Sam swayed, feeling not unlike a drunken stork, all spindly and top-heavy and disoriented and damn, but his skull hurt and for just a heartbeat he thought he might hurl. He dragged a hand across his forehead to confirm, yes, there was a welt that put boulders to shame and it was evidently the source of much of his brain-scramble. Much, but not all.
“Sammy! Let’s go!”
Dean’s bark. It cut straight and true and Sam snapped to attention, becoming aware of something wheezing and warm at the small of his back. Like a dog or…a little guy with purple hair? What? Sam had wedged some kid between himself and a wall and the kid was making like a tuneless squeezebox, leaking oxygen only to gasp it back in.
Sam murmured an insincere apology and shoved off the kid, towards Dean.
“Gun, Sam, and the rest of the shit.” Dean gave a quick twitch of his head to a coffee table, upon which was spread the contents of their collective pockets. Dean’s level stare never strayed from the man in the center of the room. A man whose hands were up and quivering and gesturing in the universal symbol of ‘Don’t shoot!’
Taking immediate stock of the situation, Sam counted heads, made a brief note of the room’s layout, then hurriedly grabbed knives, gun, car keys and his small flask of holy water. Screw the rest; the wallets had been disemboweled and they could always make more IDs. He took up position at Dean’s left shoulder.
The man at the business end of Dean’s gun stammered, eyes panicked and open so wide they showed more white than blue. “Oh, bloody hell, stop! No one do anything rash – ” he said in clipped, British patois “ – I mean more rash. These are the Winchesters. Sylvie…Sylvie mentioned these two. Please, please…”
Sam didn’t need to say a word. He saw Dean’s shoulders tighten at the mention of ‘Winchester’ and ‘Sylvie.’ Stuffing everything but the gun in his coat, Sam readied to shoot if anyone so much as picked their nose the wrong way. He had to wonder at the pink fuzz on Dean’s wrists but that was blackmail for a later date.
“Please,” the man continued, beseeching Dean, “…hear us out.”
“All right. You have thirty seconds. Make it work.”
“You watch Project Runway?” The girl, the lone girl in the room, peeked from around a wiry, stiletto-faced man and squinted. Her cheek was angry and swollen from contact with Sam’s cranium. And hey, didn’t she try to kiss him a few seconds ago? Sam found more questions than answers showing up on his radar and this did nothing to improve either his headache or his mood.
Dean blinked. “What? No! What is a Project Runway? I don’t…,” he swore under his breath and directed the barrel of the gun with renewed sobriety at the surrendering man. “Someone better start talking and making sense or me and my brother here? We’re leaving. And if I’ve gotta pop a cap in your asses to accomplish that, well then, so be it.”
The girl carefully sidled up to the man dealing with Dean, all the while trailed by the wiry one. Her doe-eyed gaze was trained on the gun, hands held open and demonstratively empty. “Julian. You know these guys?” She tucked a ribbon of unkempt blonde hair behind one ear, revealing at least a dozen piercings riding up the helix, then in a dropped hush, almost a stage whisper, “Why are we keeping secrets, huh?” Her tone was clearly worried, as well it should’ve been, secrets or no. Sam was not feeling particularly compromising at the moment and if Dean wanted to shoot his way out of the situation, he wouldn’t get much of an argument from Sam. All it took was one witch alive and talking to get whatever lead on Sylvie these rats hid. Might be callous, but so were his abraded wrists and the small, throbbing planet between his eyes.
“I’m sorry, I had my suspicions but I wasn’t sure,” ‘Julian’ said softly, urgently. “They had to be hunters; only one occupation carries all these weapons and occult rubbish on their persons and – ”
“And only one hobby fucks with magic and hangs in a pack to work rituals: witch,” Sam groused, patience well and truly frayed.
“Go get ‘em, tiger,” Dean said over his shoulder.
The girl’s expression flashed from fearful concern to indignation, echoed by her posture and a single unwise step forward. “We’re no more witches than you two are glorified exterminators.”
Which confirmed to Sam, with no small amount of satisfaction, this was indeed a coven if not the one Bobby had mentioned.
The wiry man grabbed her arm to hold her back. He was missing several digits, Sam observed before mumbling, “Wait, Eddie is a…?”
“S’what I said,” Dean finished the thought.
Eddie bristled. “Misogynists.”
The Winchesters bristled back, en masse, both guns turning on Eddie like accusatory fingers. Sam wasn’t altogether certain Dean knew the meaning of the word but he certainly knew the intention.
“People! Do I have to make you hold hands until you behave?! I’ll turn this car around!” Julian shouted, his face flushing, dark stains under the armpits of his shirt as he lifted his hands again, flailing. “Christ on a cracker, can we just settle down and talk? For Sylvie’s sake?”
This seemed to do it. Sam exhaled hard, his annoyance giving way to something a touch more conciliatory. At first blush, both parties appeared to want the same thing, to discuss Sylvie. It was feasible, however remotely, that these witches were more than met the eye. Or perhaps less. Less evil, less self-absorbed, less inclined to strangle rabbits and pray to their dark lords for a miracle cure for erectile dysfunction, or whatever the hell they did. Eddie pursed her lips and folded arms across her chest and Hello Kitty t-shirt. Dean lowered his, or rather Sam’s, gun and said, “So talk, already.”
The man spoke quickly, a jumble of words, periodically gesticulating for emphasis. “My name is Julian Grosvenor. This is Eddie McGuffin,” pointing to the girl, “and Danny Black.” The finger-impaired man nodded sternly and threw an arm over Eddie’s shoulder. Ownership, Sam guessed. “The violet-coiffed sprog is Simon and with him, Benecio,” pointing again, to the last pair in the room. Simon had finally stopped wheezing with the ministrations of a swarthy man sporting far too much dark, crazy hair. He was rubbing Simon’s back and talking to him in smooth, calm tones as though the kid was some fragile baby animal that might expire if breathed upon heavily.
Eddie snuck out from under Danny’s security and pulled something shiny and jangly from the pocket of her skirt. Keys. She watched Dean sidelong as the handcuffs sprung free. Murmured “Good will gesture,” before returning to Danny’s side. Sam couldn’t help noticing, because it was difficult not to, that she was braless and had at least one, possibly both, nipples pierced. Eeesh, I’m gonna have to watch Dean around this one, just in case something else gets sprung.
“Yes,” Julian said, “we weave spells. The whole will-working and ritual rigmarole. But we’re not witches, per se. We prefer to be called magi.”
Dean rubbed at his wrists, turned to swap guns with Sam. Dean was fussy about his favorite things. Cars and guns. And girls, but not fussy enough about those, in Sam’s estimation. “What, like the ‘Three Wise Men’ magi?”
“Yeah, just like that,” Eddie shot back, but not without an almost-smile. “The word witch has a real negative connotation. And we don’t work the bad mojo. That’s not our thing. We’re all about white magic.”
“Uh-huh. Sure you are.”
“Truth. That hexbag you found in Sylvie’s room? That was mine. But we tweaked it. Gave it an upgrade. It didn’t cause a curse; it was simply a burglar alarm. That’s how we knew you were there.”
“And the paper with the sigil?” Sam asked. His anger was ebbing in favor of interest so he decided a little reciprocity was in order. Let them spill the beans. Maybe if he put his gun away, at least tucked it at the small of his back, these so-called magi would be more trusting and forthcoming with information. And maybe he could score an aspirin or three. The place reeked of pot; he might even risk a Percocet if they had one lying around. Insomnia and growing pains at Stanford, not to mention any number of old wounds from ‘hunting accidents’, left Sam occasionally agreeable to better living through chemistry.
A chortle rolled from the back of the room. The hairy man, Benecio. His laughter was as relaxed as his slouch, an effortless, slurred-together mash of syllables. Didn’t act like, five minutes ago he could’ve found a bullet in his brain. “Dude, we were lucky with that one. Didn’t expect to catch you both in range. And you guys are not flyweights. Glad we didn’t have to haul your asses that far. Throw my back out. Harsh.”
Dean seemed to consider this, brows unfurling, easing up. But his gun stayed curled in his fist. “So how did Sylvie get tangled up in your shit?”
The room was quiet for a step, nothing but faint music from another part of the house. It felt, to Sam, like this motley crew didn’t know quite where to begin; they stared at their feet or exchanged loaded glances or just stood there, slack-jawed. Simon spoke up, oddly the bravest of the bunch, or most willing to be vulnerable.
“There were more of us. Half again, more. But they’re gone. Taken. Sylvie agreed to help. She’s awesome.”
Julian nodded, lowered his hands, picked up where Simon left off. Elder spokesman? Figurehead? “She must’ve come to town, having heard about strange disappearances. Not the first hunter to tie us to weird goings-on, I’m afraid.”
“Getting to be a bad fucking habit,” Danny said, churlish enough to make it clear he didn’t appreciate hunters, as a matter of course.
“Sad, but true and irrelevant to our present dilemma. I think. I hope.” There was a flicker in Julian’s glance towards the brothers Winchester, something that read as thinly veiled fear, like he shared Danny’s opinion but in a less pit-bull fashion. More of a high-strung-show-dog-on-the-wrong-side-o
“I didn’t have my phone on me; it went to voicemail. Here.” Eddie sounded truly contrite as she pulled a phone from her back pocket, hit buttons, and Sylvie’s voice issued into the uncomfortable space between magi and hunters, tinny but terrified, distorted by the cell phone’s tiny system: “Eddie. I’ve been made. Blown. You gotta send help. Fisherman’s Wharf. Hurry, please…hurry.”
Sam’s stomach knotted and he knew, just knew, Dean’s did too, if not more so. He’d never heard Sylvie sound that way, small and winded and desperate. Sam might’ve been the baby of the family, but Sylvie was the closest thing he had to a little sister. He wanted her safe and sound and drinking cheap beer with them at Bobby’s and listening to the latest cut from The Flaming Lips. He wanted her alive. “You guys went to the Wharf?” Even Sam didn’t like the uneasy edge to his own voice.
Julian nodded. “Three innocent bystanders were murdered at the Information Office. Sliced to bits. Security tapes stolen, according to the tellie. By the time we got down there, the place was crawling with police. Wasn’t much we could do. No sign of Sylvie. And our attempts at scrying for her haven’t gotten anywhere.”
Dean shifted his weight, lifted the gun to rest back on his shoulder. “Scrying, huh? Dandy.”
“We don’t use blood,” Eddie was quick to clarify. If Julian was the talking head of the group, Eddie must’ve been their technical consultant. She did the legwork, answered all the questions about how they did what they did and was willing to talk about it. Sam made a note to pick her brain later, opportunity willing. “We use sangria. Go ahead, laugh, but we make it work. Though there are ways to avoid a scrye, like this.” Eddie flipped her hand over, palm up, to reveal a small tattoo on the inner wrist. A closed eye with some sort of sigil on the lid; Sam couldn’t tell from this distance what it was, exactly. Another bit of mystery to unravel. “They have to be pretty specific and can get weird and complicated sometimes. This ink is an ancient formula; there’re only a couple of artists in the city who know how to use it. That’s one way to hide. Or…um…the person you’re looking for isn’t on this plane anymore.”
“You mean dead?” Dean said stiffly, clearly sharing Sam’s unease.
“We truly hope not. I tried to talk Sylvie into getting one but…” Julian shook his head and rubbed a finger lightly over his own wrist and the matching tattoo there. “I just wish she’d trusted us more. Trusted me.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not gonna happen anytime soon. No offense.”
“I get that. Nor are we keen to work with you dogmatic, vigilante sorts. No offense.”
Huh. Mr. Fish ‘n Chips might’ve sounded a wee spot testy, Sam thought. He got the vague impression Julian liked Sylvie in a genuine way, not just using her as a means to an end, which was easy to do because Sylvie was a butterfly like that. Pretty and fluttery and you just wanted to hold her in your palm and keep her safe. It was one of her weapons. Sam decided to keep that little nugget of intuition to himself. He didn’t need Dean getting all Alpha Male on Julian. They needed to work together.
“Look, trust or no, I think it would be advantageous for us to cooperate,” Sam said quickly, fancying himself the voice of reason at this particular moment. He turned to Dean, lowering his voice for his brother alone. “It’s getting late, Dean. How ‘bout you and I stop back at the Red Vic and dig through the stuff Sylvie collected. Then we can come back here tomorrow morning and cook up a plan of action. All right?”
Julian unruffled his feathers and sighed heavily, nodding.
Dean huffed and finally sheathed his gun.
“All right.” Sam grabbed Dean’s arm and spun him down a short hallway that led to the front. The house, an old Victorian from the looks of the woodwork, was almost shotgun in design; it wasn’t much of a leap to assume he was heading in the right direction. Dean jerked his arm away with a mumbled “bitch” but followed. He kept glancing back, though it wasn’t likely this cockeyed commune would start lobbing daggers at their backs or even throw spells. Spells took time and preparation. And animosity, as a rule. They just didn’t strike Sam as a particularly hostile bunch, with the exception, perhaps, of the guy missing fingers. What did you call a collection of magi, anyway? Coven wasn’t quite right. A muster of magi? Sure, why not. That’s what they called peacocks.
The brothers pushed out through the heavy wooden front door to a cold, clear night. Turns out, they weren’t far from the car, the Red Vic, or the Haight in general. Sam drew an enormous breath. His melon still ached and he wanted an icepack something fierce. Or a stupid aspirin, was that too much to ask? He gingerly touched his forehead and loped down the steep steps to Haight-Ashbury’s dirty, congested sidewalks.
“Well isn’t this just the shit,” Dean grumbled, falling into step as they headed for the Impala.