therapeutic thump

i like your moxie, sassafras!


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"Only Opens from the Inside" (3/4) NC-17; Sam/Sarah, Sam/OMC
the boys hold each other up
innie_darling
(2/4)


On the map, the distance between Gutierrez's place and Hell's Kitchen didn't look all that big, but Sam had forgotten, had failed to take into account the way New York threw up resistance against tourists. The sidewalks are cracked and bumpy, littered with garbage and full of natives, people who walk briskly and confidently as they talk on their cell phones and make plans on how to spend the rest of the night. There's no point in saying "excuse me" every time he bumps into someone; they wouldn't hear him in the first place and they'd just look at him like he's crazy if they did, because jockeying for position is a way of life, the only way to get by here.

Harlem melts away around him and he starts taking notice of the storefronts and signs that are being illuminated as the daylight fades. It seems like every third sign is for a Sammy something - "Sammy's Deli," "Sammy's Nails," "Sammy's Famous Salon" - and Dean materializes out of nothing but memory, clear as day in front of him, wearing that infuriating and comfortingly familiar smirk, thumping his chest and flicking his fingers out in a peace sign to mimic the infamous Sammy Sosa salute. Dean loved to run his jokes into the ground, and that one had stopped being amusing maybe the third time he did it - or at least it would have stopped being amusing had Dean not expressed such genuine glee every damn time.

Manhattan's only eight miles long; he remembers hearing that somewhere, and it feels true because his legs are eating up the sidewalk, and before he even has time to think about what he can offer Joe Connor, if Connor has something useful for him, he's smack dab in the middle of Hell's Kitchen, making his way through lines of people hanging out and waiting to be seated at the restaurants that haven't got liquor licenses, their breath curling into the air as they shuffle and stamp their feet in an effort to stay warm.

He cuts through the lines, ignoring all the "hey, buddy"s and the "watch it, asshole"s he's offered, checking the street signs at every corner to make sure that he hasn't gotten turned around somehow; it's been so long since he's walked in a proper city, a place with homeless people curled up in every spare corner while the streets are jammed with taxicabs and limousines. A white stone building catches his eye, standing out from its red brick neighbors, and a sign informs him that he's found the Columbus Branch of the New York Public Library. If he hadn't slowed down to read the placard, he would have missed Mary Kelly's, two doors down and not doing a lick of advertising.

He has to jiggle the doorknob just to get in, but the warmth inside feels fabulous against his cold, stiff face, and he hastens to seal the door shut behind him. There's a loud chorus of groans coming from the corner, and he looks over, ready to apologize for letting cold air in, when he realizes the men huddled there are exclaiming over a hand of poker - Texas Hold 'Em - and could not care less about what he's doing. There's one seat open, right in the middle, and a beer holding the missing guy's place; it doesn't look like an invitation, so he moves on.

The bar top is wide and shining, and behind it is a girl who looks so supremely disconnected from the world, from the bar, from the card players in the corner and the scattered drinkers lifting mugs of foamy beer and plain shot glasses to their lips, that Sam wonders if she can possibly be for real. She must be living on tips; she has to smile to make a couple bucks. She's not cleaning glasses or wiping down the bar or doing much of anything when he approaches; she just looks at him with a flat gaze. Closer up, Sam can see, even in the cozy, dim yellow light of the bar, her long dark hair, caught up in a ponytail, is a shining navy blue, and there are navy blue lines fanning out from her watchful dark eyes like tattooed crow's feet laid over her clear brown skin. The effect is vaguely tribal, but everything about her discourages any kind of personal comment, so he just walks directly up to her, slings his heavy bag off his aching shoulder, and states his business. "I'm looking for a guy named Joe Connor," he says, keeping his voice pitched low enough that only someone bent on eavesdropping could overhear him.

"Are you."

"Yeah. So does he work here? Is he around?"

She turns away to serve one of the customers who's come to the bar, and for a second he suspects her of drawing the guy up there just to have an excuse not to answer him. But she pours another shot and fills a fresh beer glass without even asking what the guy wants, so Sam figures the guy's a regular. She moves back to face Sam dead on when she's done, but before he can repeat himself, there's an uproar from the corner where the card players are gathered. The empty seat's been filled by a big hulk of a guy, who must have won that round, given that the others are pushing their money toward him with rueful grins tinged with admiration.

The bartender steps out from behind the bar to bring the card players another pitcher, and from this new angle, Sam can see that her body is chunkier than her face had indicated, a little bottom-heavy, and she's wearing heavy, scuffed boots that look like she's spent her entire life in them; Dean would love this girl. Just the thought of his brother gets him twitching again, and he catches her arm, soft under his fingers, as she heads back to the bar with a tray bearing the empty pitcher.

"I said I'm looking for Joe Connor," he repeats, voice a little louder this time, and the guys in the corner stop their card game to look up at him speculatively.

A light, familiar voice speaks up behind him. "Well, then, this must be your lucky day, Sam, because you found me." He spins, and there behind the counter is Jo Harvelle, face flushed and her dark lipstick looking a little smudged. Her smile doesn't quite reach her eyes, and he catches sight of a ring on her left hand when she raises it and runs it through her hair. "What do you want?"

*

When he'd been on the rampage, Meg inside him filling every crevice in his soul with her poison, and scented Jo on the air and headed for Duluth, he'd found her so intoxicating. The fear in her eyes as he loomed over her had been unspeakably delicious; the way she'd gotten herself so tangled in Dean that she couldn't see that he wasn't Sam just made everything easier. He'd thought the lust that had spiked through him belonged to Meg, and had done his best to push aside every whisper of how vulnerable she looked, how beautiful blood and bruises were on her milk-white skin.

So apparently he had been wrong.

Because he can feel himself reacting to her like he's never seen anything more beautiful, even while he's thinking to himself that this is Dean's girl, despite knowing that Dean never once touched her except with friendly hands, a fellow hunter's watchful gaze. She's wearing what looks like the vest of a man's three-piece suit over a pair of tight, dark jeans. Below the sharply cut silver vest there seems to be nothing but white and pink flesh; her chest is small enough to let her get away with that, with being a tease in a way that would never occur to someone used to getting what she wanted. He wonders what her skin smells like.

She looks older, more carefully put together, the dash of color on her mouth not a little girl's attempt at dress-up but a declaration of independence. She shifts her weight impatiently, and one long, pale curl slips from back to front to rest, coiled, on her collarbone. Jo's grown up, evidently, and she's not going to make the same mistake twice. Asking questions indicates weakness, and she won't bend enough to inquire after Dean.

"Jo," he finally says, when he realizes waiting her out is only ratcheting up her impatience. "I really need -"

He cuts himself off when her eyes narrow dangerously at the word. "I'm fine, Sam, thanks for asking," she bites out.

"I'm sorry," he mumbles, but presses ahead, betting that the remorse he's putting on, added to the fact of Dean's absence, will get her to give in and ask how she can help. "I just - I didn't . . ."

She cuts him off right quick. "You didn't realize we all had lives, that we weren't all waiting around for you to show up? That helping you is not actually the highlight of our existence?"

If she wants to play it like that, he can be just as nasty. "Who's 'we'? Last I heard, you still weren't on speaking terms with your mother." Not like he's in a position to be lecturing anyone on filial devotion, especially with information a few years old, but then again, she'd never seen him and Dad in the same room; she's used to having Dean to filter him through too.

Quick as a flash, he's soaked, his hair matting under the weight of the holy water she's thrown on him. There's a cheer from some of the regulars, and he realizes they must have gotten pretty loud.

Her dark eyes go confused and wary when they register that there's no smoke pouring out of him. He draws his sleeve across his bangs to keep any more water from dripping in his eyes. "Now that we've got the preliminaries out of the way, you got some place we could talk in private?" he asks. He can't catch the towel she throws at him, but he picks it up off the floor, scrubs at his hair, and follows her swishing hips to a door at the back of the bar.

There's no room behind the door Jo swings open, just two staircases, a spiral one that ascends to the second floor, and a wide, well-worn straight one that tracks a path to the basement storage. She hesitates for a moment, evidently choosing the direction in which to take him, and turns to look back at the bar; he wasn't expecting the move and ends up with her pretty much in his arms. What she smells like is roses, with some other fragrance that doesn't quite blend on top - something musky, smoky the way bars used to smell when he was growing up in them.

She chooses to lead him up. The apartment above the bar is airy and would be bright in the daytime, large windows taking up a good percentage of the wall space and sucking out nearly all of the heat in the place. It's a railroad-style apartment, the kind he remembers living in when they hit Iowa the year he turned eleven, one room leading into another in an unbroken chain. He tosses the towel onto the bathroom floor as they pass it and merely dumps his duffel bag when she points to a chair in what must pass for a living room; he can see a gleaming brass bed through the doorway, shielded by the half-closed door and with pillows and sheets and blankets heaped up in disorderly mounds.

The apartment itself smells like her perfume or lotion, that rose scent again, and this time when he looks around, he sees the knickknacks, the photographs that make this place her home. "Sit," she says, raising her eyebrows in challenge, and he meets her eyes deliberately, letting her know that he's figured out she isn't prompted by hospitality.

"Because there's a devil's trap painted underneath this fake Oriental rug and you want to make doubly sure?"

She smiles, revealing large teeth. "Do it."

He sits and makes a big production of squirming around on the couch to get comfortable; he drapes his arms across the back of the sofa and puts his feet up on the battered trunk that doubles as a coffee table. She waits, uncrossing her arms and keeping her hands in loose fists, ready to snatch up a weapon or two, watching him closely. When he fishes out the throw pillow that's bunched up uncomfortably against his spine and tosses it to the other end of the couch, he can see the devil's trap embroidered on one side of the pillow's cotton cover.

He grins up at her but she doesn't relax. "Not a demon, check," she says tartly. "There's a whole lot of other things you could be. What's my middle name?"

"Is that something you really think I would know?" he scoffs. "I didn't even know you'd gotten married. Where is he, anyway?"

"He's dead," Jo says, straight to the point. That at least hasn't changed, and that's the one thing that he'd always thought would pull Dean toward her. He doesn't hear pain in her voice, let alone the kind of can I actually get it together enough to breathe? agony he'd felt when he'd fought Dean's protective arms as he watched Jess go up in flames. Jo is just matter-of-fact, like being a widow is as easy as being a wife, and that rubs him the wrong way.

"So you're all alone, still on the lookout for hunts, and working in a bar. Wow. Time flies."

"Real nice. You must be Sam; no one else thinks it's cute to be such a bitch." She turns away, heading back to the kitchen to fish a bottle of Sprite out of the fridge. She pops the top off and her ring flashes. It's large, extending from knuckle to knuckle, but thin, filigree letting flesh peek through the silver. For however long she's been a widow, she's still wearing her husband's ring, and he feels like a shithead.

"I'm sorry," he says, meaning it. She nods, shrugs it off like it's no big deal, and he remembers that too, the way she'd pretend to dismiss what had hurt her, trying so hard to mimic a hunter's shell. "Can I get one too?" he asks, pointing at her soda.

"Yeah." She waits for him to come back to the couch and finally sits down next to him. Her eyes are fixed on something behind him, and he swivels to find a wedding portrait, Jo in a pretty white dress, no frills or lace, smiling out at the camera like she'd never known heartache, and her husband - a broad-shouldered guy with short blond hair - smiling down at her. When he turns back, her eyes are on him. "That's Sean," she says quietly, rolling her bottle of soda between her palms, letting it click against her ring on each pass.

"What happened?"

Her gaze drifts back up to the photograph. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He'd gone over to the bank to deposit the cash the bar had made that week and there was a robbery going on." She doesn't say a word about him dying a hero; from the way she's looking at his picture, it's clear she doesn't need to. "That's what happened. What happened to you?"

He fixes his eyes on the lipstick stain around the mouth of her bottle, keeping her hands - now more of a giveaway with her than her face - in his line of sight. If she really hasn't talked to Ellen since she ran off before they killed the Yellow-Eyed Demon, then she won't have heard about Dean's deal, the way he broke it and saved his big brother, or his persona non grata status within the splintered hunting community. The best thing to do is to make an appeal. "It's Dean. He disappeared hunting some weird fae, some kind of offshoot nobody has any solid information about."

Sure enough, one of her hands tightens around the bottle. The fingers of the other drum briefly against her knee. "Fae." Her voice has gone flat and untrusting again. "And you came to me."

"I got the name 'Joe Connor' mentioned as someone who knew about all kinds of supernatural things. I had no idea that was you, Jo. And I still have no clue why fae in particular are getting you upset."

She gets to her feet and sets down her bottle in one smooth movement. "It's not me you want to talk to, if you're dealing with fae. It's Rob." He twists to watch her make her way over to the front door; she throws it open and there's a guy standing right there, shamelessly eavesdropping. "Sam, this is Rob."

Jo looks inquisitively at Rob, who nods back at her, and they're having a silent conversation made up entirely of gestures; Sam thinks that at least when he and Dean do this, it's not so painfully obvious, and he waits to see what the upshot of all of this pantomiming will be.
He gets his answer soon enough. "I need to go back down; I shouldn't have left June to deal with the bar alone for this long," Jo says, squeezes past Rob - blocking most of the doorway, one forearm resting lightly against the jamb - and trips lightly down the stairs.

Sam gets to his feet and watches Rob drop his arm and move nonchalantly into the apartment. The guy is actually taller than he is, and thick with muscle all the way down; for the first time since Dean's stupid plan got them thrown into different cells at the Green River County Detention Center, he's facing down a guy who makes him feel small. But he's already coming to this guy as a supplicant - no way he's going to do it while looking confused or frightened. He raises his head and meets Rob's gaze straight on, taking careful stock of the man in front of him, trying to decide if Jo's word is enough to trust him.

Rob's got black hair, slicked straight back from a long, pale face. There's something unnerving about him, even beyond the startlingly regular features; he's used to people finding beauty in Dean's lined face and scarred body, but Rob's almost inhumanly perfect - no scars, no moles, no asymmetries that he can see. But there's something familiar about him too, and Sam wonders how exactly he became someone Jo could trust so implicitly. Is there a touch of Caleb in the way he moves, combining speed and strength? Or is that Jefferson he sees in those flat eyebrows that kick up at the ends?

"You're wondering why I seem so familiar." Rob's voice is a lot like Pastor Jim's, a light and melodious tenor. But the smirk on his face tosses that idea right out the door; Pastor Jim was never about playing games.

Sam doesn't bother dignifying that with an answer. "You've known Jo for a while now." That much is safe to make as a statement rather than a question; that silent conversation took a lot of practice and a lot of proximity.

"I danced at her wedding," Rob says, matter-of-fact and still not giving anything away.

Sam's patience for this game of alpha dogs runs out. "Long time then. Look, she thought you could help me out. My brother's gone missing, and all I know is that he was hunting some fae."

"Oh, I'm quite certain that's not all you know," Rob grins.

Sam's so used to using his size to intimidate the recalcitrant and the stubborn that his feet move him forward before he remembers that it won't work this time, not if getting closer to Rob means he has to tip his head back a little to meet the guy's eyes. He clenches his fists and counts to five, trying to keep his temper in check; this guy really doesn't owe him anything. "Dean is important to Jo," he says as calmly as he can. As if that is the best reason he can think of for why Dean is worthy of saving.

"And yet, there's nothing I can do tonight," Rob says, not a single note of apology in his voice. "She's closing up soon. Go find a place to stay, get some sleep, get your story straight. I'll still be here tomorrow."

Just hearing the word "sleep" makes him pretty much ready to drop; he's been milking that last drop of adrenaline for way too long. "I don't - I don't know where to go," he mumbles. Aside from Jo, there's no friendly face in this city, and unlike Sarah, she doesn't have room to spare; he actually has no idea how well or poorly the bar is doing or how that affects her salary.

Rob picks up his bag and hands it to him. "Make a right out of the bar, go six doors down. You'll see a building with a blue door. Kind of a youth hostel."

Before he can even repeat the directions back, he's on the wrong side of Jo's door, his duffel still in his hands.
*

For twenty-five bucks a night, he thinks as he brushes his teeth at the cracked sink, towel and clean boxers gripped tightly between his knees, this place isn't all that bad. He got the last bed and the five guys he's sharing the room with all lit out early, jabbering excitedly to each other in German, holding maps and brochures, their faces going ruddy under childlike pompom hats in the overheated room. So he's got a little privacy too, some quiet time to think about what he knows and what he doesn't. He's going to get Dean back; he didn't free him from the deal only to lose him to something else.

*

He has to knock at the door of the bar; it's still before noon, and the place isn't technically open. Jo opens the door for him, her hair tied in a smooth little knot, wearing a dingy shirt and jeans with the knees just starting to fray. "He's back there," she says, hiking her thumb in the direction of the back left corner and reaching out for the mop she propped up against the side of the door.

Sam steps gingerly across the damp floor, making his way to the table where Rob is sitting with casual ownership, as if his wooden chair is a throne. Before Rob can invite him to do so, Sam sits across from him. Rob smiles and raises his beer stein. "So, what's the story, Saintly?"

"Saintly?" he asks, sure that it's a joke but not getting it; he hates that feeling, and his first few months at Stanford he felt like he was drowning in it.

"I asked Joanna all about you and this brother who's apparently so close to her heart. Funny how it seems to work out this way, isn't it? You and Dean, Sean and me - one good boy and one bad boy in each family -"

"Dean's not -"

"Dean's not who I meant was the bad one." Rob says it decisively, taking a long sip and then laying his stein down. His eyes are bright blue and merciless. "But you've got everyone else thinking he is. That's quite a trick, Saintly."

He's not responsible for other people's perceptions of them, or how completely Jo lost her heart to his brother. "Sean was your brother?"

"Close as," Rob says, defiant in a way that makes no sense. "Tell me, what did you figure out about Dean's disappearance?"

He still has no reason to trust this guy, but no other real options either. Sam takes a deep breath and just goes for it. "He was visiting a friend of his, Bobby, out in South Dakota. The fae were somewhere pretty close by. If they were fae." All the things he doesn't know seem to be piling up in front of him in a giant heap. "They didn't seem to be behaving like ordinary fae."

"What do you mean?"

"Bobby said Dean read all the lore, obeyed it to the letter; Dean wasn't about to mess with something like that. But there must have been something that wasn't in the books."

"And how long have these fae been in South Dakota?" It's clear from his voice that he can't even conceive of fae in South Dakota, and Sam suddenly realizes that that part of the story never quite fit for him either.

"I don't know. Can't have been that long, or Bobby would've gotten rid of them himself or at least asked Dean to take care of it on one of his earlier visits," Sam muses, thinking it through as he speaks the words.

There's a gleam in Rob's eyes now, a look of definite interest. "Wanderers, then? Like a lost tribe?"

"Maybe?" What does it matter, as long as they can get Dean out?

"What else?" Rob finishes his beer in one long swallow.

"That's it."

"You need to call this Bobby and get the whole story."

"He won't talk to me." It costs him to say it, because he knows that he's blowing Dean's chances of getting out of this sooner rather than later.

Rob takes a long, careful look at him with those piercing eyes. "Will he talk to Joanna?"

*

Sam reads Bobby's number off his cell phone's "received calls" menu and Jo dials it with a finger still wet with Formula 409. She's sitting between him and Rob and she's got the handset cranked up so loud that Sam can hear each ring clearly.

"Singer Salvage."

"Bobby! It's - it's Annie," she says, her eyes darting between Rob's face and his before dropping as she says the name.

Bobby's voice gets noticeably warmer. "How you doing, kiddo?" he asks genially. "I got your mom's newest number around here somewhere -"

"No," she says. "That's not . . . Sam Winchester just called me, said Dean went missing when he was off hunting fae with you." She lets sorrow creep into her voice. Sam doesn't think she's that good an actress; not everything is a put-on. "Is that true?"

Bobby sighs. "Yeah. Dean came out this way by himself, and we got to talking, and I told him that there were fae not far from here that I'd been meaning to do something about, and he offered to take care of it for me. Said he'd found a self-bored stone about a year back and he'd been wanting to get some use out of it."

"He just drove off and you didn't see him after that?" Jo asks.

"Hell, he walked off, didn't want to take his car. 'What if that fae bitch wants to turn it into her fuckin' chariot?' he said. 'You know what happens to pretty, shiny things out there.'"

Like Dean wasn't a bigger prize than any ten cars, even any ten Impalas. "It's that close? Walking distance from your place?" Jo presses.

"Yeah -" Bobby cuts himself off. "Joanna Beth Harvelle, don't you get involved in this. You stay away from Sam, you hear me?"

Jo dares a glance at him, and Sam's heart sinks; she'd gone along with the tell Bobby I called you story, but this is going to get her to think he can't be trusted, and Dean might not have that kind of time. "Why?" she whispers.

"Just please trust me on this one," Bobby pleads. "Sam did something not even Dean would have done, and that's saying something, when you think about how crazy that boy got for his family. What Sam did was dangerous and stupid, and he never once thought about the consequences."

Jo draws in a breath and Bobby jumps back in before she can ask. "Can't say more than that; I gave Dean my word."

Jo looks nearly sick with upset. "Bobby," she says, closing her eyes. "Can you get my mom's number for me?"
*

Sam needs to be doing something, anything, because trying to figure out how much of the intrigued gleam in Rob's eyes was for real, how many of the cogitation wrinkles on his forehead were genuine, was only making him antsy. He's only got Missouri's word, after all, that Dean is actually okay, and that's not exactly incontrovertible proof. Not when she'd sounded so confused just to hear his voice.

The Columbus branch of the New York Public Library is not going to cut it; they've got pretty much no texts on fae except for the bowdlerized versions of fairy tales and a couple of books on the trend of feminist fairy tales.

There's hardly anyone in there, though, so he gets a solid hour on one of the computers with no hassle. He can't seem to find anything that isn't just a repetition of what he remembers reading years ago. Time to find a different venue; Columbia University's just a subway ride away, and they're bound to have something better. He smudges just enough grime onto his Stanford ID to camouflage the year of expiration, sticks it in his pocket, and pulls out his Metrocard.

Turns out the smudging wasn't even necessary; all he needs to do to get into the undergrad library is to swipe his Stanford ID. There's pretty much no one else in the neighboring stacks when he finds the section he's looking for, so he hauls his take over to a nearby table, spreads the books out, and starts to read.

The only bit of information he comes across that nudges at his memory is the explanation for a self-bored stone's properties in a sort of homemade dictionary for hunters, painstakingly pieced together but without any citations or attributions. The text claims that by looking through a self-bored stone, a stone with a hole made only by the natural, unplanned force of moving water, the fae can clearly be seen, but only by the one who found the stone. And that explains why Bobby didn't take on the fae himself, if he didn't have one of his own; Bobby can be trusted that far at least.

*

Jo's eyes are red-rimmed when he walks back into Mary Kelly's, but she gives him a small smile and pours him a beer without making him ask, so he figures that her tears were more about her mother than him.

"Saintly!" he hears, and he curses himself for accepting the moniker so easily as his body swings automatically around to find Rob, over in the corner with his buddies, another game of poker in the works. Sam takes his beer over to their table, and hears Rob say, "Clear out, fellas." He looks on in disbelief when they go without a murmur, leaving their cards and chips just as they are, only taking their drinks with them as they crowd around the bar, laughing raucously to themselves, performing to get more booze out of Jo and maybe a smile out of June.

"I did a little research," Rob announces, eyes gleaming as if reading up on fae lore is his favorite pastime. "From what I can see, the fae - all fae, even this migrant band your brother got snatched by -" he holds up a hand before Sam can protest that description for making Dean sound totally incompetent "- follow a calendar that uses these four dates as pillars. The equinoxes and the solstices."

"Meaning?" Sam prompts impatiently, since Rob is acting like this is some amazing revelation.

"Meaning," Rob says, without apparent offense but with a touch of malice nonetheless, "that the vernal equinox is going to be our first chance to find your brother; that's when the fae are going to be out and about, carousing and hunting and ready to bargain." He makes a show of looking at his watch, gleaming silver on his wrist, polished to a nearly blinding brightness. "And Saintly? It's only the end of January. You've got quite a lot of waiting in your future."

*

Sam uses Jo as his barometer; the fae calendar Rob cited sounded vaguely familiar even though he could find no texts to corroborate it, but Jo seems content to believe Rob's assertions, and even though it's been years since she last saw him and she's loved and lost again, Sam knows that Dean still owns at least a little corner of Jo's heart. She wouldn't be content to be still if she thought there was something she could be doing or prodding him to do.

So he puts on an apron and works behind the bar; she doesn't pay him a wage but he gets to keep his tips, and he's more than covering the sixth of the room he's renting at the hostel. Plus he can keep an eye on Rob, make sure the guy really is using all of his mysterious connections to figure out what they're up against.

June is the best bartender to share a shift with; he figures that out inside of a week. She has absolutely no interest in him at all, doesn't force him to talk when all he wants to do is try to think things through for the umpteenth time or wonder if it's January 24th wherever Dean is too. And June is quick and neat-handed, performing all of her duties with swift, economical movements that the patrons of Mary Kelly's seem to appreciate more than they would a ready ear or a willing shoulder. June's definitely got a story to tell. Sam just doesn't care to hear it.

The bar, against all odds, is packed on Groundhog Day, and he braces himself to hear the same joke for the thirty-seventh time when a big guy with a shock of Kris Kringle white hair makes his way up to the bar. Rob looks up at Sam from his seat at the corner of the bar just then, distracting him.

The old guy slaps his hand down on the bar and laughs a little at his own forthcoming joke to get Sam's attention. "Hey, you hear if Staten Island Chuck saw his shadow this morning?" Sam dutifully shakes his head, but this guy was apparently expecting a verbal response, and the silence throws him. "Yeah, cause I ran him over last night!" he says, plowing forward anyway, and scowling when his joke falls flat. One long quaff of beer, though, and his good humor is evidently restored. "Never mind, kid," he says genially enough; "you can't help being a little slow."

It's meant nicely, even if no one under the age of a hundred would ever say anything so inflammatory, but it's got the unmistakable ring of truth. He is too slow - couldn't figure out what had been ailing Dean, can't learn about these weird gypsy fae that are holding his brother, can't do much of anything right these days. It's already the beginning of February, and he still has no idea what the plan is for the equinox, coming up in March.

And shit, but he almost forgot about the hunt that was supposed to be his reunion with Dean - February 3rd at Woodstock.

He still has no transportation or weapons, but maybe working for free has earned him enough goodwill that he can borrow Jo's car.

*

Jo hears him out as he explains the little he knows about the hunt - Dean had most of the details in his head and all the five-year planner says in the two-inch square for February 4 is Woodstock: musician (guitarist), ghost?, stage. [annual]

She stands next to him and reads the text herself, squinting at the small handwriting that litters the pages. She traces the outline of the square with a delicate fingertip. "He didn't write if it was an important case or not," she says, voice quiet like she knows the answer that's on the tip of Sam's tongue, that to Dean, all cases were critical, and the only distinction he made was that cases involving kids in harm's way automatically got first priority.

Jo flips the planner closed, strokes her finger down its pebbly cover, and then tosses it on the couch. "Help me out here, Sam," she says, clearing the coffee table of its knickknacks and detritus, handling the little bud vase that looks like the most expensive thing in the apartment - probably a wedding gift - with care.

He stoops to help, stepping back when she finishes and whisks the fringed cloth off the surface; she bends to undo the snaps on the trunk. When she opens it, he sees a rough approximation of the Impala's trunk, heavier on the knives than Dean's collection, but a good selection nonetheless.

"Take your pick," she offers, gesturing grandly, a deadly, discount Vanna White, beautiful in her tank top, flannel shirt, and jeans, and he looks at what she's offering and wonders if this is all he'll have when it comes time to save Dean.

"Sam?" she asks, laying a light hand on his arm. He shakes his head, and she winds her arms around his neck, draws him down, and leaves a sweet, fleeting kiss on his cheek. "Close up when you're done here, okay?" she asks, and then leaves him mercifully alone.

He shouldn't be distracting himself with thoughts of Dean; he needs to concentrate on this hunt, on figuring out what he'll need to get rid of the ghost of a Woodstock guitarist. He dashes the water from his eyes and squats next to the open trunk and starts to take careful inventory.

When he's got what he wanted and arranged everything in his duffel bag - each weapon wrapped in its own piece of clothing, just like Dean taught him - he secures the latches on the trunk and heads downstairs. He'll need to leave first thing in the morning, and he forgot to get the keys from Jo before she went back to the bar, so he heads downstairs instead of back to the hostel. "Jo?" he calls as he makes his way down the stairs, keeping the duffel tucked tight and secure against his side. He doesn't see her behind the bar or weaving between the small dark tables arranged in a sine curve against each wall. She could just be getting another case of beer from the basement; he leaves his duffel at the top of the steps and heads down the last flight of stairs.

"Jo?" he says again, and hears a gasp. He gets clear of the stairs and sees Jo on Rob's lap, her hair tumbled out of its sleek ponytail and her face, looking at him over her shoulder, flushed. Rob's hand - it looks enormous on her - keeps stroking up and down her bare back, and his glittering blue gaze pins Sam in place. She looks small and vulnerable compared to him, her pale hair like gossamer and fine as a child's; there's an ugly moment when he wonders if Rob is forcing her somehow. But there's no shame on her face, just lust, and he blinks hard and forces himself to speak.

"Keys," Sam blurts out, rooted to the spot. "I need your keys."

Rob's holding up a shirt for Jo to slip into, and Sam turns away to let her get hastily dressed. "I'll get them for you," she says, her hands pushing her hair back into place.

He follows her up the stairs, the smell of her rose-scented perfume or lotion or whatever heavy in his nose. There are no explanations offered, and they make the trip up to her apartment in silence. She meets his eyes without any emotion but concern when she hands him the ring of keys she's pulled off a little hook on her bedroom wall. "Be safe, Sam," she says, and lets him lead the way back out.

*

He makes the drive up with a couple of Jo's mix CDs - one an energetic burst of rhythm and sound, the other simply titled "Sad Songs" - for company; his brain has been surprisingly cooperative about refusing to process what he'd stumbled across. It takes a few tries to make it to the right place, since he never had Dean's astonishing sense of direction, but he makes it there with plenty of time.

He gets himself a table at the local diner and takes his time over a long, leisurely meal. When he finally goes out to the concert area, he's stuffed full of good food and ready to work.

He's scoping out the area, the stage with special attention, when he becomes aware that he's humming something to himself. He stops and refocuses, listening to what he's humming, trying to place the tune. It's nothing he's ever heard before, and he turns to find the ghostly guitarist walking forward from the shadows, clever fingers plucking out that same tune that's insinuated itself into his brain.

The musician plays steadily for a few minutes, and the volume of his electric guitar keeps ramping up. He's dressed in clothes that look like they could have come from the 60's, though they kind of look more like a costume than actual everyday clothes - bellbottoms, tie-dyed shirt, and a cloth headband for his long yellow hair. Sam just waits; there has to be some reason no one's ever dispatched this ghost before.

Maybe the ghost just wants a little adulation - he's not hurting anybody with a free concert once a year, and it's not like it's at a particularly busy time of the year anyway. Sam claps. "That was great, man."

"Yeah," the ghost says, then launches into another song, grimacing artistically as his fingers fly over the guitar.

Ten songs later, Sam's getting tired of repeating his false praise. "Wonderful. You're very talented."

That was apparently the wrong thing to say. "Then why wasn't I asked to play?" the ghost snarls. "I came and I played for them, and they still wouldn't see that I belonged there." There's a demented light in his eyes now, and his lip is curled over gnashing teeth. "But I outlasted all of them. They're all dead, and I'm still here, playing music they couldn't even dream of."

Dean would know how to talk rock with this guy, how to soothe his ego by naming all the musicians who obviously owe him a debt. Sam's going to have to play this a different way, by appealing to his lust for fame.

He walks forward and the ghost's head snaps up to meet his gaze; long hair falls back and Sam can see an ugly red mark stretched across his throat. "What's your name, man?"

"'Nobody,'" the ghost screams, rage still shrieking through the word. His right hand holds his guitar pick up high. "They said I was nobody." The pick, turned in his hand to reveal a deadly-sharp edge, comes down suddenly at Sam.

He gets his arms up just in time to protect his face; the razor-sharp pick catches on the fabric of his coat, and the ghost plucks it free and makes another play for his skin.

Sam's bleeding from a dozen long, shallow cuts on his face and hands, fumbling for the canister of salt, and cursing Jo for not keeping rocksalt shotgun shells in her bag of tricks; the swirl of white crystals he throws grants him a temporary reprieve. The ghost keeps reappearing, a few steps further from Sam each time, and finally starts to play again. As the last long note reverberates, he raises the pick to his own throat and draws it unhesitatingly across.

Sam stumbles back to the car and wonders when exactly he'd messed this one up so badly.

The cuts won't stop bleeding, deeper than he'd initially thought, and he hadn't bothered to pack a proper first-aid kit when he'd loaded up Jo's little car. There are old napkins and a bottle of holy water in the glove compartment, though, so he makes do, the napkins sticking to his wounds and fluttering every time he moves a muscle.

The holy water stings like a bitch, and he doesn't know if there's any way that the blood already on the pick - from the first time Nobody committed suicide - could have mixed with his. His mind keeps replaying Nobody's unerring tracing of the slit in his throat with the deadly pick, and he casts about for something else, anything, to think about. When he finds something, he wishes he hadn't. Because now he's stuck wondering, despair and betrayal sinking his stomach, if Jo's faith in Rob - the faith that he'd clung to in order to persuade himself he was doing all he could for Dean - is real, or if it's just been fucked into her.

He throws up every last bite of that big, hearty meal he'd eaten, right there next to the little blue car. There's a pink splash of vomit on the left front wheel, and he steps around the puddle to get into the car, pull another napkin from the glove compartment, gargle with some holy water, and wipe his mouth temporarily clean.

*

Only a few of the cuts are clotting. He's trimmed the napkins away so that only the parts glued to him with blood are still on, but even those small scraps, yellow dyed red, make him look strange and he gets a few odd looks when he's stopped at traffic lights. The blood loss isn't nearly enough to make him pass out, but he is a little woozy, browning out every once in a while as he chugs quickly down the highways and streets back to Jo's. That's all he needs, is to get back in one piece and he'll have all the time he wants to recover.

Of course, traffic is a bitch and a half, the West Side Highway backed up with cars barely moving at a crawl. He cracks a window just to keep himself awake, but it's too cold to keep open for more than a few seconds. He pops Jo's rousing mix of angry-girl rock into the CD player and lets the rhythms of the guitars and drums do the work for him.

He gets lucky with a parking space a block behind the bar, then just sits and rests for a moment. The ring of keys Jo loaned him thankfully includes one for the back door of the bar, so he slips through the alley and heads straight up to her apartment. His duffel bag is heavy, pressing mercilessly down on his shoulder, and he fumbles at the top of the stairs for the key to this lock.

"Sam!" he hears, a carrying whisper behind him. He swivels a little unsteadily and Jo's big eyes get wide and spooked at the sight of him. "God, what happened?" she asks, pulling the keys from his grasp and fitting the right one into the lock in short order. "Get in, quick," she hisses, not being all that careful with the pressure of her hand against his lacerated skin.

"Ah, fuck," he groans. "Careful."

"Keep it down," she says quietly and firmly, taking his bag off his shoulder and dumping it unceremoniously on the floor, and eyeing him speculatively. He sits on the couch and tries to pay attention. "I've got some stuff for those cuts. Are they just on your face and arms?"

"Torso too, I think," he says, trying to lift his shirt to check. Her hands take over the task before he can finish or his shoulders protest. He's never seen her this fidgety. "What's wrong?"

"Did you know you had the FBI on your tail, Sam?" she asks, grim-faced, while she pulls his shirt off; her hand reaches up to smooth his hair down automatically.

"Oh, fuck," he says.

"This guy walks into the bar, suit and tie and badge, and says there's a dangerous criminal in the area, and he's going around to all the bars and libraries and motels in the area to find out if anybody's seen Sam Winchester."

"How -" No, he already knows. He'd used his real Stanford ID at the library, and to get the youth rate at the hostel. Not that he'd put it past Gutierrez to snitch, but he's the one who screwed this up. God, is he glad that Dean can't be gotten to by any FBI agent right now. "Was his name Henrickson?" God damn him for thinking the FBI would listen to reason.

Jo was just waiting for him to piece it together in his head, apparently, because she says, "You know you can't go back to that hostel, right? This everything you got right now?" She prods his duffel bag gently with the toe of her shoe and looks unsurprised by his stunned nod. "Guess you're sleeping on my couch, then." She sighs. "And you can't work at the bar anymore; we just got lucky that Henrickson only asked me and June and not any customers if we'd seen you."

"June?"

"She was on today, went and got me when the guy showed up, and lied like a champ for you." Jo's already evaluating how the new living arrangements are going to work; the lack of attention in her voice gives her away.

He knew he was right about June; he knew Dean would love her.

Jo comes at him with gauze and ointments and more holy water then, and Sam braces himself, staying silent while she works. "Done," she says, satisfaction in her voice as she starts cleaning up. He's not really paying all that much attention to what she's doing as she moves around the apartment, and he nearly face-plants in the meal Jo puts in front of him. "Got it," she says. "I'll just leave this in the microwave for if you get hungry later. Go ahead, lie down. I'll get you some blankets and a pillow."

He pulls his jeans off while he's still sitting, too tired to contemplate getting up to pull his sweatpants out of his bag. "Jo," he mumbles when she appears before his blurry eyes again, shaking a blanket out of its folds and laying it over him.

"Yeah, I know," she says, light as a lullaby, while she tucks a soft, cool pillow underneath his heavy head.


(4/4)

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