Warning: Non-explicit sexual situations and nudity, language
Disclaimer: I do not own Supernatural. Written for fun, not profit. The title of this story is based on the song by Mumford & Sons.
A/N: This story is set during Season 8's "Torn and Frayed". It's somewhat a "what if" for that episode, so Sam is absent for most of this story. This is three chapters long, about 14k. Enjoy!
In Whitefish, Montana, there stood a cabin that was entirely too quiet to be occupied by the living. Tension thickened the air around its two lone inhabitants. One of them finally moved, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and it was enough of a hint for the other, still sitting on the battered couch, to nod his head in acknowledgement.
Dean realized he'd let the moment stretch on too long, as if he'd expected Sam to decide against his plans—that wasn't going to happen. Dean refused to let regret show on his face. This was nothing; it meant nothing. Taking a swig off a lukewarm bottle, another thing he'd let sit too long, he raised one brow in acknowledgement of the giant hovering over him.
"How long?" he asked, aiming for casual. Aiming for anything but desperate. Hell, he was the one who'd given Sam the ultimatum. In or out, Sam, in or out.
"Just a few days."
"A few days?"
"It's just a drive, Dean. To clear my head."
Dean stared straight ahead, through the denim clad legs in his peripheral, pretending there was no Sam right there. Just empty space. "I thought that's what the walk was for?"
He knew the question had come out defensive and he hadn't meant for it to—not after he'd told himself it would be okay, it would be okay, if both feet were out instead of in. If Sam left again. But, damn it, he'd thought there'd been an agreement in his brother's eyes, not quite happiness but resolve, and, surely, shit, surely if the resolve was to go back to Amelia, he'd be happy instead of surly and…
Dean blinked away the trail of thought, hoping his shame wasn't showing on his face because, shit, he knew, he knew that seeing Sam unhappy shouldn't be a victory.
"Dean, it doesn't mean—" Sam dropped the statement, sighing, but there wasn't any heart in it. Sam's heart wasn't in much of anything these days, and Dean didn't know what that meant.
Dean was starting to think he was an idiot for giving the "it's okay" speech. Nothing was okay when Sam was like this. God, Dean would give anything to see fire in his brother's eyes again. The real stuff, not just overblown annoyance. Even if it was directed entirely at him.
The smile was there, small, tight, forced, and Dean hoped it didn't look mocking. "No, Sam. I get it." His breath was shaky behind his teeth. "Go ahead, man. A couple days off isn't going to kill us, and you need to think this through. I get it."
Even if he didn't get it. Still, the words had come out easy enough. And, he didn't dare ask the last question, the one about whether or not Sam had actually made a choice. Dean could have sworn he knew the answer earlier—Sam was staying. Only…Had his brother actually said that?
Both feet in or both feet out.
In or out.
Sam hadn't said.
But Dean still nodded, pretending to believe his own shit, and tilted his beer in his brother's direction. "See you in a few days. And, Sam? Be safe."
Sam said something in reply, but Dean had quit listening. The next thing he heard, the next thing he actually let himself hear, wasn't the zip of a duffel bag or the quiet shut of the front door. No, it was the sound of the borrowed car they kept covered by the cabin. Just in case. Just in case one of them had to bail on the other.
He couldn't just sit there. He had to move.
Dean wasn't sure if he made his next decision or if his body made it for him. He'd own up to the fact that most of his bad ones were his own these days, but this one… This one made itself. He found himself behind the wheels of the Impala sometime after sunset, doing what he did best, hunting.
Only it was more like following. Trailing. Stalking. Sam.
He kept his distance, so much distance that he could have lost his brother if Sam's habits weren't ingrained in his brain. And if the two of them hadn't made the same drive so recently.
Sam was headed south.
Dean wasn't sure what other people meant when they said they'd go for a drive. To "clear their heads." But for Sam, apparently it meant crossing state lines at no leisurely pace.
Somewhere past Denver, in some small city he'd never been to, when he realized Sam wasn't hitting a motel for the night—a night that had already managed to turn back into day—Dean simply stopped.
He told himself he couldn't catch up, that he'd lost his trail, even if that trail, so far, had been as simple as following I-25. It was a lie. The real reason he'd stopped was because he was weary. Because he didn't want to see where Sam would end up. Or discover what "a few days" translated to when the trip itself took nearly twenty-four hours.
"In or out," Dean whispered, staring at the door to a motel room he hadn't booked yet. There were numbers on the door, but they were all a blur. What if a few days turned out to be a year? Four? A lifetime.
The Impala's door gave a whine, noting her need for a little love, but Dean ignored her and stepped out into a gray world. He wasn't sure how a drive was supposed to clear his head. It seemed to work in the past. Maybe it still worked for Sam, but at the moment, Dean's head was anything but crystal.
Hell, it was pounding. Full and murky. No, the only thing that cleared his mind nowadays was the hunt.
Dean didn't know where he was, but he hoped there was trouble to be found. It would make losing time a little easier, maybe even set him back in that primal mode. Tooth and claw and blood: none of those things could ever hurt as much as the quiet between the battles.
Death's daughter moved through space without wings, but between one step and the next, she found herself leaving one gray city for another, this one much smaller but equally relevant. All places with souls were relevant; where there was life, and death, her kind were sure to arrive. However, Tessa was not due to visit here any time soon.
Once, Tessa would not have taken notice of the actions of her fellow reapers. She would have trusted them to do their duty, just as she did hers, but this was a new age, and there were signs… Something was wrong. The last time she had tried to ignore that feeling of wrong, a demon had reaped a reaper, and she had nearly been wiped from existence as well.
Tessa took on a new form, a recent favorite, and her wraith-like appearance pulled together to create pale skin, dark hair, full lips and kind eyes. Denim stretched across her thighs, boots hugging her ankles, cotton and leather adding weight to her shoulders. She didn't do it for her own sake. Never for her own, but for the spirits. They were from this modern time, and, despite how some reapers appeared to their charges, Tessa found a friendly, almost-familiar smile always warmed them to her best.
Unseen by human eyes, she walked down the center of the crumbling street, between two passing cars, each blaring the sounds of bellowing singers and guitars. A row of clean houses with machine-littered yards stood on either side of her. If she could have been seen, it would have looked as if she were soaking in the daylight, her head cocked to the sky as she reached out, feeling for the souls she sought.
It wasn't as easy as she'd hoped—these souls weren't on her list, and they almost felt…hidden. But, hidden by what means, she wasn't sure. She flinched, ignoring the pull of a soul in need of reaping—it was a distinct energy she recognized and had tried to ignore for years. The one that got away. Still alive and kicking and nearby, not that she needed to reach out to know as much. She'd kept up with Dean Winchester's location, if only because he was hers to reap and, since he'd defied fate so many times, even Tessa couldn't say when that reaping would take place.
And Dean, as much as his actions annoyed her, didn't deserve to have to wait for just any way-ward reaper when his time finally came.
It was a frustrating sensation, not knowing when her duty with his soul would be complete, but it was one she had to push to the back of her mind. This, whatever was happening between these spirits, had nothing to do with hunters, she was certain, and everything to do with another reaper, possibly one in danger.
She turned her head, watching a group of children play in a pile of fallen leaves. The afternoon sunlight shined over them, casting a glow to their tan cheeks and bright eyes, splashing color on the gray. In this neighborhood, the mother who stepped out to call for them did so in Spanish, even though her own little ones barely knew the words.
Tessa's gaze remained fixed, watching as one child, older than the others, remained separated from the rest in her spot one yard over. The girl was not cast in color, but she was just as bright and shining to a reaper's eyes: a wandering soul.
The child stepped away, scooting up onto the side of the open porch of the quiet home next door, her sneakers dangling over the dead grass beneath. As if she felt the reaper's gaze, she looked up and cocked her head in surprise. Tessa gave her a crooked smile, walking up to her.
"Hi there. May I sit with you?"
The girl shrugged instead of answering, the thick, blunt-cut black hair above her red sweater bouncing with the movement. There was blood darkening the fabric, but the wound was unseen underneath, where the tires had ran over her small form and kept going.
Christy. Her name was Christy Ramirez, age eleven at death. Which had been a week ago, when she'd snuck out of her house in the middle of the night, while her parents argued, and slipped off the high sidewalk and onto blacktop. The man in the truck hadn't seen her, but when he did, he kept driving. Her family was still in mourning inside that quiet house. There was more to her story, but Tessa didn't need to know it, because this soul was not hers to take.
It was common enough, spirits clinging, refusing to follow their reapers. They stayed, became something unnatural. Dangerous. This was different. Tessa could feel it.
"You don't look like him."
The words were soft. Shy. Tessa leaned in, as if she'd had a hard time hearing the girl. She tried to hide her discomfort—it wasn't often a ghost could recognize a reaper for what they truly were, unless they were expecting them.
"Like who?" Tessa asked.
She already knew the answer. The other reaper, the one who called himself Ankou. He must have been in his true form when he came to the girl.
He was the real reason Tessa was here, because, yes, while it was common to have spirits who refused to move on, it was very uncommon for a reaper to fail to reap seven souls in a row. Even if a reaper went rogue, fell to greed, they still wouldn't leave souls unattended. Surely, something must have happened to Ankou for him to disregard his duty.
Christy had been the first he'd missed. The other six deaths were scattered across the city, none of them related in any way other than their general location. Tessa had visited each place of death, each home of the deceased, expecting to find them haunted, but the ghosts she'd thought she'd find were gone. Not collected, not delivered to their afterlife, but simply missing.
Wrong. This was all wrong.
Christy didn't reply, but her eyes widened with worry. She slipped down off her seat, the image of her body flickering with the movement.
"He's coming back…" she whispered, then glanced up at Tessa, wide-eyed. "I have to go before he finds out I left. We're not supposed to leave."
Tessa grabbed the girl's wrist gently, white energy bleeding out beneath her palm where she made contact with the soul, but the spirit didn't react to the sensation. Tessa blinked, surprised at what she felt there: old magic. She wasn't sure if she'd be able to collect the girl, even if she consented. The same thing that was keeping the child hidden was also keeping her here.
"Christy, I need you to talk to me," Tessa said, trying to maintain her hold. "Why haven't you moved on? Why are you afraid?"
Christy shook her head, pulling her hand away. Fear lit her eyes. Tessa didn't like seeing it there; it spoke volumes.
"I'll be in trouble," Christy said, voice soft again, as if she might be heard. "If I'm not there when he gets back, I'll get everyone in trouble. He'll make us hurt again…I'm sorry."
The girl's shape flickered again, and she was gone. Tessa was well experienced in chasing spirits and following the child's trail was as easy as walking now that she'd touched her. Tessa found herself outside of the neighborhood, in a forest, far from the home the girl had lived in.
Tessa's brow wrinkled in confusion. This place wasn't linked to the ghost. Christy shouldn't be here at all. She shouldn't have the power to travel like this. Tessa lifted her chin up, finding the ghost's trail again. All she had to do was turn, and see the house through the woods.
It was small, more of a shack than a home, and leaning slightly to one side. Its paint-stripped sides groaned at the gentle touch of the wind announcing her presence, and a corner of the roof slid further into the interior, opening its dark, gaping maul to the world. The front door was hanging open by one hinge, and seven ghosts were inside.
Tessa could feel them now, the others who were blocked from her, just as Christy had been. They were definitely there.
Tessa wanted to turn back, take up her duty once more—she was a reaper. This wasn't work for her. But, freewill was a fickle thing, something that, at times, Tessa didn't understand the purpose of. She used it now.
The rotted wood beneath her feet didn't feel her weight when she stepped up onto the porch and stared inside. Living humans had been here and left behind their messes, bottles and wrappers. A stained mattress sat in one corner and—
And an altar hugged the back wall, where the ghosts stood, side by side, eyes fixed on the empty space of the room, as if they couldn't see her. Tessa stepped closer, studying them. Young, old, all seven were here. No, not just here, but bound here.
Tessa locked eyes with Christy. The child's stare was now blank, as if she were looking through the reaper.
Tessa shook her head. "Ankou, what have you done?"
She didn't expect an answer, but she found one when her gaze drifted back to the altar. It was junk mostly. Probably thrown together by rebellious adolescents who didn't understand what it even meant to worship a higher being. A plastic skeleton stood at center draped in fabric tied to form a robe and weighed down by long strings of painted beads. Candy had been left behind at its feet, cigarettes hung from the mouth of the skull, and the scent of liquor clung to the fabric flowers scattered across the small, rickety table on which it sat.
Saint Death. An amusing enough image, but nothing new to Tessa. She had taken plenty enough spirits who had even referred to her by that name. Except… Sitting on the hem of the robe was a small stone figure, stained in red. It too was shaped like a skeletal human but far older an image than this plastic sacrament, and it seemed to be soaked with blood, which dripped off onto the saint's robes. Tessa recognized the deity, even though it had been centuries since she'd seen it worshipped by the souls she reaped.
Tessa narrowed her eyes, studying it. This god of the dead had almost died with the Aztec mythology, but she knew his images remained, in museums, in ancient temples… But not this statue, with its fresh blood. Not this statue with its sacrifice of seven standing at its sides.
Tessa's eyes widened. Father. She needed to find their Father.
"Tessa, you should not be here."
She froze, hearing the roar of wind as it rattled the shack. Time stood still, dust hanging in the air, and she tensed. "I know what you're trying to do, Ankou…"
"Then you know I can't let you leave, sister."
His every instinct told him there was something evil to be found in this town. There wasn't a case plastered across the front page of the local paper. There wasn't a trail of blood to follow. But he felt it, deep inside, the sense that something here was wrong.
His instincts had gotten better over the years. Though, some people might call said instincts mere paranoia at work with coincidence, those people hadn't trained themselves for bad-shit-happenin' vibes while in Purgatory, now had they? Still, he'd searched local folklore, missing persons, murders… Even their murders were tame in this city.
Dean stared out the window from his seat at the restaurant's corner booth, a still-half-full cup of coffee hugged against the palm of one hand. His free fingers lingered down beside him, itching to grab the knife in the side pocket of his jacket. That or his cell phone.
Because, if his instincts were alerting him to a hunt, there was that distinct possibility that something else was wrong. And, why wouldn't there be—after all, Sam was gone.
Sam was gone.
"Just for a few days," Dean reminded himself, under his breath, but he pulled his phone free, nevertheless, and stared at the cover.
Dean ran his thumb over the numbers once before shoving it back into his jacket. He knew he should be calling Benny. He'd promised to do so, but a little voice inside his head kept warning him that calling the vampire, running off to meet him, might be that last straw. It might be the thing Sam decided to use as an excuse not to return. And then there was Kevin.
Kevin could have something new, something worthy of requiring him to call Sam, force his brother to return early.
Dean couldn't gather the strength to make that call either. No, because some sick part of him, some left over part from before Hell and the Apocalypse and Purgatory, wanted Sam to return on his own. For a change.
"—a refill, hun?"
Dean blinked to awareness, realizing his fingers had circled around the knife handle when he'd felt the woman approach. He eased himself back down, forcing a polite grin into place before looking up at the round-faced waitress glancing down at him, far too alert for this sleepy afternoon.
"Top me off, sweetheart," he said, pulling his hand back from the mug.
Pouring coffee always sounded like an old classic on the radio to him. It lifted his mood instantly, and he surveyed the waitress with a more forgiving eye. She was probably in her mid-fifties, carrying a tire around her middle, and he could smell how fresh her coppery dye job and perm were from where he sat. From her slight southern accent, Dean guessed she was probably new to the area. Her nametag said "Joyce."
"Say, Joyce—" it never hurt to try "—I write a weekly weird news blog, and I was wondering…anything odd happening locally? Animal attacks? A supposed haunting?"
Seriously, Dean, get it together. Dean winced when the chiding voice in his head sounded a hell of a lot like Sam's. Trying to form a case through a random stranger was scraping the bottom of the barrel, and he was damned certain his brother would be laughing his ass off if he'd been in the booth across from him. If Sam actually laughed like that anymore. Dean wasn't sure.
But instead of raising a narrow brow at him, the woman's eyes brightened with glee. "Oh! That sounds like a fun job!"
"Oh, it's always a joy, Joyce," Dean commented, and mentally amended his observation. She was definitely new to the area, a small town gossip to the core.
She giggled in response, and Dean flinched at the pitched sound. There was an ever-so-slight chance she was flirting with him, and his inner-Sam was back to poking fun.
"Now, let me think…" She sat the coffee pot on the edge of the table and then snapped her fingers in excitement. "I have one! Did you hear about that young man who robbed the women's lingerie store a few blocks from here? Here's the kicker—he was caught trying on the garments on the side of the road not a mile from the store." She giggled again.
Dean frowned. "Uh, that's…something."
Joyce pursed her lips. "You're right—everyone has probably written about that by now. How about the cult the cops broke up not too long back?"
Dean perked up. "Cult?"
Joyce nodded, grinning down at him. "Oh, yes—a 'death' cult! Now, I wouldn't put too much stock into it, just a bunch of kids foolin' around right outside the city limits…But I heard from a customer who was related to one of them, and he said the kids were all spooked when they got busted. Cops got 'em for property damage and drugs, figured they were just high when they arrested them, 'cause apparently, those kids were rambling on about a bleeding statue and ghosts. They practically asked to get taken in."
"And the weirdest part…" Joyce leaned down, eager to tell the rest of the story. "One of the young men said he saw his watch stop, right before all the spooky stuff started. Isn't that strange? You ever heard of something like that?"
Tessa moved on instinct, reaching out to the statue, but she felt herself being pulled back. Time slowed for a moment as she levitated above the floor of the shack, but before she could shift into her natural form, she was slammed down. The boards beneath her might not have felt her impact, but the force of the wind holding her in place left them groaning.
She watched, almost fascinated, as ash and dust crept up through the floorboards, beginning to form a sigil around her body. She'd never seen anything quite like it—reapers didn't try to hurt their own, to capture their own. It was almost unheard of. Tessa swept out at the forming lines, sliding away before she could be trapped in place.
Then she saw him, hovering above her, Ankou in his true form. He was a beautiful spectral entity, glowing with strength and warmth, powerful from the many souls he'd transported over the centuries. But Tessa knew that if she spared a glance at the ghosts behind her, they were probably looking on in fear—this was not an image they knew to love, but one to fear, and Tessa was beginning to think that Ankou had given them good reason for that fear.
"Your duty is protect these souls!" Tessa snapped.
The reaper above her moved closer, until the thinnest of his white, smoky tendrils could touch her.
"No, Tessa," he said, with no mouth to be seen, "it isn't. Our duty is to serve them, to move them from one life into the next. Have you ever asked yourself why it is we must perform such a duty? Why should we serve these beings when we are more powerful than they can ever hope to be?"
Tessa felt anger uncoiling inside her. Their father had created them with purpose, to be shepherds of souls, and it was not meaningless, a fact which was confirmed every time a lost spirit accepted their fate and allowed her to take them to their next destination. To hear it dismissed as something pointless—she shook her head, annoyed with the other being.
"I don't know, Ankou, could it be because we're reapers?"
"My point exactly."
Tessa tore her eyes away from him, staring at the bleeding statue. "You really think you can use it? If humans are so beneath you, why would you even want to?"
"Who said anything about being human? No, sister, what I wish to be is alive...To be physical. To no longer serve." He hovered past her, his energy tugging at the ghosts as he passed them one by one. Their images flickered as they weakened. "Seven. The number of creation. Seven souls will be enough sacrifices for Mictlantecuhtli. He may have gone the way of the old gods, but his power remains in his undying blood. He will create life from death for me. Do you even know how long I had waited, how long I had served, before realizing how very easy it would be to escape it all?"
"You're going to destroy souls, your charges." Tessa shook her head. "You can't undo such an act, Ankou."
It was too late. As he swept by, the ghosts faded into his form, swallowed by his light. The wind picked up in the room again with the reaper's strength, and blanketed by its steady howl, Tessa could hear a steady chant. A spell. Tessa pushed herself up onto her feet, glaring at the statue. Without being a part of the physical plane, she could touch the living, if only because they would soon be dead, but objects were so often out of reach. This, however, bled blood. Tessa wrapped her fingers around it, ignoring Ankou's howling cry. The other reaper slammed into her before she could lift the statue, but she sensed a change, right before the blow, the heat beneath her hand bleeding into her, tainting her, right before the world flashed to white.
Tessa couldn't recall closing her eyes, but she had to open them to see the room. Her vision blurred and refocused. It took her another moment to realize she was staring out from her place on the floor. Cold seeped into her flushed cheek, and she lifted it up off the board beneath, confused by the sensation.
There was a tightness in her form, somewhere at the center, and she pressed her fingers there, running them over her ribs in search of whatever injury Ankou had managed to cause her. Her vision blurred again, and she opened her mouth, wanting to call out, but air flooded in. She choked on it, hungry for the fill of it in her lungs, and the tightness suddenly receded.
Breath. She'd taken a breath. A true breath, not just the movement of air past her lips but the necessity of it…
She pressed her palm tighter against her chest and realized the cloth of her shirt was gone, as was the rest of the modern clothing she donned for the sake of her spirits. All that remained was smooth, pale flesh, and beneath that, a steady movement that rocked her body, ever so slightly.
"My heart's beating." Tessa tried to say the words aloud, but they came out hard, lost in a throat that felt dry and swollen.
Thirst. This is thirst.
She pushed herself onto her knees, and then up onto her feet, swaying at the sudden change in elevation. Her head throbbed where it had hit the floor, as did her elbow; a splinter of wood stuck out of the skin, and she pulled it free, wincing. How could something so small hurt so much?
She shivered, both with shock and at the cold, still air of the shack. The ghosts were gone. Tessa blinked, fighting back the ache in her head. Her thoughts were sluggish, but she remembered now, that Ankou had absorbed the ghosts before…
Tessa's eyes widened. Before the spell completed. She was alive. Not simply corporeal, but alive. Life from death, just as he'd said.
Her body shook again, this time more violently, and she stumbled back. Before she could get her bearings, she felt it, a sense of dread in the pit of her empty stomach. This, this must have been what some humans felt, when they sensed their deaths were near.
The thing that rose up from beside the altar was not her father Death, however, nor even a true reaper. It was a grotesque being, more solid than a ghost, but hovering above the floor. Without his light, without the beauty of his power, Tessa almost didn't recognize Ankou.
Tessa grasped at her throat, wishing she had something to sooth it, so she could speak to him, but one glimpse of his white, glassy eyes told her enough. There would be no reasoning with this thing. The shack began to shake, as if it could feel the anger radiating from the reaper, and Tessa's heart responded in kind, thudding against her ribcage in panic.
She did the only thing she could think to do, the only thing this new-found fear allowed her to do—she ran, for her life.