The Ninth Circle
The Lughnasadh portion of the Turn Of The Wheel series. This was plotted and mostly written in my head before the season 2 finale; it flat out didn’t deserve the amount of time it took to write. It was difficult and yet wouldn’t shut up, so here it is. R for language, violence, and sibling-groping. Some humor but mostly angst, at a deathfic-level. This is the big, dark, unnecessarily angsty chapter. Save this one for when you’re in the mood for that, if ever.
For my purposes, Bobby lives in Mission, South Dakota. And he makes killer spaghetti.
He warned them all he could.
Under the weight of your wings
you are a god and whatever I want you to be
and I wonder if truly you are
nearly as beautiful as I believe.
–Anna Nalick, In My Head
July 30th, 2007 10:22 pm
Dean never let Sam put gas in the car.
Sam figured it was just another one of Dean’s many quirks that he wouldn’t admit to. His socks had to be folded a certain way, the same way their dad had always folded them: one tucked inside the other with the top pulled down over both. He’d never cross a threshold with his left foot first. He tapped the steering wheel twice before starting the car. Not quite OCD, Sam knew. Superstitions, maybe. That was fine, in their line of work. Superstitions often gave them clues or saved their lives.
Dean had told Sam not to put gas in the car because he was a big clumsy dork and he’d just spill gas while removing the nozzle, and ruin the paint job. Sam decided it was no skin off his ass, so he let it go. One less chore. Dean treated his car like a pet and Sam figured it was a good substitution for the dog they’d never had. But saying it aloud and psychoanalyzing Dean would likely get him a tirade that would start with the words you know what your problem is, Sam?
So he watched Dean in the rearview mirror on the passenger side, leaning one arm on the open window. Dean propped the nozzle in place and glanced up automatically toward Sam. Sam caught him doing it a lot, as if sooner or later Sam wouldn’t be there, or as if he just needed to look at him. Sam no longer bothered to pretend he wasn’t catching him. He met Dean’s eyes in the mirror and couldn’t help the smile that went with the moment of connection. Dean’s mouth quirked in annoyance and he turned his back. Sam grinned.
Dean was still pissed about allowing himself to be talked into taking a couple of days off and not hunting during the coming solar Sabbat. Sam had started with a reasonable tone, and then some pleading, and then a demand. He’d finally resorted to calling Bobby. It was probably dirty pool, but they were almost done with the cycle and Dean had been seen by too many people. It was a better place to hide than most. Dean didn’t want to go, regardless.
He knew Dean had no problem with the time off -- he was more than ready for it. He would be glad to hang out with Bobby for a little while. They both had a fond respect for the misleadingly simple-looking, scruffy older hunter, and they both wanted more time to check out some of the books Bobby didn’t even remember he had. It was probably the idea that they had to hide that grated on his nerves. Dean liked to run things down before they got him. His brand of stubbornness ran in many directions and the biggest one had to do with the idea of hiding. Lying in wait, fine, but never hiding.
So Sam called it downtime and accused Dean of pretending to be invincible.
Dean called him an asshole and failed to mention that after the tornado, he didn’t want Sam out getting into who knew what during that time of the month.
“Bobby said he was making spaghetti from scratch for us,” Sam said. That usually got Dean’s attention.
“Good for him,” Dean said.
Sam knew he was just being contrary for the hell of it. There were few people Dean looked forward to spending time with; Bobby had always been on that list, even when Dean knew there would be hollering involved. There’d been many years where they didn’t cross paths after John had driven the usually mild-mannered salvage yard owner to point guns at him, but the boys had always been welcome. Sam remembered many dusty summer afternoons spent hiding among the wrecks or building things out of random parts. He and Dean made robots one summer with the wiring from a Buick and the catalytic converters from a Dodge or two. Paint, and fuses, and electric window motors; headlight parts and the odds and ends from a ruined drivetrain. Dean had been eleven at the time and had managed to get his to light up. After that, Bobby had put him to work taking transmissions apart and reassembling them. He’d told him he took after his dad in all the right ways. The look on Dean’s face, while he’d still been young enough to openly show it, had been sheer joy.
Dean had always been good at taking things apart and putting them back together. The latter was only relegated to his choosing, especially when it came to how he dealt with people.
And of course there had been the time that same summer when Dean had learned to make Molotov cocktails.
Bobby didn’t have hydrants out there, just his well and a tanker he kept for emergencies – i.e., boys blowing shit up. It hadn’t been fear of their father that had kept Bobby from killing Dean that day; that was certain. Later in life, Sam reflected it was more the scorch marks on Dean’s clothes than the loss of an old woodpile and the freestanding lean-to covering it that had caused such an emotional response. Dean and Sam had chopped a lot of wood to replace what had been lost.
An occasional summer week with Bobby had also meant learning to cook a few more things, and poring over old books, and getting a lot of pats and hair-ruffles. Sam had bounced and grinned under the affection, verbal and otherwise. Dean had never shied away, but he’d always been a little wary, looked a little confused. Sam had figured that Dean was waiting for the but... at the end of every sentence.
Bobby never seemed to change. And neither did they, really.
“...giant pumpkinhead,” Dean was saying, the volume rising at the end until he had Sam’s attention.
Sam glanced over at him. “Huh?”
“Huh?” Dean scoffed in falsetto. “I hope you never did that in class. I’ve been talking to you for like half a fucking hour, and you just make that dumb face like you’re thinking huge thoughts and can’t be bothered with petty little concerns.”
Sam took a slow breath and let a few beats pass, staring at Dean. His brother could be such an ass when he was nervous. “Why did you keep talking when I obviously wasn’t listening?” he said. “Dumbass. You don’t need anybody to listen, you love the sound of your own voice so much.”
Dean pulled his chin in toward his chest and made a mock-pompous face. “You don’t have to be such a cunt, Sam.”
“Okay, no,” Sam said, slashing at the air with one hand and bringing it sharply down on his own knee. “Do not use that word. What the hell is wrong with you?”
Dean was laughing before Sam could finish. “I can’t believe you still have such a problem with that. It’s just a word. Get over it.”
“It’s just wrong,” Sam said, wrinkling his nose and turning back to the window. “What was so important, anyway?”
“Never mind,” Dean sighed. “Don’t wanna trouble you with my unimportant thoughts.”
“You probably asked me if I wanted to stop at the next exit and get a soda, didn’t you,” Sam said.
“It’s pop, and no, I was trying to tell you there was a hitchhiker back there that looked just like Jesus, and we could get saved if we picked him up, but you weren’t listening. So, no saving for us.”
“That’s okay,” Sam said. “Jesus cries when you use the ‘c’ word, Dean.”
Dean snorted, and Sam dug the map out and looked at it, glancing out the window again for mile markers. They were maybe a few hours from Bobby’s, so they’d have to find a spot for the night. There was no reason to drive through; they weren’t under that much of a deadline. They had until midnight the following night before wings were yet again a major part of their lives, and he didn’t relish the idea of driving until one or two in the morning..
“He’s got garlic bread, too,” Sam said absently.
“Jesus, or Bobby?”
Dean raised his eyebrows and relented a little. “That’s good stuff.”
“Yeah, so, I’ve got a lot of research to do in his stacks, so find other stuff to do and give me some space for once, would you?”
One corner of Dean’s mouth quirked, and Sam purposely looked away. Bobby already seemed to know way too much. Sam didn’t want to risk any kind of weirdness beyond their usual weirdness.
“While you’re asleep, I’m gonna paint a big rainbow pattern on your feathers,” Sam said, refolding the map and shifting in his seat to stretch as much as he was able. “You can be your very own gay pride parade.”
“Lucky for you nothing sticks to ‘em,” Dean said with a low undertone of threat.
The motel they found around eleven had a family diner attached to it and a pseudo-fifties motif throughout. They got checked in to a room on the first floor, three from the end, and settled what stuff they needed on their respective beds. Dean was nearest the door, no questions asked. They left the weapons in the car except for their sidearms for the time being.
“There’s no soap or shampoo or nothin’ in here,” Dean said, opening cupboards and drawers and poking around. “There was a minimart a couple blocks down. I’m gonna go get supplies.”
“And beer,” Sam added, throwing himself on his bed.
“Beer is always part of ‘supplies’,” Dean said, heading for the door.
Sam bounced back to his feet. “I’ll go. I need the chance to walk.”
“Fine. Don’t bring back chick shampoo.”
“For the last time, it wasn’t ‘chick shampoo’. It was Fructise, Dean. It was what they had. Anybody can use it.”
“Smelled like fruit,” Dean said with audible distaste, kicking his boots off. “It had the root word for fruit right in the name. Chick stuff.”
“It’s unisex,” Sam said, checking for his wallet.
“That’s you all around, Sammy. Except, take out the ‘i’.”
“You’re a veritable fount of wit and wisdom,” Sam said, opening the door.
“Next you’ll be drinking wine coolers,” Dean said. “You’re the little sister I always wanted.”
Sam flipped him off and closed the door.
He heard Dean yell something after him that sounded suspiciously like ‘giant pumpkinhead’. It still made no sense.
The minimart was poorly lit, the floor was wet near the coolers in the back, and it smelled vaguely like diesel and rancid egg salad, but the shelves were decently stocked with sundries. He carefully picked out some kiwi-strawberry shampoo and Secret deodorant, and a bottle of lavender-scented shower gel. He was unable to keep from smirking. To balance things out, he snagged some higher-end beer and peanut M&M’s and a bag of barbecue chips so that Dean wouldn’t have too much of a fit. He picked up extra salt while he was at it. It was entirely possible that he had been imagining the feeling of being watched, but he knew better than to ignore it entirely.
Dean hadn’t shared the feeling (or at least hadn’t admitted to it). Sam knew he was feeling a little keyed up anyway with the Sabbat approaching. He’d been jumpy and almost hoping for a windy day. It was the exact same feeling he’d had any other time a Sabbat came up since he’d been nailed by a dying air elemental, but sharper, more....paranoid.
He briefly embarrassed himself by imagining kiwi-strawberry-scented wings.
They’d be at Bobby’s this time, and nothing would get out of control. That was both a relief and a disappointment.
He paid for his choices and tried to decide whether to just leave the bag of toiletries on the vanity or place the items strategically around. Dean knew better than to openly complain about anything Sam did, because it only caused him to repeat the offense. Still, he did it anyway, over and over.
He was yawning and watching for a break in traffic so he could jaywalk back across the road, so it wasn’t until he was most of the way to the motel that he saw the lights.
Red and blue emergency flashers were strobing the buildings and trees. Cops. Two cars.
He broke step for just an instant before his instinct to react kicked in and he started cataloguing what he could see. The Impala was right where they’d parked it. There was no ambulance. The cops were standing around with their guns holstered, talking to a guy that was standing in front of the open door of the room next to theirs. Sam recognized the motel’s manager as he walked up to them. A lot of doors were open, including theirs, so Sam couldn’t tell which one they were focusing on at first. No one was in the back of either cop car, so, no one was busy arresting his brother. That was good. He still had a really damn bad feeling about it, though. What the hell could have happened in the time he’d been gone?
He’d find Dean inside, saying dude you should have seen it, total drug bust.
He kept his distance out of caution and got his phone out.
Dean didn’t answer.
He decided it was possible that Dean had let the charge run down on his phone, although that wasn’t likely.
A third cop came out of their room. More nervous faces were visible in the other doorways. Something noisy had happened, and it had been bad enough to get someone to call the cops in a crapass motel.
Sam walked even slower despite the fact that he wanted to run. He had to hold off on getting too close until the motel’s manager was occupied elsewhere because he couldn’t take a chance on being recognized. Not until he knew more.
Cop #3 headed to one of the cars, leaned in, and moved something around. Cops 1 and 2 were making comments into their radios. The manager stood and looked pissed. After a moment, he shook his head and walked off.
Cop #3 got in his car and pulled away.
Cops 1 and 2 talked for a moment, stances relaxed, then 2 closed the open door to Sam and Dean’s room and stared off in the direction the manager had gone. He shrugged and got in the passenger side of the remaining car.
Sam watched them drive away a few minutes later. The doors to the other rooms began to close. Excitement over. He couldn’t decide whether it was better or worse than what he’d been imagining. Dean’s dismembered corpse was obviously not strewn around the room, but, there was still some kind of situation and Dean was nowhere to be seen.
With the cops gone, Sam knew the manager might decide to go into the room and go through stuff, depending on what it looked like in there. Dean had purposely written orange Chevy Nova on the sheet at the sign-in desk, so it would take the guy a while to figure out that the Impala shouldn’t be there.
Sam came toward the building at an angle, moving quickly but not running. He stayed close to the building and let himself into the room, fast.
It looked like the aftermath of a bar brawl.
The overhead light had been left on. What little furniture there was had been trashed – TV, lamps, chair, the vanity mirror. There was glass everywhere and a couple of dents in the drywall near the door that looked suspiciously as if someone had planted their feet in an effort to stay in the room. There was no blood, but a quick glance around allowed him to find Dean’s boots still sitting next to the bed...and his gun beneath it. Sam bet it had been kicked there. Out of Dean’s hand, or by Dean as a message to him, he couldn’t tell.
He gathered their stuff as quickly as he could and glanced both ways before heading toward the Impala with long strides. There were so many things that could have come after them, but not many that could have tracked them and then gone in fast and brutal enough to catch Dean off guard. Demons, elementals.
Dean had put up one hell of a fight.
He sat in the car for a long moment, out of breath with panic. Demons would have been thrilled with themselves and would have left calling cards – sulfur, a message in blood, one of Dean’s hands. Otherwise there was no point. He realized that whatever this was, it wasn’t necessarily for his benefit; it didn’t have to be about him. Dean had pissed off a hell of a lot of people and...things while Sam was at school. Maybe the elementals had found a way to ‘see’ Dean before the wings appeared. Maybe Sam was losing his fucking mind sitting out there imagining possibilities, all of them bad.
He dug around in Dean’s bag and found an EMF meter. He’d been in such a rush that he hadn’t done even the simplest, most obvious thing that could help him narrow it all down.
He looked at the building in the rearview. Nothing moved.
He bolted out of the car and headed straight for the room, not caring who saw him that time. He pushed the door back open, meter held out at arm’s length.
He took a quick tour around the room. The thing was on, and he knew there was nothing wrong with it – they’d picked up residuals with it from a poltergeist one state back a day earlier. But it was silent.
He went back to the car and tried to think of the last really jealous boyfriend that had threatened to kill Dean after he’d hit on the wrong girl, of the last time they’d hustled rednecks that maybe weren’t quite drunk enough, of cannibals and shapeshifters.
None of them were capable of tracking them and waiting specifically for Sam to leave.
He flipped his phone open and tried calling Dean again. Instead of ringing, the ‘out of area’ message droned in his ear.
“Fuck,” he said, surprised by how shaken his own voice sounded. “Fuck.”
He dialed Bobby instead. After what seemed like an interminable number of rings passed, Bobby’s tired and wary voice answered.
Sam tried to clear the fear out of his voice before he spoke. “We’re...gonna be a little late.”
Bobby made an immediate leap in logic that Sam had not...or would not.
“You catch anybody following you?”
“No,” Sam said over the phone. He was pacing the parking lot of the minimart. “I told Dean yesterday that it felt like we were being watched, but he didn’t feel anything, and we’ve been extra careful. I get...we’re not...I get really weird feelings before a Sabbat anyway. Whatever....whoever it was, they had to be corporeal and there had to be more than one. No way anything short of a Wendigo drags Dean off like that, no way.”
“First off,” Bobby said, “you gotta settle down. You’re in a panic, and you’re starting to feel whatever it is you got slapped with comin’ on. I can hear you pacing, so go sit in the car and simmer down.”
Sam did as he was told, but sat there with the driver’s door open, jittering.
“You gotta realize, with all the people and things you’ve run across, this could be anything. But it doesn’t have to be.”
Sam choked off a sardonic laugh. “I know.”
“It comes down to plain common sense,” Bobby said. “No matter what it was, it left something behind. Everything does. Plus, you know if he was able, Dean would have done all he could to leave you a clue. You even talked to the folks in the rooms on either side?”
“No,” Sam said, feeling the panic beginning to build again. “There was....I didn’t want the cops to see me and start asking questions.”
“Well, it’s getting on midnight, so move,” Bobby said. “Get to them before they spook and move on, or their hour’s up, or whatever. Somebody saw something. And too many people saw those wings to begin with, Sam. You know it.”
Sam thought back suddenly to the demon on the side of the road in Ord, the one still in the box at Bobby’s house. You have any idea what’s happened to you? What you’re walking around out here waving at everybody?
“A demon or elemental wouldn’t have waited for me to leave to take a crack at Dean,” Sam said, hand sweating against the phone. “What the hell would people want, with –“
He trailed off because he just didn’t want to consider what people could do.
“Think, Sammy,” Bobby said softly.
Sam pressed the heel of one hand to his forehead. “If they followed us for any length of time without being seen...then they’re not just, like, National Enquirer photogs. They wanna...cut the wings off, or keep him as a pet, or they think he’s an angel or they’re crazy and think he’s part of some lost race that can give them powers. A cult.”
“So keep thinking that way,” Bobby said. “They wanted him bad enough to find you, and they were desperate enough to take a crack at him where there could be witnesses. You boys are rarely apart and they waited for you to leave.”
Sam thought about that for a moment, the panic receding to a background hum. It could mean they just didn’t want to have to deal with two guys, or they’d already learned not to attempt two Winchesters at once. He was only assuming it was all about the wings, but it was a pretty good assumption. “Whatever they want, won’t they at least wait until the wings appear?”
“Makes sense to me,” Bobby said. “Go on, wake those people up, if they haven’t freaked out and taken off.”
Sam thanked him and started back on foot. It would be quicker and easier to make a run for it that way, if he was confronted.
Talking to Bobby had definitely settled him down. Bobby had always been able to pull them out of the contained, emotional little worlds he and Dean got themselves into with each other. He could think again, but none of it had a tolerable resolution. Supernatural beings, all shapes and kinds and origins, were held to boundaries. Running water and salt and iron kept them at bay; they needed symbols and/or spoken incantations to be summoned or banished. Blood, fire, ritual. It was, in its own way, more orderly than mortal society. People were restricted to the physical in action and motion, but in no other way. They crossed state lines and had random thoughts and changed their minds. They often left messy tracks as well, thankfully. Maybe demons had blackmailed them into it, whoever they were. Maybe demons were auditioning their own groupies, now.
He had too many variables to deal with.
Dean, against all odds, had found a way to save him from the Benders. Sam was just as smart and fast and desperate. He would find a way. He had to.
The motel was quiet. There were no lights on in the rooms on either side of the one they’d rented. The people on the right didn’t answer – checked out, or gone for a drink, who knew. The people on the left turned out to be a middle aged guy who told him through the door to fuck off. Sam asked him to please help him out by telling him what he’d seen. The part about fucking off was repeated, so Sam kicked the door in and dragged the guy out into the parking lot.
At least the guy was in his boxers, and luckily he was alone, because Sam was already feeling a little edgy and time was of the essence. A screaming wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/prostitute in the background would have been a real annoyance.
Sam had one hand at the guy’s throat and bunched the front of his boxers with the other. “How about a little help,” he said in a conversational tone. “Or, you know, choose which nut you lose first.”
Three guys, gloves, hats. No gunshots, just one hell of a racket, and they’d dragged a fourth guy out and put him in the back of an SUV. Dark colored, too dark outside to tell exactly what. It had been keyed down the driver’s side. Couldn’t catch any part of the license plate. Saw and heard a taser.
Sam clenched his jaw. A taser. His brother had been too much for three guys, so they’d tasered him. Bad enough by itself, but after the thing with the rawhead...
“What else,” Sam said, his tone so flat that the guy cringed a little further.
“Buddy, there’s nothing else.”
“Bullshit,” Sam snarled, shoving him against the building. “Nobody said anything?”
“With everybody shoutin’, how was I supposed to – “
What scared Sam the most later on was that he hadn’t planned it or even realized he was going to do it. Then he had his gun out and had jammed it right against the guy’s temple. “Every little bit counts,” he said.
“Somebody started shoutin’ some chick’s name,” the guy said, voice higher and shallow. “Okay? Really, that’s it. Judy, or somethin’. Judith. I heard it about four times. Judith.”
Sam released him and took a step back, but didn’t tuck the gun away. “That’s it. You’re sure.”
“Yeah, man, I swear. It happened fast, and they were gone. I didn’t wanna be witness to anything, okay?”
Sam stood for a moment in indecision. He was done there and he knew it, but it seemed too hard to walk away from the last place Dean had been. He wanted to knock something down, level something and sift through the pieces afterward for whatever he needed. It wasn’t like him, and he wondered if he should care more about that. He blew out a breath and took another step back. “Look,” he said, “thanks. I’m...sorry, it’s just, uh...”
“Good, fine,” the guy said, backing into his room. “Just fuck off, okay?”
He slammed the door.
Sam tucked his gun away and glanced around quickly to make sure he wasn’t getting any unwanted attention. He looked at the ground around the door of what had been their room and checked the immediate parking lot for anything that might have been dropped.
They didn’t know anybody named Judith. Maybe it hadn’t even been Dean doing the shouting, but that didn’t make sense, either. What the hell kind of code was that supposed to be?
He walked back to the car listing things to search for. There was a Judith in the Bible. He could safely assume it was Dean trying to tell him something, but, the whole freakin’ book of Judith?
He couldn’t resist circling the area and checking for a car like the one the guy had described. He hated to waste the time, but he’d seen people do dumber things when they thought they’d gotten away with something. For all he knew, they hadn’t gone far.
He laid Dean’s gun on the passenger seat.
He had a direction to start in. He could get to work.
He found another motel a few miles down the road and left everything in the car but his gun, Dean’s gun, and the laptop.
July 31st, 12:53am
Googling ‘Judith’ got him exactly what he figured it would, at first.
The Book of Judith is a deuterocanonical book, included in the Septuagint and in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Old Testament of the Bible...
“Yeah, I know,” Sam said aloud. He knew the story. The parable of the dangers of a beautiful woman. That made sense when applied to Dean, but the guy hadn’t said he’d seen a woman. What, maybe a woman knocked on the door to get his attention? Why the hell would Dean waste his breath telling Sam that?
The next entry was apparently someone’s writing blog. The next, the Biblical Judith again. It was the fourth entry that caught his attention – the lyrics of a song he wasn’t familiar with.
Oh so many ways for me to show you
How the savior has abandoned you
Blasphemous to some and angrily accurate to others. Some band had poured a lot of ire toward God – either figuratively or literally – into an alt-metal song that had been a hit for awhile in 2000 and 2001. Perfect Circle wasn’t a band in Dean’s repertoire, as far as Sam knew. It was headed up by the lead singer from the aptly named Tool. Not Dean’s speed, at all. But the only other band with a song titled Judith that Sam knew of was The Cult, and that was a less likely candidate. He read the lyrics twice, looking for something. Why not go with a song title they’d already agreed on, if he’d wanted to tell Sam something? He looked up the album the song was from, Mer De Noms. Sea of names.
Inside the insert the track names randomly appear spelled out in symbols.
Dean was all about symbols, and he often remembered the ones he’d seen – especially from rock albums. And shit, if it was the song he was talking about, the damn album was nothing but symbols.
What were you trying to tell me?
He wanted to think that Dean had found him, before, with less to go on, but...he hadn’t. Dean’d had security cameras and a cop who’d taken a shine to him. It had still taken Dean’s intelligence and tenacity to get there just in time. Sam didn’t feel up to the challenge, but it didn’t matter because he could not fail.
He sat in the overly yellow motel room and stared at the walls for a moment and wished that, of anything he’d been branded with for ‘gifts’, one of them had been an innate ability to find his brother. Like a homing pigeon.
He had less than twenty four hours before the wings came out and whoever had Dean got what they wanted.
He went back out to the car and dug through the box of cassette tapes. Finding Mer De Noms in there didn’t feel like victory. He just didn’t understand the message.
He downloaded Judith off iTunes and listened to it three times in a row. Sliding power chords and lyrics full of unrestrained anti-Christian sentiments on behalf of the singer’s deceased mother raged out at him.
Praise for one who left you broken down and paralyzed
He did it all for you.
Sam couldn’t tell if he was looking too hard, or not hard enough. Dean wouldn’t have been shouting a song title meant for him for something as simple as someone wearing a Perfect Circle shirt. It was something more.
Okay. This was leading him nowhere.
He got up to pace, running his hands through his hair, opening the door for air. It was too damn warm. He had to start from the beginning. People always left something behind, left trails of many kinds. They’d found Dean somehow. Someone who’d seen one of the newspaper articles had taken it seriously enough to start searching.
He called Bobby again without worrying about waking him. He knew Bobby was awake.
He told him what his unhappy neighbor at the motel had divulged. “We were seen too many times. I was thinking about what you said, the last time I saw you, about how we’ve been too visible. I need the sightings, in order, by date and place.”
“I got ‘em out after talking to you earlier,” Bobby said softly. “Looking for a pattern. Hold on.”
Sam waited while Bobby went to get the information, praying it wasn’t kept in a file labeled Shit The Winchesters Have Gotten Into.
December 21st, the bar in North Crow’s Nest, Indiana. May 1st, the baby in Minister, Pennsylvania and the church incident in Clarion. June 21st, the rest stop in Arnold, Nebraska after the tornado. Those were the only documented sightings. Sam ruled out the Halloween party they’d gone to when it all began, because the wings were passed off as a costume.
“So...say someone takes the first one seriously, or the first two,” Sam said. “No one followed us this far without me and Dean catching on, no matter how good they are. I know that. It’s like they were already waiting for us, or they’d followed us a short way. Who would have been likely to really take an interest back in Indiana or Pennsylvania that might have passed the info on to somebody else?”
“You’re thinking hunters,” Bobby said. His tone wasn’t outwardly doubting, but Sam could already tell he wasn’t fully buying into the hypothesis.
“I don’t know,” Sam said, leaning against one side of the open doorway. “I’m grasping at straws, here. Who’d want wings? Who do you know in Indiana, or Pennsylvania, or even Nebraska?”
He heard Bobby clear his throat. There was a moment of static, betraying miles of space and satellites bouncing signals. Then Bobby said, “I’m gonna see if anyone’s heard anything. From what you’re tellin’ me, they’re probably younger and they’ve planned something, so just maybe they’ve been noisy going about it before now. There wasn’t much caution about the way they grabbed Dean. You sit tight and I’ll check some things out. It might take a while.”
“We don’t –“
“Sammy,” Bobby said in a tone Sam recognized well as a stern but sympathetic command. “You’re doin’ everything you can. We’ve only got so much to go on. I need you to stay sharp in case I find something.”
Sam sighed. He hated the feeling he was getting: the same feeling he’d always had when his dad and brother had gone on a hunt and left him behind.
He hated feeling like such a kid.
He passed the dark hours waiting, searching the internet for ritual killings or talk of sightings of people with wings.
When dawn came, Dean was still just as pissed as he had been when he’d first awoken in someone’s fuckin’ basement or root cellar or whatever. There was a spider on his neck, he could feel it, and he couldn’t do much about it because he was tied to a support pillar next to a washer and dryer. It looked like people actually lived there; there was a bottle of Tide and a box of goddamn fabric softener sheets on the dryer, and clothes all over the floor. A little light was coming in the small window above the washer at ceiling height that let him get a view of the boxes against the far wall. Stuff like XMAS LIGHTS and RICKY’S LEGOS was handwritten across their sides.
He was in the hands of amateurs. With a taser.
Jesus, that had hurt, but he’d never admit to it out loud.
He hadn’t left Sam enough of a clue, he knew it, and he was pissed at himself for it. Hell, he still didn’t know what was going on. He could take a good healthy guess at it, though, and none of the stuff he was thinking was good. He was perversely wishing it was demons instead of people that had him. He was pretty sure it was two younger guys, younger than he was, and another a little younger than his dad had been. People with ideas were always dangerous.
His wrists were raw from trying to loosen the clothesline he was tied with. The knots were messy and imprecise, done in a hurry, but still effective.
When he heard a door open above and feet on the wooden stairs, he said, “Which one of you fuckers is little Ricky? ‘Cause you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
The footfalls paused, then a pair of sneakers became visible.
“What are you?”
The hesitation in the tone of what Dean was sure was one of his earlier wrestling partners made him even more uneasy. “I’m just some guy who’s gonna kick your ass the minute I get loose.”
The feet retreated.
Dean slammed his head back into the support behind and gritted his teeth. He’d handled that so well.
When his phone rang again, Sam startled and was just disoriented enough to hold on to a moment that didn’t include worry. After hours of scrolling and staring, he’d dropped off without even knowing it. He reached for his phone without opening his eyes, feeling the weight of memory descend with the overwhelming feeling that something had happened, but it took hearing Bobby’s voice to bring it all back.
“I’ve talked to a few people.”
Sam sat straight up. “Anybody see anything?”
“They’d all heard about the sightings, so when you boys get out of this, you’re done hunting for a while,” Bobby said. “When, not if. I know a guy in Hartley, Iowa that’s been hearing talk about a local getting noisy about looking for all the wrong things. Asking questions about how to go about binding something powerful.”
Sam didn’t want to say it, but he had to be businesslike about the whole thing if he was going to get through it. “Blood magic?”
“Yeah,” Bobby said. “‘fraid so.”
Sacrifice. A lot of binding could be done with fire or blood, sometimes both, and if they weren’t careful about asking questions, then they were amateurs and they’d go for the obvious, messy way of getting something done, which meant unwilling sacrifice.
Sam tried to fight past the undiluted fear it caused him. Whoever they were, though, if they were that clumsy, Dean would find a way out. Either that, or they’d slip and Sam would find them. It was how the world worked, even if they had to force it to work that way.
“Having wings would make him seem...other than human. He’d be some sort of magical creature, perfect for summoning something but not as hard to kill as a ‘real’ human would be. That way they can justify killing him without guilt. Either that, or they were purposely looking for something with a little extra power so that the summoning would be more likely to work.”
Sam let himself pretend it was someone else they were researching a rescue for.
“This won’t be the first time they’ve tried something like this, no way. Who knows these people? Someone’s talked to them directly, they had to.”
“I’m working on it,” Bobby said. “You get headed that way, and remember that these guys might be desperate to get something done. Stay low.”
“Yeah,” Sam said, already grabbing up his laptop and heading out of the room. “Yeah, I know.”
“Sam,” Bobby said.
“Yeah, I –“
“We’ll find him.”
Sam paused in what he was doing. He wasn’t sure he believed it, but he’d needed to hear it. “Okay.”
He was out of there in record time, grateful to be moving, to have something to do. Hartley was about an hour and a half away in the opposite direction from where they’d been headed. How many people were involved, where had they caught the wrong attention, how had they known exactly where he and Dean were? Did they have people watching from state to state? How long had they been looking? He and Dean had just been in Canby, Minnesota, looking for a Liderc. It had turned out to be a really confused guy with regular chickens. No one had taken pictures of him or Dean that Sam had seen; they sure as hell hadn’t been in the paper. Someone had found out enough to track them to a little motel in South Dakota, though. Someone knew what they looked like beyond someone’s rough description.
He would make it well ahead of time, and the rest would fall into place. Dean would be annoyed and complaining about the whole experience and then about the shampoo Sam had chosen, and Sam would show restraint when destroying whatever setup these lunatics had put together to try and summon something.
He thought of that couple in Nebraska, of Sueann and her altar. Desperation to save someone you loved could turn into a twisted crusade of judgment and destruction. He didn’t care why they were going to so much trouble or what their ultimate goal really was, for love or greed or revenge. They couldn’t use Dean to do it.
He didn’t want to imagine what a sacrifice like Dean could summon.
Bobby hung up and sat in silence for a moment. There was only so much of a network he could reach, and in that network not everyone cared all that much about anybody else. Everybody had their own agendas; it wasn’t like the hunting community was all that cohesive to begin with, and not everybody was concerned about stomping evil for the sole sake of whether it was right. The Winchesters liked to save people, even the stupid ones who got in over their heads and caused their own problems. Some hunted for the thrill, some had lost a loved one to something they’d never imaged could exist; some had it passed to them.
He tried to think of who else to involve that wouldn’t make it worse. Dean with wings was a potential target to other hunters, as prey or even a trade with the wrong side, and if Bobby wasn’t careful he’d end up indirectly alerting the wrong part of the grapevine. Out of the frying pan and into another batch of idiots.
He looked at the box that was still by his front door, eyes wandering over the carved surface. A couple of guys who could forcibly trap a demon in a box could get the hell away from just about anything or anyone.
Rove passed the door and glanced in at him. He’d be a fairly big Rottweiler when he was fully grown. Smart dog, too. Smartasses kept asking him, don’t you mean ‘Rover’? He didn’t bother explaining.
He didn’t keep this dog on a chain. Rumsfeld hadn’t had a chance against that goddamn demon that had come right through the yard.
He’d hide those boys, if he had to. They hadn’t been deliberately careless. It was hard to hide wings, especially since they hadn’t known that the second time, the time in the bar, would even happen. And considering the source, a goddamn elemental, it had been obvious that Sam and Dean were not quite themselves on a Sabbat. Hell, it had been all Bobby could do to keep his distance and keep his hands off those wings. They were only a construct of something else, something Bobby only suspected, and he kept that to himself since the knowledge wouldn’t really do anyone any good if he was right. He thought of how hard it would be to try and behave like a sane person with...that going on. And Sam? Sam was with his brother nearly 24/7 and had been hit with something of his own. There was no way they were dealing well with the ever-present compulsion to touch.
Sam had stopped a tornado. There was no telling what the kid could do – or what he would do, if they didn’t find Dean in time.
There was no point trying to meet up in Hartley with Sam. It was better to hold a home base and keep trying to track down more information.
By the time Sam reached Hartley he already knew it was going to be a damn hot day. He was tired and imagining too many scenarios and wishing he knew what Dean had been trying to tell him. Listening to the whole damn Perfect Circle album didn’t help. Dean had referenced a song full of blunt symbolism and not-so blunt symbols on the album’s liner. Sam wanted it all to reach out and grab him, for the lights to come on in a way that allowed him to charge in, yank Dean away from whatever captivity he was in, and pound sense into whoever had set the whole thing in motion.
Bobby had called again just outside Hartley, directing Sam to a retro bead shop on 2nd near the train tracks. It was a lot more than that in the back; an occult way station for the serious stuff. It was hemp bracelets in the front and various skulls and powders in the back, and Bobby knew someone who knew the owner.
They didn’t open until 9, so Sam killed time by grabbing coffee at a nearby fast food place. If he was very careful, he was able to pretend it was a regular job.
He stood around outside on the sidewalk until the door was unlocked, then showed Dean’s picture to the girl behind the counter and asked if the owner was around. She was, and she was a lot younger than Sam had imagined, maybe mid thirties. Gina Wegley introduced herself after giving him a knowing once-over, and invited him into the back storage room. She listened to his abbreviated tale, pulling her waist-length, auburn braid between her hands and staring at him intently. When he was through, she said, “A young man I didn’t recognize was here about a week ago, asking for items that he had no right knowing of, much less knowing to ask for them here. I chased him off, but not before trying to get him to tell me why he thought this would be the place to check. He wouldn’t say, and he didn’t seem interested when I warned him to watch who he mentioned things to. I questioned my staff about who he might have been, and either they didn’t know or they were covering. It’s hard to keep things quiet around here forever.”
Sam heard that last sentence and it hit home, because he realized he was dealing with word of mouth that likely spanned states; minor connections and friends and interested parties, hopes and assumptions in a loose web that was similar to the one he dwelt in with other hunters. One had led him to be frantically searching for Dean; the other probably overlapped and might help him get Dean back.
He listened to her description of the guy and knew in his gut that it was good info, but he also knew it was a thin place to hang his hopes on. He was at a dead end if no one knew the guy.
The girl in front wasn’t any more forthcoming than she had been when he’d first come in, but the note of desperation he could hear in his own voice got through. He could see acknowledgment of it in her eyes under too much eyeliner. She said she’d ask around, and he was damn close to begging by the time he showed her the liner from Mer De Noms and pointed out the symbols.
He didn’t know what the connection was. All he knew was that one existed. He trusted Dean.
He left her his name and number, and she took it without hesitation.
He showed Dean’s picture around several places and described a dark-colored SUV that was keyed down the driver’s side.
By two that afternoon, he knew he was running out of time and could feel it. Bobby hadn’t heard anything else and was beginning to sound as worried as Sam knew he had to be. The dead end had come, and without luck or a damn miracle, there was nothing else to do but wander around hoping and praying that someone would come forward, or that Dean would appear at his shoulder with a story to tell. Sam was already on edge, feeling that high and open dose of exhilaration that meant the wind and anything it could do would be his again within hours. It was making everything worse, making it all sharper and more easily felt. He was beginning to get an urge to toss all attempts at propriety and do what he had done to the guy at the motel, to anyone he thought might know anything. It wasn’t about violence; it was about casting off everything that wasn’t necessary. He’d been able to keep it down since the elemental had hit him, but as emotional and stressed as he was, he wasn’t keeping it all together like he meant to.
When he found himself driving around looking for fields and remote areas that might be prime spots to etch symbols into the ground, he knew he was losing his grip on believing he’d solve the puzzle in time. He wasn’t even really sure someone hadn’t just grabbed Dean to sell him to some underground freak show. It wasn’t a given that he was going to be used in a rite; it was simply the most likely scenario. He was at the point where he was actively trying to see if he could get a sense of Dean anywhere, even knowing that whatever powered his abilities just didn’t work that way.
He tried Dean’s phone again and got the whole ‘user is unavailable’ message again. He’d already thought of trying to get a pinpoint on its location by pulling the cop-searching-for-suspect gig, but knew it wouldn’t work when the phone was off.
He knew he’d have to eat something sooner or later, but he just couldn’t.
At ten after five, his phone rang, and he didn’t recognize the number.
“I’m a friend of the girl you talked to at Beads and Beyond,” a female voice said. “I’m not sure if I can help you, but I might know who you’re looking for. I just don’t wanna be involved in any of it, and I don’t know what you’re really up to, so – “
“We can meet somewhere in public,” Sam said quickly. “Please, I’m just looking for my brother, and anything you say...I don’t even have to know who you are. Please.”
“Carly said you were on the level,” the voice said. “Look, she already described you to me, so...do you know the Sheldon area?”
“No,” Sam said. “I’m out near Spirit Lake right now.”
She gave him directions to a bar called J&B on 9th in Sheldon and told him to meet her out front in about an hour. It would take Sam that long to get there anyway.
He had to stop and put gas in the car, and all he could think about was that Dean was going to be annoyed.
It was a brighter, more neon-laden place than Sam had expected, but he didn’t care. He stood and looked around, knowing it was no good to try and imagine which face passing by might belong to the voice he’d heard on the phone. He could feel exhaustion beginning to make him impatient, and the pressure of an impending change in the wind as well as a deadline he could feel only made it harder. He was a good hunter, but not succeeding at hunting his own brother was going to panic him soon.
A tall, pale twenty-something with long, straight chestnut hair grabbed the elbow of his shirt and stared up into his face. “You always look that scared?”
“I...no.” he said. “I’m Sam. I have ID, I’m not some weirdo, and I’ll pay you if you want, if you’ll just tell me anything you know.”
She stared at him for a long moment as if gauging his sincerity and sanity. “Jesus. C’mon, come get a beer.”
He was afraid that after nothing but coffee all day, alcohol would dull his senses; but as jumpy as he was, he knew he had to calm down a little or risk flying off the handle. He sat across from her at a small table in the back and gripped a bottle in both hands, trying to remember to blink occasionally.
“What’s this really all about?”
Sam blew out a breath. “Somebody grabbed my brother. Three guys, last night in Beresford. Don’t ask me why him, but I’m pretty sure someone’s gonna try and sacrifice him to something, and I’ve made it this far because someone around here’s been talking about doing that. Your friend called you for a reason. So just give me something to go on, before it’s too late. Okay?”
The girl looked away for a moment, looking uncertain. “I used to date the guy who came into the bead place asking about blood magic and stuff,” she said. “We broke up a couple of months ago because he got weird. I thought it was because of his aunt, but I think that was just kind of the last straw. His own mom died of an aneurysm about eight months ago, and his dad kind of fell apart, then started talking about how God had failed them, started talking about death a lot and that it was just a transition.”
Oh so many ways for me to show you
How the savior has abandoned you
He understood the connection, but not what it meant, not what had caused Dean to reference the song.
“Then his aunt died in a car wreck, and his uncle sort of drank himself to death over it. Ryan started talking like his dad and showing me all kinds of shit in books and online about bringing back the dead and that’s when I got freaked out.”
“Ryan,” Sam said.
“That’s his name. He got his cousin Ricky into it too, pretty easy since he’d lost both of his parents so close together and they had a lot in common that way. I know it’s hard to lose somebody and I know everybody deals with it in their own way. I tried to help. But...this was all way above me. I had to get out. I told him early on about the bead shop, what was really there, before he got weird. If Gina finds out, she’ll kick my ass.”
Sam cleared his throat. He was on to something, he knew it, but still so damn far from getting anything done. “You said ‘transition’. Did Ryan talk about...ways of doing something about bringing anybody back from the dead?”
She didn’t even smirk. “He talked about everything,” she said. “About finding ways to be immortal, about which animals were best to sacrifice in a ritual, about contacting spirits. They’re all kind of way out there, that family, but I think if Ryan’s dad hadn’t...you know, if he’d let it go and come to his senses, Ryan and Ricky would have been okay. I’m not really sure they had anything to do with your brother, okay? It all just...it’s too much of a coincidence that you came here looking and he’s been trying to...do something. I never thought they’d actually take it this far, so I’m kind of hoping it isn’t them.”
“If it isn’t, then nobody’s got anything to worry about,” Sam said. “Really. I’m not out to get anybody. I’m just looking for my brother. If they don’t have him, then I don’t care what they’re doing. Seriously. If you’re not comfortable telling me where they live, then at least...he must have mentioned where they’d try and maybe practice...rituals, or something. Probably not in the house. Maybe near where someone they lost is buried.”
He kept wiping his hands on his jeans. He couldn’t seem to keep them dry. He felt like his throat was going to close up if he had to keep talking. He wanted to strip his clothes off and run outside screaming, and raze the goddamn town with all the wind he couldn’t call quite yet. He recognized the urge and fought it. He’d never told Dean that it was part of the reason he didn’t want to hunt during the Sabbats. Not only because he was afraid Dean would be seen, not just because Dean wasn’t himself. If he hadn’t had Dean’s wings to fixate on, he’d wondered what he’d do instead, because there were so many crazy things he wanted to do. Dean would worry, if he knew.
The tornado has been such a godsend, in its way.
“Well...” she paused. “He showed me one, talked about two others. I can give you directions, but I’m not coming with you.”
“Right,” Sam said, trying not to lean across the table at her. “That’s okay. Anything you can tell me would be great.”
All three sites were out of town. Way out of town. She didn’t know which one was the top pick.
He was running on faith alone by then. Faith that she was telling the truth, that he was in the right place at all, that the people they were discussing had Dean.
He’d almost forgotten. “Do any of them own a dark-colored SUV that’s been keyed down the driver’s side?”
She shot him a strange look. “Ryan’s uncle Wes does.”
He thanked her and left.
He was reduced to randomly picking one of the three places to start. Number one was a farmer’s field about a mile from Trumbull Lake, outside Langdon. Maybe forty minutes away. There was a forested area near Cornell, a little over an hour away. The last was a spot somewhere in the Big Sioux State Recreation Area, outside Brandon in South Dakota...about an hour and a half away. The two closest were his best bet. He started with the place outside Langdon since it was the one the girl he’d left in the bar behind him had actually seen.
Farmland for miles and miles.
He’d turned off the wrong road once, trying to figure out where the hell he was.
There was an ancient black willow tree in the middle of a fallow field off 310th; he’d left the car on a tractor trail about a half mile back and went out on foot, gun tucked in the back of his jeans. There hadn’t been any other cars on the road after he’d hit 310th. The area was remote enough that he hadn’t even seen any homes, just an occasional barn. He knew the car would have been heard. If anybody was there, they’d come from another direction, or they’d hidden their car so well that he just hadn’t seen it.
There was a circle scored into the dirt around the tree but nothing else that indicated anybody was getting ready to do anything there by midnight. He stood and held his breath and tried to listen, hoping for any kind of sign.
There was only the breeze.
He had two other places to check and it was getting late.
So, so late.
Dean’s watch said it was 10:38 when they came down the stairs. They’d obviously been waiting for full darkness.
It was the first time he’d really seen any of them; the masks had kept him from making out more than the basics back at the motel. He was dying of thirst by then, but no way was he asking for water from those guys. They didn’t seem to have his best interests at heart.
The one guy was his dad’s age or a little younger, fair coloring and pretty damn skinny. He didn’t look like he was all there; his eyes were darting around like he was having second and third thoughts. He had the face of someone who hadn’t slept well in a long time. The older of the two kids was somewhere in his twenties – the younger kid maybe just out of his teens. They were both built pretty well, solid, and the younger kid looked like high school football material.
“Nice place,” Dean said.
“We’re gonna give you something to keep you calm,” the guy said.
Dean felt a spark of alarm whip itself along the edges of his outrage. “The fuck you are. Tying me up isn’t gonna stop me from kicking your asses.”
The older kid held up the taser. “It’s a couple of pills, or it’s this,” he said, sounding way too calm.
Dean knew – he knew – it didn’t show on his face, but for the first time during the whole stupid, crazy-ass ordeal...he felt genuine fear.
“It’s not gonna work,” he said. “I know about this stuff, and whatever you’re gonna try – it’s for nothing. Don’t start something that’s only gonna get you in deep shit.”
The older kid pressed the contacts on the taser, and a blue-white flicker of electricity snapped to life in warning.
Sam was lost.
He couldn’t tell if the directions were bad or if it was that he just couldn’t recognize the landmarks he’d been given in an area he didn’t know. He was weary and frantic, and Bobby had tried calling him six times to ask him where he was, and he just couldn’t respond. He shut his phone off and concentrated on the road.
What the hell were they doing to Dean?
He shut that off, too.
He was looking for a side road that was almost completely overgrown, two miles down from a quarry. There were no streetlights on that stretch of road, just fenced pasture or heavy woods.
He’d forgotten to show her the symbols from the Perfect Circle album. It didn’t matter anymore, but he hated it that he’d forgotten that detail.
He didn’t care all that much when they stripped him.
He figured it was par for the course, and he was fairly wasted. He wasn’t sure what they’d given him and it wasn’t like he’d had much to say about it, but it had basically screwed his chances for kicking their asses once he found an opening.
It was the part about getting tied facedown to a metal stake driven into the ground that he had an issue with.
His hands were roped around it, and the same rope had been used to tie his ankles and then was looped around his neck, forcing his knees to his chest to avoid choking himself. He had his forehead pressed to the ground at the moment because the spinning was pretty annoying. When it was gone, he was really going to break some heads. Any minute now.
They were standing at three points around him; he could hear them moving, and it kind of echoed in his ears in his altered state. They spoke occasionally, and he recognized nervous and badly-pronounced approximations of Latin, and something he thought might be an ancient form of Assyrian. They’d been scratching figures in the dirt around him, and he knew his throat was right above one figure in particular. The candles were the real kicker, black and flickering in the faint and intermittent breeze. He and Sam had seen some dark shit but never looked too closely because it wasn’t their thing. There was no reason to study it beyond learning how to stop it.
Somewhere in the back of his head where he still had his shit together, he was worried. This was stupid wannabe shit, but that fact wasn’t going to help him when they decided to slit his throat from ear to ear or disembowel him or whatever they were gearing up to do. They hadn’t said anything to him directly since tying him down, but he knew they were waiting for the wings. Bobby had tried to warn them, and Sam had tried to warn him, and he’d tried to listen a little too late.
Maybe once the wings were out, he could beat the hell out of them like geese did when someone got too close. Yeah, that would work for a little while, if his coordination wasn’t too screwed.
At midnight, Sam stopped the car in the middle of the road and got out. The wind started to pick up almost immediately, bending the tops of the trees. He stood and waited and tried not to feel despair.
He hoped the elementals would still be looking for them. They, at least, might provide some sort of accidental help. He’d see air elementals coming. They could help him pinpoint Dean’s location.
Please, let them come, this once.
August 1st, 12:02am
Dean had planned to beat the hell out of them with the wings.
When he felt them, as messed up as he was, the idea of these strangers seeing or touching them terrified him.
He clamped down without knowing how he was doing it, forcing back the compulsion to let them emerge with everything he had. It felt like trying to stop his own heart; it was crushing and unnatural and made him feel sick. They were pressing outward, meant to be and paused in place at a cost. The urge to let go became the focus of everything, and he pulled on the stake so hard that he felt the tendons in his right shoulder begin to give, and he didn’t even care. He knew in his bones that he wasn’t supposed to do what he was doing, that he shouldn’t have been capable of it.
One of them kicked him and yelled something he couldn’t hear over the wind or the ringing in his ears. Still, he held on. He had no sense of time or anything else outside the struggle to hold everything in.
His father had once shown him what happened to manual transmissions when people were too dumb to learn how to handle them: stripped gears were useless, worn to nothing and irreparable. He felt something catch and then give, his own gears beginning to strip while lights danced behind his eyes and consciousness began to slip. He was shaking from shock and exhaustion but didn’t know it. He bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood but never felt it.
The last gear stripped.
It was like setting down a great weight. It was a relief too big to comprehend or resist, even if he hadn’t wanted to do it.
It was like the people who’d taken Dean had just been looking for what any cheap-ass fantasy novel would describe as an enchanted grove. It was idealistic and almost laughable except that they had been serious enough to take things as far as picking the right sacrifice.
Sam wasn’t sure how much of the wind was really his doing. If it was all him, then at least it was masking his approach to anyone who might be around.
There was a bare trail through the bushes, simple enough to look like a deer run. The broken branches were too fresh, though. He could smell the crushed green scent of disturbed foliage and make out drag marks in places on the ground. He crouched and touched them. He couldn’t tell which direction they were headed, but someone had been dragged through there. He drew his gun and sidestepped through the bushes with it held out ahead of himself, navigating roots, working his way up the incline. It angled to the right for a short way, then suddenly broke into a small clearing.
A dark colored mid-90's model GMC Yukon was parked there at an angle as if they’d been in the midst of turning it around. It looked as if it had come up the hill from another side; Sam could see another track that obviously led down to the road. He approached with his gun held in both hands, listening.
It was keyed down the driver’s side. No surprise.
The doors were unlocked. He opened the doors on the driver’s side and looked in. There was just enough of a moon that he didn’t have to risk getting his penlight out. There was rope and a couple of snack wrappers on the floor in the back, and clothing wadded up on one seat. A couple of shirts, jeans, boxers. They’d been wadded up so tightly that they still held a hint of body heat. Sam shook them out, feeling an instant of panic again. He already knew what he was looking at, but he pressed one of the shirts to his face anyway and breathed deep. Of Dean.
He realized that if he’d seen drag marks on the way in, then he was headed the wrong way. It must have been some sort of switchback. They’d left the car there and gone the way Sam had just come. He backtracked as fast as he could, and there was another break in the greenery that he hadn’t seen in the near dark the first time.
By then, the wind wasn’t helping him anymore. It just seemed to make the way harder to see, but he couldn’t stop it. He pushed through for maybe a dozen yards, and came up short when he stepped in something soft and wet, something that held his boot in place.
He jerked away out of instinct. He dug his penlight out and shielded it with one hand, cupping the light to keep it from bleeding out too far. He crouched and thought at first that he was looking at the remains of a kill, either by some big cat or a hunter who had field dressed a deer and left the entrails in the middle of the trail. It was a mass of crimson and grayish pink; a length of intestine, a few splintered lengths of bone.
He took another step away because nothing was left whole, and it was far too fresh. The remains were pulped, bone and organs and skin reduced to a shapeless, jelly-like mass. The greenery in a five-foot radius was pressed down, leaves pulped, branches shattered as if a huge fist had hammered down from above. The wind had kept him from smelling any of it.
Caught in the mess was a white knob of bone with a long strip of muscle and skin trailing off it.
On the skin he recognized the symbols from the album liner, tattooed on what could easily have been a forearm. Dean had told him all he could tell with the time he’d had.
Sam absently scraped his shoe in the dirt, trying to get most of the gore off.
It’s not like you killed someone,
It’s not like you drove a hateful spear into his side
He remembered what the air elemental had done to those buildings in Kentucky, the force it had been able to level from above. They’d been here. Something had brought them here, something they hadn’t been able to ignore.
He did this
Took all you had and
Left you this way
Sam beat a path around the mess, not bothering to look again. The trail evened out after that, and Sam wondered how far the guy had managed to run before the elemental had taken aim. There was another section of trees and brush blown down into a crushed spiral about fifty yards further on, but there was no body to go with it; someone’s near miss. Hope whispered in his ears that any rituals he’d find evidence of up ahead would have been interrupted by the elementals.
Never stray, never break
Never choke on a lie
The brush and trees thinned out and the trail began to open up into a slightly elevated clearing. It was open to the sky, and the tops of the trees around the perimeter were leaning and swaying in the suddenly increasing wind.
There was another ruined body just inside the clearing, smeared for yards in a nightmare stretch of all the things people were made of.
Snips and snails and puppydog tails...
It wasn’t Dean, and that was all that mattered.
He didn’t really want to go any further.
There was a moment between one step and the next, one breath and another as he looked up from the second body and caught sight of wings, glaring white at full span, catching thin moonlight and holding it one glistening feather at a time. They were spread along the ground, still and untroubled by the wind above.
Dean’s hands were wrapped around a metal stake driven deep into the ground, wrists bound with rope. Rope around his neck, his ankles, behind his knees. Stripped naked with forehead pressed to the ground as if in utter exhaustion.
“Dean,” Sam said. He lowered his gun and held it close to his right leg, waiting, watching. He began to circle, feet clearing a wingtip by mere inches, silently begging Dean to look up and startle him. One more step, one more, and he was close to Dean’s shoulder, kneeling down and still hoping, one knee of his jeans soaking up something from the dirt, something heavy and still warm. He planted one hand into it as he leaned over and used the other to curl around Dean’s shoulder, finding skin that was beginning to chill while he tried to get a glimpse of a face still in shadow.
He had known, the moment he’d seen him. But this was a blow that needed to be repeated in as many ways as he could find, because he had a taste for the truth but that didn’t make him capable of processing it; not when it was the last thing he could believe.
He didn’t notice when the wind died around him like a single breath held to listen.
Sam sat down on both knees and felt for a pulse with steady fingers, finding the edge of where they’d slashed Dean’s throat to bleed him out into the earth.
He drew a hand through Dean’s hair and left it on the back of Dean’s neck, not caring what they’d been trying to summon or whether it was loose somewhere. Whatever they’d done, their immediate answer had been from above, from air elementals unable to resist the call of their own energy being released. They had done what Sam didn’t have to contemplate doing, now. There was no one left to blame but himself, for being too late.
He pressed his face against the back of Dean’s neck and sat, hunched over, not willing to see his face yet, not willing to look at the damage. He dimly wondered if he’d lost his mind, because the edges of the pain were there but he didn’t feel it yet. He was numb from a blow that had fallen too hard to be registered yet on the scale he assigned to any injury. It was all there, and he knew something would prod him to move sooner or later. Some vestige of carefully ingrained training would remind him not to be found, that maybe the incident in the clearing had been heard or the elementals had been glimpsed from a distance. He would do what needed to be done; he always had. He would untie Dean because maybe he couldn’t feel it any longer but it was wrong to leave his brother trapped against the ground like a slaughtered animal.
He breathed against Dean’s skin, whispering apologies painted into place with tears that neither of them felt.
Dawn had long since come and gone, and Bobby hadn’t stopped trying to get Sam to answer his phone. He’d known trying to go out after him was pointless; he didn’t know where the hell the kid was, really, and he had to give him a center point to return to, with or without his brother.
He was all they had, right then.
He was standing out on the porch when the wind began to pick up suddenly. Rove came in from the yard at a dead run, claws scattering across the porch as he hauled ass into the house and up the stairs with his ears pinned flat.
A few moments later, Sam came around the side of the house, hair tousled by the wind, jeans dark with mud and making him seem even paler. Bobby hadn’t even heard the car. He checked Sam’s face and found it blank beneath a smear of something dark near his hairline. There had to be a hint, there, of what had happened between then and the last time he’d spoken to him, and he needed to see what that was before he lit into him for ignoring his phone.
Dean was not on his heels.
Sam glanced up as he approached, and Bobby felt an ominous clench of dread in his gut.
“Sammy,” he said.
Sam paused at the bottom of the steps, and Bobby realized that Sam’s jeans weren’t muddy at all. The smear on his forehead was dried blood, where he’d run his hand through his hair at some point.
Bobby came down the steps toward him.
“Dean’s in the car,” Sam said.
Bobby never forgot the confusion on Sam’s face when he spoke. It was as if he’d been asked to repeat something out of context.
The blanket-wrapped form with its folded wings rested on the long windowseat out on the sunporch in the back of the house, at Sam’s insistence. It was dim and cool back there at that time of day.
The silence was as disturbing as the fact that Sam let Bobby lead him around like a small child.
Showered and dressed in clothes that didn’t scream of death, Sam sat on the porch with a mug of tea laced with whisky Bobby had forced on him, looking all of twelve and as lost as Bobby had ever seen anyone, even the kid’s own father. Bobby sat with him and listened to him tell the whole tale in a low voice that was shallow with pain and exhaustion. Bobby didn’t interrupt to question or prompt, even when Sam faltered or picked up a thread that seemed out of order.
He feared for Sam a little, for how long he’d been in the car alone with the brother he hadn’t been able to save; for how he was acting like he’d taken a blow to the head; for the broken sorrow that lined every breath.
The dog would not come downstairs.
Bobby didn’t ask Sam whether anything had been summoned. He’d lost Dean, too, and that had been consequence enough. Someone had killed both boys in that clearing, and what they’d received in return would never be enough.
There was no point in telling Sam what he should have known from the beginning about the wings. It would only hurt more to tell him then. For whatever reason, Dean hadn’t reverted to his original (he couldn’t say natural, because he knew better) form in death, and that didn’t matter either except that it gave him one more thing to puzzle over in later days.
He couldn’t get Sam to eat, but he was quiet and careful when the kid dozed off on the porch, overwhelmed into shutting down, huddled and frowning in pain. It was the only way to escape any of it for awhile.
It gave Bobby a moment with Dean.
He still didn’t hold out much hope for a better place – only a different place. But he wanted to believe in it anyway, just then.
Tears had never done him any good, either, after all he’d seen, but it was all he could do to mourn the passing of a man as good as that one.
When the sun set, they’d either have to bury him or burn him. He couldn’t bring himself to make Sam face that any sooner. They’d do what needed to be done, like always.
It was all just so damn hard.
Sam awoke a couple of hours later, stiff and knowing that something fundamental had changed in the world. There was a blissful moment of ignorant aching before he felt the loss as if for the first time.
Dean might have jokingly disapproved of the whimper Sam couldn’t keep down. Hey, c’mon, Sammy, it’s just death. Nothing real life-changing, or anything.
Sam sobbed with his forehead resting against the table on the porch, hands over his ears in agony, lost in a refrain of the idea that Dean was gone.
I could have saved him.
He never heard or felt the wind, never realized that a dust storm was whipping through the yard in reaction to his grief until Bobby had dragged him into the house. He had dirt in his eyes, mouth and hair, was coated in it, choking on it. Bobby held Sam’s head as he dry-heaved on an empty stomach, then held all of him when he couldn’t catch his breath. The wind hadn’t made it into the house, but it was still in Sam’s head, getting away from him like it had when the elementals had buried Dean in Georgia after they’d destroyed the shamblers. He had dug until his fingers bled, and then the wind had done what he’d needed when he hadn’t even known how to ask.
The memory made things worse. There had been a time when he could save Dean and then he had run out of chances.
“They broke his wing,” Sam sobbed, sitting on his knees in the downstairs bathroom, the tiles cool on his hands while he tried to stop gagging.
One hand still in the younger man’s hair, Bobby said, “Sam, you’re scarin’ the hell out of me. The roof’s gonna come off if you don’t calm down.”
“They broke it,” Sam choked.
“Sammy – “
“They buried him alive and broke his wing and the next morning he was okay.”
Sam went on gasping for air but no longer sobbing; an awful hope dawned on his face. He wiped at his face impatiently, breath still hitching in his chest. “He was really beat up. The shamblers...and then he got buried, and he shouldn’t have been okay, but when we woke up the next morning he was okay. He reset.”
Bobby took a step back when Sam struggled to his feet and leaned back against the wall, looking pale and frantic.
The wind outside didn’t die, but it lessened. Sam walked back through the house on visibly shaky legs and stood out on the porch in the wind as if listening to it.
“They said ‘sacrifice’,” Sam said aloud.
Bobby remembered what the boys had told him about their strange, dreamlike encounter with the elementals in which they’d apparently been dismissed. He kept his eye on Sam as the wind picked up again, and he knew he didn’t have many choices left with him if he couldn’t control the ability.
Sam turned back to him, eyelashes wet with tears. “He might reset.”
“Listen to me,” Bobby said, holding a hand out toward him that asked him to wait. “Before, it was scrapes and bruises. Don’t do this, don’t get your hopes up.”
“He’ll come back,” Sam said. “He’ll do it, he’ll come back. He’ll reset at midnight.”
The wind was rising again to the point where the roof would be a goner in a matter of minutes. Bobby heard something clatter further out in the yard.
He wasn’t sure, right then, what would be worse: if Sam was right, or if he was wrong.
“In any case, there’s waiting to do,” he said in a placating voice. “So come inside and stay calm. Won’t do anybody any good if you flatten my house.”
Sam appeared to be listening to the wind again, eyes tilted to the sky, no longer completely in his own head. Bobby wondered, and not for the first time, whether Sam had had any say at all in what had gone on with the tornado. It wasn’t a far stretch to worry about losing him to the pull of whatever had him while he was so torn up over Dean.
“Come inside,” Bobby said. “Now, Sam.”
Sam remained pinned under the sway of the wind a moment longer, then obeyed.
Bobby closed and locked the door, then went to make more tea.
He found Sam huddled on the windowseat with Dean, a task he would have thought impossible if he hadn’t seen it.
“The wings are still warm,” Sam said. His face was drawn and blank, but his tone was certain and carried a hint of told you so.
Bobby shoved a mug of tea into his hands. “Drink it all,” he said. “Keep something in your stomach, don’t get dehydrated.”
Sam stared into the mug for a moment, and Bobby worried that he’d been transparent enough to arouse his suspicions. Then Sam drank.
Hope was sometimes worse than grief. If Sam was wrong about what would happen at midnight, then he’d be losing his brother all over again. If he was right, there was a reasonable chance that what rolled off that windowseat would not be Dean. Elementals were capricious at best, and Dean had died under their providence; they might not be able to resist a chance to use him for whatever purpose.
He passed a hand through Sam’s hair and realized Sam was shivering. The poor kid was probably going into shock.
He prodded Sam to finish the tea, then suggested he go lie down, hoping he’d accounted adequately for Sam’s size when spiking the drink. Sam was already half out of it, and on an empty stomach it wasn’t hard to knock him out the rest of the way.
Sam was out before his head hit the pillow.
The wind outside died away completely.
Bobby was smart enough to know that if it was Dean that sat up at midnight, he was going to be annoyed that Bobby had just roofied the hell out of his brother.
If it wasn’t...then it was best that Sam not witness what would happen next.
He made a few preparations in case of either outcome.
At one second after midnight, the wings disappeared. They faded like smoke; not drifting away, but fading from sight.
Nothing else happened.
Bobby passed a hand over his face and kept watching, wondering what the hell he’d really just seen, torn between disappointment and vindicated relief. He’d let Sam sleep as long as he could, and once it was light...
Twenty seconds after midnight, the body on the bench, still covered in a blanket from the chest down, jerked as if poked awake.
Bobby listened as the familiar form took a harsh gasp of air that was immediately released in a bout of choked coughing. He watched the figure sit up and grab at its own throat even though the slash that had severed Dean’s windpipe and carotid arteries had disappeared like the wings had.
Eyes that still looked like Dean’s blinked open and looked at the hands in confusion, flexing them. Shivering, it passed both hands over its face and coughed a few more times, then weaved to one side, leaning against the window. It felt at its throat again, eyes blinking sleepily, looking as if it was having a bad time focusing. It straightened with a hand against the window and made a slow sweep of the room with its eyes, Dean’s eyes, frowning a little at first and then cocking an eyebrow as if in recognition. “Sa – “
Bobby made a hushing sound, sharp in the dim quiet of the room. “Don’t call for him,” he said.
The form at the window had startled and then focused with difficulty on Bobby.
Bobby cocked the revolver he was holding.
The eyes widened a little.
Bobby used the revolver’s barrel to gesture at a sweating bottle at the very edge of the windowseat. “Drink it,” he said. Oh, he wanted to be wrong, but if he wasn’t, he needed to kill the thing by the window and get it out before Sam came to again.
“Bobby,” Dean’s voice said in a hoarse croak. “What’s – “
“Drink it, and we can talk,” Bobby said, struggling to keep his voice and the revolver level.
The first swig from the bottle should have caused a hell of a lot of pain for anything demonic or otherwise underworldly; that cleared one hurdle. If the elementals were animating him, then the holy water in the beer wouldn’t do a thing. But they would not be accessing his memories, either. Not like a demon could. He slumped in relief as he lowered the gun, and it was visible to the figure in the window.
“Good,” Dean said, voice rough. “‘Cause after the night I’ve had, I really needed a beer. Where’s Sam?”
“Sleeping,” Bobby said. “I roofied him.”
Dean’s reaction solidified what Bobby had hoped to be true; it was a purely Dean reaction. The relief, the concern, the outrage. “What? What the hell for?”
“You realize what day it is?” Bobby said. “You’ve been dead for about twenty four hours. He was tearing the place apart without meaning to. He found you tied up in the woods, Dean. You think maybe that was enough for one day?”
Dean rubbed at his throat again, looking regretful and worried. “Dipshits actually did it,” he said. “Doped me, tied me out there and sacrificed me to something. Jesus. Aw, Sam.”
“They waited until the wings came out,” Bobby said, less a question than a request for confirmation.
“Yeah.” He paused to blink and glance around again, weaving a little. “So why’m I alive?”
“Looks like whatever happens to you while you’ve got wings can be reset once they disappear,” Bobby said. “Sam was hoping. I wasn’t willing to take the risk.”
Dean nodded in appreciation. Bobby had known it was what he would have wanted done. “Thanks.”
“You all right?”
By the look on his face, he could tell Dean knew what he meant. He was nearly devoid of physical wounds, sure, but the rest of it had not been a picnic. “Yeah,” Dean said. “Uh...” he took another swig of beer.
“Dean,” Bobby said, coming closer. The wariness wasn’t completely gone, but it had receded.
“They doped me before the wings came out,” Dean said with a shrug. “It wasn’t that bad.”
Bobby cleared the rest of the distance and looped an arm around Dean’s head, pulling him in against his chest. Dean held on roughly, clutching the back of Bobby’s shirt in both hands. It was brief, but just enough.
“Sam okay?” Dean said as he pulled away.
Bobby looked down into the worried and slightly dazed green eyes and didn’t have any trepidation left about who or what he’d be sending in to Sam. “He will be, when he sees you. He’s in the old guest room. Can you stand?”
“Rigor mortis sucks,” Dean said, and Bobby tried not to but he snorted anyway. “But yeah, I’m good.” He gathered the blanket around his waist and stood, not protesting when Bobby steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.
Then he couldn’t get to Sam fast enough, couldn’t get his legs to loosen enough to let him run the rest of the way. He knew consciously that he had been missing and then dead, but he could only feel the former amount of time and not the latter. There was nothing there, not a hint of having been elsewhere, just a blankness as if he’d snapped off like a light. It had only been a limbo, not an afterlife, but Sam had been awake for all of it right up until Bobby put him temporarily out of his misery. That was finally sinking in.
Sam was sprawled across the bed in t-shirt and boxers, loosely covered. Just enough light spilled in from the hallway to show that he’d been restless and that he was frowning in his sleep. Dean dropped the blanket he was holding, crawled in beside him, and laid his head against Sam’s shoulder.
He shoved a hand under Sam’s shirt, needing the contact for once when no one could see him. He’d been certain he was getting his last look at the world and it was a surprise to him that he really hadn’t wanted to go. He’d been philosophical about the possibility of death for so long, and been directly confronted with it before. It was just that he preferred being mowed down in the line of duty to pulling a sacrificial stint for anybody but Sam.
He realized he’d forgotten to ask Bobby what had been summoned – or not summoned – with his blood. It could wait. He would just settle for being there when Sam awoke, for now, and deal with the fallout later. There was enough fallout to deal with right where he was. Bobby had shown a hell of a lot of restraint considering the fact that someone had risen from the dead right in front of him, because people tended not to do that without wanting to suck someone’s brains out of their eye sockets soon after.
It would all hit him sooner or later.
He could hear Bobby pacing the house and wondered what he knew. No telling if there were more idiots out there; no telling if Sam had been followed.
He’d begun to drift off when Sam sighed. There was a pause, and until then Dean hadn’t realized that he’d been patting Sam on the chest for quite a while. Sam rolled suddenly, pinning Dean beneath him, and even through his still partly-doped shock, he could tell Sam was holding his breath.
“It’s real,” Dean said. “It’s me, you’re not dreaming it.”
Sam released the breath he was holding and tucked his hands beneath Dean’s back, gathering him in, pressing his face into Dean’s neck. Dean carded his fingers through Sam’s hair, waiting.
“I knew you would come back,” Sam said against his skin. “Once I remembered, I knew.”
“I’m sorry I left you such a crummy clue,” Dean said, and that was the thing that did Sam in. The tears were soft and voiceless but no less painful, and Dean wrapped an arm around his head. “S’okay,” he said. “You found me anyway. Nobody else in the whole world coulda done that. Don’t cry, Sammy.”
Sam responded by pulling away enough to run his hands across Dean’s throat, thumbs gently searching, looking for any trace of injury. Across his shoulders, down his chest, along arms, checking wrists for rope burns. Dean let him get away with it without commenting. Sam lingered over the minor burn mark along his ribs from the taser, snarling through his tears.
“We’ll tell the whole thing in the morning,” Dean said softly. “C’mon, get some rest. We’re okay.”
Sam wrapped himself around Dean and for once Dean didn’t have any complaints about cuddling.
Sam woke him long after dawn by kissing him. He didn’t argue with that, either.
“I see you,” Sam whispered. “I do, I see you.”
Dean had no idea what the hell he was talking about, at first. It didn’t matter. Then he remembered the fight they’d had in Colorado and he winced. “Aw, Sam,” he whispered against his mouth.
Dean was ravenous.
“S’not like I really haven’t eaten in two days,” he said around a mouthful of omelette. Sam made badass omelettes when he had the chance.
They were sitting around in Bobby’s kitchen carefully pretending things were better than they were. They could have been much worse, but what they’d lived through was nothing to ignore.
“This is like, the best omelette anyone ever made, ever,” Dean said.
Sam stood by the stove and shook his head.
He was not okay.
Bobby was sitting off to one side watching them. He had nothing to worry about as far as whether it was really Sam and Dean in his kitchen. It was that they were still a step from wild even though the appointed hours had come and gone. The wind outside was nothing more than a normal breeze, and Dean wasn’t sprouting anything; yet, something had changed. Neither of them were new to the idea of losing each other. Bobby mused it was likely a combination of things that would even out over time. Dean was a little loopy, still, with residual narcotics in his system and the idea of how good it was to be alive. Sam had not fully bounced from the fear and grief of the previous day and night, and no one had expected him to.
Dean had doled out what he remembered of the whole thing between mouthfuls of food, his recounting fitting seamlessly with the bits that Sam had picked up along the way. The guy at the motel had been a better witness than he should have; Sam and Bobby had done a good job of tracing the possibilities of who had Dean based on where the boys had been – and been seen. Dean didn’t see it yet, but Sam was taking it hard that he had been so close and had still not made it in time. Telling him he’d done the best – hell, better, than anyone could have would never cut it.
“You’d eat dogshit right now and love it,” Sam said, voice low and a little hoarse.
“Speakin’ of dogshit,” Dean said, “where’s the pooch?”
“Still won’t come out,” Bobby said. “The Winchester freak show has managed to scare the piss out of a dog that doesn’t even mind demons.” He gestured at the box by the door that was painted with symbols done by Sam’s careful hands.
Dean abandoned his breakfast for a moment to go over and knock on the box, a sharp rapping of knuckles. “How you doin’ in there, loser? Not quite a dayspa, is it?”
Sam ignored him. He didn’t want to encourage the behavior. It wasn’t for show, anyway. Dean would have been mocking the demon even if it was standing right in front of him with a hand around his goddamn throat.
“I hope it’s figuring out how many zeroes a google has,” Dean said. “Not even sure it was a demon, it was so easy to fuckin’ A!”
He ended up on the floor with the Rottweiler that had hit him in the back of the knees.
“Good boy,” Bobby told the dog. “Get ‘im.”
Rove used his bulk to pin one of Dean’s shoulders to the floor while he shoved his nose in Dean’s face, ears, and neck, then down his shirt.
“Your dog’s gay,” Dean said with his shirt pulled over his face.
Sam laughed aloud, getting the dog’s attention, and he sat down on the floor to let the Rottweiler give him an excited once-over.
Bobby sighed in relief, unseen. One, the boys were boys again, if only for a moment. Two - if there was anything unnatural about either of them, the dog would not have been all over them like that.
“Can’t believe you didn’t hear him coming,” Bobby said to Dean over the sound of Rove trying to find purchase with his claws on the wood plank floor and Sam’s refrain of zazzagooboy.
“Can’t believe your gay stealth-dog hasn’t been killed by squirrels yet,” Dean said, getting up and eyeing the rest of the toast. “Not sharin’ the toast with your dog.” He went back over and knocked on the box by the door again. “No toast for you either, bitch.”
“Knock it off,” Bobby said. “Sit your ass back down over here. You guys gotta figure out what to do with what’s left up there before someone finds it. You wanna call it in, go ahead, but figure out what got done up there first.”
Dean immediately looked at Sam. Sam had not finished his part of the tale, didn’t seem to want to. “What’s left up there?”
“Not much,” Sam said, climbing back to his feet. “They’re all dead. All three of ‘em.”
Dean tilted his head. Sam was not looking at him. He knew it hadn’t been Sam; Sam had it in him to put an end to people that had just killed his brother, but he could already tell Sam hadn’t done it.
“I don’t know if anything was summoned,” Sam said. “Whatever they did got the attention of an air elemental or two. I didn’t see them. I’m pretty sure they didn’t care that much about you. They just probably couldn’t resist. Smashed all three of them. Not enough left to ID if it hadn’t been for the car.”
Dean nodded, dropping his gaze back to the box. “Better check, then, before someone starts looking. Find out where they lived, check there too and see what they were really up to.”
They all fell silent. Bobby glanced between them. Neither was thrilled with the idea of going back.
“Best get it done, then,” he said.
Bobby left the dog with extra food and water. It was about six hours between there and the clearing Dean had died in.
They parked out of sight far down from the turnoff Sam had found two nights earlier and kept out of sight of the main road. They listened, waiting for anything that sounded like a crime scene in progress. No one had closed off the road or taped anything off; none of the bushes had been beaten down any further. They approached with caution regardless.
They knew when they were close by the buzzing and the smell.
Bobby stopped well short of the writhing mass pressed into the crushed grass and compacted earth. Maggots had gained a foothold in the first corpse, and they were as audible as the flies. For once, Dean didn’t offer a comment. They stomped a way through the bushes well clear of the mess. After that, the second body didn’t seem as bad, and the clearing with its circle and candles seemed anticlimactic.
The third body lay in the opposite direction from the other two, just visible inside the far treeline; dirt was plowed up around it as if the elemental had come in from an angle. They didn’t go any closer. Animals should have been at all the remains, but they hadn’t been touched by anything but insects. That meant something.
Bobby stood back and watched while Sam and Dean walked the outside of the circle that had been so carefully dug into the loam. They walked in opposite directions, passing each other without saying anything aloud, then met back up on Bobby’s side, one full circumference. Dean’s blood had attracted its share of flies even though it had almost entirely soaked into the ground.
The daylight showed much more than Sam had been able to make out when he’d first stumbled on all of it in the dark. Bobby recognized the majority of the symbols, but was unfamiliar with the patterns that had been used. A triangle inside the circle, candle stubs at regular intervals on each side except for the eastern facing one. There they were clumped together in a small circle of their own.
Starkest of all, the stake in the center, pulled slightly to one side by frantic attempts to get free.
Bobby looked out along the far treeline and wondered if it had worked at all.
“They’re outside the circle.” Sam, speaking low and solemn. “They died outside it.”
“I don’t think it matters,” Dean said.
Bobby had never been fond of listening to what he referred to mentally as SamDean Twinspeak. It wasn’t much of a stretch for him to make the connection between the statements, though. Only one sacrifice had been offered inside the circle, but moments later, three other lives had gone in such close proximity that it couldn’t be ignored. It would have been fuel for whatever fire might have been touched off, no matter how clumsy the consummation.
He felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck prickle as they rose; it had nothing to do with being spooked. No way in hell was there anything in the clearing to compare with a tenth of what he’d seen over the course of his life. Blood rituals and dark magicks and demons in his livingroom: hardly a reason to blink. No, something had been and gone, and he’d been standing there just long enough to finally pick up on it. He felt it, and it hadn’t even been his blood they’d used.
Bobby glanced at Dean, who stood in the center of the circle in a stance that suggested he was still carrying a wide set of wings on his back. He was scuffing away the runes and symbols after using a finger to sketch them across one palm, leaving nothing but sense-memory. If he was rattled, he wasn’t showing it, but Bobby caught a hint of the white of one eye as the boy checked the treeline over and over. Sam was burying candle stubs and destroying the line of the circle, pausing once to draw a sleeve across his eyes.
They didn’t find the knife.
When Dean stepped away from once-center, Sam got both hands around the stake and hauled three feet of it out of the ground with a single vicious yank before whipping it into the woods. He used the side of one shoe to cover the remaining blood a little better, as if nothing had happened. Dean stood by and watched, face studiously blank.
They checked the car in silence, only touching surfaces with sleeves drawn over hands. The registration in the glove compartment gave them enough information.
They left the rest of it alone and hiked back down the hill.
When they reached their own vehicles again, Bobby stared at Dean for a moment before he said, “Think you’ll know it again, when you find it?”
Dean gave him a quick, concerned glance, green eyes opaque with a weary resignation. Sam was standing close enough to nearly lean against Dean’s back, and Bobby realized that Dean was almost indiscernibly trembling. He was careful not to acknowledge it, or ask Dean if he was okay. Dean wasn’t okay, and wasn’t likely to react well to a perceived spotlight on the break in his self-imposed dam of stoicism. So he kept quiet and Sam guarded Dean with an openly possessive intensity.
“It’ll know me,” Dean said, dropping his eyes. “Whatever it is. We’ll check out the house, see how much we get out of that. Then we’ll call it in and let someone else clean this up.”
Bobby nodded. “I’m gonna check a few things while I’m out this way. Come back to my place when you’re done. Please.”
They both looked at him with mild surprise. Bobby did not say please; he didn’t need to. This was a world where pleasantries went out the window out of necessity most of the time. His reintroduction of a simple syllable was, for him, a glaring indication of how rattled he was.
He gave them a short nod and headed back to his truck. Somewhere along the way, God help him, he’d managed to love those boys.
Spirit Lake, IA
The house looked normal.
Sam had known it would; still, he wanted the world’s strangeness to be a little more visible, sometimes, wanted more warning flags. A mock newscaster-like voice in the back of his mind said neighbors say they were quiet, friendly people; they can’t understand how something like this could happen. People plotting bloody rituals should not be keeping such good care of their lawn.
The drapes were drawn. It was too obvious that no one was home even though the doorstep was clear of newspapers or flyers offering deals on pizza delivery. It was just a normal one-story house with a couple of ground-level windows telling them there was a basement.
They walked around to the back like they belonged there, saying nothing. A fence ran along the back of the yard, keeping at least one neighbor from seeing them. The back door turned out to be of the sliding glass variety, and Dean took the whole door right off its track and set it to one side. Sam just stared at him for a moment, one hand on his shoulder while he waited to see if there was a dog in the house, or an active alarm. Nothing rushed out at them or began blaring, so he dropped his hand and stepped in.
It was a regular old rec room, with a beaten old couch to one side in front of a TV, a couple of trophies, a foosball table. Paneled walls. It was fairly neat but obviously lived in. An open doorway led into the rest of the walkout, and it was bare concrete floors and workbenches. When Sam flipped the wall switch, overhead fluorescents spanged to life and gave everything a stark white glare. Handmade shelves lined one whole wall, and took up space above one workbench. Tools littered most of the available space; parts of a bike, a few jars with nuts and bolts, an old vise. A water heater was strapped against the wall in the far corner. A set of stairs leading up to the main part of the house sectioned the basement in half and left the other side dimmed in their shadow. Beyond them was a washer and dryer, clothes on the floor, boxes of stored belongings.
Dean checked the corners. Sam saw him rub at one of his wrists and glare at a support pillar near the washer.
Sam began checking the books.
A couple of Aleister Crowley’s works: The Book Of The Law; Magic In Theory and Practice. Unsurprised, Sam tucked them away for later reading. He wasn’t going to get anything out of them, and he knew it wouldn’t make any of it easier. But he felt like maybe he could understand some of it better if he tried to figure out how they’d arrived at that final point. In the end, it looked to him like they hadn’t been able to go through with killing just anyone; they’d been looking for something or someone they could use but not feel as much guilt over.
When he flipped through, he found several things highlighted.
Chapter XII: The Bloody Sacrifice and Matters Cognate.
The first ethical lesson in the Bible is that the only sacrifice pleasing to the Lord is the sacrifice of blood;
Sam didn’t argue over that. The Old Testament had plenty of sacrifice, including humans. It was a later paragraph that was also highlighted that got him. Tucked into the crease of that page was a copy of the newspaper article about the baby in Pennsylvania and the ‘angel’ that had saved him.
Dean was surveying the rest of the room with a suspicious frown. He walked back through to the rec room, one hand on the butt of his gun.
The animal should therefore be killed within the Circle, or the Triangle, as the case may be, so that its energy cannot escape. An animal should be selected whose nature accords with that of the ceremony --- thus, by sacrificing a female lamb one would not obtain any appreciate quantity of the fierce energy useful to a Magician who was invoking Mars. In such a case a ram would be more suitable. And this ram should be virgin --- the whole potential of its original total energy should not have been diminished in any way.
The next sentence was outlined in black pen.
For the highest spiritual working one must accordingly choose that victim which contains the greatest and purest force.
The greatest and purest force.
Sam wanted to laugh in a way that would only bring Dean running in alarm, so he kept it down.
At least they’d been dedicated. He thought again of Sueann and her altar, of her faith twisting to answer the depth of her grief at the possible loss of her husband. Love and faith could be made to do things they were never meant to, but they didn’t get there easily. That was the only comfort they could derive from it.
There were copious handwritten notes, several things printed off the internet, a few other old books that Sam didn’t recognize but would take to Bobby. Several different versions of the Bible, dogeared from use; pages and pages of hand drawn symbols that looked like practice; pictures of a lovely dark- haired woman in her forties.
They’d done their research, and kept the focus of their pain in sight at all times. That, he could understand. He wanted so badly to feel sympathy for them.
It was finding copies of the newspaper articles about a guy with wings, and the fuzzy camera-phone quality photos of him and Dean, that made him glad they were all dead.
Upstairs were family photos in the hallway and a decor that shouted hey a woman used to live here; Sam wondered how much like it their own house might have looked, had they lost their mom to something more mundane.
Normal family life. Unmade beds, dishes in the sink, plans to kill his brother.
He found Dean standing in the smaller bedroom, looking at an unplugged neon beer sign and a Led Zeppelin poster beside it on the wall.
Sam kept his hands down.
They left the house the same way they’d come in: in silence.
It was a long goddamn way back to Mission, South Dakota.
“What did you mean, when you said we already don’t have enough boundaries?”
Dean glanced at him. “You’re kidding, right?”
Sam sighed. “C’mon, Dean.”
For once, Dean answered, and without hesitation. “We’re in each other’s faces all the time. We’ve been together nonstop for, what, almost two years? No vacations, no splitting up except by accident and that one time you had a hissy fit and tried to go after dad in California. We live like we got nobody else, and married couples aren’t this close, Sam.”
“We’ve never been normal,” Sam said.
Dean snorted mirthlessly. “Ain’t that the understatement of all time.” He paused and kept his eyes on the road. “You know exactly what I meant. So what are you really bringing up, here?”
There was nothing surly in Sam’s tone, but Dean wasn’t fooled. He just didn’t want to talk about it.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t usually say shit like this. But just because it got reversed doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I hate it that you got caught in the middle of all this, that you thought I was gone. That you had to find me, that I didn’t give you a chance to – “
“You knew all those symbols,” Sam said. “No one...I mean, Dean, c’mon. No one would have known that. You gave me everything you could. He had some obscure song-related tattoo on his damn arm, and you could read it, you recognized it. It’s a lot more than I would have had otherwise. I just didn’t...I was so close.”
It was a hell of a lot of words, for them. But they didn’t seem to come close to really saying anything.
“It’s not something I can get over, right away,” Sam said softly.
“I know. You need to know, though, that it wasn’t that bad, okay? You have to remember you did a hell of a lot. You were fuckin’ brilliant, to put all that together. It wasn’t bad, for me. I didn’t...I didn’t suffer.”
Sam dropped his head into one hand, and didn’t move otherwise.
“Shit,” Dean said. “Look, you tried to move the goddamn planet, to come after me. That’s what matters. Nothing that happened was because you were too slow. I didn’t even really go through anything. I mean, except for the taser and the part about three strange guys stripping me bare-ass naked, and the whole getting my throat cut thing, it wasn’t even that bad. Goddamnit, I suck at this.”
Sam was silent for several minutes. He wiped at his eyes once but it was only cursory.
“I’m only gonna make it worse by talking about it, okay?” Dean said. He wanted Sam to understand that he meant anything.
There was no comment from Sam. The quiet wasn’t heavy; it was just another sign of how weary and hurt he was. Of all the things Dean could deal with, or endure, a weary and hurt little brother was not one of them.
“I’m not sure what you want, Sammy,” Dean said.
“Me neither,” Sam said. “Getting you back is pretty much good enough, for now.”
Dean shifted a little and tried to stretch his shoulders. He was trying to ease a discomfort that wasn’t physical. “We’ll be okay once this is all over,” he said. “We’ll be back to ourselves.”
“This is us,” Sam said quickly but in a low voice. “Maybe different parts getting shoved into the front, but it’s us.”
“Then the parts will all go back to their places,” Dean said. “Okay? C’mon. We’re not...”
He couldn’t finish the sentence, and he realized that it was because no matter what he said, it would be incomplete and he wouldn’t help either of them. He didn’t want to keep the subject open with Sam but closing it was just going to seem like yet another classic rebuff.
“Sooner or later, I gotta let go of you again,” he said finally. “We get any more tangled up in each other, and that’ll never happen. You get it? I want you to live your own life someday. Not...yet, but Jesus Christ, Sam, this is all hard enough as it is. I can’t...goddamnit.”
If he kept both hands on the wheel then he could concentrate; if he looked straight ahead then he could just get things said.
“I can’t love you any more than I already do,” he said. There. And it wasn’t even as bad as getting tasered.
In his peripheral vision, he saw Sam nod. When he hazarded a glance, Sam didn’t look disappointed or amazed or even particularly awake. Then he smiled.
“Then I guess we’ll be okay,” Sam said.
“We still haven’t had spaghetti,” Sam said, sliding down in his seat a little and bracing his knees against the dash.
“I hear it’s better the next day anyway,” Dean said. “Now take a nap or something.”
Sam kept smiling, but closed his eyes.
When they got back, they got up on Bobby’s roof and put a few loosened shingles back into place. Sam hadn’t done much damage.
Dean talked with his mouth full again. “You know, this is good enough to come back from the dead for.”
“You can do the dishes, too, wiseass,” Bobby said.
They decided to head out the next morning. Dean said it was because he didn’t want to risk driving Bobby nuts, but it was more that if they were moving, getting back to some kind of routine, then it would all be behind them.
Sam had no trouble falling asleep around eleven or so. Dean sat beside him and read for a long time, too wired to settle down all the way.
Around one he went out to the kitchen, grabbed a beer, and sat on the porch. He thought about his conversation with Sam, and the disturbing lack of a sense of anything while he’d been supposedly dead, and how he hadn’t been able to fight off three guys no matter what they’d been armed with. After twenty minutes of that, Bobby came out and sat with him.
“What they called isn’t necessarily what answered,” Bobby said.
Dean nodded. “They didn’t know what they were doing. More than just raising the dead. More than just binding a reaper. I can’t tell you what got done that night, because I never saw it. But something came up. Not necessarily from hell.”
Bobby nodded. “Feel like maybe it can find you, if it wants to?”
Dean kept his eyes down. “Sacrifices aren’t supposed to make it,” he said. “There’s not supposed to be a way around that. So who knows? First for everything. I doubt it wants anything to do with me. But if sacrificing me got it loose on this world in the first place, what do you suppose sacrificing me again will get it? Especially while I’m still carrying a side of elemental hoodoo.”
Bobby rubbed a hand over his face and wondered where Dean got his intuitive intelligence from. His mother, most likely, rest her soul.
“It doesn’t have to be evil,” Dean continued softly. “But sometimes, being indifferent is worse.”
Bobby caught on to what he meant. Humans were insects to some of the ‘higher’ beings, to the creatures that wandered alternate planes of existence. Dean would easily be nothing more than a particularly striking dragonfly among the common moths, at best. Still disposable.
“It’s not like I’m overrating myself,” Dean said. “You know, sacrifice of the year, more fun than a virgin, capable of conjuring scarier things than anybody else. They were clumsy, but they really meant it, and the intent plus a lot of blood and the extra oomph of whatever caused the wings...equals more than the usual burnt offering, I’m guessing.”
“You’re not overrating yourself,” Bobby said. “God forbid you should try that, for once.”
Dean ducked his head with a smirk. “Gonna take magic just as big to put it back, if we have to. I hope we don’t have to.” He paused, took a breath, and added, “Thanks. For taking care of Sam, and listening to him, and waiting.”
“What the hell are you thanking me for?” Bobby said gruffly.
“Because I know it was bad,” Dean said, shifting his feet and keeping his face lowered. “And it means a lot to me that Sam wasn’t alone. And you didn’t shoot me when I sat up.” He glanced up, and an edge of demand crept in. “Just...take it.”
Bobby didn’t reply. He just looked out across the yard because he knew Dean could handle that type of response.
The words that came next sounded like they were unplanned.
“I was able to hold the wings in.”
Bobby glanced back at him, waiting.
“I didn’t have to let them out, for a minute or two. I had control of it. I didn’t want them to be able to touch them, I wasn’t sure what else they were going to do before they killed me. It was crazy, it was like holding my breath for too long. Then it got away from me, and I felt them slit my throat but it didn’t hurt.”
Bobby was staring at him in amazement.
“Don’t tell Sam,” Dean said. “I don’t want him to think about it all anymore. But something changed, so maybe I can keep them from getting out.”
“You really think it’s just about what it looks like?”
Dean let out a quick, impatient breath and said, “You know, anytime you wanna tell me what you think about all this, go for it.” Despite the words he’d chosen, his tone was mild.
“The goddamn thing killed you, Dean,” Bobby said. “Killed you in a garden shop. Blew you right out through the front windows, blew you right out of your body. Only, you’ve got some kind of anchor or something, and what actually hit the air ended up translating into the closest thing the leftover power could make out of it that still fit this world. You’re lucky the nuts who grabbed you didn’t cut ‘em off as a trophy. That’s what I think.”
Dean stared at him. He swallowed and put his bottle down on the boards of the porch very deliberately. He thought about the box just inside the door. You have any idea what’s happened to you? What you’re walking around out here waving at everybody?
“Then here’s the last thing I’ll say on it, and we don’t ever have to mention it again,” Bobby added. “Don’t let anybody but Sam touch those wings again. I think you both know why.”
Dean nodded slowly, then looked back out across the yard. After a minute or two, he said, “You don’t think I’m...” he paused and made a face that Bobby recognized as discomfort and a little annoyance. “It’s stupid. Never mind.”
“Boy, I suggest you spit it out,” Bobby said. “You got as far as to start that sentence, so go ahead and say it.”
Dean picked up his bottle again, took a swig of beer, and looked away. “It’s all just temporary, right? I’m not...immortal or anything, now.”
Bobby looked out across the yard and chose his words carefully, something he didn’t usually bother to do with the Winchesters. He was betting Dean was concerned about being the only one left. “I’d go so far as to say you’re a little less destructible than the rest of us while you’ve got the wings. But not while you don’t have ‘em, and it won’t go on forever. Come Halloween, it’ll probably quit happening.”
“Take particular note of the part about not while you don’t have ‘em,” Bobby said.
Dean nodded again. “Yes, sir.”
“Crazy and desperate folks all over,” Bobby said. “Sometimes desperate’s a lot worse. I don’t need to tell you there’re always more where this last batch came from. And just because an elemental tells you what sounds like ‘we don’t need you then, go ahead’, it doesn’t mean they’re calling the shots. You guys have been getting all the wrong feedback from the underlings on this, and don’t think for a minute that any of what’s going on is under any kind of control. Hopefully they won’t tear the goddamn world apart, but there’s nothin’ you can do in this. Stay out of it, if you can.”
“I don’t trust any of ‘em,” Dean said, matching his speech pattern to Bobby’s without realizing it. “As long as they leave us alone, and don’t start smashing buildings again, we’re through. I don’t want anything to do with it anyway.”
They were silent for several minutes, just letting the night pass. Bobby could tell that Dean was waiting for something else. The kid – not a kid anymore, not for a long time and possibly not ever, but he couldn’t help assigning the designation – had a way of leaning forward a little and toward people when they had all his attention. He was trying to make it look like a casual slump, but nothing Dean ever did was casual. Luckily it wasn’t obvious to most, either. Bobby had mental snapshots of both boys from various points in their lives to go by, seeing them only occasionally with months or even years between, never having a chance to let the details blur together, so he was able to recognize the evolution of their habits and affectations in steps.
“I’m not your dad,” Bobby said. In his peripheral vision, Dean tensed a little. “Maybe I got no right to give you orders. But I consider you family, and I’d appreciate it if you’d stay the hell out of everything while this is going on. I don’t think you know how to do anything but your best, and maybe ducking for cover feels a little like less than your best. Don’t make me and Sam go through another couple of days like we just did. He loses you, he’s tough enough to survive, but he won’t want to and he’ll be a lot less than Sam, after. Don’t underestimate your importance, here, Dean.”
Dean didn’t respond or move. Bobby figured he might have been holding his breath. The kid was putting up with the discussion pretty good; better than he’d figured.
“You got me?”
“Yes sir,” Dean said, and it was strained but not from affront or scorn. If he looked at Dean, he knew he’d see tears in his eyes, and so it was best just to go ahead and keep facing forward.
Undetected, Sam straightened out of the doorway and went back to bed.
When dawn broke, Dean was out in the yard, hands in pockets, circling the house as the dog paced him. The sky was clear and the air tasted clean while he got his boots dusty.
He closed his eyes and took a slow, deep breath. He stood with feet braced but knees loose, calm, listening to the ambient noise around him. The buzz of an occasional insect; the sound of Rove sneezing while checking out a stump. He thought about what had happened to him at the well near Minister when he’d touched water that no living thing wanted or needed; he thought about Bobby telling him they weren’t wings. If he thought about the pulling, the shift and impulse not so much under his skin as beneath everything he was, it wasn’t hard to find it again. It was only a suggestion, but it was something he could find if he had to. Something that had always been there that had been...accidentally converted when he’d been subject to forces that mortals weren’t meant to be exposed to.
He was still all there. He had lost nothing but time.
Sam would take a little longer to recover...but he would. Dean would do whatever Sam needed in order to make that happen.
Hours later, it was Sam who slammed the trunk closed, announcing that they were ready.
“I want you two back here the day before at the latest,” Bobby said. “Understood?”
“Yessir,” they said together. The next Sabbat. The 21st of September.
“I’ll come get you if I have to,” he said. “And you won’t like it.”
Dean raised his eyebrows, but didn’t comment. He leaned in to shake Bobby’s hand and was pulled in for a hug instead, which was fine. Sam grinned and leaned in for one of his own.
Bobby went back in the house before the car could pull out. He made a point not to watch people go.
Two days later, in a motel in northern Illinois, Sam found an article near the back of a discarded copy of the Chicago Sun Times about three mysteriously mutilated bodies found near Cornell, Iowa. It was, in his mind, the final article there would be on the whole damn thing.
He didn’t show it to Dean or clip it out. Dean was asleep on the bed nearest the door, and after tossing the paper on the nightstand, Sam laid down so that he was horseshoed around Dean’s feet along the bottom of the bed.
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