A Year and a Day
Supernatural: Dean, Sam, Bobby, R overall
The characters and situations portrayed here are not mine, they belong to the CW. This is a fan authored work and no profit is being made. Please do not link to this story without appropriate warnings. Please do not archive this story without my permission.
Summary: Breaking the deal Dean made was always a given. How Sam would do it, not so much.
Note on links: The links I've provided are mostly for the music and the accompanying videos may or may not enhance or detract from the story. Just so you know.
If heaven and hell decide
That they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no's on their vacancy signs
If there's no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I'll follow you into the dark
I Will Follow You Into The Dark Death Cab for Cutie
They have water from the town, but Grandmother won't drink it; says it tastes funny. She'll wash or cook with it but she won't drink it, so every morning, Chosovi walks the half mile to the spring to fill the plastic jug with water and bring it back to the house for her Grandmother.
She doesn't mind. She's the youngest, and so tending to Grandmother is her job. She brushes and braids her Grandmother's hair, fetches her sewing things, fetches her water and occasionally cigarettes from the store. She tells her grandmother about her school days and then listens to what her grandmother has to teach her in the evenings.
The spring itself is nothing much -- a depression among the sand and rocks that wells upward with no bubbles and spills over only enough for a few things to grow right around the edges. Chosovi dipping her jug in almost empties the spring entirely every day, and it refills slowly, but by the next day it's full again.
She could probably explain it by science -- the equalization of pressure. The spring is halfway up the slope, and its source probably runs parallel, forced through the fissures in the rock.
Her grandmother says it's because the spring provides only what's needed, that it's meant for the thirsty, not for the greedy, and if you approach it with greed the spring will dry up and the spirits living in the hill will laugh at you and taunt you. Chosovi prefers her grandmother's story. She likes that only a few flowers ever show on the edges, that the birds will settle on the rim to drink. The tracks of taavo and leetayo are often pressed into the sand around the basin.
No one says the spring is sacred or holy, but Chosovi wonders because her grandmother is nearly a hundred, and very healthy, if physically frail. And she insists that cuts and burns and hurts on any of them be washed with that water, and that they drink it when they are sick -- which doesn't happen very often.
She knows the priest in the village comes here to get water for the font, but tells no one he does so.
Not sacred. No one leaves offerings or builds shrines.
She rarely lingers. She has to fetch the water before she walks to school, and it's hot and unprotected, heat prickling her skin. The water is always cool though. It's quiet and even though she knows others also take water from the spring, it's rare that she ever sees anyone or anything. Only the birds flying away as she approaches.
So when she finds the man laying beside the spring, her first reaction isn't fear, but surprise. He's just laying there, curled around the top edge of the basin, one hand curled over the rim, just his fingertips trailing in the water, very still, very quiet, very naked.
She thinks he might be sleeping, or maybe dead.
It's possible he's one of the spirits of the hill. His skin is white man pale, but tanned with sun but not as brown as she is, his hair not as dark. He's very tall, even curled up as he is. On his side, she can only see part of the intricate tattoo that winds its way across his left thigh and over his hip. When she steps around him, she sees that there is more of the tattoo across his back and up to his right shoulder. It twists around him like a snake.
His fingers twitch and his chest rises slightly. Sleeping then, or hurt, but not dead. She steps closer, crouching at the edge of the pool, ready to run.
When he opens his eyes, she's disappointed. They aren't spirit eyes, just a rather nice shade of green-brown.
He stares at her for a long moment, before dipping his hand into the pool and bring the water to his mouth.
"What day is it?" It's English, not Hopi.
He smiles a little at that and pushes himself up, drawing his long legs up and wrapping his arms around his knees.
"Are you lost?"
"A little," he says.
Chosovi nods and fills her jug. "Where are your clothes?"
Chosovi bites her lip and then shrugs and pulls off her manta and holds it out to him. "Grandmother will know," she says.
He follows her back to the village and carries her water for her.
To run its course through smoother water
the small bark of my wit now hoists its sail,
leaving that cruel sea behind.
Now I shall sing the second kingdom,
there where the soul of man is cleansed,
made worthy to ascend to Heaven.
Here from the dead let poetry rise up,
O sacred Muses, since I am yours.
Here let Calliope arise
The Divine Comedy Purgatorio: Canto I Dante Alighieri (Princeton translation.)
The note from Sam was crumpled in his pocket, edges torn, ink blurred. It was blurred when Bobby got it, crumpled in the envelope, like Sam had written it, tossed it, rescued it, and mailed it.
Two weeks ago. It was the first time Bobby had heard from Sam since the night Dean was pulled into hell. He hasn't heard from him since.
He came prepared, of course. He's got holy water and iron, salt and goofer dust. He got here early enough to sketch four devil's traps in the dirt around the crossroads, each one touching the other, with only a small clear space in the center.
He doesn't really know what to expect. He wasn't here when Sam and Dean came to this crossroads before -- they wouldn't allow it. And maybe he's a coward but he wasn't sure he could stand to see Dean dragged to hell. He was pretty sure Sam would follow after, thought that's what happened when he didn't hear from him.
Dragged but not kicking and screaming. Dean would rather go to the damned bitch than have her hounds come after him. Cocky, arrogant, self-destructive son of a bitch.
He'd gone the day after, of course. Found a little kicked up dust and the Impala sitting on the side of the road and nothing more. The hopeful part of him thought maybe John Winchester's boys had an ace up their sleeve. Sam had been frantic those last few weeks, almost until the end.
Then he'd calmed down. Got quiet. He and Dean spent the last few days out among the rusting hulks in Bobby's salvage yard, shoulder to shoulder, heads bent low. Bobby couldn't say how much either of them slept, sharing the room they had since they were boys, but he'd gotten up more than once to catch sight of Sam standing out in the yard, alone. Heard Dean moving around in the room, a sliver of light under the door.
During the day he couldn't find an inch of daylight between them. At night, it seemed like they were avoiding each other entirely. Bobby didn't know what to make of it.
He thought Sam was maybe praying out there in the dark, with only the moon to listen. Dean might be praying too, but if he were, damn if Bobby knew what he'd be praying for. Getting out of the deal without Sam dropping dead, probably -- Bobby'd been praying for the same thing.
The afternoon of the last day, Dean handed him a journal, a new one, filled with things Dean thought Bobby might find useful; people they'd met and contacts they'd made. A legacy Bobby supposed. Sam had been quiet and calm and that alone should have triggered Bobby that was something was off. At the time he'd been too flustered to notice and his apologies at not finding an answer rang as hollow as their footsteps across the porch as they headed for the car.
They hadn't taken a damn bit of protection with them.
Sam's note didn't say anything about summoning the crossroads demon. Just go there and wait.
Didn't say how long to wait either, but Bobby figured he'd give it from sundown to sunrise.
Time was almost up when he heard it, felt it. Howling like dogs, rumble like thunder, screech like tearing metal.
The heat was the worst, hot enough for Bobby to feel like his skin was melting off when the earth cracked open in a perfect X, edges wide and molten.
He only caught a glimpse of her, beautiful and horrible like a storm or flood, bitter like acid and dripping confidence like venom.
"I'll get him back," she said and then she was gone, and the earth closed up and there was a body in the center of the four circles, burned and bloody and broken. Bobby wasn't even sure there was life there.
But he went anyway, scared to touch, not even sure this was who he'd come for. Until the battered form on the ground turned his head with a mewling whimper of pain, and opened his eyes. Crazy, panicked, blood-blind, green as grass, eyes that were so very familiar. There didn't look to be an inch of flesh unmarked, gashes and gouges streaked across skin that was seared and marked with blisters and boils and pustules of rank and foul looking infections. The hands were twisted and swollen, joints popped and broken, bleeding flesh beneath nailless fingertips.
"Dean..." Bobby wasn't quite sure he believed it yet, even seeing it, that hell would cough up a Winchester for any reason, much less no reason.
He hadn't known what to expect, but he came prepared. There was holy water and sheets for bandages or whatever. He held the bottle to Dean's mouth and let him drink, feeling the charred hair on his head crumble against his fingertips. Or maybe it was flesh, because Dean smelled like charred meat and sulfur, of fresh blood and bile. He didn't say anything and from the blood on his mouth and the way he choked and gagged on the water but kept drinking, Bobby wondered if he had a tongue left to speak with.
Bobby soaked the sheet in more holy water and wrapped Dean in it, eyes stinging when it elicited more whimpers but no actual words. He half carried Dean to his truck, not even caring when his tires swept through the devil's traps and smeared them, but he did check the rear view. He didn't know if he should take Dean to a hospital or try to find someone to come to them. Had no idea how to explain the wounds on Dean's body. He got to the highway cutoff and decided he wouldn't explain anything -- let the doctors come up with their own explanations. Bobby could say he'd just found him, let them make what they would of anything Dean had to say, if he ever said anything. They might think he was crazy -- hell, he probably was crazy after a month in hell.
He glanced over at Dean and then looked again. He was still huddled on the bench seat, fingers clutching at the damp sheet, and Bobby flicked on the dome light and then pulled over. He checked Dean's hands, wet his own handkerchief and wiped at the blood and smeared soot and dirt. Underneath the filthy skin Dean's hands were whole. Unmarked. Even the nails had grown back, where before there had been bloody nailbeds.
He pulled the sheet back only slightly, carefully, holding steady even when Dean flinched from his touch. He stared at the deep gouges that had been cut into Dean's shoulders and chest. They still bled but they were mere slits of reddened, bloody flesh, contacting and closing, healing even as Bobby watched.
He lifted his eyes to Dean's and found Dean staring back at him; actually seeing him for the first time, Bobby was pretty sure. He offered him the water again and Dean drank, fingers flexing and knuckles popping as he took the bottle, hands still swollen but fingers unbroken.
Dean swallowed and coughed, wiped a hand across his mouth, leaving a bloody smear across his cheek and jaw. "Where's Sam?" he said in a voice that was raw as sandpaper, fainter than a whisper.
Bobby suspected, but couldn't say -- wouldn't say, not while Dean was still white around the eyes and not quite with him. Not that the answer he had was any better. Instead he put the truck in gear and turned around.
"I don't know," he said finally. "Haven't seen him since..."
The sob that Dean let escape damn near broke Bobby, but all he could do was give the truck more gas. He needed to see that Dean was truly healed and whole before they even started to take on the question of what kind of deal Sam Winchester had struck to bring his brother back to life and out of hell.
And whether the cost of it was anything they or the rest of the world could afford to pay.
Can it be understood
The reasons why you belong to me?
I need the steady of you
And I'd give you anything
That I could cut with sweet precision
From beneath my tender skin
There is a way, there is a way
That you could save me from this
Would you promise to be kind?
Promise to Me Mirah
Not many customers came through on weekdays. Thursday through Sunday, some weekends, she'd be almost too busy to do more than grab a beer and a sandwich, barely time between customers to clean her equipment.
She could close, she supposed, but busy weekends or not, she wasn't so flush she could turn away business if it happened to come by.
He didn't look any different than any of her other customers except he showed up on foot, looking scruffy and kind of clean cut all at the same time. Interesting combination.
It took her three days. She'd tried to get him to spread it over a couple of weeks or months but he was adamant that it all be done at once, or as fast as she could. She had to sleep and eat, and he did too, although she wasn't sure he had, or where he went for the few hours she demanded to rest and uncramp her hands.
But he came with a wad of cash and a look in his eyes that scared her a little.
A dozen sheets of paper laid out the design. None of it was difficult but he checked her work every section, using mirrors and twisting his long body to see the patterns on his back and shoulder, across his hip. He was damn near feverish by the time she was done, the first of the tats as angry and red and swollen looking as the last of them.
She'd asked what it was, thinking the twisting parallel lines and small marks in the borders looked like pictures of DNA strands she'd seen on television and in magazines.
"Can you do it?" was the answer he gave, and she'd studied it and agreed. None of it was complicated or confusing, pretty straightforward, actually, but there was a lot of it.
He hadn't made so much as a whimper through it all, wasn't given to idle chatter; didn't care what music she listened to. Not even when she'd applied needle and ink to areas close to his groin and the inside of his thigh, he hadn't done anything but tense up a little.
He'd taken the drawings with him when he left and didn't tip her which made her mad at first. A few days later, she came to the conclusion he'd given her all he had, and been carrying damn little in his rucksack when he arrived and even less when he left.
She sketched out what little she could remember and stared at it, pinned it up on her wall to look at now and then.
It was about a month later when she happened over a drawing in a book she kept for people to look at for ideas. Not exact, but close enough.
Not DNA after all.
My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,
As unremembering how I rose or why,
And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,
Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,
And fitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques.
The Show, Wilfred Owen
The first full night of sleep Dean got was like a revelation. Five hours might not be a full night to some, but it was closer than he'd been in awhile, and only the end of it had brought on the nightmares that woke him. They left him shaking and stuffing a fist in his mouth to keep from screaming, wanting to vomit and run, preferably at the same time. Wide awake he could shut the worst of it away, but asleep it was like standing too close to a thin fence separating him from a maddened, ferocious dog that hurled itself at the boards. Eventually one of them would give way.
Bobby had sat with him nearly constantly the first few days, then Ellen had come to spell him when Bobby was weaving on his feet and smelled like he needed a few more showers than he'd been able to grab.
She had the same questions Bobby did, but wasn't sure she wanted to know. Instead she treated the remains of Dean's wounds with betadine and arnica, witchhazel and soapy water and lanolin cream in the hope the scarring wouldn't be quite so horrific.
There would be scars, more of them than Dean could see in Bobby's cloudy, cheap mirror on the back of the bathroom door. The gashes healed better than the burns, left cleaner edges than the puffy, reddened flesh along Dean's throat and chest and left leg. He couldn't even say what had done it, hands or claws or brands or burning liquid that seared his throat. He remembered fire and ice with his eyes wide open. Remembered laughter and mocking and things reaching inside him to twist his guts into knots and rolling up his lungs like you did to press air out of a beach ball.
Thirty days or thirty centuries, he knew he'd never get used to either the pain or humiliation or degradation, and he knew it would never end. He'd been resigned to his fate before he and Sam stepped onto the crossroads.
He'd had no idea what he'd signed up for -- there was no way to imagine or prepare for it. He'd have pledged or promised anything to be out of it. Had, if he remembered correctly. Bargains struck and broken. Promises made just to hear him beg.
He'd have turned Sam himself if they'd offered him the chance.
It had taken him a week to even consider this might be just another torment, demons and lost souls fucking with his head instead of just his body -- a body he wasn't even sure was his really because no human ever healed so fast, repeatedly. It could be like the djinn again or some other elaborate mindgame.
The only thing that made it possible for him to believe even a little was that Sam wasn't here.
And that thought made him cringe inside himself just a bit more, because he suspected Sam had made his own deal. The thought of Sam where Dean had been made him want to die, made him want to take any one of Bobby's guns or knives and just end it all. Bobby saw him eyeing them and moved them all, locked them up, deliberately and obviously.
It wasn't that that kept Dean from ending it all though. It was the fear that on his death, he'd go back.
If Sam were now in hell in his place, though, Dean wasn't sure he could live with it and not go mad.
He had no thoughts of making another deal. He had never been a coward, but now, with the marks and reminders of hell on his flesh and in his nightmares, he knew that was the scar that would linger the longest, stay with him forever.
He wouldn't go back to hell. Not even for Sam.
Whatever deal Sam had made -- and Dean was pretty sure that it was something Sam had done and not because the hellspawn had been bored after a month -- might have delivered Dean back into the realm of the living, but he hadn't come back with his soul intact.
He wasn't actually sure he'd come back with a soul at all.
"Fortitude is founded on solid ground,
as is the case with those who are tried in suffering,
for these latter know about the storms of the world
and what little reason there is to fear them
or desire the world's consolations."
The counsels of St. Theresa
Randall half suspected the credit card wouldn't go through, but it did, easy as pie. He supposed he didn't hide his suspicion very well and wasn't too sure he cared. It wasn't often that people walked into a motel and he knew the feller had walked because he'd passed him on 212 coming into his shift. He didn't have anything but a rough looking rucksack and it didn't look like it held even a change of clothes.
And he sure needed one -- a shower too.
He might have chased him off, but despite his suspicions, he wasn't sure the young feller looked like any kind of criminal, not a drug dealer and not an illegal immigrant. He didn't shift around or look nervous, was polite when he spoke but not too polite. Didn't look like he was strung out. Mostly he looked tired and a little rough, like a few too many days on the road. Hitchhiking most likely.
Randall let him check in, gave him the room key and debated whether he should alert Luke that there was an odd stranger in town. They actually got a lot of strangers -- some odder than others. Most came looking to see the bone digs, maybe expecting to easily pick up a few fossils. Some came out because they had business with the Res.
Some of those paleontologists could be pretty strange, but they came in cars or buses. They didn't walk.
He decided not to call though -- not just yet. Might be just a young feller needing a good night's sleep. If he moved on tomorrow, nothing to worry about. If he didn't, well it would take Luke all of five minutes to get here.
Randall didn't see him again until near dinner time, walking over to the restaurant. Looked like he'd gotten that shower, had shaved the rough stubble off his face. His shirt looked a little cleaner, even under the battered old windbreaker. An hour later, he came back, went back to his room.
So maybe it was nothing.
Just the same he told Will about him when he got off his shift at eleven.
The feller -- David Stockley -- hadn't checked out when Randall came back the next day. Hadn't been any trouble though, nothing for the day shift to make note of and talking to the maids, they only said the bed had been slept in but made back up. The room neat as a pin. They'd replaced the coffee and the towels, but the mini bar seal hadn't been broken. The little pad of complimentary note paper was gone, though, and he hadn't left anything in the room except a couple of crumpled dollar bills for the maids.
They liked him.
He saw him again heading out at supper time, back in an hour, into his room and nothing else.
It went on for a couple of days. Somebody had used the washing machines. Feller changed shirts -- looked like he had two, but Randall was pretty sure he had just the one pair of jeans; tear across the back pocket, worn spots on the knees.
He didn't make any trouble, never seemed to go anywhere except the restaurant and back to his room.
On the fourth day, he came back to the desk, asked for directions to the post office. "Just need an envelope and a stamp," he said. He looked cleaner, face shaved, a little paler than Randall remembered, and like he hadn't been sleeping.
Randall offered him a hotel envelope and gave him the stamp. Young feller smiled like Randall had given him a gold nugget. "I can send it out with the hotel mail," Randall offered, feeling oddly guilty for all his suspicions.
"Thank you, but I'm not ready to mail it yet. But thank you."
He'd left then, stopped by the display rack and picked up a couple of the brochures out of the rack; one for the Res and one for the Ruth Mason Quarry, a couple others for the town.
When he came back to work the next day, David Stockley had checked out and he'd missed all the ruckus. Luke was there, along with his new deputy, Earl.
He'd been right to suspect that feller after all, maybe.
Luke nodded. "Every damn one -- pardon -- broke into every single one from St. Joe's to Prairie Home."
"What did he do?"
Luke shrugged. "Not much. Didn't break or take nothing, as near as we can tell. Jimmied the locks, disabled the alarms on those that had them. Some kind of weird ritual on every single altar or pulpit. Circle of salt, little bowl of water, candle, a feather, and a little square scrap of paper with some kind of ornate symbol drawn on it."
Luke pulled out a photocopy of something. "Made out the Prairie Vista logo from the paper he used. Your David Stockley checked out just about 11:30 PM. Looks like the first break-in was around midnight."
"I knew I should have called you..."
Randall couldn't tell them much. Gave them a description, matching everybody else's: over six foot tall, brown hair worn long, hazel eyes, big shouldered, quiet and polite, nice smile. The fact that man had been on foot sent Earl off to alert the state patrol. Randall couldn't remember anything about the envelope, or who it had been addressed to.
Even after a few more hours, they hadn't found him -- suspected he'd caught a ride somewhere.
"You think of anything else, you let me know," Luke said when he dropped back by.
Randall nodded, feeling ten kinds of fool. He should have called. "Ten churches in one night. What the hell do you think he was up to?"
"Now hath it pleased God to deliver this Doctrine again out of darknesse:
and to fulfill his promise with thee, for the books of Enoch:
To whom he sayeth as he said unto Enoch.
"Let those that are worthy understand this, by thee,
that it may be one witnesse of my promise toward thee."
A True and Faithful Relation - Meric Casaubon 1584
Bobby didn't push. He didn't push Dean for details; was pretty damn sure he didn't want to know. He kept just close enough for Dean to know he was there, just far enough to give the boy some space. He lay awake nights listening to sounds coming from Dean's room that made his skin crawl and his fingers twitch for the feel of a gun or an incantatos tract.
Wasn't any exorcism he knew that could banish nightmares, though, and if he checked once in awhile just to be sure it was only nightmares assaulting Dean's sleep, well, nobody but Cheney knew. The damn dog would only whuff lightly when Bobby got up, pad behind him, and lay himself across the threshold of the door to Dean's room.
That Dean didn't try to figure out what Sam had done -- if he'd done anything -- bothered Bobby more than he wanted to admit, but Dean was less than two weeks out of hell. Boy deserved some time to get past that.
If he could get past that.
He was pretty confident that at some point Dean would ask, would finally let worry over his brother overshadow the stark fear of his ordeal. Confident enough that he started looking into it anyway, starting with the books and rituals Sam had abandoned so suddenly a week or so before Dean's deal came due.
Most of it was stuff they'd gone over before, some of it was stuff Sam had picked up here and there in the year they spent on the road before the price was demanded. Bindings, banishments, evocations, invocations, three books on how to build a demon-proof home which might have worked if Dean would have ever agreed to be forever locked inside.
Things as they were now, Bobby thought Dean might take that one more seriously than he would have before.
There were books Bobby had with translations he hadn't seen and he could only wonder where the hell Sam had found them.
One slim volume he hadn't seen before, and at first he couldn't figure it out, no language he'd ever seen. Looked a little like Arabic but was too blocky in the printing. The folded up sheets of paper in the back were in Sam's handwriting but it was only long lines of numbers, not letters. Took him another week to realize it was the code base for the volume, the key to a code and the letters themselves printed sideways and backward.
Twenty pages more or less, no paragraphs or punctuation.
It took him another three days to finish translating the whole thing and then he stared at it and felt his blood run cold. Dean was out in the yard tinkering with his car, something he did rather than a lot of things like sleeping or eating or God help them all, fucking. He hadn't been off Bobby's property since he came back and showed no signs of ever wanting to leave.
Bobby burned the translation and, after a moment's thought, Sam's version of the code as well. He thought about burning the book but instead hid it under the floorboards in his bedroom.
When all the air calm Evening woos,
And earthly mists are wafted by,
And not unholy breathing nigh,
Your grove in deeps of its repose
A wondrous portal doth disclose,
And far with a living way,
Lit up by an unfading day,
Thro' the long gloomy vale of woes.
And child-like Wisdom holds the key,
And Wealth, that to the world is poor,
Wide opens to them that ivory door,
Where all in other colours stand,
Touch'd by a disenchanting wand,
And things that seem'd of earth,
Of Heaven are found to be.
The Cathedral The Approach - Isaac Williams, 1838
Greg winced as the jeep hit a particularly deep rut on the way in. As many times as he'd driven this track they laughingly called a road, he was never going to get used to how bad it was. They'd even stopped trying to find any kind of vehicle that could handle it -- if any of the big three auto makers could make one to take on this road, they'd have a goldmine in advertising.
He sped up jut a tad, seeing the fluttering edges of the tents. He was going to be the most popular guy in the camp for a few hours for making this run, bring back fresh food and not a few bags of fast food.
When they'd started this project with Professor Gray, it had sounded like a great idea. Camp out for a month or more, in the prime season for the phenomena and finally put to rest all the theories about how or why the rocks moved. There's been a couple of other attempts at doing just that -- the first had been shut down due to a flash flood, the second by a freak cold snap that threatened the entire team with frostbite or worse.
But Greg's team had been out here for a solid thirty days, growing increasingly bored and frustrated. Nothing had happened. Oh, a few rocks had moved, but not when anyone was actually there to take readings. The cameras had caught some movement but it was always on the edge of the frame and inconclusive.
They'd been doing wind and humidity and soil samples ever day, sometimes every couple of hours in nights when the temperature dropped, to see if it was possible for the ice theory to hold up under scrutiny.
Dr. Gray didn't seem too terribly upset that his grant money was running out with not much to show for it. They had a few days left, and while most of the students had stuck it out, a few had already headed home and most of the rest were planing to leave at the end of the 30 day window. Driving into town once a week to get a hot shower and meal served at a table wasn't cutting it any longer.
When he pulled up next to the other university vehicles, no one came out to meet him. The camp looked pretty much like he'd left it -- but dead quiet and nothing moving but the tent flaps and few minor dust devils on the playa. It was creepy as hell.
He honked the horn a few times, but no one emerged and the playa was flat enough that he would be able to see anyone even if they were at the far end. Dusk was coming but sunlight still streaked across the open space, casting long shadows.
Something wasn't right and he didn't need to have an overactive imagination to know it.
He sat in the jeep with the scent of MacDonald's overpowering him and wondered if he was being idiotic or justifiably cautious.
Completely baffled warred with freaked out as he pulled the crowbar from under the seat and got out, checking out the nearest tent where they kept supplies.
Everything was in order. The plastic tubs were undisturbed, the tables of monitoring equipment looked no more or less jumbled than usual and even the dry storage for the food was the same -- nearly empty but each package of flour or bread, dried beans and rice, was still in place, neatly labeled.
He stuck his head into the mess tent and saw the remains of lunch, papers and notebooks on the tables, loose papers weighed down with rocks. Warm air stirred through the opening, ruffling the edges, making a little whirring sound. The condensation on the water jug dripped into the catch pan.
The smaller sleeping tents were all empty, the big research one as well, all the monitors still running and showing the half dozen camera angles they had on the playa.
He'd walked into a horror movie and didn't know what to make of it. He was completely unsurprised to find the shortwave radio didn't work. None of their cellphones ever had way out here.
It was enough -- more than. What he needed to do was get back into town and contact the park rangers and get some people up here who would know what to do.
The last of the monitors flickered and caught his eye, and he almost ignored it except for the fact that he couldn't. A shadow was cast from along one edge of the screen, stretching along the cracked mud flat, moving from the top of the frame to the bottom.
The cameras weren't good enough or close enough to make out the details. They were set high to try and catch the widest range of motion. He checked the camera number and picked up binoculars instead.
Not a shadow, but a person, walking across the playa. Not anyone he recognized at all. He wore only jeans, feet bare, a thin bracelet of some kind on his right wrist. The man's head was down, so he couldn't see his face, but he'd just spent nearly a month with these guys and none of them had a tat like the one that cross this guy's stomach. He looked dirty, like he'd been rolling in the mud.
He pulled the binoculars away and stared -- could see him now, a distant figure, crossing into the playa from the east side, where there was nothing but cliff face and rubble. No trails, no place to come from.
There were rules against driving into the playa itself, disturbing years of research and Greg forgot all of it, heading for the jeep.
That it wouldn't start shouldn't have surprised him but it did.
It was just one guy. Just one, and Greg wasn't exactly a small man. He could handle himself in a fight. Except he didn't want a fight -- he wanted to know what had happened. This guy showing up out of nowhere couldn't be anything good.
There was no place to hide. Heading out of the playa on foot was sure suicide.
The man stopped, just on the edge of the camp, eyes on Greg.
He looked like any other guy except kind of unusually tall. The dirt on his skin wasn't all dirt. This close, Greg could tell some of it was bruising, and the man looked almost gaunt although he looked like he'd been pretty fit once.
"Who are you?" Greg demanded, ready to run if the guy got any closer. Run where would be a problem.
"My name is...," the guy smiled a little which was kind of creepy in and of itself. "You can call me Jacob. Your friends...they are all right."
"Yeah? Where are they? What's happening?"
"It's hard to explain."
"Give it a shot."
"I wish I could but I don't have time," the man said. "You should get in your car."
"It won't start."
"I know, get in it anyway."
"Why should I--"
The man didn't say anything else, only turned around and started walking back into the playa. The tattoo that rode across his abdomen carried on across his back, up along his ribs to his shoulder, parallel and crisscrossed and crawling up his back. A quadruple track of black and red and blue and yellow that twisted and flowed like a ribbon or a flexible ladder.
It made Greg's stomach clench to see it, and then his stomach dropped as the four rocks closest to the camp started to move, gliding along in a slow path following the retreating figure but not entirely; they wove, some moving faster than others.
No one had ever seen the rocks move. In fifty years of study, with cameras and people camped out all night, no one had ever seen them move. Now they followed this guy like puppies or tumbleweeds.
He started forward. This guy knew something.
The last of the sun's ray's pieced the edge of the clips, a bright shard of light that caught Greg in the eye and made him blink.
The guy was gone.
Greg stared. In the time -- just a few seconds he was sure -- he had been watching the rocks, the guy had just vanished. And the rocks were still, unmoving, only the fresh tracks left behind, the first in years.
"Greg! Jeez, man, we thought you got lost."
Cooper Trent was striding across the rocky ground, and behind him the others were emerging from the tents, or standing up from where they'd been taking samples. More voices to his left revealed a group coming back from the west side of the playa, cameras and notebooks in hand.
"The rocks moved."
"The rocks," Greg said and pointed.
The excitement spread out like wildfire, and Greg was peppered with questions, barely able to ask any of his own, but it was obvious that no one had seen or felt anything strange. They turned on the big arc lights, the shadows from the once more unmoving rocks stretching like long fingers into the night.
People had seen him drive up, had come to him almost immediately. Whatever had happened, he was the only one who had experienced it.
He never got to tell them the whole story, and then didn't want to; he wasn't sure it had even happened. No one else had seen it despite all of them being there. There was no trace of the guy -- no footprints, no indication anyone but them had been there. The team came to the conclusion that the shadow on the monitor tape was just the extended wing of a low-flying bird.
They stayed an extra week and Greg walked the playa from east side to west, looking for any traces any indication that he'd seen what he'd seen and wasn't going crazy. He waited at the edge of the camp near dusk until the last of the sun's ray's blinded him.
Even with all the evidence, or lack of it, he couldn't shake it, could feel the creep of panic come over him when he lay down to sleep every night. Panic that eased in increments and gave way to wonder.
He was training to be a geologist, a scientist. He wasn't given to flights of fancy, and he was a trained observer.
No one would believe and he had no way to prove that maybe the reason the rocks only moved when no one was there to see them, was because the there was a fundamental shift in the world. He didn't have an explanation, only a gut feeling, and more than one night he fell asleep turning the whole incident over in his mind.
And dreamed of rocks falling from high on the cliffs.
Tonight, this is where we go
To find out who we really are
We've got nothing left to lose
Tonight, this is how we breathe
To put some strength back in our hearts
We've got nothing left to lose
We start from the dark
Start from the Dark by Europe
It was a ghost in Lancaster County that finally got Dean to move beyond the perimeter of Bobby's salvage yard. Bobby didn't think it was boredom or anything so mundane as much as Dean wasn't willing to stay alone at the house. That, in and of itself, bothered Bobby more than anything.
This wasn't the Dean Winchester Bobby remembered at all. Every now and then Bobby might catch the barest hint of the cocky grin or the dry and dead-pan delivery that marked both Dean's arrogance and his insecurity. But only hints. This Dean was far quieter, startled at unexpected noises, ate what Bobby fixed and once in awhile offered to fix a meal -- usually something like sandwiches or soup or chili heated in the microwave. He veered away from the gas burning eyelets on Bobby's stove, wouldn't pick up a welding torch. The day Bobby burned some trash in his yard, Dean disappeared God knew where and didn't show up again until even the coals in the old oil drum were dark and cold.
Bobby thought he might have been in the bathroom the whole time. It was clean but it still stank of vomit and cold sweat.
All of which came back to Bobby as they drove. Dean's sudden and dramatic aversion to fire might make even an easy salt and burn job a little difficult.
Dean's fears didn't extend to guns, though. He'd been practicing regularly with every one that had been preserved in the trunk of the car. He'd cleaned them all, oiled, and treated them like small, hard pets -- just like he'd always done.
The ghost itself had only shown up during some new construction, Nebraska DOT widening a stretch of road from two lanes to four outside of Lincoln. Showed up in the twilight hours as the crews were shutting down, playing havoc with the heavy equipment. Two men had died when the heavy scoop of a tractor dropped on them. Another was alive but babbling when a mini cat had chased him two miles across the road and into fields with no one driving it.
"It's like every bad 70's television horror movie come to life," Bobby groused, looking at the abandoned equipment by the side of the road. It wasn't quite sunset. There were a few but not much traffic which made Bobby wonder which state legislator had brought home this particular pork, because this was pretty obviously not a major thoroughfare in or out of Lincoln.
"They'd already worked on a good ten miles of it, before it started to show, right?" Dean asked, voice still rough. Not so much husky, though. There was a raw edge to his voice now, like a tear in his actual speech that made Bobby want to cough just to hear it. The only thing Bobby could compare it to was a buddy of his who'd had a tracheotomy left in for far too long. Vocal chords were never the same after the doc cut the cancer from them.
"Yeah, been working on this for the better part of the year. Ghost showed up only in the last two months or so."
They waked it then, back along the road, nobody at all paying mind to two fellers hiking along with shotguns in their hands, rucksack slung along Bobby's left shoulder.
It probably should have taken them longer to find it, the remains of a crude cross, a jumble of faded plastic flowers cast off into the grass, half covered in debris. Roadside shrine, long forgotten and probably cast aside by the road crews when they'd dug in and then paved over the part of the shoulder where it had been left. Took even less time to check the county records, to find the accident some six years earlier that had claimed the life of one Joseph Garrett, age thirty two, when he'd been on the losing end of a head-on collision with an oncoming night. Coroner's report said Garrett had been drinking. Road was wet and slick from rain. Driving without his headlights. The truck driver had been killed as well.
Garrett wasn't buried by the side of the road, of course. He'd been buried in a cemetery in Lincoln.
"Seems a little easy," Dean said, later in the night, as he Bobby set shovels to Garett's grave. "Because of the shrine?"
"Funny what the dead can hold onto," Bobby grunted as they pried up the coffin lid. Dean spread the salt, but Bobby waved him back as he spread lighter fluid. "Why don't you get us some water from the truck. We'll be thirsty when we're done?" he offered, when he pulled out a pack of matches.
Dean stared for a long moment at the matches, jaw tense. He gathered up the shovels out of the way. "Just do it," he ground out and Bobby didn't argue, only set the packet ablaze and dropped it. Dean flinched when the flames roared up, took a half step back and looked pale as a ghost himself, but he didn't run and he didn't turn away.
Bobby took it as a good sign. The fire burned down slowly, the stench of formaldehyde soaked dried flesh and rot softened cloth barely moving where there was no wind or breeze to carry it away. The salt turned black and the old cloth turned to ash, the bones cracking under the heat.
That was the sound that sent Dean spinning away, casting up what little he'd had for dinner into the grass behind a row of headstones. Then he went to the truck and got the water, not returning until he heard Bobby start to toss dirt back into the grave. He brought extra water and said nothing until they were tamping the earth back down and doing a half-assed job of laying the sod back on the top of it.
They stuck around for a day or so, but the ghost didn't make a reappearance. Dean managed a pick up game of pool at a local bar and whatever else had happened, the boy hadn't lost his edge at the game. He pocketed fifty from some local boy and grinned like he used to when Bobby lost another twenty to him before they called it quits.
The drive back was quiet. Bobby preferred country music and Dean hadn't said anything about it at all. Fifty miles from Bobby's salvage yard, Dean started fidgeting, chewing in his nails -- something Bobby didn't ever remember him doing. Sam used to, every time he was worried or thinking too hard -- which was most of the time.
"Sam..." Dean started and then went still. "Do you think he's..."
It had taken every ounce of Bobby's considerable self-restraint not to bring the topic up over the last couple of weeks.
"In hell?" Self-restraint or not, now that Dean had opened the door, Bobby wasn't planning on letting him close it again.
Dean looked away but even in the dim light of the cab, Bobby could see the flush on his cheeks. "Yeah. He made a deal."
He seemed pretty sure and Bobby didn't disagree. "I think he did, but I don't think he's in hell."
Dean looked at him, color still on his cheeks, eyes wide. "Then what?"
"I'm not a hundred percent sure just yet, but I am sure that if he'd made a deal to sell his soul for yours to hell, that bitch at the crossroads would have been all over it like a wild dog over road kill. She said she'd get you back."
"Get me back..."
"That's what she said." Bobby had been turning that little tidbit over in his mind. She'd seemed pretty confident, and less angry than he might have expected at having to give up her prize.
"When I die--" Dean's said it quietly, but it had that breathy edge of panic in it. The same Bobby had heard when Sam had lain dead and cold in that old shack and Dean pushing him out, demanding Bobby go.
Bobby ignored it best he could. "I don't think so." He chewed on his lip. "That brother of yours, he's got a twisty mind sometimes. I think if he made a deal to get you out, he'd make sure it was as iron clad as the deal you made."
Dean took a deep breath, calmed himself down, which was encouraging. "Maybe not. Sam was...desperate. He wasn't able to stop it. Wasn't able to break it."
The resentment in that, under it all, Bobby didn't expect, although maybe he should have. "No, he didn't. Renegotiated it though, maybe."
He knew when Dean looked at him, but didn't shift his eyes off the road ahead of him. "What do you know?" Dean asked.
"Nothing, not really. I think Sam made a deal, but not with a devil. Made a deal with something else."
"I'm not gonna play twenty questions with you," Dean said, and that faint hint of resentment was edging toward anger. That was good. That was more normal. "What do you think you know?"
"I think Sam was dead for a couple of days before you made your deal," Bobby said. "Now that you know hell is real, do you think that's where Sam was? You ever think about where exactly it was he got pulled him back from?"
Though bleak these woods, and damp the ground
With fallen leaves so thickly strown,
And cold the wind that wanders round
With wild and melancholy moan;
There is a friendly roof, I know,
Might shield me from the wintry blast;
There is a fire, whose ruddy glow
Will cheer me for my wanderings past.
Lines Written From Home by Anne Brontë
He says his name is Sam. No one in the village has pants long enough for him to wear but he took what they offered with a grateful word and doesn't seem to worry that the loose draw-string pants Chosovi's uncle offers stop several inches above his ankles.
Mama offers fresh tortillas and beans and strong coffee with sugar. He eats the food politely, and thanks her mother.
He says he doesn't remember how he got to the spring and didn't know where he was. Her grandmother took his big hands in her small ones and ran her fingers over the crossed scars there that went around his palms and to the backs of his hands and asked him who his people were.
"There's only my brother and I don't know where he is. What day is it?" he asks again and Mama tells him the day in English and Sam weeps. Weeps like Chosovi had never seen a man do except her father when they buried her little brother.
Grandmother pats his hand and the others look away but Chosovi watches him. He doesn't seem sad or like something bad has happened. She tries to follow him when he goes outside but her mother stops her.
They have no phone but her uncle goes for the priest in Kykotsmovi who has a car, and brings him back The priest offers to take him off the mesa and into Winslow, but Sam shakes his head and asks if instead it's possible to call someone.
The priest agrees and takes the number Sam writes down and the short note and leaves them.
They all have questions, Chosovi can see it in their faces, but grandmother won't let them ask, and when the elder comes, he asks no questions either after hearing the story.
They think he's a spirit. Chosovi thinks the priest thinks so too. You don't treat spirits like strangers, you treat them like family, so when her father comes back with the basket of corn, and the beans, no one stops Sam from helping to peel the ears or sort the beans.
They don't know which ancestor he is, and until they do, they'll treat him like he's one of theirs.
That night they have a fire and a feast and unlike other white men, Sam doesn't protest -- he takes the food from her mother's hands and eats it. He listens when grandmother speaks but Chosovi doesn't think he understands what she is saying. Sometime after the sun has gone down and the stars are coming out, Chosovi starts repeating what's said in English. They tell stories of their ancestors, of their families, hoping Sam will recognize himself in their stories.
"They will not go to sleep until you want to rest," Chosovi tells him quietly, long after the moon has risen.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to keep them up," Sam says.
He's not a spirit. Chosovi is sure of it. Not a spirit of theirs.
They give him the best pallet, near the fire, and one of the fancy blankets. Sam lays down but he doesn't sleep. When the others are snoring, he gets up, silent, and takes the blanket outside.
Chosovi follows him. He is not one of her ancestors but she feels responsible anyway. She found him.
"You know where you are now. But you are still lost," she says quietly. They sit on the edge of the pueblo, their feet hanging over the edge. His legs are much longer than hers, and they have no sandals or boots big enough to fit him. Her people are small, and Sam is a large man, though not a giant.
He looks at her and nods. "A little, but it's not important. I'm not here to cause trouble."
"But you are here," Chosovi says. "Did you fall from the sky?"
"No. Not from the sky."
"You are not of our people. They all think you are a spirit, an ancestor. Do you know your people?"
He nods and pulls the blanket around him. The night is chilly. "I do. My father's name was John, and my brother's name is Dean. My mother's name was Mary. She's been gone for a long time. My father too, but not so long."
"Our ancestors come back to us as spirits."
Sam smiles at that and nods. "Mine too, sometimes."
"They return to teach us things."
"Mine came back to save us, me and my brother," Sam says. "Maybe to teach us too, but I don't know what."
"Where were you going when you got lost?"
Sam doesn't answer for a very long time, but finally he looks at her and she thinks maybe he will cry again, but he doesn't. "I was going home."
"Did you find it?"
Sam doesn't answer that. They sit close together and watch the stars wheel across the sky until Chosovi can't keep her eyes open any longer.
When she wakes in the morning, Sam is not there, but has left his blanket wrapped around her.
He left before dawn, her grandmother says. Go fetch the water.
The spring has spilled over in the night. Just a little bit, running down the slope to catch in another depression in the rocks. The water in the second pool tastes of salt.
I walked the empty desert
And I was burned in the heat
But the road I must travel
Its end I cannot see
Well I crossed the frozen wasteland
And in the bitter cold did freeze
But the road I must travel
Its end I cannot see
The Road I Must Travel - The Nightwatchman
Bobby couldn't tell him anything, or wouldn't and it took Dean a few days to realize that Bobby wasn't being coy, he didn't know and what he suspected wasn't something he's ready to talk about just yet.
After the Lancaster job, he took an overnight trip into Omaha to pick up some parts, and he was careful to check and make sure Dean would be all right. It was annoying but Dean shoved that down, because he knew Bobby was worried, mostly because Bobby wasn't in his face like he usually was.
Dean assured him he'd be fine, but he wasn't actually as sure as all that. He felt stupidly grateful when Bobby left the dog. Even more grateful when he unlocked the cabinet with the guns.
He was in hell for a month, and it had been nearly that since he got out. He couldn't avoid thinking about Sam, or what it meant that his brother wasn't here, wasn't there when Dean was tossed back into the world with nothing but scars from his torture, nightmares that won't leave him alone, and the knowledge that demons don't forfeit their deals.
With Bobby gone, he knew he'd get no sleep. It made him feel five years old and ancient all at once, the taste of fear across his tongue and the feel of it up his spine unfamiliar and unwelcome. He thought he knew fear, had mastered it -- never let it get in is way.
It wasn't that simple any longer. It was one thing to be afraid of pain, to be afraid of loss, even to be afraid of death. He never believed in forever before, in eternity. When you were dead, you were dead.
Except now he knew that wasn't necessarily true for everyone, or everything. It made him wonder where the ghost in Lancaster ended up. It made him doubt that even the worst murderer, the most atrocious kind of human monster deserved what he got. He didn't know if he could even hunt anymore, not knowing that it was possible that at least some of what he's spent his whole life destroying might end up where he was.
His father escaped, though, and so had he. Except his father hadn't been a quivering mess in his bed when he escaped. His father hadn't lived to have to deal with the aftermath.
It was the only difference that made sense. John Winchester's soul escaped from hell.
Dean's body came back with him.
Most of the wounds were scars now. There were a lot of them but fewer than there should be, he thinks. He couldn't ignore the ones on his hands or face, but he tried not to look at the others too closely because every one of them came with a memory, sometimes more than one memory.
Bobby left him plenty of food, most of which could be heated in the microwave. He pulled out some chili and stared at it and at Bobby's gas burning stove. He flicked it on before he could think about it too much and found a sauce pan.
The flames burned blue and yellow and white hot. Sweat broke out on his palms when he lifted the pan. It was nothing like the fires of hell, and the heat was only heat, no worse than bright sunshine. He shoved the pan onto the eye and stepped back, grit his teeth and refused to budge until the chili was boiling along the sides.
The spoon he picked up was wooden and long handled but it still took him a couple of tries before he actually managed to stir it around once or twice.
It was all he could do. He tuned the eye off and watched the flames flicker out and die, and with them the tight, sick feeling that seemed to have taken residence under his skin and in his gut.
The chili was only half heated through, barely warm. He ate a few mouthfuls and then thought he might be sick. He gave the rest of it to the dog.
The small room he used was as familiar as the man whose house it belonged too. All their stuff had still been there; Bobby hadn't been able to clear it out and then he didn't need to. Dean had been through his own gear a couple of times, washed most of his clothes at least once.
Sam's bag still lay on the other bed untouched and unmoved. It wasn't like Dean hadn't thought about him every damn day with that bag greeting him when he woke, keeping him company when he tried to sleep. Bobby hadn't touched it either, except to check for any clues Sam might have left and the computer, before and after, to see if he could figure out what Sam had done, where he'd gone.
"He didn't leave a note," Bobby said the one time Dean had asked. "There's no last will and testament. Just whatever you were working on last."
It would only barely boot when Dean flicked it open. The battery had all but died and he plugged it in, letting it charge. The Satellite card Ash had caged for them found a signal in Bobby's backwater corner of paradise, and Dean was half tempted to look at the news sites. There was apart of him that wanted to forget the larger world beyond, to see if there had been repercussions to their last year of trying to send as many demons back to hell as possible.
Of all things he could, he regretted that the least. That some of those demons had shown up later to exact their revenge had been expected. There were more out there -- not as many -- but more and the entire hunter community was gunning for them. They might be craftier, stronger, more desperate to remain free of hell (and who could blame them?) but they still had their own very special weakness and he and Sam had exposed or discovered a lot of them -- and Bobby had passed the word.
He thought about calling Ellen, just to hear a voice, and shook it off because Bobby had been gone barely a day, and it was ridiculous to be this nervous about the night. There were worse things.
It was along forgotten habit to scroll though the browser history, and Dean half smiled at memories of catching Sammy out on porn sites and sites of questionable value to whatever they'd been hunting.
He found a city-search link to Atkinson, Nebraska, and wondered if Bobby had used the computer before the Lancaster job, but Atkinson was way at the north side of the state. Sam had been looking at maps, pulling up census data. It wasn't unusual -- half the stuff they knew about the cities they went to, Sam found online, and sometimes he looked just to look. Communities, crime rates, schools...real estate. The latter had bothered Dean but he'd never said, figuring Sam was still looking for that suburb and that fence.
It wasn't a case, nothing that Dean remembered, no other searches or hunts for information on the town and that alone made it notable.
Interest prickled along his spine, like the anticipation of a hunt, but maybe not one that would end up with him hurt or facing something even Bobby's multiple volumes of bestiaries couldn't identify.
Bobby's words, his challenge scrabbled in the back of his mind trying to gain purchase. Next to hell, the memory of Sam dead in his arms was the most visceral of them all. The desperation he felt then had been leveled by the bargain he'd made, but it hadn't actually lessened the horror of Sam's death, of Sam being gone. Not then. Now, Dean kept the fear at bay because Sam was only missing, like he'd been at school, like Dad had been for that other horrible year.
It didn't lessen the certainty that Sam was somehow out of his reach. Bobby was hunting something, but Dean couldn't figure where he'd started from or where he'd ended up.
But maybe he knew where to start. Bobby would be back in the morning, and if Dean drove all night he could be in Atkinson by morning. He wasn't sleeping anyway.
A phone call brought out the worry in Bobby's voice, but the dog would be fine, just fill up the big bowls with food and water. And if he found anything, call him.
Cheney whined a little but didn't try to follow Dean to the car.
Halfway there Dean realized he was actually thinking for the first time about where he was going instead of where he'd been.
Blue on black
Tears on a river
Push on a shove
It don't mean much
Joker on jack
Match on a fire
Cold on ice
A dead mans touch
Whisper on a scream
Doesn't change a thing
Don't bring you back
Blue on black
Blue on Black -Kenny Wayne Shepherd
The People tolerate the Missionaries. At Oraibi, not as much, and Fr. Bernard has never pressed even though his mission and his office and his heart calls him to do so. Over the years some of his patience and perhaps his faith has paid off -- and he's given up his youthful zeal of bringing all the Hopi people to The Savior for smaller victories, here and there.
His brothers in the Polynesian islands in years past accept those partial victories as well and the church counsels patience as cultures older than the church itself have accepted and integrated part of his faith into their own.
Or perhaps he's taken on part of their beliefs and managed to reconcile them to what he knows to be true.
The appearance of a white man among them, whom they treat as one of their own, is something that shakes him, even as he tries to make sense of it.
Already the elders of the tribe are whispering of Pahana, wondering if the promised time has come, but they have set no tests before him.
For the People of Oraibi to call him at all is uncommon, but he will take what grace is offered to him and regardless of myth or tradition, if the man is truly lost, then Fr. Bernard will do his best to aid him.
The number he calls rings through and the man who answers is surprised then excited, then suspicious.
"I spoke to him for only a few moments, and he gave me this number and a message."
"What did he say? Is he all right? What does he look like?" Questions so fast and quick, that Fr. Bernard has forgotten the last by the time he answers the first.
"That he is safe, and whole and that you are not to come to him. He will find his way to you. That his brother must wait."
"It'll take more than a message from a stranger to make that happen," the man scoffs. "Why call at all if he doesn't want Dean to come get him?"
"I do not have the answer, my son. I can only tell you what he was said. He seems whole and well. Has he been missing long?"
"He's been gone for a year and I'm not keeping this from Dean. I'm kind of fond of living."
"Then you must do what you think is best."
"What's best is you take down this number, Father. And tell Sam to call his brother, because nothing short of hell itself will keep him away."
The man does not sound like this is an exaggeration and Fr. Bernard writes down the number.
There is no one to give it to, though, and a couple of days later, when the black car pulls into the mesa, in front of his small church, he wonders if he has indeed brought hell to his door, to the village.
The man is scarred, though not disfigured. There is a look about his eyes that Fr. Bernard has seen only in the faces of men who have seen war or great loss. It is the face of a desperate man, and Fr. Bernard has no peace to offer him.
He goes with him to Oraibi, to ease the way between this somewhat angry stranger and the people Fr. Bernard has sworn to serve if not protect.
But he is gentler there and quieter. The angry desperate look leaves his face when he meets Chosovi and her family and he goes with them to the spring, and tastes the water.
Only Grandmother saw him leave, before the dawn broke, in his borrowed clothes and without shoes. He left her with the threaded leather bracelet from his wrist -- all that he had. She presses it into Dean's hand and closes his fingers over it, then touches the red of his t-shirt.
"The Pahana comes to destroy the wicked, to remove evil." Fr. Bernard says as Grandmother speaks. "Their legend speaks of the one who brings the stone that is lost."
Dean's fingers tighten on the leather and he reaches into his pocket. "I found this on the Racetrack Playa, looking for my brother. I don't know if it's the stone you are looking for," he says and offers the triangular edge of rock to Grandmother. It is marked but Fr. Bernard can't see them well before they are covered by Grandmother's hands.
"He went east," Chosovi translates. "He took nothing but the clothes we gave him and a full belly." She touched the back of his hand. "He told me he was looking for home when he got lost."
Dean took the leather thong and tied it around Chosovi's wrist. "You found him first. Now it's my turn."
"Are you going to destroy the evil?" Chosovi asks him.
He grins at her and there is a glint in his eye. Fr. Bernard has seen this look before too, on the face of men who go to war and are looking forward to the fight.
All they ever want for you
Are the things they didn't do.
All they ever wanted--a little clue.
All they ever wanted--the truth.
All they ever wanted--a little bit of you.
All they ever wanted,
But they never did get.
All We Ever Look For - Kate Bush
Atkinson seemed to be the kind of town even ghosts wouldn't be interested in. It was a farm town without many actual farms; mostly grain processing and distribution of that same grain through the rest of the state and the country. It sprawled out in a more or less orderly grid, the main downtown area looking more like the kind of off-ramp stretch of business that Dean was far too familiar with.
There was nothing there he could find that would have interested Sam -- nothing he could think of. If there was a single occult store in the entire county, Dean would be surprised. Even the town's library was scarce on any reference not having to do with farming, or farmers, or farm life. So much so he was kind of surprised to see a complete set of Harry Potter books on the shelves.
And on second thought, the fact that the complete set was on the shelves probably told him something.
None of the librarians remembered seeing Sam when he showed them a picture and Atkinson didn't get a lot of strangers anyway. He spent a day on the strip, showing Sam's picture, asking about the past month or so, trying to be casual about asking if anything outrageously strange had happened. Most of the shopkeepers looked at him like he might be touched in the head, and the rest had a hard time answering his questions when it was obvious they had a few of their own.
His hair had mostly grown back, but he was wearing it cropped even shorter than usual; the scars along his neck were obvious. Half the time he wished they would just ask instead of staring.
He didn't have a lot of cash on him, but thought he might be able to score enough for a hotel room if he could even find a pool hall in this town. Another couple of questions got him a different kind of look -- one with more disapproval than curiosity -- but not much information.
West on 20 was apparently the bad part of town, but mostly it was just outside the city limits and even if he couldn't find a game, he could get a beer.
Normally he wouldn't trust a bar that was built out of a double wide and called itself a lounge, but the parking lot was decently full and not everything was a truck. There was a side lot for 18-wheelers, and what looked like a seasonal ice cream stand, now closed. At the other end was another modular building advertising tattoos.
Dean almost gave it a pass until he spotted a car in the parking lot that made him slow down. Somebody had spent some time and money restoring a classic Camaro and given his choices that was as good an indication as anything.
The beer was cold, and there were indeed two pool tables in the back, both occupied, and Dean settled back to watch the players, seeing if it was possibly worth getting his ass kicked for fifty bucks, and opted for a burger instead.
There was a recognizable absence of women in the bar, except for the woman waiting tables, who still looked good but was probably on the backside of 40 and wearing a wedding ring. So was the bartender for that matter, a guy about the same age, so maybe it was a family business. Everyone seemed really familiar with one another. He was on his second beer and thinking he might be able to make the drive back instead of staying another day.
The woman who came in was younger than the waitress but still older than Dean. She didn't really look out of place, except for the part where she did. She had an intricate and colorful tattoo running the length of her left arm before it disappeared under the short sleeve of her black t-shirt then reappeared at her shoulder and neck. She was maybe a little on the heavy side but still pleasingly curved and Dean found himself noticing -- and noticing he was noticing. There was a stir of interest, but not much of desire. He smiled at her anyway and got a bright flash of teeth in return that wasn't quite a flirt.
"Be ready in a minute, Nell. You in a hurry? I can probably get Joey to run it over."
"Naw. It's quiet. Tuesdays, you know? Chris is there. I'll have beer while I'm waiting though."
Dean almost bought it for her, but he was close to being done anyway and if he wanted to get back on the road, two was enough. He was out of practice.
Sam's picture was in his wallet and he pulled it out, though he hadn't meant to. "I'll settle up. This guy ever come in here?"
The bartender eyed him and then the picture and shook his head. "Don't remember him. Recent?"
"The picture's a couple of years old. He'd have been through a month or so back, maybe two."
"Why are you looking for him?"
The tattooed woman was staring and that bright smile was gone.
"He's my brother," Dean said and she looked wary, so he fished out another picture, even older, of he and Sam, arms around each other's shoulders. "He took off a couple of months ago, and we don't know where."
"And you're just now starting to look for him?"
The accusation -- and that's what it was -- sucked all the breath from his gut but he met her gaze head on, holds up his hands. "I had an...an accident," he said, pulling the explanation out of thin air, but it worked, because her gaze softened. Still, the sour feeling in his belly remained, because he'd been shoving the guilt down nearly as often as he shoved down his fear.
"He think it's his fault?" she asked.
Dean stared at her. "He might. Wasn't though. You saw him."
Nell chewed on her lip for a moment then nodded. "Came in a couple of months back, early in the week. Had ink he wanted to get done."
"Ink? He got a tattoo?"
"Mmmm. Big one. Thanks, Deke," she said as the bartender brought her food and her beer. "Your name's Dean isn't it?"
"Yeah. Sam told you that?"
"Sam? That his name? No, he didn't tell me your name or even his. He paid cash for the job, took me almost four days...then he was gone."
"How'd you know my name then?"
"Deke, I'm gonna carry this. I'll bring the bottle back," she said and picked up her bag of food. Dean threw enough money down to cover his tab and hers and she smiled at him again. "Thanks."
Her shop was small but neat. Chris turned out to be a kid about twelve years old who had Nell's eyes and jaw but a shock of blond hair to Nell's black. He took his share of the food and settled down with schoolbooks. "That's my boy," she said but didn't really introduce them. Instead she vaguely waved Dean to a seat and began thumbing through the papers pinned or taped to the walls -- designs of all kinds, photos, cards and notes.
"I was just looking at this last week," she said, pulling down three sketches. "He came with the drawings, took them with him when we were done. But it stayed with me," she said and held them out to Dean.
Sam wasn't that great an artist, but these had been done with ruler-edged precision, in bold simple lines; parallel horizontal strokes bordered by open edges with more intricate designs in the borders.
"I only realized it was words after he was gone," she said and pulled out a book of architectural prints. "Sometimes people want gargoyles or things, but I saw this," she said and flipped the book to a page showing the façade for the Bath Abbey. "It made more sense after I realized what it was. That the borders weren't just lines, they were words. Latin mostly, I think..."
"They would be," Dean murmured.
"Your name was in there, though, I think. I remembered because it was repeated a couple of times, but only along the front, not along the back..."
"Front and back? How big a tattoo was it?"
"Shoulder to hip to belly. I don't usually recommend doing such a big job all at once, but he was pretty insistent. Said he didn't have time to wait. I'm not much of a church-goer, but...Jacob...he's the one that wrestled with the angel, right?" she asked and set the book down on the table where Chris was working.
"Yeah...that's the guy," Dean said, holding the papers and seeing his name repeated in the edges.
"What is Jacob's ladder?" Chris asked looking at the book Nell had set down. "Are those angels?"
"It's a stairway to heaven," Nell said. "Like in the song."
"This other...this Latin...this is what it said?" Dean asked.
She shrugged. "I doubt it...I tried to remember it all but I don't know it...so, it's mostly guess work, but a lot of it was repeated -- just your name, maybe a couple of other words, but I thought it was just a really long bit of scroll work. He told me I could freehand it, so I don't have any stencils."
Dean started to hand the papers back to her but she shook her head. "Take them. They've been driving me crazy. When you find him, though, I'd like to know what it was he had me write."
Dean folded the papers over. "Did he say anything about where he was going..."
"He didn't. He didn't talk much at all. Just to say he didn't have a lot of time. When he left that last day though, he caught a ride north on 20. Does he think you're dead?"
"I don't know. Maybe," Dean said.
"He wanted to see the fossils," Chris said and both of them looked at him. "That morning he was here early and I was waiting for the bus. We're studying fossils in school. Said there was a lot of them up in South Dakota... where they found the T-Rex."
"Where in South Dakota?" Dean asked.
Chris chewed his lip exactly like his mother and tapped his pencil on his book. "Faith...Faith, South Dakota. There's a quarry there where they found lot of bones and things. Near the reservation."
"Thanks. Thanks a lot."
Chris smiled. Dean leaned forward and gave Nell a quick kiss on the cheek. "Thank you."
She smiled. "Good luck. I hope you find him...he looked a little lost, you know? Like he didn't know where he was going."
Dean smiled back, but it didn't reach inside.
He hoped she was wrong, because if Sam didn't know where he was going, God only knew where he'd ended up.
In the tavern of my heart
Many a one has sat before,
Drunk red wine and sung a stave,
And, departing, come no more.
When the night was cold without,
And the ravens croaked of storm,
They have sat them at my hearth,
Telling me my house was warm.
The Tavern by: Willa Cather
Nothing like leaving an impression, Sam.
It hadn't taken long at all to find out what Sam had been up to in Faith, South Dakota. He hadn't even had to show Sam's picture. The folks at Doris's diner were happy enough to tell him all about it without much prompting at all and the local paper had the rest of the story.
Except for the part where it didn't make a damn bit of sense.
Dean would grant that Sam was usually way more boned up on the intents and forms of various rituals, but even Dean knew that there were patterns and specifics, and for Sam to hit up ten churches for his night of mayhem made no sense.
Short of going to the cops, though, he was at an utter dead end.
"You should come on back," Bobby said when Dean called.
"You hear anything?" Dean demanded.
"No," Bobby said, irritated. "I'd have called you if I had."
"I know. Sorry. Just...what was he doing?"
"A summoning of some kind -- or maybe more like leaving a message on an answering machine. You're right though, here should be nine or twelve or something, because he's not putting out a call for anyone or anything specific...kind of a broadcast message."
"So if the cops found ten sites--"
"Chances are there's a couple more they didn't find."
"But churches, Bobby? I know what you said, but I've never heard of people being able to summon angels like you do demons."
"Mostly you can't. Demons want a reason to get out of hell, it's why even the lesser ones will answer and do favors now and then. Angels, not so much. But there's a lot of things in-between that might answer if they were curious enough." Bobby sighed. "Look, I might have a vague idea of what Sam was trying to do, but how he's doing it doesn't make any more sense to me than it does to you."
"A vague idea? How vague...Bobby, man, don't hold out on me now. I've wasted enough time..."
"Seems like you've got the time to waste. Maybe you should let it be."
"You did not just say that," Dean said. "Sam's done something stupid and--"
"Yeah, that tends to run in the family," Bobby said and Dean realized that Bobby was very nearly as angry as Dean was.
He needed Bobby a hell of lot more than Bobby needed him, things as they were. "I know...Bobby. I know. You want an apology, you've got it-- dragging you into this--"
"Oh, shut the hell up," Bobby said, sounding annoyed, but less aggrieved.
"I can't leave him out there alone, Bobby. I can't."
"But you did," Bobby said sharply and it cut pretty much the way he'd probably intended. "Look, I'll help you, but you need to come back, because you don't need -- and I don't want, nor would Sam want, you to go rushing back into something before you know what you're asking for this time. That crossroads demon didn't give up her claim on you -- she just set it aside for awhile and until we know why and how, you need to believe that you may be one misstep away from going back, you get me?"
He didn't miss the implication -- and trust Bobby to bring everything back into sharp and painful focus. He found himself rubbing at his chest and feeling the scars there; lines of nearly white flesh now. Pressing on them didn't erase the feel of claws digging into flesh and past bone.
"Yeah, I get you. I should be back sometime tomorrow."
"All right. Although you might look and see if you can find either of the other two sites."
"Where do I look?"
"Map the ones you've got, and the order if you can find it. My guess is there's a pattern. I'll see what I can do at this end."
It only took them a couple of hours and a Kinko's before Dean had a rough map with Bobby's best guesses inked in.
He had to drive a couple of miles west out of town before he found it. One church, only half of it left standing, the other had burned a good many years back. The other had been further east, another abandoned church, the building left behind when they'd built a new one closer into town.
Twelve in all, in a zig-zagging pattern that was vaguely reminiscent of the tattoo Sam had had inked on his body but without the twists.
There wasn't much left of Sam's ritual; just a bowl and a candle. The water had evaporated, the feather and paper blown away and only a few grains of salt remained, embedded in the blackened floorboards. Dean brushed away at them to see the faint traces of a circle left, like the salt had eaten away at the wood, or burned it further.
Or maybe something had answered Sam's call.
There was a rounded stone just outside the tiny circle, oval and smooth, cracks polished to fine lines like it had been run through a stone polisher. There were no other stones, polished or otherwise, nearby.
Picking it up, Dean almost dropped it again.
It felt like nothing. It covered his a palm almost entirely, but there was no weight to it at all. It wasn't fake, made of plastic or Styrofoam or resin; it felt like a stone, smooth and cool in his hand but weighed no more than a feather.
And it stayed cold, even when Dean closed his fist around it and stuck it in his jacket pocket. Not cold like ice, but not warming up either.
He picked up the bowl and candle as well, wiped the rest of the salt away. Through the blown out side of the building he could see the sun setting, red and molten on the horizon. It looked like maybe Sam had still been heading west, but Dean didn't know why.
He'd been here a couple of weeks before Dean had been coughed up out of hell. A couple of weeks that Sam could have gone anywhere.
A couple of weeks for Sam to finish whatever it was he'd started.
It was more gut than knowledge, but like himself, maybe Sam had a few loose ends to tie up. He couldn't even blame him for the wait.
Once Sam's whole future had been west. It would be like him to need to touch that again.
Bobby might have answers, and Dean needed to at least secure the means to keep following Sam's trail. He walked back to his car, fingering the cool stone in his pocket.
Dean had a year to reconcile himself to his own fate. It hadn't been enough -- it never could be.
Sam hadn't taken that much time.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and Sam, maybe, was just that kind of fool.
...By this I conjure thee O spirit Usiel -
be thou either on high or in the abyss in water, or in fire, or in or in sic earth -
I command thee Spirit Usiel immediately to appear before me in a proper human form -
visibly to shew thyself and modestly to submit thyself -
and readily to appear and bring to me out of the abyss of the Earth,
or of the Sea, that which I desire...
The Conjuration of Usiel, Verus Jesuitarum Libellus (The True Magical Work of the Jesuits)
"Why would he go to Stanford?"
Dean had shrugged. "I don't know. Jess...something. I don't know what's in his head, Bobby." That wasn't entirely true, but since Faith, Dean had been running on pure gut instinct.
Sam's little book was one Dean didn't remember seeing when Bobby showed it to him, and he'd kicked around in the salvage yard for a couple of hours when Bobby told him he'd destroyed the translation and the code.
"There's a reason why most of this kind of shit never gets written down," Bobby said, uncontrite. "Human beings don't throw down challenges like this and come out of them right -- if they come out of them at all."
"Well, whoever wrote that must have or there wouldn't be record."
"Or it's bullshit. This," Bobby said, holding up the thin book. "Isn't more than a couple of hundred years old. This is someone who took a whole bunch of stuff from Abano to Waite and mixed it together into something that could be as dangerous as that damn gate Samuel Colt built, but with no way to lock it down after it's erected."
"Well, Faith, South Dakota is still standing, so whatever Sam did it probably didn't work." Dean said, feeling stubborn.
"Then explain why I'm standing here arguing with you," Bobby said and had shoved the book into Dean's chest, gotten in his truck and driven off. This time he took the dog with him.
Dean had left the book on the table with the odd stone, a yada stone Bobby said, and had gone outside himself to see if there was something beside Bobby or himself he could do a little damage to.
It had been one thing for he and Sam to be thinking about kicking down the gates of hell to get their father back. Dean still wasn't sure he believed in heaven, but he was pretty sure that if something like it did exist --or even just something, someplace like the absolute opposite of hell existed, that it probably wasn't any less impossible or dangerous to try and take on the guardians of its gate.
From what Bobby remembered of the rite, what might answer was pretty much a crapshoot and Dean wished he'd dared to try and find out exactly what symbols -- what calling cards Sam had laid down with his offerings.
The yada was a rain stone, polished and smooth on the outside, porous like a hard sea sponge on the inside. Finding the stone had sent Bobby looking at weather maps, fearing Sam had managed to summon and somehow bind some kind of elemental, which would have been ten kinds of bad news. Elementals were a notoriously quick tempered and easily offended lot of spirits.
Sam hadn't taken it with him though. There had been nothing at the first church, and no way to check the others. Which meant the thing either showed after Sam left or Sam left it deliberately. Dean chose to believe the latter.
Stanford was a long shot, but after Bobby had calmed down and Dean had spent a couple of weeks doing odd jobs and perfecting his pool skills once more, it was the only shot he had.
Bobby had been called out twice on run-ins with demons. The first time he shut Dean down before he could offer. "You are like a lightning rod to these things. You want to hunt, how about you take on the things that are slipping through the cracks because half the hunters I know are out on the great demon snipe hunt."
The second time, Bobby had told him more of the truth. "They are just waiting for you, Dean. Every damn one of them is looking to take a shot at you, to be the one that hauls you back."
"So, I'd make great bait," Dean said but the thought of it made his blood run cold.
"Yeah, well there's still a few hunters who think the same thing. Let's not give them any ideas. Go to Stanford, see if you can find out anything."
"I thought you thought it was a bad idea."
Bobby shrugged. "Not bad, I just..."
"What? Think it will be a dead end?"
"I think we've got nothing to go on. But I don't know. You know your brother better than I do."
"Do you..." Dean picked up the yada, fingering it. "Do you think he's dead?"
Bobby scratched at his beard, "No," and had gotten up to get them a couple of beers. "I've asked them...the demons. About Sam. I know, stupid, but sometimes even in their lies you can figure out things. You they want so much, they practically drool on themselves."
"Favorite chew toy."
"Something like that," Bobby acknowledged. "But you know how they talked about him before, how they talked to him...like they were waiting for him to wake up to whatever power or promise Azazel had held out to rally the troops? Now, they won't say his name and if I do, if anyone does, they spit. Like Gypsies rid themselves of curses. I don't think he's dead, but I think he's out of their reach. Maybe ours too."
"What does that mean?"
"You know the story of Jacob and the angel, right?"
Dean rolled his eyes. "I've read that a half dozen times, since this started. You don't honestly believe Sam's wrestling with angels for my soul."
"Maybe not literally, but Jacob fought the angel to protect what was his. And he held out and held out, until the angel put him down with a sucker shot. But Jacob held on."
"Still not following you. Jacob wanted a blessing."
"Jacob wanted something. And he didn't quit until he got it."
"But I'm out. Whatever Sam did--"
"I don't think it's done. Not yet."
"They think he'll fail. That's what they say. Not that he's failed but that he will. But they won't say at what, or how, or anything else, and I get the impression they can't or won't. And that really is all I know. Whatever Sam started in Faith, isn't over yet. And that's why the crossroads demon thinks she'll get you back."
"So, Sam..." Dean got up and paced a little rubbing at his face. "Sam didn't get me out of hell, he's...he's keeping me out."
"Maybe. But I don't think he's gone and traded himself for you the way you did. If he had, if he was in hell, they'd be all over that like white on rice. Instead, they are almost afraid."
"Afraid that he won't fail."
"Pretty much. And the reason I say maybe you'd best let it be is because we don't know what he's doing or how and if you go messing with it, try to find him, try to get him back..."
"I might screw it up."
"Or worse --"
"I'm not sure I want to know what you think is worse."
"Worse is you going back to hell and Sam paying whatever price he has to pay if he does fail."
"I can't just stay here, Bobby. Out of all of it. I may as well be dead."
"Then go to Stanford. Go to Lawrence. I'm not saying we don't keep looking into it, I'm saying be careful."
"It's been almost three months."
"Eternity is a lot longer. You think about that before you do anything foolish."
Two recording spirits, reading
All his life's minutest part,
Looking in his soul, and listening
To the beatings of his heart;
Each, with pen of fire electric,
Writes the good or evil wrought;-
Writes with truth that adds not, errs not,
Purpose-action-word, and thought.
Forgiveness -John Critchley Prince
The only thing familiar about Palo Alto was the cemetery where Jessica was buried.
It wasn't that the university had changed, or even the area -- just that every time Dean had been here, including the times when Sam hadn't known, his entire focus had been on Sam. Everything else faded into the background.
It took him a couple of times driving around the block to realize he really was where Sam's apartment had stood. It had been rebuilt -- entirely from the look of it, because gone were the somewhat vintage arches of the doorway, the solid look of the place with its stone and brick. In its place was a structure that stood out less but probably had better wiring, very likely an elevator instead of the stairs, double paned glass, environmentally friendly siding and not a ounce of character or interest.
Jessica's grave was clear too. Kept up, the marble still sleek and shiny, her picture a little faded. There were no fresh flowers, no pebbles on the top of the marker, no tokens of any kind. Dean ran his fingers through the grass at the base of the headstone to see if it had been disturbed; if there were loose clods to indicate Sam might have been here and buried something new in the dirt near his lost love.
Had it really been three years? Pushing toward four?
He'd survived his thirtieth birthday, something he might not have believed, something he still wasn't sure was actually the way it was meant to be. They hadn't marked it, he and Sam -- they'd been kind of busy. He supposed he hadn't actually survived it by much if you looked at it from a certain way.
Three years meant there wouldn't be that many people around who would even remember Sam. Maybe a few of his professors, but chances were all his friends, his peers, had already either graduated or moved on. Started families, started their lives, heading down the road toward their own futures.
Maybe Bobby had been right. There wasn't much to find here, nothing to see. Move along, move along...
He resisted that tiny voice out of sheer stubbornness. He'd come all this way. Flashing Sam's picture around amid the students that seemed to forever be gathered in the green spaces between Stanford's impressive buildings would be no more a waste of time than the rest of the trip.
A couple of hours, then maybe avail himself of Stanford's impressive library and see if he could rattle any theories free.
Sam's picture gathered nothing but a couple of girls saying they thought Sam was cute. Dean didn't argue with them.
The library was kind of overwhelmingly impressive, not necessarily in a good way. He flashed Sam's picture at the circulation desk but the student interns there didn't recognize him, and chances were, any memories the actual staff librarians might have would be three years old, but still...if Sam had been looking for information, if he'd been here at all, he'd have come here.
Yeah, he was really reaching at this point, but it mattered less. "Look, if I leave a copy of this and my cell phone, could you show it to the rest of the staff -- just in case?'
The kid shrugged and said sure and directed Dean to the line of copiers, and gave him a ticket with a code.
Dean had to fiddle with it. The picture wasn't large, and a copy of it was mostly a blur of grey lines, even if he enlarged it a little. Dean could recognize Sam in it, but he doubted anyone else would. There was a pretty hi-tech looking color copier but he had to wait for it behind a jock-looking red-head making images of larger photos.
"You just got one?" the guys said and Dean nodded. "Go ahead then, I'm going to be awhile," he offered.
"Thanks, man," Dean said but then stared at the array of menu selections and options. He wasn't an idiot, but the control panel on this thing looked like it required a pilot's license.
The guy grinned at him. "What are you trying to do?"
"I just need to make a copy of this picture, maybe make it a little larger."
The only glanced at the small photo in Dean's hand but nodded. "Maybe double the size -- resolution will go to hell if you go much higher," he said. "Image processing, color...150, there," he said and let Dean slide the picture onto the glass.
Sounded kind of like a jet engine for that matter. He pulled the copy out and stared at it. Not bad. "Thanks," he said and laid it on top, punched the machine for a couple of additional copies, since he was standing there.
"Who is that?"
"My brother," Dean said gathering up his other copies and then noticed the guy staring at Sam's picture like he'd seen a ghost. Dean's eyes narrowed. "You seen him?"
The guy was looking a little white around the mouth. "Your brother..."
"Yeah. Sam. He's missing. Has been for a couple of months."
"No. Last time anyone saw him was in South Dakota. Do you know him? Have you seen him?"
"I...he looks really familiar," the guys said but there was some color coming back into his face. He glanced at Dean then back at the picture. "Does he have...I mean, did he have a tattoo..."
"Yeah. He does. Big one...you've seen him. When? Where?"
"I...look. I'm not sure it's him. It was...a month or so ago. On a survey expedition into Death Valley -- Racetrack Playa. You know it?"
The name nicked at the corner of Dean's brain, "I've heard of it...something about the rocks. The moving rocks."
"Yeah...I think he was there but..."
"I think he might be...I think he was a ghost."
It didn't take much convincing to get the guy to take the conversation elsewhere.
A couple of beers later, Greg looked less shaken but sounded less confident. "I can't even be sure. I mean the whole thing was freaky in that I dropped too much acid in high school way," Greg said.
Dean was pretty sure Greg had never dropped acid in his life.
"Nobody else saw him. I'm not even sure I did."
"Well, you saw something that looked a lot like my brother."
"Yeah. I mean, he looked older than in your picture."
"It's few years old. He got bigger."
"He was a student here?"
Dean nodded. "Close to graduation. Was going into law. So, how many roads are there into the playa?"
"There's just one and it's not much of a road. That was part of why it was so weird. There's not many ways in or out and he just showed up out of nowhere, from a part of the canyon that's all cliff. He said his name was Jacob."
"Did he?" Dean asked.
"Well -- actually he said I could call him that, but he didn't stick around to talk. Told me to get back in my car and then walked away. Then the rocks moved. They moved."
There was nothing much else Greg could tell him, but he told him how to get in the playa, warned him that he'd rip the undercarriage of the Impala to shreds if he tried driving it up the tract and gave Dean his cell phone number in case he found anything.
He called Bobby first and Bobby wondered if Sam hadn't called elementals after all.
"Greg saw him the day that bitch gave me up," Dean said. "It's in the middle of fucking Death Valley, Bobby. Why there?"
"I don't know. Challenges tend to take place in desolate places, places of suffering and trial. Death Valley is certainly that. It didn't get that name on a whim. Chances are he didn't expect anyone to be there. You going?"
"What do you think? I'm going to need to get a truck or something."
"All right. You head out there. I'll see if I've got anyone can set you up with something that won't leave you stranded there."
"Do you know somebody everywhere?"
Bobby snorted. "There's a reason why I warned your Daddy not to piss off everybody he met. Keep it in mind."
"People love me, Bobby," Dean said and grinned at Bobby's grunt.
A guy outside of Bakersfield set him up with a reconditioned military jeep and promised Dean's girl would be fine. He might even give her a nice detail, she was so pretty. There was a time when Dean might have worried more about leaving his baby with a stranger, but right now, he felt like he was closer to Sam than he'd been in awhile. A little horse-trading got him supplies as well, Dean figuring he'd be there at least overnight, maybe longer.
The Jeep rode like hell on the highway, but Dean could see that it was better for the rough roads he'd been warned of, and it seemed to be fine until he was a couple of miles outside of Keeler with dusk approaching.
The engine died with no warning in the middle of the road. He swore and got out and then stopped, feeling the sweat break out on his back and his throat dry up.
It wasn't much of a crossroads. The road he was traveling was paved, but the bisecting track was more dirt, overgrown and barely visible. More a double ridged path that park vehicles might use than an actual road.
It got very quiet and very dark, very quickly.
"Have you missed me, Dean? I've missed you."
He turned around with both gun and holy water at ready but she kept her distance. Not the same face, never the same face, but she had a type she liked -- dark hair fell in soft curls to her shoulders, her little black dress had a slit up the side that went to her waist and a neckline that dipped nearly as low.
Underneath all those curves and flirty smiles were claws and fangs and scales and a hunger for raw liver and bile, acid kisses and nails that could slice the skin from his bones while she licked the blood from his mouth. He could still taste it.
"I didn't call you."
"I know, baby. I'm hurt. No calls, no flowers. Just wham, bam, and not even a thank you, ma'am. I thought what we had was special," she said, circling around.
And suddenly she was on the other side of the jeep, leaning against the roll bar. "No traps. No wards. You're slipping, darling."
The bulk of the jeep between him and her wasn't much comfort.
"What do you want?"
She shrugged. "I told you. I missed you," she said and the "missed" came out with a hiss and flicker of her thick, forked tongue. "He's not there, you know."
"Sam. Sammy. Samuel. You'll find nothing but disappointment if you go."
"Oh, really," Dean said, forcing himself to speak slowly, keeping the barely bottled scream in the back of his throat. "What do you know about it? I hear he's making your kind nervous..."
She laughed and sprang into the seat with inhuman quickness and grace, standing on the seat to lean back against the steel frame, her dress slid up over pale hips and thighs when she braced one high-heeled foot on the dash. "Not nervous. Admiring really. We thought he'd really just kind of been a big joke, no balls, not guts...kind of pathetic. Not so much boy king as court jester, flailing around and all flash, no fire...but he surprised us, your Sam did. But you know what they say...too little, too late. You raised him up to be too selfish, Dean. Thinks too much of himself...not enough of others. Good for us, not so good for you."
"You know, your opinion is really not one I put much stock in," he said. "Get the hell off my car."
"Or what?" she said and hoisted herself up, bracing her legs wide across the framing, dress just barely falling between her thighs. "Come on, Dean. You're mine. You made the deal. Not nice to go back on a bargain. You do remember what could happen, don't you?"
He took a half step forward, staring up at her haggish face, seeing the glow in her eyes, and the barely holding façade of beauty.
"Could? I made good on my end," he said. "Not my fault you can't hold onto your winnings," he snarled and watched her eyes narrow. "That's it, isn't it? You can't touch Sam now. No take backs. You've got no leverage."
She sprang at him and he stumbled back. She didn't get quite close enough to touch. "You should know better than anyone that you don't count your winnings until the last hand's been dealt," she said, leaning in close. "Maybe you'll get the lucky draw, but what's it going to cost you, Dean? What's it going to cost Sam? There are worse things than death, don't you remember?"
He tried not to flinch but from her smile he knew he wasn't entirely successful. "You don't have him. That's good enough. You can't get to him. That's even better," he taunted.
"Really? You think the other side is kind, Dean? All the horror and turmoil in the world, wars and babies dying for no reason, things like us coming out of the dark? Do you see them stepping in, showing even the slightest compassion toward any human being, any living thing? Do they even offer you the chance to make a deal?"
"Maybe not," he said, through gritted teeth. She stank of sulfur. "But I don't see them ripping the hearts out of people, either."
"No? What do you think they are doing to him, Dean? Feeding him figs and grapes and patting his itty-bitty head?" she said from behind him, right into his ear. "Oh, wait, they are...they've got him chained up outside the gates, Dean, like a dog. Tossing him scraps when they think about him at all. He wants to ask them one small favor and they keep him dangling outside paradise like a dirty sheet while they debate if he's worthy to even ask. It's not warm in-between. It's cold and empty and they've stripped him of everything. They've got all of eternity to debate this...and really, Sam's not so pure as all that. Not anymore. You made sure of that, didn't you? Driving him to the edge, making him desperate. No concern for the living - he went from refusing to kill anything to not even blinking."
Dean swallowed, clenched his hands around the holy water and turned to face her. "But I'm here, aren't I?" he said tightly. "Right here, and you can't touch me."
The water seared through her dress to her flesh, shriveling it, revealing the monster underneath. She shrieked and scrambled back and he hit her again.
"You think our torments are unbearable?" she hissed. "He's outside of everything, Dean...able to see but not touch, his body's already shriveling and dying and his soul's clinging to it, there's no comfort and no end. Everything he ever wanted just out of his reach...your father's approval, your mother's love. Right there - and they don't even know he's begging at the gates. Untouched, unknown, no more than dirt beneath their feet. He'd come to us if they'd let him, cross the river and climb the cliffs...they keep you apart, not us--"
"In nomine patris..."
"At least I'm offering you damnation together!" she shrieked as he emptied the last of the holy water over her.
The words rolled off his tongue without a break, without hesitation and she shrieked, shuddered, exploded out of the girl with a crackle and spit and spun out into the darkness.
The girl lay there unmoving and Dean sank to his knees, stomach heaving and gut clenching until he vomited up more than just the food he'd eaten earlier in the day.
He couldn't think about it, wouldn't, just yet.
They lie. They lie. They lie. over and over again, even after he'd stopped shaking and found strength enough to lift the girl into the back of the jeep and head back into Keeler.
They lie. They lie.
There was a FirstMed Clinic and Dean left the girl there. She wasn't hurt, just dazed and confused.
They lie. He told himself again as he found a place to stay for the night, sitting on a too soft motel bed.
Greg had said Sam was bruised and gaunt looking, even before he'd done whatever he'd done.
"They lie," he whispered into the darkness.
Except when they didn't.
Now I will tell you what I've done for you -
50 thousand tears I've cried.
Screaming, deceiving and bleeding for you -
And you still won't hear me. (going under)
I'm dying again
I'm going under (going under)
Drowning in you (drowning in you)
I'm falling forever (falling forever)
I've got to break through
I'm going under
Going Under - Evanescence
There were places on the reservation he would not be allowed to go, Fr. Bernard told him before he left. That east would take him deeper into the reservation, into New Mexico. But there was a truckstop and trading post at the junction of 87 and 264, and if Sam were to be looking for a ride, he'd likely find it there, either east or south toward Winslow.
Dean missed him by a couple of hours. He'd been there, the woman in the store remembering him. Not because he was white, but because it was rare to find a white man in Hopi clothing. He'd bought jeans and a shirt and a pair of cheap flip flops. He'd paid in cash. Everyone paid in cash.
Dean had no idea where Sam had gotten the money since by all reports he'd had nothing at all, but he suspected Chosovi's grandmother was the most likely source. He'd caught a ride with a market truck that made the run between Winslow and the trading post, had helped unload it to pay for the ride.
No one remembered Sam at the distribution warehouse, and the truck Sam had caught a ride in was out doing another run. No amount of charm would get him the route from the market manager, and he didn't have enough cash himself to make it worth his while.
So he waited. Waited and fretted and called Bobby twice to see if he'd heard anything.
It was dusk before the driver got back and he was understandably wary, less so when Dean offered him fifty bucks, he said he'd dropped him off at the diner at the end of 66.
Maybe once Dean would have found grudging amusement at that, but all he could think was that it had been hours ago. Sam could be halfway across the state by now.
Only he wasn't.
Dean almost missed him. The diner was pretty crowded for one thing; noisy, with a mix of voices in Spanish and English, music on the jukebox, the clank of dishes and the smell of spicy food and grilled meat. He actually stared right at Sam and didn't recognize him at first.
When he finally did, it was Sam's eyes that caught him, familiar and not, the same wide set hazel turned up at the corners. Wide and staring and slightly haunted -- the same expression in them Dean had seen staring back at him from mirrors for nearly a year.
It was a little surreal to just see Sam sitting there and Dean was moving before he thought about it, almost knocking a waitress down, and Sam rising up, both of them ignoring the rest of the people in the diner, the stares, and the sudden lull in the conversation.
Sam's hair was way past long and into ridiculous lengths, barely held back with whatever he'd tied it with. His shoulders were just as broad but Dean could feel where the muscle was pared down to the bone under the too loose shirt, echoing the gauntness in his face. Not emaciated, not skeletal, but very much a Sam who'd been honed down to the essentials.
There might have been a couple of snide comments, which Dean ignored entirely, because Sam didn't hesitate to return his desperate hug and grip the back of Dean's jacket.
It was the waitress that broke them apart, her apologetic and embarrassed "Excuse me" finally making Dean step to one side, without actually losing his grip on Sam's sleeve. He pushed Sam back into the booth, and followed him onto the same side, afraid Sam might actually bolt after having been avoiding this for so many days.
People were still staring; he knew it. Could feel their gaze on the back of his head, mixes of misunderstanding and disgust with curiosity and maybe even a little empathy. Dean didn't care at all. He'd lived through hell, on a couple of different levels. What other people thought of him or Sam, of them, didn't matter at all.
He gripped the back of Sam's neck and pulled their foreheads together. "I swear, I'm gonna kick your ass all the way back to Nebraska," he said.
Sam chuckled at that and Dean caught the edge of smile, the curve of Sam's lips and the flash of teeth. He felt wetness on his thumb where it rested on Sam's cheek.
"Okay. You can do that," Sam said and his voice sounded different, hoarse and deep and too soft. "I didn't...I'm sorry," he said.
"It doesn't matter. It doesn't..." Dean said. He had no idea what Sam was apologizing for and at the same time could think of a hundred things Sam might think he might need to be sorry about, a hundred more that he himself regretted. "I don't want to know anything else right now. Just that you're okay. Just tell me you're okay."
"I'm okay," Sam said. "You?"
"Jesus, Sam. Do you even have to ask?"
Sam nodded and pulled back a little. "Yeah. I do."
Maybe he did. "I'm okay."
They didn't stay. Sam had been sitting with nothing but a cup of coffee in front of him, and while Dean didn't care about the other people, it was still too loud and too crowded. Dean led the way -- or rather, nudged other people aside, afraid to let go of Sam's shoulder.
Sam stopped at the car and ran his hands over the roof, but didn't say anything. He got in when Dean unlocked the door, and sat there with his hands folded in his lap, uncomfortable in the car as he hadn't been in the diner.
"Motel?" Dean asked. "Or food...or. We could just go. Drive."
"Motel," Sam said after a moment. "We...probably...there's some stuff you need to..."
Of all the reactions Dean had expected, Sam suddenly sucking in stuttering breath and letting it out on a barely muffled sob wasn't one of them. But Dean's reaction was as natural as breathing, just pulling Sam to him, maneuvering his knee and elbows around the steering column and giving Sam a place to land. His arms wrapped as tightly around Sam as he could, twisted and bent over his brother like he could protect him from the sky falling down on him. "Its okay, Sam...It's okay. Done. It's over," Dean said, unembarrassed that his own tears were soaking into the back of Sam's shirt, or that his throat had gotten so tight he could barely get the words out. "It's over...we're okay."
"No. No...it's not," Sam said and gripped Dean's leg and squeezed, pushing up, and Dean let him. "We need to...find a place. We need to talk. I should have stayed..." He stopped again and drew another breath, wiping his face with his sleeve. "We should...there's a motel...It's -- we need money. I don't have any money...do you have--" and without much light Dean could still see the lost look on Sam's face, confused and unfocused, the tone in his voice that he hadn't heard since Sam was a child and wanting something he couldn't have.
"I've got it covered, Sam," Dean said, and got the car started, returning his hand to what felt like the most natural place for it to be on the back of Sam's neck.
Getting out of the car to check them in felt like an argument he couldn't win, afraid Sam might disappear again, but Sam got out when he did, hovered uncertainly behind him, and relaxed only slightly when Dean returned with the key. Under the harsh security lights in parking lot, Dean took a good look at his brother, noting the things he hadn't before. Sam didn't seem to know what to do with his hands, and his shirt was buttoned wrong. Underneath the too short hem of his jeans Sam's feet were filthy and crusty with mud or blood. He kept looking around like he couldn't stand to stare at any one thing for too long, or like he was waiting for something to come out of the dark at them.
Closing the door of their room brought an audible sigh from Sam and he sat down on one of the beds suddenly, hands to his head, to his face and ears, and then down again, not looking at Dean. Dean set his keys down on the table and eased down beside him, shoulder pressing lightly to Sam's and Sam seemed to relax at that.
"I should have stayed," Sam said finally leaning forward. "At the reservation. I should have...I didn't expect it to be so much...there's so much..."
It was an understatement of epic proportions, but Dean didn't think that was what Sam meant at all. "So much what..."
"Everything. Sound. Lights. Color...life, just...so much."
Overloaded. That much Dean understood, months before he didn't jump at every unexplained sound, flinch at the sudden brightness of a room light, or the headlights of a car flashing through a window. He started to get up, to at least close the curtains of the room, turn off the overhead light, but Sam gripped his arm, and then his hand, spreading his own over Dean's to open his palm and uncurl his fingers, pushing up his sleeve, tracing the scars there.
There were scars on Sam's hands too, ones Dean didn't remember seeing. Hundreds of small white scars on the backs of his hands and along his forearms. Deep lateral marks across his palms that were white ridges, that spoke of cuts that had gone to the bone, that should have severed tendons and nerves. His own were more numerous but hadn't scarred nearly as deeply, places where the flesh had been torn away and healed in pieces, and Sam rubbed his thumb across the worst of them, brushing lightly, like he could erase them.
Dean finally closed his hand over Sam's stopping him, because Sam was so intent, and so silent again that Dean wasn't sure he would stop on his own.
He wasn't ready to ask where Sam had been, what he'd done. That really was too much, just now, just here. "Why did you leave Sam...you sent a message. You knew I'd come."
"I just...I wanted you to know. I wanted...I wasn't ready. I needed to be ready."
"Ready for what?"
Sam didn't answer but his eyes were fixed on Dean's face, and when his hand came up to touch the scarring that ran along Dean's jaw and throat, Dean only barely managed not to flinch. He was pretty sure he didn't but Sam's hand stopped just short of touching, then dropped to his lap again. "It took me too long. I'm sorry. I'm sorry..."
"Stop. Stop saying that," Dean said, and twisted around, facing Sam dead on and pushing at his shoulder to make him turn as well, to look Dean in the face. "What did you need to be ready for, Sam? To see me? These are just scars."
"They're more than that."
"No. No they aren't."
"I should have been faster. I'm--"
"Whatever. Just...don't apologize. You got me out of hell."
Sam shook his head. "I haven't. Not yet. I haven't..."
"What...?" He didn't even know what Sam meant, but it made his blood run cold and the sweat break on his skin, and the same gut clenching roll of fear spread through him in a way he was sure he'd never be rid of.
"A year and a day. That was the condition. I haven't...it hasn't been that...I ...couldn't..."
He couldn't do it. Having spent his own month in hell without hope of reprieve, Dean could only barely imagine what he'd have done if given the chance to escape. In his head, in his gut, he knew he'd have taken it, done whatever it took, promised anything. Sam had held out much longer...in the cold and dark...
"They wouldn't let me stay," Sam was saying softly. "I begged them to let me stay...to finish it, but..."
"So..." he felt numb, couldn't feel his limbs. Was too aware of the acid in his stomach, the clench of cold dread in his guts and in his heart. "She's coming for me...I'm..." Going back and he wondered if the bitch was laughing even now.
Dean nodded without actually hearing him. He got up, and his knees threatened to fail him. This time she'd have to drag him kicking and screaming for real.
"No." He barely felt Sam's arms come around him, holding him up. "I'll go back. It's a day. I thought it would be easier if I didn't see you until it was done, but maybe they were right. It was so hard, not to...to just let go."
"Go back?" Dean asked, some portion of it finally making it through his fear-numbed brain. "You'll go back..."
"I'll go back. I will. I promise. She won't get you. I thought it would be harder, to come back and then leave, but they were right. I was starting to forget why."
Dean twisted around. Sam looked...he looked like Sam, finally, in ways Dean couldn't really describe. Exhaustion haunted his face still, but his eyes were focused, no longer lost, no longer haunted by whatever he was seeing. This time Sam didn't hesitate when he touched the scarring, pushing the neck of Dean's shirt back to see the discoloration of burn scarring that went across the back of his shoulder, touching the tips of the white scars on his chest.
Dean felt exposed, and raw, and he did flinch then, jerking back, only to have Sam grip his neck as Dean had done Sam's. "I'm sorry," Sam said again, firmly, not letting Dean look away. "I'm sorry it took me so long to figure it out. That I wasn't...that I was too scared at first to even try."
Dean shook his head, not trusting himself to speak because he might scream or cry or run. He didn't understand.
"A year and a day, Dean. That's the price. It hasn't been that yet. But I'll pay it."
"Pay what..." Dean got out, through clenched teeth.
"A day there...once a year, until the debt is settled."
"And if you don't?"
"Explain in smaller words," Dean said and Sam smiled at him, the familiar crooked smile that Dean hadn't even stopped to realize he'd missed. Everything about Sam, yes, but the details had all blurred. He pulled Sam's hand from his face and looked at the stretched of scars, the small even marks. Sam didn't move when he touched them, counted them.
He was finding it hard to breathe when he reached Sam's elbow and reached for the other arm. He lost count after a hundred, but nearly as many more stretched up Sam's arm
Almost as many on Sam's right, not as even and the last few were shallower, more jagged, but the very last one was deeper and wider, and not nearly as healed, the skin red around the edges of it.
Days. One for every day Sam had been gone, that Sam had been there, out of Dean's reach.
Three hundred and sixty-five days in a year. Plus one. But Sam had waited.
Thirty days from the first time the crossroads demon sank her claws in him to the day she'd tossed him at Bobby's feet. Thirty days for Sam to have done the impossible.
Thirty days of having his soul and body ripped to shreds over and over. And over, and over...
It wasn't over. That's what Sam was telling him. Nearly a year of frantic searching, months of building hope on hope, battling with despair over what Sam was doing, what he might be enduring. Of never knowing when she might turn up to taunt and tease and tempt him. Of fearing that Sam might be suffering worse.
Then believing Sam had done it, freed himself and Dean.
His shove sent Sam sprawling back, hitting the bed awkwardly and stumbling falling...
Dean was out the door before Sam hit the floor.
I don't know anymore
What it's for
I'm not even sure
If there is anyone who is in the sun
Will you help me to understand
'cause I been caught in between all I wish for and all I need
Maybe you're not even sure what it's for
Any more than me
In the Sun - Joseph Arthur
Day 31 - 336
The last thing he did remember was Dean and being so glad to see him, glad that it was over, glad he'd managed to make it through the demon's little home grown version of Mortal Kombat...
He didn't remember dying. He'd come back confused and feeling surprised, and a little shocked and he didn't know why, and could only barely remember why his back hurt, and had no idea where he was.
But mostly he was just really glad Dean had found him. It just reinforced his belief that if he held on long enough, Dean always would.
But the being dead part? That was a blur and an instant; a flash of light that sometimes played behind his closed eyes just as he was falling asleep. It was a hole in his mind where he thought that maybe there should be a memory, but like mirages in a heat shimmer on a highway, it disappeared if he looked at it too closely.
And really, jumping off a cliff hadn't been scary like he was going to die -- only scary in that way of leaping out to catch Dean's hands and not worrying if Dean would drop him, but only if he'd manage to pull Dean down with him. He supposed it was how trapeze artists felt. Leap of faith was just that. You jumped only with the absolute certainty that you would be caught, one way or another.
Then he'd spent nearly a year falling -- or it felt like falling. Every day. Every hour. Not in the stomach drop and here comes the ground rushing at me way, but in the same way falling asleep felt -- he supposed that's why they called it that, falling asleep. A sense of descent or movement that wasn't so much moving down as moving through.
It had been so clear at first, like falling asleep was...I'm falling asleep, and my eyes are heavy and my thoughts aren't all that clear, until the point it became less about falling and more about being the fall itself.
But he had to remember what had come before and what was coming after, and it had taken the sharp cut of rock on his palms to remind him. And the strangely familiar patterns in black and flesh and yellow and blue on his skin to remind him, day after day, hour after hour, that there was a point to this fall, to this sense of moving through when he was standing still. That beyond the flickers of light and color and the warm voices and soft hands, and the promises that really, there was nothing he could do or had ever done that couldn't be forgotten and the first thing you did when you fell was give up regret.
The gates stood open, always. He hadn't really expected that. And maybe gate was the wrong word, because it was just never a gate, or a doorway. Sometimes it was just a path, or a bridge, or just that next step forward that he didn't take because he cut a promise into his skin and another in his heart, and managed to braid and reweave his soul into an oath that kept him from ever stepping forward and wouldn't let him go back, mostly because he didn't know how.
It was an invitation as much as just a question. Look behind you. Look ahead. That path is both ways. You don't have to stand still.
Except he did, because the road under his feet was never meant to be traveled alone, and every step he took on it felt like losing part of himself.
The road behind him stretched over blank hills and open plains, and barren places that offered him nothing at all, except an end and bridge that only allowed passage one way for most. Some part of him was there, had made that choice and taken that road, and he couldn't stop it, and couldn't find his way along the ever increasingly difficult road. No one had asked him if he wanted to go that way but they'd taken him just the same.
Ahead of him it was clearer and brighter and the path was gentle and easy to walk, so easy, it was harder not to put his foot on it than it was to remain beside it and watch as others passed. Others who offered him hands and sweet things to drink and food to eat, but who only saw him as someone stopped on the road and never bothered to ask him why.
"Come with us."
"I have to stay."
"Who told you had to stay? Come with us."
He couldn't remember who told him, only that he had been told, somewhere between leaping and falling, or maybe between walking and begging.
You've asked for this. What right have you to ask for this?
"She didn't ask me if I wanted to come back."
Neither did your brother.
"My brother can ask me for anything. But he can't bring me back."
Neither can she. You've walked this road before, Sam. That you walk it again now, is also your choice. Not hers, not your brother's.
It was easier to be a penitent than a beggar.
A penitent could make amends.
What price for your brother's soul?
Anything. Everything. I didn't know.
She'd offered Dean a year.
Sam could offer no less.
He hadn't moved, but every day the gate got closer, so much so that he could turn his face toward it and taste the wind, could feel the warmth on his flesh. Promises of peace, of no fear, of no regrets tingled on his fingertips and cut little paths of acceptance and quiet in his soul.
He held his soul in his body and wouldn't let it go. Trapped it like a small wild thing, cupped in his hands and put his back to the door and dug his feet and hands into the dirt. He cut at his arms to remember that beyond the door was everything he'd ever wanted if only he'd give up everything he'd ever had.
"Your brother gave into despair and that's why she could take him."
So Sam gave into hope to get him back.
Back there, hope was what kept him going through pain and fear and doubt.
Here though. Here hope was the blade that cut and gouged and sang to him sweetly in the voice of a mother he couldn't remember, and wiped away tears and blood by the hand of a father who knew peace now when he'd had little in life. Hope bound his wounds and urged him to get up and go on, there are promises to keep.
Sam looked away and ran his fingers over the name etched on his skin and focused on the only promise that mattered.
Until he forgot that one too.
He missed the hands that came to him, that lifted his arms and counted the scars.
Most souls knew where they belonged, but a few, a very few, strayed and wandered, unable to move forward and back. A fundamental flaw, an overabundance of will, a bleed that would not cease, stubborn and resolute. Not like the sad spirits that haunted the lonely, painful places of the earth, that forgot what they once were and became the reason they stayed. Those weren't souls at all, only fragments and lingering pieces.
Souls caught between everything they couldn't let go of and everything promised by welcoming a new beginning like dawn on a bleak night, were distressing to the best of joy and the worst of despair alike. They had no purpose, were the truly lost. Even fallen angels had a purpose. Even the damned could see paradise.
Those between were the tears that filled the divide above and below. Whispers said when that river ran dry, everything would be one again with no divide at all.
A stopped river will overflow its banks, will flood the plains and drown the grasses and well up to overwhelm the world. That had turned out badly before.
So you breach the dam and steady the flow and let the river find its course again.
Is this a promise you still want to keep?
It was kind eyes and kinder hands that offered comfort if Sam could only remember how to take it.
Walk the road, Sam.
Has it been a year?
The hands that held the sharp edge of stone shook and the line was not even. The blood welled and spilled and fell to ground that knew more sacrifice than this, but never forgot any of them.
You need to rest.
I need to finish this.
You are neither god nor angel, Sam.
Then what I do won't matter to anyone but myself and my brother. Sam turned his face from the gates and stared down the long dark road where he could hear screaming and smell something foul and bitter.
But maybe there was light there too, breaching the darkness, wading across the blackened waters, spreading a wake of froth in its path.
"The realm of torment belongs not on this path but on the road to mine." A harsher voice spoke, but so hard as to hurt his ears. "If it is so, then he belongs to me. Give him to me. Carry him onward, or send him back."
Your claim has no more weight than a feather.
"And yours is a whisper in a hurricane. There's a binding laid in blood."
On an infant with no choice. There's a promise made in something stronger.
"Then test that strength if you are so sure. Despair outside the gates offends even me."
You must ask the one who made the promise. And the promise was not made to me or to you.
Warm hands rubbed at his cold limbs. "So, there's your test, Sam. Your brother walks the earth. Alone again. Is that what you wanted?"
Sam shook his head.
"Then here is what I offer."
And here is what you must do.
This time when Sam fell, he hit hard.
As a man, caught by some great hour, will rise,
Slow-limbed, to meet the light or find his love;
And, breathing long, with staring sightless eyes,
Hands out, head back, agape and silent, move
Sure as a flood, smooth as a vast wind blowing;
And, gathering power and purpose as he goes,
Unstumbling, unreluctant, strong, unknowing,
Borne by a will not his, that lifts, that grows.
The Night Journey by Rupert Brooke
He hadn't intended to stay gone. He needed space, was all, and time to think without Sam trying to explain or rationalize or promise the impossible again. The parking lot, then the car, and then he found himself driving through Winslow, and onto what was left of Route 66.
He'd always wanted to make that trip. Take the road as far as they could. He'd traveled parts of it -- what parts were left, but Chicago to LA...one of the things on his list that last year, take that road, with Sam, with his car.
There were few true crossroads along the route but here, there were plenty and the first he came to he stopped the car in the middle of the road and got out, leaning against the front grill to stare into the darkness.
Kicking and screaming took too much energy and really, what was the point?
She didn't appear though and he'd half expected her to -- show up and gloat, her or something like her. Dissolute or not, Dean doubted sending one aspect back to hell would actually break such a fine old hellish tradition. Maybe her replacement didn't like asphalt.
"You need some help there, son?"
Dean twisted around fast enough to make his spine pop, half-way to pulling his gun, but the only one there was an old woman, colorless grey sweater wrapped around her thin frame. She seemed to have come out of nowhere, and it took him a minute to realize she stood not at the edge of the crossroad, but at the end of her driveway -- a long dirt track leading off the road. Distantly he could see a light way back of the road, from her house, no doubt.
"No. No, ma'am, just...taking in the road."
"You young people," she said with a shake of her head. "It's just a road. There's thousands of them. This one's no different."
He didn't argue with her, though he thought about it. She just stood there, watching him, looking a little put out. She'd seen his headlights, he guessed, and wondered how many people had used her driveway as a turnaround.
"Sorry to disturb you."
She shrugged. "No matter. Don't sleep much at night. There's a hotel down the way, if you're looking for someplace to stay the night."
"Thanks. I've got a room. Just needed some air."
"There's a point where stopping to smell the roses gets you nothing but thorns, son. You've got all eternity to do that. Living's about appreciating what's important." she said, and shook her head, turning around and heading back up her driveway. "Kids..." she muttered and the crankiness of her just made Dean smile.
"Appreciate the concern, ma'am!" he called after her and she just raised a hand in the air and waved, disappearing into the shadows under the trees that lined her driveway.
She maybe had a point though.
He spread his hands, looking at the scarring there. It didn't look quite so bad in the half-light thrown by the Impala's headlamps, and far less deliberate or orderly than the lines of tiny scars on Sam's arms.
Half of what Sam said still made no sense, but he could do the math. Could see this dragging on into the years maybe, if Sam could do what he said. If Dean could even ask him to do it.
Only he wouldn't have to. Sam was going to do what he was going to do, just like always.
That was a consistency about his brother that drove Dean crazy. Used to.
He wondered if Sam would even be there still when he got back.
He pulled the car forward, already offering a silent apology to the old woman.
There was no driveway.
He jerked the car to a halt and stared.
There was no driveway and no trees and no light in the distance. Even the illusion of a crossroad was gone, the black of the road stretching unbroken in both directions, open land and rock and scrub and not much else.
He broke not a few speed laws getting back into Winslow, half afraid the small motel might have disappeared as well.
The hotel was still there, looking even less attractive as dawn started to crack the horizon. The door to the room was slightly open and he couldn't remember if he had closed it or not. Maybe lucky because he didn't have a key.
Sam was there, looking like he hadn't moved at all in the hours Dean had been gone. He was sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed, knees drawn up and arms around them, head down. He didn't move or look up when Dean came in.
Nothing at all, and Dean moved in quickly, heart pounding in his chest, as he closed the distance in two strides and dropped. The skin of Sam's arms was cold, chilled, but the room was cold with the door open and the temperature dropping in the night.
Sam's hair completely covered his face and felt kind of greasy and stringy under Dean's hands, but he got a little murmur of protest when he lifted Sam's head slightly, and felt along his throat for a pulse.
Sam didn't come to himself flailing or quickly, only stirring and opening his eyes, looking confused and bewildered again. His eyes focused on Dean's face slowly.
Asleep. Only not asleep like he was tired, but the sleep of the exhausted. "We've got these things called beds, Sam."
"'m'sor-" Dean pressed his fingers to Sam's mouth.
"Yeah. I got that the first dozen times you said it. You can stop saying it anytime now. Look, Sam...this deal you've made -- the deal I've made. Both sides are screwing with us, but--"
"You didn't have the right." Sam said and unfolded his arms; winced as he stretched his back. "And neither did she."
Dean took in a breath and let it out slowly. "I thought I went into this with my eyes wide open, but--"
"But I didn't," Sam said, and Dean had to rock back on his heels as Sam unfolded his limbs. "I died, Dean."
"I was there, Sam. I remember."
"No," Sam shook his head, pushing his hair out of his eyes. "She didn't have the right to pull me back. And neither did you."
Dean stared at him. "You say that like it makes some kind of sense."
Sam rubbed at his face. "I died," he said, like that explained it all. "I didn't expect to, I didn't want to, but that's what happened. So now I get the choice. I can go on, and I won' t remember or even know or care that you're dead and in hell. Because I won't, Dean. There's a lot of roads out when you die. I chose this one." His eyes rested on Dean's face and there was a hint of anger there, but of determination too.
"She said...she said you were...that they kept you. Outside. Chained outside of wherever. Because you'd asked...to save me, you'd asked and offered for me..."
"I'm outside because I won't walk through," Sam said quietly. "There are no chains. Not there, anyway. Only here. Only you."
Dean understood that much more than he wanted to and it hurt a little knowing that, and he scraped his fingernails over his jeans, scratching an itch that wasn't really there. "If you don't go back..."
"Then you go back to hell, and I'll be the one that sent you there."
"And if you go and keep going on..."
"Then you'll go back to hell and I won't know it or care."
"Wow. I'm kind of hating both those options."
Sam dropped his head, but there was a faint smile on his lips. "Yeah. I think both those plans suck, so we should go with the first one."
That one didn't sound all that great to Dean either. Not for Sam and not really for himself, although put up against the alternatives...still. "Once a year for...thirty years? That's a long time to keep a promise."
Sam shook his head. "You've kept a promise nearly as long. I'm still here."
Dean swallowed. "It's not the same...and you died, remember?"
"Yeah, I do, now. But that's not the promise you kept. It was never about keeping me alive, Dean."
"The hell it wasn't," Dean said, and got to his feet. The room suddenly felt small and getting a deep breath seemed harder than it should have. "So, after thirty, then what. We'll be old men."
Sam shrugged. "We'll take a road trip, buy a farm..."
"I could die before then. I mean..." Dean said and Sam dropped his gaze. "If I die before then, before this is done, then what?"
"There's no early cancellation on this. I keep my promises. I 'd kind of prefer if you didn't though, you know?"
"And if you... and if -- I mean, I'm guessing you're not immortal."
Sam did look then, eyes wide and chin up. "You'll just have to trust that I'll be waiting for you to catch up." Sam pushed up, getting his legs under him.
"I'm seriously not all that keen on owing you this one," Dean said and offered him a hand.
Sam grabbed on and let Dean pull him to his feet. His smile was a little sly but mostly it was just tired. "Yeah. This is one I'm not letting you live down," he said an leaned forward, aiming to pat Dean's cheek but his hand fell to Dean's shoulder instead. "Suck it up."
Dean gripped his shoulders, and turned him around, mindful of awkward, ungraceful limbs, and the fine, faint tremor in Sam's body. "How about you suck up some actual sleep. And maybe a shower. And a damn haircut," he said, dumping Sam onto the bed.
"Bitch, bitch, bitch," Sam slurred, but he caught Dean's wrist when he would have stepped away. "Be here."
Pulling the coverlet and tucking Sam's hand back under the blankets, Dean sat on the edge of the bed. "I will be. So there's really a better place?"
Sam was already asleep.
Dean watched him for awhile, finally easing off carefully to find someplace more comfortable. He felt as tired as Sam apparently was but not really sleepy.
He wondered if Sam would remember his own ordeal as viscerally as Dean did and hoped not and he was more afraid to ask exactly what would happen in a year than he wanted to be. A year could both be an impossible amount of time to wait and not nearly enough time for anything. He knew that better than anyone.
Between now and then, though...he hesitated to call it hope, and still too wary to call it faith.
Trusting Sam, though, that much he could do.
I'll be waiting for you to catch up.
That really wasn't much of a leap of faith for Dean at all.
It starts with
One thing, I don't know why
It doesn't even matter how hard you try
Keep that in mind
I designed this rhyme
To explain due time
All I know
Time is a valuable thing
Watch it fly by as the pendulum swings
Watch it count down till the end of the day
The clock ticks life away
It's so unreal You didn't look out below,
Watch the time go right out the window
Tryin' to hold on
Didn't even know, I wasted it all
Just to watch you go
I kept everything inside
And even though I tried
It all fell apart
What it's meant to be
be a memory, of a time
I've put my trust, in you
Pushed as far as I can go
For all this
There's only one thing you should know
When I tried so hard and got so far
But in the end, it doesn't even matter
I had to fall, to lose it all
But in the end, it doesn't even matter
In the End Linkin Park
Dean had stubbornly refused to mark the days. Somewhere along the way, Sam had started acting more like himself and less like someone with a massive case of ADD. There had been a few hours of sheer panic from Sam because he couldn't remember how many days it had been and was all for making his payment early and getting ahead of the curve. Even Dean was pretty sure that wasn't how it was supposed to work, and it took a phone call to Bobby to finally get Sam to stop hyperventilating over the whole thing, because Bobby tended to keep track of that shit. Not so much how many days, but the dates of Dean's return and Sam's disappearance.
Then he told Dean to get Sam a damn Dayminder and it wouldn't kill them to drop in now and again for a visit, ungrateful sons of bitches, just like your Dad. Dean had laughed at that and stopped in Wisconsin to ship Bobby an entire bushel of apples. Bobby didn't like them that much but the dog did.
He'd gotten used to the differences in Sam; was sure there were some differences in himself too that Sam had noted but never commented on. He was maybe a little more careful with his own skin, a fact that irritated him when he was aware of it, but he hadn't missed the part where, this deal was all on Sam.
The idea of Sam having to go through this alone wasn't as acceptable as he'd once tried to convince himself it was.
They stayed for awhile -- not quite in Bobby's back pocket, or Ellen's either because she'd been there when they finally showed up after Winslow. There was chatter about Jo and building a new bar, a nicer one, and hints of maybe not for hunters except Jo was still out on the road, and Ellen still didn't like it but she liked even less not having easy access to whatever information might benefit her girl. Jo was becoming a bit of demon expert, it seemed, and Sam had looked away and Dean had made the right noises. Then they hit the road again, as much because Bobby was dying to pick Sam's brain apart (once he got done with the yelling and had slid a hug and a couple of backslaps in there) but Sam seemed to reluctant to talk about it beyond what he'd told Dean. Sometimes it was good to avoid temptation.
It took Sam too long to gain back the weight he lost, longer still for Dean to realize that there wasn't much taste to anything for him, nothing to compare, and Sam ate mostly because it was necessary but it might as well have been dust. Dean found his own appetite returning, and the taste of an overly loaded burger and salt-drenched french fries even sweeter. He bullied Sam -- just a little -- telling him if everything tasted the same, then he might as well load up on the calories.
It was all little things. Dean learned to not flinch from fire and Sam learned to hide his cringing from really loud noises or too many voices; gritting his teeth and forcing himself through crowds and noisy bars and diners.
The silence was the hardest thing. Some days Sam would rally enough to banter and snipe. But he rarely bitched and there was both more purpose and commitment to hunting and a whole shit lot more compassion for the things they hunted -- something Dean wasn't even sure was possible. Sam had always been a bleeding heart -- and he had no idea why both Bobby and Sam always chuckled at that. But the thousand yard stares Sam sometimes got for no real reason Dean could see bothered him. There was no consistent trigger that Dean could suss out. Sam was here and with him, but some part of him wasn't and maybe never would be again.
The closer they got to the date the more anxious Dean got, because while he had absolute faith in Sam, he had less faith in all the players working from the same playbook.
They worked more in synch than they ever had, but Dean worried over the increasing distance -- what felt like distance. Or maybe it was just difference.
There was no more talk of quitting hunting, or Sam fretting over the fact that sometimes they just didn't get there in time, or didn't figure it out quickly enough. It came with no platitudes, and Sam would just hunker down until they did figure it out, put to rest or put out of existence whatever ghost or beast or even demon crossed their path.
The demons became a bit of a problem. They seemed to have lost their love of hearing themselves talk, and even taunting Dean, reminding him of the horror of his time with them seemed to have lost its luster. They tended to come at them hard and fast and the human body count escalated with every encounter, but if their rough count of the number that had escaped was anything to go by, they were winning. They and the other hunters, including Jo, because while these demons were ruthless and clever, they really weren't organized and they seemed to fight among themselves as often as they fought hunters.
And then there was the fact that they seemed to have a real aversion to laying hands on Sam at all. Shoot at him, throw him around like a ragdoll, occasionally (okay, once) try to topple an entire building on him, but none of them ever got close enough to make a grab, or let Sam grab them.
It took Dean longer than it should have to figure it out, and he might never have save for a chance bit of grab and toss with particularly nasty demon with a taste for human hearts, one of those that apparently liked a little soul with his morning coffee.
It was a set up as sweet as a two-play on a basket ball court, Dean with a roll and tuck and twist and Sam with a blade as long as his forearm and inscribed with ten kinds of cantos including this demon's name.
It had seen the blade before it saw Sam and managed one of those completely unfair leaps and twists that Dean only ever saw in ninja movies, that put the damn thing behind Sam.
And it grabbed.
Then it screamed, then it thrashed and spewed some of the most foul things Dean had ever heard -- and he'd heard a lot -- when Sam grabbed it by the wrist and drove the blade in true and sure.
Dean was pretty sure it said something along the lines of forgive, me lord before it dissipated into dust and ash. He might have been more worried except the damned thing didn't actually seem to be talking to Sam.
He hadn't thought much about the tattoo, although he'd finally seen it, back in Winslow, after rousting Sam awake enough to take his much-needed shower. One thing, after all this, to know it was there and why, and another to actually see the damn thing. He'd seen the back first, stretching across Sam's spine from hip to shoulder, the long ladder of it wider than his spread palm and the lettering etched in red and yellow and blue, like some kind of bizarre primary school Latin primer. Only not just Latin, but Dean couldn't make all of it out without obviously staring, and things then had been awkward and uncomfortable enough between them with the twin offerings of sacrifice and redemption so obviously on Sam's body along with the unnatural prominence of his ribs.
It had been easier to make out his own name etched into the rest, in the ribbons of black and color that arched across Sam's stomach and disappeared under his jeans. The part that spanned Sam's shoulder was mostly invocations to the archangels, under a couple of different names, and Dean finally got part of what had set Bobby off so hotly. Whether he believed in angels or not, you didn't invoke the actual names or aspects of death without being pretty damn desperate.
It hadn't been six months when they ran into the heart-munching demon with the filthy mind, and it all kind of snicked together in Dean's brain like gun part snapping in place: the demons had an aversion to laying hands on Sam's skin, the way they would on a holy relic. Dean might think his little brother was pretty damn special but that was a far cry from being anything functionally divine, which meant something else was at play.
So the next time Sam came out of the shower to get dressed, Dean stopped him and turned him around, told him to shut up when he protested and tilted the desk lamp up so he could see better. Some of it Dean flat out couldn't read without a reference book, although he was pretty sure he recognized a few of the languages. He wondered if Sam even knew half the invocations he'd had Nell carefully draw into his skin, and how long he'd been collecting them.
The invocation of angels didn't surprise him, but there were a few less savory things Sam had called on, had been willing to call to him -- he was a walking multi-cultural, pan-mythological sign board. Only some of what Dean could make out seemed to be screaming "Good Eats!" more than help me out here. He didn't have to be a linguistic scholar to make out some of the more common sigils -- things Nell probably hadn't even recognized as words.
But Dean knew them, and it didn't help that Sam had only chosen about nine out of several hundred possible, including one for a demon they both knew was dead in pretty much any and every way that counted.
It wasn't just the naming. There was danger in that, but Dean knew the frame and structure of an invocation as well as Sam did, the patterns of ward and bind, of cleanse and sacrifice.
"Who answered?" he asked. "Of all the names you called on, which one answered, Sam."
Sam ducked away then and reached for his shirt. "None of these answered. I wasn't expecting anyone specific." He shrugged into the shirt, but Dean stopped him before he could button it, palm resting over the tat closest to Sam's heart and the name etched there.
"You've got the names of nine of the princes of hell inked on your back, and the angel of death right here." Dean slapped Sam's chest lightly.
"You were dead," Sam whispered. "So I figured it was the lords of the dead that I needed to talk to."
"Who answered?" Dean asked again.
"Does it matter?"
"Given that demons seem to find you a little hard to hold onto, it might," Dean said and let Sam finished getting dressed.
"It wasn't a demon that answered or an angel, if that's what you're worried about. And the demons might not want to touch me, but I don't think they'd have a problem gutting me, given the opportunity," Sam said. "The rest of it's their own superstition."
"Touching you is like getting a face full of holy water, Sam. I'm not sure that's good."
"Well, seeing as I'd just as soon they didn't lay their slimy paws on either of us, I'm not sure it's bad," Sam said with a hint of anger and had finished packing his gear and carried it out to the car.
They didn't talk about it again, but every time Dean saw Sam without his shirt, he wondered what else the marks on his brother's skin might be repelling -- or attracting. Something had answered Sam.
And the closer they got to the anniversary of Sam's return and Dean's release, the more he worried about it.
Sam did as well, growing more detached as the day drew nearer. Dean didn't know what to expect and he suspected Sam didn't either, really.
A week before the year was up, they headed southwest again.
"Does it matter where you are?" Dean asked, trying not to dwell on how driving through the flat barren land might be foreshadowing of something else.
"I don't know. Just a reason why I ended up there -- when I started from someplace else and ended up there."
"How did you get there the first time?"
"I jumped off a cliff."
It took Dean a moment to realize Sam wasn't speaking metaphorically. "You did what?"
"I climbed the cliff at the playa and jumped."
"You're not jumping off a cliff, Sam."
Sam smiled and ducked his head. "I wasn't planning to. You asked me, who came for me."
"And you didn't tell me. You said it didn't matter."
"I don't think it did. I mean...I think it could have been anything. I didn't set out to fulfill someone else's destiny."
"But we're headed back to the reservation anyway. So, who -- what was it?"
"Masauwu." The name meant nothing to Dean and it showed on his face. "Masauwu is the Hopi God of the dead. The stone you brought the people, the one you found at the playa, it's part of his prophecy."
"And that prophecy is--?"
"About two brothers, who are supposed to make a new world for the People," Sam said. "It's part of why I used Masauwu's name -- the older brother would come to clear the way for the younger. It seemed...appropriate."
"Appropriate? So now you've got a debt to pay to some Hopi Death God?" Dean stopped the car on the side of the road. He could just as easily stopped in the middle. There was nothing but sand and rock and scrub for miles. "You know, you ending up dead is what started this. I don't want you waiting for me. I want you here."
"One or the other. You don't have as many options. Those are your choices, Dean," Sam said quietly.
Dean stared at him for a long moment and then jerked the keys out of the ignition and got out.
Sam let him have a few minutes and Dean was oddly grateful for that. The past year had been good, mostly. Not perfect, and he never forgot, but as with his own year, it was easier to get lost in the moments...to not look too far ahead.
Once he thought that the worst hell was living without his brother. He knew that wasn't entirely true, but a lesser hell was still hell. When Sam got out, he didn't speak, only leaned against the front quarter panel, hands in his pockets.
"What's going to happen?" Dean said at last.
"I don't know."
Dean turned around to stare at him. "You don't know? We're headed to the back end of nowhere, to summon some god or spirit or whatever, and you don't know how or what's going to happen?"
"I figured if I ended up back at the spring, you'd have less of a drive to make."
"Your consideration is duly noted, Sam."
"I'm coming back, Dean."
It wasn't Sam's coming back that was the problem. It was the going at all. Sam's eyes met his own and Dean was kind of stunned by the complete lack of fear he saw there.
Maybe it made sense. Dean had enough for both of them. He stepped up, able to look Sam in the eye, with Sam slouching against the car. He remembered a time when he'd looked down into those eyes, eyes that trusted him to make everything better.
"Don't make me come after you."
Sam's smile broke slow, taking over his whole face, and laughter burbled up, escaping into the silence around them.
And Dean knew this was why he'd agreed to go to hell in the first place.
No one seemed surprised to see them, and Sam's hesitant request for a place, for a room, got them an empty kiva and Chosovi brought them blankets, and her uncle brought them firewood and grandmother brought them food and water. Outside the People talked and sang a little but no one disturbed them at all.
The temperature dropped quickly, and wary or not, the small fire in the center of the kiva warmed the chamber up noticeably, but colder air whipped around the edges, and hung like a barrier just inside the door. The last of the sun's rays bounced off the pueblo, barely lighting the doorway.
Sam had spread one of the blankets near the fire and stripped down, shrugging when Dean cocked an eyebrow.
"Last time I went with some clothes and came back with none. Seems easier."
"Are you going to disappear?"
Sam shook his head and laid out a small circle of salt, a bowl of water, a feather, a stone, and lit a small votive candle from the fire. "I don't know. I just don't, Dean."
The last of the light faded and Dean moved away from the doorway, not sure where he should settle or even if he could. Finally he chose a position on the low stone bench carved from the wall, behind Sam but not touching him.
Sam was murmuring something but on his knees sitting absolutely still otherwise. Just his breathing made the long tattoo on his back shift and seem to move, all in shadow, dark on dark until Dean realized it wasn't just the shadows. The glow of the fire and Sam's candle were contained somehow, casting little light, and the cold crept along the walls, chilling his back, wicking away the sweat under his shirt.
He couldn't hear the People singing outside, or hear Sam; couldn't see beyond the doorway. The fire seemed in danger of going out entirely, burning low, casting light but no heat.
It erupted suddenly, a column that nearly reached the low roof, and Dean lurched forward, wanting to get Sam out of danger, flinching at the brushing heat on his skin, but hooking hands under Sam's arms anyway and heaving backward. The fire was between them and the door and Sam was a dead weight in his arms, heavy and awkward, legs still half crossed.
And despite the sudden influx of heat in the room, Sam was chill and cold and for a terrifyingly long moment everything seemed still and holding its breath while Dean hunted for a pulse and found nothing. Nothing. Not at wrist or neck and no thump of a heart beat in Sam's chest when Dean pressed his ear there.
The fire hissed and flattened, opening like some kind of livid red and gold flower, and Dean pulled Sam toward him, cradling his brother's too long body against his chest and reaching one hand toward his bag for the dozen or so methods of both destruction and protection tucked inside it.
Something big and dark formed in the heart of the flames, taking on shape, colors as vivid as the flames, but not human, not even remotely so, but familiar anyway and he knew the manifestation...if not the actual name. Kachina with the heavy face mask and the cloth wrapped arms and legs, feathers draped this way and that in streams of grey and white.
Only the mask didn't actually seem to be a mask despite the long hooked beak and the wide apart eyes. The hands were thin like bird claws, the neck disproportionately long on broad shoulders.
Maybe it was Masauwu, or some other Hopi spirit but Dean didn't care. Sam wasn't breathing and he was cold and it was just as horrible and impossible to believe as the first time it had happened. The only difference was that no blood marked Sam's skin this time. He fought back the urge to force air into Sam's lungs, to push him on the floor and make his heart beat again, even if Dean had to do all the work himself.
The kachina settled in across from him, and Dean stared at it for along moment. The door behind it, the door to the kiva was gone. He was pretty sure it was still there, only he couldn't see it. He put his back to the bench and pulled Sam up hard against him, so he'd know the moment there was change -- and scary as it was to hold Sam's cold, dead body to his chest, he wasn't to the point of doubting Sam would come back. Something was going on, and the fact that he was sharing airspace with an actual living kachina made it seem like this was the way it was supposed to go.
Twenty four hours was a long time though.
His companion didn't seem inclined to talk, even though it watched him with its odd bird-eyes, blinking occasionally and shrugging, which was accompanied by the sound of rustling wings even though Dean couldn't see them. Once it rose and pulled bundles of sage and sweetgrass from the pouch at its side and tossed them into the fire, filling the chamber with a light and heady smoke that made Dean feel dizzy and his eyes water.
He wrapped a blanket around Sam, because the feel of his cold, rigid skin was bringing up a panic Dean wasn't sure he could keep a lid on. His legs and arms started to numb and his mouth was dry, sweat tricking down his throat and making his shirt stick to his skin. It was hot in the room, the fire never dimming though neither he or the creature across from him ever added wood to it.
He wasn't sure how long he sat there before the doubt started taking hold. His watch told him nothing -- it had stopped at some point. And though the kiva they'd started in had a hole in the ceiling to let the smoke out, this chamber now seemed to stretch up and up into a darkness Dean's eyes couldn't penetrate.
Staring at the kachina made him uncomfortable and he looked away. The fire lent an illusion of warmth to Sam's face, even though his skin was chill, but he didn't look greyed-out and dead, blood pooling in places where it lay. Sam looked like Sam, as Dean rarely saw him, even in sleep, features lax and soft, no worry lines creasing forehead or mouth, dark hair falling in his eyes.
So maybe this wasn't hell, but it was a little like death, and hope was hard to come by when he didn't have Sam's laugher in his ears, or the warmth of him at his back. Even the year he'd been hunting for Sam hadn't felt like this, like Sam was gone someplace Dean couldn't follow. Sam had been out of his sight, out of his reach, but not gone. And partly that was ignorance and partly that was hope.
His mouth felt dry but the thought his throat might be too tight to swallow anything anyway and instead he pressed his forehead to the top of Sam's head and closed his eyes. He may have slept or dozed and when he woke again, Sam was still not breathing, the imposing figure still sat across the fire from him, but the pitcher of water and the covered plate of food Chosovi had brought him was within arm's reach. Dean took the water, awkward with only one hand, but he wouldn't let his fingers slip from Sam's throat.
Bird-eyes was watching him still and he chewed on his lip, because it looked to be waiting for something, only Dean didn't know what. He held out the jug of water, in offering. He didn't even know if the damn thing needed to drink.
The thing chuckled. Laughed softly, as human sounding as Dean did not expect and it rose and circled the fire, to take the jug in its thin, bird-like claws, tipping the jug back and drinking deep.
Dean gestured at the food, clearing his throat a little. "Go ahead, man. I'm not hungry," he offered.
As before, the creature chuckled a little and squatted, pulling the cloth back and taking up a piece of the flat bread. It tore it in half and held out one section to Dean. He didn't want it, but he took it anyway, carefully -- the claws on the end of its hands were wicked sharp -- a bird of prey, a raptor's claws.
Dean hesitated and the creature shook it at him until he reached out to pluck the bread from its claws. The small, dark eyes watched him, and he took a bite, wondering if this were part of all of it, like the food of the fae, or Persephone and her pomegranate seeds, or a communion for the forgiveness of sin.
It was dry and tasteless in his mouth, and the bird-thing made a noise and gestured at Sam. Dean stared and swallowed, the creature rising up, although looking less like a kachina and more like a different denizen of the afterlife, with a man's broad shoulders, sun bronzed skin and the head of a hawk.
Horus now, and he gestured again, fingers to mouth and looking at Sam and held up his portion of the bread.
Dean tore a bit of his own portion free, and used his thumb to open Sam's mouth slightly, glancing at his dark companion before placing the fragment of bread on Sam's tongue. He got an inclination of the hawk-like head and Horus too tossed something on the fire, amber colored rocks that hissed and spit and smelled like desert air and eucalyptus. It pushed the jug back toward him and gestured again.
Dean picked it up, sniffed and drank, expecting water and finding the water sweet and cloying, like honey in beer. At Horus's insistence he drank three times, knowing there was significance but the brew went to his head like something far stronger, pooled the blood in his veins, and made him curl over Sam, afraid he would pass out.
He might have, or fallen asleep because when he jerked his head up again, he was alone with Sam, the fire had burned low, and he could hear the People singing again.
Sam remained still and silent, the only thing moving was a few wisps of hair around his face where a breeze through the open doorway stirred them. He felt neither warm nor cold, body not stiff, skin color unchanged. Dean's body was cramped from long hours of holding and he felt the urge to stretch, to unkink muscles and legs, but half afraid if he let go to stand or move, to go outside to relieve the pressing call of nature, that it might have some significance he didn't understand and couldn't reverse.
He still felt light headed and sniffed at the bottle but smelled only water, and took a swallow to clear the cloying thick taste in his mouth.
A shadow crossed the door and he looked up to see one of the women crouching there, leaving a fresh jug of water, and another plate of food. She met Dean's eyes only briefly and glanced at Sam for a long moment before nodding to Dean and leaving.
She hadn't crossed the threshold, but had left the food there, obviously for Dean, but in order to reach it, Dean would have to get up, and wondered if these people knew more than he, understood this more than he did.
He eased Sam down, settling him back on the blankets, reluctant to let go, and held his breath when he finally did but nothing changed, nothing happened. Sam remained the same, the fire didn't flare, nothing but the same small breeze moved through the kiva.
Stretching -- standing -- brought a hiss of pain to his lips and a sharper discomfort to his bladder and back. He went to the door and pulled the food further in and then saw the small covered pot just inside the doorway. He opened it and it was empty, but there was a dull scent of old urine, not strong or offensive but no doubt what the pot was for.
It made things easier physically, and on recovering the pot, he stood in the doorway, but went no further. He glanced back at Sam, who looked like he was sleeping rather than lifeless.
Nothing had come for him except his strange visitors in the night -- who in the daylight might have as easily been dreams or fear and exhaustion induced hallucinations.
He didn't want to leave the small space. It felt safe here, even with Sam present but missing. Gone, yet still remaining. He was likely to be bored out of his mind in a few hours, or equally as likely to be completely freaked out by his complete inability to do anything but wait. There were no deals to be made here, no options but stay or go.
He couldn't even summon the fear of what would happen if this all went wrong, if it already had. He rubbed at the scars on his hands, and threw more wood on the fire, stretching his fingertips toward it until it was painful, body twitching in reaction and eyes tearing. Held it longer until his hand throbbed and the rush of adrenaline and endorphins made him feel sick, then curled his hand back into his chest, biting his lip through the pain. It didn't ease and the chances were he'd have blisters, maybe new scarring.
The reminder kept him company well into the middle of the day.
He drank some of the water, nibbled at the cold offering of tortillas and beans and some kind of stewed vegetable mash, and then settled down next to Sam again, fingers tracing the dark marks on his shoulder, the names of the lords of the dead.
Finally he stretched out next to Sam and pulled the blanket over both of them. He was glad that Sam was neither cold or stiff, and feeling less awkward than he might with his brother's naked body pulled close to his own.
When he slept he dreamed of nothing.
When he woke, it was near dark again, the last of the sun turning the kiva dark red, and the fire had all but gone out. Sam had rolled over to face him, eyes open to Dean's, watching him. There were tear tracks on Sam's face and his lashes were clumped.
Dean swallowed and pressed his hand to the center of Sam's chest, felt the reassuring thump of his heart, before pulling Sam in closer and brushing his lips across Sam's sweaty forehead. He held onto Sam while he cried a little more and closed his eyes.
Behind him, he thought he heard the rustle of massive wings, and a deep throated chuckle, an admonition.
It sounded a lot like happy new year.
I've been having a great time with the ask me anything polls during the writing of this, and more than one person has asked about the juxtaposition of religion and myth and spirituality that often crops up in my writing, and this story is very much an example of that trend. The idea that all human faith and myth and religion flows from one source and then splits up into various rivers and streams and backflows and diversions appeals to me on a lot of levels. That Dean and Sam would find themselves at a different kind of crossroads where those things converge and mingle also appeals to me.
I think the concepts of heaven and hell in many ways boil down to a single set of points; heaven is that which we desire to be good and true and hell is what we desire not at all and abhor, and either of those two states can be fixed or fluid. There is a point in which Dean feels that life without Sam, without his ability to protect and keep Sam is a hell of it's own, and he trades one for another. There is a point where what Sam desires is to have a life he has only dreamed of without his brother, to make it on his own, only to find that the truth of that is less than ideal. So, in a way, this story is about them both trying to escape a hell that is unbearable, and for Sam, even heaven or paradise is empty if he's there alone.
I have no idea if I'll write more in this. There's a good 5,000 plus words sitting unused on my hard drive -- some of which is about the year Dean is without Sam and working through his own recovery, and tracing Sam's footsteps. Some of it is Sam's decisions and the choices he makes and how -- none of which seemed to fit properly here despite having rewritten them several times.
It's not the first time I've written about an annual pilgrimage Sam makes to save his brother. I doubt it will be the last. It's also not the only time I've written about Dean making a sacrifice to save something he values, only to have it become true that the value is mostly in his own eyes and that without him to be there to give it worth, what he saves is worth nothing.
I should remark here that much of my knowledge of the Hopi and their traditions is cursory rather than a product of deep study or even heavy reading. I'm far more familiar with eastern tribes of native Americans than plains or southwest. The prophecies of the pahana are available to anyone with a search engine, and the description of Masauwu, and the kachina are equally available. I don' t think anyone really needs much imagination to see the similarities between the bird-head kachinas of the Hopi and the hawk-headed representation of the Egyptian god of the underworld, Horus. Funny how the distance of continents and cultures breeds similar myth, no?
For those of you who stuck with this, thank you, and apologies for not responding to the many kind comments.