SUMMARY: While at Stanford, Sam battles a sudden, mysterious illness with help from Jess and another, more unexpected source.
RATED: T, for mild language
DISCLAIMER: The characters in Supernatural belong to Eric Kripke & Co. I am playing happily in their sandbox, for fun not profit.
A/N: Written for the Oh!Sam H/C Challenge over on LJ. The prompt was 'Sam injures himself while at Stanford and Jess is the one doing the comforting/caretaking.' As a fan of both brothers, the challenge for me was to stick within canon but make sure both Sam and Dean were part of this story. They are. :-) A great big thank you to Harrigan for the beta and the cheerleading. You KNOW both are appreciated! Hope y'all enjoy.
The Witchery Way
The crow landed with a loud caw near the forked top of a tall, spindly Boojum tree. It shook out its wings, blue-black feathers glinting in the sunlight, as it settled onto the branch. Its head turned slowly, sharp black eyes scanning the ground below until it found its prey.
The couple stood beneath a large Coral tree, still in full bloom. She was tall and slim, her long blonde hair cascading down her back almost to her waist. He was taller still, with wide shoulders and long legs. Her arm was around his waist, his arm around her shoulders as he leaned across to kiss her. As they broke off the kiss, he licked his lips. "Mmm, strawberries." The girl giggled, dropping her forehead onto his shoulder in mock embarrassment.
The crow's head tilted as he studied the man's face. What was so special about him? They wanted him tested, to know if he had powers… to see how far he'd go. They hadn't told him why, but no matter: the boy's powers would be no match for his own.
The bird stared again at Sam Winchester and its beak opened slightly, as if it was smiling.
"It's hard to believe, isn't it?"
Sam could still taste Jess's strawberry lip gloss as he turned to face her. "What is?"
Jess glanced up at the Coral tree that towered over them, providing dappled shade from the late afternoon sun. "That couples have been doing what we're doing for more than a hundred years."
Sam snorted softly as he pushed a loose strand of hair behind Jess's ear and kissed her again. "If you're talking about what I think you're talking about, then I'm pretty sure they've been doing it for a lot longer than that."
Jess smacked his chest playfully before reaching up and wrapping her arms around his neck. "Jerk. I meant walking here, in this garden. Think about it: they planted these trees, these shrubs while they were still building Stanford."
The university's Arizona Garden featured a variety of desert plant life indigenous to that state. Built in 1892, its meandering paths had long been a favourite for young couples in search of private moments. Sam and Jess were no exception. They'd come here on one of their first dates, made weekly visits since to decompress from the stresses of campus life, even made the decision to move in together while sitting on the grass by the cypress grove near the entrance.
The Coral tree was Jess's favourite, especially when, like now, it was covered in flame-coloured blossoms. She sighed happily, then dropped her arms to Sam's waist and snuggled against his chest. "Ever wonder what it would be like to live back then? When Stanford first opened, I mean."
Sam smiled. "For one, we'd both be wearing a lot more clothes: Me in a stiff collar and tie, you in a granny blouse and long skirt..." As Jess stepped back to look up at him, he cast an appreciative glance at her form-fitting tank top and the short skirt that showed off her long legs. "Nah, I'm definitely a new millennium kind of guy."
Jess grinned as she shook her head. "Sam Winchester: a true romantic. "You-"
She screamed when a crow suddenly dive-bombed them, cawing shrilly. They ducked instinctively but, still, the bird's wingtips brushed their heads before it banked steeply around the Coral tree and quickly disappeared beyond its thick canopy, leaving only a cloud of fine dust and a few falling petals as evidence it was ever there.
"What the…" Sam glanced up, then over at Jess. She looked at him and they both burst out laughing.
"Weird." Jess raised an eyebrow as she noted the yellowish-white powder that now dusted Sam's hair and one shoulder of his dark t-shirt. "And either you've developed a sudden, extreme case of dandruff, or that bird just dropped pollen all over you."
"What?" Sam rubbed his hand through his hair, coughing at the pollen it shook loose. "God, that better be all it is. If that thing-" He hissed as his hand ran over the crown of his head.
When he glanced at his hand, blood stained his fingers.
Jess's eyes widened. "It clawed you?"
Sam smiled at the worry in Jess's expression. "I've lost more blood shaving. I think I'll live." He peered through the branches above them. "Maybe there's a nest up there and we just got a little too close for comfort."
Jess followed his line of sight. "It's the wrong end of summer for eggs, but maybe her kids are around here somewhere." Her grin returned. "Women get kinda protective when their loved ones are threatened."
"Careful, your gender bias is showing." Sam wrapped his arm around Jess's shoulders as they started walking again. "My brother could be the poster boy for overprotective streaks."
"Touché." Jess smiled as she leaned against him. "From what you've told me, Dean practically raised you. I know how protective I am of my little sister; can't see how it would be much different for him."
Sam leaned over and kissed her temple. He'd told Jess the basics about his family, about his strained relationship with his dad and about how close he and Dean had been growing up, without ever touching on the real reasons why Dean needed to be so protective. Jess had just filled in the blanks based on her own normal childhood, and he wasn't about to correct her. That would just open a door to their lives as hunters, a life he wasn't a part of anymore and sure as hell didn't want Jess involved with. He hated the lies, but it was part of the price he had to pay for starting over.
But as he'd done so often before, he wished that he wasn't so cut off from Dean, that his brother could be a part of the life he was building for himself at Stanford, and with Jess. He smiled at the thought of Jess and Dean meeting for the first time; he was sure they'd like each other but knew they'd also butt heads – in a good way. They were both opinionated, strong-willed and, yeah, extremely protective of those they loved. It would be…entertaining, to say the least.
Sam stumbled suddenly, the loss of balance yanking him from his reverie.
Jess quickly tightened her hold on his waist, steadying him. "Sam?"
"M'fine." He grinned sheepishly. "Just…tripped over my own feet."
Jess frowned. "You sure?"
"Yeah." Sam kissed her. "You should've seen me when I was fifteen and had just gone through a growth spurt. Trust me, it wasn't pretty. I-" He inhaled sharply as he glanced up.
Dean stood on the pathway about twenty feet in front of them, eyes narrowed in the bright sunlight, hands jammed into the pockets of his battered leather coat. Sam blinked, and Dean was gone.
"What is it?" Jess followed his gaze, scanning the empty path.
"I thought…" Sam shook his head. He'd just been thinking about Dean; his subconscious was just playing tricks. "It's nothing."
He was trying to convince himself as much as Jess but his gut did a sudden somersault, his latent hunter's instincts suddenly reawakened. Was Dean in trouble? Was that why he thought he'd seen his brother?
"Come on." Jess hooked her arm through Sam's, giving him a gentle tug to get him walking again. "Maybe we should swing by the campus clinic. You could be allergic to that pollen or something."
"I don't need the clinic." Sam forced a smile, making up his mind to try calling Dean as soon as they got home. "All I need is to watch where I'm going…and maybe a little TLC from this hot blonde I know."
Jess gestured to where the crow had scratched him. "You up-to-date with your tetanus shots?"
"Yes, ma'am." Sam gave her a one-armed hug as they walked. "And birds don't carry rabies so you don't have to worry about me frothing at the mouth either."
Sam grinned at her mock pout, then stumbled again as a wave of dizziness washed over him.
Jess's voice had developed a strange, tinny echo.
"Babe, what's going on?"
Sam looked over to see two worried faces staring up him and felt Jess grab for him as he teetered sideways. "I…um…" He scrunched his eyes closed, gritting his teeth as he waited for the dizziness to fade.
It disappeared as quickly as it hit. Sam blinked open his eyes, squinting as the bright sunlight fueled a building headache. He exhaled slowly and offered Jess a weak smile. "M'okay."
Jess's eyes widened. "Like hell you are. What just happened?"
"I…" Sam's stomach flip-flopped again. He wrapped an arm around his middle, and glanced down, catching sight on the pollen stain on his shirt. Was it the pollen making him feel like crap? A simple allergic reaction? Or…or something else? He groaned as his stomach cramped.
"Right." Jess quickly adjusted her hold on him. "Come on. We're going to the clinic."
Sam had no energy left to argue. He started walking again, leaning on Jess a little more than he cared to admit. His mouth was dry, his legs shaky, his vision splintering in the bright sun but he kept moving forward robotically, at least until they passed the university's Angel of Grief memorial.
He straightened up, his pounding head and churning stomach momentarily forgotten when he caught sight of his brother. Dean stood with his back to Sam, staring at the marble sculpture of a grieving
angel. "Angels…what a load of crap."
Dean turned around, frowning as his gaze fell on Sam. "Speaking of crap, Sammy: You look like something chewed you up, then puked you out."
"Dean? How-" Sam closed his eyes; the dizziness was back, his fingers and toes tingling like a bad case of pins and needles.
"Dean?" Jess frowned at Sam and then followed his gaze. "Dean's not here, Sam."
Sam stumbled again and felt Jess tighten her grip on him. Her voice was distant, but insistent. "Okay, I need you to sit down, now!"
Sam opened his eyes: Dean was still there, now walking toward them. "What are you doing here?"
Dean gestured at Jess. "I'd listen to the hot chick, if I was you, and sit down before you fall down."
The advice was moot because Sam's legs chose that moment to give way, the pins and needles rapidly turning into a sort of creeping paralysis that robbed him of the ability to stand up or move his arms. He landed heavily on his ass at the side of the path.
Jess fell with him, worry quickly turning to fear. "Sam?"
Sam looked over at Jess in shock. "I… can't move. My legs…my arms…I can't feel them."
Panic appeared briefly on Jess's face before disappearing behind an attempt at a reassuring smile. "It'll be okay. I promise you. We'll figure this out." She slid beside him and pulled him to her so he was leaning against her, his head resting on her shoulder. She wrapped her left arm around his back, while her right hand fished her cell phone from her skirt pocket. She quickly punched in 9-1-1. "Yes, I need an ambulance…"
Sam glanced to his left; Dean was crouched beside them, listening intently as Jess talked to the 9-1-1 operator. When she hung up, she dropped her phone on the ground and wrapped both arms tightly around Sam. "Help's on its way. We'll get through this…"
Sam swallowed. "You don't see Dean, do you?"
Jess shook her head slowly. "You do?"
"As clear as I see you." Sam locked his gaze on his brother. "You're not real."
"Dude, I'm as real as you need me to be. And, right now, you need me." Dean waved his hand at Jess. "Blondie here…Jess, is that her name?... Hey, she's doing her best but that knot in your gut, that's me…that's everything that you and me have ever been through letting you know that what's going on here is not something antibiotics or TLC can fix. Uh-uh. You wanna figure this out? Think like a hunter."
Sam was dizzy again and his chest was tight, making it hard to breathe. Dean was right. For whatever it was to hit him so hard and so fast, he would bet his future law degree that something supernatural was behind it.
"I'll take that bet, Sammy." The sound of a crow cawing above them caught Dean's attention. "And that, little brother, is Clue Number One."
Sam's chest was heaving noticeably, his laboured breathing audible. His head fell back on Jess's shoulder and he saw the crow, silhouetted against the cloudless blue sky, swoop over them. He cringed as its shadow brushed his face, but it was the bird's strident cry, as if it was laughing at him, that stayed with Sam even as he slipped into unconsciousness.
He was aware of the voices even before he found the energy to peel open his eyes. Jess's was more clipped than usual, a sure sign she was worried. He didn't recognize the man's voice, but quickly figured out he was a doctor.
"So, he's taken no prescription medication that you know of?"
"Like I said before…" Fear was fraying Jess's temper. "…nothing prescription, nothing recreational. Nothing. Now what-"
"And he hasn't been drinking?"
"Nothing stronger than Starbucks." Jess exhaled loudly in frustration. "We were in classes all afternoon. We went home, dumped our books, then went for a walk."
"The Arizona Garden."
Sam had forced open his eyes by this point. His vision was still bleary but, from what he could see, he was lying on a gurney in an ER bay. An oxygen mask was strapped to his face, the plastic fogging up with each laboured exhale. A nurse was at his left, taking a blood sample from his arm, an arm that still refused to move when he tried curling his fingers into a fist. The nurse capped the vial of blood, wrote on the label and then disappeared from his line of sight. With her gone, he could see a bank of monitors, displaying information from the collection of wires taped to his bare chest. His t-shirt had vanished at some point while he was out.
His gaze slid to his right; Jess and the doctor stood on that side of the gurney.
"The garden." The doctor looked up after writing something in a chart. "Does Sam have any allergies to plants? Pollen? Insects, maybe?"
"No, not that he's aware of." Jess crossed her arms. "But a bird, a crow, flew at us while we were walking, knocked some kind of pollen over him. Scratched him, too."
The doctor frowned. "Scratched him? Where?"
"On the top of his head. Right here." Jess turned toward Sam, to point to where he'd been clawed but froze when she noticed his eyes were open and watching her. "Hey, babe." She leaned over the gurney railing and ran her hand down the side of his face. "You're gonna be okay. The doctors are taking good care of you. They'll have you feeling better in no time."
"Hey, Sam: I'm Dr. Penfield." The doctor had moved to the left side of the gurney and was now running blue gloved-fingers through Sam's hair, in search of the scratch. "You were having some trouble breathing so we've got you on oxygen while we figure out what's causing the problem." He quickly found the claw-mark. "It's a little inflamed, but doesn't appear to be infected." He glanced off to his right, talking to someone Sam couldn't see. "Where's the t-shirt you cut off him?"
Another strange voice replied. "In a bag by the door."
"Good." The doctor nodded, then smiled down at Sam. "We'll have your shirt sent down to the lab for testing. Once we find out what that pollen is, we'll know how to help you."
He placed Sam's hand over his own. "Your girlfriend tells us you were experiencing numbness in your arms and legs. Can you squeeze my hand?"
"Geez, Sammy, I think the doc here is crushing on you. He just finished running his fingers through your hair and now you're holding hands."
Sam's gaze darted to his left; Dean stood on the far side of the room, leaning against the wall. His arms were folded across his chest, his legs crossed at the ankles. He grinned. "What? I just call it like I see it."
Dean was a hallucination: Sam knew that, but didn't care. His brother had always had an uncanny ability to keep him grounded and, right now, he was doing just that. Sam closed his eyes and focused on trying to get his fingers to squeeze the doctor's hand but, like before, they refused to move.
"Okay." Dr. Penfield slid his hand out from under Sam's, moved to the end of the gurney and folded back the blanket. "Try to wriggle your toes."
Sam frowned at his bare feet. Where were his shoes? He didn't remember anyone taking off his shoes.
"Dude, concentrate." Dean was standing beside the doctor now. "Forget about your damn shoes and try to move your feet."
Sam did but, like with his hands, they stayed still.
Dr. Penfield then took a pen from his lab coat pocket and ran the end up the underside of Sam's right foot, and then his left. "Do you feel that?"
Sam didn't. If his expression alone didn't convey that fact, the faster beeping of the heart monitor did.
With a quick glance at the monitor, Dr. Penfield re-covered Sam's feet. "I know this is scary, Sam, but I need you to stay calm while we figure this out."
Jess grabbed his hand. Sam could tell that she was fighting hard not to cry. "And we will figure it out; it's just… an allergic reaction or something."
"Or something…" Dean muttered. "Let the docs pow wow all they want but it's you and me who are gonna find the answer." He moved from the bottom of the gurney to stand on Sam's left, opposite Jess. "Now backtrack; when did it all start?"
Sam stared hard at Dean. The crow. It all started with the crow and that strange pollen-like powder. He frowned. What if it wasn't pollen after all?
"Bingo." Dean smiled. "Now you're thinking like a hunter. If it's not pollen-"
A loud caw and a rustle of feathers snatched Sam's attention from Dean. The crow appeared out of nowhere and, unseen by anyone else in the ER bay, settled at the base of the gurney by his feet.
The pressure in Sam's chest became crushing. He couldn't breathe. The heart monitor beeped faster and faster. In his peripheral vision, Jess and Dr. Penfield began moving in slow motion; both were talking to him but it was as if they were underwater, their voices garbled, unintelligible.
And then Dean grabbed his arm. "You know what it is, Sammy. Don't let it do this. You can-"
Another shrill cry from the crow drowned out even his brother's words. And, once again, the bird's call was the last thing Sam heard before everything went black.
Sam forced open his eyes. He was no longer in the ER, but in a hospital room. It was quiet and dark, but slits of light pushing their way through the closed blinds told him it was daylight outside.
He rolled his head across the pillow, blinking to get his vision to focus. He was alone. No doctors, no nurses, no Jess. He frowned; that didn't make sense. He'd woken up in hospital room more times than he cared to admit, usually disoriented, often in pain, but not once could he recall ever waking up alone. Before Stanford, Dad and/or Dean had always managed to talk themselves into 24/7 access, and if they were on a rare coffee or pee break, a doctor or nurse would be hovering somewhere nearby.
And Jess, well, she could give Dean a run for his money when it came to sweet-talking her way around rules and regulations. If she was around, she'd be parked at his bedside.
The blankets fell away as he sat up and he shivered, rubbing his hand up and down his arm to chase away the chill.
That's when realization struck. His hands; he could move them. He wiggled his toes and smiled; yeah, he could move his feet, too. Cautiously, he pushed himself out of bed and stood up. The floor was cold beneath his bare feet. He was light-headed and wavered a little, but he stayed standing.
Tentatively, he took a couple of steps. It was more shuffle than walk but he was moving under his own steam. Then he froze at the sound of insistent tapping on the window.
His heart started racing; Patient rooms were never at ground level and no hospital he'd ever run into had balconies. No way was it a person on the other side of that glass.
The tapping became louder and faster.
The crow. Sam's breathing was audible as he flashed back to the garden, to collapsing on campus, to waking up in the ER. He'd seen or heard the crow every time. But what the hell did it want? What the hell did it mean?
He stumbled toward the window, grabbed the cord and yanked open the blind. He squinted against the sudden, bright light, but there it was.
The crow sat on the window sill, slamming its beak, again and again, into the glass. A crack appeared under its frenetic hammering, but the glass held. The bird lifted its head to stare at Sam, screamed its frustration and then flew off.
"Why do you keep seeing the crow, Sammy?"
Sam spun around; Dean, still wearing the familiar leather jacket, stood at the side of the rumpled hospital bed.
"Why do you keep seeing the crow?"
Sam's stared at his brother. He closed his eyes, then forced them open again; Dean still stood in front of him. His gaze wandered to the empty bed. "I'm dreaming… I…I never woke up-"
"So." Dean moved toward him. "You're obsessing with the giftwrap, Sam, instead of enjoying the gift." He winked. "You got me; who wouldn't be thrilled about that?"
Sam was feeling dizzy again. Why did he keep seeing his brother? "We're stronger together, that's what you always told me…"
"Damn straight." Dean's smirk softened to the genuine smile that so few were allowed to see. "Looks like you found yourself a great girl but it's clear you haven't told her everything. She can't help with this. But you're not alone, Sammy. I don't care how many miles apart we are, how many states are between us, I got your back. Always will. Now…," Dean shrugged off his heavy jacket and dropped it on the bed, "let's figure this out so you and Blondie can go home and play doctor of a different kind."
"Dean, I…What the hell is it?" Sam's head was spinning. "And what does it want with me?"
"Think, Sammy." Dean grabbed hold of Sam's arms to steady him when he stumbled. "You know this."
Sam stared out the window. "There's a ton of lore that says the crow is a portent of death…but most of it is just crap."
Dean nodded. "Okay, you know what it isn't. But what is it?"
Sam screwed his eyes closed as he sifted through memories. "Like a black cat, the crow is sometimes a witch's familiar."
"Good." Dean smiled. "Pissed off any witches lately?"
Sam shot his brother a look. "Not that I know of."
"Okay. So what else could it be?"
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose against a building headache. "Um…in some Native American lore, witches are skinwalkers, and they sometimes appear as a crow." He shot a look at Dean. "It's one of the more common animal forms they take."
Dean nodded. "Sounds like a Yahtzee to me. And to make a skinwalker reveal his true form …"
"…you say his real name out loud." Sam's eyes widened. "How the hell am I supposed to know who it is?"
Dean leaned against the foot of the bed. "Whoever it is will have ties to the Native American community and, chances are the two of you have met. For a skinwalker to mess with you like this, he's touched you or swiped something of yours."
Sam was pacing as he tried to think of someone who might fit the criteria. "I play flag football with a guy named Dave Chaca. He belongs to the Hopi tribe."
"No." Sam shook his head vehemently. "No way. He's as solid as they come." He turned back to Dean. "But I take classes with a girl named Shelley Begaye. She's a Navajo."
"Okay." Dean crossed his arms. "It's unusual for women to be skinwalkers but it does happen. She-"
"No." Again Sam shook his head. "It's not Shelley. She's incredibly proud of her heritage. Given how the Navajo feel about skinwalkers…I mean, it's like-"
"… priests going dark side." Dean frowned. "So why'd you bring up this Shelley if you're convinced it's not her?"
Sam was pacing again. "About a week ago, I came out of the library and Shelley was being hassled by this big guy I'd never seen before. I went over to see if she needed help…" He shrugged. "It's like he was looking for a fight. I told him to back off, and he grabbed me and threw me against a parked car."
Anger sparked in Dean's eyes. "He hurt you?"
Sam shook his head, then glanced down at his chest. "But he did rip my shirt. Pulled the pocket right off the front. He backed down after that; mouthed off a bit, then took off."
"Okay, that gives him something of yours, something to bind him to you. But walkers' spells are usually sealed in blood." He nodded suddenly when realization struck. "Blondie said the crow scratched you this morning."
Sam kept pacing. "Yeah. So now we know who and how, but not why."
"I'm guessing it's something more than him being pissed at you for playing hero." Dean's eyes narrowed. "You find out who he is?"
Sam nodded. "Shelley's cousin. She said they were close growing up but he got involved in a bad crowd. I got the feeling there was a lot more to the story, that something really bad went down, but all she said was he was trying to bum some money to get back home to Arizona."
Dean scrubbed a hand down his face. 'Well, if the dude's gone dark side, you know what it takes for them to move up the ranks."
"Yeah… killing a blood relative." Sam raked his fingers through his hair. "Not something she'd really wanna get into with a classmate."
"Even one with a knight in shining armour complex." Dean stepped right in front of Sam. "Please tell me you remember his name."
Sam nodded. "Nelson. Nelson Begaye."
The window across the room exploded suddenly. Dean launched himself at Sam, knocking them both to the floor. He shielded his brother's body with his own as shards of glass blew through the air and rained down on them.
When the glass stopped falling, Dean pushed himself back, sitting on the floor beside his brother. Sam slowly sat up, his gaze locked on the crow that had landed amidst the broken glass that now littered the floor.
The crow ruffled its wings then, as they watched, began to morph. In just seconds, it grew to more than six feet tall, changing from bird to man as it did, sleek feathers becoming taut bronze skin and long black hair, straight beak becoming an aquiline nose, dark eyes changing shape but not colour. With the transformation complete, the skinwalker wore nothing but an animal hide loincloth. The only evidence of the bird he had been was two sleek black feathers tied with rawhide rope to his hair.
He smiled at Sam, then darted toward him, bare feet seemingly unaffected by the shards of glass he walked over. He crouched, unfurled his hand and blew on it, sending a fine yellowish-white powder all over Sam.
Sam coughed, swiping a hand over his face to clear away the dust. The familiar pins and needles returned to his fingers and feet, the creeping paralysis quickly taking the use of his arms and legs. His chest began to tighten, his lungs struggling to inflate, but he now knew what the powder was.
It was corpse dust, made from the bones of the dead for use in black magic – a specialty of skinwalkers. From what Sam had read, it could cause paralysis, hallucinations, could even stop a heart – all symptoms he'd been experiencing since the park.
A cold smile spread across Nelson's face. "Took you long enough to figure it out." His dark eyes were studying Sam. "They were right; you've been out of the game too long. You're soft."
Sam slumped back against the bed, struggling to breathe. "Who are you talking about?"
"Your fan club." Nelson laughed. "They hoped you'd chew me up and spit me out… but I'm not the one lying on the floor, unable to move, am I?" He shook his head. "This is almost too easy."
"He's spouting shit, Sammy. That's all this is." Dean slid closer to his brother. "You know it's all part of his M.O. You buy into his crap, he's got you; you don't, he's powerless."
Nelson crouched down, dragging a finger down the side of Sam's head, his long fingernail closely resembling a talon. "You're bound by blood to me. Your fate is mine."
"The hell it is." Dean grabbed Sam's shirt and pulled him away from the skinwalker and closer to him. "Listen to me, not him. You remember Dad's friend Gordon Tsosis?"
Sam did. Gordon was a Navajo elder who'd helped Dad with a number of cases, the first not long after the Winchesters became full-time hunters.
"Good. Now remember what he taught you the time I was laid up with a concussion and he and Pastor Jim were looking after us."
Sam closed his eyes, riffling through memories.
Dean's voice grew more urgent. "Come on, you know this."
Sam flashed back suddenly. He was 11 or 12 at the time, listening in while. Pastor Jim and Gordon were discussing how their respective faiths gave them the tools they needed to fight evil, both as holy men and hunters. Sam had been skeptical; how could words and beliefs be stronger than guns and knives? But then Pastor Jim had shown him the power of an exorcism – and Gordon had taught him the power of prayer.
Sam turned to Dean. "The healing prayer…to chase evil from the body."
Nelson scoffed. "I was shaman, now I'm yee naaldlooshii, protected by The Witchery Way. The words of my people no longer hold power over me."
Doubt hobbled Sam's resolve. Was the walker telling the truth? Was he immune to the power of the prayer? And even if it could work, he hadn't said the prayer in a long time. What if he couldn't remember the words?
"You remember them." Dean squeezed Sam's arm. "Now say them."
Sam grimaced at the increasing pressure in his chest. He glanced up at Dean. "Say it with me."
Dean snorted. "Dude, I was out cold when he taught it to you, and my butt hasn't seen a pew since Pastor Jim threatened to glue it there for drinking his communion wine." His grip on Sam's arm tightened. "Just start. It'll all come back."
Sam turned to the skinwalker. "O you who dwell in the house made of the dawn, In the house made of the evening twilight . . .
Where the dark mist curtains the doorway…"
Nelson glowered at Sam, then jabbed a bony finger at his chest, right over his heart. He smiled at the scream it elicited.
Dean's focus stayed on Sam. "Don't give him the power. Keep going."
Sam did. "…My feet restore for me. My limbs restore for me. My body restore for me. My mind restore for me. My voice restore for me." His eyes widened in surprise as the tingling in his arms and legs increased, the sensation like that when blood flow is restored to limbs that have fallen asleep.
The skinwalker's cocky façade was crumbling. He began chanting under his breath, the words unfamiliar to Sam.
Dean squeezed Sam's arm again. "He's running scared, Sammy. Don't stop."
Sam swallowed. "Today, take away your spell from me. Away from me you have taken it. Far off from me you have taken it."
The skinwalker stopped his chant.
Sam pushed on. "Happily I recover. Happily my interior becomes cool. Happily my eyes regain their power. Happily my head becomes cool. Happily my limbs regain their power. Happily I hear again. Happily for me the spell is taken off."
The pressure in Sam's chest faded. He lifted a hand to his heart, felt the rapid pulse begin to slow.
Nelson glared at him, his dark eyes more bird than human. He threw his head back and screamed, but it was the shrill cry of the crow that filled the room.
Sam finished the prayer. "Happily I walk. Impervious to pain, I walk. Feeling light within, I walk . . . In beauty I walk. With beauty before me, I walk. With beauty behind me, I walk. With beauty below me, I walk. With beauty all around me, I walk. It is finished in beauty."
The skinwalker pushed himself to his feet. "This is but one battle, Sam Winchester. The war is just begun." Nelson raised his arms and the metamorphosis began; his arms became wings, his feet talons as he transformed back into a crow. With an ear-piercing caw, he lifted effortlessly off the ground and disappeared through the broken window.
For a moment both brothers sat in silence, the only sound Sam's rapid breathing.
Then Dean smacked his brother in the arm. "Told you could do it."
Sam smiled tiredly. "I wasn't sure…"
Dean snorted. "You're the size of an elephant. Makes sense you'd never forget."
Sam glanced down. Dean hand was still on his arm, a simple gesture that meant so much. "You fought him with me. I couldn't have done this without-"
"Oh god, I sense a chick-flick moment coming on. I'm outta here." Dean pushed himself to his feet.
Sam smiled tiredly as he shook his head. "My bad. I-"
He looked up and Dean was gone; in his place, a doctor and a nurse stared down at him. Two more nurses were on his right and Jess was behind them, her hand over her mouth, her eyes red like she'd been crying.
Sam was lying in a hospital bed. There were wires taped to his chest, IV lines in the back of his hand and a clip on his finger. One nurse was fastening an oxygen canula under his nose; another was putting away a defibrillator that appeared to have recently, very recently, been used.
"Sam?" It was the doctor talking. "We've just taken a tube out of your throat so don't try to talk; just nod or shake your head, okay."
"Are you in any pain?"
He was confused as hell but there was no pain. He shook his head.
"Any numbness in your arms or legs?"
Sam clenched and unclenched his fists, and curled his toes beneath the covers. He smiled as he shook his head.
"Any tightness in your chest? Any trouble breathing?"
He inhaled, exhaled and, again, shook his head.
Now it was the doctor's turn to smile. "Good…good." He squeezed Sam's shoulder reassuringly. "Things only get better from here." He glanced over at Jess. "Now, I think we should let this young lady have a moment with Sam before we do a full exam."
A nurse moved out of the way and Jess quickly stepped up beside the bed, reaching over the railing and grabbing Sam's hand. She was smiling and crying at the same time. "Don't…don't you ever scare me like that again."
Jess pressed a finger against his lips. "No... Don't be sorry." She pushed a strand of hair off his face, leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Just get better."
"I got copies of notes from each of the classes you missed; they're on the desk at home for you to go through." Jess unzipped the overnight bag. "Oh, you missed a pop quiz in Courtroom procedure but Professor Bannerman said he can give you an essay to make up for it when you get back to class."
Sam pushed himself up, stiff after spending four days in a hospital bed. He smiled as he watched her unpack the fresh clothes he'd asked her to bring for when the sprung him the next day. "How'd you manage to get all this done, get to your own classes and still manage to spend all this time with me?"
Jess grinned. "I multi-task." She pulled a book from the bag, crossed the room and handed it to Sam. "And here is the textbook you asked for." She fluffed his pillow after raising the head of the bed and slid the tray table in front of him. "Half an hour of studying, that's it: doctor's orders."
"Yes, ma'am." Sam bit back a smile as he opened the law textbook. "You still gonna be this bossy when we get home?"
"Probably." Jess's grin widened. "If that's what it takes to get you better, so be it. You can be as pissed at me as you want."
Sam shook his head as he leafed through the pages. "Don't think I could be pissed at you if I tried. Besides, I'm used to bossy. Dad's a former marine. Dean, well… he's just a naturally take-charge kind of guy."
Jess smiled as she pulled Sam's clothes from the bag and placed them on the shelves in the closet. "I spoke to your doctor on my way in. Everything's on track for you to go home in the morning."
"Thank god." Sam had been in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit for two days and in a step down unit for two more while they continued to monitor him. If he was still hunting, he'd have bolted by now; a spell had caused the illness and the spell had been broken. End of story. He was tired but, otherwise, fine.
But Jess had seen him flat-line and watched as they shocked him back to life. She wanted everything by the book. When Sam started to protest, he glimpsed again the devastation he'd seen on her face when he'd first woken up. He wasn't used to emotional pain quite that raw; Dad and Dean were much better at hiding it, had had much more practice.
And so, he'd acquiesced; put up with the endless tests and the spider web of monitor wires that kept him pinned to his bed, going out of his mind with boredom. He finally been freed from the constant monitoring that morning and told that after 48 hours without a 'cardiac event' he was out of danger. As long as all his latest tests came back clear, he'd be released the next day.
Jess put Sam's shaving kit in the closet and closed the door. "They give you any better idea what caused this? When I asked Dr. Penfield how you were doing, he just gave me a thumbs up – you know, patient confidentiality and all that."
Sam snorted as he pushed aside the law textbook. "It's not confidentiality; they don't know." That was truth. His shirt has mysteriously gone missing from the hospital lab and they'd been unable to 'definitively identify' the dust sample they'd taken from his hair. "The latest theory is I inhaled some kind of mold spores that messed with my lungs and short-circuited my heart."
Jess looked a little gray as she crossed the room to stand at Sam's side. "But there's no permanent damage, right? No chance it'll happen again."
"Jess." Sam reached over the railing and grabbed her hand. "I'm fine. Cross my heart and hope-"
"Don't you dare finish that."
"Sorry." Sam flashed a guilty smile. "Bad joke. Blame it on boredom." He glanced around the hospital room. "I can't wait to get outta here…get home where it's just you and me." He pulled her close and kissed her. "Nice and quiet, no interruptions."
"Quiet?" Jess raked her fingers through his hair. "Did you forget about the horny couple upstairs, the head-bangers downstairs, the aerobics addict across the hall, the-"
"Okay, okay…" Sam grinned. "But it's home. And once we close the door…" He kissed her again.
Jess smiled. "You hang on to that thought. I have a little 'welcome home' celebration planned."
Sam's eyebrow quirked. "Can I have a hint?"
Jess leaned closer. "Think massage." She gave him a quick kiss. "But for now, I have to get to class. You need anything else before I go?"
Sam wrinkled his nose as he glanced down at his law textbook. "How 'bout something more exciting to read than Campion State of California."
"You finish all magazines I brought you?"
Sam frowned. "What magazines?"
Jess glanced at the nightstand. "Oh. Looks like one of the nurses moved them." She grabbed them from the lower shelf. "I dropped by first thing this morning but you were still sleeping."
"You should've woken me up. All I do in here is sleep." He leafed through the magazines. There was Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Computer Digest and…He raised an eyebrow at the fourth one. "Wow, you must really have been worried about me if you're bringing me porn."
"What?" Jess's eyes widened as Sam held up a copy of Busty Asian Beauties. "I did not bring you that."
Sam grinned. "Then where'd it come from? I doubt the little old lady with the hospital book cart dropped it off."
"Not a clue." Jess snatched the magazine from Sam, her eyes widening as a page fell open. "Oh, come on, those can't be real." She pinked at Sam's snort of laughter and snapped the magazine shut. "That friend of yours must have brought it for you."
Sam frowned. "What friend?"
Jess bent down to pick up her book bag. "The one I saw leaving your room this morning." She shrugged as Sam's frown deepened. "He was walking away from me, but he was tall, had short, spiky hair…big ol' battered leather jacket."
Sam sat up, his heart racing. "You saw him…here?"
Jess nodded. "Yeah. Who was it?"
Sam sank slowly back onto his pillow. "An… old friend. I had no idea he was in town." He glanced up at Jess. "Like you said, I was sleeping." He shook his head. "I can't believe… I can't believe he came, and I missed him."
"Well, hopefully he'll come back, or you can call him when you get home." Jess glanced down at the skin magazine, raised an eyebrow, then exhaled loudly. "Here." She handed it back to Sam. "You caught me at a weak moment."
She kissed him again, crossed the room, and then paused in the doorway. "Oh by the way, naughty nurse or French maid?"
Sam snorted. "Scuze me?"
Jess grinned. "Halloween's coming up, I need a costume. What's your pleasure: naughty nurse or a French maid?"
Sam's smile widened as he considered the possibilities. "Either way, I can't lose. Surprise me."
"Surprise it is." Jess winked. "One way or another, I'll get you to like this holiday." She disappeared through the doorway – then stuck her head back in. "And by the way, the chicks in the magazine – no competition! Later."
As she disappeared down the hospital corridor, Sam glanced down at the copy of Busty Asian Beauties and his smile faded. Dean had been there. In his room. Part of him wasn't surprised: his brother always seemed to sense when he was in trouble and needed help. That's why his subconscious had conjured up Dean when he was under the effects of the skinwalker's poison.
But, damn, he wished he'd been able to see him. To talk to him, find out how he was… how Dad was… discuss what had happened with the skinwalker. He had no clue why he was a target, never mind being able to figure out some of the cryptic things the walker had said.
"If you were the formidable foe they seem to think you are…"
"Your fan club…"
Was it just head games, as dream Dean suggested? Or was there more to it?
"Get a grip, Sam." He dropped the magazine on the table and reached for the glass of water from the nightstand. It was just his hunting past once again screwing with his nice, normal present. Hell, just the other night a dream about Jess had suddenly blended with a nightmare about his mom and he'd woken in a cold sweat, the horrific image of Jess burning on the ceiling seared in his brain.
He glanced down, not surprised to see his hand shaking, and quickly set the glass on the table. He could protect himself from future attacks; there were charms, spells to stop the walker from getting into his head again, but he'd likely never know why Nelson Begaye came after him. Sure, it could be just that he was pissed at Sam for protecting his cousin Shelley and stopping him from getting the handout he was after; petty slights had been behind more cases than he cared to remember. Or it could be something more. But finding out meant returning to a world, a life, he'd sworn to leave behind.
No, he was out of that life for good. He had a future with Jess to look forward to and he wasn't going to put her in jeopardy by mixing his old life with his new. He couldn't do that.
He watched as the tall, leggy blond left the hospital room and disappeared into the elevators at the end of the hall.
From his vantage point by the storage room, he could just see Sam sitting up in his hospital bed, staring down at the magazine; he leafed through it absentmindedly, then pushed it across the tray table.
"No, Sammy, no. You're supposed to look at the pictures." Dean shook his head. "How are we even related?"
Physically, Sam was on the mend. He didn't look happy right now but getting out of the hospital would fix that and, if Dean was reading the situation correctly, the blond would take care of the rest.
"Stay safe, college boy." Dean smiled, then turned and quickly headed for the stairwell. He yanked out his cell phone and dialed the familiar number as he jogged down the stairs.
"Dean? How is he?"
"Good. He's going home tomorrow."
"Thank the Lord." Pastor Jim was quiet for a moment. "You talk to him?"
"No. You know he wanted to cut all ties-"
"With hunting, Dean. Not with you."
"Yeah, well the best thing I can do for Sammy right now is to find the thing that put him in here, and take it out for good. You test the shirt I swiped from the lab?"
"Yeah. The residue is definitely bone dust."
Dean nodded. "So it's a walker, like we thought."
"Gordon Tsosis give you any leads as to who it might be?"
Dean walked through the lobby, ignoring the dirty look from the security guard over his use of the cell phone inside. "Gave me a name, told me he's here in Palo Alto. Took a while to track him down; guy spends more time as bird than a man, but I know where's he's hanging out."
Pastor Jim sounded worried. "Think he'll go after Sam again?"
"Damn straight he will." Dean quickly crossed the parking lot to the Impala. "Sammy beat him. Dunno how he did it, but I'd say our walker's royally pissed right now and gearing up for Round 2."
"You want back up to cover Sam?"
"No." The Impala's engine rumbled to life, her tires squealing as Dean backed out of the parking space and peeled out of the lot. "Don't need back-up, padre. Bastard's had his fun." Dean's voice was cold. "Now it's my turn."
The skinwalker, still cloaked as a crow, sat on a branch near the top of the tree, basking in the warmth of the sun as it climbed over the horizon.
The new day offered a new chance to take out Sam Winchester. He'd been careless, not expecting this white boy to know the ways of the Navajo, to use the prayers of his own people against him. It wasn't a mistake he'd make twice.
It was beneath him to be bettered by this boy, one the demons seemed so fascinated with. What did they see in him? What was this role he was destined to fulfil?
He shook his head. It didn't matter now. After today, they would need a new champion. The crow he was now would carry him to where the boy would be released from the hospital, then the wolf he would become would rip out Winchester's throat.
He smiled at the simple brutality of his vengeance.
He launched himself from the tree, riding the warm currents of air, enjoying the freedom this form provided.
The sharp crack of a gunshot split the air just before the bullet slammed into the crow's chest. The bird plunged from the sky, the shock in his eyes growing more evident as he morphed back into human form. His eyes were wide open when he hit the ground, but he never saw Dean Winchester step out from behind the tree and lower his rifle.
The skinwalker was dead.
Dean glanced around, quickly disassembling the rifle as he did. It was barely daybreak and the university's Arizona Garden was deserted; it had been the perfect time to lay siege to the skinwaker.
It was a clean kill: one shot, but now he had to dispose of the body before any students or staff showed up. He grabbed his phone as he walked toward where the body had fallen, and dialled Pastor's Jim's number. "It's done."
"Good." Relief was evident in the simple response. "Any problems?"
"None. I-" A branch snapped behind Dean and he whirled around. There was nothing, or no-one, there.
"It's nothing." He turned back, stepped around the bushes to where the skinwalker's body had hit the ground and froze in his tracks. "Son of a bitch."
"What is it?"
"Body's gone." Where the skinwalker should be, Dean saw only two black feathers, lashed together with rawhide rope.
"You sure you hit it?"
"I plugged it, padre, with a white ash-coated bullet. I know my damn job." Dean snatched up the feathers and frowned. "It left its talisman behind, and there's a yellowish powder all over it."
"It's bone dust."
Dean sniffed it tentatively. "No." He glanced around him, puzzled. "It's sulphur."
The skinwalker's meatsuit has stopped leaking blood the second he'd taken it over. Its state of undress posed a different type of problem.
A loin cloth may have been acceptable attire for a creature that spent most of its time in animal form, but it made him far too conspicuous on a university campus. He'd waylaid some kid taking a shortcut to class. The pants he now wore were too short and the shirt too tight but he was able to walk across campus and into the dorm with barely a second glance from anyone.
He found the apartment he wanted and banged on the door.
The meatsuit inside answered quickly, chewing on a piece of pizza. He recognized his visitor even before his eyes flashed yellow. "Azazel."
"Brady." Azazel pushed his way in. "At least, that's what they're calling you these days, right?
Brady nodded, dropping the pizza back into a box on the desk. "What-"
"The skinwalker failed. Winchester will live."
Brady started to smile. "He used his powers?"
"No," Azazel scoffed. "The power of prayer. This life of a student is making him soft."
Brady shoved some dirty clothes out of the way and sat down on the edge of the bed. "So what's the plan?"
Azazel smiled. "The girl you introduced him to; they're still close, right?"
Brady nodded. "They're living together."
"Good." Azazel's smile widened. "Get rid of her."
Brady stood slowly. "You serious?"
"As a heart attack." Azazel shook his head. "If Sam Winchester's gonna be any use to us, we need to toughen him up, get him back on the road where he belongs, hunting. And the only way that's gonna happen, is to tap into his need for vengeance."
Brady's eyes narrowed. "You think that'll work?"
Azazel's smile returned. "He's his father's son." The demon glanced up, scanning the walls until he spotted the air vent. "Oh, and make it messy. I wouldn't want him to think her death was an accident."
Brady's smile was frosty. "Don't worry; I know exactly what to do."
"Good. As for this," Azazel gestured at his meatsuit, "the other Winchester killed it. It's of no use to us, anymore. Get rid of it."
Brady nodded. "Yes, sir."
Azazel threw back his head. Black smoke spiraled from his mouth, the dark funnel cloud spinning through the air and escaping from the room through the vent. Released from the demon's hold, the skinwalker's body collapsed to the floor at Brady's feet.
Brady stepped over it and locked the door. He'd wait until dark, then he'd dispose of it. But in the meantime, he'd set things in motion. He picked up his phone and dialed the familiar number. "Jess, hey. It's Brady. How's Sam doing? … Good, good. That's awesome news." He smiled and his eyes flashed black. "Listen, we should get together…"
A/N: In the course of doing research for this story, I discovered the Navajo Healing Prayer. I loved its beautiful simplicity, and the idea that it could be the means to defeat evil. For me, it also meshed well with Sam's admission in House of the Holy that he prayed and had for a long time. I hope you enjoyed the fic. Thanks so much for reading. I'd love hear from you. Until next time, cheers.