He was paging through memories of the list that Ruby, as he'd first known her, blonde and thorny as a goatweed and ensnaring him with the temptation of knowledge that had been withheld his entire life, had given him, a bullet-point overview of his mother's friends and family and the manner of their untimely deaths. He couldn't think of any great aunts.
"Yes. She went looking for you after the fire. She had her suspicions that it was connected to what had been happening to the rest of the Campbell clan, the legion of demons that had been coming for them...She offered to take care of you while your dad went looking for answers."
"What about Dean? Why'd he stay with Dad?"
"I don't know. This is all stuff I heard second hand and years after the fact."
If Dad had learned something sooner about Azazel and the blood and his plans for Sam and god knows what about the endgame then maybe it made sense that he'd want to take Dean away, to separate his one good son from the other.
"Did Dad ever try to get me back?"
"Yeah, when the heat died down from the feds, he tried. He tried several times. But your aunt--and she was the head of the family and the family would always close ranks behind her--she wouldn't give you up. She already knew a lot more than he did--or would for a long time--but she was never big on sharing what she knew with outsiders. Don't think that she just...She loved you. She was scared about Azazel's plans for you and she still....She wanted you to grow up right. She did her best. Helped you get into Stanford. She set herself up in Palo Alto and patrolled the campus along with her network. I got to know her pretty well during that time and after..."
He couldn't imagine it, this other life, this complete stranger he couldn't recall even ever having heard of taking the place of the family he knew. Taking Dean's place.
"And still people got killed. You got hurt. I made a deal with Azazel."
"People would've gotten killed no matter what you did by that point. He was never gonna leave you alone, Sam."
"It was your family, though. Yellow Eyes only went after your family because of me."
"He went after my family because we started hunting him. You and me, together. You didn't drag me down, okay? I jumped in both feet first, after Brady and Rebecca..."
"Why did I make a deal with him?"
"To save my life." She traced the river of melted skin from the knob of her cheekbone to the corner of her jaw. "If it makes you feel better, you didn't exactly take a strictly originalist approach to the terms of the arrangement. You couldn't kill him yourself...That was one non-negotiable stipulation of the contract--but you helped your brother do it. After your dad died and your aunt disappeared and you found each other again."
They were silent for a while. He was thinking about things he couldn't talk about. His body, the body he'd left behind. If he and the other Sam were trapped in here together, then back home his body had been emptied out and was either animated or not animated. He didn't know. He didn't know enough about how it worked, consciousness and all the ways it could be split apart, how it could exist in two places at once. Maybe he'd left behind a corpse for Dean to find. Maybe he'd left behind a monster. Which was worse? Which would be the greater danger to Dean? And what about Jack, who wasn't prepared to handle either?
Moonlight shimmered between the leaves of an oak. They trundled over another rocky hill and swerved back onto the highway, which was clear as far as their headlights and the paling pre-dawn sky could disclose.
"The Grand Coven--are we still in contact with them? Could we go to them for help with this--my situation?"
"We kind of had a falling out with the new head bitch in charge. She's got a big vision and she's taken things in a more... top-down direction. A lot of expecting everyone to play their assigned role in her game plan, pawn to e-4,or else you get the chop."
"She's not a redhead with a Scottish accent is she?"
"Yeah, how'd you know?"
"I know her, the other her. Maybe we can make some kind of a....trade to get her to at least share her books with us. Or maybe...maybe we could get to a Men of Letters bunker. Have we ever...?"
"I've heard of them from the coven." She gnawed on her lip, staring flinty-eyed down the road. "Maybe. I'll try anything to get my Sam back."
Dawn was welling in the sky by the time they'd returned to the paved streets of the suburbs. Big yellow sun burning away the last tattered pearly grey clouds, a peachy yellow shine bathing houses of tan and pastel stucco neatly boxed between greenery; smashed windows and tiles peeled off the roofs, shattered glass and clay scattered across the parched yellowing lawns, along with broken mailbox parts and stripped palm leaves and ferns and the husks of parched flowers and the knapweed and ragweed and spiny thistles the winds had raked from the earth. At least there wasn't the spill of rotting garbage; these houses had been emptied of people on a day when the bins hadn't been taken to the curb.
They pulled up outside the high school, which was in the same condition as the houses: tiles peeled from the roof, leaving jagged scars but no big holes, windows smashed and a rain of glass glittering across the pavement. Scattering of palm fronds and shards of palm trunks and branches from a couple of oaks that had loomed over the parking lot. Snapped electrical wires flying loose from the poles.
"Shit, the wards are down," Jess said. Sam got out of the Jeep and did a quick scope of the area. It was ominously quiet. No one had run out to meet them. He went over to Annabeth's Jeep and asked her if she had a functioning radio. She shook her head, stone faced.
"Somebody has to stay back and guard the kids," he said. "And our passengers...we can't be sure whose side they'll be on."
Annabeth agreed to stay and guard the Jeeps more easily than he'd expected considering that it was her home base that might be under attack. He wondered if Adam had been the only person she had left that she loved. Two other wounded members of the militia argued for coming along but only one of them was able to move agilely enough that they let him. He had a gun and no machete but he wouldn't be dissuaded. His name was Mathew and he looked like he might be a year or so shy of graduating from this school, face chalky white under the sunburn, badly shaken and bad at hiding it but still eager to help.
Sam and Jess and Mathew walked in through the front door, Sam with a machete and Jess and Mathew with guns out, covering him.
In the front entrance they found Carl and one other woman armed with shotguns and dead from bullets to the head, the fresh blood splatter dulled to a coppery sheen in the grey shadows. The lights were out and long rectangles of sunlight and shadow laid a grid. They continued walking through empty hallways, pushing open the unlocked doors to empty classrooms, until they reached the science classroom-cum-infirmary, where they were met by a cocked shotgun.
"Don't shoot!" Sam said both to Jess and to the young man who was staring them down over the barrel of the gun with cold green eyes. It was Daniel's fiance, Parker.
"Oh thank God," Parker said in a voice eerily devoid of emotion. He set the shotgun down on the counter with steady hands. He'd been making a kind of advanced Molotov cocktail out of sulfuric acid, potassium chlorate, a pinch of sugar, glass beakers and paper towels, and he already had two ready to go on the counter.
"Where is everyone?"
"Locked in the basement, the last securely warded place. There's four of them, they're trying to break in." He tapped the rim of a glass beaker. "I slipped away to here 'cause I'm better with chemistry than an ax."
He really was very good, not just at chemistry but at stealth; the softness and the wariness that Sam had seen in his brief glimpse of Parker with Daniel had been shed and he wore an icy calm, zipped up like a hazmat suit. He finished his Molotovs with Sam's assistance and then he led them to the stairwell that descended to the basement. It would all have gone to hell if the necromancers had been able to breach the basement door. They hadn't and they were clustered at the bottom of the stairwell, approximately five of them, who'd escaped the wrath of a god and come here for an abysmally pointless revenge.
Sam helped Parker pitch his Molotovs down the stairwell. They burst into white hot gaseous flames, the roar of the gasoline fire nearly drowned out by the screams. The necromancers fled up the stairs like rats scurrying out of a smoked-out hole. Jess fired her gun, standing a foot from his shoulder, the crack of the shot ringing in his eardrums, ringing for a long time afterwards.
Sam stepped close enough to a man on fire to feel the heat singe him, his arms so hot as he swung that for a second he was sure they had also caught fire. He stumbled back, looked down, saw that he was fine. He swung again in an executioner's down stroke at the last one, who was hunched over, making a noise that wasn't human. When it was over, his stomach heaved. He looked down the hall back at Parker, who looked grimly satisfied by the results of his work, and at Mathew, who was holding a fire extinguisher and looking horrified and so horribly young and so like Jack that Sam felt a fresh stab of guilt. After a few seconds Mathew unfroze and came forward to douse the burning corpses.
Parker walked down the stairs past the bodies, cupping a hand over his nose and mouth, his eyes nonetheless still perfectly calm. He knocked on the door and yelled a password. There was a long pause as the people on the other side of the door no doubt were calculating whether Parker was being coerced. Then the door opened up. Parker came face to face with a flashlight and a rifle. The rifle was lowered and he was pulled into a hug. He led the way back up the stairs with only a few men and women following him, carrying sawed-offs and switch blades and wearing expressions of shock and dread. It was several minutes of hushed conference before more people straggled up. Sam looked for Rosa and waved her over and told her they had wounded in the Jeep. Just past her, he saw that Daniel and Parker had reunited; they had their arms locked around each other and were leaning their foreheads together. Daniel's sister had made it over to them, and they pulled her into the hug. Sam's heart swelled briefly at the sight.
Sam and Jess and Rosa and Daniel and a couple others went out to the Jeeps. Rosa and Annabeth hugged and he finally saw tears spill down Annabeth's face. One of the women who'd been living in the necromancer's camp had been tied up, a bruise spreading like a starfish under her eye. She was glaring at no point in particular. Perhaps she'd tried to get inside. The other woman looked unsettlingly impassive, her eyes blank; she was holding the seven year old who'd started crying again.
They escorted or carried their patients into the infirmary. Sam was relieved to find that the bodies had already been moved out of the entrance hall and only the blood stains remained. He and Jess set broken bones and treated shock and dehydration and irrigated and stitched up wounds that wouldn't knit back together under an Ace bandage.
Watching Jess snapping elastic gloves onto her hands, long fingers as skilled with a scalpel or a needle as with a paintbrush--he could almost see the other Jess, the Jess who had never gotten to exist in this universe or the other, the woman who had lived long enough to find her place in the world, the woman who wasn't dead at twenty-two or condemned to live as a desperate and rootless wanderer, her dreams and her family swept away in the storm he'd carried into her life.
He'd tried to imagine it intermittently over the years. What would Jess think of him if she could see him now. Most of the time it had been a compulsive self-torturing exercise. Occasionally, he had imagined the reverse--picturing, in nebulous flashes, the life Jess should've lived, the life that had been stolen from her.
He didn't know how long it was before he succumbed to exhaustion and Rosa's and Daniel's prodding and left the infirmary in search of a place he could get some sleep. He stumbled out to the outhouses that had been installed in anticipation of the plumbing shutting down, as Rosa had told them had been happening with increased frequency over the years, despite the heroic efforts of the DWP skeleton crew. Back inside, he let his feet carry him into one of the restrooms, where the graffiti had been allowed to run riot, covering every wall and stall door and creeping like cobwebs across the ceiling. The sentiments expressed ran the gamut from every conjugation of 'fuck' and 'shit' that had been imprinted into the plaster despite attempts to scrub it off to excerpts from Yeats and T.S Eliot. He could hear a child crying across the barrier of a couple walls. He'd been hearing that noise a lot lately. He looked in the mirror, which was the reason he'd come in here without consciously intending to. He studied the face he was wearing, the strange angularity brought out by the shortened hair, the darker tan, the leanness, the mole under the left eye that was the product of exposure to a different sun.
He had never even tried to imagine what it would be like to possess someone, to invade them and pin down their consciousness and use them like they were just, well, just a suit of meat.
But he still didn't know because it wasn't like that, he hadn't meant to do it. He was trapped in here and he was just trying not to lose what little control he had over the situation.
He wandered down into the basement, fleeing the midday heat and the eyes that tracked him with ever increasing interest as talk about his role in recent events no doubt had started to spread. He found a cot that had been set up, half-barricaded by packs of emergency supplies. He laid down on the cot half-expecting a cruel trick in which sleep would elude him or he'd be immediately yanked out of it.
He dreamed. He was standing on the veranda of a mansion in the LA hills and the Hollywood sign was on fire and the sun smeared a bloody gash across the smoke and smog and a crowd was encircling him, watching with eyes of ruby and indigo and silver shining out of exhausted and somewhat emaciated faces, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning for just a word or two from him to tell them where to go and his heart was full with both pity and power. He raised his hands, palms spread, like a preacher. Blood trickled down his right wrist. The desert sands sprawled around him and he was flanked by rows of Joshua trees like an honor guard and he heard cymbals and carousel music at his back like the band was playing his walk offstage. He was descending a steel ladder into a tunnel of concrete and steel scaffolding and then he was in an underground bunker, a place both strange and familiar, and the sense of the walls pressing too close wound itself like fingers around his throat and his heart and he curled his nails into his palms and bit his tongue bloody until something cracked inside of him and the other took him in hand and by icy bands of will alone stopped him from flying to pieces. He was looking in a pewter-framed rectangle of dingy glass and it took him a moment to recognize that it was a mirror and in the mirror he was seeing a reflection, a face both strange and familiar like so many things seemed to be, a face he recognized, though not so cogently that the name came to him right then.
He woke up and heard a raspy, dry-throated gasp. It took him several seconds for his fuzzy vision to clear after he'd rubbed the grit out of his eyes. Jess was with him. She was sitting on a camp chair by his bedside, lit up eerily from below by the glow of a fluorescent lantern, and he wondered where she'd slept because she'd changed her clothes and she looked like she'd gotten some rest. Her bruises had faded till they were a dull violet with traces of red, no more distinct than her scars.
"How long was I..."
"At least fourteen hours," she said. "We couldn't wake you. It was...it wasn't good."
"Shit, I'm sorry." It didn't feel in his still achingly tired bones like fourteen hours had passed. His head spun a little as he gingerly sat up and his stomach squirmed.
"What did you see?"
A face he recognized from a photo he'd seen among the personal effects of a murder victim, part of the case he'd been working on the other side. A face that belonged to the man who'd been ritualistically butchered in front of the mirror that had yanked him out of his body and into another universe. Powerful magic, blood sacrifice.
"There's a man, where these visions are trying to lead me. I think he knows something that maybe...maybe can get me back home."