Where the Drifts Are Deepest
It's her own damn fault. Maria spends half her workdays feeling up livestock, and she's gotten cow-kicked and stepped on and bitten so often that she's developed a sixth sense for incoming hooves and teeth. But today her sixth sense has failed her spectacularly.
She wakes to morning sun in her eyes and the bottom rail of the pasture fence a foot above her head. The whorls and knots of the wood blur and shift. Wet cold is biting at her back – that won't do. Dean says she's a sissy about snow, and he's not wrong. She makes a couple swipes at the rail, gets a hand around it, and tries to pull herself to sitting.
The world shifts massively, and her stomach rebels. She retches and heaves dryly while the earth and sky jockey for position above each other. Crap, that means it's a bad concussion. Bad, like grade three. Bad, like cracking her head on the fence. But not so bad that she's suddenly stone blind, which she knows can happen. So it's bad, but not awful.
She never saw what spooked the horse. Maria's pretty sure she led Baez through the pasture gate, stopped to close it behind her, and then turned around to lead the horse out a few feet and slip her halter off—
And then Baez freaked, and a massive shoulder slammed Maria sideways.
Now she's cold, and she's dizzy, and there's definitely a rule about calling doctors when you pass out due to head injury. Definitely a rule. There's black fuzz gathering at the edges of her vision, so Sam and Dean should call. Sam and Dean are good at trauma. Except just now they're away fighting evil, which leaves her on her own with the cold and the dizzy and a loose horse trailing a lead rope somewhere nearby. Okay, she can fix that. Her cellphone is in her pocket, right? She fumbles for it, numb-fingered and nauseated by every movement, and she finds nothing. Other pocket, maybe? Jacket pocket? Sometimes she stuffs it down her bra so she won't miss a call on vibrate…
"Never crashed a motorcycle," she sighs, and the black fuzz swallows her up.
Five months ago, Maria stood on tiptoe and still wasn't tall enough to kiss either Sam or Dean goodbye. So they both bent down, and she was surprised by their sudden bashfulness when she pecked them on the cheek.
"I'll leave a light on for you," she said.
They said nothing, just glanced at each other and offered her smiles that couldn't promise anything.
In the time after they left, she wasn't lonely, exactly. Half the point of moving to Nowhere, Kansas was to be alone, or at least to be in the company of people who couldn't feel betrayed by the stranger walking around in her skin.
Besides, she soon discovered that her vet tech Jeannie was a sweetheart. With time Maria's nearest neighbor Mrs. Mitchell took to treating her like a favorite niece, worrying about her living alone in that big house and occasionally trying to set her up with a "nice boy." In return Maria made house calls for the woman's eight cats. She had work, she had blank walls to paint, and if everyone in Nazareth except Jeannie and Mrs. Mitchell considered her a snobby uptown princess, well, they still called her out when their mares were foaling, and they still brought her their big mutts for their shots and their injuries. So, no, she was never lonely. She just wasn't quite as good at solitude as she used to think.
Then she lived through her first Kansas winter. She thought after four years at Sewanee, she knew what cold was. But in college she was a perpetual pedestrian with central heating. She never learned to scrape ice off the windshield, she never learned to use a fireplace in a hundred-year-old farmhouse, and she never stood against winds that blasted across ground too flat and treeless. "I warned you," Dean said when she called, and she could practically hear the smirk over the phone. "I told you you'd freeze your ass off."
"Good, I can spare some of it," she grumbled, tugging blankets closer around her on the sofa. It was only a few months ago that the first autumn chill came, and she hadn't needed blankets because she'd had demon hunters hogging the cushions. They fought over the remote and made fun of her favorite shows, but they also radiated warmth like a pair of six-foot space heaters. "Now can you please tell me what it is I'm supposed to do about the car and the road salt?"
When Maria spent Christmas alone, nursing a border collie with kennel cough, she thought briefly about turkey dinner in humid subtropical New Orleans. For two seconds, she savored the idea of mild weather and oyster stuffing. Pralines for dessert—the ones from the shop on Prytania. Her brother drunk and laughing and her little sister trying not to smile. Two seconds, and then she went to give Max his next dose of tetracycline.
January blustered through Nazareth in hard freezes and ugly storms, and she treated more animals for Halite and anti-freeze poisoning than she liked to think about. She lived through today, and today, and the next today, and in the evenings she flipped through furniture magazines and browsed the paranormal websites Sam said weren't completely full of shit.
"So the zombie retains some personality? Or is it just the flesh on autopilot, doing whatever it's been raised to do?" she said, phone squeezed between her ear and shoulder. "I've read about six different versions, most of them contradictory."
"It depends on the zombie," Sam replied, voice nasal with a cold. "What tradition it comes from, you know. Is it a Vodou zombie, or a—" he paused to blow his nose, poor guy, "—medieval revenant, or a Norse draugr, or what have you."
"Which one's the nastiest?" she said, fingers poised over her laptop keyboard.
"We met one raised with ancient Greek necromancy. She was fast like you wouldn't believe."
"Huh." She made a note of it.
February was half over before she knew it. She brought Mrs. Mitchell a Valentine's basket of candy, and the old lady sent her home with one of the pies that always seemed to be lurking in her kitchen. Maria was on her porch, gloved hands fumbling for the house key, when her cell phone rang.
"Hello?" she said, stamping her feet in a goofy little dance against the cold.
"Hey, Maria, it's Dean." That voice was like a shot of whiskey, burning down to her belly and washing heat through her blood. "You've got a soft spot for strays, right? 'Cause I've got a project for you."
Maria wasn't surprised to hear that Dean had found a damsel in distress. She was mildly surprised that the damsel was a horse.
"I'm not keeping her, okay?" Maria said very clearly at the outset. "She can winter with me, I'll get her back to her full weight, and then I'm going to find a home for her."
"That's more than enough," Dean said, nodding along and working clods of mud loose from the animal's coat. "She just needs a chance, you know?"
The Winchesters followed Maria home, their black beast of a car constant in her rearview mirror for the duration of the four-hour drive. It would be their job to fix up the old, pest-ridden barn and repair the pasture fence. They'd probably eat all the food in the house, too. Maria would have to start buying groceries in bulk again.
Sam and Dean were both surprised at how much progress she'd made on the house in their absence. The entire upstairs was painted, and she'd turned the east window niche into a reading nook with a window seat. It was still bare of furniture, but it wasn't the cracked-plaster mess they'd started transforming last summer.
Maria set up air mattresses for them in bedrooms they'd helped refurbish. "A room to myself," Sam sighed happily when she showed him into his. "No crumbs in my sheets. No day-old pizza boxes on my pillow."
Dean leaned in around Maria's shoulder. "Yeah, well," he said, frowning at Sam. "She's giving me the bigger one."
Sam actually glanced at her like it might be true. "They're the exact same size," she said placidly.
"Mine has more windows," Dean tossed at Sam, who bitchfaced back.
"If by 'more,' you mean 'the exact same number,'" Maria said.
"But his is…" Dean said, surveying the room critically. "His is pink."
"It's Mellow Azalea," Maria replied automatically. But she caught the look on Sam's face, bit her lip, and added, "Which… yeah. Translates to pink."
She shut the door just in time; Sam's thrown pillow hit the wood and slid down.
When Dean walked into the other bedroom, which was bare of all but the air bed, he glanced around at the pale yellow walls and the crown molding, quirked an eyebrow appreciatively, and flopped down on the mattress. He gave it a few good bounces. "No chocolates in gold foil?"
In the doorway, Maria crossed her arms. "No French maid outfit either."
Dean's leer melted into a grin as soon as she laughed at him. "Thanks, Mia."
The next day was a work day, despite the biting cold outside. "The barn's not in half bad shape," Dean said that first afternoon, kicking off his filthy boots in the mud room. Maria saw a bare toe poking through his left sock, and before she realized how presumptuous it was, she added 2 pair men's wool socks to the shopping list she was just finishing. "There's a lot of boards that need replacing, and we'll need to strip the rust off some of the metalwork."
"What about the critters living in there?" she said, inking out what she'd just written. She wasn't his mother, after all.
"Get a cat," Sam said, coming in behind Dean. He huffed warm breath into his pale, cupped hands and rubbed them together briskly. "A big, mean one. Also, he failed to mention that there's three gaps in your pasture fence big enough to drive a tractor through."
"So we'll fix 'em. And that gate, too," Dean said, heading straight for the fridge. "Butch up, Sammy."
"Yeah, sure," Sam sighed, long-suffering. "Couldn't we just get you a My Little Pony and be done with it?" But he started another pot of coffee brewing, and he flicked a packet of Splenda at Maria without her even asking.
Deep in the black fuzz, Maria dreams. First the familiar nightmare of her little sister Emma waking up at Children's Hospital, opening her eyes, and realizing—"I can't see. Mia? Mia! I can't see, why can't I see?"
Then the beeping machines and the smell of antiseptic melt away, and Maria is sitting on a hay bale in her barn, telling Dean the story of her first pony. His name was Sugah, and he carried her to three red ribbons and one blue at City Park Stables. Daddy came to exactly one show—the one where Sugah spooked and Maria broke her collarbone. He sold the damn animal after that, and Maria cried when she kissed Sug's nose and said goodbye.
Dean gives her a totally nonplussed look. "So, you actually were the little brat who got a pony for Christmas?" he says, nose wrinkled. "That was you?"
"My family had birthday dinners at Commander's Palace," Maria says on a sigh, wrapping her arms tight around herself. "I was a debutante and a Kappa Delta, and my father wore seersucker in summer." She pauses, blows out a breath that frosts in front of her. The barn shouldn't be this cold. "I was worse than that brat."
She wakes, and she's still shivering in the snow. She groans, "God damn it," and rolls over into the black again.
Jeannie got her first look at Sam and Dean when they stopped by the clinic to drop off lunch.
Maria watched Dean look her vet tech up and down as if by reflex, and then some inexorable switch flipped in his brain and threw him into Flirt Mode. He leaned one elbow on the counter, right next to a pamphlet display about heartworms, and he flashed a slick smile that made Maria's stomach twist. It was miles away from the quirk of his mouth when he asked for gold foil chocolates, and it was even farther from the unguarded, goofy grin when he shoved a snowball down Sam's shirt.
Behind him, Sam caught her eye. Man-whore, he mouthed.
Maria struggled to keep a straight face.
Jeannie spent their whole visit stammering and faintly pink. "Dr. Broussard?" she said weakly when they'd gone. "Those guys are living in your house?"
Maria nodded, hefting a half-grown shepherd mutt onto an exam table. "The Harrisons are family friends."
"The tall one—his name's Sam, right?" Jeannie went on, still looking slightly absent. "Because damn, does that man look like all the Greek gods rolled into one."
Maria laughed until the dog twisted curiously in her grip and licked a messy stripe up her cheek. "Greek gods," she muttered into his fur. "I'm telling Dean."
The mutt ran his tongue out in a lazy dog grin.
With the barn ready, Maria borrowed a stock trailer from a neighbor and planned to spend her Saturday hauling her new project back to Nazareth. She didn't realize the process was going to become a three-man road trip with a classic rock soundtrack.
"You're driving," Maria said, knees tucked up in the passenger seat of her Toyota 4Runner. "This is not your car. Why are you driving?"
Arm draped over the steering wheel, sunglasses adjusted against the glare, Dean looked over and said, "Driver picks the music," as if that explained everything.
"This isn't the car you had last time we were here," Sam mused, sacked out in the backseat and idly tapping the beat of "Bold as Love." "Didn't you used to drive a—"
"A Malibu," Dean supplied, shaking his head disdainfully. "Of course you would drive something with a name like a Barbie car. At least it was American-made."
Somehow that comment set off an hour-long debate between Maria and Sam about the Big Three bailout in '08, which turned into an argument about laissez-faire capitalism and corporate responsibility, which turned into a spat about whether Obama was a socialist, which turned into—
"I will turn this fucking car around!" Dean snapped.
Sam and Maria shut right up.
"Jesus," Dean said, looking harried and somewhat disturbed by his role as peacemaker in the pointless head-butting. "The next person to use the word 'fascist' is walking back to Kansas."
Everyone except Jimi Hendrix had to play the Quiet Mouse game for the next hundred miles.
The ride back was different. Maria napped in the backseat, sleepily pleased with the horse in the trailer behind her and the men in the two seats in front of her. Sam was taking his turn at the wheel, and his iPod was shuffling through soothing acoustic songs.
"Joshua Radin," Dean read off the screen. "What kind of—"
"Shut it, shotgun," Sam said.
And Dean did. The Winchesters slipped into some world of their own—one which seemed built on the miles under the axles, murmuring speakers, a humming engine, and the two of them riding side by side. In low voices they exchanged in-jokes so in they were practically a foreign language, or they held their silence and kept watch over the stretch of the road before them. In the backseat Maria dozed fitfully, and when she opened her eyes she could make out their profiles, tranquil and inveterate and bathed in the light of a half-sunk sun.
There's a velvety nose in Maria's face, huffing warm, alfalfa-scented breath.
"Shut up, Baez." She has just enough presence of mind to search out the lead rope and grab hold. "You're not all tangly yet? Oh, good." Sitting up nearly makes her pass out again, but it gives her enough leverage to grab hold of the halter with cold-stiff hands, unbuckle it, and slip it off. "Now git. Go on."
But Baez just stands there uselessly.
"Where's my cell phone?" Maria says, and the ensuing giggle sends spikes of pain through her head. "You don't know."
Baez noses at her curiously, and that inconsiderate push is all it takes to knock Maria back into the black fuzz.
It's nice, being numb.
The horse was Dean's baby, and no mistake. Maria bought her, de-wormed her, and treated the wounds on her legs—not to mention her name was all over the associated paperwork. But it was Dean who fell ass over teakettle in love, and it was Dean who named her.
"Baez, as in Joan Baez?" Maria said, watching Dean work a curry comb over the horse's near hindquarter. Baez leaned into the pressure, and Dean patted her absently.
"The gelding I learned to ride on was a complete asshole named Dylan," he said, shrugging.
The giggle burst out of Maria before she could turn it into anything more dignified. "For real?"
"Bastard liked to bite. And whatever idiot trained him thought it would be badass to teach him to rear like freaking hi-ho Silver."
"So you're hoping things will go smoother with Baez."
"Of the two of them," Dean said, bending down and searching for unbroken skin on her cannon, "who never crashed a motorcycle?"
He squeezed just above a fetlock, and Baez shifted her weight and obligingly raised a hoof for his inspection. The horse had manners, for sure.
"Fair enough," Maria said. She overturned a bucket and sat down, busying her hands splicing two tattered ends of rope together. There was a rhythmic efficiency in the way Dean worked, whether he was refinishing a floor or replacing something under his Impala's hood. It was pleasant to watch. He reapplied the antibiotic ointment to the barbed wire wounds, just like Maria had shown him. His every movement was sure and firm, and he treated Baez like a horse and not a pet. He must have learned to work on horseback, Maria decided, not just to ride.
Baez stood whickering and whuffing in the cross-ties, ears flicking to follow Dean wherever he went. Maria couldn't help thinking the mare fit right in at this little farm, way station to the weird as it had become. She was skinny and scarred, but she'd clean up nice.
Dean led her into one of the barn's newly spiffed-up stalls, and he stuffed a flake of hay in the rack. "You just take it easy, sweetheart. Tomorrow we'll check out the pasture, okay?"
He and Maria walked back to the house together in the reflected glow of moonlit snowfall, hands in their pockets and breath frosting in front of them. "Try not to fall too far in love," Maria said gently. "She's not staying long."
"Just like you're not staying in Nazareth?" he said. And he cocked an eyebrow as if he could see right through her, as if lying to him was the dumbest thing she'd tried all day. She had the uncomfortable feeling that it was true. It might have pissed her off if that perceptive gaze hadn't been offering sympathy too.
She sighed through a smile. "Just like that."
"That soft spot for strays," Dean said, handing her over an icy puddle, "it's going to get you in trouble."
"It wasn't that they didn't love each other," Mrs. Mitchell explained, bustling around her dining room table with slices of key lime pie. She set one down in front of Dean, who grinned up at her like she was his new favorite person. "He would have followed that girl through the gates of hell to steal the trousers off the devil. They just didn't want the same things."
Sam nodded along politely, more focused on his cup of coffee than on the marital history of Mrs. Mitchell's eldest grandson. Maria had warned the Winchesters that the woman could talk your ear off, "but she's been a good friend to me, and she wants to feed you. So don't kick her cats, okay?"
"He enlisted about two seconds after he graduated, and she went off to Georgetown," Mrs. Mitchell went on, pouring more coffee for everyone whether they wanted it or not. Maria came and went from the kitchen, setting the used dishes in the sink to soak and listening to the conversation with half an ear. One of the eight cats wound around her legs, trying to trip her up on the way. "He proposed, she said marriage was a tool of the oppressive patriarchy. So they spent most of their time glaring at each other like two possums with only one garbage can."
"Love isn't enough," Sam offered up, filling the gap Mrs. Mitchell left for breath.
"It must be the foundation, the cornerstone," she said, breaking into a slow grin. It sounded like she was quoting someone, but Maria couldn't say who. "But not the entire structure. It is much too pliable, too yielding."
"This pie is awesome," Dean said, absently leaning down to shoo the cat that was nosing at the hem of his jeans.
There was a faint buzzing noise from Sam's end of the table, and he jumped. "Phone," he said apologetically. "Sorry, but I think I should take this."
"You go ahead, honey," Mrs. Mitchell said, waving him away from the table. "Take your time."
As soon as Sam disappeared into the living room, Maria took his empty pie plate to the kitchen. Mrs. Mitchell turned to Dean, leaned her elbows on the table, and said in her most grandmotherly voice: "Young man, if you don't stop staring at her backside every time she leaves the room, you'll never see my key lime pie again."
With her back to the table, Maria froze and held her breath in the kitchen doorway. No, Mrs. Mitchell, no no no, stop it, he's your guest, stop right there—
"You seem like a nice boy," Mrs. Mitchell said. "And I hate to see nice boys behaving like that."
The "boy" must have rankled. "Lady, I don't know you, and it's really not your job to tell me off, so—"
"Dude," Sam said, rushing back into the room. "That was Bobby. He says Jo got herself in trouble on that job in Hastings."
"How bad?" Dean said, getting to his feet and sending a cat scampering. Just like that, he was a hunter instead of a "nice boy."
Sam's expression was grim. "Remember Sacramento?"
"Damn it," Dean hissed. "Maria, can you get home okay?"
On foot through two miles of fresh snow? Damn it. "Yes, I'll be fine."
"All right then, we need to take off. Mrs. Mitchell," he said, looking her straight in the eye. "Thank you for dinner."
"Yeah, thank you," Sam echoed, hurrying them both out the door. "Thanks very much."
The front door opened and shut, and Maria heard car doors slam and the Impala rumbling to life. Gravel crunched, headlights flashed, and they were gone.
Mrs. Mitchell twisted in her chair to stare at Maria in utter consternation. "What job couldn't wait till morning?"
Maria uncrossed her arms in the kitchen doorway and started stacking pie plates. "Don't worry about clearing up, ma'am. I'll get the dishwasher started. Can I get you another cup of coffee?"
"Open your eyes, Mia," a voice keeps saying. "I need you to open your eyes."
Painfully, she obeys. There's too much light, too much blur. She bats irritably at the hands tilting her head and combing back her hair.
"Her pupils are even," another voice says in relief. "Come on, let's get her warmed up."
Arms gather her up, and she finds herself pressed close to the familiar smell and creak of leather. A voice rumbles near her ear—"Keep awake, sweetheart. Nope, eyes open. That's it, don't flake out on me."—and snow squeaks underfoot.
"I'm right here."
Maria clings instinctively. "You're warm."
"Good. Gonna be warmer in a minute."
"Where's my cellphone?"
"Need my cellphone."
"Don't worry about it." Something a little scratchy presses against her forehead. It's his cheek, she realizes dimly. He should shave.
"Think it's in my bra."
"We'll go fishing for it later."
Boots clomp on wooden steps, a door opens and closes, and wood floors creak. Dean lays her down on the living room sofa, and then he starts easing off her boots and peeling away her wet jeans. There's a drag of something heavy across the floor, and she gasps at the sudden wave of heat like she's been dropped in a scalding bath. "Okay, too much," Sam says, and pulls the space heater back to a more tolerable distance. "Better?"
"Better." Stripped down to her camisole and boyshorts, she tries to curl into herself, tucking her rubbery hands under her arms. "Think I could have some aspirin?"
"How about some Tylenol?" Sam says, and his blurry bulk disappears from her immediate vision. Then Dean is wrapping a down comforter around her, and another layer over that, until she's nestled in a snug ball of warmth. Her head hurts like a bitch, but her thoughts are detangling into straight lines, and she can feel her fingers and toes again.
The sofa dips near her head, and she hears Dean's voice above her: "Open your eyes."
"No," she groans.
"Come on. Open 'em."
She does, and his face comes into focus. He's seated and leaning over her, his freckles standing out sharply.
"You know your name?" he says, too calm.
"Barack Hussein Obama."
"How did you hit your head?"
"Your horse crashed a motorcycle."
The laughter leaves him in a whoosh, like he's been holding his breath. "You are not funny at all," he says, rubbing a hand across his forehead. Then, in a mutter: "You scared the shit out of me."
"My head hurts."
"Jo's okay? Everybody's okay?"
"Everybody's fine," he says. "We kicked ass, saved the day. No more werewolves in Hastings."
"Thanks for coming home so soon."
His expression seems to go very still, and perhaps his voice is too gruff when he says, "Yeah."
Sam brings her Tylenol and hot tea, and she sits quietly and takes careful sips. On either side of her, the Winchesters hog the cushions and radiate heat. She pays bleary attention to the details of the hunt in Hastings, and they watch her closely while the color comes back to her skin. "You look better," they say after a while. "Not so much like a freaky wax sculpture."
Their smiles still can't promise anything.