A/N: This story was written for the spn_j2_big bang challenge on LiveJournal - so it is complete, and the other chapters will follow in the next few days. My gratitude goes to wave obscura and smilla02 for the great beta work, and to roque clasique for the beautiful art (if you're interested in seeing it, my journal is linked on my profile, and you will find easily this fic's master post in my fic list).
Disclaimer: I don't own anything Supernatural related.
Sam opened his eyes to darkness, his breath short, mind still reeling from the feelings and images that weighted to the bottom of his stomach. He swallowed, checked the alarm clock on the nightstand near his bed. It was 5:44.
"Damn it," he groaned. No way he was going to get anymore sleep. Fucking nightmare.
He pushed the covers back and got out of bed, heading towards the bathroom. He didn't turn on the light, and moved as silently as a shadow when walking barefoot on the hardwood floor. Force of habit, because there was little chance that he would wake Dean.
Splashing some water on his face helped clear his mind a little, but the more he was awake, the more difficult it was to grasp images from his dream. It was about Ruby, that much he knew though he didn't remember dreaming about her face – either of her faces. From the bits and pieces coming back to him but already fading away, he remembered the sour taste of blood on his lips, the rush of orgasm and power merging with each other, tainted with hatred, sorrow and self-disgust. He blinked blurrily at himself in the mirror, and there was a moment of suspended time before he promptly threw up in the sink.
He felt better after that, lighter, like he had gotten rid of the sticky memories at the same time – at least for the moment. But it was also then that he noticed his head was pounding, a slow throbbing behind his eyes and at the back of his skull – it was a familiar pain, one he sometimes thought he deserved. Not that this kind of thinking ever did any good, he chided himself. He took some ibuprofen and stood there for a while, leaning on the sink until he grew so cold that lying around in bed waiting for Dean to wake up started to sound like a good idea.
Back in the room, he lay down and drew the covers up to his chin, waiting for the painkillers to kick in. He turned to Dean's bed and stared at the lump, curled in on itself, that was his brother. The meds made Dean sleep so sound and so still that it stung to watch him, like a needle slowly piercing through Sam's heart. He couldn't get used to seeing his brother sleeping like that, like a body in its coffin, so he strained to listen until he heard the soft noise of Dean's breathing. The wind was blowing outside, making the bare tree branches rustle and the framework of the old house creak, a gentle night song that was strangely comforting.
"It's like we're living in a haunted house," Dean had said when they had moved into the Simon Benson House, and more than two years later Sam was still filled with awe at the thought that after all the seedy motels and abandoned houses they had occupied in their lives, they were now living in a place so full of history and architectural interest. When they had arrived here he'd rambled incessantly to Dean about how Simon Benson had built this house in 1900 on the corner of SW 11th and Clay, how it'd been moved to the Portland State University campus and renovated in 2000 and did you know that its architecture is very original, different from the usual Queen Anne style? He'd been trying to distract Dean, and his brother had bravely put on a smile that didn't reach his eyes and never mocked him for being a geek.
But that was all over now, or if not over, then at least things were better. Dean was better, and Sam… Sam was starting to be cautiously hopeful about their future, for the first time in a very long time. Well, maybe not right now, because his head was still hurting; he closed his eyes, let out a sigh, and massaged his right temple with two fingers. He let himself be soothed by the sound of Dean breathing in, breathing out, and he probably started to drowse off because next thing he knew he was startled by light turning on and his brother's voice, "You awake, Sammy?"
Sam opened his eyes; Dean was sitting in his bed, hair ruffled and blinking groggily, struggling as usual to shake off the medication-induced sleep.
"Yeah," Sam mumbled. He brought a hand to his face, massaging his forehead.
Dean winced sympathetically, and started to lazily push the covers back.
"T's okay. A four, maybe?"
"Did you take anything?"
"Yeah, had a pill, like…" He looked at his alarm clock. "…fifty minutes ago. It took off the edge, but…"
"It still hurts."
"Want me to use my magic fingers?" Dean offered with a half-smile, wriggling said fingers.
Sam chuckled, something warm blooming in his chest despite the pain in his head.
"You're an idiot, you know that?"
"Hey, they're your words, not mine. I remember distinctly you saying, 'Oh, Dean, you have magic fingers'."
Sam sat up, pushed the covers and threw his legs out of the bed.
"Come here, you moron."
Dean came to sit beside him and Sam turned a little, his back to his brother so he could place his hands, fingers spread, on Sam's temples, and Dean began to massage with a slow circular motion. His hands moved to the top of Sam's head, and he kept rubbing energetically until the pain subsided. Sam closed his eyes and let a soft moan of relief escape him.
"God," he breathed.
"Call me Dean."
Sam gave him the finger, eyes still closed. Dean chuckled, a sound so rare these days that Sam wanted to cry, wanted to freeze the moment and lock it up in a box like a precious gem.
"Better?" Dean asked.
"Yeah," Sam said. Waited for a few seconds and said, "You can stop."
"Okay. Feel like getting dressed and getting out for breakfast? I'm starving."
Sam's eyes snapped open at his brother's words.
"Yeah, really." Sam's lips were curving up in a smile. "Don't say anything," Dean warned.
"Not a word, Sam."
Sam pressed his lips together, and remained silent. He was feeling a lot better, now. He put an hand through his hair – that was maybe a little too long, he noticed absently – and let it rest a few seconds while he was trying to gauge the remaining pain, and whether or not he was feeling like going out and being with people. Although that early in the morning, the campus probably wouldn't be crowded.
Dean was already half-dressed when he stopped buttoning up his shirt.
"Sam? You coming or what?"
"Yeah, yeah." He stood up and started rummaging in his side of their closet. "You're full of energy this morning," he said as casually as he could. "Not that that's a bad thing."
"Well, I don't know. I feel good," Dean said, looking somewhat surprised, poking in wonder at the foreign feeling.
"Good. That's good."
They went through their morning routine without exchanging any other words, comfortable with the silence between them. In spite of his nightmare and waking up with a headache, Sam felt good about the starting day, which may or may not have a lot to do with his brother being in a good mood.
When they were both ready Sam followed his brother out of their room, across the entrance hall. Before he could open the front door, Dean stepped on something, smiled and crouched down to pick up a small piece of cardboard on the floor, a postcard that had probably been slid under the door by the postman. Sam shot a glance above his brother's shoulder. The picture on the postcard showed a river, water gleaming under the sun, bordered by tall trees with golden leaves. On the right bottom corner was written "Minnesota."
Dean turned the card and read out loud the words written on the back in elegant handwriting, "Absent in body, but present in the mind."
No signature, but Sam and Dean didn't need any. There was only one person who would send them postcards quoting the Bible. One year ago, Castiel had told them goodbye, announcing his decision to travel all over the country on his bicycle. The angel had progressively lost all his powers after his brothers and sisters left Earth. It wasn't very long after Lucifer had been freed from his prison – when Dean had refused to be their good little soldier, Zachariah and the others had just deserted, abandoning the world in the Devil's hands. Castiel had stayed, though, had paid the price for his loyalty to the Winchesters and had been cut from Heaven. His last power to go had been his ability to poof – as Dean called it – in any place and at any time he wanted. Faced with his new mortal condition, he had decided to discover the country Sam and Dean knew so well by using one of the slowest human mean of transport. As long as the postcards kept coming, they knew he was okay.
Dean looked at the card for a few more seconds before sliding it inside his jacket.
"Gonna put it with the others when we come back."
Sam nodded and bumped lightly into his brother's shoulder to tell him to move on. It was so early that the sky was gray with the light of dawn, the leafless trees silhouetted against it like skeletal hands raised in supplication. Mist was lingering in thin white strips, and though the air was more cool than cold, Sam shivered a little, missing the warmth of his bed.
They walked across the campus without meeting anyone. When they first came here, more than one building had been destroyed or derelict, though the damage was far less significant in this part of the country than on the east coast where most of the major cities had been. There, many people were still living in camps, and their future was uncertain. In Portland the reconstruction had begun just a few months after Lucifer's death and all the demons being sent back to Hell had marked the end of the war.
Now the campus looked almost untouched – save for a few buildings – like nothing had happened. People knew better, though. Everyone's life had been changed irrevocably, starting with the fact that nobody could escape the knowledge that demons existed and had almost destroyed the world.
They arrived at their place of choice when it came to eating, and Sam saw the corner of his brother's mouth turn up, before Dean started to walk a little faster. The Cheerful Tortoise used to be one of Portland's oldest bars, a place for the students to gather. Abandoned during the war, it had been bought back by Elena Darwell, who had kept the original name and the laughing tortoise mascot, but had turned the bar into a place where everybody could eat homemade food for cheap.
Dean pushed the door and they were welcomed by the smell of bacon and baking. Inside the only customers were three young men, probably students, sitting in a corner around one of the small square tables and speaking in low voices. An old man was sitting at the bar and staring at the red bricks of the wall, a cup of coffee in front of him that he wasn't drinking.
"Hey, boys!" Elena greeted them.
Elena, a little woman around fifty years old, smiled brightly at them, her eyes sparkling with happiness, like seeing them come in was the highlight of her day. It was something Sam didn't think he would ever get used to. Elena made everyone feel special and welcome, basking them in her light that never seemed to dim. Her head was covered with a colorful headscarf, as she had been so badly burned during the war that her hair couldn't grow anymore, but she joked easily about it, never the hint of a shadow in the blue of her eyes.
"Hi, Elena," Sam said with a smile, and Dean simply nodded.
"Want some breakfast?"
"Hell yes, I'm so hungry!" Dean exclaimed.
Elena beamed at him.
"Oh Dean, that's wonderful!"
Dean scowled, looking annoyed.
"I don't get what's so wonderful about it," he mumbled, but Elena ignored him and kept babbling happily, "I made some pie, I'm sure you'll want a slice of it with whatever you're having…"
"Eggs and bacon, two eggs, please," Dean said.
"You got it. Sam, honey, you as hungry as your brother?"
Sam thought about food, about eating it. He found that he wasn't nauseated, which was good, but not exactly hungry either.
"I'm not really hungry."
"You have a headache?"
"A little when I woke up, but it's better, now."
"Better not to drink coffee, then. Some orange juice and dry toast, maybe?"
"Um, yeah. Thank you, Elena."
"Have a seat, boys." She waved at the empty tables. "Food is coming."
They settled at their usual table.
"I miss coffee," Dean blurted out suddenly.
Caffeine didn't mix well with Dean's medication, so he hadn't been allowed to drink coffee in years, since the beginning of his treatment. He looked longingly in the direction of the old man at the bar, who was still not drinking his coffee and sitting alarmingly still.
"You sure you don't want to order a cup, just so I can inhale the smell?"
"I don't feel like coffee, Dean."
"Okay," Dean pouted before he yawned catlike, his mouth wide open and not even trying to hide it with his hand.
"Did you take your meds?" Sam asked.
Dean glared at him, but it was without heat. It was part of their well-oiled routine – Sam would ask, and Dean would play at reluctance, but they both knew that Dean was really careful with his medication. He was too scared of what could happen, too scared of himself and of what his mind contained not to be careful. But for some reason it seemed to make him feel better to pretend the contrary, so Sam played along.
"Not yet," Dean grumbled, and his hand disappeared in the inside of his jacket, coming back with three little bottles that he lined in front of him. Sam didn't need to read the labels, he knew them all too well – Effexor, Wellbutrin, Geodon; he knew their uses, their side effects, had read everything he could find about them. Only a year ago it would have been unthinkable for Dean to do that where people could see and ask what it was, but he had become a lot less self-conscious about his condition. Anyway, the other customers didn't pay any attention to them, and Elena already knew about Dean.
As Dean popped the pills into his mouth, a young girl dressed in a green apron approached the table with their plates. Sam had never seen her before, and he glanced at his brother to check on his reaction. Dean had quickly closed the bottles and pocketed them swiftly, but he was smiling at the girl. It took a moment for Sam to identify this smile, having to dig up memories of another time, but when he did his eyes widened a little in surprise – this was Dean's flirtatious smile, albeit rusty, a little hesitant and insecure.
"Hey there," Dean said. "We've never seen you here before, have we?"
The girl blushed, and put the plates on the table. She was probably somewhere between twenty and twenty-five, but she looked so young to Sam, like there was a whole generation between them.
"I've just got here. Mrs. Darwell gave me a job."
"It's Elena, Bettany," Elena corrected from behind the bar. "Everyone calls me Elena."
Bettany turned quickly, her mouth opened in a "o" like she was at fault.
"Oh, sorry, M… Elena."
"So, Bettany," Dean said conversationally, "where are you from?"
"San Francisco. But my parents were killed, and I have an aunt in Portland, so as soon as I could gather enough money to come… I didn't want to be alone."
Dean simply nodded, but something dark crossed his face and Sam suddenly wished the girl would go away. Like she'd read his mind, Bettany nervously wiped her hands on her apron and said, "Well, I should go back to work…"
"Okay. Good luck with your new job." Dean's smile was back like it had never gone.
Dean's gaze lingered on her lower back as she walked away, and Sam couldn't help but smile.
"She's pretty," he said, and took a sip of his orange juice.
Dean averted his eyes from the young waitress to look at his brother.
"Stop smiling because I flirted with the pretty waitress."
"I'm not smiling!" Sam protested.
"You look like a proud mom before her son's wedding. It's creepy, dude."
Sam bit carefully into a toast before he retorted.
"I'm just happy. I can't be happy?"
"You can be happy all you want, Sam. Just… don't smile when you see me looking at a girl. Keep your sick fantasies to yourself."
"Get your mind out of the gutter, man," Sam shot back on cue, though to be truthful Dean's mind had been out of the gutter for a long time. The symptoms he suffered, and the medication he had to take were fucking with his libido, so it felt good to see him flirt and ogle, because it was bits of his brother coming back, like gold nuggets hidden under tons of mud that Sam had spent years digging with his bare hands.
The door's bell rang, and Sam turned lazily to peek above his shoulder. He was generally pretty paranoid, checking on every noise, considering every person coming close as a potential threat to him or his brother, but the Cheerful Tortoise was one of the rare places where he felt safe. And to see Dean, who was facing the door, go from wary to relaxed was a guarantee that the new comer's identity wasn't a bad surprise.
Sam smiled at the young man who was coming to their table, dragging a chair behind him. He dropped on it tiredly, rubbing eyes still full of sleep.
"Hi, Paul," Sam said.
"Bonjour, ça va?" Dean said, dragging out the unfamiliar syllables, ending with a proud purse of the lip.
Sam snorted, and Paul smirked, impish but not unkind.
"Don't try to speak French, Dean, you're going to strain something."
Sam laughed noiselessly, which earned him a glare from his brother. Paul's smile, however, faded quickly instead of joining Sam in his hilarity, which made Sam raise an eyebrow. Paul was a generally happy-go-lucky person, but today the spark was missing in his eyes, and they looked darker than usual.
"Something's wrong?" Sam asked.
"No. Yeah. I don't know, not really."
"Pick one, dude," Dean said a little impatiently.
Paul sighed and his fingers went through his hair. He let his hand rest on his head for a few seconds; it looked pale in contrast with the red of his hair.
"I got my mom on the phone yesterday."
"Finally? That's great!" Sam exclaimed, but Paul's lips pressed against each other. "Not great? Why? You've been trying to get a hold of your family since the war ended. How is it not good news? Unless… your family?"
"No, no they're okay. Mostly. I mean, one of my cousins disappeared but he was an asshole anyway, so… but my parents and my sisters are okay."
"So what's the matter?"
"Mom asked me when I'll be back in France."
"Well, you'll have to wait a little, obviously, until planes start to fly again to Europe but I say give it a year and…" Sam trailed off. "But that's not the problem, is it?"
"I didn't know what to tell her. I mean I've been living in the U.S. for what, more than five years, now? And I met people, you guys, my girlfriend, and Anna and Kelly; my students too, even if, yeah, people aren't falling over each other to learn French these days, but still."
"Don't you miss home?" Dean asked. Sam could see that he was straining to understand what Paul thought was the problem. He had a family waiting for him, all of them alive save for one asshole cousin. What was wrong with that picture?
"Of course, I do," Paul said softly. "But Evreux, my town… Mom told me it suffered a lot. Apparently everything from the cathedral to Boulevard Gambetta was completely destroyed… It means pretty much the whole town center, you see, and…"
"And it won't be exactly home anymore, right?" Sam completed for him.
"Yeah. Evreux isn't the greatest town of France or anything, but I learned how to drive in those streets, I hung around with my friends in them… There's this place, where the river makes a kind of… pond or something, it's bordered by willow trees and ducks and swans come swimming in it. We call it "Le miroir d'eau" – it means mirror of water – and now it's all gone. I just… I don't know if I want to see my town like that."
"You don't have to decide just yet," Sam said. "You can't go now anyway. What did you say to your mom?"
"What you just said. That I had to wait for planes to be available, and that I didn't know when it was going to be."
"Good. Maybe in a year you'll be tired of us, and you'll be dying to go back to your country."
Paul snorted a laugh.
"Yeah. Um, sorry about the melodrama. I know I'm lucky compared to… I mean, all the stuff you two have been through…"
Dean remained expressionless, and Sam conveyed with a pointed look how much he didn'twant Paul to mention what they had gone through. Paul raised his hands in surrender.
"Alright. I shut up."
"You do that. Don't you have class, or something?"
"In half an hour. I came to talk to you about something, actually."
"If this is about hunting again," Dean said, "then it's still no. It will be no again tomorrow, and no the day after tomorrow, and…"
"Okay, okay, I get it. But it would be just for this…"
"No, Paul," Sam and Dean chorused.
Paul pouted childishly, and blew off a lock of hair that was falling in his eyes.
"I don't understand, guys. I'm almost twenty-seven. Weren't you a lot younger when you started hunting?"
Sam glanced at Dean, but his brother looked unflappable. Between the two of them, Dean was the more insistently against Paul hunting, and Sam wasn't sure exactly why. Though Sam often thought of Paul as a kid, the young man was actually only a few years younger than himself. Sam thought about the day they'd met, eighteen months ago when they'd decided to rent the house's second and third floor. Paul's bubbly enthusiasm, the open way he'd shared his life story with them, telling them how he'd come as a French lector and had been unable to leave after Lucifer had been freed, had been disconcerting, jarring. Sam hadn't thought it was still possible to look so happy, so carefree in this godforsaken world. Paul had progressively grown on them, even on Dean, who hadn't done well with strangers since the end of the war. He had begun asking for them to teach him hunting a few months ago, arguing he'd learned at least how to shoot during the war and could handle the rest, but Dean had been unwavering on the subject.
"We were," Sam said when it was clear that Dean wasn't going to say anything. "We didn't have much a choice, and it sure as hell didn't make our life happier. You know how to protect yourself, that should be enough."
"I don't want to just be able to protect myself. I did it during the war, but now I want to fight back a little. And if you're that unhappy with hunting, why start again?"
"Because that's what we do," Dean said sharply. "Because that's what we've done all our lives. But you're not like us."
He said that bluntly, almost spat it, but Sam knew he actually meant it as a good thing, an innocence he wanted to keep safe. However, Paul didn't know Dean that well, and Sam saw him falter.
"Uh, okay. Don't get mad at me, dude. But what I wanted to tell you wasn't just about me hunting with you. It was about a hunt."
Sam and Dean exchanged a look. Dean raised a dubious eyebrow.
"A hunt? What kind of hunt?"
"Well, you remember Amy?"
"Your girl? Unless you changed girlfriend and didn't tell us, yeah I remember her. Sammy?"
"Pretty blond, blue eyes, five foot tall? Yeah. What about her?"
"The last few times we talked on the phone I could hear that something was bothering her. Yesterday she told me that she thought something was happening in her town. Something supernatural."
"Do you have any details?" Sam inquired.
"I do. Over the last months, she heard several people talking about seeing strange shadows, mostly at night."
"What kind of shadows?"
"Corner of the eyes type of thing, human-shaped. Sometimes with red eyes. Nothing was really happening, it was just… shadows. And she didn't see them herself, so she didn't think much of it. Still, it happened often enough that people were starting to get nervous in town. You see, Government Camp is a little town in the mountains, and it was pretty isolated during the war. People came to take refuge from the Croats there. They're still very mistrustful and on edge, so Amy thought maybe what they were seeing was just a trick of the eye. Then, a few days ago, one of her friends was… attacked."
Sam saw in the green of Dean's eyes that his brother's interest was peaked, though his features remained impassive. He suppressed a smile.
"By a shadow?" Sam asked, turning his attention back to Paul.
"She was woke up with a weight on her chest and when she opened her eyes, there were red eyes looking back at her. It was dark, but she said it looked like the figure of someone straddling her. And it tried to strangle her."
"How did she survive?"
"Her dad opened the door of her room and turned on the light. He had heard her moan, but he didn't see anything. She had bruises on her neck, though, so it wasn't a dream."
"Creepy," Dean said. He looked at Sam. "It could be a ghost. What d'you think?"
"Could be, but I don't know. Ghosts aren't afraid of light, at least not of electrical light. And they generally don't appear as shadows…" Little wheels were already turning in Sam's mind, and he licked his lips pensively. "It could be several things, like… I remember a South American legend about a shadow creature called 'El Petizo' who attacks lone walkers, but Amy's friend was at home when it happened, and we're in North America, so it's probably something else."
"Though it wouldn't be the first monster to change its habits," Dean said. "Remember that Wendigo at Black Water Ridge?"
"So does it mean you're taking the case?" Paul said. "'Cause, you know, if you do, you're gonna need someone who knows the town a little. The people there, they're going to be wary of you, even if you say you're hunters. Especially if you're hunters, actually. For some reason they don't seem to like hunters too much."
Dean threw him a stern look.
"But we know Amy," he said. "She can show us around, and tell us what we need to know."
"Yeah but people have never seen you with her, and they're all very protective of each other. If I come with you, we could say you're friends of mine. It will look a lot less suspicious."
Sam felt amused by Paul's perseverance, but Dean's eyes narrowed.
"If we let you come with us, do you promise to do everything we tell you?"
Paul's eyes widened, like he couldn't believe his argument was working.
"Uh, yeah. Of course. I'm not stupid, I'm aware you know better when it comes to this stuff."
"We really do." Dean raised a finger. "And for the record, you're not hunting with us. You're coming to help us with the town folk."
Dean's eyes met Sam's, who understood that his brother was waiting for confirmation.
"So I guess we're all going to Government Camp, then," Sam concluded.
Paul was positively beaming.
"We are. That's so cool."
It suddenly occurred to Sam that for their first hunt since the end of the war, maybe would have been a good idea to pick something more straightforward. He glanced at Dean but his brother was looking at his plate. Sam ignored the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach, and fervently hoped that they weren't making a bad decision.