No infringement is intended of copyright or other property interests in Supernatural and its characters held by Eric Kripke, Warner Brothers Television, and Wonderland Sound & Vision.
Copyright 2008, Bardicvoice
One hundred and twenty-two days.
His face looked gaunt in the bathroom mirror, the strain on it apparent even through the slowly fading fog of condensation from his shower. He didn't want to meet his own eyes, but every morning he forced himself to look. He wasn't sure what he expected to see there, but at least the images of his nightmares didn't seem to show.
His nightmares were different now. He'd have preferred the old ones, the visions of Jess eviscerated and burning on the ceiling and of random evil killing seemingly random strangers. Instead, his dreams replayed Dean's death in hideous detail, drawing out every second of his agonized screams and highlighting in slow motion every spurt of blood from shredded flesh. And they didn't stop there. They went on into Hieronymus Bosch territory, inserting Dean's face and body into Bosch's grotesque paintings of the tortures of Hell, with rotoscoped animation by Ralph Bakshi. He saw Dean slowly flayed, impaled, gutted, raped, blinded, crushed, dismembered, castrated, burned, strangled, drowned – the methods weren't infinite only because his imagination seemed to be on a continuous loop that just reran the same sequence from the beginning. This time around, he didn't have the Trickster's inventiveness to extend the variety.
As if the images themselves didn't bother him enough, he was troubled by realizing that he hadn't experienced them before, with Dad in Dean's place. It had hit him about two weeks after Dean's death that even after he'd learned about Dad's deal, he'd never been plagued with imagining Dad in Hell the way he was now imagining Dean. Now, though, he wondered if Dean had: if part of what Dean had never shared after Dad had died was that he'd constantly been torturing himself by imagining Dad being tortured in Hell because of the deal he'd made for Dean's life. Sam knew how that felt, now. It hurt more than he could say to think that Dean might have felt this way and said nothing of it, but looking back in memory, he could almost see those images buried in Dean's haunted eyes, and he castigated himself for not having seen them then. Not that he could have done anything about it, but at least he should have known. And he felt obscurely guilty that he'd never really thought about Dad suffering – just about him being gone, being dead – until that moment in the Wyoming cemetery when he saw him proud and at peace with love in his eyes, until the moment that all that pain was gone and forgotten.
It'll be gone for Dean, too.
The pledge was automatic. Even though he couldn't put any conviction in it any more, it was the only thing that kept him putting one foot in front of the other. He would find a way to get Dean out of Hell. He'd failed to keep Dean from going there, but he was damned himself if he'd leave him there. He'd keep fighting. He'd pretty much given up believing that he could get Dean back alive – the image of his mangled body rotting in its coffin was another favorite of his nightmares – but he clung to the dream of seeing Dean, intact, smiling in light the same way they'd last seen Dad. Looking in the mirror, he finished his morning ritual the same way he always did, looking himself in the eye since he couldn't look at Dean, touching the cord of Dean's amulet around his neck, and renewing his promise.
I'm going to get you out, Dean. I swear. Whatever it takes.
He wiped off the last of the shaving cream, tossed the damp towel over the rod, and opened the bathroom door, to be met by Ruby brushing past him and elbowing him out of the way.
"I was starting to wonder if you were ever going to get out of there," she complained, practically shutting the door on his ass. Her voice carried effortlessly through the cheap hollow pressed wood veneer. "When a girl's gotta go, she's gotta go."
"If you were in such a hurry, why didn't you just go somewhere else? Seems to me you demons can get anywhere you want to be just by snapping your fingers," he countered, pulling on his jeans and grabbing a t-shirt.
"There are limits," her voice came back. "And it takes effort. Always helps if we're summoned; that takes care of the power boost, right there."
"I wouldn't have thought you'd have to go. Wasn't the body dead when you moved in?"
"C'mon, for way less than a minute. Everything started right back up like a charm, just like on all those TV doctor shows. Except that it was me turning the heart key, not some machine." The toilet flushed, and he heard water running in the sink. "As long as I'm in here, everything runs just fine, and I've been taking good care of it." She pulled the door open and leered at him from behind the towel, running a hand seductively down her body from breast to thigh. "As you should know by now."
He turned away, feeling queasy. The first time he'd taken Ruby, almost a month after Dean had died, it had been hard and fast and brutal, all rage and despair and hate aimed as much at himself as at her. Afterward, though – the second time had been born of grief and loneliness, sad and almost tender, and then she'd held him while he'd cried. It still felt wrong, but when the frustration and the nightmares and the grief got to be too much, he took the escape she offered. It was just a relief of a different kind. Sometimes, though, his skin still crawled when he remembered that no matter what Ruby looked or acted like, he was screwing a demon.
But that was still better than letting someone else, someone innocent and human, get close to him and get hurt.
"Take a shower and get dressed," he said, shrugging into a cotton shirt that had seen better days. Hell, what hadn't seen better days? And what did it matter, anyway? "We've got a long drive to Georgia."
She closed the door again – as if that mattered in such a cheap place – and he heard the water start. He started shoving things into his duffel.
"So, what's in Georgia?" she called.
In the beginning, Ruby had directed all the hunts, pointing him toward demons with whatever witchcraft or weird demon radar she used. After they'd escaped Lilith's trap and he'd accepted his need for more practice before trying to take her on again, though, he'd finally gotten back into the game, trolling through internet news, obituaries, paranormal websites, and weather trackers in search of possible cases. As he'd begun picking targets, Ruby had backed off, following his lead instead. He had the sense that she was watching him, weighing his choices, but that as long as he was functioning and mostly sober, she was willing to give him at least the illusion of freedom and choice. Somehow, they still managed to run across more demons than he ever remembered encountering before. He wasn't certain if that was simply due to more demons being out there, or if he'd begun developing some sensitivity of his own. Ruby gave him no hints on that score, and just continued to work with him on honing and strengthening his ability to pull demons out of their hosts.
"I don't know, but whatever it is, I think it's either on or following the S/V Denis Sullivan, a sailing cruise ship. There's been freak weather from the St. Lawrence Seaway all down the Eastern seaboard for the past two weeks, and the reports match the schooner's ports of call. It put in at Savannah last night, and it's due to stay the next four days."
"A demon on a sailing cruise – that's a new one. Guess somebody's enjoying being out of Hell." The water shut off. "I can appreciate that."
"So glad you approve," he said dryly. He picked up his duffel and the laptop case and headed for the door. "I'm loading the car. Don't take too long, or you'll be doing the demon shuffle there on your own; it's a nine-hour drive, and time's a-wasting." He didn't wait to hear her comeback, but shouldered through the door into the parking lot. He never knew in advance whether she would join him or not. Sometimes she rode with him like the human she pretended to be; other times, she'd just disappear, and simply turn up waiting for him wherever it was they were going. He'd never discerned a pattern to her choices and he was never sure which he preferred. Being alone on the road just left him too much time for thinking, but looking over and seeing Ruby in the seat next to him never failed to bring the thought, Dean would hate having a demon in the car. At least he never let her drive.
The Impala waited for him under the early morning Virginia sun, the one and only constant in his life. He took care of her as best he could; he wasn't Dean, but he'd learned. He'd kept her mostly as Dean had left her, even as the steady passage of time argued that Dean would never drive her again. She was the last bastion of his stubborn refusal to accept that Dean was gone. He never tried to impose order on the disorganized mess of the arsenal and the scatter of tools in her trunk, no matter how much the random jumble offended his sensibilities; the cheerful haphazardness was an echo of Dean. He vividly remembered having sorted it out rigidly when the Trickster had made him accept Dean's death once before, and he adamantly refused to make that mistake again. Instead, he let the fleeting irritation of old arguments on organization warm his memories every time he opened the messy trunk, no matter how wrong it felt to heave in only one duffel.
He slid into the driver's seat, but didn't key the ignition. The white iPod gleaming in its jack on the dashboard was glaringly obvious, still incongruously out of place even after nearly two months. It marked his only change to the car, and he excused it to Dean's imagined protest as necessary self-defense. When he'd driven away from Bobby at Dean's grave, the oppression of lonely silence had prompted him to turn on the tape deck, only to ambush him with Dean's music. He'd felt the songs' accusation of his failure so acutely that he'd pulled off the road, staggered out of the car, and thrown up. He'd bundled Dean's tapes into his leather jacket and buried them in the trunk, only to learn that the radio was no safer. There were emotional minefields lurking in the airwaves, and he'd nearly put his hand clean through the dash trying to punch off the radio when some random rock station played Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead Or Alive." After that, he'd bought the iPod and carefully loaded it only with things that Dean would never have listened to. Safe things that wouldn't evoke memories of Dean alive and grinning, singing loudly and happily off-key, poking him to join in.
He closed his eyes against the burn, waiting for the latest memory to subside. They still came out of nowhere with no warning, stirred by a sound or a smell or an image or a thought, and overwhelmed him with grief. No matter what people said about time healing all wounds, he didn't think anything would heal Dean's absence, not given the certain knowledge that he was suffering in Hell. He couldn't lie to himself with the comforting thought that Dean had gone to a better place when he knew that the opposite was true, and that Dean had gone there because of him. He endured the memories as his own form of punishment.
The passenger door creaked open and Ruby bounced onto the seat and slammed the door, tossing her small backpack into the back seat.
"You still here? I thought you were in a hurry."
Irritation flashed, ironically wiping away the deeper pain, and he turned the key, momentarily amused at the thought of being grateful to a demon for pissing him off. He left it unspoken and just headed for the highway, putting it in the rearview right along with the irony of leaving Winchester, Virginia. He turned on the iPod to be spared the necessity of conversation, and relaxed into the drive.
Or tried to, anyway.
"This one almost got away from you, you know," Ruby said, her tone deliberately casual. "You need to stop hesitating and just pull them straight out."
"I pulled him," he snapped. "It worked."
"But not before he got to you." She hesitated – he heard her take a breath – and then continued. "You need to stop asking, Sam. They're not going to tell you anything about Dean that you really want to hear. Most of them wouldn't know anything, anyway. Anything they say is going to have just one purpose: to hurt you, make you falter. You can't give them that chance. All they'll do is lie."
The great Dean Winchester ... He begged. All hung up on hooks like a side of beef. He cried and he pleaded and he begged. When I got my turn, I buggered him with a knife, and he screamed and screamed and…
"I pulled him." His tone was flat, a warning she ignored.
"And how bad was the headache? You nearly passed out from the pain, and the bleeding was the worst it's ever been. You've got to let it go."
The road blurred in front of his eyes, and he shook his head hard to clear it.
"I can't. If I'm not angry, it doesn't work."
"That's not the problem. Wrath is good. Anger makes you strong. So does hate. But grief? Guilt? Pain? Fear? Those things make you weak. They make you fight yourself. They make you uncertain. They make you doubt. That's why you hurt. You've got so much more power than you've ever been able to use, and it's all because you're holding yourself back. You've got to let go." She let the words hang for a moment, and then played the trump card. "If you're ever going to take on Lilith head-to-head and win, you've got to let it go. Just use the power; don't agonize over it. Don't waste effort on things you can't change, on things that don't matter."
"Dean matters!" His fury transferred to the car; he felt the surge as his foot mashed the pedal down, and he yanked the wheel to swerve the car past other traffic suddenly moving too slowly for his rage. In the engine's sudden snarl he heard Dean chiding: Hey, hey – don't take it out on my baby. You promised to take care of my wheels, remember? He eased off the pedal a bit, and the engine settled back to its steady throb. "Dean matters," he repeated softly.
"I'm sorry, Sam. I didn't mean to suggest that he didn't." He could hear the caution in her tone, the careful deliberation in her choice of words. Since she'd come back, she'd learned to tread lightly around Dean's name and used it sparingly. "But you can't keep torturing yourself like this. You're doing the demons' jobs for them. Be angry – fine. Be vengeful – fine. But don't think too much. Don't feel too much. And don't ask demons about Dean."
He kept his focus on the road and didn't look at her, but the question he hadn't yet asked burned its way out anyway.
"Not even you? Did you see him, while you were back in Hell?"
She sucked in a breath, and he counted the beats when she exhaled. The tension thrummed like an over-tightened guitar string, and he waited for it to snap or subside.
"Sam, I swear – I didn't see him. Wherever Lilith sent me, he wasn't there. I swear."
"Would you tell me if he was?" he asked bitterly.
"If it would make you focus!" she snapped back. "Hell's a big place, Sam. I was there for centuries and never saw a fraction of it. This last time? Lilith had her fun with me, and that was all. Wherever Dean wound up, I haven't a clue. And that's the truth." The passion in her voice didn't mean anything; he knew from experience – both his and Dean's – that she could lie with conviction. But there was a weary edge to it that sounded defeated and real. "I don't know what Hell is, for Dean. I don't know where in Hell he is. But whatever you're thinking? It's worse. Hell isn't limited by the human imagination. So you trying to imagine what he's going through, or listening to demons tell you what they want you to hear – none of it means a thing. Not to him. All it does is work against you."
He had no answer for that. The highway ran under the Impala's wheels, smooth and boring; there wasn't a lot of traffic on I-81, out away from the occasional city. Dean would have cranked the window down and the music up; he left them both alone.
The miles ran in virtual silence for a while, just engine noise and meaningless songs that made no more impression than elevator Muzak. Ruby carefully didn't look at him and he kept the same distance, trying not to think, until she finally cleared her throat.
"So – this case, Sam. This – sailing ship? C'mon, tell me about it."
Tell me about the psychotic killer. C'mon, Sam – tell me about the psychotic killer. He swallowed against the memory of Dean using the same tone and the same gambit to break away from an argument, and then slammed the door on the thought, throwing himself back into the details of the hunt for distraction.
"The Denis Sullivan is a reproduction of a nineteenth century Great Lakes cargo schooner. Spends the summer sailing out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then goes through the Saint Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic to spend the winter down in Florida and the Caribbean. It's not your standard cruise ship; it's a teaching vessel, history, oceanography, seamanship. Sleeps twenty-eight: ten crew, up to eighteen students and teachers."
"Doesn't sound like a demon's playground," she said doubtfully.
"You wouldn't think so. But they hit weird weather off the Bay of Fundy and it's tracked their course all down the East Coast. Most storms run west to east, or come up from the southeast in hurricane season; whatever they're dealing with, it isn't natural."
"So – demon?"
"Or cursed object, maybe. The ship has an authentic nineteenth century deck, but it's twenty-first century all the way in communications technology; they post a blog report from the cruise every few days. According to the blog, they visited an old wreck near the bay and did some diving just before the weather blew up. I'm thinking they brought up something."
"And depending on what it is, it either has its own power, or it's attracted the attention of something else," Ruby finished. "Nasty."
"Wherever they put into port, they offer ship tours, and sometimes short cruises. I figure it should be easy enough to get on board. The ship is publicity-friendly; we'll be reporters." He snorted. "Hell – we can even ask about the freak weather as our hook for the story."
It was raining when they reached Savannah. He'd pushed the drive, although not as hard as Dean would have, so it was just after four when they'd pulled into a little motel on the outskirts of the city just long enough to grab a quick shower and change of clothes. It was still short of five when he parked the Impala on East Bay Lane, a few blocks up from the scenic riverfront. The gray-green color of the overcast sky made it look later and turned the famously pretty historic district of the Southern city into a gloomy, foreboding Victorian painting.
Her three tall masts made the S/V Denis Sullivan easy to spot. The ship was tied up near the Riverfront Marriott, east of the ferry docks, right beside the deserted Riverwalk. Her deep green hull and oak deck gleamed darkly with the unseasonably cold rain that had driven off the usual tourists. The deck was empty and the gangway was roped off, and he hunched his shoulders, feeling faintly ridiculous as he glanced across at Ruby and raised his voice.
"Uh, ahoy the ship? Denis Sullivan?"
He wasn't expecting the blonde head that popped out from the deckhouse. Somehow, the majestic, historical tall ship didn't match a pert, cheerful twenty-something woman smaller than Ruby, shrugging into a yellow rain slicker.
"Sorry – wasn't expecting visitors in this weather. How can I help you?"
"We freelance for Savannah Magazine – I'm Allen Collins, and this is Billie Powell. We're thinking of doing a feature on your visit. May we come aboard?"
"You're welcome, but no one's here at the moment. The ship's company was invited to dinner tonight at the Ships of the Sea Museum." She grinned and unhooked the gangway chain, opening their way aboard. "I drew the short straw and got the watch. Terry Donovan, deckhand." Her small hand was strong and calloused in his, evidence of experience with lines and sails. "I'd be glad to give you the tour, if you'd like. If you need interviews, we might be able to set something up for tomorrow, or the day after."
"That would be great. And maybe the weather would be better for pictures."
"It's been filthy the whole trip, ever since we passed Nova Scotia. I sailed the transit last year, and it was beautiful. Go figure." She guided them into the deckhouse, where all resemblance to an historic vessel promptly disappeared in the accoutrements of a modern lab and classroom, with a traditional chart table beside a state-of-the-art electronic navigation station. She grinned at their obvious surprise.
"Takes everyone that way. Wait until you see below decks: most people don't even have to duck. We've got six feet, four inches of headroom down below, something you'd never have seen on a real schooner of the day. She's also lot heavier and with a deeper draft, which makes her more stable than most. Comes in handy when the seas get rough." She chattered amiably as she showed them the captain's quarters and the head, and then guided them through the companionway to the below deck area, with its three main compartments and very snug, cubbyhole-style berths built into the walls and hidden behind white cotton curtains. Sam obligingly took pictures. They finished up in the large aft compartment, where she treated them to coffee from the galley.
"It will take daylight and preferably sunlight to show off the deck," she finished. "Besides all the rigging, we've got our tender and ROV stored topside, near the winch." The blank looks on their faces made her laugh and backtrack. "Sorry, I forget English sometimes. The tender is our small maintenance and rescue boat. The ROV is our underwater remotely operated vehicle, the robot we send on dives."
"You do that a lot?"
"Well, we are a research ship. We take a lot of underwater samples, and sometimes we investigate wrecks. We had a bit of excitement with that this trip, just before the weather turned ugly. That's why we got the dinner invitation to the museum tonight. We brought along some artifacts from a dive off St. Paul Island, to get help authenticating them. We think we found the Mette Margrethe, a barque out of Sauwig, Norway. The records show she caught fire in a fog and sank in 1881. Five men died, and that's pretty much all we know."
"What kind of artifacts?" Ruby asked, the edge in her voice betraying her eagerness. He shot her a look, but Donovan just chuckled.
"Not gold doubloons, if that's what you're thinking! We brought up some broken pottery, but the really interesting piece was a small lead and iron box with a silver goblet and ring inside. We took pictures; hang on a sec." She stretched across the table to snag the notebook computer lying there and powered it up. "We haven't had the chance to post them to the online log yet, but – here." She turned the screen so they could see, and tapped the key to toggle through a series of images. Each photo included either a gloved hand or a ruler to provide scale, showing first a rough-textured, pebbled black box about twelve inches long and eight inches wide and deep, and then a goblet about eight inches high, with a four-inch bowl. The metal of the cup was a good quarter-inch thick with a deeply carved, almost crude design of two ravens, each one covering half of the outside of the bowl. The birds were nearly black with tarnish, with only a few bright silver highlights showing, but the inside of the bowl gleamed brightly. Each bird had a single glittering dark ruby or garnet eye. The heavy ring bore the same double raven design in miniature, and displayed the same bold, primitively brutal workmanship.
"Beautiful, aren't they? They look Norse – after all, ravens are Odin's birds – but we definitely wanted more scholars to take a look. As you can see, there wasn't much left of the ship – " The dark underwater photo on the screen wasn't anything that he could even remotely identify, seeming just to depict two spot-lit irregular wooden slabs lying on edge in mud, and Donovan spread an apologetic hand. "The cold water that far north preserves wrecks pretty well – they last a lot longer up there than in the Caribbean! – but since she evidently burned before she sank, there wasn't much to go on. And since there have been something on the order of ten thousand wrecks off Nova Scotia, pinning it down to a single ship is a bit of a challenge." She grinned. "Still, we know where we'd put our bets."
"Could we have copies of those photos?" he asked.
"Sure. I'll burn them to CD right now, if you've got a minute. We'll get them up on the web in a day or two, before we leave port, anyway. I'm hoping that the museum folks might be able to come up with more info on the artifacts in a few weeks or months, see if there's anything that would establish the identity of the ship."
"Who gets to keep them?" he asked.
"Not us, more's the pity! They'll stay here at the museum for a while, at least. If their provenance is established, who knows? The Norwegian government may want them. My bet would be they'll eventually go on display at a maritime museum somewhere, whether this one or the one in Nova Scotia. Or Norway!" She popped out the CD, tucked it into a sleeve, and handed it to him with a flourish. He found himself thinking that her attitude was proof that at least the cup and ring weren't cursed to make people covet them.
"Thanks for all your help," he said. He could see Ruby already itching to follow the goblet and the ring, but he kept to the form of their cover. "We'll talk to our editor, see if she's interested in a story. If she is, we'll be back for the deck visit and more interviews."
"We're always happy to oblige," Donovan said cheerfully. "Just hail the ship. We sail early on Thursday, though, so step lively." She opened the companionway door, then winced and pulled up the hood of her slicker against the rain. "And pray for better weather!"
The sidewalks were still deserted as they crossed the gangway and started back to the car. Ruby wasted no time.
"We've either got to get those things back in their curse box or find a way to destroy them," she said.
"Tell me something I don't know," Sam snapped back, then took a breath and forced himself to organize his thoughts. "We'll need to case the museum, figure out the alarm system, and deal with it. And be ready to be the number one suspects when the damned things disappear." The sinking feeling in his stomach was all too familiar, and this time he didn't have Dean's manic enthusiasm for a challenge to counteract it. There was just too much that could go wrong in stealing things, and he had no desire to see the inside of a jail again.
"It's a fair bet the museum will be closed tomorrow, so we won't be able to visit it then." At Ruby's interrogative look, he shrugged. "Every place we've ever been in Georgia, Monday was always the day tourist things were closed. So, we'll try to find plans to the building, see what we can learn. Then case it during the day on Tuesday, and go in Tuesday night."
"Unless those things being out of their box and in one place means that all hell breaks loose sooner," Ruby observed, and Sam snorted.
"Yeah. Well, every silver lining has a cloud."
One hundred and twenty-three days.
Monday was as dead as he had feared, but more productive than he'd hoped. First and foremost, the rain stopped Sunday night while he and Ruby were walking casually around the block dominated by the elegant cream-colored 1819 mansion that housed the museum, and the atmosphere seemed to lighten up despite the darkness of the night. His best guess was that the goblet and ring had been put back in their iron and lead shielded box, which at least would likely buy them time.
The sign outside the museum grounds showed public hours Tuesday through Sunday from ten until five. Ruby stuck out her tongue when he pointed to the words and raised an eyebrow, but refrained from any verbal sallies. They strolled like casual, gawking tourists around the entire complex, following the fig-covered wall of the mansion garden and peering through the gates, admiring the profusion of flowers and the brick pathways revealed by the garden's artistic illumination. From the sound of things, there was a private party going on under the white tent in the central garden – undoubtedly the museum's celebration for the Denis Sullivan crew – but he wouldn't have tried conning their way in even if there hadn't been a uniformed cop on site obviously moonlighting as a security guard. There were subtle cameras on the walls positioned to catch not only the sidewalk and the pathways, but glimpses of the street as well. He was glad he'd left the Impala parked a few blocks away; the car was too memorable.
Collecting the car, they drove back to the motel, and he hit the internet. The museum was obliging enough to have posted a virtual tour, although it left off all the non-public areas he really wanted to see. He also found that, although the museum wasn't ordinarily considered a research facility, it had a renowned authority on nineteenth century maritime trade as a guest scholar in residence for six months, which helped explain why the Denis Sullivan had brought its find here. Not that the guy was likely to realize that he had something supernatural on his hands.
When his books, the internet, and Dad's journal all turned up empty on anything even remotely relevant to the cup, the ring, and the evident curse box, he toyed with the idea of calling Bobby, but shut it down nearly as fast as the thought occurred. Bobby would want to know too much. He'd sniff out Ruby in an instant, and it would be a short road from that to sussing out that he'd been using his powers. He wasn't ready for that. Not yet. Seeing judgment in Bobby's eyes would be too much to bear.
Just like seeing it in Dean's.
He flipped back to Norse mythology, but found nothing beyond what he already remembered: Odin sacrificing an eye for wisdom and prophetic knowledge, being attended by ravens of thought and memory, bringing fury and victory in war, doing magic despite its female connotations, being slain by the wolf Fenris at Ragnarök. None of it gave him any better handle on how a cup and a ring could bring storms, or how their power could be dispelled. Hell, the whole reason for building a curse box was usually to contain dangerous magic you didn't know how to destroy without potentially blowing yourself up in the process, or thought you might need to hold in reserve as a doomsday weapon of your own.
He'd never forget that damned rabbit's foot. Sure, Bobby'd found a workable ritual in time, but he definitely hadn't known about it when Dad had first acquired the thing and asked him to build the curse box to hold it. He didn't really believe that either Bobby or Dad had ever intended to use the foot as a weapon – although it had worked pretty well when Dean had tricked Bela into touching it. A wry smile tugged at his mouth, and he shook his head to try shaking his thoughts back into order.
Memories wouldn't change the present.
He and Ruby got another look at the museum in daylight. With the gates locked, they couldn't get close enough to give him a look at the security system, but it seemed pretty clear that the place didn't bother with human guards during off-hours. The next stop was the Savannah Research Library and Municipal Archives, where earnest politeness, fake credentials, and a lot of sweet talking gained access to historical information on the Scarbrough House, the mansion restored to become the museum, including the renovation plans approved in the 1990's by the Historic District Board of Review. The plans didn't include the security measures, but long experience left him reasonably confident about what he'd be likely to find where. The museum wasn't a high-risk target. It had very few really intrinsically valuable items like gold or jewels in its collection, focusing more on ship models and paintings, tools, logbooks, records, and ordinary artifacts of the shipping life, so he bet that the security system would be relatively simple, relying on cameras and electric eyes rather than elaborate motion or infrared sensors.
As usual, Ruby disappeared during the library visit. The nuts and bolts of case investigation bored her every bit as much as they'd always bored Dean. Oh, Dean would have been all over the building plans themselves, gleefully plotting the break-in, but he'd have found the process of unearthing them tedious in the extreme, and he wouldn't have hesitated to say so. His own mind supplied the snarky comments that Dean wasn't around to deliver, filling up the silence with echoes of Dean's voice. Wouldn't mind investigating that rack accompanied the passage of a well-built, forty-something brunette clerk with an indulgent smile, and the groaning Oh, God – not another stack greeted the delivery of four more record books. He almost turned to hush him, before remembering that the voice was only in his mind.
Would always be in his mind.
Ruby sauntered up to him as he left the library building in mid-afternoon sunshine, when public hours ended.
"Get what you need?" she asked, and he nodded.
"Enough, I think."
"Good." She put her arm through his and pressed close against his side, making them the image of a tourist couple, leaning in the direction she wanted them to go. "You were geeking out all through lunch, and I'm starving."
He hadn't noticed, but her words made his stomach growl and he gave in with poor grace, letting her pull him toward whatever restaurant she'd picked to assuage her customary craving for french fries. She smelled sourly of cigarettes and booze, and he pulled away for fresher air.
"Where've you been?"
"Around." At his irritated snort, she yanked on his arm to reclaim his attention. "I was checking out the demonic neighborhood, okay? There's nothing shaking, here; I don't think there's another demon for miles around. Whatever's going on with the cup and the ring, it hasn't set off any echoes in Hell, anyway. Some things are like beacons, but this isn't one of them."
He couldn't figure out how to respond, being equally torn between too bad and good thing. Not having to keep one eye over his shoulder for outside interference would be a relief, but it was always nice when cocky demons came after him just begging to be taken off the board instead of making him hunt them down. Now that he knew what he was doing, if too many days went by without the challenge and adrenaline rush of a mental exorcism, he got itchy and impatient like a gunslinger looking for a fight. At least when he went up against a demon he was doing something, even if it wasn't the one thing he most wanted. And when the host survived – that just helped make the whole day worthwhile. Saving people, hunting things – that was the family business, right? It's all that Dean had wanted, and he was starting to understand the attraction. All the anger, all the hate – it was a relief to turn it loose, to unleash it on another bastard out of Hell. The righteous satisfaction never lasted long – he never forgot Dean, never – but at least it sometimes let him sleep without dreams.
Unless the demon got in a few choice verbal shots before it got evicted. He screamed and screamed and ...
Maybe Ruby had a point.
After eating, they went back to the motel, and he spent a couple of hours cleaning weapons and choosing the tools he thought they might need the following night while Ruby flipped through the television channels, still fascinated by the diversions technology offered. He set up the printer and ginned up business cards for his reporter alias, and then learned his way around the Savannah Magazine website, memorizing names and looking at past stories to get a feel for what would sound authentic. He was amused to discover that Savannah tour companies offered "ghost rides" in romantic horse-drawn carriages, showing off the historic locations of reputed hauntings, and idly wondered what he'd turn up if he took one. When his eyes started to cross from fatigue, he closed the laptop, brushed his teeth, and went to bed, just turning his back on Ruby. He could almost pretend that it was Dean sprawled on the other bed, except that Dean would never have chosen to watch some idiot sitcom. Well, unless it had cute chicks – in which case he'd still have turned the volume down and just appreciated the view. Still, the thought made him smile, and that was the image he carried into sleep.
One hundred and twenty-four days.
Through a bit of telephone magic promptly at ten o'clock Tuesday morning, they scored an appointment with Dr. Harkness, the maritime expert, for two o'clock.
The non-forecast thunderstorm started at eleven thirty.
With the rain drumming in the background when they were admitted to Harkness's office promptly at two, he wasn't surprised to see the open box, the goblet, and the ring sitting on the credenza behind the scholar's desk, surrounded by papers and with both latex and white cotton gloves lying nearby. He wasn't prepared for Ruby's gasp behind him, and glanced back to see her shocked eyes wide and fixed on the cup and the ring. He jostled her with an elbow to break her gaze before Harkness would notice, and then stepped forward and captured the scholar's hand and his attention.
"Thanks for seeing us, sir. We appreciate your time."
Harkness looked the image of a scholar, a man in his early sixties carrying a bit of extra weight, with gray frosting his wiry black hair. His warm brown eyes danced with intelligence and a hint of skepticism behind gold-rimmed glasses.
"I was surprised at the request, Mr. Collins," he said. "I wouldn't have thought your magazine would be interested in us."
"To be honest, we don't know whether our editor will buy into it, either," he answered with his best disarming smile. "We freelance stories, and the more connections there are to the city, the better the chance the magazine will buy them. We thought of trying one on the Denis Sullivan, since she stops by every year, and when we learned that she'd brought artifacts to the museum for authentication, we thought we'd check with you for another link to Savannah."
Harkness waved them to chairs. Ruby seemed to have recovered her composure, although her eyes kept drifting back to the cup and ring with an odd mix of dread and wonder even as she flipped open her notebook and at least pretended to take notes.
"I don't know how much help I can be," the scholar said. "Investigating these things will take time, and I've only just begun. About all I can tell you now is exactly what you can see." He spread a hand toward the things displayed on the credenza. "The goblet and ring are silver, engraved with ravens with garnet eyes. The box is iron lined with lead. If I were a gambling man, I'd say that the cup and the ring were both the work of the same artist, and that – based on their design – they're a lot older than the eighteen-hundreds, but it's going to take work to actually date them."
"How can you do that?" he asked, genuinely interested. "Carbon dating only works on material that was once living, right? So you couldn't use that on silver."
"You've done your homework," Harkness said approvingly. "Dating metal artifacts is still a developing science. There's been a lot of work done on dating smelting using carbon introduced during the smelting process, and also on dating metals by analyzing their corrosion, determining the corrosion rate, and calculating how much of the original artifact has corroded. Those techniques work for iron and lead – they would work on the box – but I can't speak for whether they would work on the silver. It's outside my area of expertise, and we'll be consulting with other experts from around the world to figure that out. But we'll also be sending photos, samples, and measurements to other museums to compare these pieces with other known artifacts, to see whether similarities could give us a clue to their origins. It's going to take a long time; probably more months than I'll be here as resident scholar. Whoever follows me will inherit the project." He chuckled. "I don't know whether this will work to the advantage of your story or not, but these artifacts are likely to stay right here in Savannah for a good, long time."
He smiled with amiable humor he didn't feel, looking at the cold ravens and hearing the storm outside the glass. He waved toward the artifacts.
"Don't they need to be protected from the local elements to prevent any contamination? I'm surprised to see them just sitting there, rather than being in some sealed display case or even locked away."
"That's not a big concern with non-reactive metals. Most of our major conservation efforts involve not touching them with skin, since the oils on our hands can cause problems. That's why the gloves are there; metal artifacts are always handled only with gloves on. But after what these things have been through across the centuries, a little indirect light and modern air aren't likely to do any damage. I expect we'll be displaying these in a special exhibit once we finish with all the documenting photos and samples. And that work – well, most of it, anyway – can be done right here."
"Well, thank you for your time, Doctor – it's been fascinating. I don't know whether it will help sell the story or not, but I learned something, and I appreciate it." He stood up and offered his hand again, and Harkness shook it.
"Glad to be of service. I'll admit, I'll be following what happens to these things even after I leave. If it turns out they were on the Mette Margrethe, anything more we learn about them could teach us more about the ship, and that's where my particular interest lies. Good luck with the story."
A few more pleasantries saw them out of the museum. The rainy weather was keeping tourists to a minimum, and with no one around in the garden, Ruby wasted no time grabbing his arm.
"A demon, Sam!"
Ruby was shivering, and the rain wasn't cold enough to explain that. Her eyes looked almost haunted.
"The cup and the ring: there's a demon bound to them, somehow. I've never seen anything like it." At his look of mute incomprehension, she shook his arm to demand his focus. "Look, when I look at a possessed human, I see the demon inside, right? Like Dean did, before he died. When I looked at those things, I saw a demon inside them, but it wasn't like a possession; more like it was – trapped inside somehow. In pieces, split between the cup and the ring. Like someone ripped it apart and stuck one half in the ring, and the other half in the goblet. One demon, two pieces, but still connected."
"So – what? Someone puts on the ring, picks up the cup, and – completes a possession connection?"
She gave his arm one last yank and then released it, irritation overcoming the lingering fear in her eyes.
"What part of 'never seen anything like this' did you not understand? I don't know." She chewed her lip. "It sounds reasonable, though," she admitted hesitantly, gradually calming down as she tried to work the problem through. "But the way it's connected ... I think the demon would still be attached to the things, even with a human host in the circuit. I don't think it could leave."
"And so the question becomes, could I make it leave?"
They stared at each other through the grey curtain of rain, hearing thunder rumbling almost steadily at the very edges of perception. Ruby looked away first.
"I don't know," she admitted. "It's – different – from the way a demon links into a host. You can break those bonds, but this? I don't know. It's ..."
A sudden image flared in his brain.
"Like a binding link?" She looked at him without understanding, and he fought the urge to scratch the old scar on his right forearm. "Something we ran into before: magic that a demon could use to lock itself inside a host to keep from being exorcised."
"That one's not in the usual demon handbook," she observed wryly, and her mouth quirked. "You'd have to be real fond of a host body to take a chance on being trapped in it forever, if you misplaced the key."
"Breaking the integrity of the sealing symbol worked to break the link," he said. In his head, he remembered Bobby dressing the throbbing, angry burn on his arm – the brand over a brand that he still couldn't remember getting – while quietly telling him a little of what he'd missed, his voice deliberately pitched not to carry to where Dean sat, silent and drained, curled around an icepack. "Maybe that would work here."
"So – did you see anything in the designs that looked like a binding link?"
"No, but that doesn't mean that it's not there. I wasn't looking for it before." Having a purpose and a plan sent an adrenaline rush through his system, a surge of vigor that launched him into motion and lengthened his stride until Ruby was practically trotting to keep up with his rush back to the car. "We need to get back to the motel and look through those detail photos."
Two hours later, the energy had drained away like water.
The goblet and the ring bore nothing remotely resembling the scar on his arm. The photos from the Denis Sullivan covered every facet and every inch of both artifacts, so he couldn't persuade himself that there was any hope he'd missed something. And if he'd thought that marring the overall raven designs themselves might work, the photographic evidence of old damage to the silver already provided mute contradiction: a dent in one side of the heavy cup broke the harsh lines of one raven, and a deep scratch like a knife-score sliced across one wing on the ring. The only circular elements anywhere in the designs were the ravens' garnet eyes, and even those were dulled and scarred by time, their facets worn down.
"We'll just have to steal the things and the curse box," Ruby said finally. "Put them back inside and bury it somewhere it will never be found. Dump it back into the sea."
"Not exactly equipped with a boat," he muttered distractedly, and then shook himself. Wouldn't be the first time he was wanted for a crime; wouldn't be the last. Not having a secure place to secrete the curse box bothered him, though. He couldn't very well keep it in the Impala's trunk, and simply burying it somewhere was just asking for trouble; there were never any guarantees that something buried wouldn't be found. After all, it was the whole nature of curses to spread, and even lead-lined iron might not be enough to contain this one, not after the seal had been broken and the box already opened once.
But he didn't see much choice.
"Okay: we'll go in after midnight. Take out the power, get in, get the stuff, get out, and get far away from here." He ran a hand through his hair, trying unsuccessfully to scrub away the exhaustion of depression. "I'm going to grab some sleep."
When he got up at eleven o'clock, he wasn't sure how much rest he'd actually gotten. The incessant storm had grumbled through his fragmentary dreams, heavy with vague threats, and he felt weighted down as he packed the car, stashing the small duffel with his selection of break-in tools in the back seat. They drove the few miles into town in silence, parking the car several blocks away from their goal, safely out of sight. The storm had given him an idea, though, so instead of going straight to the museum, he arranged a little accident for the neighborhood transformer. The resulting power arc exploded in a dramatic shower of searing golden sparks, a reasonably good imitation of a lightning strike that plunged the entire neighborhood into the dark.
And he'd guessed right: there was no backup generator at the museum to run the security measures. Battery-operated emergency lights were shining when they arrived at the doors, but the cameras and electric eyes were dead. He cross-wired the internal security panel just in case the power came back up sooner than he expected, and then they moved soft-footed to Harkness's office, following their flashlight beams.
And that's where everything fell apart. The cup and the ring still sat on the credenza, but the curse box was gone.
A frenzied search turned up nothing, and with no power in the building, he couldn't access the computer on Harkness's desk to search its records. Aware of every minute ticking past, counting down the expected time for the local utility to repair the blown transformer, he slammed his hand down on the desk in frustration.
"Damn! He said they could do most of the work here, not all of it; they must have sent the box away for testing, since that was the one thing they could actually date."
"So what do we do now? Moving those things without protection would be insane. And if they stay outside the box too much longer, this storm is going to become a whole lot worse than it is." Ruby rolled her shoulders and twitched uncomfortably. "I can feel the power building; can't you?"
He wasn't sure what he felt. The artifacts' garnet eyes glittered coldly, catching his flashlight beam, and their malice curled in the pit of his stomach. Whether it was his imagination or a real sense, his hand shook.
He never actually saw demons, not the way that Ruby could – not the way that Dean had, there at the end – but he'd learned to feel them, when he reached out with his mind to unhook them from their hosts. Closing his eyes, he extended a hand toward the artifacts, not coming close enough to touch, but trying to feel with his mind for the demon inside. He sensed – something – but there was nothing he could get a grip on, just the cold smoothness of metal. He opened his eyes.
"I can't get a grip. It's not – in a human, a demon doesn't fit. There are – gaps – I can push through, between the demon and the body. Like sliding a hand under a shirt. There aren't any gaps in the metal."
"What if there were a body?"
He turned sharply, but she wasn't looking at him; her eyes were on the artifacts, and she licked her lips.
"What if a human body completed the circuit, and pulled the demon into three things at once? If you got a grip on one part of it, maybe you could pull it all."
"And maybe not!" The revulsion nearly made him sick. "And I'm not going to let some innocent get possessed just to try!"
"It was just an idea," she said, breaking her gaze, but not meeting his eyes either. He felt something niggling at his brain as he looked at her, and time seemed to slow down.
"Maybe – maybe there is a way. Without hurting anyone else."
He saw the moment when she understood. Her eyes widened and she backed away.
"No. No way. I'm not going to get caught in this thing. You're insane."
"Am I? You're the one who thought of it first." His lip curled. "You keep reminding me there's no one in that body but you. So if you got out, nobody else would get hurt. If I can pull the demon, fine; it goes, you come back. If I can't, I use the knife. I'm guessing that if a third of a demon dies, the whole demon dies."
"And what about me?"
"How many hosts have you had, Ruby? How many people? Find another body the way you found this one." His eyes hardened, and his grip on the flashlight turned his knuckles white. "But no innocents get hurt. Not on my watch. Not when I can help it." The thunder rumbled in dangerous counterpoint, and lightning flashed across the windows. He heard sirens in the distance and knew that time was running out. Utility trucks would be on the scene by now, and cops would be directing traffic where the lights were out. And he could sense that the storm outside was getting worse. He pinned her with his eyes and the force of his will, and he waited. And after a long count, he saw her deflate.
"All right. All right." She walked reluctantly to the credenza and stood for a moment looking down, swallowing hard. When she reached to pick up the ring, her hand was trembling. Before she put it on, she finally met his eyes, and her own were demon-black.
"Just – don't miss. This thing? It's been imprisoned for centuries, in pieces. I'm guessing insane will be a mild word for it." He nodded and took several steps back, carefully out of physical reach, setting the flashlight down on the desk and drawing the dagger with his left hand while he extended his right hand, fingers spread, like a representation of the outreach of his mind.
With her left hand, Ruby slid the heavy ring onto her right forefinger. Three bolts of lightning flared in quick succession across the black sky, and she drew in a deep breath and reached out for the cup with the hand wearing the ring. Just as her finger touched the rim, she screamed and instantly flung her head back, black smoke boiling from her wide-stretched mouth and streaming up toward the ceiling. Her body began to sag, hand clenched around the goblet, and then slammed painfully erect, her eyes flying open to reveal black irises rimmed in red. The garnet eyes on the ring and the cup blazed with red fire, bathing the room in a dream of Hell, and he closed his eyes and reached.
This time, there was something to grip, a roiling force swirling under the skin, something oily and slick and putrid and hot, something that burned like acid where he touched it. He clenched his jaw against a scream and fought to get his mental hand around it all despite the pain, despite the impression of skin dissolving off his bones and leaving only a grasping skeleton behind. There was more of it than he could close in his shredding fist, no matter how he reached, and those edges slipped aside with gibbering laughter, mocking him. He planted his feet, exerted his will, and pulled, feeling unreal muscles tearing away from bone with the strain, hauling with all his might against an immovable force, against a weight too great to budge. He pulled harder ...
And suddenly a real weight crashed into his body, shocking his eyes open as he fell, toppled to the floor by Ruby's body slamming into his as the battle became physical as well as psychic. She swung the cup like a weapon, the heavy silver cracking against his skull even as he desperately tried to roll with the blow and flip her with his own weight. The blow didn't stun him, and he managed to land on top, using his weight to pin her while he tried mentally to grab the thing inside her again. She squirmed and bucked like a wildcat beneath him, fragmenting his concentration, demonic strength making her slight body more than a match for his human muscles. In desperation, he dropped the knife that he had no angle to use and grabbed her right wrist with his left hand, slamming her arm and hand repeatedly against the floor and the side of the desk and prying at her fingers clenched around the cup with his right hand. She butted his head and clawed at his eyes with her free left hand, and then he finally felt her fingers peeling away from the silver. With a last supreme effort, he yanked the cup away from her and flung it aside, then slammed his own head down on hers and reached again with that internal sense of self, wrapping himself around the inferno and screaming as it burned through him, black fire surging up out of the body and pooling on the floor.
Somewhere deep inside, he felt something shift, the same way he'd felt it the first time he ever managed to pull a demon, and he closed his mental fist around all the tatters and strained to his limits, and he saw them pull free, saw the way they frayed around the spot where the cup had been. He pushed them away and down, the wild rage surging up like molten gold, and the blackness burned down and away and was gone. The body went limp beneath him, and he sobbed for breath and fell to the floor beside it in a tangle of nerveless limbs.
And then he passed out.
The rest of the night was a blur. He foggily remembered Ruby's voice calling his name, waking him up, but he wasn't really sure how conscious he was when she hauled him to his feet and braced his ass against the desk. His vision kept tunneling and everything he saw was edged in red and black; a clinical little voice in his mind catalogued broken capillaries in his eyes and oxygen starvation from the fight. He breathed like a broken bellows, but after an eternity of a few minutes of doing nothing but gasping, he finally stopped graying out.
Ruby told him that she saw nothing but metal when she looked at the artifacts, so he had to believe they'd succeeded. He remembered having her put the things back where they'd been – why steal them if the curse was broken? – and then expended great concentration putting one foot in front of the other as they made their way out of the museum, stopping only to erase the most obvious signs of their visit by removing the circuit bypass from the security panel and locking the museum doors behind them. He couldn't do anything about the blood he'd doubtless left in the dark brown office carpet – he'd had a nosebleed again, and the skin on his temple was split where the goblet had connected – and was left to hope that it would dry fast enough to be overlooked. Or maybe the museum would advertise having a mysterious haunting, like a double-dozen other tourist attractions in town.
Weaving their way to the car, with more of his weight on Ruby than on his own feet, they felt the wind shift as the rain stopped. He was steadier by the time they got to the car, although a jackhammer pounded industriously in his head and every muscle in his body groaned. She tried to argue him into letting her drive, but that was an argument she lost despite how badly he ached.
No demon was driving the Impala. Not ever.
Still, they stopped after less than two hours because he wasn't stupid or careless enough to risk wrapping the Impala around a tree. He didn't know or care where they were; small town motels were all interchangeable anyway. Ruby looked more presentable than he did despite her bruised forehead – long hair was useful for hiding a lot of things – so she got their room. He made a beeline for a bed and fell onto it, and that was all he knew for twenty-four hours.
The pungent, sour reek of his own dried sweat wrinkled his nose even before he opened his eyes at dawn on what the bedside clock said was Thursday morning. He flopped over onto his back with one arm flung over his eyes and took stock. No headache, which was both surprising and good. Dried blood flaked from his temple and upper lip, and there was a lump on his forehead where he expected he'd see one mother of a bruise, but the tenderness of his skin didn't translate into pain below it. He felt other aches and twinges where the demon had pummeled him, but all things considered, it wasn't bad on the Winchester scale. Inside, he felt – different. Eyes closed, he explored that internal landscape. He didn't really have words for it; the closest analogy he could come up with was that there was – more of him up there, as if straining so hard against the raven-bound demon had built up his mental muscle mass.
It felt – good. It felt right.
It felt calm.
He looked around, not surprised that Ruby wasn't there. He'd learned early on that demons didn't sleep. After the first few times he'd woken to her eyes watching him, he'd gotten creeped out and yelled at her to stop staring. Since then, she'd made it a point either to be doing something when he woke or simply not to be there at all. He had a vague half-memory of hearing the door close before he woke fully, and placed a mental bet that she'd be back with coffee by the time he got out of the shower.
He rolled to his feet and headed for the bathroom, peeling off his stiff and stinking clothes and dropping them in a pile on the floor on his way. The hot water pounding on his shoulders was bliss, and he leaned against the cold tile and just breathed steam for long minutes. Then he got down to business with the soap, his fingers tangling briefly in the cord of the amulet around his neck as he soaped his chest, and he gripped the amulet and closed his eyes.
One hundred and twenty-six days.
I'm sorry for missing yesterday, Dean. I was a little unconscious at the time, though, so I think you'll forgive me. Sent another demon down to Hell, anyway.
And I'm going to get you out. I swear.
When he got out of the shower, he toweled himself off and stood in front of the sink, hesitating before he started to shave. His face looked the same – well, a couple of new bruises and a bit of a cut over one eye, but the same – but his eyes were quieter, somehow. He put both hands on the sink and leaned forward, searching, but didn't find any answers; his eyes were just his eyes, and he couldn't read any messages in them. The amulet's water-swollen cord was cold around his neck, but the metal itself was warm, and he put his hand over it for a moment, just breathing.
Then he finished up and went out to meet Ruby, who true to form, had brought coffee. Fatigue was already starting to creep up on him again even before he'd finished the cup, though, and they didn't have another likely target on the radar, so he decreed they'd spend the day at rest, checking sources and rebuilding lost stamina.
It was starting to feel like a routine.
They caught three squares at the little diner down the street, which even had decent pie, and he finally learned that they were in someplace called Nahunta. On their third visit the waitress, who'd gotten progressively more chatty throughout the day, helpfully said the name came from a Tuscarora word for "tall trees." Not that he'd asked.
The web imitated the waitress: nothing interesting turned up until the end of the day. Ruby, bored with television, saw the moment when his surfing suddenly acquired purpose.
"Yeah – yeah. Three people from Clearwater Beach, Florida just turned up dead in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee: no signs of trauma, no apparent cause of death. But get this: all three were reported missing in Florida four months ago, and none of them knew each other there."
"So – demonic possession. They found themselves new hosts."
"Yep." He closed the laptop, suddenly both exhausted and energized. "We'll head for Tennessee in the morning. It should only be about an eight hour run." Then he laughed, overtaken by memories.
"Gotta be one of the cheesiest places on the planet, Pigeon Forge. There are at least six classic car events there every year, two of them in September. Dean hung around once after a job to show off the Impala; Dad would've been pissed, if he knew. We came through the Tail of the Dragon on the way in from Asheville, and I think that's the only time I was ever scared in the car. Three hundred and eighteen curves in eleven miles. He wasn't even speeding much, but he didn't have to; the road is scary enough on its own." For all Dean's considerable skill, the Impala emphatically did not handle like a sports car, and the way he remembered it, he could swear that some of those hairpin curves had been shorter than the car's wheelbase.
"Sounds thrilling," Ruby said dryly, her words cutting across the memories, and he couldn't help it; he immediately resolved to take that stretch of US 129, even though it wasn't the fastest way to Pigeon Forge. But he privately promised to stick to the speed limit, even if it meant he wouldn't make Ruby blanch. Keeping the Impala intact was more important.
One hundred and twenty-seven days, and he got to see Ruby turn pale as they played road tag in the afternoon with motorcycles on the Dragon. He swore he heard Dean laugh. What's the matter, bitch? No guts? Beyond the far end, up in the Smokies, Pigeon Forge was predictably crammed to the gills with car nuts, but he managed to find a room. The chintzy motel had a hot-rod scheme; Dean would have approved.
He wouldn't have approved of the next week, though, except for the cars. Days one hundred twenty-eight through one hundred and thirty-two were a bust. There were simply too many people and too many cars. Trying to find just three demons in the crowds that thronged the main strip and all the joints on the side was impossible, even assuming they were still there. His increasing frustration and bottled-up rage fueled nightmares, and every night, they got worse, right along with his short temper. That last night, Ruby kicked his legs out from under him and taunted him into fury until he threw her up against the wall. Things progressed from there the way they usually did, and he finally slept the exhausted sleep of the sated dead, without dreams.
Day one hundred thirty-three, he was getting eyestrain on the computer in mid-morning when Ruby stalked straight into the room and slapped the laptop closed. She radiated anger and fear and something like consternation, emotions just sparking off her, and she crossed her arms protectively over her chest and backed away from him.
"They just left," she said, her voice clipped and tense. "Smoked out of their latest hosts and booked."
He scrambled up, already shoving the laptop into its case and then reaching immediately to stuff his loose kit into the duffel.
Only when she didn't answer did he stop moving and look at her again. He couldn't read what was in her eyes.
"Where did they go, Ruby?"
She looked at him and he wondered what she was seeing in his face, because most of what she looked was afraid. And considering. She cleared her throat before she finally spoke.
A grave dug in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. Dirt on his hands and nothing in his heart. Whiskey and tears and a throat hoarse from screaming.
He didn't know how long he stood frozen, his open eyes blind to everything but the past, but it couldn't have been long before reflex forced him to blink and the watery vision of Ruby and the room swam back into focus. His voice was gravel, ground out against a crushing weight.
"I don't know, Sam. I swear: I don't know. But I think we should find out, don't you?"
He couldn't tell if she was lying or telling the truth.
It didn't really matter.
There's nothing else in Pontiac worth having.
I'll kill them. If they go near him, I'll kill them.
They're demons. I'll kill them anyway. Rip them out and burn them back to Hell, every single one.
He didn't answer. Briefly still, he inventoried the room with his eyes, then erupted into motion, packing with vicious speed and precision. After a moment's hesitation, Ruby started hastily collecting her own things, always watching him and staying cautiously out of his way. She prudently kept her mouth shut even after they were in the car and Pigeon Forge was a memory, but he felt her eyes always on him, watching. Waiting.
The part of him that calculated considered how much time he could shave off another nine hour drive, and he pushed the accelerator closer to the floor. It would be night.
It wouldn't matter.
One hundred thirty-three days.
I'm still fighting, Dean. I'm going to get you out.
Whatever it takes.
Author Note: For the purpose of the timeline in this story, since the episode itself didn't give us a date, I assumed that Dean died on May 15, 2008, the night that No Rest For the Wicked aired. Day 133 was thus September 18, 2008, the morning Dean was raised from perdition in Lazarus Rising.