His first visit was the hardest one to get through.
He sat inside the cramped little trailer that smelled like a fresh breeze hadn't ever crossed through it and tried to stay still, knowing that the bouncing around was a bigger tell than plastering an "I'm uncomfortable with this" sign on his forehead.
The woman (witch, sorcerer, voodoo priestess, who the hell knew) passed him a stained Saints mug filled with a steaming brown liquid.
"Tea," she smiled with her broad white teeth. "To help calm you."
"No offense," Dean shook his head. "But I'm not going to drink that."
Her eyes crinkled as she smiled wider. "It is your decision," she shrugged.
Throat dry and palms damp, his eyes strayed to the flowered curtains pulled tight over the windows to keep the sun out. Not that the curtains were remotely successful. They were fighting a losing battle and faded colour was the only thing they had to show for it. Serves them right to try to fight the inevitable.
"Did you bring what I need?" the woman asked. Her eyes crawled over him, slow and lizard-like.
"Uh… yeah." Dean pulled out the old t-shirt of Sam's he had found at the bottom of his own duffel. It had most likely gotten mixed up in the laundry ages ago. Everything else Sam had was at Stanford. Or tossed in a dumpster while on the way to Stanford.
Whatever, Dean wasn't thinking about that.
With her eyes closed, she ran her fingers over the shirt and Dean let her despite wanting to snatch it back and run far away from this rusted tin can. He sensed the seriously hinky energy that seeped from the corners of the trailer. Some creepy shit went down in here. Somehow, he couldn't quite bring himself to care enough to leave.
"The connection is faint, but it will do," she nodded. Her eyes snapped open, capturing Dean in her gaze. "Now we will discuss price." She hissed out the final words and her tongue darted out to lick her chapped lips.
"Right." Dean cleared his throat. He could do this. Although he'd never paid for a service like this before, his experience told him what kind of deal he could expect. "Uh… how's this?" he dropped a small stack of twenties onto the laminate table.
Her lips and her fingers curled back, away from the bills. "I have no use for money from you," she sneered.
"Memories," she explained smoothly. "That is what you are getting, and that is what you are expected to give."
"An even trade," she assured him with a sly smile. "A minute for a minute, nothing more."
Dean dragged in a breath trying to get some oxygen to his head, but the air was saturated with sun and dust. He so desperately needed a drink. "It's completely random? Same as it comes in?"
She dipped her chin once to the affirmative.
A random memory gone. It's not like there was a lot of variety in his life. Highway, car, drinks, chicks, motel rooms. If he forgot one of them, would it really make a difference? Maybe he would even get lucky and he'd forget the night Sam left.
And he would get a copy of one of Sam's memories in exchange. A recent one, he had been assured. Just even a glimpse of his new life would be enough to convince Dean that his brother was okay. That he was happy.
"Okay," he nodded. "Yes. Do it."
She snagged his hands in her surprisingly strong ones, wrapping both of theirs around the crumpled t-shirt like a birdcage trapping its prisoner. Dean froze in his seat, spine straight. She inhaled deeply and violently, squeezing tightly with her bony fingers.
Then she released him slowly, sinking back into her seat. "There," she murmured.
Dean still held the balled up shirt. "I don't feel any different."
"The memory is there," she nodded with her eyes closed. "If you search for it, you will find it."
Sam clutched his registration card so tightly in his hand that it was starting to cramp. He hadn't guessed that there would be so many people milling around. They all looked like they knew exactly where they were going. They all had at least one other person with them, too. One unfortunate freshman was being pushed down the corridor in a tidal wave of jabbering adult relatives and even a few smaller ones in the mix.
The cell phone weighed heavily in his pocket not for the first time that day, but Sam hitched up his backpack instead and peered down the hall to try to decipher the directional signs.
"You need a hand?" The voice belonged to a smiling brunette with a glossy braid in her hair and a Stanford orientation t-shirt worn proudly.
"Uh… yeah, I guess," Sam admitted with a reluctant grin, handing his card over to her.
"Winchester, huh?" She smiled again, showing just the right amount of her ridiculously clean teeth. "Like the rifle?"
Of all the places to get that as a conversation starter…
But with the voice of his brother firmly in his head, Sam couldn't let his first opportunity with a college girl slip by.
"Sure, like the rifle," he confirmed. "Do you… shoot…? Or…"
"Not me," she shook her head. "But my boyfriend goes hunting. Keeps trying to get me to go out there with him, but I haven't caved yet. Do you?"
"I… used to."
"Hmm. Well, your orientation group will be in room 2453. All the way down the hall and to the right." She pointed efficiently with her right hand while returning his card with her left. "Have a great time, and welcome to Stanford!"
"Thanks," Sam mumbled, but she had already turned to speak with someone else.
He stepped into the current of people once again and made his way down to the end of the hall.
Going back was easy after that first taste. He didn't feel the loss of his own memory at all. Sure, he spent a bit of time after his visit poking through all the hit tracks stored in his noggin. Christmases were all there and birthdays, too. He could still remember what his mom looked like, and he still knew all the lyrics to his entire tape collection. And that glimpse of Sam… Knowing that the kid was safe and doing okay was important to Dean. If he could see a little more, why shouldn't he take the slight risk?
The hardest part was slipping it past his dad. There's no way John Winchester could understand resorting to something like this, even if the whole subject of Sam wasn't encircled with a minefield.
But all Dean really had to do was find a few suspicious things taking place in the nearby area and he could easily excuse a few days away from his dad to go check it out.
"You are back very soon," she greeted Dean. She tilted her head to the side, studying him.
Dean shrugged, not sure what to say about it. "You can do it again, can't you?"
"Of course," she smiled. "It is unusual, but never impossible. Come. Sit."
As much as he knew it make him a dork, Sam loved his history class. It actually had the part he liked best about hunting: digging into the past and sifting through multiple perspectives to try to cobble together a version of the truth. It was challenging, too, and their prof had high expectations. But Sam had learned that they guy was actually willing to spend time with students who took the initiative to ask, something that few of his peers did.
"You have a great mind for this, Sam," Dr. Bennet told him after one of their meetings. "Have you had any experience with researching before?"
"A little," Sam smiled.
"Well, I have to say that there are very few freshmen who are able to cut through all the crap to get to the good stuff. Whoever taught you in high school knew what they were doing."
Sam smile drooped thinking of the mechanic and high school dropout who had taught him. They had had a lot of experience, too, although he might not have recognized it at the time.
"My department always hires a research assistant over the summer," Dr. Bennett told him. "You should consider applying. The pay's not too bad in relation to other summer jobs and that sort of thing looks great on a law school application, if that's what you're thinking."
"Thanks! Yeah, I'll definitely think about it."
Sam was already thinking about how to explain it to Dean without sounding like a complete nerd as he left the history building. He was halfway to his dorm before he remembered: he and Dean weren't talking anymore. Sam didn't have anyone to tell.
"You got a girl down there, Dean?"
"What's that, sir?"
"In Louisiana. Or around there. Just noticed you taking a few trips down south lately."
"Oh! Yeah… Well, kind of." He flexed his hands, automatically trying to break free of a bony cage.
"Jeez, don't look like I caught you breaking curfew, Dean," John winked. "Perfectly fine to be seeing someone, son. Just be careful."
"Yeah." Dean gave his father a weak grin. "Yeah, I will."
"Don't want her getting dragged into anything and being hurt."
Dean's "girl" had moved, as it turned out. He met her in a modest townhome that sat on a quiet and clean street.
"Nothing wrong with a change every now and then," she smiled. "Come in. You know what to do by now. You are my best customer, after all."
Her rings dug into his fingers and left marks on his hands that stayed until he drove away.
Sam pried one eye open and squinted at the blurry red numbers.
"Ten o'clock," his roommate announced. "Good morning, rock star, how's your head?"
"Ugh," Sam replied intelligently.
"Yeah, I figured that much. You look like you need to sleep for another year. I'm going to head down and grab some breakfast before all the bacon's gone."
"Don't slam the—" Too late. The clunk of the door reverberated in Sam's skull. It took him another full ten minutes to sit up and guzzle the glass of water left beside his bed along with four Advil's.
By the time he had stumbled his way downstairs the only stuff left in the breakfast line was a pile of mushy pancakes and the dregs of the coffee machine. He was busy cramming syrup-covered carbs into his mouth when he was interrupted by a voice just as croaky as his own.
"You done with that yet?"
Sam raised his head and loosened his grip on the Mrs. Butterworth. The girl in front of him was dressed in loose sweats and wore her frizzy blonde hair pulled sloppily back from her face, highlighting her pasty skin and hollow eyes.
"Sorry," Sam apologized as he slid the bottle over to the girl. She sat down across from him and drizzled syrup lethargically over her breakfast. Sam watched her for a moment before scrubbing his eyes and making an attempt to sound like he was alive. "I take it you're another victim of last night's floor crawl?"
She grimaced. "What gave me away?"
"You have the radiance that only the massively hung over can manage. Trust me, I know."
She snorted into her plate. "You caught me. I'm Jess, by the way," she introduced.
"Sam." And he smiled his first smile of the day.
It took Dean a while to figure it out when it happened for the first time.
The girl was gorgeous: tall and blonde with wide blue eyes. She held a sweating glass of something fizzy in one hand, and Dean had just started to walk over to her and ask if she wanted a refill when she turned her head and looked right at him.
A faint frown etched across her brow before it cleared and her eyes widened.
"Dean? Is that you?"
"It's me, Amanda!" she pointed to herself. "From Truman High? We kind of…" she glanced to the side and spoke out the corner of her mouth with one eye brow raised. "Hooked up?"
Was he supposed to remember every girl he ever made out with from every high school? He passed a hand across his mouth.
"Uh, look, Amanda. I'm sorry—"
"You don't have to be," she cut in quickly. "I mean, yeah, you technically cheated on me, but we were in high school. We were both just kids. And I shouldn't have said all those things about your family in front of everyone. I didn't think of it at the time, but I'm sure I embarrassed you."
"Uh… yeah, well… That's all in the past, right?" He gave her a shaky grin before talking a huge gulp of his beer. He needed it.
"Yeah," she nodded. "It is. Anyway," she took a sip of her drink, "we should catch up! You and Sam left Truman so quickly! Nobody had any idea where you Winchesters went. What are you up to these days? And how's Sam?"
"Sam's… at Stanford," Dean told her. Because the truth was the only thing he could come up with when he had no idea what the hell kind of lies she had been told. "Got himself a girlfriend." The memory of Sam's first date with Jess still played fresh in Dean's mind. It was everything the kid had ever wanted in a date, and Dean contented himself with that fact.
"That's awesome!" she smiled. "He always seemed like such a sweet little kid. You two were so close."
"Yeah…" How much did this chick know about them? The bar seemed too hot. Dean pulled his shirt away from his chest. "You know the 'little kid' is over six feet now?"
"Really?" she laughed. "You never would have guessed it back then."
Dean let out a frantic bark of laughter.
"Dean are you okay?" She laid a gently hand on top of his.
He yanked his hand back reflexively. "Fine," he nodded tightly, stretching his fingers. "Look, uh… Look. I'm just going to get some air. I'll be back, don't worry."
"Okay, sure, I…"
Dean was no longer listening. He had grabbed his coat and was out of the bar in five steps.
He didn't remember every girl from every high school that he had ever hooked up with. No one with his record would.
But a girl who knew his real name and had obviously met Sam and had publicly embarrassed him somehow? That was the kind of girl that Dean should remember. The kind of girl he probably would have remembered unless there was a different memory taking its place.
He should stop the visits, obviously. If he had stumbled across this gap, there must be others. Only…
It was getting closer to finals. And Dean just wanted to know that Sam was still eating right and everything. All he really needed was a couple minutes of a memory to tell. He could sense all of Sam's emotions and physical experiences through a memory. It was just to see how the kid was doing.
And if Dean had to choose between a memory of some random chick from high school and the memory of Sam exploding cup of soup in his illegal dorm room microwave… There was no contest.
The ball of paper hit Sam in the back of the head.
"We're studying Econ, not sleep lab," Zach reminded Sam.
"Might as well be," Sam grinned, lobbing the ball back at his friend.
"Guys, can we focus?" Becky interjected. "Our final's in two days; we really have to prepare."
"We'll do fine," Jess reassured her friend.
"You can't be sure," Becky doubted, as always.
"I've got a plan," Jess announced. "I'll copy off Sam, Becky will copy off me, and Zach will copy off Becky."
"That actually might work," Becky nodded.
"Not happening," Sam interjected. "You're going to have to earn your own grades this time."
"Then I'll guess you'll have to be a very, very good teacher," Jess shrugged, leaning in for a kiss.
"Oh, come on," Zach complained.
"Yeah," Becky agreed. "Guys, I thought we talked about the PDA already."
"Well," Jess glanced back at Sam and gripped his hand, "you won't have to worry about it much longer."
"Jess and I are moving in together next year," Sam announced.
Their audience of two erupted with appropriate excitement, and Sam couldn't shake the grin off his face.
"Can I ask you a question?" Dean spoke up just as the woman was about to ensnare his hands.
She paused. "Yes?"
"Where do my memories go? When you take them?"
"You just thought of that now? After all this time?"
Dean shrugged. "Didn't seem important before. But now I'm curious."
"Everyone who comes to me wants memories," she told him. "You are the rare case, though, looking for someone specific. Most others just want an escape. They want a life of freedom and adventures. I provide them with that."
"You sell them my memories." The thought made his gut twist uncomfortably.
"They are no longer yours," she informed him bluntly. "You give them to me and I do with them as I will."
"Right." He squeezed Sam's shirt tightly as his gaze skittered around the room. Plush carpet and rich upholstery decorated the room along with a marble-top coffee table and several pieces of incomprehensible modern art. Business had been good for her lately; she must have a good customer or two.
Or a good supplier.
"If you no longer wish to continue, I understand," she lilted, her long knobby fingers straightening her sleeves. "No one has ever given as many memories as you, and I know that every supplier eventually has their limits. But you must not go searching where you have no business. Everyone who comes here is like you: they come under their own free will and with full knowledge."
"Full knowledge… Yeah. You're right. And no, I don't want to stop." He couldn't stop. "Let's do this." He sucked in a breath and stuck out his hands.
"I will tell you that I cleanse the memories before I pass them on; no one can trace them back to you." She clamped her hands over Dean's. "As I said: they are no longer yours."
"I still don't understand." Sam had turned over the device several times, and then plonked it on his head just to make Jess laugh.
"It's a sieve," she explained. "Or a colander. Whatever. For draining pasta."
"Can't you just use the lid to drain the water from the pot?"
"Well, yeah, but this is more dignified," she improvised. "We can use it when we have people over for dinner."
"Since when do we make mac and cheese when we have people over for dinner? And if we do, they won't judge us for using a pot lid, I promise."
"Sam," she rolled her eyes and grabbed her precious utensil form the shelf and dropped it into the cart again. "Trust me, this works better. The more holes are in something, the faster stuff runs through. Simple physics."
Sam caught her around her waist and brought her close to him. "You hate physics."
"Mmmm. Not when I can use it to make a point."
"True. Okay, we'll get the robot hat. Just for you."
"You always know how to make a girl feel special."
Dean had started making a journal. His father had given it a glance and a quick flip through once before nodding and grunting.
"Good idea. Mine is indispensable; you might as well have your own. Let me know if you want to copy anything."
And Dean did copy a lot down, but it wasn't the stuff his dad thought. It was things like his birthdate and what town they lived in the summer of '95 and which diners they usually hit on which highways. One weekend, he had gone through the entire trunk of the Impala to take inventory and careful notes. There was a disturbing amount of items that he couldn't place but was afraid to throw out so he just stuck them under the secret compartment and called it good.
He kept a calendar, too. His dad had the habit of announcing plans once and expecting them to be remembered until he changed them. Dean wasn't losing any memories that recently, but there was a growing niggling doubt. How could he be sure? If it was happening, how would he know?
For the first time, his memory loss started to worry him. It had gotten noticeable now. And it seemed like there was too much missing, somehow. He hadn't given that much away, had he?
"Tell me about your family," Jess whispered to him.
It was late at night and they were in bed together, gazing up at the ceiling while enjoying the feeling of being in each other's arms.
"Not much to tell," Sam evaded.
"You always say that," Jess complained, smacking his chest lightly. "Tell me a little, at least."
"Okay. Well, my mom died when I was just a baby."
Jess nodded sympathetically and kissed him along his jaw. She had known that already.
"I mostly grew up all over the place with my dad and my brother."
"What's your dad like?" Her fingertips touched his delicately.
"Strict. Stubborn. Difficult."
"Mmmm." Her leg brushed across Sam and settled with their ankles crossed over each other. "And your brother?"
"He was the best big brother a kid could ask for. He was always so cool and smart and generous."
"Is." Her fingers fluttered up to his arm.
"He still is those things, isn't he?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"You miss him. I can tell. Why don't you two ever talk?"
"It never is as bad as you think, trust me."
"This might be."
"Okay." She shrugged as she burrowed even closer to him. "I just think you should give him a call. You may be surprised."
The last straw came when he was riding shotgun with his dad on the way back from a successful, piece of cake ghost hunt. The music played low underneath their conversation for a while until Dean's ears perked at a strong, heavy guitar beat.
"Hey, let's turn this up," Dean suggested. The song was new to him, yet it felt like a classic that he could listen to for a long time to come.
John, to Dean's surprise, groaned as he dialed up the volume. "Not 'Back in Black' again, Dean. You know, I love AC/DC as much as the next guy, but you have to admit that this one gets overplayed. A guy's got to have his limit."
"Uh… right. Well, I just… Like it so much." It was a terrible lie which thankfully went unnoticed. Dean didn't recognize the song at all. He would have sworn he had never heard it. How many memories must he have lost to forget every single time he hypothetically listened to this song?
As soon as they were back at the motel, Dean made his excuse.
"Gone to see your girl?" John guessed as Dean packed.
"Yep," Dean replied tightly.
"It's been, what, a few years now? Do I get to meet her any time soon?"
"You know what, Dad? I think this visit'll be my last."
"Sorry to hear that, son."
"It's for the best, I think."
When he got to her place, he didn't waste time with pleasantries.
"Something's wrong," he blurted out as he paced her floor. "Too much is gone; I can't have lost this much. I haven't been here in months and I'm still—"
"Let me see," she commanded, holding out her hands.
He didn't have any other option. Once again he trusted her with his hands.
She frowned as she traced his palms with her fingers. "Something is wrong."
"Do you know what happens if too many trees are uprooted? The soil has nothing to anchor itself to and the it simply erodes over time."
"You've pushed the boundaries too far. Too many memories have been pulled out. What has happened next is only natural."
"You've uprooted the trees!" Dean sputtered. "I didn't do…"
"You came here with full consent," she hissed, throwing his hand away. "I have simply done what you asked. Do not even think of blaming me for your misfortune."
"I didn't know this would happen!" he protested. "Please, you have to fix—"
The next thing Dean remembered was waking up inside his car on the side of the I-90.
Hands trembling, he fumbled with his phone to speed dial his father.
The backup phone wasn't being picked up either.
"Hey, Dad," Dean spoke casually, leaning against the car and squinting against the sun. He bounced his keys in his other hand to dispel the nerves. "Look, I think I might have stumbled across a hunt here in New Orleans. I could use some backup. Call me when you get this."
He drove around the city directionless several times before he conceded that he had no idea where she lived. That memory had been taken from him too.
The next few days were spent getting plastered at the nearest bar and stumbling back to his motel to crash. At least this way he knew that he wasn't going to remember the night.
He still didn't get a call back from his dad and that's when he started to worry. Had they arranged a meet up somewhere that he had forgotten about? There was nothing in his journal about it, even after going through every single scrap of paper. A search of his car turned up nothing, even after he listened through all his tapes just in case there was a message recorded on one of them. There was no way his father would just slip off the radar like this for no reason. What the hell had happened to him? Was Dean supposed to finish some research for him? Had he called for backup and Dean deleted the message? He couldn't do this. He had no damned clue what he was supposed to do or where he was supposed to look. The only thing he had to go off of was the location of his dad's last hunt: Jericho, California.
That was enough for him to gather the shattered pieces of his mind and make his decision.
He wouldn't need his magic woman to see Sammy after all. He was going to get the real thing.