Pulling into the motel parking lot, the rain was a deluge hitting the windshield straight on until it was like driving into a wall of water. Then he got out of the car and just like that it was over, like turning off the showerhead, only a trickle of water into his shirt and a mist in his hair and the uneven asphalt impossible to walk across without puddles soaking his ankles.
He opened the motel door to silence, strangely enough, as the first thing he saw was Jack's face shining at him from the laptop screen, on Skype. The laptop on the table and Dean standing next to a pulled out chair, like he'd sat down to listen to what Jack had to say and then gotten up to pace. His face, when he turned as Sam walked in, wore a tired scowl, a glint of annoyance in his eyes, nothing more.
"Hi Sam," Jack said, quickly. "It's good to see your face."
"Kid's been tyin' up the line the last half an hour. Wouldn't hang up until you got in," Dean said. His tone was mild, the grimace relaxing around his mouth but there was still a tightness written across his brow and in his eyes and in the curl of his fingers. A Styrofoam cup on the table, the coffeemaker light on. "Tried to tell him it's a quarter past ten in Lebanon, so go the fuck to sleep, and he goes off about time dilation and the theory of relativity. You know he gets that from you, right?"
"Jack, is anything...wrong?" He pushed back the wet hair plastered against his face. Cold water was still sliding into the neck of his shirt, making him shiver.
Jack's eyes looked over-bright, slightly bloodshot. His face was pale as milk. His lips compressed and he dropped his eyes briefly before he spoke. "You've been gone for a long time. I'm...lonely."
"We're real sorry about that, Jack. You know we won't stay a day longer than we have to."
"But then you're just going to leave again, aren't you?" Was it only him projecting or was there something calculating in Jack's forlorn tone, his perfect expression of little-boy-lost?
"Maybe, maybe we'll want you around on the next job." He tried to match Dean's level of weariness, a hoarseness in his voice and a grimace tugging at his mouth. "No promises." Did that sound cold? Did that sound like his father? "But you really need to sleep. It'll all look better in the morning, promise." What else was he supposed to say?
"Okay," Jack said, blinking and swallowing rapidly. "Goodnight, I guess."
Dean logged off Skype, flipped the laptop shut. He wet his lips, a furrow appearing in the center of his forehead. He looked honestly puzzled and he raised one shoulder in a slight shrug as he backed up from the table. So maybe Jack hadn't told him everything and maybe he hadn't put the pieces together yet, but it was only a matter of time.
"Whad'ya got?" Dean asked, spreading his hands with a gingerly roll of his tense shoulders.
"I think you're right," he said. "I got nothin' on the microfiches, I don't think this goes back any earlier than the Huntsmans, at least not in this county. But I think you're right about what's doing it. About the kindly ones. That sigil you showed me, I found a match in the bunker archives, from a case in Castille in the '30s, during the Spanish civil war. A family divided against itself, betrayal, bloodshed, pretty common on the ground at the time, but an American journalist documented the unusual manner of their deaths and recorded interviews with two of their sons in which they talked about being haunted by hissing voices, screeching about guilt and vengeance, dreams of bat-winged, snake-haired women, and neither of them were classics scholars...and our chapter house got wind of it, but couldn't confirm what they they thought was happening because relations with the Spanish Chapter broke down, given the, uh, political climate at the time..." He was relieved to see the wandering look in Dean's eyes and the fidgeting of Dean's hand, picking at the rim of the Styrofoam cup, that told him Dean was skimming past this bullshit as blah blah history, only registering that Sam was agreeing with him and moving on to immediate and practical concerns. "Anyway, if it is what we think we don't have a ton of options," he said. "The best lore we've got was probably employing some dramatic license, but the one thing our sources agree on is that it takes another god to even tag these things. And if we have to turn to a god, I think Apollo would be our best bet. I mean, we kinda did his sister a solid, awakening her dormant conscience or whatever."
"She probably remembers that very differently, considering her daddy and her lover died." Dean dropped his eyes to the side, swallowing thickly, slight shift of his weight onto the ball of his back foot. He looked up at Sam again. "Anyway, he's a douchebag god and even when they're in your corner it's usually with a friggin' monkey's paw, so let's hold off the God of War play until we've hit the wall on better ideas, okay?"
"Yeah, maybe you're right," he said, just as blandly.
There was a strained silence between them in which another car slicked across the rainwashed parking lot and the car door was drunkenly slammed and the coffeemaker gurgled and Dean ripped a strip of Styrofoam off the lip of the cup.
"We blew through all our spare change last night. And we're probably gonna need fuel for another all nighter before this is over. So I'm gonna head over to that casino--"
"I'll go with you."
Flash of his tongue between his teeth as though in thought and then his mouth quirked. "Somebody should be keepin' an ear on the scanner," Dean said.
"Somebody should be watching your back."
"I'll be safe as houses, Sammy." He set the cup down. "If these hags haven't put us down as natural-order violating kin-slaying traitors yet, there's obviously nothin' more we could do 'round here that would put a target on our backs."
"I meant the casino. Cameras covering every inch of you, bouncers packing heat. We try not to do casinos, remember?"
"Yeah, we try not doing a lot of stupid shit, and yet somehow--" His smile was half a grimace, his eyes round and over-bright, and for a moment he had a strange resemblance to Jack. "Don't wait up. You need that beauty sleep more than ever, princess."
Sam listened at the door to the sound of tires slicing through five inches of rainwater, then he pulled his phone out and called Jack. "What did you tell him?" he asked, flat, voice so devoid of intonation it astonished even himself.
"Nothing," Jack said. "I just wanted to see if you're okay, to look at your face because I've been doing some reading and I thought...I wanted to see if you're still...I wanted to check if Dean was okay or if he was different too."
"Wouldn't a different Dean be an improvement?" Sam asked. "Then he might not want you dead."
"Dean doesn't want me dead," Jack said. "He just--"
"He'd be happier if you were never born." He heard shaky breathing on the other end of the line.
"This isn't you," Jack said.
"Kid, you've known me for how many days now? Hell, as of last Tuesday you were convinced I was just using you for your powers."
"No," Jack said. "We talked and you told me you weren't and you weren't lying about it. I'd have known if you were lying. I'm sure about that now...I've been practicing..."
"Is that right? Maybe I was lying to myself. I do that a lot. Or maybe I'm one of those people who suffers from the delusion that they can re-write their own fucked up backstory by having a kid."
Jack was silent. It wasn't quite clear if Sam had put another dent in the battered tin of the kid's hopeless faith and he didn't much care. He had bigger problems that he was choking on, suddenly.
"Goodbye Jack," Sam said and hung up. He ran his hands over his face and through his hair and he paced around the room, thoughts racing. He had to get out, he had to get out now, and fuck Dean and fuck Notaras and fuck the Furies, he was done with over-thinking this, he was going to do what his instincts were screaming at him to do because his instincts could not be wrong, not now, when they were unclouded by irrational childish feelings; he wasn't panicking because he was incapable of panicking. Running was the only sane and logical thing to do.
He got as far as checking out the contents of his wallet when he heard the Impala pull back up. What could Dean have done in ten minutes inside the Impala? Picked up a weapon of some kind? A taser? He faced the door, standing five feet back from it, waiting, loose limbed stance subtly ready for a fight or ready to bolt, mind ping ponging between his shitty options.
"You can put one down in your little black book of 'times I told you you were right'," Dean said. "It was stupid, thinking of going into a casino alone. Like I hadn't learned a damned thing from Reno in '07. That got me thinkin' about Reno and Reno got me thinkin' about, well, check this out." He held up their dad's journal. "Guess what's on page thirty-six." He chucked it across the room and Sam, startled beyond thought to see the journal so cavalierly handled, caught it in both hands. He knew the second he'd done so that it had been a mistake. He was immediately, nauseatingly, incapacitatingly dizzy. He dropped to his knees, journal tumbling out of his hands, spine cracking open and a hex bag rolling out. Cold sweat mingled with the rain water dampening his face. He retched. He felt an immense weakness rushing through all his limbs. His vision blurred, the edges of things dissolving into slippery grey then the grey receding into black. He couldn't sleep but he could be rendered unconscious. He remembered that, Dean beating him unconscious and what an unpleasant surprise that had been.
When Sam came around, he was in the backseat of the Impala, lying on his side with his hands cuffed behind his back. He sat up and looked at the clock, neck jerking painfully. About an hour had passed, it was 8:23 PM. That was some powerful mojo. He was impressed. "What did you roofie me with?"
"Hex bag. You're not the only one who can crack a spell book." His voice was not panicky. Frustrated, maybe, but controlled as if Dean was trying hard not to shout.
"Pretty nasty, whatever was in it."
"Not as nasty as a taser so you should count yourself lucky."
"Did Jack narc on me?"
"He didn't have to." In the rearview mirror shadows shifted deep around his eyes.
"Didn't he? You're not usually so quick on the uptake."
Dean didn't rise to this this bait. Sam looked out the window for a little while and noted the road signs.
"You're going after Notaras," he said.
"Damn right I am. He's gonna put you to rights and he's gonna die."
"Solid plan," Sam said. "But he's a lot more powerful than you realize. You can't take him on alone."
"We'll see." Flat, no bravado.
"He's probably already gone," Sam said. "He wants us to summon a god and he doesn't want to be around for it."
"That what he told you? You went to see him?"
"So he stole your soul so he could use you as his puppet. Typical." So that was the conclusion Dean had jumped to, a logical enough inference. Sam couldn't see any benefit in correcting it, so let it be.
"You should be going after the kindly ones instead. Worry about the state of my immortal soul later, when innocent--when people aren't being killed."
Dean wouldn't respond to Sam's questions or provocations the rest of the way to Notaras' cabin. Upon their arrival, Dean got out of the car, went around to the backseat, opened the door. He now had a taser in his hand.
"Spare me the 'don't make me hurt yous'," Sam said, sliding off the seat. He walked ahead of Dean right up to the front door of Notaras' cabin, the windows all dark and no noise but the spitting waves. Dean pushing him first towards the front door of an enemy might make tactical sense but still felt unnatural, not that he cared. He was just a little concerned by Dean's refusal to look at the big picture when it didn't suit him.
"It's not locked," Sam said. Dean reached around him and unlatched the door, opening it to near complete darkness. Dean switched on the light on his phone and looked around. The place had undergone a major decluttering, clearing out photos and memorabilia, cobwebs and spiders. Switching on the lights, they checked out the kitchen and no surprises there, the boline knife, the herbs, all implements that could be used for spellcraft, and all traces of the demon's host Notaras had incinerated had vanished. The bedroom and bathroom and mudroom and storage closets looked likewise lived-in but tidy, recently vacated, but not suspiciously so to any eyes but theirs. No spiders anywhere. They must be some sort of familiar of his.
"Fuck," Dean said, rubbing the heel of his right hand against the socket of his left eye.
"He's gone and faked his death," Sam said. "He was planning on leaving a corpse behind, so he's probably doing it up at the Seminary where he'll be found a lot sooner. I don't know that we have a shot in hell of catching up with him but if we're gonna try we should--"
"No," Dean said, squaring off like Sam hadn't simply made a helpful observation. "Don't you try and make me think that we're on the same side here. I'm not makin' that mistake again."
"I don't wanna get used by him anymore than you do."
"You tried to get me to go along with what he wanted, summoning a god for fuck knows what real reason--"
"I'm the one whose soul is being used as a hostage here."
"Do you want it back?"
He didn't know why it should come as such a surprise, Dean suddenly asking him that.
"No," he replied, too quickly, without first calculating whether it would be worth it to try to lie, whether Dean would just swallow what he wanted to hear.
"You--the real you--wanted it while you had it."
He rolled his eyes and his shoulders, trying to relieve the tension that was building in his rotator cuff. "I wanted to want what I was supposed to want because having a soul made me desperate and pathetic like that."
"You told me it was better at the start of your first go-round and I know that you were scared of the whole Jacob's Ladder trip but you kept grinding through it and--"
"What do you care?" Sam's whole body tensed; his breathing sped up. His fingers curled tightly into his palms. The handcuffs bit into the tendons of his wrists and his radial artery. "What does it matter to you whether I want it or not? You don't care about me--not this me--and you never really have. And don't give me some shit about morals and me being a danger to society. You know I've done a lot more damage with a soul than I've ever done without one. You don't care whether I'm good or bad, big brother, you just need me to need you. Now I don't."
Dean pressed his eyes shut for a second, sucked in a breath. "And what about the other you? You're happy to let your own soul be some psycho manwitch's hostage forever, god knows what he's even doing with it--with him--with you?"
"At least this way one of me gets to be happy."
"You can't be happy. No full spectrum of human emotion for you, buddy, remember?"
"Well, then I won't mind if I'm not happy because I won't think that I'm supposed to be, which is still a leg up over where I was before."
Dean shook his head, tight-lipped and pale, sleep-deprived shadows sinking deeper into his eye sockets. "Fuck this existential shit, this isn't up for debate. We're going home."
Dean driving, Sam in the backseats again because Dean must think the passenger seat wasn't secure or that Sam would try and crash the Impala or something. Town lights faded into the dark of the rearview and Sam's thoughts darkened with them, turned uneasily over and over, seethed. Under him the swell and lift, dip and curve of the highway and the spin of the Impala's tires over the roughening wet pavement. On the radio, finally, the night-shift newscaster was breaking the story of another attack, this one a double homicide in the yard of the local penitentiary; the only report coming out was that a feral animal had gotten on the premises, somehow. There was video footage but it wasn't being released. Sam was mildly curious about that fact.
"So our girls have found themselves a prime hunting ground," Sam said. "Really puts things in perspective, doesn't it?"
"I've just gotta get you locked down and then I'll take care of it, I'll take care of all of it." Sam saw Dean's face go dazed and dejected for a split second, before he glowered and canted his head away, checking his sideview for no reason.
"You're more scared of me running away from you then you are of people dying," Sam said.
"I can't do the job when I've gotta keep one eye out for you every goddamned second." Dean navigated the Impala around a pothole filled with water so deep the car oscillated sideways when the right rear tire sank into it. Out of the pothole with a lurch, speeding forward a few feet and then slamming on the brakes, so that Sam was nearly bent in two, pain lashing through his shoulders and neck. He straightened up, looked out the windshield. Dean was slamming the popped open glovebox shut and then he was slamming the car door, getting out, walking with one arm extended, raising a gun. It was Notaras, of course, standing several yards down the highway, beyond the full glare of the Impala's headlights. Just enough light still coming from the pearly clouded bowl of the sky that Sam could see he'd shed his priest's skin; he was tall and dark and curly haired and wearing a royal blue anorak, but Sam had no trouble identifying him and going off his response, neither did Dean.
The yelling started straight off, too muffled and distant to understand what they were saying but it wasn't just Dean raising his voice. Sam climbed into the front seats, banging his knee a couple times, and when he was sitting in the passenger side he banged his knee several more times against the underside of the glove compartment until it popped open and the maps spilled out. He rifled through the maps with his feet until he found one with a paper clip attached. He grabbed it between his feet and he drew up his knees until he could deposit the map on the seats. Then he bent over sideways and rolled onto his back so he could get his hands on it, felt for the strip of metal, plucked it off the map, unbent it and used it to pick the cuffs. In the minute it took him to accomplish this the yelling never faltered. Dean hadn't left the keys in the ignition, but no matter. He got out of the car, popped open the trunk and grabbed a gun, checked the clip to make sure it was loaded with witch-killing bullets.
He slunk towards Notaras and his brother, hovered behind Dean, watching over his shoulder.
Dean fired his gun and it was wide of a kill shot but still a reckless thing to do, and again Notaras froze the bullet in mid air.
Sam's bullet went straight into Notaras' left thigh in that second's window of distraction Dean had provided.
Dean swung around and aimed his gun at Sam. Sam raised both hands, still holding his gun, not the least bit concerned.
"Neither of us is about to risk spilling the blood of our only blood kin," he pointed out, "so could you chill?"
Dean lowered the gun a fraction, looked back towards Notaras, who had fallen to his knees. A pained grimace contorted his darkly olive-complected features, then they smoothed out, and he rose to his feet as smoothly, pulling the anorak aside and Sam could see no blood on his trousers, only a small rip where the bullet had gone in. And now the bullet was sliding out and up, rising to hover in front of Notaras' nose. He pinched it between index finger and thumb. He didn't have a scratch on himself. Sam had the slight satisfaction of having forced him to show his hand in this one respect.
"Who are you?" Sam asked.
"What are you really after?" Dean said at almost the same moment.
Notaras tilted his head slightly towards Dean, answering only him. "I don't like it when people die. It's really not that complicated."
"No," Dean said. "Not you. You--whatever you are--you're Methuselah-grade ancient." (Sam was a little surprised by Dean's making this reference, but maybe he felt that one of them should and if Sam, in his mind, wasn't really here to be the mythology nerd he would have to cover it) "No way you give a damn about this one town. You're an old hat at dying and letting the folks who thought they knew you cry their hearts out. You couldn't do that if you really put down roots, if you had a family. This life was just a pit stop for you." So Dean had been listening to what Sam had had to say about Notaras and had put some things together. Sam was pleased and then wondered why he should be pleased. He was on no one's side here but his own.
Notaras inclined his head ever so slightly, an almost-sad smile curving his mouth, looking up at them from under heavy eyelids. "Fine. You want a story, I'll give you a story. It starts with that knife my Thomas used to cut his own heart out." He ambled towards them as he started blithely monologuing, his arms crossed low over his chest, his head hanging down. "He stole it from me after we had a falling out. It's been stolen many times over. Most notably, for the sake of this narrative, by the Men of Letters--agents of the British Chapter, who, during the Galipolli campaign, seized it from Ottoman possession. A couple decades later on the eve of another war an American liaison was able to persuade the Brits to let him take it back to his chapter house for study. A Mr. Ralph Montgomery Sinclair. If you're not familiar with him, you must at least have some passing acquaintance with his family, I would imagine." He was standing now a few feet from the two of them, vertex of an equilateral triangle. "A long line of gifted individuals who've made their mark since they were able to swindle their way to the King's charter for an outsized parcel of land in the Virginias. The lot of them have remarkable powers of persuasion, even when they're born without the gift. Ralph Montgomery definitely had it. He also had no intention of returning the knife and little interest in using its power to assist the war effort. He might've had some ideas about, ah, putting America first. I hope you can understand why I didn't consider the knife safe in his hands. Or in the keeping of any chapter of the Men of Letters. No offense to your forefathers, but the organization has proven rather weak to infiltration."
"Yeah, by sonsofbitches like you." Dean's glare could peel paint.
Notaras pursed his fleshy lips. "There was nothing truly two-faced about my time with the Men of Letters. I was as good a prescriptor, chronicler and custodian as any. I was fond of them, I admired them for all their faults, but I knew that they would not have welcomed me into their order if they knew my true nature. And I knew that I had gotten in anyway--more than once. So I knew they were vulnerable to outside interests or to corruption from within by men like Sinclair. So I seized the knife for safekeeping. I've been around long enough to be witness to the harm it can do in the hands of the wrong men. The knife offers great power but it requires sacrifice to wield it. Blood sacrifice."
"Blood but also the soul," Sam noted, with a dawning sense of familiarity.
"It's...hungry for what it can get. It only takes a little spilled blood to start getting results, but people seldom seem able to stop once they get a taste for its power." This story was starting to hit a little too close to home and he suspected that Notaras meant it to.
"And once you, ah, confiscated it, you never thought about making a swing by Mount Doom?" Dean asked.
"No, because once again, this world is not as simple as you like to think. Malum quidem nullum esse sine aliquo bono. I don't go in for total abstinence. It would be sheer selfish stupidity so long as my enemies are--" Hesitation rippled across his placid features for a second.
"Where's the knife now?" Sam asked, looking at Dean, whose jaw tightened and who wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Safe in your brother's capable hands," Notaras said. "You'll be needing it." And then, like a true thespian, continuing his tale as if no interruption had taken place,
"Last year, the British Men of Letters came to our shores and got a lead on the knife for the first time in seventy years. They didn't quite make it to my front door but their scrying did send several agents to my neck of the woods and one of them made it inside town limits despite my obfuscating wards. I was unsettled not only because of the knife but because of Thomas. He burned so bright he'd skew any amateur's tracking spell. His presence was almost as hard to mask as the knife's. I was afraid of what they might discover about him. Of what they might try to do to him. I'm sure you can appreciate how desperate--"
"Not really." Sam shrugged. "They're just humans."
He saw annoyance flash across Notaras' face before he turned his head aside, tightened his arms around himself, long obsidian eyes looking aslant at Sam. "I was afraid that Thomas' gentle nature and the religious principles that I'd helped to instill in him might make him reluctant to defend himself."
"But what about you? Did you gank just the one man or...?"
"No, I didn't kill him. What would that have solved? Then it would've been a dead certainty that there was something to uncover here and more would've come..."
"Couldn't you have handled whoever they sent after you? Mowed them down until they gave up? It worked like a charm for us."
He tilted his head to the side and raised his eyebrows, incredulous. "I believe in harm reduction. So no, I did not consider mass slaughter my first and best option."
"Then let's have it," Dean growled, making a twitchy gesture with his gun, practically tapping his foot. "What did you do to him?"
"I simply tried to modify his memory so that he'd believe that he had raked this town over inch by inch and had turned up nothing but an interesting intersection of ley lines that were giving off a false positive. Unfortunately, it got a little hairy. His mind had already been tampered with: I found false memories and planted impulses that I had carelessly knocked down in places, creating a jumble of contradictions and doubled consciousness. The effects were...regrettable. I did my best to reconstruct him but you know how it is. You can put a shattered mind back together but you can never put it together the same way twice. I had to knock down more segments before I could build something structurally sound over the ruins. It was time consuming and I had to put everything aside to concentrate on my task, which I hadn't anticipated. And so Thomas came looking for me and found me in the middle of this...surgery. Well, you know how surgery looks so like butchery to the untrained eye. Thomas was shocked and dismayed. I did my best to explain, but when I told him about the knife he leapt to the worst possible conclusion. He thought I was performing a non-consensual lobotomy on an innocent man because I didn't want to give up my stolen power. I tried to tell him I was doing it for him, but, well, he wouldn't speak to me for several months after that. Eventually, he left the Seminary." He raised his head and looked at them directly, his eyes large and liquid and sorrowful. "You can see why I would feel responsible for what he did and why I want to make amends now."
"You've got a damned funny way of going about it," Dean said. "You could start by giving my brother his soul back." So, Sam noted, in all that yelling Notaras really hadn't tried to tell Dean the truth, he was holding on to this illusory leverage.
"No, I can't. I can't simply snatch it back, not where his soul has been cast off to. I simply haven't the power. But I know someone who does. I'll bargain with him if you accompany me." This was the one thing Notaras had wanted to avoid, that he had seemed afraid of, so he must be truly desperate now. Or maybe he'd just worked out how he was going to use the two of them as shields or bargaining chips.
"What happened to the Brit when you were done with him?" Sam asked. Out of the corner of his eye he caught Dean looking askance at him, surprised that Sam would care to ask about that.
Annoyance and impatience rippled across Notaras' features again, twitch of a muscle in his lean cheek and his lips compressed while he swallowed those feelings down, before speaking in a tone of obviously forced patience. "I'm afraid I had to send him away, far away. His compatriots would have recognized the subtle shifts in his personality if he spent too long back in their company. So I made him believe that the Elders had been in touch personally, given him a mission that could only be carried out in secret since none of his fellows could be trusted, and he booked the next flight to Hong Kong. He is investigating that chapter house, the one that was established after the second Opium War and dropped off the map sometime after 1941." His lips twitched for a fraction of a second, perhaps in suppressed amusement. "It's practically another Roanoke."
"And he never came back?"
"He wouldn't dream of it until his mission is completed." That meant never, Sam was certain.
"Then as far as the Brits know he's a deserter," Dean said. "Hell, they probably think he found the knife and did a runner with it."
"Oh, but you decimated their ranks, remember? They have more pressing problems at the moment than one renegade mage with a soupçon of talent. As do you."
Sam felt Dean's sidelong gaze lingering on his face and returned it, and for the moment that their eyes met he knew they were improbably enough on the same page, calculating whether it would be worth it to get close to Notaras, the three of them coming together in yet another unwanted unnatural alliance to find out who was going to stab whom in the back first.
"Alright," Dean said. "We're in."