Every Sunday morning, Jess makes a pot of strong coffee, plops herself down at the kitchen table, and reads the newspaper back to front. She jokingly calls it "playing grown-up," which is also what she calls grocery shopping and paying bills, and at first Sam can't figure out why it bugs him so much, why every time she says it he finds himself grinding his teeth and turning away from her.
It hits him one day, though, the reason for his irritation, hits him like a jolt of lightning – when Jess says "playing grown-up," Sam is picturing his brother: Dean, eleven years-old, tongue tucked between his teeth as he sat on some scuffed motel floor with a pile of paperwork, painstakingly filling out school-lunch scholarship request forms and forged permission slips.
Usually Jess's sweetness, her comparative innocence, is something beautiful to Sam, a force as powerful and intoxicating as the curve of her cheek or the bones of her wrist. But sometimes? Sometimes it just pisses him the fuck off. Sam wishes, irrationally, that he could show that memory to Jess, wishes he could spread it out between his hands and ask her, Do you see? That's playing grown-up. Not reading the fucking newspaper.
He's not pissed-off now, though, watching her twist those long legs up underneath her, leaning forward into the patch of morning sun that stretches through their kitchen window across their beat-up table, catching the golden highlights of her hair. There are flowers in a vase in front of her, peonies – a sweet, messy flower with these wide, ragged petals that drop off and curl on the table, on Jess's newspaper, one in her lap.
Sam can't help himself, comes up behind her and leans down, skims his mouth along her shoulder and parts his lips under her ear, feels the beat of her pulse under the soft skin. She reaches up an absent hand, eyes not leaving the page, gives his hair an affectionate tug.
"Sit down," she says. "Read about the world, for once."
"I read about the world," Sam protests halfheartedly.
"Sure," Jess agrees. "You read about mergers in Japan, and the latest health reforms in Britain. But you won't even look at the local stuff, which is, like, totally elitist of you. If you wanna be a public defender or an environmental lawyer, shouldn't you try giving a shit about the space around you?"
Sam shrugs uncomfortably, reaches for the coffee.
"Plus, it's crazy," Jess says. "You can't make this stuff up." She clears her throat, puts on her best newscaster voice. "Girl Killed by Wild Animal – Third Attack in Two Weeks. Ahem. Apple Valley police are baffled by a series of animal attacks that have struck behind the locked gates of the Community Gardens. Local cheerleader Angela Peterson was found early Friday morning, her body intact save for bizarre—"
"Stop," Sam says, too sharply. "Fuck, stop it."
This. This is exactly why he doesn't read the fucking newspaper.
Jess stops, looks at him. "Jeez," she says, trying for levity, but she's got a shitty poker face and Sam can read the hurt that's gathering behind her eyes. "Grumpy, much?"
"Sorry," Sam says, scrubs a frustrated hand through his hair. "Sorry, Jess, I just—"
"Drink your coffee," Jess directs. "You're nicer after a few cups."
Sam takes an obliging sip, and Jess returns to her paper, brow furrowed ever-so-slightly. Sam wants to say something, wants to apologize for his tone, apologize for the all the shit she puts up with, shit she'll never understand – but he doesn't speak, just drinks his coffee in silence and methodically shreds the pink petals on the table in front of him. Tries not to think about Angela Peterson and wild animals in Apple Valley. Tries not to think about stub-nosed, freckled eleven year-olds playing grown-up far too convincingly.
He Googles it later, of course: Apple Valley Animal Attacks. Reads the articles, looks at what photographs are available, and it's not a choice – it's never been a choice – to ask Jess to borrow her car, to tell her that his Botany class is taking a surprise overnight field trip and he'll be back in a couple of days.
"Bring me flowers," Jess says. "Isn't that what Botanists collect?"
"More like, seedpods," Sam says, smoothes his thumb down her cheek. "And roots. And cross-diagrams of stamens and bumblebees."
"Well," Jess says, leaning up towards him. "I'll take what I can get."
It comes so easy, flashing a fake badge and a faker smile, tightening the tie on his cheap suit and following the coroner back into the morgue, staring down, again, at the mangled body of someone's daughter, or sister, or girlfriend, and Angela has blond hair and long legs but it's no harder than it's ever been for Sam to snap a photograph of the bite marks on her torso, the gouges in her shoulders from where something held her down to tear into her petal-soft skin.
The coroner gets suspicious when he sees Sam's disposable camera, starts asking questions, and Sam stammers for the first time, is half-counting on someone else to smirk and pick up his sentence, finish it with smooth aplomb and the perfect excuse, but Sam's alone and he clears his throat and says that he'll be back with a digital camera tomorrow. It's strange that there's no sharp elbow digging into his ribs, strange that there's silence as he folds himself into Jess's Corolla, and he shakes his head and speaks aloud to the empty car: "You're a whiny little bitch, Winchester." And he feels a little better.
It's a Manticore that's been doing the killing – there's no mistaking the pattern that the three rows of teeth have made in the victim's skin – but it's strange because Sam has only ever seen the Manticore in heavily-wooded areas, deep thickets, wild land – certainly not in suburban California in the perfectly manicured flowerbeds of the Community Gardens. But it's a Manticore – has to be.
All he has is a silver knife, a bag of salt, and his old Glock with its silver bullets, but luckily Manticores go down quick and easy – if you're fast enough to shoot them. It's simple when you're hunting with two other people, both of them excellent shots, but Sam's never done it alone, and he's nervous as he heads into the gardens at midnight. If he's not quick enough on the draw, he's completely fucked.
He scales the fence easily, drops down softly in the middle of a cluster of violets and steps into the garden. The flowers glow under the pale moonlight, and the hot summer air presses down on Sam as he steps forward, past a rosebush exploding with blossoms and their heady red scent that creeps down the back of Sam's throat like noxious perfume.
He doesn't have to wait long before he hears the slur of something dragging across the ground, and he tenses every muscle in his body, pistol gripped tightly in his sweaty hand. He waits and he watches and between the lush stalks of tiger lilies, he catches the flash of dull orange leonine eyes, and he's ready.
The Manticore springs out at him, and while it's not as fast as he remembers, it's still plenty fast, and for one, heart-stopping moment he's waiting for someone else to shoot, until he remembers that it's only him, and he pulls the trigger and gets it right in the heart mid-air, its claws four inches from his throat.
It drops with a trumpeted scream, and Sam jumps back and pumps another round into it, till its hoarse shrieks die down and it stops twitching, lion's body going limp and still, humanoid face still stretched out in a rictus of agony.
"Yahtzee," Sam says aloud, to no one, steps forward to make certain it's dead.
He sees the reason for its relative slowness as he nears – it's clearly not healthy, golden-red coat patchy and lackluster, limbs brittle with thinness, man-face pale and skeletal. Teeth unsharpened, claws dull.
Sam wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, crouches down, looks at the thing for a long time, the copper tang of its blood mingling with the scent of crushed flowers. This creature is not supposed to be in a garden. It's supposed to be in some jungle somewhere, supposed to be crouched under the canopy of enormous trees. Its teeth are supposed to be sharp as knives, claws like scimitars.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Sam murmurs, and it's not pity he feels, because this thing is a monster, and it should be dead – but – it's something. Something that twists his gut and balls his fingers into fists.
It's strange, salting and burning the body alone, and Sam doesn't want to but he can't stop himself from thinking about the absence of two other bodies, can't help but think that he doesn't want to fucking do this, but if he has to, he'd really rather not do it alone.
He wonders against his will if Dean hears Sam's voice like Sam can sometimes hear his, wonders if Dean misses having someone to rag on constantly, wonders if Dean feels the presence of Sam's absence like Sam's been feeling his.
Probably not. Dean has Dad.
And Sam… Sam's got everything else.
"You smell like fire," Jess says the next afternoon when he gets back. Sam slept in the car and hasn't had a chance to take a shower.
"There was a bonfire," Sam says, doesn't offer anything else except the bouquet of flowers he'd picked from the garden: roses, violets, lilies.
"Sam," Jess says, puts her face to the blossoms and inhales deeply, eyes fluttering closed, and Sam thinks that between the two, the girl is far prettier than the flowers. You big fuckin' girl, Sam.
She shakes the wilting peonies into the trashcan and puts Sam's flowers into the vacated vase, grins up at him.
"Gotta say, I kinda wanted you to show up with roots," she says. "Or a jar of dirt."
Sam laughs, and he kisses her harder than he'd planned, slips his hands under her t-shirt and pulls her close, pulls her until she's molded against him and his hands are in her hair and her fingers are tucked into the waistband of his boxers and she's tugging him towards their bedroom, pushing him down onto their bed.
"Like I said," she says, breathing the words into his mouth, reaching down to pull his shirt up over his torso. "I'll take what I can get."
Sam swallows, holds her face between his hands. He'll give what he can.