Her long hair half hiding her face and her careful touch as her fingers cupped his cheek. Rough fingers to soft hands, nails ragged and palms cool.
He shouldn't be here. The reasons why danced somewhere beyond the fuzz of his grasp, and he decided it was due to the pain, because there was plenty of that, even though it was buffered. Despite the blankets of confusion he could feel heaped on his thoughts, he knew the reason to be morphine. The drug was wearing off, and he was distracted by his premonition of more pain lurking around the next bend. He shifted, and the whole world split and distilled down into his shoulder and pectoralis major. Jess' palm was suddenly against his forehead, and she was saying, "shhhhh, shhhhh." Sam could feel the wet slide of tears into the hair above his ear. Jess' thumb tracked circles near his temple, and Sam concentrated on staying still. After a while – minutes, seconds, hours? – the pain receded, and the morphine lapped back up over his harried senses. Sam had to catch himself from slipping into comfort, from concocting some soothing daydream out of these circumstances.
Jess' fingers were sliding through his hair.
Sam shook his head against the pillow, tried to align the tussling realities inside his mind. He heard his heart beating. Sharp, thudding.
"Don't even think about getting up," Jess said. Her voice was hoarse, reminding him of his mother. He tried not think about that anymore.
"Wasn't," he said. She took her hand away and he had to make himself not lean after it. "Where are we?"
"Infirmary," she said. "If you wanna call it that. This is where the Contra Costa militia's set up camp."
He pulled himself up with one elbow just far enough to look around, to see that there were three other cots in this infirmary, one of them occupied by a middle-aged man in a sweatshirt and jeans with his leg in a brace made of what looked like tent poles and velcro straps. He had an MP3 player with headphones covering his ears and his eyes were closed. The room was about the size of a high school classroom, which he surmised was what it used to be, after a cursory examination of the diagrams pasted to the walls and the best lab equipment that state funding could provide left on a desk that had been pushed into a corner. A former science classroom. There were warding sigils drawn in blue marker on the windows and his vision was still too blurry and his mind too jittery to identify them.
"So they found us?"
"A patrol was in the area, saw the smoke."
"Do they know what I did? What did you tell them?"
"They don't know how we made it out of there alive. Must be some kind of miracle, they think." His vision had cleared enough that he could see the bitterly ironic twist to her lips.
"Listen," she said, dropping her voice to a throaty murmur and bending closer to him in what he supposed from the outside would look a loverly manner if anyone was watching them. "You gotta watch what you say around these people. And I don't just mean it's the psychic thing or the Sliding Doors story that you gotta keep to yourself. You're a good Christian soldier, okay? You believe however dark things get, God has a plan for us."
"They some kind of fundie cult?" They'd left the biology posters up, even the obligatory one depicting the evolutionary stages of the homo sapiens.
"Not really, I don't think. But a lot of them have faith in something, some higher power, some destiny, and we need a story that will fit in here. Camouflage. You're still good at that, right?"
"What about my story?" he asked her again.
She hesitated, her eyes downcast and her frown dark and anxious.
"I did all the holy-water-and-silver tests while you were out. I do know that if you were just some shifter wearing Sam's shape, you wouldn't have been able to burn that last bozo to an ash pile."
He shuddered, tasting the grimy film that smoke and ash left on his tongue, the coppery residue of blood at the back of his mouth. "I don't know how I did that. I didn't mean to. It's never...it's almost never happened that way for me before. I panicked and it came out of me like...like a punch. I don't think that was ever a power I had, back in my universe." He didn't think so but he couldn't be sure; his deliberate exploration of his powers had been confined to what would be useful fighting demons, and as far as he knew they had only worked on demons. But there had been Azazel's other children and the things they could do...
And it made sense, didn't it, that a demon who so often killed with fire would pass that power along in his blood? The demon possessing Brady must've had it too because he had--
He swallowed the sour guilt threatening to flood his mouth when Jess met his eyes. Blinked, and unfocused his gaze. He'd felt something struggling against him, deep inside, when he'd accessed that power and he wondered if it could be the other him whose body he was possessing and who he was somehow keeping caged and gagged through subconscious will alone, or if it was something else inside him. Something tied to that terrible power, that vicious thrill that was truthfully more like an icepick than a punch.
"If my Sam is in your universe," she said, obviously following her own train of thought and still making him flinch as if she might've read his mind, "chances are he might not have come clean right away. He can be an idiot like that. And that means he's gonna be in danger, when your brother starts to suspect-- "
The door swung open on loud hinges that made him flinch and a woman came in; she had a bright and kindly face, Hispanic and middle-aged, and she was wearing a floral peasant top and jeans, with a long braid hanging down her back. Jess stood up and said a few quiet words to the woman before she introduced herself to Sam. Her name was Rosa and she was a nurse and she was there to give him a dose of codeine and a glass of water and to insist on helping him to sit up and swallow. He guessed that she had been the school nurse here. From the quick check over he gave himself while sitting up, his bandages had been wrapped and taped with professional neatness and he wondered how neat the stitches were. He didn't like the idea of leaving a permanent scar on someone else's body.
"Thanks," he said. "Thanks for everything. I can't tell you what I..." He looked at Jess, whose face was younger and softer and happier than he'd seen it since he'd crossed over. She was wearing a mask. It made the scars from the fire stand out more starkly. "God bless you," he said, stilted and hoarse.
"We're the ones who're thankful," she said. "Every extra pair of hands. Or hand, even, though I think you've been spared the nerve damage that...well, we'll pray for it. Your fiancé says you've made the crossing from out east and that means a lot of people with family stranded across the country are gonna be desperate for news, so I wouldn't get out of that bed until you're ready to run a gauntlet of questions."
Sam's heart juddered at 'fiancé .' He looked at Jess' left hand, even knowing that he wouldn't see a ring on her finger. Wondered why she hadn't said anything about it, in her brief suggestion of their cover story. Had that just been their default line? Was it ever real?
"I'm sorry but we're gonna be a disappointment," Jess said. "We stuck to back roads and camping on the outskirts of the no-man's lands as much as we could. Only made contact with some old friends who've never been big on keeping up with the outside world anyway."
"Don't feel like you're under any obligation," Rosa said. "We're here to help, no background check needed so long as, 'y'know, we're all just people here."
Jess wanted Sam to stay in the infirmary as long as possible, get out of answering questions, rest up while he could. But he couldn't hold still.
It was midmorning when he got out of bed and walked the halls of the high school-cum-militia-run refugee camp with Jess beside him. The place felt huge and empty and echoing to him even though they kept running into people, most of whom wanted to say something friendly, ask only a question or two about if they'd been through this or that city or county, which Jess always answered with a denial. Only maybe one out of three adults had the attire and bearing and weapons that he'd expect of an end-of-days militia. The rest could've been dressed for a shift at Target, if a bit ragged and in need of a shower, and they were skittering about with a soft, timid desperation, trying to keep busy. There were at least as many kids under the age of sixteen as adults and plenty of adults that didn't look old enough to be parents. That meant a lot of orphans. He kept hearing at least one kid crying somewhere in the building but never came across them.
All the windows were warded, sunlight filtering in irregular patches through the thick strokes of marker. He examined the wards and when it came to angels and demons and witchcraft whoever had drawn them seemed to know what they were doing; and then there were some he didn't recognize, except that he thought they were Mesopotamian and perhaps Assyrian and they were definitely old as dirt. He had no books and no laptop and that above all made him feel helpless.
There were posters on the walls advertising the drama club's production of The Crucible--performances starting 10/13/2012. That gave him something to work with, if he was constructing a timeline of this civilization's ongoing collapse.
The plumbing in the restrooms worked. The cafeteria served decent amounts of subpar cafeteria food. There was a garden in the courtyard and a greenhouse growing enough vegetables to supply a decent farmer's market. It could almost have been some kind of a half-successful commune experiment instead of a militia-run camp of apocalypse survivors.
In the cafeteria, eating macaroni and canned string beans, Sam got the known intel about the dirt-bike gang that had ambushed them from three members of the militia, Carl and Annabeth and Adam, all wearing a hodgepodge of army surplus clothing and gear, crosses and other protective charms hanging around their necks.
"They've thrown their lot in with one of the false gods," Annabeth said. "He's a damned lazy sonofabitch, makes them do his dirty work for him."
"Do you know which god?" Jess asked.
"Some horny Babylonian freak, I think. A weather deity who crawled out of the chaos last year with a taste for blood. Weak to stakes dipped in bull's blood, which we'll be packing. All his cult followers need is a bullet in the heart or head. Or a machete chop, which I hear you're pretty good at."
Jess smiled at that, like Annabeth had complimented the chiaroscuro light modelling on her painted zinnias.
"We'll get you suited up," Carl said.
"Yeah," Sam said, turning to Jess. "What's been salvaged of our gear?" She met his eyes for a moment, hers widening incredulously, her mouth parting, faintly mouthing 'no.'
"My fiancé here can't rotate his right shoulder or hold his arm steady," Jess said. "He can't use his gun hand."
"I can shoot with the other," Sam said. "I've managed like this before."
"Yeah, and while you were 'managing' you got hurt even worse."
"We're not exactly giving people physicals before they join up," said Adam. "You can point in the general direction and pull a trigger, you're in."
"But there's no shame if you can't," said Annabeth. "Just, whatever you work out, don't drag the couple's drama into the thick of it." She looked askance at Adam who rolled his shoulders back uncomfortably.
"Can we talk in private for a minute," Jess said, rising swiftly and stiff-backed from the table. Sam trailed her out of the cafeteria, let her pull him into a janitorial supply closet where they stood in darkness for a minute while she fumbled for the light switch. They could be kids brazenly sneaking around so they could hook up. An illusion that shattered when he looked down at her and saw the urgency on her face, the regret, the honest exhaustion.
"You know the arm isn't what I'm worried about."
He knew and he rationally shared her concerns and he was terrified besides. And yet.
"I can't let you go alone. And how will it look to these people, if I just opt out of a fight I kind of started?"
"Better than if they see you light a guy on fire with your mind. I get that these people come across all bay area friendly and open-minded, but you can never bet on who can handle the truth about this psychic stuff. And you're not exactly up to giving them a safe, controlled demonstration, are you?"
There was a history there, of course there was; this other him had done things that he needed to know about, whose consequences he had to face, and this fear throttling the questions he needed to ask was an unforgivable weakness. He had to find his way out of this maze, had to save Jess, had to get home to Dean.
"How did I--he--the other me...How did he learn to control it?"
"Years of training, not something you could lock down in a couple of hours."
"Training from who?"
"Another psychic," she said, "at first. Her name was Missouri and she saved our lives. After her, you learned from who you could when you could. There was never any school for gifted youngsters and it took you years to get as much control over it as you have--had...There were some accidents along the way." That meant that he'd hurt people, probably a lot of people. Maybe that was when Dean had left him.
"What are we doing here? I don't even know what mission we're on, what these visions mean, what's sending them. I'm walking into every situation blind. I'm no good to you like this and I have to...I mean, you need the other guy. You're right, I can't be him." Pain cracked the codeine's shutters and shot through his shoulder, a series of hot needle jabs.
"So don't be. Just sit tight here while I help these people, pay them back for what they did for us, and then we'll figure this Quantum Leap mess out. You said you'd do whatever I asked, remember?"
That hadn't been exactly what he'd said, but he couldn't seem to argue the point. Not after what he'd done, invading her life, impersonating someone she trusted, lying to her again.
He grasped for a practical concern.
"What about that dart gun you gave me? What were the darts laced with, dead-man's blood? Silver tips?"
"No, some spell work. It'll knock out pretty much anything."
"Who made it?"
"We stole it from a necromancer who was collecting some kind of zoological exhibit of the undead and other supernatural beings. Why?"
"I don't think this biker-gang-cult or whatever they're supposed to be are just humans. I saw one of them--his eyes flashed white for a second."
"Maybe. It was just a flash."
She shrugged, turned her head sharply aside, curtain of hair swinging across her face. She was looking at the door. He picked up on the faint beat of footsteps pacing outside it.
He followed her back out of the supply closet. He couldn't seem to do anything but follow her, follow her lead. It was shame and confusion and weakness, he thought; he felt so much guilt about what he'd done to her--this Jess and the other--and so much fear of this power inside him and what he could do that he was letting it paralyze him. He noticed this, but it didn't help, anymore than feeling like he was floating outside his body could actually get him out of bed on the bad days.
"We're holding a service," the man who'd been pacing, a young man with a bunch of bright floral tattoos on his arms, told them. He had a girl with him, her hair dyed bubblegum purple and she had the same pinkish baby face as him, maybe a sister. Another boy in a Lone Mountain logo'd sweatshirt had been holding his hand, standing now behind him, watching Sam with big nervous eyes over his shoulder. Had they heard something? "Say a few prayers or just have a moment in silence where we're all together. No pressure or anything; it's non-denomentational and you don't have to attend if you don't wanna."
"We'd love to," Jess said, smiling, a little too syrupy. "Wouldn't we?"
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, honey, it'd be great." He'd never called her honey before and he wasn't sure where it had come from. He ran a hand through his hair, familiar act meeting the unfamiliar sensation of his new haircut. What timeline divergence had led to his other self deciding to go a good three inches shorter?
The service was held in the school gymnasium and Sam counted roughly sixty-five people in attendance. It was hot and claustrophobic and some kid was crying in the crowd and Sam looked for them but couldn't pick them out. Sam bowed his head, went through the motions. Thoughts and prayers. He felt tired, worn and bruised like he’d been awake for a week. Jess looked the same, and he guessed that she was just going through the motions too but couldn't be positive. She'd been raised Catholic and when he'd known her had described her religious status as semi-lapsed-it's-complicated. That had resonated with him, somehow.
Outside, on the broad sweep of cement steps leading from the high school's main doors, the afternoon's boiling sun rebounding hot and heavy off the pavement. A row of Spanish style white stucco houses with broken windows and weedy, withered lawns across the street.
The militia men and women who were going on the raid said their goodbyes, many of them to children who were quietly sniffling, like they were used to this.
Jess brushed her lips against his cheek, fleeting as the flap of a butterfly's wings, and he felt the jarring and poignant rhyme with the last time he'd kissed her goodbye, before leaving with Dean for a few days and he had never again--
She piled with the others into three camo Jeeps with off-road tires and drove off into the dusty golden haze of afternoon sun and what was left of the suburbs, quickly vanishing around a left turn.