Previously appeared in Hunting Trips 5 (2010), from Neon Rainbow Press
Never What It Seems
K Hanna Korossy
Sam woke with a jolt to a sea of concerned faces floating above him.
There were murmurs—What'd he say? 'S he callin' for someone? Did he hit his head?—but Sam was too busy scrambling to his feet to pay attention to them. Hands reached out to help him, but he shoved them away even though the scenery was spinning and his legs felt wobbly. He took a step, foot splashing into a puddle of the Coke he'd been drinking. Their lunch would be scattered all over the floor, too, but it didn't matter, none of it mattered. Because Dean was dead.
The cold was a slap in the face as Sam stumbled out the diner door. He inhaled automatically, and the sharp bite of the air cleared his head. No, that wasn't right. Dean wasn't dead…at least, Sam didn't think so. He'd just watched Dean die. A vision: it made sense, with the ringing in his ears and the way his head throbbed and the lingering flashes of light in the corner of his eyes, just like the ones he'd had of the Miller family just a few months before. So, it probably hadn't happened yet, he had a chance to stop it, can't let Dean die…
Thank God the diner was next door to the motel. Sam slammed into the room in less than a minute, eyes frantically sweeping the room. "Dean. Dean!"
Nothing. Silence. Emptiness. Like Dean's eyes after that ax buried itself in his chest. Sam rubbed his own eyes, trying to clear the sight of then from it so he could see the now. But there was nothing to see.
"Dean!" he bleated, crashing forward like an ungainly calf, as if Dean were hiding in the bathroom or under the bed, just waiting to be summoned by Sam's desperation. "Oh, God—Dean!"
Sam whirled. Dean stood there, wiping his hands on a shop rag, grease smudged across the same spot on his cheek where it always was when he got under the Impala to change the oil. Whole, healthy, and very much alive.
His brows drew together at whatever he saw in Sam. "What's wrong?" Then when Sam didn't, couldn't, respond right away, a more concerned "Sam?"
Sam croaked out something and lurched forward to grab Dean. His hands petted over an unbloodied, unbroken chest, a steadily beating heart, and the echoing throb in his neck. Definitely alive. Sam groaned and sank onto the edge of the nearest bed, dragging Dean down with him.
Dean had allowed the inspection even as worry collected in the lines and darkness of his face, but now he grasped Sam's clinging wrist, not detaching him but holding on, solid, warm, and not dead. "Sammy, what happened?" he asked with urgency smothered in calm for Sam's sake.
Sam took a shuddering breath, eyes flinching shut. "It was… You were dead. I mean, I don't know how, but there was an ax, and blood…" He knew he wasn't making much sense but couldn't seem to do anything about it. It was like the vision he'd had back at the Millers', Dean's brains splattered across the wall while his lifeless eyes stared at Sam.
There was a pause, then, "Vision?" Dean guessed. "You had a vision of me dying?"
Sam swallowed, nodding his head. The resulting vertigo somehow made his grip on Dean's arm slip, and he flailed to find it again.
Dean took his hand and set it matter-of-factly back on his own flannel-clad forearm. "I'm here, dude, I'm fine."
Sam nodded once more. His head really hurt, and he realized abruptly he was shivering. He hadn't noticed his nose was bleeding until a thumb swiped above his lip, across the columella…and just the fact that he remembered that word now made him laugh.
"Okay, Sam, you're kinda scaring me here now. Calm down, okay? We'll figure this out, but I need you to focus here. Where was I in your freaky vision?"
Sam pulled in a breath, then another. He opened his eyes finally, to see Dean sitting next to him, twisted worriedly forward to see his face. The corner of his brother's mouth lifted at the sight of Sam's eyes, eyebrows giving an encouraging twitch up. Sam felt himself relax and settle a little. It had felt so friggin' real, but it wasn't, Dean was right here, and he'd stay here if Sam just got his act together. He took another breath and thought back. "Uh, it was dark, inside. Maybe a warehouse?"
"Well, that narrows things," Dean said with some exasperation, then nodded encouragement at Sam. "Were you there?"
"I… Maybe?" It wasn't as if he saw himself in the visions, but sometimes he was formless observer and sometimes he was him, and the shock and grief and fury that had stabbed through him at the sight of Dean going down certainly felt like he was there. On the other hand, that could have come from the real him, not vision-him. And he hadn't gone over to Dean, just stood there watching him die. "Wait. No. I don't think so."
Dean's head bobbed. "Okay, that's good. You're doing fine. So, no separating on hunts for a while, that's cool. You see if it was day or night, some other clues about when or where?"
He tried, he really did, but all he could seem to see was the ax, and the light dying in Dean's eyes. His hand curling shut in a puddle of his blood, and Sam thought he'd be sick.
"Sam…" That same hand rested on the back of his neck.
He shook his head. "No. There's nothing. Just you. Dead."
"All right, fine. We'll figure it out, Sam, I promise. Look, I know your head's killing you—lie down for a while and rest. I'm gonna go get us some food and then we'll hash it out, come up with a plan."
"How about you not getting killed? That's a plan," Sam muttered, rubbing his temple with his free hand. It did feel like his head was about to come off. And like that would be a decided improvement.
"Sounds good to me." There was a pause, then Dean's voice softened. "Hey, come on, man, lay back, relax a little. I'll be right back."
Halfway to horizontal, Sam tightened up again. "Don't go by yourself."
Dean tilted his head. "You coming with me? I don't think so—a five-year-old-girl could take you down right now, Sam. But don't worry—someplace dark with axes, right? Doesn't exactly sound like Emily's Meet-and-Eat. I'll be fine."
There was grudging logic to that. The place in his vision was definitely cavernous and dark, like a big empty room. It couldn't have possibly been the cheerful chrome-and-vinyl diner he'd just been in. Nor were the ten or so yards between the two buildings likely candidates for an ax-wielding ambush.
"Sam, I promise, I'll keep an eye out for Paul Bunyan, okay? I'm not dying today."
His lips flattened but he couldn't really argue. Sam sighed, climbing wearily back up on the bed. "Yeah. Okay."
"Okay. So…you gonna let me have my arm back now?"
Sam flushed a little at the realization that he still had a spastic grip on his brother. Making a face, he peeled his hand off and tucked it up against himself instead. "Just…hurry, all right?"
"Will do." Dean paused, looking like he wanted to say something else, maybe something mushy. But instead he grabbed his jacket, paused again, then snapped it out over Sam's upper body. "I'll be back in fifteen."
Sam nodded, hand automatically groping for the lapel of Dean's jacket. It wasn't the same thing as his brother being there, but it was embarrassingly helpful.
He meant to stay awake until Dean came back to make sure he came back. But his headache was brutal, his body became heavy as his shivers tapered off, and it was too much effort.
Dean's dead eyes awaited him in his dreams.
Sam had left out a few details about his little living nightmare, Dean groused to himself as he juggled bags of food and a takeout tray of drinks with the room key. Like that he'd actually passed out at the diner, leaving a dozen worried onlookers in his wake. Or that he'd already picked up their lunch, just left it all over the restaurant floor. Turned out the food was still more or less intact and the cashier had generously thrown in a fresh set of drinks, coffee for Dean and fruit juice for Sam, who probably wouldn't be eating much. The Coke he'd ordered before was still being mopped up, and explained the dark stain on his jeans leg that Dean hadn't bothered asking about.
He crept in quietly in case Sam had succumbed to what looked like a killer headache, and turned out he was right. The kid was completely sacked out, curled in a ball on Dean's bed, the pinch of pain slowly fading with sleep. Dean's jacket was tucked up under his chin, and Dean grinned fondly at the sight. It had been easy to let Sammy curl up with one of Dean's sweatshirts when they were little to relax him with something that reminded him of his brother. Adult Sam wouldn't stand for anything that girly, but Dean had found more subtle ways, switching out his blanket or pillow for Sam's for a little subliminal cue that he wasn't alone. The old ways were still the simplest, though, and worked the best. Even if the moron wasn't always sure Dean would come back for him, he knew Dean would be back for his jacket.
He was reluctant to wake Sam when it looked like he needed the sleep. But when Gigantor still hadn't stirred by the time Dean finished his sandwich and coffee, Dean bit the bullet and gave him a pat on the back. Sam needed fluids at least or that headache would just get worse, rest or no rest. Besides, his face was drawing together again, eyes moving fast under the lids, and Dean had a feeling he was having a dream he wouldn't mind waking up from.
Sure enough, Sam woke with a gasp, blinking hard, then rubbing his eyes with one hand and staring at Dean. Only when the sight registered did he relax back into the mattress. "Oh, man."
Dean gave him a lazy smile. "What, was I wearing a tutu this time? Going to a Manilow concert? Driving a Prius?"
"Your throat was cut."
Dean pushed down the instinctive slide of unease that hearing about your own death—from a psychic, no less, not to mention your little brother—elicited and forced himself to keep it light. "Aw, c'mon, is that it? The ax was at least a little more creative." Even if it still amounted to Kill Dean Winchester Day.
Sam pursed his lips, giving Dean an utterly unamused look.
Dean sighed. "So, was it a vision, or just your run-of-the-mill nightmare?"
"Nothing run-of-the-mill about it," Sam mumbled, shoving absently at Dean's jacket. He gave it a puzzled glance, but Dean didn't react. "I don't think it was a vision. Didn't feel the same."
Somehow, that wasn't terribly encouraging. But Dean nodded, rolling his knuckles over Sam's thigh. "Yeah, okay. Sit up and let's get some calories in you, then we'll talk."
Sam grimaced but pushed himself up until he was propped against the headboard, looking only a little better than roadkill.
As Dean predicted, he turned up his nose at the grilled cheese and chips he'd ordered earlier for himself and just drank the juice. Still, it put a little color in his cheeks, Dean was glad to see, and the slight tremor remaining in his hands finally eased.
When Sam had set the cup aside and crossed his arms, Dean settled on the bed across from him. Sam was wearing his defiant face, and that was a good thing this time: he was gearing up to fight. Frankly, it was the only reason Dean wasn't more worried about his death being foretold: Sam was on his side. And Dean knew none better.
"Okay, so we know I buy it someplace dark. And there's an ax involved. Doesn't exactly sound like old Reuben we put to rest last night." It had been a simple salt-and-burn for once, not a single hiccup.
"Yeah, I think we finished that one—this is something new." Sam massaged his temple, grimacing.
Dean got up and fetched their kit, digging out the painkillers and kicking himself for not thinking of it before. Would've kicked in already if he'd made Sam take something before Dean had gone out for food. There was a little juice left in the cup, and Sam drained it with the pill, then sank back into the pillow.
"No problem. So, what was I wearing when I kicked it?"
"Uh…" Sam was still clearly having trouble concentrating. He rubbed harder at his head. "Your blue shirt…uh, grey button…button-down. Blue jack—" He broke off with a groan, swinging his legs blindly around off the side of the bed facing his brother. "Dean—" His hand smacked against Dean's knee as he sought help.
Dean cursed and slid forward off the bed so he was close enough for their legs to tangle. He grabbed Sam above his wrists, feeling his brother's hands lock around his biceps in turn, then watched with a sinking heart as Sam's eyes did the same darting-back-and-forth thing as when he'd been dreaming. This time he was wide awake, though, his eyes dilated and open wide.
There was a tense half-minute of Sam breathing sharply, watching something only he could see, while Dean helplessly rubbed his thumbs over the straining muscles and talked softly albeit, he guessed, unheard. Still, it made him feel better than not doing anything while Sam faced his nightmare alone. He was ready to take Sam's weight when the air whooshed out of him and he sagged.
"Okay. Okay, it's over. It's over now, Sam. Take it easy." There were tear tracks on Sam's face, either from the physical pain of the vision or the mental pain of what he saw, Dean didn't know or want to know. He just brushed them away, trying to catch his brother's eye. "Sam? You with me?"
Sam gulped air wetly, still near breakdown. "Dean…"
He knew what that meant, unfortunately. Dean pulled a face. "Ax again?"
Sam's too-long hair swung as he shook his head heavily, like it took so much effort. His body was propped up by Dean's strength alone, too busy recovering to invest energy in staying upright. Still, he managed to lift his head to look muzzily—and devastatedly—into Dean's eyes.
And then he threw up all over Dean's jeans.
This was…this was bad.
Two visions in a row sucked big time. Two only being the opening act for the nearly steady stream of visions that were soon assaulting Sam? That was a whole new level of screwed, even for them.
Sam had tried to stay strong, Dean had to give him that. He'd tried at first to tell Dean the details, to keep himself together, and to not bawl like a baby when his head hurt so badly, he'd started to bang it on the bed frame to knock himself out.
That was when Dean finally gave in and shot him full of the finest painkillers Winchesters could steal. It was a risk, not knowing what was already messed up inside Sam, but Dean couldn't stand watching his brother swallow screams anymore.
And then there was what Sam was seeing.
The bits and pieces of the visions Sam shared soon devolved into garbled rants, but Dean got the picture well enough: it was him, always him, dying one gruesome death after another. He was pretty sure now this was some kind of psychic short-circuit, not actual visions of his death, but it wouldn't matter to Sam. He was still watching Dean get hit by a train, decapitated, and something with a pitchfork Dean didn't even want to guess at. Bearing helpless witness to his brother's death every single frickin' time.
"Dean." It was a groan, weak and terrified. Sam writhed on the bed despite the shot Dean had given him not a half-hour before, body bathed in sweat. Dean had given up trying to keep him in clean, dry clothes and just made sure he stayed covered in blankets now to keep warm, wiping his face when the perspiration became indistinguishable from the tears. "Dean…"
"No, hey, come on now, Sam, work with me here. Can't miss me if I'm sitting right next to you, right?" He gripped Sam's hand tight, then pulled him up to bury the shaggy head against his chest. "I'm here. I'm here, kiddo." It would help for a minute, he knew from the last few times he'd done it, until Sam's mind started to imagine him holding Dean's corpse and he'd push away. Dean squeezed his eyes tight to make this second of solace last and ruffled a hand up into Sam's damp hair. "I'm okay and you're gonna be okay. Just hang in there."
It was an empty promise, though.
Dean had called everyone in the journal he trusted with their problem, and a few he didn't, carefully changing names and details to protect Sam. But nobody had heard of a psychic with runaway visions, let alone knew what to do about it. Protection wards had proved similarly useless. If the yellow-eyed demon was playing some kind of game with Sam, it was slowly and surely winning. And that scared the crap out of Dean.
Sam moaned, fisting Dean's shirt in his hands. Dean had already unbuttoned the cuffs after Sam had twisted them tight enough to cut the circulation in Dean's wrists. His shirt was wrinkled and snotty and wet with Sam's sweat and tears, but it didn't matter. None of it mattered. Not when his kid brother was hurting.
"Shh, easy. I'm here, Sammy," he whispered. "I'm right here, I'm not dead. Whatever you're seeing, it's not real."
Sam pushed away again, burrowing into the bedding to sob out his loss.
Dean slumped back in the chair and rubbed a hand exhaustedly over his face. It'd only been about six hours, but it already felt like days. How much could Sam's mind and body take before he lost it completely? Dean wasn't sure he himself could take much more. "What's going on with that freaky head of yours, Sam?" he said tiredly.
Sam whimpered, legs shoving at the bedding as he tried to curl up even tighter.
His lips were parched. He was probably getting dehydrated with all that sweating and crying. At least that Dean could do something about, for all it was worth. He pushed up on weary legs and propelled himself across the room into the bathroom.
The water came out of the tap a rusty yellow. Terrific. There was no coffeemaker in the cut-rate room, either, and Dean's brain was starting to feel close to shutting down, too. He stood in the bathroom doorway, watching Sam arching off the bed, and felt something close to panic ripple through him. He didn't know what to do. What was he supposed to do?
He had to get out of there.
Sam needed fluids, Dean reasoned as he rushed out the door, pausing only to lock it securely behind him. Dean needed coffee. The diner was, like, a dozen steps away, and he'd only be gone a few minutes. That didn't make him a bad brother, right?
"Hey, honey, what can I getcha?"
Chest tight with misery, Dean ignored the cashier's cheerful flirting and mumbled his order. "Coffee and…apple juice." Sam's favorite as a kid and one he'd never outgrown.
"Comin' up." She put the order in, then leaned forward confidentially. "You don't look so good, sweetie. That brother of yours not doin' any better?"
Dean shrugged, not having the energy to sell much of a lie. "He's fine."
Brother. The word took a minute to sink into his tired mind.
Dean's eyes narrowed, and he looked up to meet her gaze. "How did you know he was my brother?"
The girl, mascara-heavy but honest-faced, huh-ed and thought for a second. "Think one of the guys mentioned it. Hey, De!" she called back over her shoulder. "C'mere for a second."
The minute the young man in the white apron came out the kitchen door, all the pieces fell into place in Dean's head.
Duane Tanner took one look at Dean's thunderous face and took off, back through the kitchen. Dean wasted no time dashing after him.
It'd been a few months since he'd seen the kid, but Dean wouldn't forget anytime soon the innocent guy he'd almost plugged. Not that he hadn't had reason; with the whole town acting like a bad reprise of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Duane's late appearance and bloody leg had immediately put him high on Dean's suspicion list. But he hadn't been able to pull the trigger, not while there was some doubt left that Duane was infected like the others, and the kid had turned out clean.
Or so it had seemed.
Tanner was scared and fast, but Dean was furious and faster. He caught up to the short-order cook in the alleyway behind the diner, having blown past the stunned kitchen staff, and stopped him with one hard shove against the brick wall.
"Funny running into you here, Duane. Somehow I don't think it's a coincidence that something's wrong with my brother and you're the one who's been fixing our food."
Duane, face smashed between brick and Dean's unyielding hand, squirmed like a worm on a hook and just as pinned. "Don't know…what you're talking…about."
"Right." Dean loosened his grip just enough for Duane's head to pull away from the wall a little, then slammed it back. Tanner groaned. "Want to try that again? 'Cause I can keep this up all day."
"You gonna kill me like…you killed the rest of my family?"
"What?" Dean stepped back, startled, not enough to give Duane room to bolt, but enough to peel himself from the wall. There was an angry scrape on one cheek from the brick that made Dean feel totally not guilty.
Tanner looked at him with eyes brimming with hate. "You and your brother. You killed my mom and dad, and then my brother disappeared. My whole life ended when you two came to town."
Dean frowned at him. "Dude, you were there—the town was freaking out. Your dad had your mom tied up, and then your mom tried to bash Sam's skull in. Your brother turned into one of them, too. You know this—Sarge backed us—"
"He's dead," Duane blurted angrily. "I don't know what you did to me, but things got a little fuzzy for a while, and then suddenly I'm sitting in Sarge's truck and he's next to me with his throat cut. And when I go back, the doc says my parents are dead and everyone else's up and vanished. Except you two."
"Wait." Dean put a hand up, shaking his head to try to clear it. "You're saying you don't remember any of it? Not being tied up, not half the town lining up outside just to watch us, not Sam getting attacked? None of it?"
Duane deflated against the back wall of the diner, rubbing at his jaw just below the oozing scrape. "I remember you two. And…and that something was wrong, like I wasn't in control of my body or something. That's it." He straightened, face twisting. "What did you do to me?"
Dean blinked. "Huh. Wow. Sounds almost like…" Possession. Which was yet another level of messed-up in an already royally screwed situation. And, man, he'd really liked Sarge. Dean's eyes cut back to Duane. "Listen to me. We were victims just like you. Sam was attacked—ask the doc. It's a friggin' miracle he didn't get infected. But your mom and dad—I'm sorry, man, I am, but they were crazy. We killed 'em 'cause we had no choice. And I don't know where your brother went, I swear."
Duane looked at him sullenly. "Yeah. Right."
Dean's gaze tightened. "So, seriously? You've been following us, trying to, what, get revenge for your family?" He huffed a laugh, shaking his head. "Dude, find a hobby."
"You think it's funny?" Tanner spat at him.
"Your folks dying? No. Believe me, I've been there. But Sam and me, we're not the enemy here. If you're so gung-ho to find something to kill, make sure you've got the right target first. But let me tell you this." He was dead serious again as he stepped forward, crowding Duane back against the wall. "You come after my brother, or me, again, and it'll be the last stupid thing you do. Are we clear?"
Duane's head jerked a nod as his eyes shied away.
"Good. Now tell me what you did to Sam."
"I just put some stuff in his drinks," Duane muttered. "It's not…it's not dangerous or anything. Just some hallus. Figured maybe he'd run out into traffic or something." A bitter smile curled his mouth.
"You angel-dusted my brother?" Dean said incredulously. He really wanted to pound Tanner into the pavement just now. But the kid had lost his whole family, and if he really had been possessed, no wonder he was blaming the wrong people. Dean could understand that. Tanner wouldn't have even known the drug would send Sam's visions on a trip through Hell instead of just making him talk to invisible people.
"Wanted to do both of you, but Melinda always got to the coffee first. It'll wear off…about twelve hours after the last dose," Duane added a little too smugly.
Dean's fist knocked him so hard into the wall, Duane immediately dropped to the ground, unconscious.
Dean understood, yeah, but that didn't mean he forgave.
He didn't have to check to make sure Tanner was still breathing; Dean knew his own strength. "Hope your head feels like it's gonna explode when you wake up like Sam's, you son of a bitch," he muttered to the sprawled figure, then turned and headed out the alley.
A quick stop at the convenience store down the block for some coffee and a sealed bottle of juice, then it was back to Sam for six more hours of fun and games. But at least Dean knew it would end now.
And that was everything.
Sam woke with a jolt to a concerned face floating over him.
"'M here, dude," Dean said it dully, like it was an old refrain. "I'm not dead, dying, or about to die, swear to God."
Sam swallowed with difficulty; it felt like he hadn't had anything to drink in a week. Then he remembered what he'd just seen. "But…" It felt hard to put the words together, like they were some complex jigsaw puzzle. "I saw…"
Dean focused sharply on him, leaning down. "Sam? Sammy, you really back this time?"
Dean was sitting next to him in the bed. His thigh was pressed up against Sam's face, an arm curved around his back. It was the only thing that felt good to a body wracked with cramping muscles and aching joints. Sam tried again to piece the pieces together. "I'm— Dean?"
"Close enough," Dean said, smiling a little. He was more unshaven than usual, his eyes bloodshot, and he still looked better than Sam felt. "You were sick for a while, but everything's gonna be fine, I've got it under control."
God, he was tired. He could barely move his mouth, let alone the rest of him, and he felt hot and prickly. "Don' unnerstand. Thought you were…" Dead? There was a memory there somewhere, but it all felt ephemeral, sliding away from his fingertips.
"I'm not. I'll explain it all in the morning, just get some rest, Sam. Are you cold? Anything hurt?"
He dragged his thick tongue over his papery lips. "Thirsty."
"That I can fix." A wet bottle was pressed to his lips, and Sam drank as much as he was allowed, trying not to reach for it after. Too much water made you sick…Dean would know…
"Dean?" He had a sudden flash of blood, and dead eyes. It made his stomach twist, and Sam forced his eyes open.
"It's okay, nothing's gonna happen to me," Dean soothed, and while he didn't look all right, he did look this side of alive. He moved, flexing Sam's arm, and Sam realized then that he was holding on to a crumpled handful of Dean's collar.
He quickly let it go, embarrassed for no reason he could pinpoint.
"Dude, stop thinking so much. Everything's fine—just trust me on this, okay? We just both need, like, a week of sleep, 's all. But you need anything, I'll be here."
Something must have been really wrong to open up Dean like that, but whatever it was also seemed to be over. Dean sounded tired but not scared, and his reassurances were genuine. Maybe Sam had been hurt—Dean said sick?—but his whole body ached so much, Sam couldn't even tell. He just raised a hand to pat his brother weakly on the stomach and then let it drop back to the bed. Felt like he could sleep for a week…
He started awake again as he felt Dean lift off the bed and start to move away. "Dean!"
Dean immediately came back, sitting down next to Sam's hip. "Yeah?"
"I…" He'd already forgotten what, if anything, he'd wanted to say and why it had seemed so urgent. "Dean?" he said helplessly.
"I'm not leaving the room until we talk, okay? I'm just gonna get some sleep, Sam—bed's a little small for two." He smiled again as Sam stared wearily at him, but it was with something more serious than joy. Dean cocked his head. "It was always me who got wasted, huh? Kinda figured you'd be having nightmares about Jessica."
Sam gulped, grateful when Dean gave him a little more water. More came back by the minute: Dean dying in just about every horrible way he could imagine, over and over right in front of him. And overlaying it, the sound of Dean's voice, the feel of his arms, the smell of his clothes, promising over and over that it wasn't real, that it would pass, and that he wasn't alone. Probably the only reason he hadn't gone crazy from it all.
Sam rolled his head on the pillow, too tired to open his eyes even when his hair caught on his lashes. "Was m'worst nightmare," he slurred.
The last things he knew as he sank into unconsciousness was Dean brushing his hair free, pulling up a blanket over Sam that smelled like his brother, and a fondly muttered "bitch."