Title: Two Wolves
Pairing: Soulless!Sam/OFC, off-screen
Characters: Sam, Dean, Bobby, OFC
Warnings: my usual dirty words, mild spoilers for Seasons 6 & 7
Summary: This was my spn_summergen offering for my darling partner-in-crime monicawoe. Prompt: "Did Sam, once re-souled, find any new scars and wonder where they came from?" Yes, yes he did. And curiosity can, indeed, kill the cat.
Cross-posted at AO3 where you can download it for your e-reading pleasure.
Notes: Bunches of thanks go out to honeylocusttree for a fabulous beta--she made my action scene not horrible!--and to slayitalldown for the title and the fable behind this whole misadventure. I spin slightly off-canon but you know, sometimes canon just doesn't make sense. CONCRIT ALWAYS WELCOMED! I live for the stuff.
Sam slowly opened his eyes.
His brain sat in his skull like cold, congealing oatmeal and his teeth were chattering. He stared at the water stains on the ceiling. One of them looked like West Virginia.
I know those water stains. The way the light fell across the linens was familiar too, as was the smell of dust and old paper and even older cooking. It eventually dawned on him that he must be at Bobby’s, in the ‘guest’ room on the north side of the house, the one he usually took when he stayed over.
He shifted his legs and the joints popped. Cautiously, Sam hauled himself up, breathing through a wave of lightheadedness. His mouth was cotton-dry. The previous day was a blank, and the day before that, and the day before that. Not only did the near-past gape like a black hole, apparently he’d also forgotten to put on clothes. He was wearing nothing more than goosebumps and—looking down at his lap—an adult diaper.
This wasn’t weird at all.
“Dean?” he croaked out, barely audible. “Bobby?”
No one answered, though Sam thought he heard the faint rumble of voices from downstairs.
To his unspeakable relief he discovered he hadn’t yet soiled his diaper, but this spurred the sudden realization that he had to pee with an urgency verging on pain. Sam swung his bare legs over the side of the bed, swaying as the vertigo stubbornly resurfaced. He peeled back the sheet, the threadbare quilt, and felt a sting in the bend of his left arm.
A thin tube snaked from his elbow to a portable IV. Sam had gotten enough knocks in the head enough to know this meant he’d been unconscious for a substantial amount of time. It would certainly explain the liquid diet and Pampers … not the proudest moment in the life of Sam Winchester.
With a wince, he pulled out the needle and pressed his thumb to the tiny hole. He stumbled to the john and urinated a dark yellow stream. It was the best damned piss he’d had in, well, recent memory. Which wasn’t exactly saying much.
As he washed his hands, he took a moment to search for clues in the mirror. No contusions or bruises, he needed a shave, and his hair was marginally different. Longer but less shaggy, and definitely far overdue for a washing. No real answers, though. He shivered and left the offending diaper in the bathroom trash.
Back in the bedroom, bobbling from one bare foot to the other, Sam found the spare clothes he always kept in the dresser. He pulled on his familiar old jeans and a flannel shirt, noting with mounting confusion that things didn’t quite fit right. Too loose in the waist, too tight across the shoulders. And he had no idea where his belt had gotten to. Or his watch. Or his life.
Dean would know. Find Dean.
Sam’s knees threatened to buckle every fourth step but he made it downstairs, thanks in large part to his death-grip on the banister. The more he moved, the more his disused muscles felt like working properly. He followed the low murmur of men talking.
Rounding the corner, he saw the back of Dean’s head and Bobby’s profile as they sat at the kitchen table. He saw the bottle of whiskey they shared and a stack of old newspapers shoved off to one side. Same ol’ same ol’, but it made Sam’s breath catch in his chest.
His legs turned liquid again and he grabbed the wall. “Dean.”
Two chairs scuffed back. Dean was up and standing in a wild hurry, eyes so round and worried that it panicked Sam—more so than almost fainting or the other unnerving curiosities he’d collected in the past fifteen minutes.
Sam stepped, maybe fell, forward and clamped his arms around his brother. His heart was pounding crazily against his ribs because he missed Dean so damned much and heaven help him, he didn’t know why. There were too many punctures in his memory where all the facts had leaked out. Regardless, he squeezed his eyes shut and held Dean and buried his nose in the smell of sweat, booze and Irish Spring.
Dean caught him when he flagged, coughing little breaths against Sam’s shoulder. Neither of them spoke, and that was fine. Sam didn’t know what to say anyway, except I’m here and you’re here and how is this even happening? He was afraid if he said it, though, he would open his eyes and nothing would be true. Nothing would be happening. There would simply be … nothing.
Gradually, they peeled apart. Dean looked haggard, the fine lines at the corners of his eyes more deeply etched. He’d probably been drinking himself into a stupor in lieu of real sleep, if Sam had to guess. But it would be better now because Sam was up and recovering from whatever had clocked him senseless and finally, Dean could catch a break. The relief almost made Sam dizzy again. He saw Bobby over Dean’s shoulder and sidestepped his brother to embrace the old fart. Touchy-feely wasn’t the way they usually did things, but fuck all, Bobby wasn’t supposed to be here either. None of them was supposed to be here.
Sam blinked and held Bobby at arm’s length. “Wait. I saw you …” The events at Stull Cemetery came back in a great wave, flooding his gut with bitter dread. “I felt Lucifer snap your neck.” Sam looked to Dean for confirmation, but Dean’s eyes were decidedly unreadable.
“Cas—” Bobby began.
“Cas is alive?” Sam’s hope swelled. Maybe he was still confused and misremembering that day. Maybe he’d gotten whacked in the head so hard, everything was a tangle of half-truths and imagined fears.
Dean took a single step, almost smiling but not quite. “Yeah, yeah. Cas is fine. Sam, you okay?”
There were too many questions mashed together for Sam to pull one free from the bunch. He’d have to sort through them later; it was a hell of a mess so he deferred to something simple, basic and easily fixed. “Actually, I’m starving.”
Dean’s not-quite smile turned genuine. “Well damn, Bobby. You heard the man; let’s get him a sandwich.”
“You, uh, you wouldn’t happen to have a steak, would you? I could sure go for some red meat.”
Bobby fried up the rib-eyes in a cast iron skillet to save time, and Sam set upon the food like a man who hadn’t eaten in…?
“So, how long was I out?” Sam grabbed a palmful of potato chips, Dean’s idea of a vegetable side dish.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Dean countered, sitting back down with two beer bottles threaded through his fingers.
“The field.” When Sam thought on it, his brain itched. “Then I fell.”
“Okay. And then?”
The itch turned into an ache. “What do you mean, and then? That’s it. Then I woke up in the bedroom.” Sam took one of the offered beers and twisted off the cap. Dean still liked the cheap stuff; some things never changed and for that, Sam was so very grateful. The familiarity was a small respite from the migraine that was brewing behind his eyes. “How’d you get me here?”
Bobby had been strangely stoic throughout the meal and ensuing conversation, and now he stood at the stove with his arms crossed over his chest, looking sour. “You really don’t remember—”
“Let’s be glad,” Dean snapped before forcing a more relaxed voice. “Who wants to remember all that Hell? Cas got you here; I couldn’t damn-well cart your gargantuan ass all by myself. We put you in the panic room, but after a week, well, I had him bring you upstairs. Was just easier.”
Sam took a long swallow of beer, working hard to forget the damned diaper. “No, Dean. I mean, how’d you guys spring me … from …?” He didn’t even want to say it. He shouldn’t say it. His brain was swollen with something wrong. “Did Cas—”
“Not exactly,” Dean mumbled.
“Shit, Dean. What did you do?”
Dean cleared his throat and flicked a glance at Bobby, who was still sullen beneath the visor of his ball cap. “I had some leverage against Death—yeah that Death, the Horseman Death—and it worked. It’s done. Slate’s wiped.”
“Well ain’t this just rainbows and lollipops.” Bobby grunted and pushed off the stove.
Dean continued to glower but Bobby clearly didn’t intend to listen to the storytelling any longer. He left the kitchen on a wave of surliness.
Sam pressed the cold bottle to his temple. “All right. I give. What’s up with him?”
Dean sighed. “I dunno; one part old man, three parts liquor?”
Sam didn’t buy that either. He slid his plate back and reclined in the chair, trying to relax, trying to make his head stop pulsing at the seams and glean some idea as to why Dean was being evasive. He pulled loose one of the newspapers from the pile and absently scanned it. His gaze landed on the date and he sat up too fast. The steak threatened to find its way back up his gullet.
“How long was I gone?” Sam spread the paper open on the table, staring.
“Oh, come on, Sam, just let it—”
His brother scrubbed a hand through his hair, lips pressing tightly. Sam had no pity for him, though, not just yet.
“A year and a half, eighteen months. Something like that.”
A spear of pain shot through Sam’s head and he lurched away from the table, his half-empty beer tipping onto the newspaper. He just barely made it out of the front door before the entire contents of his stomach upended and hit the front yard over the porch railing.
Sam promised Dean the sudden emptying of his belly was just too much food in too little space, but that wasn’t the whole of it. Not even close.
When a person wakes up to discover a sizeable chunk of time has vanished and for some reason it instills a feeling of desperate guilt, there’s a high probability that awful things are socked away in the slippery recesses of that defective memory. But not knowing is far worse. It’s like being a human jack-in-the-box, just waiting for that creepy-ass clown to suddenly pop out. From the middle of your chest. With a wicked smile full of sharp teeth and a semi-automatic hand gun.
Bobby exacerbated the situation by being transparently ticked-off at Sam, just short of openly hostile. If everything was normal, as Dean would have him believe—the Winchester kind of normal, at any rate—Bobby shouldn’t have been such a walking bag of cranky in a stained pair of Wranglers.
Sam just couldn’t be that willfully ignorant. Somehow, in the process of returning to the Here and Now, he’d done something Big and Stupid. Fan-fucking-tastic.
But first things first: he felt like crap and smelled just about as bad. He wanted a shower and time to think. Whatever fresh new drama he’d acquired in the past two years wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Initially, Dean didn’t seem willing to let Sam out of his sight, but a few strategic wafts of stink in his brother’s direction earned Sam his freedom to bathe. He was mildly surprised to find new-ish towels on the bathroom shelf, but the shower curtain had probably been there since 2005. Sam let the water run as he stripped, smiling at the familiar banging of the plumbing and threadbare bathmat. He caught himself carefully folding his clothes, even though he had no intention of wearing them again until they got washed.
He stared at his hands and for a moment, they didn’t quite feel connected—the palms calloused and knuckles red. He ran his hands over his arms and then looked at those, too. The skin was smooth, no longer nicked with old scars. Guess that made a crooked sort of sense if Castiel had played Florence Nightingale on him after he got topside. His anti-possession tattoo was still intact over his heart, but that was because he and Dean had done them right; they had a mage in San Francisco work the spell with ensorcelled ink. But there shouldn’t have been a fresh bite mark on the inside of Sam’s left wrist. Looked human, too. No way something that mundane was a souvenir from the Cage.
Sam stepped into the hot shower and almost moaned aloud as the water rolled over his shoulders. The showerhead was half-clogged with minerals but worked well enough to plaster his hair to his forehead and soothe his miserable headache. He just stood there, hands splayed on the soap-scummy tiles and mind emptied, until Bobby’s hot water tank gave up the ghost. Sam was forced to lather up quickly and in the middle of it all, it dawned on him that he was using his favorite scent-free body wash. Dean favored Irish Spring but Sam preferred soap that didn’t break him out in hives. If he’d been gone a year or more, why was there a half-full bottle of body wash in the shower? Just in case he showed up on weekend furlough from The Furnace?
The water was turning towards frigid so he rinsed quickly before shutting off the spray. Grabbing a towel and stepping out of the bath, dripping wet, he stared around the shabby room. The same faded curtains that had always been there for as long as Sam could remember still hung across the smudged window. There was a small framed picture on the wall over the commode: a cartoon of a man in plaid with a rifle, the words “I like big racks” written across the bottom in loopy black lettering. It had been a gift from the boys to Bobby when Sam was … ten, maybe? Dean’s electric shaver was wedged into its holder on the back of the toilet, connected by a cord to the wall socket. Beside it sat a package of plastic disposable razors and a striped can of Barbasol. No one used Barbasol but Sam. He picked up the shaving cream. No dust.
No dust. There were cobwebs in the corners of the room but no dust on his shaving cream. Maybe Dean had bought it for him a couple of weeks ago. Right. And maybe Dean gave up pie for Lent, too.
Sam dried off slowly, inspecting his skin again. He hardly recognized it anymore. The old scars were gone, but new ones were in fresh locations. A pale, puckered gunshot wound in his left shoulder. Fading bruises on his ribs, probably punches. A long, superficial scrape that was peeling chunks of scab off his right shin, leaving fresh pink skin underneath. Sam began to shiver. He tucked the towel low on his waist and swiped a hand across the steamy mirror. The face that stared back was foreign, but his. For a heartbeat, he scared the shit out of himself.
The eyes were dead. They were mean and level and broken-glass shiny. And fucking dead.
There was a quick rap at the door. “Hey. You okay in there? Been an hour, Sammy. I mean if you’re taking care of business, that’s cool and all, I just—”
“No, no. Fine. I’m … fine.” Sam blinked and his eyes melted back to life, liquid and human again. “I’m fine.”
He hoped Dean couldn’t hear the lie in his voice.
Three days later and Sam was on the precipice of a boredom-laced melt-down. In between the inexplicable scars, Bobby’s thin veil of tolerance and Dean’s artful misdirection (that could fool anyone unless you knew exactly what you were looking for), Sam wanted to claw his own mind apart and let the past spill out. Even if it hurt.
Clearly, he wasn’t going to get any help from Bobby or Dean. They were—well, Dean was—more than happy to talk about all the news and pop culture Sam had missed, but when it edged towards something personal, Dean bobbed and weaved, feigned nonchalance or suddenly remembered the beer or nails or car oil he’d forgotten to pick up from the store. He swore they’d talk about it later, but later never came. He acted as if Sam was made of spun sugar.
Sam briefly considered praying. When he was lying awake in the middle of the night, listening to the house age and Bobby snore, the day’s remnants echoed through his vacant brainspace and he wondered if Cas would respond. Would the angel blip into existence on the papery flutter of invisible wings and offer answers?
But something kept Sam from prayer. Something heavy and treacherous curled in his belly. Something wouldn’t dare let him ask.
After a particularly sleepless turn, Sam found himself on Bobby’s porch come daybreak, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up to keep the dew at bay. His head was still full of fog as he watched the sun turn the shadows from gray to gold, the air warming incrementally. The salvage yard teemed with feral cats that moved through the rusty skeletons as morning broke.
Sam felt a certain fondness for the creatures. He quietly went back into the house, put coffee on to brew, then dumped a can of tuna into a large shallow bowl. A breakfast treat for the little predators.
He was just off the front stoop, setting down the oversized saucer, when he heard the screen door open and almost slam. It wasn’t level enough to shut with much authority, catching on the warped planks of the porch.
It was Dean. Of course. “You’re up at the ass-crack of dawn,” he grumped mildly.
“It’s not that early any more,” Sam said, squinting into the sun.
“Yeah, yeah. Coffee?” There was a chipped steaming mug in either hand. He was squinting too, but not at the sun. At his brother.
Sam walked back onto the porch as cats, juveniles from the looks of it, swarmed the bowl. He took the coffee that was light with milk.
“Thanks. Hey, did we ever…hunt gnomes?” The words slipped out before he could so much as consider how stupid they sounded or where they’d come from. The sight of the dish and all the cats had made a strange notion flit through his mind, sudden as a sneeze. A flash of childhood, the story of the cobbler and the elves, except this wasn’t a fairytale. It was too specific, too real. The smell of metal and oil and tick-tock-tick-tock…
Dean, still squinting, tilted his head and fought back a grin. “What? You mean like those concrete dolls old ladies put in their gardens?”
“Um, no?” Sam’s scalp prickled with annoyance and he shoved back his hood.
“The Travelosity guy?”
“No. Nevermind.” He glanced back at the feeding frenzy. “Did Lisa have cats? She seemed like a cat person.”
Dean’s mug paused half-way to his mouth. He snorted and blew breath across the steaming surface. “Smooth, Sammy.”
“Hey, I learned from the best.”
Dean’s eyes shifted to gaze across the tangle of cars but he could’ve been staring a million miles away. “We tried, Sammy. For a year,” he finally admitted, his voice turning resolute and, Sam thought, a little sad. “But Winchesters come with great steamin’ piles of baggage. We just couldn’t make it work.”
Sam sort of wished he hadn’t pried but if Dean wasn’t going to come clean voluntarily, he wasn’t left with much of a choice. “I’m sorry, man.”
“Hey. It is what it is.” Dean gestured vaguely with his mug.
“I feel like I’m still missing something,” Sam said.
“You miss hunting?”
Ah, Dean, bobbing and weaving again. “No, that’s not what I—” Sam lifted his chin, thinking. “Yeah, maybe. I guess I do miss it. A little.”
“Take it easy, sparky. You’ve been bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for all of four days. No need to rush back into the business.”
“I feel fine, Dean. In fact, better than fine. For a guy who’s been in Hell for nearly two years, with a little coma on the side, I’m effin’ spectacular.”
“Well, great! Good on ya. But can’t we just take it easy? This once?” He rocked back on his heels, sighing, something weary in his posture even though it was first thing in the morning. “Maybe I’m not ready to go ghost-bustin’ just yet. Maybe I wanna spend a little time with everything bein’ status quo and all. Play poker with someone other than ol’ Crabbypants in there. Hit the Hooters with my kid brother. Do ‘normal’ for a change.”
Sam grunted, stuffing his free hand in the front pocket of his hoodie.
“Seriously, Sam, where’s the fire?”
He considered this. There wasn’t any fire, none visible at any rate. The sun was coming up over the salvage yard like it always did, the air calm and cloudless. Winter birds called cheerfully from their phone-line tightropes but Sam smelled smoke and he couldn’t shake it. It clung to his thoughts the way mists hung in windless valleys, these feelings of loss and obfuscation. Dean could’ve told him they’d hit the lottery and every monster on earth had been nuked and it wouldn’t have made him feel any better.
“I’m not a kid anymore, Dean. Haven’t been for a long time.” Sam worked at keeping his voice even. “You can’t swaddle me in bubble wrap, protect me from hurting. From life. You don’t need to anymore—”
“Me, dammit. So come on. Spill it.”
Dean opened his mouth, shut it again, and shrugged. “Spill what? Jesus, Sam. There’s nothing to spill.”
Sam drew up to his full height, squared his shoulders. “Really? Then why’s Bobby treating me like a red-headed step-child?”
“What? I don’t even—”
“Why do I have an appendectomy scar, huh? Last I checked, I still had that stupid, useless organ. But now?” Sam took a long step forward and lifted the corner of his sweatshirt, flashing a quick glimpse of belly and a thin, pink line.
“God, do we have to—”
“What are you guys hiding from me, huh? Where’s Cas? What the hell happened when I was ‘downstairs’?”
“Oh, for—” Dean was getting visibly aggravated, rolling his eyes and turning away.
“And what really happened with Lisa?” Sam knew that was playing dirty pool, bringing Lisa back up, but it didn’t stop him.
“That’s enough, Sam.”
Sam put a hand on Dean’s forearm so he wouldn’t retreat into the house. This was going to be resolved, one way or another. “It’ll be enough when you tell me the truth.”
“I said enough.” And Dean pushed back, a solid shove right to the center of Sam’s chest.
The world turned gray.
They say when you’re angry, you see red. They’re wrong. Sam saw gray. Or maybe he wasn’t so much angry as motivated into a purposeful response. He didn’t exactly feel angry but he wanted answers and he was going to get them and he knew he could.
Dean pushed and when he did, he advanced on his right leg—the left, he favored. Weaker. There was the slightest turning of his arm that indicated a sore shoulder, perhaps still stiff from it being morning or one too many dislocations. Probably both. Sam let him push but pivoted like a door opening, and Dean stumbled forward, off-balance. A simple nudge tipped him past, in a slop of spilled coffee.
“What the fuck, Sam?” Dean spun, a hard scowl on his face.
Sam dropped his mug and shot a fist forward, clipping his brother on the cheekbone. Because he could. Because Dean had done this to him before and it felt like just desserts. Because he could kick Dean’s ass and make him talk.
Dean swayed but didn’t topple, blinking in clear shock.
Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down. Sam almost smiled.
Dean’s mug soared sideways in a sudden arc, aiming for Sam’s temple, the coffee already spilt and soaked into the dusty yard. Cats scattered in every direction.
But Dean did not have his feet solidly planted. All it took for Sam to avoid the mug was to shoulder into him, using his height and muscle to send Dean backwards onto the ground, narrowly missing the saucer of tuna. Sam knew it would take his brother a good second to get to his feet again, after which Sam wouldn’t give him time to get his bearings. Sam could put a heel into his brother’s knee, the left because that was the one giving him grief, and it would take him down fast and easy—
An icy blast of water pummeled Sam’s flash strategizing to a dead stop.
As suddenly as the world had grayed, it tumbled back to Technicolor and Sam sputtered, snorting water.
Bobby was standing on the porch, garden hose in hand. He had a decidedly pissed look on his face and he kept the water trained on Sam until Dean had clambered to his feet. “This is a God-damned high-class neighborhood, boy. You act respectable.”
Dean stumbled to the porch and sat heavily on the edge. He groaned and gingerly touched what was already becoming a fat purple welt under his eye.
“You quite done?” Bobby thundered.
Sam had turned his back on the spray and was shivering, wet to the skin, his sweatshirt a sodden weight on his shoulders. He managed a nod, nearly blind for all the water and hair in his eyes.
“Yeah, we’re done,” Dean growled.
“Fine.” The water cut off.
Sam stood there, dripping. He had no clue what had just happened, why he’d gone postal. It wasn’t possession; Sam knew possession. Been there, done that, bought the tattoo. It felt … it felt like righteousness. Somehow pure and purposeful. And unthinkably cruel. But he did know one thing: the guy in the mirror knew. The one with the dead eyes.
He slowly turned around, but couldn’t look at Dean.
The Friday morning fisticuffs hadn’t done Sam any favors. Bobby was still full of vinegar and now Dean kept looking at Sam sidelong, all the trust leeched from his eyes, replaced by something guarded and occasionally miserable.
Maybe this was what a sabbatical in Hell did to a person: not just change the condemned soul, but also how the whole world looked at them. Sam couldn’t know for certain because that information had inconveniently gone missing. The deal Dean made with Death surely figured into it but damned if Sam was going to ask. At this point, he’d probably get a faceful of fist and he’d certainly earned it.
When word of a hunt trickled down the grapevine, Bobby and Dean were quick to grab it. Sam let them. As much as he was itching to get back in the game, he knew better. He was a poorly reassembled jigsaw puzzle; all the pieces were there but they didn’t fit right, inverted or shoehorned into the wrong spots. He had to figure it all out before the bits got lost or he stayed busted permanently, fused in this badly broken state. He had to try. Fuck Yoda; there was always ‘try’.
Sam watched as the Impala dusted off down the long drive, between the carcasses of cars stacked three deep. Dean stuck a hand out the window. Waved once. They’d made a clumsy sort of peace, he and Sam, but not Bobby. No emotional quarter given, there. He would never kick Sam out of the house that had become their second home, but that was almost worse. Bobby’s ire hung in the air like smoke, palpable and quietly suffocating.
Sam needed to breathe.
As soon as the car was a speck on the horizon, he turned and walked back to the house. He thumped down at the kitchen table and filtered through the piles of newspaper and mail. He dumped out the junk drawers where all the scraps of daily living landed and waited to become useful. There was a mess of weird stuff, but nothing that wasn’t already familiar. Bits of bone, charms, screws in every conceivable size, tiny empty vials with corks in their necks, a small fortune in Bic lighters. Nothing that pinged with significance.
Upstairs, he searched underneath the mattress, the dresser, the back of the closet, but it wasn’t until he turned out the pockets of his navy coat that he hit pay dirt. He’d washed most of the laundry yesterday in a jag of boredom, but not the coats. Unless they got bled on or chewed up, the coats didn’t get much attention.
It was just a corner of an envelope in a corner of a pocket: a scrap postmarked Fedora, South Dakota. When Sam turned it over in his fingers, ‘Holly’ and a phone number were written in blue ballpoint pen. The handwriting was so similar to his, but not quite. Fractionally neater.
For a moment, Sam wished Dean was there to give him shit for having a girl’s number in his pocket. Predictably, Dean would be waggling his brows wolfishly and taking credit for training his little brother like a champ, even though Sam could get his own damned date without taking a single page from The Dean Winchester Playbook.
Sam fished his cell phone from his jeans. His finger briefly hovered over the screen before punching the numbers.
It was funny … the sort of anticipation that twisted in his belly. Like dread, but hungrier. Another misplaced feeling that didn’t make sense in the world as he knew it. Maybe he didn’t know the world so well after all.
When the woman answered, Sam’s skin jumped.
“Who’s this?” she bit out. Not the expected hello, but a snark that slid slightly Southern.
Sam filtered through options in the habitual blink of an eye—reporter, federal marshal, some spin on the truth—but a little voice coaxed him towards the ol’ cat-n-mouse game. “Holly?”
“I … I’m in your neck of the woods again and I thought maybe we could, you know, talk.”
There was a pause, and he heard her huff. “Talk.”
“Is this Johnny?”
Johnny? Sure, why not. “Yeah, yeah it’s me.”
Dead air, except for the dim strains of a radio in the background. Molly Hatchett, if Sam wasn’t mistaken. She sighed again. “You’re damned lucky my husband isn’t home …” Her tone was considerably warmer now.
It would be a half-day’s drive to Fedora, in a borrowed El Camino with no working heater and though it wasn’t snowing, it certainly could’ve been at any second. Despite the phone call, which had wandered into sexually-charged territory before Sam could gear it down, he couldn’t remember what this Holly person looked like. Or why she knew him, though he had an uncomfortable suspicion. Or why the barren landscape heading towards Fedora, as nondescript as it was, blurred by in his peripheral vision with unmistakable familiarity. It wasn’t that it looked like the rest of South Dakota; if only it were that easy. He knew this road, could drive it with his eyes closed, knew the heavy sky. It was like seeing echoes.
He predicted the turn-off to the Broken Diamond before it came into view. It sat like a glowworm at the end of a long tunnel, tucked between dark hills and bruise-colored clouds. The gravel parking lot had a handful of trucks in it, most in various stages of decay with gun racks in the back windows. Sam tucked his own gun into the waist of his jeans, at the sway of his back. The jukebox was loud enough to be heard from across the lot and he was anxious to get out of the cold. Anxious for answers.
Every head in the room swiveled when he opened the door. Typical for a small—no, nearly invisible—town. Sam nodded agreeably and rounded his shoulders, curbing his height and conspicuousness.
It usually worked. This time, not so much.
Two men, cut from the same camouflage cloth, lumbered to their feet. Their eyes were impassive, jaws tight behind several days of stubble. They both had the flat, broad-faced look of a lifelong meat-and-potatoes diet, and Sam knew that beneath the padding there was toughness he shouldn’t underestimate.
He kept his hands loose at his sides and quickly scanned the room for someone who might be Holly, any face he might know. Problem was they were all starting to look like someone he used to know. He was getting tangled up in real memories and wanting so badly to recognize things, he couldn’t be sure what was truth and what wasn’t.
“Len. Erwin. How ‘bout a round on the house, huh, boys?” The bartender, an older man with thick silver hair styled in a great sweep off his forehead, stepped to the edge of the bar and spoke loudly, above the jukebox. None of the other patrons said word one, just stared with narrowed eyes.
Sam stepped into the tavern, giving the Cammo Twins a wide berth. He ducked away from the glares and found a spot at the farthest end of the bar to sit, angled so his back was to the wall. He was glad for the press of gunmetal against his spine.
The bartender placated Len and Erwin with draft beers and made his way to Sam. A few sets of eyes drifted away to mind their own business. The tension lightened a hair.
“So,” he said, folding his arms across the pearl snaps of his shirt.
Sam rested his elbows on the bar, trying for casual. “Coffee?”
The man had a toothpick tucked into the corner of his mouth, and he rolled it around to the other side with his tongue. “Coffee, we can do.” He set a big restaurant-issue mug full of thick brown drink in front of Sam. No cream or sugar, and the bartender’s expression clearly indicated there wouldn’t be any, either.
“Thanks,” Sam mumbled. The stuff smelled burnt but he sipped it anyway. He smiled and tipped the cup. “It’s good.”
“No, it ain’t. But it’s warm. And yer not gettin’ anything stronger this time ‘round. Don’t want any trouble, Johnny.”
This time. Sam’s unease inched up, sitting mulishly in his chest. “Oh, me neither. I swear. Man, I don’t know what happened last time. I was just …” he gestured loosely with one hand “… crazy or something.”
“Mean damned drunk, more’s like. Or somethin’.”
The bartender’s squint-eyed, rheumy gaze just wouldn’t let up and Sam swallowed past the knot in his throat. “I don’t remember. I’m sorry. Must’ve blacked out.”
“No, I just—”
“Why’d you come back, son?” The toothpick shifted again.
Sam stared at his bad coffee and felt a prickle in his brain. The fine hairs on his nape rose.
Before he could fashion something half-way harmless to say, a voice barked from down the bar, either Len or Erwin. The beer must not have been enough incentive for them to keep their noses to themselves. “We told you to stay gone, Johnny.”
Sam heard a stool scuff back and his eyes shifted to the pair. Sitting against the wall had kept his rear protected, but now Sam had only one escape route. They outweighed him easily. He knew he could take Len, the one who spoke, because the guy had a glass jaw. Erwin like to talk smack, too, had fists like hams but no speed. But there was a sawed-off behind the bar, probably within arm’s reach of Lyman—that was the barkeep’s name, he was sure of it—and the old man didn’t like blood spilt in his bar. He’d tell them to take it outside, where the rest of the good ol’ boys would follow, cracking their knuckles—
“There will be no more bloodshed in the Broken Diamond,” Lyman rumbled a warning to Len, who was advancing on Sam’s corner.
Sam felt the buzz of adrenaline hit his belly. He kept one hand curled around the mug, the other resting on the sticky bartop. No need to pull his gun unless someone pulled a knife first. And he knew neither man carried blades, or at least they didn’t the last time … the last time …
“I’m just here to see Holly, is all,” Sam said, so unruffled he even had himself fooled.
Well. It seemed like the right thing to say at the time.
Erwin’s porcine face turned a quick, hot shade of red and he shoved past Len. Sam got to his feet before he realized he was standing, and Lyman lunged for the shotgun.
Then Len screamed and slapped a hand to the back of his neck. This pretty much stopped everyone dead in their tracks. A man screaming is wont to do that.
Len spun away to reveal a slender blonde woman with a cigarillo pinched in her fingers.
“You fucknuts,” she drawled. “If anyone’s gonna beat on Johnny, it’s me.”
She cut past Len, who might even have stepped back a piece, and eased onto Sam’s abandoned seat. “Y’all can go away now.” She flicked her fingers. “Shoo.”
Lyman sighed, weary or relieved, likely both. “Holly, sweetheart, you’ll need to not smoke in here…”
She slid a slow grin to the bartender and dropped the cigarillo into Sam’s coffee. “Better?”
“You got ten minutes.” He furrowed his overgrown brows at her and moved away, ushering Len and Erwin to the far side of the bar. As far away from Sam’s corner as possible. Clean out the door, in fact.
Holly waited a few heartbeats until Lyman was out of earshot before she turned her attention to Sam. She wore too much mascara and not enough clothing, but behind all that calculating artifice, her eyes were sharp and bright and ticked off.
“And to think I took you for an educated man,” she said, pinging chipped fingernails against the mug.
“School doesn’t make a person smart.” Sam smiled half-heartedly, looking at her in earnest. Despite the tepid lighting, he knew her irises were pale green. Just as he somehow knew she was a natural blonde.
Holly lowered her voice. “Woulda been a might bit wiser to meet at the trailer, yeah? Avoid the local color?”
“Your … trailer?”
Her nose wrinkled in clear distaste. “What do you take me for, Johnny Black? Some ten-cent white-trash piece of skirt in a double-wide?”
Sam’s mouth worked around a few words that never came out.
“Your trailer, Einstein,” Holly clarified. “You do still have the Airstream, right?”
How it was more appropriate for him to be keeping a trailer somewhere, instead of her, eluded Sam. The very fact he had a trailer period made not a lick of sense. Or maybe it did. It made about as much sense as anything else right now. “I honestly don’t … maybe?”
She canted her head, fixing him with a bothered squint. “Okay, enough of this bullshit. I suspected you were crazycakes the first time I met you, but it was kinda … endearin’. I mean, for a weekend squeeze ‘n squirt. Now? It’s just …” She tossed a look down the bar and noticed Lyman tapping his wristwatch, lips pinched tight. Holly rolled her eyes at him and carried on, regardless. “What is your damage anyway?”
Sam caught the old man’s gesture too; it did nothing to ease the tension of what felt like heading deeper into enemy territory. Customers were still shooting wary glances over hunched shoulders or sneaking a glare across the rim of a pint glass. “It’s complicated.”
“And that’s a cop-out. Look, I’ve got better things to do on a Saturday night than play pussyfoot with you, big guy. You called me, remember? You wanna hang out or what?”
“Is there somewhere, um, less of a fishbowl we can—”
“Right. The trailer.” Sam gave her his most practiced and charming smile. “Where was that again?”
But Holly wasn’t buying it and she stared him down. Sam could almost see the realization dawning in her racoonish eyes. “You really are crazycakes, ain’t ya?”
“Aren’t we all? Just a little?”
She exhaled hard through her nose and poked a finger in his chest. “If you turn out to be one of those psychos who likes his girls with fava beans and a nice Chianti, I’ll—”
“Look, I have a feeling I’m not the first psycho you’ve met, nor will I be the last. Which, I think, says more about you than it does about me. But as psychos go, trust me, I’m pretty damned tame.”
She scowled at him until Sam peaked his brows and plied his patented hopeful-yet-serious face, wrapped up in a blanket of trustworthiness. He’d had twenty-plus years to perfect the technique and like a fine wine, it got better with age. This time, it worked.
Holly snatched up her coat. “Alright, Hannibal, but I’m driving.”
They’d been traveling for the better part of the last fifteen minutes, not talking. She drove a beat-up Mustang of indeterminate year—Dean could’ve pegged it—and the space where the radio would’ve sat was just a hole filled with cut wires. Holly’s fingers played over the steering wheel; she didn’t seem bothered by the quiet. She just lit up another cigarillo and cracked the window, letting cold air into the car. It was Sam who spoke first.
“That guy at the bar—”
“Was he your husband?”
She cut a look over at him, lip curled like she was smelling something bad. Sam couldn’t figure whether the sneer was aimed at him or the question.
“That was my cousin. Ricky’s still out on the road. Hauling crap to Duluth.”
“You burned your cousin with a …” Sam jutted his chin at the cigarillo.
“Black and Mild? Done worse to him. He’s a twat.”
Blinking, he stared at her.
“Oh, don’t make like this is news to you, Johnny. You don’t remember beating the sense outta Erwin? Along with half the stinkin’ bar last time you blew through town? Please.”
Sam played with a hole starting in the knee of his jeans and felt his brow tighten.
“What?” Holly demanded, her voice as biting as the chill in the air.
“I don’t … I mean I …”
The Mustang took a sharp cut off the road, spitting rocks as she ran the car to the shoulder and slammed it to a stop.
They were miles from civilization. She whirled on him, gesturing pointedly with the business end of the smoke. “Enough of this shit. What game are you playing?”
Sam sat up straighter, his gun pressed hard between his back and the torn upholstery. He paid keen attention to her expression, as well as the orange glow weaving in front of his face. “I’ve had an … accident. Brain injury. Honest to God—” Sam almost hated saying that word anymore “—I don’t remember Fedora. Or Johnny. Or you.” This wasn’t altogether true, but starting with a clean-ish slate seemed the better part of valor. He remembered slivers of things but they floated in and out of focus, leaving only faint jet trails in his memory.
She stared at him, mouth slack. The car was coughing out an irregular rumble, the sickly green glow from the dashboard throwing her face into sharp shadow. “You think I’m that stupid?”
“No, I—” Sam dragged his hand through his hair, annoyed. “Holly. I’m not jerking your chain, I swear. Why would I make up something this … this farfetched? This preposterous? I woke up in a fucking diaper and no one will tell me jack shit about the last—oh, I dunno—month of my life so now here I am. Sitting in a piece-of-crap car, in the middle of nowhere—”
Holly mumbled something that Sam talked over and threw a glance past her shoulder, slipping the car back into gear.
“—and I keep finding these things I can’t explain and doing stuff—”
The car crawled out of the gutter of the road, expelling gravel behind it. “Shut up,” she grumbled.
“—I shouldn’t do but I can and—”
“Christ on a cracker. SHUT. UP.”
Sam snapped his jaw closed with an audible click of teeth.
The wind whistled through Holly’s cracked window, lifting her hair in tangled, wheat-colored hanks. They drove, not speaking, for almost ten minutes until Sam couldn’t stand it any more. Again.
“So. You believe me?”
Holly kept her focus trained out the windshield, not so much as giving him a single glance. “What’s your name, then?”
“Sam. My name is Sam.”
She must’ve sensed Sam’s eyes on her because she pushed out a puff of breath, knuckles white around the steering wheel. She shifted in her seat, making the vinyl squeak, none of the tightness easing out of her shoulders. “Johnny never woulda used a word like ‘preposterous’. So yeah. I guess I believe you. Don’t make me sorry.”
They continued until the ambient glow of Fedora disappeared and the moon hung fat and bright in the blue-black sky. Miles and miles of nothing but hilly silhouette rolled by, stabbed periodically by gnarls of bare, stunted trees. Eventually, he convinced her to tell him a bit about Johnny, how the guy blew into town like something wicked. How he filled the doorway at the Broken Diamond and set every man, and a few of the women, on edge but that just made Holly like him better, and Sam felt a disconcerting heat hit his cheeks from the inside out. She talked about Johnny beating Erwin at darts, and Erwin accusing him of being a ringer before Johnny put a dart in Erwin’s ass. On accident, supposedly. And then how Johnny took Holly to his trailer and they, well, they did things Sam asked her not to explain in detail, which made Holly grin, all toothy and sly.
Eventually, Holly took a left onto a road far less traveled. The car bumped carelessly over ruts, and Sam knocked his head on the roof more than a few times. A sizeable, dull silver box reflected in the Mustang’s headlights at the bottom of the one-lane gully: an old Airstream trailer, dark inside. They pulled in close and Holly cut the engine.
“Welcome to the love shack,” she said, waiting for Sam to move.
He just sat there, staring at the thing. He expected to recognize it, but the image loomed in front of them, inert. He licked his chapping lips, wiping damp palms on his thighs.
“You gonna get out?” Holly prodded. Her breath was already starting to steam white with the cold.
Sam nodded once and creaked open the door. He unfolded from the small car and dug his heels into the brittle carpet of brown grass.
The moon shed enough light to allow for safe passage to the camper, so he circled it once. He knew where to look for the sigils and yes, they were all there—cryptic designs from many cultures scratched into the metal siding or drawn on it with a black Sharpie marker, in discreet locations. There would be a red devil’s trap painted on the ceiling just inside the door as well, without a doubt. The small square windows were covered with opaque curtains and Sam heard not a sound from inside.
Holly’s footfalls came up beside him. He smelled her cheap perfume, stained with tobacco. She tried the door before he could stop her but it didn’t budge, locked up tight.
“You got your key?” she asked.
“Sort of.” Sam slipped a small black packet from his coat and selected a hook-shaped pick. After a moment of fiddling, the door drifted open, whinging softly. It sounded like a cry and Sam’s skin coursed with gooseflesh. As he stuffed the picks back into a pocket, he swapped them for a penlight. The beam cut a line of illumination across the interior; he half expected to find a den of iniquity: towers of spent beer cans, fast food containers, black-light posters. But it was spotless, Spartan. Compulsively neat. He felt an unpleasant flicker of Broward County, Florida.
“We came here?” he said, stepping up. The trailer listed gently.
“And came and came and came an—”
“Sorry.” She wasn’t, though; he could hear it in her voice. She stayed at the doorway, peeking inside.
The air in the trailer sat thick in his lungs, pregnant with secrets and bad wisdom. His penlight glossed over weathered cabinets, bare walls, and a flat double-mattress with a wad of sheets in the middle, the only untidy thing in the room. A battery-powered lantern sat on the Formica counter top. Sam tried the knob and it flickered on, stinging his eyes. A cold white light flooded the tiny interior; must’ve been one of those harsh LED bulbs. Sam hated those.
“Looks just like you left it,” Holly said, her voice on the verge of boredom.
But she would have to show a little patience. There were answers here. Sam may not be thrilled once he uncovered them, but they were his answers and he wanted them back.
He opened a few drawers, full of what you’d expect in a camper. The narrow closet contained a handful of shirts, familiar in style, and one pair of weathered boots, Sam’s size. In the cramped corner bathroom, he found a very particular brand of scent-free body wash and a single toothbrush.
That was it. Just mundane things. Minutiae. He was more confused now than when he’d begun this risky quest for Mr. Hyde. He had the sneaking suspicion, though, if he kept digging he’d find the bodies in the basement; in fact he wouldn’t leave until he did. He had no choice but to own his brilliant disaster.
Sam lowered himself onto the unmade bed, gingerly avoiding the sheets, and pressed his fingertips across his forehead. Here he was, at Ground Zero, and he was stumped. It was like there were words on the tip of this tongue he once knew, but now? They were lost to him.
Holly stepped up into the trailer, her slight weight hardly making it shift, shutting the door behind. She nudged Sam aside before kneeing her way across the bed and tossing pillows over her shoulder to the scuffed floor. He watched as her dirty little fingers fit between a narrow crack in the corner and with a quick tug, a piece of paneling popped free, revealing a niche in the wall.
“And you thought you were good at hiding things.” She grinned crookedly and sat back on her haunches, giving Sam room to reach across the mattress and into the void.
He removed a wooden box, roughly the size of a dictionary and covered in wards. A sudden buzzing, faint as a hummingbird, flicked through his brain. Paydirt. Either that or an aneurism. Whatever the case, he eased open the lid.
A knife gleamed inside. The blade was unusually shaped, curved slightly at the tip with one edge sharply serrated, the flat etched with arcane marks and the handle carved of bone. It stunk of sulfur and hunger. Of Ruby.
“Did’ya get that at one of those Ren Faires?” Holly leaned in to get a better view. Her hair hung down and brushed his arm.
“Something like that.” Sam set the knife on his knee and sifted through the remaining contents. He fought the urge to push her back, get some space, but it wasn’t long before he wished he’d actually done it.
“Ew,” she gasped. “Is that a tail?”
It was indeed a tail, slim and rat-like. It sat alongside a pointed ear, lightly furred and partially preserved. And several fangs and a talon. Fish-like scales. A tuft of strange, silky hair. Souvenirs. Johnny kept gewgaws of his hunts. What hunter in his right mind did that? But Johnny was Sam. And Sam thought he was going to vomit.
Holly stared from the box to Sam then back again. “That’s some weird shit right there.”
Sam was so damned thankful none of the remnants looked human. He carefully replaced the lid and rested his hands over it. His heart was pounding.
“Some people keep rabbit’s feet. For luck,” he said lamely.
“Uh-huh.” Holly scooted off the bed and stood, rubbing her own shoulders and shivering slightly, nose bright pink. “So, we done here? You find what you came for? No offense, but I kinda miss feeling my toes.”
“Um, yeah, sure. Go start the car. Give me five minutes.”
“Five minutes, or the wagon leaves without you, cowboy.” She didn’t say it meanly, but Holly’s attention span seemed to have outlived its shelf life and she was ready to move on to the next shiny object. She left, the door swaying wide and hanging open.
Sam gazed around the Airstream one last time. The atmosphere didn’t feel heavy anymore. It felt empty. Whoever he had been, whatever had been done here and left here, it was spent. But there was more to the story; Sam felt it in his bones like foul weather. If Dean wasn’t going to ‘fess up, there was a certain multidimensional wavelength of celestial intent he would coerce for help, if he had to.
The Mustang was running and warm when Sam squeezed inside, clutching the box. They drove back to the bar in an almost-companionable silence, nothing but the road noise for a radio.
Holly let Sam off at his borrowed car and sat with her window down for a moment, lighting another cigarillo.
“Thanks,” Sam said to her, hands shoved into his pockets, the box tucked under one arm. He glanced up into the sky’s million stars. The heavens went on forever.
Holly looked him over, chewing the inside of her cheek.
“You know,” she mused, “my daddy always said inside us is two wolves. One’s good; one’s bad.” She dragged on her smoke and exhaled toxins into the air between them. “Which one wins is the one you feed the most. See ya ‘round. Sam.”
She rolled up the window and the Mustang rumbled away down the pockmarked road.
Somewhere between Fedora and Sioux Falls, as the sky was bleaching with the onset of daybreak, Sam pulled off down a side road and drove until he found a flat, clear area. Looked like it used to be the concrete slab foundation of a small house, long since razed. He left the car running.
He scanned the area, spotting nothing, not even crows or turkey vultures. It was too early for them yet. At the dead center of the slab, Sam set down the wooden box with everything but the knife still inside. That, he had tucked into the glove compartment. He liberally soaked the container with lighter fluid; it was already chock full of rock salt. He pulled a silver, flip-top lighter from his jeans and bounced its solid, trustworthy heft in his palm.
As he struck the wheel and made flame, he crouched and touched it to the corner of the box. Fire licked across the surface greedily in blues and oranges and gold. Things began popping and stinking, a breeze tugging away black threads of smoke. Sam pocketed the lighter and held his hands open to the heat.
“Johnny, I hardly knew ye,” he murmured. “R.I.P. Whoever the fuck you were …”
Once the poor man’s pyre was nearly spent, Sam fished his cell phone from his coat. He was pleased to find he had reception in this remote spit of country.
“Hey, Dean. I know you’re sleeping. You guys are something like two hours behind me, I think? Anyway, I was up. Insomnia. Just thought I’d call, check in. Talk to your voice mail. Hope nothing’s kicked your asses yet. Call me later, okay?”
Sam watched the phone until the screen turned dark. He might’ve heard a wolf howl against the far-away dawn.