Story: Narrate by youthere

Disclaimer: I own'em! I own'em! They're mine!... wait, who was that guy with the glowing hand...?

Rated for language and possibly minor gore...

SPOLERS FOR TIME IS ON MY SIDE

A/N: Okay guys, this just seems destined to be one of those stories that move along at their own leisurely pace, no matter how anyone huffs and puffs. I'm getting it out there as fast as I can, but I think we'll all just have to contend with waiting for it to form at it's own discretion... Sorry 'bout that :)

Great big thanx to Adara Chan at for strapping on a pair of goggles and wading through the murky mess that had become this chapter. Brave, brave lady.

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NARRATE

VII.

It was right there, all along.

Seething at his own stupidity, Sam snapped his phone shut with a curse. His hand stung slightly as the movement aggravated the cut in his palm, and he squeezed a little harder just for spite.

He felt cheated. As if he were in a Loony Tune and the rabbit, or whatever it was, that he was chasing, had been doubling back and switching all the road signs around. But at the end of the day, he knew that was an excuse. He wasn't a helpless victim here. The answer he'd been looking for had been within arm's reach the entire time. He'd just not been smart enough to figure it out. These days, there seemed to be a whole pile of things he wasn't smart enough to figure out. And his brother was paying the price for every single one of them.

Bobby had called just as Sam was finishing dressing his hand. Their friend had been checking in maybe once or twice a day, so Sam hadn't thought much of it when he saw his name on the caller ID. He'd simply padded over to Dean's bed before answering, perching himself on the edge of the mattress and resisting the urge to put a hand on his brother's shoulder. But this time, Bobby did have news.

Apparently, Ellen had tracked down an entry in a hunter's journal.

The man who wrote the journal had met a man...who had a friend, who'd talked to a guy...who knew a man...who'd shared a drink with a man... who'd bragged he'd climbed a mountain and made something. Something infinitely strange. It was a drunkard's yarn in endless degrees of separation; a complicated chain of phantom story tellers and an elusive hope on the end. It was a rumor at best, but hunters were the last people in the world to ignore a rumor. Or a flicker of hope.

And operating on that small flicker, Bobby had somehow managed to dig up the identity of the bragging drinker. An alchemist, it seemed. An alchemist and warlock by the name of Anthony Butcher.

"He disappeared about a decade ago," Bobby had told Sam over the phone. "Of course, nobody really looked for him until now."

"But now you've been looking," Sam had asked, his voice carefully neutral, hope rigidly controlled. "You found him, right?"

"I don't know where he lives but I know what name he's using." The older hunter had replied, snorting. "It's Carpenter."

At first the name had meant nothing. Then Sam had nearly dropped the phone as realization hit him.

"Miss Bertram? From next door?" An older man's face stared innocently up at him, worn and marked, smelling slightly of bourbon. "Well, now that you mention it, I haven't seen her around for days. Why? Has something happened?"

Right there. All along.

X

Sam ran his eyes over the overflowing book shelves that covered most of the den wall. They were stuffed with everything from paperback cowboy stories to invaluable, ancient tomes bound in thick, stained leather. The books didn't seem to be arranged in any particular order, just stuffed into the shelves wherever there was room, the organized chaos of a study in heavy use. Every other surface in the room had also been taken over by books, except a small corner of a side table, where a decanter and a dirty glass valiantly stood their ground. There was not much else in the room, only the books, Sam and the alchemist.

"So," Butcher said, reaching for the decanter and glass with a small smile. "You don't seem to be in the mood to accept a drink, but you'll have to wait while I have one. Almost having your front door knocked down by the FBI tends to rattle the nerves."

Sam turned his attention from the books to this man, whom he had dismissed as ignorant, even innocent, on their first meeting. He was shorter than average, fair in color and slightly chubby. He looked much older than Sam knew him to be, his expression stiff, his colors faded. He had a worn-out air about him, like a man who had stretched too far and lived too fast, at the expense of his health and maybe his sanity.

Now that Sam took the time to really scrutinize him, he also noticed a strange edge to the alchemist's smile and a greedy, almost demented spark buried deep in his slightly-unfocused eyes.

At first sight, he seemed to be a rather battered man in his late sixties, annoying and a bit pathetic, but essentially harmless. But when you looked at him carefully, the young hunter realized, Anthony Butcher/ Carpenter was actually creepy as all hell.

"So, Agent," the alchemist said, lazily pouring a generous amount of bourbon into the glass and taking a sip. "Are you still looking for Miss Bertram? I'm afraid I haven't seen her at all."

Sam lunged in. He had left Dean alone in their new motel room and was not in any mood to play innocent with this guy.

"I'm not FBI. I need to know about the story rock you made and gave to Miss Bertram."

Butcher looked up, surprised and amused, and Sam kicked himself. He was in a hurry, but he couldn't afford to screw up this conversation.

It seemed he hadn't, however, because the older man simply chuckled and took a sip of his drink. "You don't fuck around, do you? I admire that in a person. Never got the hang of it, myself."

He didn't seem inclined to continue, so Sam prompted. "So it was you? You made the rock and gave it to her."

Butcher shook his head with a serious expression. "No, this is no good. You can't tell me what you're not, and not tell me what you are. Since you're not gonna be Agent Anderson, I'll need another name to call you. The real one, please."

He carried himself with an exaggerated calm, his voice theatrically reasonable. Sam knew he was being toyed with, but he didn't see that he had much choice but to play along.

"Winchester. Sam Winchester."

"A hunter, I take it."

"Yes. And I need to know about the rock. Where did you take it from?"

"Hm, you are one insistent bugger," said the alchemist, still in the same conversational tone. "What makes you think I've ever made one of those? What makes you think the witch didn't make it herself?"

"The fact that you obviously know what the hell a story rock is, and that she had one. And that you know what she was," Sam answered. "I think she was a beginner at magic and you were teaching her. Then when she drew hunters' attention, you got rid of her. That's why we couldn't find her when we came back."

The man looked impressed. Sam had obviously scored a point.

"Well, let's say I did. What makes you think I'm going to just sit down and tell you all about it?"

Sam lost his patience again. His brother was dying—he didn't have time for entertaining this guy.

"Look. I just need to know. Then I'll leave and never bother you again...please. My brother..... I'll pay, trade you, whatever. I just need to know where you went to make the rock."

This time, he had screwed up. The older man's eyes took on an unpleasant sparkle.

"Your brother? What about him?"

The alchemist already knew the answer to that, Sam figured. Butcher would know the curse and its consequences and could guess the rest. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. God, he was tired. "Just tell me. Please."

Whatever game they'd been playing, he could tell that he'd lost. Butcher slugged back the rest of his drink, grimaced and slammed the glass back on the table, his false joviality giving was to brusque coldness. "Sorry. I can't help you."

Sam just stood still in the middle of the floor, an overwhelming sense of failure and helpless anger racing, neck to neck, through his veins.

"Did you hear me?" The alchemist sounded almost bored now, satisfied but disinterested. "I can't help you. Get out."

Sam took a deep breath and then pulled out his .45 in a swift, fluid motion and pointed it directly at the center of the other man's forehead.

"No. You're going to tell me how to help my brother," he said, his voice low and slightly breathless.

Butcher cocked his head. "You're going to shoot a man in cold blood, Mr. Hunter? I'm not a ghost or a ghoul, boy. Point that thing somewhere else before you make yourself a murderer."

Sam said nothing, merely kept his gun trained on its target. But there was a look in his eyes, now, that made the older man hesitate.

When Anthony Butcher had opened his front door, a short while earlier, there had been this freaked out kid on the doorstep, earnest, flustered and more than a little scared. He seemed harmless. Now, however, the kid seemed to have smoothly shed a skin, and what was left behind was anything but.

The young man now carried himself like a seasoned warrior, his aim rock steady, his expression calm as a hangman's mask. And it occurred to the alchemist that, while 'young' and 'scared' usually added up to 'harmless', 'young', 'scared' and 'hunter' probably produced something else entirely.

"Well, brothers are forgiving, you know." He squinted at Sam and tried to hold on to his bravado. "I'm sure yours will forgive you for shooting the only person who could save him."

The hunter's voice, when it came, was so low that the words were hardly heard. "Save him?"

And as he looked at the young man, the alchemist felt something shift.

It was as if the air in the room had somehow sprung to life, writhing and swirling like a boiling river, almost visible in its sudden violence. As it hissed and raged, it seemed to pull the shadows of the room out of their corners, magnifying them and giving them life. They slowly, possessively, wove themselves around the young man, who still stood with his gun pointed at Butcher. He seemed unaware of the occult outburst around him, but his eyes also seemed darker, his face even harder.

Butcher had spent his life in the pursuit of power. It had cost him, burnt him out, burnt him away. But he knew power when he felt it. When he saw it. Sam Winchester may not have known what he was capable of, but Anthony Butcher was starting to have an inkling.

He took a step backwards and stared, like a man who has opened his door on a warm summer evening and found himself looking into the pitch black of winter storms.

"You think you can save him?" Sam said quietly. "You can't even imagine...You're nothing in all of this. You don't even have a clue."

His face was as inscrutable as this cryptic comment and Butcher simply stood and waited.

"You know," the younger man added after a while. "Just earlier today I was wondering about something. I started wondering... exactly how far I would go for my brother, to save him, to keep him safe. I wondered what, when it all came down to it, I wouldn't be willing to do for him..."

Butcher swallowed convulsively. The room felt ice cold now. The storm had relented a little but the shadows remained, wreathed around the hunter's looming figure, whispering with power and hellish promises.

Sam cocked the gun and took careful aim at the alchemist's kneecap. "Turns out, not much."

For the longest time, the two men just stood there and stared at each other, both their hearts racing. But the blood felt cold in Sam's veins, while Butcher's was burning adrenaline, mixed with curiosity.

Then the alchemist smiled. There was fear in the smile, even terror, but also a strange excitement, a reckless abandon. It was the smile of the ultimate gambler, loading up for a round of Russian roulette.

"Well, here you are," he said with a slight nod. "Your father's son without a doubt."

The spell was broken. As if it had never howled, the storm was gone. The younger man looked merely human again, tired and confused.

"What?" Sam asked, his brows wrinkled, but his aim not wavering. "What do you mean?"

He still seemed dangerous, though, and Butcher wondered how on earth he had ever dismissed this guy as harmless.

"Winchester." The alchemist nodded. "I ran across a John once when he was hunting down a colleague of mine. Your old man, I'm guessing. Threatened to shoot me, too, you know. Maybe it runs in the family."

Sam said nothing. He felt quite thrown by this turn in the conversation, as well as the alchemist's seeming disregard for the weapon still pointed at him.

"That colleague was called Benton, quite a gifted alchemist," the older man continued. "I've been told Winchester found him eventually. Ripped out his heart, they say."

Sam nodded. He remembered that story, remembered being 14 and horrified. And a little bit resentful that his father, who never told them anything, had felt the need to tell them that.

"Yeah. So what if he did?"

The alchemist's smile grew even wider. He looked dangerous, in the way that a runaway truck does. He walked over to the bookshelves and pulled out a small, battered book in an unmarked leather cover.

"This is my journal from the time I made the rock. It has everything written down; how, when and where." He held it up for Sam to see. "I'll trade you for it."

Sam lowered the gun fractionally. "Trade it? For what?"

"For the hunting journal of John Winchester."

For a second, Sam just stared at the man.

"A journal for a journal," Butcher continued. "I want to know everything your father knew about Benton and his research, and you want to know all about the story rock."

"You want to find Benton's research? Use it?" Sam asked hoarsely.

Butcher nodded. "And I think your father's journal might help me do that."

He lifted up his own battered book and looked at the young hunter, suddenly serious.

"Come on. I'll show you mine if you show me yours."

X

Sam got back to the motel just as night was falling. He had practically driven in the air to get back, having already left Dean alone much longer than he cared to.

Butcher's journal was a strange weight in his pocket, smaller and a different shape from the book that should have been there. He had tried to squirm out of actually leaving John's journal with the warlock, but the older man had been completely inflexible. At the end of the day, the more desperate party always loses a negotiation, and Sam needed Butcher's book a lot more than Butcher needed John's.

It had occurred to the young hunter to take the journal by force, but the strange gleam in the older man's eyes made him nervous. It occurred to him that the warlock would have pushed him to pull the trigger, simply to find out if he would. And that was something Sam himself didn't really want to discover. It felt like the worst kind of sacrilege, leaving his father's journal behind like that; their family bible, their road map, their birthright. But he knew there hadn't been any choice. He'd get it back after he fixed this mess.

And if it couldn't be fixed, well, then he didn't really care what happened, anyway.

He fumbled with his keys in the gloom, the weak bulb in the motel's porch light only casting a faint glow over his unsteady hands.

Maybe it was just the dark, but something suddenly felt wrong to Sam. Something about the quiet shadows crowding the parking lot made the skin on the back of his neck tingle, as if anticipating the touch of strange hands or possibly a blade. Maybe it was just the darkness, but a hunter knew better than to take the chance.

He pulled out his gun and stood still, waiting and listening, but nothing stirred in the empty lot. There were no strange sounds, no alien movements, only the hum of traffic from the town's main road.

All senses still on alert, Sam silently slid the keys into the lock and cautiously pushed the door open. He tensed, not knowing what to expect, but the room was dark and quiet.

Quiet.

Sam froze in the doorway, his mind finally catching up with his senses and filling him with apprehension. He should have been hearing the non-stop buzz of the story rock that never left his brother's side. It should have rolled across the room and spilled out onto the porch, like it had every damn day for two weeks. But it wasn't there, and somehow, any explanation Sam's weary mind could come up with was thoroughly horrible.

Fingers numb with dread, he reached for the light switch and flipped it on.

Dean's bed was empty.

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AN: Okay, so this bit was mostly talking, but I had some 'splaining to do....

And yeah, another entirely Dean-less chapter- not good. But fret not, I'm bringing him back in the next one and it sure won't be to feed him milk and cookies :)

Also, about the bourbon... I've recently realized that what I call borboun, Americans probably call whiskey (and I think my 'whiskey' is what they call 'scotch'... dunno, seems to be a 'football' kinda thing... ). Anyways, I'd already posted a chapter where I go on and on about borboun, so I just decided to keep using that word. Forgive me this piece of unamerican-ness :)