A young boy looks up at Sam, pointing in the way that small children do, hand open, like a greeting.
Sam smiles down at him and draws back the hood of his long jacket. The child’s eyes become wide, some formless distress darkening its tiny little soul, and he touches his own fingers between his eyes, curling against the shelter of his mother’s leg.
Sam mirrors the motion like a reflex. The mark aches sometimes, like any other old scar. Sam remembers the day he’d been branded, the solemn cadence of prayers from the priests, already grizzled and old at the age of twenty. The smell of candle wax and the teeth-gritting pain of it. Above all, he remembers the sight of his brother at his side. Dean’s face had been swollen and already starting to bruise from the cross newly tattooed across his brow and stretching down the bridge of his nose. Dean’s mouth had twisted, and a barely controlled instinct in him had caused him to clench his fists over and over, as if watching Sam undergo this rite of passage hurt a thousand times worse than having just been through it himself mere minutes before.
The years have faded the thing on both of them, the bright red changing into the color of old henna. Darkened skin could possibly hide the mark entirely. Sam’s skin is pale, though; the product of years spent underground, creeping mole-like through book-lined passageways.
“Lo siento, padre,” the mother says, already ushering her child away, her fingers spread wide and protective on the back of his head.
“It’s fine,” Sam assures her, “I’m used to it.”
The rosary hanging from his belt beats against his thigh as Sam walks through the milling crowd in front of the church. He keeps his head up, shoulders back, scanning the mass of people without ever allowing his sight to stray on any one person. A path opens up before him, people shifting slightly to make way, shoulders bumping, gazes averted. There are very few perks to being an outcast, but this might be one of them.
They live on the top floor of their former monastery. Once, years ago, it had housed more than three score of priests, but those times are long gone. Now it’s home sweet home to a couple of dozen squatters: dead-eyed junkies, winos, and haunted veterans. All of them ragtag refugees from a war everyone wants to forget. Sam doesn’t mind the company, they mainly keep to themselves.
He’s hardly inside the main door and already he can feel it, that slight shift of energy that tells him without question that his brother is a few floors above him. It’s a sensation of untangling, something that has been crooked finally made straight. Sam reaches, assesses with hardly a thought. Dean is uninjured, not happy, but at least calm.
A chest level layer of smoke curls around Sam as he walks into his room. Drying flowers decorate the altar along the far wall, and shadows made by lit votives crowd the corners of the open space. An idol of the Virgin Mary presides over the altar. Dean’s handiwork, made of scavenged parts, bronze clockworks for a body and topped off with a blond baby doll’s head. Her hands are fashioned out of small, toothed gears and she stares blankly across the room with eyes made of blue glass.
Their mother’s name was Mary. It’s not lost on them.
The smell of frankincense is heavy and sweet, and almost manages to cover up the bloody reek of the slaughterhouse. It was part of the reassignment. Sam spends most of his days translating and cataloguing ancient texts in the libraries beneath the church complex. Dead languages make sense to him, they always have. He likes the structure of them, their measure and rhythm and idiosyncrasy. Besides, he’s always had a knack for knowledge, or at least that’s what Bobby tells him.
The idea was to reassign the priests according to their individual sets of skills. They’d called it acclimation. Dean’s been relegated to the slaughterhouse that serves their quadrant. He’s aware of the irony. They both are. Sam’s brother always has had a way with knives.
Sam strips himself of layers as he crosses the room. His coat joins Dean’s on the hook beside the door, their boots side by side beneath it. He folds his vestments and places them in a neat stack on the foot of Dean’s bed. The blades come off last, two from their sheaths tied to Sam’s forearms, and another from the small of his back. This last one he twirls between his fingers, checks the honed edge with a thumb. He had a preference for this knife, a sort of going away gift from his father.
Dean is kneeling, bare feet curled against each other beneath him. His head is bowed and his hands are together, fingers matched, and as he whispers the Angelus his lips brush his fingertips. Animal blood is lodged deep beneath his fingernails. Later, Dean will take the point of a knife to them, and the dark red will fade to an anemic pink, but he can never get it all.
The only acknowledgment of Sam’s presence comes in the form of a small nod from Dean, invisible unless Sam was looking for it. Otherwise he’s still, his back is bent, shoulders curled, slouched into the shape of supplication.
It's an ill fit. Dean isn't built for this. Not recently and maybe he never has been. Sam knows that now, he can see it, obvious as a black eye or a broken front tooth and just as impossible to ignore.
This isn’t the way that Sam prays. His is face down, spread eagle, his forehead and palms pressed to the floor so that he can tap into the thrum of the earth beneath him. Feel it breathing and know that it still can breathe.
Sam reaches over the kneeling form of Dean, fitting his palm against the arched curve of Dean’s neck. Any excuse at all to touch Dean and make it seem like nothing. If Dean is surprised by the brush of cold fingers to his skin, he doesn’t let it show. Sam touches a taper to a flame and lights a votive in a prayer for the dead. He lights two more for the living.
“You’re early,” Sam says. Dean’s eyes flicker beneath his closed lids, a quick flash in Sam’s direction as his lips move silently through the third and final versicle of the ritual and straight into the response. The Angelus bell has yet to ring, but it’s hardly worth mentioning. Dean is willing to follow the form, if only in his own sweet time. It’s the price they pay for power.
Folding himself beside Dean, Sam loops his hand through the loose dangle of Dean’s rosary. Dean clears his throat and begins the Hail Mary aloud for the benefit of Sam.
Sam joins him in Latin, paced perfectly to Dean’s English. They finish, just as the bell begins to toll. Outside of their four walls, people in the city and beyond are stopping in their tracks, facing the nearest church steeple and bowing their heads.
“Show off,” Dean says. It’s an old joke, but it still makes them smile. His rosary takes its place around his neck beside his St. Michael’s medal. He wears a third amulet, tucked beneath his shirt and frowned upon by the church, but Dean has always insisted that he could use all the help he can get. His superstition trumps his faith. It always will.
Dean rolls to his feet as the archbishop’s voice begins a droning prayer, piped across the loudspeakers positioned throughout the city. By the time the robotic response of thousands of voices can be heard, Dean has his polished flask to his lips. He tips it in Sam’s direction, eyebrows raised in a question.
Sam takes a slug, the rotgut whiskey burning his tongue. “You saw Bobby today,” he says after a hiss. He’d recognize the taste of the old man’s moonshine anywhere. The liquor is working, the warmth in his stomach spreads to his cold fingers.
“He wants us to stop by.” Dean shrugs, offhanded. It’s transparent. Sam can feel tension winding up in Dean and is immediately suspicious.
“Did he say why?”
Another shrug. “Maybe he just wants to shoot the shit?” Dean isn’t lying, but it’s a close thing.
Bobby’s not the grandmother type. He wouldn’t invite them over for milk and cookies just because he hasn’t seen them in a few weeks.
"You know something," Sam accuses.
Dean tips the flask upward again, draining the thing. His lips pull back when he swallows. "You know Bobby. Paranoid doesn’t even start to cut it. Maybe you could tell me. You’re like Yoda with a handgun.”
Sam doesn’t quite get the reference. Pop culture had essentially ceased to exist around Sam’s third birthday, when nightmares were once and for all proven real and started walking the earth. Republics collapsed and theocracy stepped up to fill the vacuum. So yeah, Sam’s not too sure who Yoda is, but he knows Dean well enough to recognize the tired argument. "I'm empathic,” Sam says. “Besides, it doesn't work with everyone. You know that."
"Tell me you don't know something's up." An acknowledgement, in classic Dean style.
Sam's felt it, the slow build of a vague feeling of wrongness that's been impossible to define and all too easy to ignore. He attributes it to restlessness, blames it on a lack of movement and not enough open space.
Dean continues. "That sorta thing's always been your wheelhouse. Knowing what people are feeling. I just fight. I hit. It's what I’m good for," he finishes, his dismissive tone speaking louder than his words. He’s taken mea culpa and made it into an art form. "We'll go see him tomorrow." Dean screws the cap onto his flask and shakes it in Sam's direction. "I could use a refill anyway."
Bobby lives beneath the twin shadows cast by the Seminary and the immense wall surrounding the city. Sam and Dean cut across the plaza in front of the school, now quiet when once it had been an active hive filled with priests in training. Their booted footsteps form a hollow echo between the buildings. There is only one other person haunting the area, a rope-belted monk carrying a burlap sack across the square. They don’t acknowledge one another. Sam hates the emptiness of the place. He grew up here.
One wing of the building was destroyed during the war and never rebuilt. Its roof now sags, and only the barest skeleton of the structure survives. Broken stones litter the courtyard, the larger ones fodder for scavengers.
Dean misses a step. It's a small stutter and he tries to hide it, buries his hands deeper in his coat. This wound still bleeds. He's thinking of lives lost, of people who were somewhere between warrior and civilian. Children. They hadn't been here for this particular battle, but rather in the Outlands, sent out on a suicide mission, only the suicide hadn't stuck too well with the two of them. They would have been better off here. They could have saved people. A dozen, or maybe five. Even one would have made it worthwhile. It still grates.
Bobby’s home sits in the center of an iron graveyard, more effective than a billboard screaming ‘keep out.’ Sam follows Dean, carefully weaving his way between hulking rusted machinery and discarded appliances, the smell of rotting metal so thick it sticks to Sam’s tongue. They circle behind the house. The front door is for guests, and they're family.
Bobby has the door open before they set foot on the back porch. "Boys," he says, a finger tipping the brim of his threadbare trucker hat. He looks more worn out than usual; his shirt is stained and rumpled on his shoulders.
"How’s things?" Dean says, sliding past Bobby with a clap to his back and a strained grin.
"Everything's coming up roses," Bobby replies.
Oil lamps light the interior of the house. The power is out again. It’s temperamental at best. The warm air holds the scent of rye whiskey and old books. It always brings about a sense memory in Sam of days off from the torture of Seminary. A break from grueling fight training and lectures in Latin and incantation.
When the boys had been drafted into the church, their father had scattered a signal to all of his contacts in the city, and Bobby was the first bounce the signal back, quickly taking on the role of a surrogate uncle. At the time, he'd been an instructor at the school. A lot has changed since then.
Bobby leads them through the house to the study. The smell of old paper is stronger here, and a fire dances in the hearth. It's the command center of the house, ground zero for an underground network of information, things that the leadership of the church doesn’t want the general population to find out about.
Never one to stand on ceremony, Bobby waves toward a stack of papers on his mantle. "Have something here that you boys might be interested in."
Dean leafs through the pages, makes it to the third one and stops, blood draining from his face and his eyes opening wide, whites all around. "Fuck, no."
Bobby nods, handing another page to Sam. "Two more reports just like that one. All in the last five days. It ain't pretty."
Sam scans the sheet, deciphering the code as easily as he would a text written in ancient Greek. “How’s that even possible?” Sam asks. “There’s consecrated iron in the walls. We’re protected.” No kind of ungodly creature should be able to cross that boundary.
“Protected,” Dean spits out the word and laughs. He starts pacing the length of the room, his long black coat an inkblot against the motley colored spines of books stacked shoulder high along the wall.
Bobby has a schematic of the city spread across his desk. It tells Sam nothing that he doesn’t already know. The city was rebuilt after the war with a singular purpose in mind. The buildings and roadways form a devils trap that’s a hundred square miles big, and every inch of it is hallowed ground. Nothing gets in. More important, particularly right now, is that nothing can get out.
Sam presses his knuckles against the desk and leans in close to the map, pinpointing the area mentioned in the report. It’s a few miles away in the neighboring sector, practically under their noses.
“Maybe it’s just a rumor.” Sam’s grasping at straws. He’s not ready for it to start again. It’s only just finished.
Bobby collapses in a chair behind his desk and draws a weary hand across his eyes. “These are good sources. They got no reason to lie.”
Dean pauses in his pacing for a moment. “Have you seen it yourself?”
Bobby shakes his head. “I tried to fast talk my way in.” He shrugs, arms held wide. “Give a snot nosed kid a badge and a gate to watch over, and he acts like he’s king of the world. Don’t have the right kinda pedigree to get into that section of town.”
“But we do,” Dean mutters. It’s not a question.
“Trust me,” Bobby says, “the last thing I want to do is drag you boys back into this.”
“We were never out of it,” Sam says. It earns him a sharp look from his brother, but Sam ignores it, still working the problem. “How did they sneak past all the wards? It’s not possible. What’s more, if three demons got in, what else is here?”
“You’re right on one count,” Dean tells him, his face set in a grim mask. His mouth screws up, as if he doesn’t like the taste of the words he’s speaking. Something flickers behind his eyes, though, some welcomed spark of life that Sam hasn’t seen in a very long time. “It’s not possible. They didn’t need to make it past the walls, because they were here before the walls were built. They didn’t get in. They got out.”
Sam had been fourteen when the priesthood came to collect them, and how his father had been pissed. He remembers the argument: three black-cassocked men darkening their doorstep and his father, legs spread wide and arms stubbornly crossed, filling the front stoop as if his staunch denial was enough to knock back the unbending will of the church.
In the end, it had been Sam’s decision. They had to leave it up to him. Something about free will, and the requirement of choice, as if Sam’s fourteen-year-old self knew an inkling of what he was signing up for. It wasn’t as if he didn’t understand sacrifice. The notion of it had been carved into his bones long before that.
In the end, Sam said yes and Dean said no.
Dean’s refusal didn’t last long. Barely a week had passed before Dean showed up in the dining hall at seminary, his duffel slung over his shoulder and a fuck you smile on his face as he argued with a line of instructors trying to keep him from his brother. The smile had turned genuine when Sam had thrown himself from the long supper table and flung himself at Dean. ‘Gotta watch out for my baby brother,’ Dean had said, ‘can’t let you have all the fun.’
The girl tied to the bed is maybe three years older than Sam was when he left home. She’s beautiful. Glossy dark hair, and wide, high cheekbones. Her eyes are Cherokee black, staring out of twin rings of swollen, bruised skin.
Dean beckons Sam from the doorway into the hall. His lips are pressed together so tight that his mouth forms a thin, bloodless scar. He’s got a syringe loaded with holy water in one hand and a knife in the other, a wicked serrated edge and old, old magic carved into the blade. “Why’d it have to be a fuckin’ kid?” Dean whispers. The knife disappears up his sleeve.
“Self preservation,” Sam says, even though it’s obvious Dean wasn’t asking a question that begged an answer. “Interrogation is out.”
Dean’s done things to get information. Unmentionable, unthinkable, horrible things, but there are lines that he would never cross, and this is one of them.
Three eagle feathers hang in a spray on the upper frame of the door, tied together with a thin strip of leather affixed with blue beads. They are dusty, drab and frayed, their shine lost to age. These people have old magic as well. It’s not enough, but it helps. Across the hall and behind a door, Sam can hear the dim scratch of fingernails on a drum, and whispered prayers in three distinct languages.
An old man emerges from that room and sits on a low stool in the hallway. His skin is dark, the rich color of red earth, but a jagged pale scar cuts a diagonal from his hairline to his upper lip, one eye a blind milky blue. The other one is still sharp, and he stares openly at them, not bothering to hide it. No one ever looks them in the eyes, haven’t for a long time now, and Sam finds it a welcomed change. “I fought for you,” the man says in accented English.
The accusation is clear. Sam could point out the distinction. The man never fought for them, he fought for the cause. They all did. There’s a difference. Beside him, Dean tenses, but stays quiet.
“I fought for you,” the man goes on, “and this is how you repay me? Three days she’s been like this. We’ve waited three days for help.”
“Back up,” Dean says. “Who else knows about this?”
The man replies with another question. “The archdiocese didn’t send you?” He shakes his head with a barking, wheezing laugh. “They said she needed a doctor. A psychologist, not a priest.”
It’s enough of an answer for Sam, and one that turns his blood to ice. If the church were going to send anyone to mop up this mess, they would have done it days ago.
“No. They don’t know we’re here.” Dean meets his brother’s eyes. “And they don’t need to find out. This is strictly extracurricular.”
In the room behind them, Sam hears the rattle of the metal bed frame. A grunting, labored breathing follows soon after.
The man leans to look past them into the room. “She’s the last of my bloodline. The only one left.”
“We’ll give her back to you,” Sam says. “But whatever you hear, don’t come into the room.” He turns away and stops when the old man speaks once more.
“My father taught me words of power,” he says. “I haven’t forgotten them. I’ll say them for you.”
"Thank you, grandfather," Dean says, “but don’t say them for us. Say them for her.”
The man recognizes Dean's reverence with a tilt of his chin and squaring of his shoulders.
Dean closes the door behind them and jams a chair under the handle. Just in case.
The stink of sulfur is strong and grows more powerful as Sam approaches the bed. He opens himself up, allowing just a thread to pass through the shield of apathy he’s put in place. Malevolence is pouring off of the girl in staggering waves. Sam’s been in similar scenes countless times. They both have. Dozens. Tens of dozens. It never gets easier.
In the periphery, he can see Dean arranging his tools of the trade on a dresser in the corner of the room. A bible, the knife, a flask of holy water and an ancient cross fashioned out of cypress. A light pulses around his brother in heartbeat time, steady and sure and golden colored. It’s something Sam doesn’t see often, only when he lets his vision take on a certain degree of blurriness. Right now it’s a relief, almost comforting.
Sam touches two fingers to the warm, clammy skin on the side of the girl’s neck. She snarls and struggles to move away, fighting the four point restraints tied at her wrists and ankles. Her pulse is panic fast, frantic but strong. Her hair has fallen across her face and Sam brushes it back, out of her eyes. It’s soft. Flower petal soft. “She’s still alive. Thank God,” Sam says.
“God’s got nothing to do with this,” Dean mutters. “She’s got a healthy heart. End of story.” He turns his sight toward the form on the bed, clasping his hands behind his back. “Tell me your name.” The command is so strong that even the devil himself might be hard pressed to refuse.
“Angela,” the girl answers. It’s her name, Sam remembers it from the report. Angela isn’t the one talking, though. Her voice is warped, like two people speaking at the same time, half of it deeper than it ought to be. Sam’s not shaken. It’s the oldest trick in the book.
“Bullshit.” Dean anoints her forehead with holy water, drawing a cross in the center. It sizzles, steam rising up and catching the afternoon light that slants between the slats of the shutters at the window. “Try again.”
The demon squirms, her teeth snapping together with an audible dry bone click as she lunges, trying to bite Dean’s hand. Dean tsks and shakes a finger at her. “Not so fast, sweetheart. You haven’t given me an answer. Can’t have you talking with your mouth full. Give me a name.”
She smiles at Dean, and if she was just some girl in some bar, and Dean was just some guy, you’d think she’d be flirting. She blinks, and her eyes come back completely black, like spit-shined obsidian. “Which one do you want?” she asks. “I have plenty of names.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dean says. “And one of them is Legion. Spare me the speech.”
Sam pages through the Roman ritual of exorcism. He doesn’t need it, he knows the rite as well as he knows his own name, but he likes the weight of the book in his hand. It helps him concentrate. “You figure they woulda come up with some new material after all this time,” Sam notes.
Dean snickers. “I give the thing a low mark for originality.” He circles the bed, and his steps are careful, like he’s performing a dance. Sam is struck by the elegance of his movements. This is Dean in his element. “It’s not like we need your name.” He frowns. “I was only curious.”
“I’ll tell you what’s curious,” the demon says. “They sent you, of all people, to send me packing. A man of no faith, and here you call yourself a priest.” The last word she spits out like it’s the filthiest curse in all of God’s creation. The smallest, most secret part of Sam fears she might be right on that account. A curse and a calling can be the same thing.
The skin around Dean’s eyes tightens, and Sam sees the muscles in his jaw clench. He draws the sign of the cross on Sam’s forehead, fingers damp with holy water, tracing the tattoo. His eyes lock on Sam’s and he says, “Oh, I have faith alright. Always have.” Dean anoints himself, quickly, like an afterthought.
Sam begins the litany of the saints to the sound of the demon’s laughter. If snakes could laugh, it would sound exactly like this. A hissing, terrible noise. He makes it to St. Matthias before Dean starts talking over him.
“How did you get here?”
“I’ve always been here.”
“How did you get inside the city walls?”
“I’m older than your city.” The girl starts writhing now, the cuffs binding her to the bed cutting into the thin skin of her wrists and ankles. Blood begins a slow trickle down her forearms, slicks her heels and paints the rumpled sheet covering the bed in a disgusting parody of the stigmata.
“Good thing your ego’s still in tact.” Dean notes. “How did you get out?”
“The corpse I was in disintegrated. I can only keep a dead body up and running for so long.” She cocks her head in feigned curiosity. “Come to think of it, the guy looked a little like you. Same timeless fashion sense. You guys must’ve even gotten inked at the same joint.”
The brothers share a look. A possessed priest. This thing just keeps getting more and more ugly. “How many of you are here?” Dean’s following Sam’s line of thought: hell’s army possessing all the knowledge of heaven would be an unstoppable force.
“Plenty,” the demon says. “Enough.”
Sam launches into Psalm fifty-three, slipping effortlessly into Latin. The atmosphere in the room takes on a sort of electrical charge. Ozone infuses the air, as does the smell of rotten breath when the demon begins to pant. The short hair at the back of Sam’s neck is prickling. The old man in the hallway must feel it too; his voice comes from the other side of the door in a rhythmic chant. Sam changes the cadence of his prayers, matching it to the older one the man is saying.
Dean continues his interrogation without a hitch. “Enough for what?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know? Wards and rituals and make sure you say your prayers three times a day. It’s not gonna cut it. Your faith will be your downfall. You don’t stand a chance.”
Dean’s disgust hits Sam like a punch, and Sam’s tongue stutters on the incantation. He recovers quickly, centering his concentration and picking up where he left off.
Dean grabs the knife, the polished metal a violent glint in the bright sunlight. He flips it in his hand, balances it on an outstretched finger, peeking through his lashes to be sure the beast is watching. It’s an empty threat, Sam’s sure of that much, but the demon doesn’t know that. “Get behind me, satan,” Dean says, dismissive and sarcastic.
The demon’s face melts into a lewd sneer, made more obscene by the girl’s youthful features. “So that’s what you want, huh? But I’m a good girl. I hardly ever put out on the first date.” The chains at her ankles clink as she digs her heels into the sagging mattress. She spreads her legs, her pale nightgown stretching between her knees. “I might make an exception for you, sweetheart. You sure are pretty.” The demon’s gaze slides slowly toward Sam. “Call it a hunch, but something tells me I’m not the one you’re after.”
Sam feels the shift of air and drops his book, his reflexes faster than a thought. He spins, his body a roadblock to Dean’s hair trigger and rushing attack, one hand wrapped around the wrist of his brother’s upraised arm and the other tented on Dean’s chest. He’s pushed Dean backward three steps toward the wall before the book even hits the ground.
Dean’s heartbeat thrums beneath his hand, the feather brush of Dean’s pulse flutters against Sam’s thumb, and Sam can almost hear the pound of blood through his veins. The rush of breath from Dean’s exhale falls on Sam’s neck, and the sliver of space between them crackles with anger. “You’re okay,” Sam says. It’s an assurance, not a question. One for both of them.
Behind him, the demon starts to cackle. “Gotta work on your aim there, kiddo.”
The knife is buried in the wall clean up to the hilt, a fraction of an inch from the girl’s head, so close that a few strands of her hair are trapped in it. The force of the collision has left a spider web of cracks in the plaster, radiating outward.
“A throw for her chest mighta been a better bet,” Sam points out.
“I know,” Dean says. “I was aiming for her fucking mouth.” Dean’s lying. If he’d really wanted to hit her, he would never have missed. He crosses the room, holds the girl’s head steady with a fist in her hair. He’s rougher than he needs to be, but if their luck holds out at all, she won’t remember any of this. White plaster dust falls onto the demon’s face when Dean yanks the knife out. “Finish it off, Sammy. She doesn’t know anything. Daylight’s wasting.”
Sam makes the sign of the cross over the form on the bed, and the demon starts to scream.
Sam’s hair is falling into his face in dripping wet strands. The rain is coming down, roads turning into shallow rivers. It almost seems possible that it’s raining up from the puddles and down from the sky at the same time. His coat is heavy on his shoulders and stinks of wet wool.
They sent three demons to hell today, and he should feel accomplished, or purposeful at least. Instead he’s on edge, chewing on dread and worry. The other two demons were about as forthcoming as the first. Dean is now silent, detached, the self-assured cockiness that Sam relies on as much as the air he needs to breathe is gone like it never existed in the first place.
The last one had been the worst, or the best, depending on how you look at it. In another era, Dean might have called it a rip roaring hell of a good time, a regulation knock down, drag out demonic bar fight complete with broken glass and bloody spit, and a fine new set of ripped up knuckles for all parties involved. Dean cursing and punching and kicking at the center of a blur of fists and feet. Sam pinned to the wall by an invisible force, this son of a bitch the most powerful by far, shouting an Enochian exorcism this time, just for kicks. Back to Dean, a perfectly beautiful vision of physical power, with one eye on his brother, always on his brother, and the other on the poor middle aged sap of a victim as he cracked the guy’s skull against the floor.
Sam had made it through basically intact, except for the rough brick burn he’d gotten right through his clothes that still stings and makes him want to strip himself of his shirts and coat in the middle of the street and let the rain wash the loose skin and beaded blood away.
Dean steers them out of the rain and into a bar. Sam has a gnawing ache, a hole in his belly that’s a mile in diameter, and there’s not enough liquor in the world to cauterize it.
They both pause inside the door, taking a cool assessment of the room: the population and who might know how to handle themselves in a fight, the exits, if the tables and chairs can be splintered easily enough to be made into weapons in a pinch, and whether or not the exposed pipes running along the ceiling are bracketed well enough to support their weight. It’s an old habit, one that predates their training at seminary and stems from their father.
Sam veers toward the bar and orders a bottle of their top shelf whiskey and two glasses. He figures that they deserve it. It’s been a hell of a day off. His money is as damp as the rest of him, and leaves a stripe of water on the gleaming surface of the bar.
The bartender goes cross-eyed staring at the mark on Sam’s forehead. “Your money’s no good here, father,” he says, pushing the crumpled currency back in Sam’s direction. It makes Sam wish that he’d asked for a couple of bottles instead.
Dean is a hunched figure at a corner table, the hood of his coat pulled down so low that its edge almost touches his nose. A small lamp in the center of the table casts a shadow of Dean on the wall behind him, shifting and morphing and twice the size of life. He’s picking tiny shards of glass from the back of his hand and flicking them into the lamp’s flame. They sputter and send up small puffs of smoke.
With a gentle whack to his brother’s hands, Sam says, “Quit it. They’ll only lodge deeper.” He pours two fingers in a glass for Dean and the same for himself.
Dean knocks it back and takes charge of the bottle. Another shot goes down the hatch. He talks into the glass. “Demons lie.”
“I know that.” Sam tells him.
“Alright.” Dean nods, sucking his bottom lip into his mouth and chewing on it. “Good,” he says, case closed, tipping back in his chair and finally looking at Sam, like they’ve just now settled something, put an end to an argument that Sam hasn’t been aware of.
A woman sidles up to their table, a short apron covering an even shorter skirt, a flirty smile on her face and a hand pressed to the center of Sam’s torn up shoulders, making him wince and work to not flinch back. “You gentlemen doing alright over here?” she asks, taking a cloth to their already clean table. But then the light shifts just so and perhaps Dean looks at her in a certain guarded way, stretched backward so that the rosary around his neck and the handle of the knife tucked into his belt are both clearly visible. The woman snatches her hand away quicker than if she’d dipped it into boiling water.
“I’m sorry. I—I didn’t know,” the woman stammers, a bit too loud, because now the mood throughout the room is changing, going quiet, and people are looking away a little too quickly. This isn’t their usual watering hole, people aren’t used to them here. Any other day, and Dean might try to put her at ease with a smile and a joke, maybe a little harmless flirting, but this wasn’t any other day.
“We’re wearing out our welcome,” Sam says. It’s wasted breath, since the bottle has already disappeared inside of Dean’s coat, and his chair legs are scraping backward along the uneven plank floor.
Dean makes for the door, taking his time, definitely a saunter and not at all rushed, a clear challenge spoken with each slow stride. Sam plays the part of his shadow, close to his back. These people won’t start anything. They know better.
“C’mon,” Sam says, steering them away from their path home and toward the large open plaza that makes up the center of this section of town.
Dean recognizes his intention immediately. “Are you serious? Confession? Now?”
“It’s been a week,” Sam says. “They track it. We can’t break pattern now.”
A bank of confessionals stands along one side of the plaza, long lines of the penitent await their turn. Sam’s station allows him an in-person confession with an ordained priest, but that sort of false anonymity has always bothered him. He moves to the front of the line, another privilege, and one that he rarely takes advantage of.
Dean follows him, muttering and impatient, bitching under his breath about drive through salvation.
A confessional opens up and a man walks out, his hat clutched between his hands. Sam slides by him.
“Don’t take forever in there,” Dean grumbles as Sam closes himself inside. “And don’t say anything that counts.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Sam says. Half-truths are better than lies. Sam has been living with that sort of compromise his entire life. His conscience is a dangerous place. All trapdoors and hidden pitfalls.
The floor of the small box is filthy with the mud of a hundred different boots, the bench worn and sagging from countless kneeling petitioners. Narrow and confined, Sam has to duck his head to avoid the ceiling, draw his shoulders together to stop from bumping into the walls. Sam presses his identification number into the keypad, and the small screen above it begins to tick away, flashing his information: name, birth date, date and location of last confession, occupation: librarian. This last one always leaves a bitter taste in Sam’s mouth, to see the kind of life he’s lived summarized in such simple terms.
The monitor above his head jumps to life with flickering blue static, shifting to reveal the face of the archbishop, benevolent and smiling. The whole thing is prerecorded, responds to the sound of his voice and is programmed to act on certain keywords: lust, doubt, covet, greed. Sam could say any of them and have it be the truth.
Sam has just opened his mouth to speak when the door flies open and Dean yanks him out by his collar with a string of curses nasty enough to make a sailor blush. At the far end of the line of confessionals, two members of the church guard are ransacking booths, throwing people onto the ground, pulling back hoods and inspecting faces.
“This day just keeps getting better,” Dean says, pulling Sam’s hood over his head and leading them at a fast walk. “Suppose a hot shower and night spent in my own bed is too much to ask for.”
They stick to the shadows on their rush to get to Bobby’s, and approach the house cautiously. Bobby’s sitting on his porch, a still, dark figure, but Sam can pick up the shine of gunmetal, and isn’t surprised by the business end of a rifle aimed at his chest as they walk into the light, hands up.
“Damnit boys,” Bobby drops his aim, props the rifle against the doorframe and ushers them inside with a quick glance around. “Took you long enough.”
“Well aren’t you just a ray of sunshine?” Dean says.
Bobby fetches Dean up in a rough, back-pounding embrace, tosses him away and does the same to Sam. It’s terrifying, scares Sam more than anything he’s seen today.
Dean eases himself into a chair at the kitchen table, nods his thanks when Bobby puts a pot of coffee in front of him.
Bobby starts talking fast, moving around his kitchen, weapons, knives, pistols, a sawed off shotgun falling on the table as quickly as his words. “You two are going to be the death of me. You have to get out of here.” He throws an envelope on the table, money spilling out of it. “You’re going underground. And I mean literally.”
“Slow down,” Sam says, starting to wrap his head around the scope of the situation, what it spells out.
Bobby grips the counter with white knuckles, speaks with his back to them. “You were supposed to get in there and get out. Get the job done, not lollygag around.”
“It’s not like we stopped for tea and sandwiches, Bobby,” Dean insists, indignation rising to the top.
“Civilian life must be slowing you down, then. You’ve been made, boys. I heard a dispatch over the short wave less than an hour ago. Some guy said that two priests jumped him in an alleyway. He’s calling it amnesia, doesn’t remember anything from the last few days, but he remembers you two imbeciles.”
“We need to go to the patriarch. Or the bishop.” Sam says. “Confess. Explain—“
Bobby interrupts him. “What is there to explain? What you did was unsanctioned. You’ve landed in an ocean full of hot water and I’m the one who threw you in.”
“God grants forgiveness to those who repent,” Sam says by rote, and his statement hangs heavy and stale in the air. He’s trying very hard to believe it, but it’s not easy. Dean’s stare is fixed on the table, his hands tented in front of his face. Dean’s not looking at him and Bobby’s looking at him too closely.
“The big man’s the least of your worries. You’ve gone rogue, Sam.”
“But we were only doing our job,” Sam protests. “It’s what we were created to do. Our purpose.”
“Your purpose is to do what the church tells you to do. And right now, that makes you a bookworm and it makes Dean a butcher.”
Sam wants to argue, but his objections lodge in his throat. He’s heard the rumors. The war might have ended, but it didn’t end for everybody. Shell shock can be an vicious thing. Sometimes it makes priests go off the reservation, and sometimes they disappear.
“He’s right,” Dean says quietly from his place at the table. “We’ve gotta get out of here. You can call it a pilgrimage, if it makes you feel any better. Tell me you have a plan, Bobby.”
“It would be best if you split up,” Bobby says.
“Not gonna happen.” Dean isn’t protesting. It’s a statement of fact. Water is wet, the sky is blue, and he’s not leaving his brother.
“Shoulda known that was coming.” Bobby’s mouth twists into something that is almost a smile. “It’d be easier to split atoms.” He disappears into the study and comes back with a couple of rolled maps. The first is a layout of their sector. The second is as thin as tracing paper, and depicts a spider web of lines in red and blue and black.
Dean turns a wary eye to them. “I thought that the tunnels are closed off. Filled in. At least the ones that didn’t collapse when we got our asses handed to us during the last invasion.”
“Not all of them,” Bobby tells him. He traces along a black line that leads to the eastern section of the wall. “This one’s mostly clear. At least it was last time I checked.”
Sam follows the path of the tunnel. He should have thought of this. He’d been there hundreds of times. His brother too. It’s an artery that runs beneath Seminary and past the outer wall. Originally it was part of the catacombs that twisted and looped beneath the main church complex on the school grounds. Later, it was maintained as one of several underground escape routes out of the city, but that’s not what Sam remembers.
He remembers the hours he spent in the maze of them growing up. Sneaking down there with Dean, a smuggled bottle of whiskey they’d stolen from Father McSorley’s desk drawer tucked beneath his shirt, or sometimes it was the dark, thick red wine from beneath the communion table. Dean making shadow puppets on the walls, and Sam, too old for that kinda kid stuff but laughing anyway, lightheaded with booze and the feeling of Dean by his side. All those times he’d wanted to kiss Dean, and all those times that Dean might have let him, if only he’d been brave enough to try.
“We’ll have to blow the door down,” Dean quietly states. “Wouldn’t happen to have any spare C4 sitting around?”
“Got something even better.” Bobby rummages around in a drawer and comes up with a huge key ring. The thing looks like it belongs on a prison guard’s belt in some sort of ancient gaol, rather than in the drawer where Bobby keeps his forks and spoons. He flips through the keys and tosses one to Dean. With a smirk Bobby says, “Lex parsimonaie.”
“Occam’s Razor,” Sam provides as Dean frowns at the key. “The simplest answer is often the right one.”
“Smartasses,” Dean gripes. “Both of you.”
Bobby ignores the quip and continues, “The tunnel lets out right outside the city limits. Keep the wall to your left and you’ll come across the train that delivers to the outposts. You’ll have to lay low for a few hours. Don’t get caught. It only runs once a day and leaves out of there at first light, but you should be able to snag a freight car. Make it to Caleb’s.”
“We can’t dump this on his doorstep. He’s got a family now,” Sam states. Caleb fought with them. When the church released them from their vows, they were allowed, encouraged even, to leave the life behind. Build a new one. Most of them haven’t, but some have. Caleb is one of them.
“He’s a friend,” Bobby says, “and right now those are few and far between. He’ll take you in.”
“What then?” Dean asks.
“I’ll contact you when I can.”
“If you ask me, the plan seems a little half-baked, Bobby. Sorta like putting a band-aid on a bullet hole.”
“We need to get you out of the city. We need time,” Bobby insists, “and this buys us a little.”
Dean drags a tired hand across his mouth, the cuts on his knuckles standing in bright red relief against the pale skin on his hands. He looks at them and huffs a laugh. “Give us a few minutes to lick our wounds first, alright? Then we’ll be out of your hair.”
“I’ll get you some dry clothes. Lanterns. See if I can scrounge up some more money.” Bobby starts to leave the room, but pauses and slumps against the doorway. “I’m sorry,” he says.
Dean smiles at him; it’s a watery, world-weary thing. “Don’t be.”
Sam pulls a chair in beside Dean’s and produces a slender knife from his boot. “Here,” he says, hand outstretched. Glass and grit are still imbedded in his brother’s knuckles. Dean places his hand over Sam’s, their palms together. His fingers make a loose circle around Sam’s wrist.
Turning Dean’s hand toward the light, Sam takes the point of the knife to a gash. A small triangle of glass clinks as it lands on the table. Dean’s head is tipped close to his, his hair starting to dry and stand up in messy spikes and Sam wants to touch it. His palm is warm and his hand doesn’t shake, but panic beats a steady rhythm beneath Dean’s calm exterior. Sam tries to ignore it, thinks that it’s somehow cheating to read his brother right now.
Dean never flinches, not once. Not while Sam meticulously removes glass and dirt from his scrapes and cuts, and not when Sam pours a cap full of liquor over the mess. He strengthens his grip on Sam, his thumb tracing the skin on the inside of Sam’s wrist. “We’re gonna be fine. Don’t worry. Nothing’s gonna happen to you.” This is Dean’s ritual, a thing he’s said before nearly every battle that they’ve gone through, a spoken good luck charm of sorts. Perhaps a benediction. They can come in all forms.
Sam nods. They’ve faced worse, under meaner circumstances than these. “I know.”