam mutters as his brother turns on the headlights, breaking the darkness ahead.
"You're just saying that 'cause you know you can't. Come on, tell me to – make me pull over right now. Tell me to get out of the car, or something. Bet you can't," Dean grins, and turns up the volume on the radio. "Make me change the radio station – come on, Sammy, you hate this song, you shouldn't be forced to listen to it, am I right or am I right?"
"Let's see, how much louder does this thing go?" Dean says. "Oh, there we are. Come on, Sam, show me special."
"Dean, I'm not gonna try to whammy you into turning the volume down."
"Uh huh. That's 'cause you can't," Dean keeps grinning, fingers drumming out the beat against the steering wheel. "Bitch."
"Jerk," Sam says mechanically, staring at his brother's smirking mouth. He wonders if Dean suspects just how terrified he is right now.
"Pussy," Dean responds, and starts singing along with the chorus of Crazy Train, and Sam closes his eyes, tries to call up how it felt when Isaac stepped back, face contorted with anger and fear.
"Dean, turn that off," he concentrates and tries, looking back at his brother, and then again, and again, and again, but Dean only laughs and keeps singing.
"See, Sammy? Not worried. Hey, do me a favor, get the map from the glove box and see how far we are from Cicero, Indiana, would you?"
"Is there a case?"
"Nah," Dean says, finally turning the volume down. "Something better than a case, man. Lisa."
Between the steady beat of the radio and Dean's progressively specific descriptions of Lisa's impressive flexibility, Sam manages to thumb through the three chapters of Crowley's Liber Al Vel Legit, disregarding the author's infamous note to destroy the book after a single reading. The text is as flowery and pompous as he remembers, but still he highlights a sentence here and there before putting the text away and checking his messages. The first voicemail is from Ellen, and he feels only the slightest bit guilty for skipping right through to the next one; it's not that he doesn't care for what she has to say, but he has heard it all before, from Ellen and Bobby both: we're here, we care, don't overwork yourself, make sure your brother eats something green once in a while, don't let him drink until the clock is safely in PM territory, same goes for you, Sam, don't worry yourself sick, son.
It's funny, he thinks, because even though they are calling from completely separate phones in different states, their once a day monologues seem to utilize the same script. It's exactly what a normal set of parents would sound like, two-car-garage, empty-nest Mom and Dad with their last baby finally away in college, getting ready for his first spring break.
Once there was a time he would have done anything in his power to get messages just like this one, and now he hits 'erase' after hearing the first couple of words. It's depressing, and Sam puts the phone back in his pocket. Dean seems to have finally finished his paean to claymation and has moved on to extolling the virtues of Daphne from Scooby-Doo, although it's unclear whether he has the Saturday morning or the live-action movie version in mind.
"…Number Nine on Maxim's Hottest Cartoon Babes List," Sam hears from the driver's seat, and reaches dejectedly for a paperback copy of The Vision and the Voice, 'Manchester Public Library' stamped red on the inside cover. He doesn't bother highlighting, having a hard enough time concentrating as is, and has to re-read the Cry of the 28th Aethyr twice before the words seem to form coherent enough sentences in his mind.
"No sorrow, save in the darkness of the womb of her by whom came evil," he mutters under his breath, "no sorrow, save in the darkness, could Crowley have been more of a pretentious bastard, of the womb of her, of her, the womb of her by whom came evil… Dean, did you seriously just say something about Cordelia Chase naked? From Buffy the Vampire Slayer? That Cordelia?"
"June 2004," Dean repeats smugly, "awesome issue. Playmate of the Year on page 78, the Centerfold's this, heh, Japanese 'lingerie designer', and nine pages of Cordelia freaking Chase on a white fur rug."
"I don't even know what to say to that," Sam sighs, closing The Vision and the Voice.
"Harmony is in the November '06 Playboy," his brother supplies cheerfully and pulls over to the curb. "Anyway, Sammy, you know the drill; don't wait up!"
He's got his laptop out as he waits for his order, the checkered vinyl tablecloth sticky under his elbows. The ice cubes in his glass hiss softly as they succumb to the thaw, and Sam idly pokes his straw into the lone slice of lemon floating among them, watches it sink slowly to the bottom in a rush of bubbles, then bob back up again.
"Burger and fries, coleslaw on the side, mind if I share?"
It's not his waitress, but someone else entirely that deposits his food onto the table and slides into the opposite seat with a toothy grin.
"Pleasure to see you again, Sam."
"You're the knife girl," he says, staring at her red vinyl jacket. It's almost the same bright shade as the bench seat she's reclining against, although it looks like it'd be much softer to the touch. "Have you been following me?"
"Knife girl, I kind of like that. It's got a ring to it. Are you going to eat those?"
She reaches between the stacks of white packets of sugar and blue packets of Nutra Sweet, pulls up the bottle of ketchup, pops the top and squirts it liberally over his plate.
"It's 'Ruby'," she says, smacking the bottom of the ketchup container with the flat of her hand, "but if you want to keep calling me 'Knife Girl', I'm fine with that. And to answer your question, even though you are being rude and ignoring mine, yes. I've been following you. My questions were, 'can I share' and 'are you going to eat those', by the way."
"Help yourself," he allows; the swirls and eddies of red sauce she's inflicted onto his fries don't look very appetizing.
"You're a sweetheart," she grins again, dipping into the plate, "but just so you know, that's not why I'm so interested in you, Samuel."
There is something off in the way she pronounces his name, almost like she just misspoke and corrected herself halfway through; there is too much of a pause between the syllables, the 'm' is too drawn out, the 'u' barely intelligible.
"Why are you interested in me?" he asks just as she closes her glossy, red mouth over several pieces of deep-fried potato.
"Mhmph," she raises a finger, indicating he needs to wait before she is capable of any sort of answer; Sam can't help watching her chew and swallow, pleasure writ clear across her face. Something about her expression, maybe the bright red of her lipstick, the way she pushes soft blonde curls away from her cheek, or the gusto with which she attacks his lunch reminds him of Jess. It feels like a cold needle-stab between his ribs, a thump in his stomach.
"It's not the height, either – don't get me wrong, I love a tall man," she pronounces, poking a fork into his coleslaw, "but it's the whole Antichrist thing that's really keeping the romance alive."
It doesn't feel like a needle anymore; it's a sharp, cold metallic jab that makes his knuckles go white and frozen over the laptop keys.
"I'm sorry, the what thing?" he asks dumbly as she takes a tentative bite of coleslaw, furrows her brows, and chases it down with another french fry.
"You know, that whole Survivor thing you guys had going in Wyoming that ended with you winning the big prize – what'd you take it in, unmarked bills or precognition and mind control?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," he forces out, eyes quickly scanning the diner for the easiest escape route, but her hand closes over his with a pinch of static electricity.
"You shocked me," Ruby pouts; her fingers are smooth, warm, and not long enough to fully encircle his wrist, although she's giving it a good try. "I'm gonna go out on a limb here, and say that you're thinking of giving me a little bit of truth – your big mean brother already shot the guy who was running that whole operation. But don't bother lying about your head-splitting, mind-numbing, spirit-pounding visions – because I already know those haven't gone away."
"How… how do you know about any of that?"
"Oh, I hear things," she says, finally letting go of his hand. "Hey, I think that's big brother pulling into the parking lot right now. A little ahead of schedule, isn't he? Wonder what that's all about. Anyway, I'm going to skedaddle; you guys go ahead and have yourselves a nice familial chat. We can pick this up later."
She slides out of the booth with a final smile.
"Thank you ever so much for lunch, Sam."
"Ok, so, from what I'm seeing on this website here, to get an official copy of someone's birth certificate in this hellhole of a state, you need to be a blood relative, an official caregiver or court appointed guardian, or legal counsel to a," Dean wrinkles his forehead, "to a relevant party. So that's what you're going to need to be. Legal counsel, relevant party, you uh, can come up with a 'reason for the request' yourself; you're the law guy."
"The 'law guy'? Wow, Dean; that is one hell of a brilliant assessment. And all this has something to do with the job you're now saying exists in this town?" Sam asks, pushing the cold, greasy remnants of lunch around his ketchup-smeared plate.
"Sorta," Dean grunts between frantic gulps of coffee, and doesn't say anything for the next five minutes. The waitress's giving them odd looks by the time he starts again; Sam thinks he would be, too, were he in her place, because he's been here for over two hours and entertained as many visitors in the meantime.
"Look, Sammy," his brother says finally, pressing the laptop shut, "I really need you to do this for me. It's important. What do you want me to say, 'please'? 'Pretty please, cherry on top'?"
"No, I don't want you to say 'pretty please'. I want a straight answer. What does this really have to do with? Is it for that woman? Is this some kind of messed up hoop-jumping thing?"
"No," Dean says, examining the dried-on patterns of soda and grease all over the crinkly tablecloth.
"Then what is it? What is going on?"
"Fine; fucking fine, let's go. Get up, go get in the car. I'll take care of the check."
"That's it?" he asks incredulously. "That's all you have to say to me now?"
"No, Sammy, that's not all I have to say to you now," his brother grits out, scrabbling for his coffee cup, and it suddenly strikes Sam that Dean's hands are shaking. It's just a slight twitch, probably not something he would have even picked up on had he not been looking right at him this very moment, but it's enough to make him look up at Dean's face and wince.
"Just get in the car. I'll tell you where to drive," Dean sighs, still wrinkling his pale, clammy forehead; wordlessly, Sam picks up the keys and the laptop and makes his way into the parking lot.
Dean gives him directions in a quiet monotone, puts the coins in the meter one by one, listening to them clink inside. The afternoon sunlight filters lazily through the treetops, splashes across the neatly trimmed grass and the park benches, each painted a bright rainbow hue.
"Look," Dean says, as they sit on the blue one near a gravel path, and Sam watches a short, skinny girl trying desperately to hold on to two large tawny mutts, a pair of kids tossing a Frisbee back and forth. There's a grey-haired man on the purple bench, reading a newspaper through thick, tortoise shell-framed glasses.
"At what?" he asks finally, stretching his legs into the gravel. The bench is uncomfortably low to the ground, and the wood is uneven and too dense against his back. The sun ducks back behind a large white mass Sam thinks looks like a ship, at least until the wind tangles its sails and brings its masts crashing down.
They are sitting too close together, he realizes as Dean's thigh presses against his, hot and shivering – Dean is twitching his foot, kicking up little bits of gravel with his leather and steel-encased toes. Sam cocks his head, trying to gauge what it is that his brother sees, decides that suddenly putting more bench space between them would be the wrong thing to do.
The Frisbee arcs through the air gracelessly, landing far across the lawn and almost into another cluster of boys. One of them picks it up, takes a few steps forward and launches it back to the grateful owners. The leg against Sam goes stock-still, presses into him harder.
"It's not a job; it's him. His name is Ben and he just turned eight yesterday," Dean explains, and it's as if some floodgate has suddenly come crashing down in his head, because he doesn't stop talking until Sam's heard everything; the things the kid likes, the music, the clothes, the way he walks and talks, the way the neighborhood women whispered behind Dean's back.
"God, but you're an idiot," Sam sighs after Dean's finally paused for a breath. He thinks he ought to be more surprised at the whole situation, or bothered, disturbed. Certainly, he is expected to be sympathetic, not vacillating between wanting to cry, laugh, ruffle his brother's hair or smack him on his fool head. Maybe do all of the above in rapid succession.
"I know how you felt about school, but did you pay any attention in biology at all? I mean, the birds and the bees part seems like it would have been worth it to you for the laugh factor, or something. Do you seriously think musical tastes and the shirts an eight-year-old kid wears have anything to do with genetics? You said it yourself, his mom had a type; you think maybe it's had some influence on how she is raising her son? You are such an idiot, Dean," he repeats almost fondly, waits for his brother to turn towards him, metaphorical guns blazing; Dean doesn't disappoint.
For a few moments, it's like being fifteen again, and science mid-terms only weeks away. Sam runs through the basic points of Lamarckian evolution, nature versus nurture, Gregor Mendel and Darwin's "The Origin of Species", while Dean scowls, kicks at his seat and remains woefully unconvinced.
"Wait, did she – Lisa – say something to you?" Sam relents finally, and Dean shrugs, shaking his head.
"She was evasive," he says, "and I wasn't about to come out with a 'so, cute kid, any chance he's mine?' I need to know, Sammy, ok? I need to know for sure, and I can't think of any way to do it without being a complete jackass, and –"
"Ok," Sam nods, moving to his half of the bench, the side of his leg feeling the sudden parting cold. "Department of Health's in Indianapolis, right? That's about an hour-long drive." He looks at his watch, considering. "Come on, I'll drop you back off at the motel room."
It's mid-afternoon, and the traffic on Interstate 70 is a myriad of car horns squealing their displeasure into the winding eight-lane horizon. Sam glares at his watch for the sixth time, belatedly wishing he'd checked the Health Department's business hours, loosens his tie, pops the top button of his dress shirt. It could stand to be cleaner; he hasn't washed it since the last time they posed as agents acting on pressing, official business. He hasn't come up with his lines yet, either, hoping something will come to him on the spot. He has no idea how long something like this will take, doubts it's going to be a "here you go, Sir, have a print-out" kind of situation. He'll probably have to ask them to send the paperwork to their PO box in Lawrence, and Lawrence means Missouri and ashes and the smell of smoke, and his dress shoes are too tight, his collar is chafing, and damn him for giving in and agreeing to do this, damn Dean for wanting a second go with Lisa fucking Braeden, damn Dean for ever having fucked her in the first place.
Sam flicks his eyes between mirrors in a futile attempt to change lanes, stomps onto the brakes with a curse.
He laughed it off back in the park, sure; quoted Wikipedia and tenth-grade bio and nodded and smiled, but alone in the car, he admits he isn't anywhere as sure as he'd like his brother to believe he is. A fucking kid, imagine that; then again, with Dean, it's a wonder it hasn't happened before now. How many towns, how many states, how many beds has he passed through this year alone; then again, with Dean, that's practically a rhetorical question. And now it's Sam who is wasting the afternoon in the middle of a crowded highway, thinking of dominant traits and probabilities, pondering chromosome pairs and whether or not this Lisa woman let Dean fuck her again before he found out she was a mother.
He is so engrossed that he almost misses his exit and forgets to feed the meter as he parks the car.
A familiar voice calls his name as he briskly walks down the sidewalk, and a moment later, a small, manicured hand is tapping him on the arm.
"Fancy seeing you here, Sam," Ruby smiles, matching his pace. "Where'd you leave the hero of the day, in the car, or back in Cicero? I would've thought this was important enough for him to come with."
"What is your deal?" he asks her, eyeing the building numbers on both sides of the street. "You show up wherever I am, know exactly what I'm doing and why – hell, you seem to know more about my family than I do."
"Does it really matter?" she asks, threading her arm through his. She is tall enough to do it comfortably, and that startles Sam enough to not immediately pull away.
"Just tell me who you are and what you want," he snaps, and she grips his sleeve a little tighter.
"I'm here to help you, Sam, if you'd just let me."
"Help me with what?"
"Oh, you know. Issues, problems, the occasional dinner," she winks conspiratorially. "I have a list. Bullet point the first – those pesky visions of yours; bullet point the second –"
"Tell me how you know about those," he says, pulling her in a little closer. "I want a straight answer, none of that coy 'I hear things' bullshit. I really don't have the patience for that right now."
"Oh, I bet you don't," Ruby smirks, tossing her hair back. She is wearing the same jacket she did earlier, and her lips are still painted a brilliant red to match it. "Promise you won't freak out, and I'll show you something."
"Alright," he nods, letting her guide him towards a shop front, out of the way of the stream of pedestrians flowing on by.
"Remember, we're in public," she breathes, rising up on tip toe, her free hand wrapping around Sam's chin. She smells like some kind of flowery perfume, and her hair glints pale gold in the sunlight, soft careless waves around her blushing face. "Don't make a scene," she whispers, full, red mouth close enough to kiss, eyes blinking closed. When she opens them again, they are pupil-less, demon-black.
Sam's hand is going for the flask in his pocket before he's even conscious of the movement, but Ruby's grip on him is unnaturally tight.
"You promised not to make a scene. Come on; is that any way to treat a girl? Holy water?" the demon asks, the inky blackness receding from her eyes. "As I said, I'm here to help you, Sam. If I was here for any other reason, you'd know it by now, believe me."
"Is this some kind of joke?" Inside his coat pocket, Sam's hand finally closes around the little flask, and he wonders if he can screw open the cap fast enough.
"No joke. I want to help."
"What," he sighs, "what kind of help could I possibly want from you?"
The girl's mouth stretches into a smile again, and Sam notices dumbly that her lipstick is slightly smudged on the left side of her bottom lip as the demon leans away from him to reach into a faux leather pocket.
"I can help you save your brother," it says, handing him a small, sealed envelope. "Here. This isn't much, but I hope you accept it as a down payment, and a token of my good will."
Sam rips the envelope open clumsily, pulls out the paper inside. The word "copy" is watermarked through the middle of it in large, pastel letters.
"Indiana Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, Certificate of Live Birth," he reads aloud, random words leaping out at him from the typewritten lines. "Twin Oaks Hospital, Name of mother – Lisa Jean Braeden, date of birth, sex of child – male; name of father…"
"You don't have to say it if you don't want to," Ruby says, still smiling, "but a 'thank you' would be really nice."
"Uh, ok," Sam nods, reading the father's name over and over, thick, happy warmth radiating steadily through his ribcage. "Edward Gregory Tyler, Jr. Legal residence – Indianapolis, IN. Age at time of birth – thirty one."
His phone rings on the way back to the car, Bobby's number glowing on the display; Sam hesitantly swipes his fingers over the "talk" button.
"Got something on Melchiresa for ya, Sam," Bobby says hoarsely; a dog barks somewhere in the background, and he can hear the clinking of pots and pans, water running in the sink.
"A couple of things. There is a text dating back to the second century, talkin' about the death of the demon Rameel. From what I gather, it's always been regarded as an account of the events that led up to the Great Flood. A war fought by two of Rameel's children for the right to rule over humankind. Rameel'd favored one over the other, but the scrolls aren't too clear on which one, only ever name one of them, Melchiresa, who is 'struck down and damned without salvation'," Bobby quotes. "I did some cross-checking, and 'struck down' is always interpreted as being done by God, but I ain't so sure that that's right." Bobby pauses, coughing.
"You alright?" Sam asks, listening to Bobby's wheezing.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," Bobby grouses. "Ellen's got me drinking some herbal nonsense, swears there ain't no cold it won't cure. As I was sayin', I cross-checked with the Book of Enoch and the Journals of Rabbi Eliezer, both of which number Rameel's children in the hundreds. Hard to say who the second one is. But what really bugs me is some of the phrasing. I've been looking at everything I could find on Rameel and his progeny for the past few days, and the more I look, the less convinced I am that all the texts describe something that has already come to pass."
"You think it's a prediction, then? A prophecy?"
"Maybe," Bobby coughs again. "I'll send you my notes, and you can check out the sources yourself, if you want. Oh, if you're going to look on your own, let me tell you the other names Rameel is frequently referred to by. Got a pen?"
"Yeah," Sam says, pulling out a notepad and pencil. "Go ahead."
"Gadriel's not a very big one, doesn't come up in a lot of sources, but it does come up. Same with the names Beliar, Bel and Belial. Some medieval texts, like the Key of Solomon, maintain that Belial is a different demon altogether, but a few of the older ones give Belial, Rameel, Gadriel and Azazel as different names for the same entity. Sometimes they use the name Samael, too, but there's some conflicting sources on that one. He either comes up as one of Azazel's children, or Azazel himself. Don't make no kinda sense, really, but I'd give them all a try."
"Ok," he nods, scribbling the names down. "You said you had something else, too?"
"Yeah, I do. It's about your brother. Don't get too excited about it, but there's a woman you might want to go see in New York. She ain't a hunter, but she knows her way around, knows a lot of useful folks, too. Don't even think about tellin' her who you are, come up with a story and stick to it. Bela won't do a thing for you without a price tag attached, and the more she knows about you, the more she'll ask for, you got it?"
"Yeah, I got it, Bobby. Thank you."
"As I said, don't get too excited about it," Bobby repeats. "And get your brother to lighten up on the cheeseburgers, would you?"
"I'm trying," Sam sighs, "Bobby, I –"
He thinks about telling Bobby about Ruby, but he is pretty sure what will happen if he does; Bobby will worry and Bobby will yell, and he will put his sick self right in his car and come all the way out here and maybe yell some more, and Dean will join in the yelling and – no. Best not to even bring it up before he knows more about her; Sam settles for another question, instead.
"Have you had any luck with the Colt?"
Bobby coughs again, and Sam can hear his teeth clicking against a cup as he gulps something down, followed by a disgusted "ugh". Ellen's voice carries through lightly, something about adding some more honey to the mixture, and he can't help but chuckle.
"No," Bobby says finally, "I haven't figured out what makes it tick yet, but I'm workin' on it."
Sam hangs up with a "take care of yourself," takes a minute to stare at the names he scribbled onto his notepad; he seems to have double-underlined "Azazel" without really thinking about it.
There is a short guy in a dark blue uniform examining the meter next to his parking spot, and Sam swears softly under his breath.
"I was just about to leave," he says, coming closer, but the meter attendant purses his lips sourly and begins to fill out the ticket pad; that's just the perfect damn thing Sam needs to round out his day. The Impala is conspicuous even at its law-abiding best; a parking ticket wouldn't necessarily put them on the radar if they switch plates again, but still, it's really pushing it. He mentally berates himself for his carelessness as he watches the guy shake his pen, then swap it out for another one from his breast pocket, and makes a spontaneous decision. It's crazy, it's kind of wrong, and there is no guarantee at all that it will work, but Sam does his damnedest to concentrate through the immediate pressure in the back of his head, and when he speaks, he knows he isn't saying ordinary words.
"Don't write that ticket," he says, enunciating carefully as he stares straight into the parking officer's irritated face. "Please, don't write that ticket."
It's a little disturbing to watch the guy's brown eyes turn glassy and his face go slack; it's also a little exciting. For a moment or two, the parking officer just stands there, ticket book clutched in his hands, pen poised over the page, head shaking slightly.
Come on, come on, Sam thinks anxiously, put it away, heart pounding in his throat, and the parking officer lifts a slow, clumsy arm and shoves the pen back into his pocket, the ticket book back into a bag at his waist.
"You have a good day, Sir," he nods awkwardly. "Drive safe!"
The TV in their motel room is set on the Discovery channel, a well-bred voice talking over a screen of endlessly running lions. Dean is sprawled out on Sam's bed, Sam's pillow under his chin, and although he doesn't say anything as the door opens, the look on his face is pretty clear on the fact that he hasn't been watching so much as he has been waiting for Sam to return, keeping count of passing minutes by the number of antelope the narrator gleefully claims have fallen to the lions' teeth. Sam doesn't have any desire to prolong the wait; he pulls the envelope out as he sheds his suit jacket, sets it on the bedspread and retreats to the bathroom with a change of clothes. When he comes out a few minutes later, wearing a fresh t-shirt and toweling his hair dry, the lions have been replaced by polar bears, the envelope has vanished, and Dean is still maintaining the same pose, socked feet almost touching Sam's headboard.
"Did you read it?" Dean asks, staring at the bears as if they hold the answers to all of life's pressing challenges.
"Yeah, I read it," Sam nods, sitting down as the perky narrator divulges that polar bears are considered a vulnerable species by the World Conservation Union, and will likely see their numbers reduced by as much as two thirds by the year 2050 if action isn't taken. "Guess you're off the hook." He regards Dean for a long, empty minute, waits for him to say something that never comes. "You alright, dude? I swear, you look kind of disappointed."
Dean shrugs, presses the mute button as the television cuts to commercial, lightly punches Sam's pillow into a more comfortable shape.
"Bobby called," Sam says, trying to fill the silence. "There is a case in New York. Um, some woman Bobby knows, she is having trouble with – she is –"
"You are a shitty liar, Sam," Dean mutters into the pillow. "You're going to need to get a lot better than that. And right now you're sitting there making that face – yeah, that's the one – about to tell me another one about 'some woman Bobby knows'. This woman – whoever she is – forget it. She can't help me."
"You don't know that. Dean, you've got to let me try."
"I don't gotta do anything. Forget it; we're not going."
With the commercial break over, the narrator resumes reciting polar bear statistics, hunting, feeding and mating habits, and Dean turns the volume up with a determined expression, tugs on Sam's blanket until he has enough to cover himself. He stretches and yawns, pulling the blanket up; it's enough to blow Sam's nascent irritation into bright, solid anger.
"You know what?" he grits out, coming over to sit on the bed next to his brother. "I've had it. I've been busting my ass trying to keep you alive, and you act like you couldn't care less. What is it with you? Do you have some kind of fucked up death wish? Please, enlighten me, because I don't think I can take too much more of this crap."
Dean points the remote at the screen one more time, flicks the set off with a click and a hiss.
"What do you want from me, Sam?" he sighs, lifting his face up from the pillow.
"I just want you to take this seriously," Sam says, a little calmer now, but it doesn't last.
"It's good to want things; it builds character," Dean pronounces, punctuating the sentence with another satisfied yawn, and Sam thanks every power in the universe for not having the remote within reach, or it would be bouncing off of his brother's head in the next second. He settles for a tired, "You're unbelievable," watches Dean's satisfied nod.
"Very true. Look, Sam, I get it. I do. But you need to stop trying to 'help' me, or I'm going to have to do it for you. Stop looking at me like that. There is no way out of this deal, not for me. If I try to get out of it in any way, you die. Ok? You die. Those are the terms, that's how it is, and the sooner you accept it, the easier things will be. I got one year left, and I want to make the most of it. If you really want to help, go make a beer run. And don't get any of that fruity shit, like last time, what was it, Pete's 'Strawberry Blond'? What the hell kind of name for a beer is Strawberry Blond, anyway?"
Sam grits his teeth, slowly counts to ten in his mind, wondering if maybe it would be worth the headache and the likely resulting fistfight to lay the suggestion on Dean – we're going to New York, and that's final.
"The woman in New York really does have a case, Dean," he ends up saying, "and I am not going to let down a friend of Bobby's just because you're so intent on being a jerk. And Bobby had some other stuff to say, too. You remember what that demon in Chicago said to us about Melchiresa? Bobby figured it out – it's some sort of old demon, mentioned in all kinds of books – Enochian texts, the Dead Sea scrolls; the works. That possessed kid in Illinois asked if I was working with it. And you remember what –"
"How long have we been doing this?" Dean asks, rolling over onto his back.
"Doing what, having a pointless fucking argument?"
"Hunting, dumb-ass. Between the two of us, and Bobby, and," Dean's voice hitches a little, "Dad, how many of these things have we faced down? Double digits, dude, and you still can't seem to wrap your freak brain around one simple fact: demons lie. They mess with your head, get you all hot and bothered until you can't think straight and go off and do something stupid. So this demon's got a name; big deal. It's gonna end up just as exorcised as it would have without us being formally introduced. You going to get beer, or what?"
"Or what, Dean," Sam sighs. "Why are you getting all comfortable on my bed, anyway?"
"My mattress squeaks. Can't so much as blink without the springs screaming bloody murder."
"Great. I wasn't done yet, by the way. You remember that blond girl from Lincoln?"
"What, the one that totally stole your thunder, you child prodigy, you?"
"Not funny. I think she's the demon I have Bobby researching. Melchiresa. And if she isn't, then I don't know what her deal is. She caught up with me over breakfast this morning, introduced herself as 'Ruby', showed me just how possessed she was, and offered her help."
"No shit. Now that you mention it, that is kind of disturbing. Help with what?"
"Beats me; we need to get that gun working. I'm thinking once we're done with the case in New York, I'll hit the library. Maybe we'll get lucky and I'll figure out what it is we're missing."
"Yeah, alright, alright, we'll go," Dean grumbles, getting up to go to the bathroom. Sam takes the opportunity to reclaim his bed, stretches out under the thin, cheap covers. His pillow is still indented into the shape of Dean's face, and he lays his cheek down into the warm groove, full of the quickly fading scent of his brother's hair gel. It's not until later, trying his damnedest to ignore the near constant creaking of springs coming from his brother's bed that he realizes he didn't tell Dean about the parking enforcer.
New York, NY
"Ms. Talbot? I'm Darren Henley, and this is my associate, Ian Fraser. I called earlier," Sam says, the words far too familiar in his mouth. He's spoken to her three times now, while Dean was out; she didn't ask why he needed the information he needed, merely listened as he spun his cover story, a client who made an unfortunate trade with a demon and wanted to renegotiate the terms.
"A demon," she scoffed into the receiver. "So, your client summoned a demon to do a task for him, and hired you to help him avoid paying up? Would rather buy a miracle, spend cash money, than honor whatever compact he blundered into? Let me guess, maybe he said 'I wish', never thought it was believable enough to be real, not until whatever it was he wished for dropped out of the sky and landed at his feet?"
"It wasn't like that," he told her, gripping the phone tight, but she only sighed.
"You must be pretty new to the trade, Mr. Henley. I've dealt with nineteen people over the past two years alone, all done as I just described. Spilling out their worries to a stranger at the bar, on the bus, what have you. Next thing they know, that raise is in the bag, the wife looks ten years younger, and the neighbor's house burns down. On the bright side, I do know a fellow who has experience with cases like this. No guarantees he'll be able to help, but I'll get a hold of him and put you in touch.
"What will that cost?"
"Let me get back to you, Mr. Henley," she'd said, called back within the hour with the terms. "There's an item I need procured. Be here Tuesday at three o'clock sharp."
Bela Talbot isn't a short woman, but she still only comes up to Sam's chin as she ushers them in. She bypasses the overstuffed armchairs, candles and Celtic knot tapestries, and leads them into a small, no-nonsense back office, instead. There are stacks of newspapers on a rack in the corner, three desktop computers and a laptop running endless strings of spreadsheets, a television tuned to MSNBC with the sound off. It looks more like the office of an accountant or a lawyer than a fortune-teller or an expert on the supernatural.
A sleek Siamese cat cocks its head at them as they enter, but doesn't move from its perch on top of a filing cabinet.
"Have a seat, Mr. Henley, Mr. Fraser," she says, staring at Sam. "I figure there is no need to bother with the usual hand-waving and incense routine, since you're in the business. Let's get right down to what you're here for."
She leans over to one of the desks and clicks the mouse button, angles the screen towards them.
"The Hand of Glory, recently procured by the New York Historical Society. Not the safest thing to have on the premises, as you might imagine, considering it's haunted by the original owner. I thought we could go in for it tonight; they are holding a charity function, and I've got tickets."
Sam sneaks a glance over at Dean; they covered this on the phone, my associate is on a strictly need-to-know basis. Bela is about to say she needs their help retrieving the hand, but can manage to dispose of it herself. The idea of letting this woman hang on to a haunted artifact that's rumored to unlock any door or render one's enemies motionless with a few additional preparations galls him, but it's the price she's set for putting Sam in touch with the man she knows, someone with knowledge of deals and wishes. If this helps Dean, he decides, everything else is irrelevant.
Dean's staring at the computer screen, where the Hand of Glory slide has faded into the next one, a small rabbit's foot on a glittering chain.
"What's that," he laughs, "a haunted keychain?"
Bela Talbot curls her lip.
"It's not all that funny, actually. There was once a very foolish human who had the nerve to ask the Fae for help in a business deal. He got the help, alright, that rabbit's foot. It's cursed. The effect is instant as soon as you touch the damn thing – gives you the devil's own luck as long as you have it on your person. Once you lose it, all that luck turns right around… it's not pretty. Curses hardly ever are, but anything that deals with luck is especially serious," she sighs, gives the television set a quick glance. "He didn't make it."
"So he lost the foot."
"Everybody loses it," Bela nods, "or so the lore says. I tried to track it down, of course, but someone else got there before me. I think it must have been someone who knew what he'd come across, because I haven't heard 'boo' about it since."
She flicks the television to another channel, puts on the closed captions, and Sam watches them sliding up the screen for a moment, confused.
"Is that… is it that show where the host and crew travel around the country, appraising the junk people have in their attics?"
"Antiques Roadshow," she agrees. "You would be surprised what some clueless people hang on to. If the cufflink that fellow is talking about right now is the real deal, it is worth far more than the five hundred they're suggesting. By the way, you can't go to the Historical Society dressed like that. I don't suppose either one of you has a decent suit in your luggage?"
They end up renting tuxes from a place Bela suggests; she gives them a quick once-over, and tells Sam his bow-tie technique needs work.
"That's much better," she says with an appraising look once he gives it two more tries. "Well, gentlemen, are you ready to go?"
* * *
Sam is surprised by how smoothly everything goes; the Hand is in their possession in less than two hours, and they make staggered exits, agreed upon ahead of time, to draw less attention to themselves.
"Give me two days, three, tops, Mr. Henley," Bela tells him before they part ways. "Thank you for a lovely night."
Dean isn't there when he gets back to the room; he comes in about a half an hour later, flushed and grinning, whistling cheerfully to himself.
"Bobby called," he announces, undoing his tie and tossing his jacket and keys onto the bed. "Something about demonic omens in Ohio, dry lightning, barometric pressure drop, some guy blowing his head off in a church in front of a whole congregation, another shooting up a hobby shop. I said we'd check it out."
The following morning, he wakes to the sound of Dean's laughter, and rubs at his eyes before turning towards the other bed. Dean's got the phone pressed between shoulder and cheek, the motel notepad in one hand, juggling a pen and his cup of coffee with the other.
"Yeah?" he queries the phone with a chuckle, scribbles something down on the paper, "hey, gimme a sec." He points at the table, mouthing "coffee" at Sam, then laughs again as he changes ears.
"My brother," he tells the person on the other end, "yeah, I know. Who, Naomi? I don't think she likes me very much. Nah, don't worry about it. Yeah. Mm, yeah. Yeah."
The third "yeah" comes out low and gravelly, accompanied by a sly, inviting smirk on Dean's face; it resonates unpleasantly in Sam's chest. He takes a quick, large gulp of coffee and represses the urge to tell his brother that his come-hither stare is wasted on the girl who can't see him.
"Can't wait," Dean says in the same unmistakable tone, and Sam swallows awkwardly, the coffee too hot and sweet on his tongue.
Finally, Dean slides the phone into his pocket and stands, stretching noisily. His t-shirt rides up above his tanned stomach, trailing over freckles and ribs; Sam takes another swallow and looks away, feels the swoosh of air as Dean moves past him to grab his duffel.
"Change of plans, Sammy," he announces, rifling through shirts and jeans, holds up a flannel, frowns and shoves it back in the bag. "We're taking a slight detour through Belvedere."
"What's in Belvedere?" Sam asks as expected, although he is sure he already knows the answer.
"Shannon," Dean grins, carefully examining another shirt; it seems to pass the test, because Dean tosses it onto the bed and sniffs at a pant leg with a frown.
"Need to get some goddamn laundry done while we're at it. It's your turn this week."
"Shannon," Sam mutters under his breath, "because it went so well with Lisa."
"Shannon invited me. There's a party," Dean snaps, zipping up his bag.
It's evening by the time they cross over the Belvedere town line, and Dean's out the door as soon as they've secured the keys to a motel room.
"Don't wait up, Sammy," he throws quickly over his shoulder; he doesn't take the car, and Sam uses it to ferry their bags to the Laundromat down the road. He briefly entertains the thought of washing only his own stuff, leaving Dean's clothes just as they are, but the argument that would undoubtedly follow would not be worth it.
He picks through Dean's things slowly; he has all night and the laundry never closes. He holds his breath, nostrils full of the sweaty-stale scent that condemns the shirts to the heavy duty washing machine. One of Dean's shirts and two of his are flecked with dark rusty stains, and he puts quarters into the dispenser and watches a little foil packet of stain remover tumble down. He slides his fingers softly over the worn-in green of the shirt, one of Dean's favorites, rests his thumb over the larger stain, scratches at it with a fingernail. When he takes his hand away, there are specks of brown under the nail; his brother's blood, a little piece of him stuck against Sam's skin. He lifts the finger to his mouth and chews, trimming the nail short and jagged, wonders if the salt on his tongue is a taste of Dean, a taste that some girl named Shannon is becoming privy to at this very moment.
After five minutes – guaranteed to work, or your money back – the shirt joins the rest of their darks in the cold water; Sam presses buttons and handles, and settles back in a chair to watch the blots of color and foam spin against the glass.
He organizes his notes on the laptop as he runs the dryers; Bela Talbot had definitely been onto something with her keywords and databases. He considers calling her, but doubts that they will exchange more than the barely polite "I tried, I'm sorry" and "It's ok, I'll figure something out, thanks so much for your time." Tomorrow, he decides, he'll do it tomorrow, in sunlight, not the artificial glow of fluorescents fighting a losing battle against the night. He checks a dryer and adds more minutes, pulls a handful of socks out of another, sets to separating the pairs. That's how Ruby finds him, rolling his and Dean's socks into neat little bundles on the counter.
"Laundry duty," she says, sucking on a straw, "how… demeaning." There is a McDonald's bag in her hands and she slurps loudly at a plastic cup with a coffee shop logo on the side. "These iced caramel latte things? Better than orgasms. It's like, I dunno, Rapture in a cup. Want a taste?"
"I don't imagine the Rapture treating you very well," Sam sighs as she plops down next to him and spreads her food over the laundry table.
"In my father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you," she pronounces, "what is that, the Gospel of John?"
She pours ketchup liberally on the scrap of foil that serves as her plate, and dips a french-fry in.
"Mmmm. You sure you don't want any? I got it super-sized. Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. When this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. Really, I think there's something to it."
"You're misquoting Corinthians. 'For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality'."
Ruby snorts, reaching for another french-fry. "Pshaw. Incorruption, is that even a word? I ask you, what do they put in these things?"
"More sugar in the fall, less sugar in the summer, to keep the taste consistent," Sam tells her as the dryer beeps, done.
"Sugar, huh. I could eat, like, a mountain of these. What's that really big one, Everest?"
"What do you want?" he asks tiredly as he empties the dryer into a cart, starts to fold into neat stacks, his pants, his shirts, Dean's shirts, Dean's jeans.
"These your brother's?" Ruby pulls a pair of black boxer briefs out of the cart, waves them in the air. "Man's got taste. Where is he, anyway?"
Sam takes them, warm from the dryer and her hands, folds them slowly before depositing them into the Dean pile.
"Out somewhere, I don't know. I'm –"
"Not your brother's keeper? That's cute, but also grossly inaccurate. No worries, I know exactly where he is. Matter of fact, I –"
"Tell me what you want," Sam snaps, lacing his words with the compulsion, but Ruby only laughs, shoving the last of the fries into her mouth.
"A swing and a miss. Need to practice more, Sam, my man; that just didn't do it for me. Hey, no problem. I know how busy you are, what with all those nasty demons needing a nudge back into the abyss. So, why don't you go ahead and finish up here, and I'll tell you how I'm going to help you out today."
Clenching his teeth, Sam tamps the dry, folded clothes down into appropriate bags, does up the zippers and shoves one into Ruby's hands.
"You can help me by carrying that out to the car. Let's go."
"Your pal Bobby, he making any progress with that gun?" she asks, settling into the passenger seat. It galls Sam to let her into the car, but there is no way he is having this conversation with her surrounded by washers, laundry carts and laundry patrons.
"No," he admits honestly, and Ruby nods, runs her hand lightly over the dashboard.
"That's what I thought. I can fix that. You want that weapon to do some real damage again, don't you? I think it's time for me to pay Singer Salvage a visit, Sam."
"If you so much as touch him," Sam hisses, nearly running a stop sign, "by the time I'm done with you, you will be begging me to send you back to hell, I promise."
"Wow," she says with a little smile, "that was good. Misdirected, but very impressive, all the same. Still, why don't you get it through your head, I'm not Melchiresa. I have your best interests in mind."
"What did you say?"
"I have your best interests in mind?" she repeats coyly.
"No. You said 'I'm not Melchiresa'. You know what that's all about, so tell me," Sam forces the words through his lips, focuses everything he's got into the whammy, and for one small, perfect moment, Ruby's face goes slack, eyes blank and dull.
"Ooh. I thought you'd never ask, Sammy," she nearly purrs, recovering, as the car screeches into the motel lot.
He herds Ruby into the room, one hand clutching at the straps of the duffel, the other feeling for the gun at his hip.
"Talk," he says as she deposits the other bag on Dean's bed. She climbs up onto the covers and sits cross-legged without bothering to take off her boots. They're black and shiny, long pointed toes and tall spike heels leaving smudges of dirt on the blanket. Sam wonders if he ought to say something, but elects not to, sits down on his own bed across the narrow aisle.
"Buttons," Ruby nods. "Ok, ok! I'm talking, I'm talking. Hey, if you don't stop making that face, it'll freeze that way."
She uncrosses her legs and leans back, using the duffel bag as a makeshift headrest.
"Melchiresa really hates you, you know. Don't get me wrong, there are very few things in this world that she doesn't hate, but she hates you and Dean something special."
"Care to elaborate on her reasons?" Sam prompts, undoing the straps of his holster and setting the gun on the nightstand.
"Well, to be fair, I doubt you like her very much, either. But, let's see; between you and your brother, you've exorcised her twice, got her own daevas to throw her out of a twelfth story window, got her in real big trouble with daddy… yeah, I'd say she's got plenty of reasons."
"Meg? She is one of the demons that got out of the gate?"
Ruby pulls a tube of gloss out of her pocket, slides it over her mouth and presses her lips together, blotting the color.
"Well, it's hell down there. Can you blame her? This is probably information your brother should hear sooner, rather than later. 25 Calumet Road. Don't give me the perplexed glare; that's where Dean's partying tonight. Anyway, I'm gonna go. I've got to see a man about a gun, right?"
"The Colt," Sam says, tracing his fingers over the worn leather of his shoulder holster. "Remember, if anything happens to Bobby –"
"You'll grind my bones to make your bread. Good night, Sam," she says with a wet, glistening smile.
The door at 25 Calumet Road opens to Pink Floyd and the thick smell of incense. A short girl, hair dyed a bright neon blue, motions Sam in without so much as a greeting or a name, and he slides past her and looks around. The entrance hall is dark, but he can see into the flickering living room beyond, where a television plays cartoons with the sound down and garlands of Christmas lights wrap around the ceiling.
"Shannon?" he asks as she shuts the door behind him, but the girl shakes her head with a snort.
"Damn, did Shannon win the lottery or something? You can put your jacket on the counter over there," she points to a sizeable pile of outerwear topped off with someone's backpack and a small leather purse.
"Hey, is that Carl? About time he got here," calls a voice from the living room. "Carl, man, tell me you brought your guitar." A thin, scruffy blond man peeks out into the hall, cigarette in hand, looks Sam up and down as he inhales. "You're fucking tall. And you're not Carl."
"No," Sam starts, "I'm Sam. I'm actually looking for –"
"He's here to see Shannon," the girl supplies, and the man laughs, ashes his cigarette into an empty beer bottle.
"Wow. Take a number, I guess," he smirks, "Shannon's entertaining at the moment, so you can, uh, well – Naomi, help me out here," he says, taking another drag.
"Here, have a Corona," blue-haired Naomi shoves a bottle into Sam's hands, "we're out of limes, though, and what Dave's trying to say is that Shannon's getting fucked by some asshole right now, so you're shit out of luck unless you want sloppy seconds."
"Uh," Sam says, hand closing around the cold glass, "uh –"
"Awkward!" Dave giggles, stubbing his cigarette out. "Jesus, Naomi, I could've said it like that myself; I was kind of going for the tact thing – you know, breaking it gently? Don't know that I'd call the guy an asshole, either, but anyway, there you have it."
"Trust me, Dean's an asshole," Naomi nods sagely, taking a sip of her own beer. "Ugh, it's just not the same without the lime. Maybe we could send Carl to the Food Bag when he gets here; think he'd go? Seriously, Shannon has terrible taste in men."
"Whatever. Dean's hot," says Dave.
"Dean's my brother," Sam interjects, feeling a hot blush creeping up his cheeks, "I'm actually here for him; I've never even met Shannon."
"Now that's really awkward," Dave gets out, but he is still smiling, although Naomi's not.
"I stand by what I said," she announces. "I'm going to go mingle now. This has already taken up more of my time than I'd care to count." She walks back into the living room, and Sam can hear her telling someone else about the woes of Corona without citrus.
"Sorry about that," Dave offers, "ignore Naomi, she's been pissy all day. Anyway, Sam, you're welcome to hang out. Oh, that must be Carl, finally," he adds, as an engine rumbles to a halt outside.
Sitting on the couch between Dave, a woman named Larissa, and the non-punctual Carl, Sam pretends to watch the television as he counts down the minutes. Finally, a door bangs somewhere in the depths of the house, followed by unsteady footsteps and what is unmistakably Dean's laugh over the low thrum of the music.
"Hey, grab me a beer," a muffled voice calls; Sam hears Dean reply, "Hey, grab it yourself," but he sounds more amused than annoyed. The door slams again, followed by more footsteps and laughter, and Dean stumbles out into the living room, rumpled, sweaty and looking extremely pleased with himself. He's wearing nothing aside from his jeans, belt hanging from the loops undone; as he aims towards the kitchen, Sam sees a fresh scratch on his shoulder, a thick, red mark in the hollow of his throat, and swallows uneasily. Dean hasn't noticed him, and Sam is about to stand and make his presence known when a pair of arms wrap around Dean's waist from behind, and a pointed chin rests possessively on Dean's shoulder.
"Can't walk like this, dude," Dean says, turning around with an indulgent smile, "no walking, no beer."
"Beer can wait," is the reply, and Sam stares, transfixed, as the guy leans in, brushing messy brown hair out of his eyes, and presses his mouth to Dean's. He is vaguely aware that his couch-mates are looking at him, wonders if this is Dave's cue to chime in with another "awkward", because there is nothing not awkward about his heart pounding in the trap of his ribcage, the bitter saliva filling his mouth, the large hand splayed over Dean's bare back.
He's seen his brother kiss countless girls; he thinks maybe he was eleven or twelve when Dean began sneaking them in, but he's never seen this, and his fingers clench and unclench helplessly into the couch cushion beneath him. He notices absently that the Pink Floyd has slid smoothly into Hendrix; Larissa has gotten up from the couch and is whispering something into blue-haired Naomi's ear. Two more men and a woman whose names passed him by chat animatedly in the corner, the rest of the world inconsequential, and Dean and the guy are still pressed together, Dean's face tilted up because the guy is really tall, about my height, Sam realizes, mouth going dry.
Naomi's voice cuts clear through the haze, unexpected and slightly shrill.
"Hey, Dean, just a heads up – your brother is here; thought you might wanna know." She leans back in her chair, lets her eyes slide over Sam as she forms the words.
To his credit, Dean doesn't startle or flinch, just moves his hand from where it'd been fisted in the guy's shaggy hair, pulls back slowly as he scans the room. His eyes narrow briefly as he considers Naomi, and then he smiles, wide and bright.
"Sammy! What the hell are you doing here? Thought I told you not to wait up."
Sam's knee meets the coffee table with a thump, and pain jolts through his leg as he stumbles off the couch. He's painfully aware of the fact that all other conversation in the room has come to a sudden and definitive halt, the possibility of a brotherly dispute undoubtedly a topic of interest. The words tumble out of his mouth before he's had a chance to think them through, and he knows he sounds petulant, but by now it's nothing he can help.
"Aren't you going to introduce me?"
"Where are my manners," Dean snorts and rolls his eyes. "Shannon, Sam, my crybaby brother. Sam, Shannon. Happy? Now, what's so important that it couldn't wait till I got back?"
Sam tries not to stare at Shannon's pale arm, still draped over his brother; under his unruly mop, there is a glint of metal – a little ring piercing through his eyebrow. A second ring bisects his lip, and Shannon tongues at it absently, studying Sam with a flick of long lashes.
"Give me a minute, wouldja?" Dean says, shamelessly runs his thumb over Shannon's mouth, tugging briefly at the ring, and the guy lets out a tiny gasp, swipes his obscenely pink tongue over Dean's hand. Another glint of metal catches Sam's eye – of course, a tongue stud; where isn't this guy pierced? he almost asks, but manages to stifle the question down.
"Ruby came to see me," he says instead, watching with satisfaction as this time, Dean flinches, pales, and begins to do up his belt.
"What is that, like, code?" Shannon asks, but Dean doesn't pause; he is off down the hallway, doors thudding in his wake. He is finishing up the buttons on his flannel as he comes back, jacket slung over his arm.
"I'm sorry. I gotta go," he says, avoiding Shannon's eyes.
"Just like that?" Shannon's voice is disappointment and confusion rolled into one, and Sam stifles a pleased smile.
"Yeah, just like that. I'm sorry, I really am, but, I gotta…" Dean trails off without offering any more explanation, pulls his jacket over his shoulders, extending an open palm to Sam for the car keys. Sam hands them over and heads for the door, knows with certainty that Dean is following.
"I'll call you," Dean promises from the doorstep.
"Yeah," Shannon says in a small voice, and Naomi offers a shrill "I told you so" from the living room. Sam hears Shannon tell her to shut up before the door cuts him off.
"Well?" Dean prompts, "What about Ruby?"
"She had some very interesting things to share about the Colt, and Melchiresa," Sam tells him, opening the car door. "You know what, why don't you let me drive? Honestly, Dean, you look all… worn out."
Breakfast the next morning is a strained affair; in the diner, Dean hides behind his enormous plate of eggs and sausage, buries his face in his coffee mug as Sam pokes angrily at his toast. It's a little burnt, but his omelet makes up for it, stuffed full of peppers, mushrooms and just the right amount of cheese on top. The waitress comes over several times to refill their cups without being asked, and Sam makes a mental note to tip her generously before they hit the road.
He studies the way Dean's mouth shifts as he chews, notices yet another hickey higher up on his throat, and thinks now is as good a time as any.
"He remind you of anyone?"
"Who?" Dean asks with a confused shake of his head. "Who reminds me of who now?"
"Shannon," Sam repeats, patience wearing thin, "does he remind you of anyone?"
"The hell are you talking about, dude?"
"Shannon? That guy you fucked? Or did he fuck you? I'm not too clear on the details," he says in an icy tone, watches Dean bite on his lower lip the way he does when he's thinking too hard.
"Inquiring minds want to know, do they," Dean finally smirks, pushing aside his cup, "well, I don't kiss and tell, Sammy."
"It's Sam," he corrects, something he hasn't done in months, "and since when is that the policy? What happened to 'she's so flexible, Gumby girl', and 'God, she let me come all over her tits'? Come on, big brother; regale me with some more stories of your many conquests."
"Jesus, Sam, what crawled up your ass this morning," Dean mutters, scanning the room for their waitress. She materializes obediently next to their booth, fresh pot of coffee at the ready, and Dean gives her a small smile as she pours.
"Me and Shannon, it made you uncomfortable," he states triumphantly once the waitress is taking care of another table. "What's the matter, college boy? Here I thought school's supposed to be all about 'experimenting' or whatever they call it. You fall behind on your share?"
Sam ignores the jibe, focuses instead on the mental image of Shannon's face, the large, possessive hands, the messy too-long hair, the little barbell through the tongue that fills him with sparking, smoking rage. Ruby's mock-sweet voice taps against his eardrum, Need to practice more, Sam, my man, and he takes a deep breath, fixes Dean's eyes with his. When he speaks again, he can almost see the tendrils of his voice wrapping around his brother like a net, his words little barbed hooks sinking into Dean's flesh and making him obey.
"Tell me about Shannon, Dean," he says, cocking his head, watching Dean's pupils widen.
"What do you want to know?" Dean replies tonelessly, lips moving as if of their own volition, divorced from any conscious thought.
"Tell me about last night," Sam presses, "what he did to you. What you did to him. Did he suck your dick with that pierced fucking mouth? Did you suck his?"
"Yes," his brother says quietly, and then again, louder. "Yes."
"How many times have you done this?"
"Five," Dean answers obediently, "with Shannon. There was a guy in Nevada, once, I don't remember his name. Couple of others. And Will, in Palo Alto; I stayed with him for two days, was gonna come see you, but I couldn't. Will was very tall."
"Like Shannon," Sam nods. "You let him fuck you?"
"No, not Shannon," Dean explains, and Sam notes what that means, the nameless guy in Nevada or Will from Palo Alto having gotten what Shannon hasn't. His brother confirms it in the same hollow voice, tells Sam about Shannon spread out on the bed, about the tattoo on his back, a big blackbird with outstretched wings that rippled as Dean fucked into him.
"No clothes, he really is nothing like you, Sammy; all you have on your back are scars…" Dean stops mid-word, anger settling across his face. "What the fuck is going on?" he hisses, "Sam, what the fuck did you do to me?"
"Nothing," Sam says, trying to keep his calm; he is prepared, been waiting for Dean to shake off the trance. "We had breakfast. We were talking about the case, then Ruby. You thought the waitress had a nice rack. You should call her over; we're ready for the check now."
Dean dazedly rubs at his forehead.
"That was weird. Like, déjà vu, or something. Anyway, we should hit the road; let me flag down Chesty La Rue for the check, and we can get the hell outta here."
Dean hums along with the radio as he drives, tapping a beat on the steering wheel, normal as normal can be. Still, Sam can't help it; he gives his brother surreptitious glance after surreptitious glance, desperately wanting to make sure he is fine. Guilt reddens his cheeks, pools bitter in his mouth as he sneaks a peek of Dean's fingers dancing over radio knobs, the little patches of roughened skin over his knuckles. The glint of Dean's ring reminds him of Shannon's, and he throws a quick look to Dean's mouth, catches a glimpse of tongue darting out over the chapped bottom lip. Dean stops humming and chews on the offending skin thoughtfully, but he is relaxed, he is alright, nothing in his demeanor hinting at what Sam did to him mere hours before.
He almost wants to say he is sorry – almost, because Dean wouldn't know what Sam is apologizing for, and with luck, he never will. It was a one time thing, Sam decides, he was stressed and angry, and he let things get out of hand. The analytical part of him notes that strengthened emotion had made for strengthened ability, and for a moment, he feels satisfied for having practiced, proud of figuring out that little tidbit. Ruby would approve, he thinks, Ooh, Sam, that was really good, but she is the last person he ought to be seeking approval from. He has to remind himself that she isn't a person at all, she is a demon, useful yet expendable, and clamps his own teeth down on his lip in frustration, sneaks another look at Dean to steady himself.
No clothes, he really is nothing like you, Sammy; all you have on your back are scars, Dean had said over the remnants of breakfast. He wonders if Will, the tall, but otherwise anonymous resident of Palo Alto, had been a Stanford student, searches his mind for any William or Bill in his classes, but comes up short. At least fifty thousand people in the town itself, about fourteen thousand students at the college, between undergraduate and post-grads, with probabilities and statistics suggesting a good portion of them being named Will, having mops of brown hair and large hands, needles and haystacks notwithstanding.
The tentative prickle at the back of his neck, and the sharp pain and darkness that follow come almost as a relief. Dean's voice comes through a thick, lumpy fog, "Sam, you alright, hey, Sam," before grinding out completely as the night sky sways into stark view, stars reflecting dimly in muddy little puddles under his feet.
"You think I'd let him go? Don't you know there isn't a piece of him that isn't mine? "
"Yours balls to soul, is he? That's a mighty big claim to make, Dead Man Walking. Come on, time's a-wasting, tick tock, tick tock; better give your brother a good-bye kiss, if he lets you."
"Not saying good-bye; you really are slow, aren't you? Remember all the things I found in my father's house?"
"What's left of it, you mean. What is it you found, Sam, dust and ashes? Break the salt line, now, or I start ripping you apart right in front of him."
Dean's head is down, face cradled in his hands, the knees of his jeans sodden on the muddy ground. The salt around him sparkles in the moonlight, the circle wide and uneven, and he stays silent and still.
"Oh, I am afraid I can't do that. Dean could, but he won't do it either, will you, Dean? He won't do it unless I tell him to."
"You think so? He jumps when you say jump, talks when you say talk, fucks on command? Doesn't look like that from where I'm standing. What's he giving up for you he hasn't already given up for everyone else?"
"You're wasting my time. Just tell me what I want to hear, and I promise, I will think about letting you go."
The sharp buzz of the phone rips through the chill of the night, and the darkness slowly recedes, until he can see through the windshield, cars zooming by on a bright, sunny stretch of road. Dean has pulled the car over, Sam guesses as his brother's face looms above him.
"Sammy, finally! You ok?"
"Peachy," he grits out, his body refusing to obey even the simplest commands. "Can you… you, answer that?"
Dean rummages in Sam's jacket pocket, the touch odd and fleeting, comes up with the cell and pushes the button hurriedly.
"Yeah? One minute, sweetheart. It's that Bella chick on the phone for you, Darren, you sly dog," he says, covering the mouthpiece with a broad palm. "You feel up to sayin' hi?"
He accepts the phone with unsteady fingers, wills his lips and tongue to move through a polite greeting.
"You're in luck, Mr. Henley," Bela's low, husky voice croons into his ear. "There's a fellow coming to New London, Connecticut for a few days next week who might have exactly what you're looking for. I've taken the liberty of letting him know you'll be stopping by. Mind you, he isn't cheap," she adds, "but I'm sure your client's satisfaction is worth every penny."
"There's a job in Connecticut," he explains to Dean once they've hung up. "A haunted, um, lighthouse. I think we should check it out after we're done here."
Sam dislikes the town almost right away; it comes as no surprise, then, that Dean takes to it like a fish to water.
"I don't see what's so wrong about this place, anyway. It's like the land of perpetual Mardi Gras," he says, chucking his bag onto the bed. "I'm kinda thinking we should go get some beads."
"What about those guys Father Gil was talking about?" Sam counters in irritation. "You know, 'like a switch had flipped'? He sounded pretty worried to me."
"Eh," Dean shrugs, staring at the ceiling in fascination. "So there's a suicide and a psycho scrap-booker; doesn't mean they were possessed. Check it out, ceiling mirrors."
"We should talk to some more people," Sam says, and Dean shrugs, makes a face at his reflection.
"What we should do is go back to Trotter's, get a couple of beers. The bartender, that Casey chick – I think there's some potential there," he interjects, and Sam fists his hands tight, counts to ten before he trusts himself to speak again without yelling.
"You go ahead and do that," he finally clenches out, "I'm going to talk to some more locals, see if I can dig up anything else."
"Suit yourself," Dean shrugs, grabbing his jacket, and slams the door as he saunters out.
In retrospect, Sam supposes it was rather stupid to expect Dean's behavior to change after the Shannon thing; sometimes his brother is really just a one-trick pony. At least Casey the bartender is safely female, usual and familiar territory, something Sam accepts as what Dean does, what he's always done, what he plans on doing for the next one hundred and nine days, god willing.
The thought doesn't make him feel any better.
He really does plan to talk to the sales people at the hobby store, maybe the waitresses at the diner down the street, but when he passes the church, his feet turn towards the sidewalk almost automatically.
For a brief moment, he stands on the granite steps outside, tries to collect his thoughts, and assures himself that Dean remembers nothing, that he isn't acting any different, that he isn't delighting in the town atmosphere and trying to pick up the bartender in order to get back at Sam for what he did.
Dean doesn't remember, but Sam does, and it's that memory that finally gets him to push on the heavy wood of the doors, Dean's voice ringing thickly through his mind. All you have on your back are scars. What's going on? Sammy, what the fuck did you do to me?
Sam settles into the pew, head bowed, hands folded in his lap. It's too warm; the air is stagnant, heavy with the scent of melted wax and tiny flecks of dust circling languidly through the aisle.
"Our Father, who art in heaven," he whispers, the words echoing off the stone tiles with a hiss. "Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is –"
There is a buzz somewhere in the rafters above him, a faulty fluorescent light or a struggling heating vent, a strange and unsettling accompaniment to his words, and he speaks louder, clenches his hands a little bit tighter.
"Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
It is a fluorescent; the buzzing intensifies, and a quick, pulsing flicker plunges the pew in front of him into momentary shadow, then light, then back again. Sam glances around suspiciously – flickering lights have never been a good sign in their profession – turns to check out the aisle, the massive front doors, the little side hallway, but sees nothing except for the soft green glow of exit signs reflected in the darkened windows.
"On earth as it is in heaven," he repeats, closing his eyes. It's simple logic, a balanced equation, a law of symmetry. If there is a hell, there is a heaven, the earth an enormous x-axis between them, with its poor and tired, countless mouths hungry for daily bread.
"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."
It's no use; even with his eyes closed, Sam can still feel the flicker, black and red against the inside of his eyelids. The cushion under him is too worn, too thin; the space between the pews is too narrow, nowhere near enough room for his knees and ankles. He stands, stretching his arms, rolls his stiff shoulders, cracks the joints in his legs with a series of dry, unsatisfying clicks.
"Lead us not into temptation," he concludes quietly, walking out of the pew, but loathe to go with the words incomplete, even if they carry no clarity or guidance. "Deliver us from evil."
He is halfway to the exit when he hears the footsteps, a scratchy voice muttering irately about faulty wiring.
"Good evening, Father Gil," he calls out, waits for the priest to make his way up the row.
"Sam; what a pleasant surprise," Father Gil says just as the electricity finally stops flickering, bathing the two of them in pale neon light. "Is there something I can do for you?" he smiles, and lets his eyes blink to an unrelenting, solid black.
"Oh, come on. What is it you're going for, a gun? Holy water?" he laughs as Sam stumbles back. "You really think that'll do something, you go right ahead and try. I won't stop ya." He spreads his arms wide, gesturing at the large wooden cross at the back of the church, the pulpit with its small microphone, the somber faces of the saints on the stone walls. "Look around you, boy! This is the house of god, his own personal little embassy on earth, and yet somehow, here I stand. How 'bout that? What, you think you can do something to me the good lord isn't capable of?" The demon clicks its tongue against its teeth. "Ah, well, pride goeth, et cetera."
The lights flicker again as the demon steps forward, hands outstretched, but this time, Sam is ready for what's coming. He feels the blast of air, the great push meant to throw him back into the pew and pin him against wood and stone, and pushes back just as hard.
"Neat trick," Father Gil chuckles, pulling at his starched, white collar, "shame you can't keep it up for very long."
The demon is right; Sam struggles to stay on his feet, concentrates on pushing as hard as he can, but it's like trying to move a mountain. Pain is already knocking at the back of his head; something warm trickles down over his mouth and he licks out reflexively, tastes blood, realizing more is coming from his nostrils. He considers his options quickly. Compared to the demon they faced in Chicago, the one possessing Father Gil is markedly stronger. He can't even come close to throwing it back; his gun is close to useless, as are his knives. Holy water is his only recourse, and if it doesn't work, then he needs to stall this thing, distract it, keep it taunting and talking while he thinks of something else to try.
"Are you working for Melchiresa?" he blurts out as the pain becomes almost too much, and braces himself for the impact.
It doesn't come. The demon stops and regards him idly, adjusting its collar again.
"No. Are you trying to make me an offer?"
Its steps echo loudly throughout the building as it walks closer to Sam, sliding into a pew just a couple of yards away.
"Have a seat," it says, patting the bench. "I'm open to talking things out."
Sam eyes the demon warily, but it only nods its head.
"Go ahead and sit down. Truce. For the next," it pulls up a sleeve, tapping on an expensive-looking wristwatch, "say, fifteen minutes. You have my word."
"Demons lie," Sam says warily. "How do I know you're being sincere?"
"I swear it by the Morning Star," the demon says, inclining its head, and Sam feels a shiver run through him at the words, a momentary spark of energy charging the air between them.
"Alright," he nods, withdrawing both his gun and flask of holy water from his pockets all the same. "You try anything, and I will use these. Maybe shooting you won't do any lasting damage, but I doubt it will feel very good regardless. And I am prepared to take my chances with the holy water."
"Of course," the demon says amicably as Sam settles into the pew behind it. "On my part, if you should break truce, I will bash your head against that column. Let me ask you a question, though. Do you really feel comfortable using that? See, I've always been of the mind that only a true believer ought to reap the benefits of faith, as it were. And here you are, throwing around holy things, like the contents of that flask right there, but I heard you earlier, rattling off the words. 'Forgive us our trespasses', indeed. Tell me, do you at least try to tell yourself you're not praying out of habit?"
"There are more important things to discuss than the depth of my faith."
"If you insist, but it is my job to ask, Sam," Father Gil says, gesturing to his vestments. "Know what I noticed as I've been shepherding my flock? All in all, there are only two reasons people come to church. Habit's the big one, of course. Tradition. The second one, though, that one tastes sweeter. Can feel it rolling off them for miles, so good and thick. Can feel it on you, too, you're no stranger to it."
It leans back, lets its head loll on the top of the bench, staring at Sam with upside down eyes.
"Guilt. What do you feel so guilty about, hmm? Or is atonement just another tradition? When's the last time you really confessed, Samuel, enumerated all your sins down to the detail and spilled them out and let them go?"
The demon flips over, the motion too quick and strange for its middle-aged body, its arms folded under a sagging chin.
"That's not what the lot of you does – all you humans, you come into this empty house, and you say the words about how guilty you are, how much you have to atone for, but you never really do. You take them right back home with you and you keep right on sinning, wallowing in that tasty guilt all the while."
It looks at its watch and stands up, its long, swaying shadow sliding over bench and floor and Sam as the light begins to buzz and flicker once more.
"You come in here and you ask me things you know nothing about. I'll tell you, boy, I'm good here. I won't work for Melchiresa, and I won't work for you. Azazel, he had big plans, big ambitions, and we all know where all those plans ended up when your brother put a bullet between his eyes. Now Melchiresa's got some plans of her own, and if they end up in the same place, good riddance. I don't know, maybe you've got some plans, too – my girl thinks you might – but I got myself a sweet little place right here, and I don't need them."
"Your girl," Sam repeats, and the demon nods, jowly face stretching into a big smile.
"You may've seen her around Trotter's, tending bar – hot little body, goes by 'Casey'. Come to think of it, your brother's probably taking her home right about now. I'm sorry, Sam. I did enjoy our little chat, but that's fifteen minutes you really could have used to get to him before she does. Oops."
Father Gil's hands reach back up to his throat, slowly pull the priest's collar away from his black shirt and let it drop to the floor.
"Don't guilt yourself over, it, Sam. Your brother's going to be in hell no matter what you do. It's really just a question of how soon you let go."
The demon is about to say something else, but the church doors swing open with a crash, old wood creaking painfully against the stone. The gun shot is deafening, but it misses its target, and the demon lifts a lazy hand, sends the shooter sprawling.
"Bobby!" Sam yells, rushing over to his side, reeling against the wind whipping in through the open doors. He guesses more than he sees the demon raise up its arms for another attack as Bobby shoves the Colt into his grasp, and ignores the pain blossoming through his head as he reaches and pushes, pinning Father Gil's body in place.
"Don't worry, I'm not planning on beating myself up over this," he says as he pulls the trigger and the body crumples to the floor with a crackle of static electricity.
Bobby is watching with a frown, and Sam starts towards the doors. "Come on, the other demon's got Dean. We need to get over there."
He tries to keep it in, tries not to make a scene in front of Bobby, but the way Dean is looking back and forth between him and the body of the girl – the demon – Casey, the bullet wound in her chest still smoking with residual energy, makes Sam unable to keep the words from tumbling out.
"You know, just once – just goddamn once – I'd like to see you make a decision with something other than your dick. She was a demon, Dean! What the hell were you thinking?"
Dean crouches down, runs his hand over the dead girl's face. He doesn't stand up after closing her eyes.
"I knew she had a demon in her when I followed her out of the bar," he says quietly; there is a smudge of blood on his fingers, a small trickle of it drying in the corner of the girl's mouth.
"Great. That makes it an infinitely better decision," Sam snaps, surveying the pages of scrawled Latin text scattered all over the room. "Let me guess, she was on to you, too."
"Yeah, she knew who I was," Dean says, still staring down at her face, her awkwardly bent arm. If she were still breathing, it would hurt, the wrist trapped under her side, the elbow overextended.
"And she wasn't into being sent back to hell, I take it," Sam grabs a page off of the floor.
Dean straightens up, wipes his bloody hand on the hem of his tee; it's not a very new shirt, black faded to spotty grey from one too many spin cycles, but still, the gesture strikes Sam as unnecessary.
"I could have done most of it from memory. We were… she was talking."
"Talking; that's real useful. Aren't you the one always reminding me that demons lie?"
Dean narrows his eyes, stares pointedly at the Colt, now holstered at Sam's hip.
"Right. And just once – just goddamn once, Sam – I'd like to see you remember that."
"Don't throw my words back at me."
"Fuck you," Dean says, but his tone's tired more than it is combative; he sighs, pulls his jacket closed and does up the zipper halfway. "Demons lie, yeah, sure. But lately, they've all been telling the same lie, and I don't know about you, but it makes me fucking nervous. Ruby –"
"Ruby fixed the Colt for us, Dean, as you can see."
Bobby coughs, and Dean turns towards him, one hand still on the pull of the zipper.
"You gonna lay into me too? I had it handled."
Bobby coughs again, covering his mouth.
"Nah. What's important is you're alright, the both of ya. Sam, you be careful with that gun. There were seven new bullets in it tonight, and you're down to five, now. And I'm telling you, there won't be more where those came from, not again. You're playin' with fire, and that ain't ever good, even without demons getting involved."
They part ways outside, Bobby getting into a small old car of indeterminable color.
"I'm gonna go grab some coffee," Sam says, declining Dean's offer of the keys. "Think you can manage to get back to the room without a chaperone?"
"Fuck you," his brother says again, and slams the car door extra loud.
"You know, I am becoming really fond of these little dates of ours. Nice cup of coffee, food to share. A girl could get used to this."
"You're not a girl," Sam tells her, stirring cream and sugar in.
"Buzzkill," Ruby retorts, picking through the assorted sweetener packets until she finds a Sugar in the Raw. "See if I pick up the check now."
"Didn't know you were planning to before," he says curtly, tasting the coffee. "Isn't this where I am expected to pay up?"
Ruby scrunches up her pale eyebrows, combs a hand through her hair. "Pay up? What for?"
"Don't play stupid with me. I've got the Colt now, don't I, the means to break the deal… although I have to admit, I am very curious as to how you fixed it."
"Your friend Bobby was there," she smiles. "Didn't he fill you in?"
"Believe it or not; he didn't. Was pretty adamant about there not being any more bullets where these seven came from."
"Five now, right?" Ruby verifies, and rips open another sugar packet. "It's a tempering process. For the bullets, I mean. The gun, it's already as special as it's gonna get, but it needs some mighty special bullets to do its thing. There's some heat, some molds, some casting, a lead alloy. I don't know the percentage. Metalwork's not really my thing. Some chanting, while the lead cools. And an extra-special, super-secret ingredient, of course."
She lifts her arm, calling out to the waitress manning the counter.
"Can I get a refill on this 'Bottomless Cup of Java', please? Actually, why don't you just bring over the pot?"
Sam waits for the server to retreat back to her post, waits for Ruby to wade through the pile of creamers until she finds a non-dairy.
"Here," he says impatiently, opening up two packets with the Sugar in the Raw logo and dispensing them into her cup.
"Why, thank you!" she exclaims, taking a deliberately slow sip.
"The super-special ingredient," he reminds her, and she nods, setting the cup down.
"Blood," she says cheerfully, plucking a mozzarella stick from the plate. Her nails are long and polished pink, and she holds the fried cheese daintily, little finger pointed out. "It's always blood with things like these. So unoriginal! Honestly, it's a wonder you haven't guessed on your own."
Sam ignores the jibe, stares at her over the hills and valleys of half-eaten appetizers and empty creamer packets.
"So, what, you prick your finger, and that's it?"
"Don't be that way, Sam; you know that's not it. As I said, it's a tempering process, and there is an incantation. And it definitely can't be my blood, since, despite all this lovely skin and hair and other relevant equipment, I'm still not a girl, as you're so fond of reminding me. Would you relax? You're practically twitching."
"The blood, Ruby," he sighs, "whose blood does it have to be?"
"A gun made for a hunter; made to kill demons. Think about it. Come on, take a guess."
"Just tell me!" he yells, and Ruby pouts her pink-painted lips.
"You're going to get us kicked out of here for disturbing the other diners and the lovely wait staff, and I haven't even finished my drink yet."
"Alright, alright, hold your horses, I'll tell you. You still have five bullets left, how much shooting are you planning on doing?"
"As much as it takes," Sam says darkly. "If I have to start with you, I will."
She pours herself more coffee, tops off Sam's cup as well.
"You know, we were having a pleasant conversation, and you had to go and ruin it by making threats you have absolutely no plans to go through with. It takes the blood of a righteous man, ok? And I don't mean, like, Leviticus righteous, what with keeping the Sabbaths, or not wearing garments made of different thread, taking the neighbors out for a good old-fashioned stoning and keeping the nakedness of your brother's wife firmly covered, 'for it is as your brother's nakedness' or some such."
She pauses to take a sip of her coffee, another bite of fried cheese. "I suppose, in the spirit of feminism, modernity and political correctness, they really ought to change the wording to include righteous women. All these spells are so delightfully behind the times, don't you think? In any case, the blood in question needn't come from a saint. What you do need is a man who believes in his cause, believes enough to be willing to die for it. Someone who has no doubt that his actions serve the greater good. A champion, if you will. A warrior."
"A hunter," Sam finishes for her, and Ruby nods her head.
"Sure. One caveat, though. The blood needs to be given willingly, or the entire thing's a no-go. Let's see, what are you going to ask me next, hmm… is it, 'Geez, Ruby, how much blood would I need?' It is, isn't it? Well, I'll tell you," she says, reaching a hand across the table. Her fingers stray across his, shivering up his wrist until they find the pulse point.
"According to your friend Bobby – and Google – the maximum allowable blood loss for a healthy adult male is a bit under 3000 cc's. How much you actually need depends on how many bullets you want, of course."
She strokes her index finger over the vein in his wrist, lightly presses a pink nail into the skin. It doesn't hurt, but when she lifts her finger, Sam sees the little half-moon mark it left behind.
"Curiosity satisfied? Now, what was it you were saying about having the means to break the deal… Oh, right. You think a piece of blood-tempered metal is the end-all and be-all solution to your problems. Explain to me how you think that works, would you?"
He lets her soft, smooth fingers interlace with his over the scratched surface of the table and rubs his thumb over hers for a moment before squeezing her hand, hard.
"That hurts," Ruby says softly, and he watches her knuckles go white between his, the blush of blood creeping up to her nails. He squeezes harder, feels her thumb bend awkwardly in his grasp, leans in to hear her little pained whimper.
"Not as much as a bullet," Sam says, finally letting go.
She gives him an angry glare, rubbing feeling back into the darkened skin of her hand, reaching for her coffee cup with trembling fingers.
"You won't shoot me; not while you still need me. Honestly, Sam, what do you think you're going to do? Storm the nearest crossroads, summon the bitch, and threaten to put a hole in her unless she lets your brother go?"
"That was the plan."
"Ok," Ruby nods, pulling out a small, zippered wallet. "Let me know how it goes. No, no, don't pussy out now. Go through with it. Who knows, maybe you'll get lucky."
She deposits a twenty dollar bill on the table, weighs it down with her emptied cup.
"Dinner's on me, but do me a favor and cover the tip, would you?"
Sam buries bones and a piece of laminated cardboard in the mud, digs in with his hands until his nails are full of grit. Darrell Sweet, wildlife marshal, his hair a bit shorter and his eyes a little brighter than they are now, smiles white and gleaming at the sky, then vanishes under the dirt and the gravel.
"Come on," he mutters, turning east, south, west, "come on, come out here," waiting for a glimpse of the demon's borrowed tight black dress and smooth skin.
"Patience is a virtue," Sam hears, a deep, thick laugh from behind him, and whirls around, tightening his grip on the gun.
"Sorry I'm late," the demon smiles, brushing a piece of non-existent lint from a crisp black lapel. "I was picking out a suit. Do you like it?"
He opens his mouth, but the demon beats him to it, holding a ringed hand up to the light.
"Of course you like it. If you didn't, I would've worn something else."
It's nothing like the visions he's been having. He's seen short brown hair and a slick pink mouth, a smattering of freckles across tanned cheekbones, but they belonged to a woman, not the man pulling idly at his tie, staring at Sam with hooded red eyes. Then again, Sam's pretty sure he's not supposed to be here, at the crossroads, this far ahead of schedule. In his visions, Dean's always been there, kneeling behind him in a circle of thickly layered salt, but his contract's not up yet, won't come up for close to three more months.
He shakes his head; of course, this is nothing like his vision. He is forcing the issue.
"I wondered when I'd be seeing you," the demon tells him, taking a large step forward. "It really is a pleasure. Although, I must say, I thought you'd be taller."
It grins at its own quip, looking up at Sam from maybe six feet of height, maybe six one, six two at most.
"So, what do you want from me, Sam?" the demon asks, and licks its lips.
"My brother's contract, broken," he says, and points the gun at the center of its chest, something the demon pointedly ignores.
"Would that be the same brother who'll probably drive you to drink if left to his own devices? The same brother who thinks with the wrong head more often than not? The same brother you think about – "
"Only got the one," Sam cuts it off, nodding. "And I'm really not in the mood for any more headgames tonight. Let me make myself clear: you break the contract, right now, I live, Dean lives, and you get to live."
The demon purses its lips, clasps long, agile fingers together in front of its flat stomach.
"I'd love to help you out, Sam; I really would. But I'm not the guy, you see. I don't own the contracts. I'm just a salesman – a saleswoman, on occasion; I don't discriminate between suits. I don't have the means to break Dean's deal any more than you do."
"You're lying," Sam says in a flat voice, but this is what Ruby told him would happen when she sent him out here, Colt in hand.
"Afraid not," the demon shrugs. "You can wave that gun of yours around all you want, but this deal can't be broken. Speaking of guns, how did you get that piece of junk working again?"
"Got someone to make me a few more bullets," Sam says, fingers tensing over the trigger. "You want to see how well they work?"
"Ruby. Ruby helped you? Well, shit, I guess she would, wouldn't she," the demon says, more to itself than to Sam. "Anyway, I'm sorry, but I think we're done here."
Sam raises the gun a fraction of an inch, aims it straight at the flash of skin inside the demon's open collar.
"We're done when I say we're done. If you don't have the means to break the contract, then tell me who does. You make the deals; who do you make them for?"
"Believe me, Sam, my boss won't break this deal, either. Not for you." The demon stretches its arms to its sides, open, unguarded. "You think I'm lying, still. Go ahead, then, shoot me. Trust me; it won't help you, or Dean."
"Maybe. But you'll still be dead," Sam says, and pulls the trigger.
The all too familiar pain shoots through his skull at the same time as the bullet rips into the demon's shirtfront, and he lowers himself to the ground, preparing to ride it out. It's not the same crossroads rising before him in flashes of sharp, piercing hurt, Dean behind him in a haphazard circle of shimmering salt.
"You don't understand; you don't get to take him from me. What's mine is mine, and I won't share."
"Break the fucking salt line, Sam, I mean it."
"Alright, we'll do it the hard way. Remember, you'll have only yourself to blame."
"There won't be any blame. I win this one. I have seen it."
Sam pushes himself up from the mud, rubs at his throbbing temples as he turns around. He gives one last glimpse to the body in the middle of the road, a young man in an expensive blood-stained suit, green eyes turned sightless, and fights down the urge to vomit.
The next morning, they leave for Connecticut.