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Sam had bought himself a label-maker the first time he'd wandered into a department store while Dean was gone. He'd reorganized the Impala's trunk—again, though the Impala didn't remember the first time like he did. To secure the guns, he'd used foam, straps, and snaps because he didn't like the way the corners of Velcro tended to curl and scratch his hands. He'd gone all the way and labeled the gun slots with the label maker: a place for everything, and everything in its place. At the end of it, there was a place for Dean left empty, and he just had to grab Dean and put him back—it was stupid. But he got a lot of use out of that label-maker.

Sire blood
Cadaver blood
Cure base

Sam really didn't want to get those jars mixed up.

He'd finished burning the vamp an hour ago, and he thought the blood was starting to kick in. His head hurt, on top of the stress headache he'd been working around for the past two months, and the coals outside shone rosy-brilliant through cracks in the blanket of ash. Sam heard a dozen birds and scurrying things moving through the dark woods, through the walls and closed windows of the rotting shack.

There was no one close enough for him to hear their heartbeat. But he heard light soft coals fall muffled one upon the other as the pyre smoldered.

He left the cabin and paced in the tall grass, prodding his gums with his tongue.

He really had no idea how far he needed to push this—where the tipping point was—but there was a serious timing issue. He had to still be comatose by the time Jodie got to the shack. How should he word the text message? Something urgent, yet not-suicidal.

He prodded his gums some more, with his fingers. It'd been an hour and fifteen minutes. He was a little keyed-up—when why shouldn't he be keyed-up? He was just about to . . . about to get a message to Dean and teach him the mantra that would let Sam connect a portal direct between the two of them, that would let Sam find him anywhere. And the blood should be kicking in. Assuming Sam even could get turned like a normal human, and wasn't just digesting the vamp's abilities.

He'd wait until he felt fangs.

He paced. Looked over his equipment and the note for Sheriff Mills on the floor, rearranged the eight-foot railroad tie he'd dragged in, yanked on the bolts for the cuffs. He laid down lengthwise on the tie, letting his face dangle toward the shack's leaf-strewn linoleum. It felt unstable. He tried lying beside the tie, and that pulled him naturally into the recovery position, but his arm would be asleep. He stalked out to the car and brought in a blanket for padding.

Each snap and crumble of the coals felt like a raindrop striking the back of his neck, like biting into lumpy corn grits—startling and tactile. He checked his pulse.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe fast.

He listened to something scrabbling along a tree branch fifty yards away, to the earthworms popping up out from their burrows, and to the thousands of tiny claws shifting around in the beams of the shack. Was he hungry? He was a little hungry. His head still hurt, but now the moonlight was making it worse.

He was thirsty, too, but now that he thought about it, he hadn't had anything to drink for the past . . . since coffee. He'd had coffee. And blood.

Weak, nasty blood.

His gums itched. There still wasn't anything under them.

Sam drummed his fingers on his thigh and stalked around and around the shack, squinting against the moonlight, muttering the mantra for Dean. An owl swooped softly to the ground behind him, landing with a rustle and a thud and a wet squeak. Something died in its claws. The natural cycle. Something deep in the woods behind Sam spilled its hot blood on the owl's claws.

Sam licked his lips.

He hoped he didn't try to eat Dean when he found him.

A mosquito hummed in on jet-engine wings and landed on his hand. Sam squinted at it in the harsh moonlight and watched with morbid curiosity as it fed.

It fed, like a mosquito on a normal person. When its gut swelled red, Sam slapped it, smearing bug carcass and his own blood over his skin. The world didn't need vampire mosquitoes.

God, he was hungry. Sam sniffed his hand and realized he was in a potentially dangerous transition period: not yet dead, hungry, full of human blood. Assuming he was actually turning.

He licked his finger and scrubbed the blood off. In a careless moment, he stuck his finger back in his mouth and prodded his gums again. Mosquito residue and mostly-human iron hit his tongue, and in a startling savage reflex, something at the base of his lips squeezed, thin skin tore, and new tracks and folds of tissue stretched and rippled. Sam found himself grimacing automatically, lips drawn back to safety the same way his eyes stayed closed while he sneezed. He'd pricked his finger. The new teeth, loose-rooted, clicked against his old teeth.

He panted, beginning to shake, and squeezed his nicked finger into a fist. Gradually, the fangs relaxed and retracted into the folds of his gums. He'd turned. He'd done the first part. Now he just had to put it to use.

He darted back into the shack and opened his bag. Giant plastic syringe, thin soft rubber tube, personal lubricant, duck tape. He taped up his finger, then smeared lubricant on the blunt tube, and in fits and starts, threaded it up his nostril and down into his throat.

It really wasn't fun.

Coughing, and resisting the urge to sneeze and puke at the same time, Sam wrapped the open end of the rubber tube around his head and duck taped it to the back of his neck, out of range of his teeth. More tape secured the tube to his hair. It would be a bitch to remove, but needs must.

He sent Jodie the text: just the location of the shack, a time six hours from now, and "Please come. Everything's under control."

He mixed his sire's blood into the cure base, peeled the label off the jar of cure base, and re-labelled it "Cure."

He cuffed his ankles to the railroad tie, and for fifteen minutes recited a Tibetan meditation meant to prepare the soul to confront the denizens of the underworld. He burned incense and gunpowder in a brazier, sending up a flare of harsh light and scent. He marked up his forehead and hands with the hot ash. He dedicated a few words to Kali, wherever she was, a "Sorry" and a "Promise I'll get back to fixing the world when I get Dean back." He got the jar of cadaver blood, cuffed his wrists to the tie, and with what little maneuvering room was left to his hands, he tipped it to his lips.

It was foul. He choked it down, forcing himself to swallow despite the dull sting of what he suspected was formaldehyde, despite the sick emptiness of it; it was death, not the stolen life he needed, that he was taking in—assuming he wasn't just giving himself botulism. His guts rebelled. His lips went numb, spilling blood down his chin. His neck grew weak. The jar fell from his hand. His body imitated death, and with a push from the ash on his skin, Sam slipped free from it and into the void.

He drifted.

He drifted in emptiness.

Trusting himself to the chasm between life and death, human and beast, Sam practiced surrender.

He became aware again of the passage of time, and as he watched, with dull, bodiless curiosity, time passed slowly in great waves. He had been drifting for eons and not come to rest. He was patient.

More eons passed.

His patience ran out.

There was nothing to rest on, no form, nothing to orient by, no destination, and Sam realized that instead of a leaf fluttering to the earth, he was an astronaut drifting untethered through space. An astronaut with no skin. He had no sensation, but he knew, with a primal horror, that the gap he'd fallen through was unfathomable, that it had no gravity, currents, or shores. There was no psychopomp to shepherd him. He hadn't been reaped.

This must be what happened to socks when they disappeared.

He was no message in a bottle, but a lost sock.

His thoughts coiled tight into the mantra he carried for Dean, but the void yawned all around, a shock like falling from every direction, and nothing could distract him from it, nothing could give him purchase in it, nothing could guide him through it, and Sam had failed.

The taste of the cadaver blood, tainted and stale, flashed through his formless mind. The mosquito perched on his hand. The sough of the owl's wings. Pacing and anxiety. His plans. His certainty.

A terrible need to vomit seized him, and he doubled up against the railroad tie, fangs straining out from his gums, before heaving blackened blood and the water from the cure all over his forearms. He dry-heaved. The feeding tube kinked in his throat, making it worse, and his guts cramped. He managed to puke again, his body scraping up food he didn't even remember eating, then strained again and again, spitting and gagging into the mess all down his front. His heart was thundering and his vision was going black. Before the world went away again, he heard a footstep on the floor.

Sam woke up after dawn. The light hurt his eyes, but that was practically normal lately. He was still cuffed—his note had been emphatic on that point—but there was a crinkly silver emergency blanket draped over his torso, and his wrists had less vomit on them than he'd expected. His mouth burned. The feeding tube was hooked under his palate and caught under his tongue; with some maneuvering, he managed to swallow it back into place. When he lifted his head, the slight movement almost made his vision black out.

Jodie Mills was sitting crosslegged on the floor, hugging herself against the cold and watching him grimly. "When do I take the cuffs off." Her intonation was completely flat.

Sam slowly, painfully inched his head toward his hands and rolled his finger down his gumline. A fang extruded, the muscles that had worked it just hours ago now numb. It pulled free without resistance, leaving behind a small hole and a tiny string of dying flesh. He examined it blearily. Jodie looked on, stone-faced. "Now's good," Sam croaked.

Jodie fished around in her jacket pocket for the handcuff key, which Sam had left for her taped to the note, with the words "handcuff key" in neat block print underneath it. She released his wrists, then his feet. Sam rolled onto his back away from the railroad tie and felt pins-and-needles flare through the arm he'd been lying on. The feeding tube was still making him nauseous, the soft rubber impossibly tough and sharp against his throat.

"Explain," Jodie demanded in a low voice, "the chainsaw."

"On the note," Sam whispered, staring up at the rafters. There had been a ceiling here, once. He'd have to remember this shack, show Dean.

"Sam Winchester!" Jodie exploded, thumping the gritty floorboards with her fist. Sam winced at the noise. "'Remove my head if the cure fails.' Remove. Your head. You dragged me out here at six-a.m. to kill you. That saw's not cheap. I know you don't carry two-stroke mix around with you. 'Everything's under control'? What were you thinking?"

"Didn't know if dead man's blood counted," Sam explained, scrunching his eyes shut. "As feeding." He picked another fang out of his mouth and flicked it away.

"Well, thanks for leaving the mother of all suicide notes," Jodie hissed, gesturing at the three-ring binder that held Sam's indexed research on Purgatory and the spell to open the portal. "Oh, wait. No. You wanted suicide by cop. You disappear for six months—tell me, where the hell is Dean?"

Sam felt all his muscles lock up. "Read the binder."

Jodie rose and hovered over his face. "I was too busy making sure you didn't choke on your own vomit, or wake up and escape. You cruel, selfish child. Why me? I did not want to see you turn into a monster and put you down, Sam."

Sam groaned as the realization hit him—why Jodie, of all people. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I trusted you. I needed—someone has to do that spell." He pushed himself up onto his elbows, then to a slouch over his lap, and began to detangle the duck tape around the feeding tube from his hair. It wouldn't come. "Dean disappeared before my eyes," Sam mumbled. "Again. He's in some . . ." Frustrated, he yanked the tape out, taking a bundle of hairs with it. ". . . afterlife."

"He's dead?" Jodie asked softly.

"Maybe technically?" Sam's voice cracked, and he slowly drew the tube back out through his nose. It trailed acid in its path, burning. Tears started from his eye on the same side, as he got the last of it out and tossed it away. "I had to get a message to him. The spell I found, to open a door, it's two-ended. Dean needs to be saying the words the same time I'm performing the ritual. It's Purgatory, where he is; all monsters go to Purgatory, so I—" Sam's nose was running, and he cut himself off with a sniff. "—I had to get down there. Vampire's the only monster there's any coming back from."

Jodie crouched beside him. She wrapped her arm around his shoulders, and Sam tensed to stop himself from falling against her. "Couldn't you just send actual monsters down there with a message?" she asked.

Sam blinked. He honestly hadn't thought of that. "Oh. No, the last thing we need is an all-Purgatory bulletin that Dean Winchester's in town. However that works. But—"

"Is he okay?" Jodie interrupted him.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut. They were watering hard from the stomach tube scraping back up, and his nose was running worse and worse. He scrubbed his face against his shoulder. "It didn't work," he croaked. "I didn't find him."

Jodie tugged him closer and draped the emergency blanket around him. Sam sniffed and wiped his face on his shirt and took shallow, shuddering breaths. He'd been running so long without shelter, and he was so very tired.