summergen_mod (summergen_mod) wrote in spn_summergen,

The Holy Grail Bird, for monicawoe

Title: The Holy Grail Bird
Recipient: monicawoe
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: c8800
Warnings: temporary character death; some gore
Author's Notes: 1. I hope you find things to enjoy in this, monicawoe. From your fantastic prompts I chose the God-gun creating some connection between Sam and Chuck. 2. The Holy Grail Bird is one of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker’s many nicknames. 3. Thanks to themegalosaurus for heroic betaing, and to the mods for this challenge and their patience.

Summary: The God-gun has a divine recoil effect. Sam has to have another try at living with power.

A bird with an ivory beak is tapping away. You’ve heard of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers. This one’s beak is more artifact than nature, incised with symbols. It still serves its purpose, hammering in and through.

The bird’s body is flesh and blood and hollow bone; it also contains cogs and gears of carved ivory. She must be at least partly immortal, since right now she’s dead and still working. She has will and intention and curious black eyes. There’s nothing to see here, though. It’s dark.

Behind her, a god stirs. She doubles her efforts. She knows what she’s doing, hunting light like she’d hunted for grubs. The god may sleep through her knocking, but he’ll wake when sun gets in his eyes.

You could say this story began when the god pulled a trigger on God. But it doesn’t, really, though that was a dramatic moment. It begins a couple of nights after, with the very mortal Sam Winchester sneaking down to the lab at three in the morning to probe at his wounded shoulder.

Yeah, he’s doing it in secret. Secretive’s a recurring motif with Winchesters. This iteration of what he’s not telling Dean and Cas becomes clear when he moves his hand from his shoulder. There’s light spilling out of the wound in wavering lines, like it’s being reflected from water.

It’s not that he’s not planning to consult them, if it turns out to be something. Just, he’s going to investigate first.

He’s dug bullets out of himself before. It gets tricky when you’re feverish — it’s harder to keep your hands steady — but it’s nothing Sam can’t handle. He strips off his shirts and pulls out the tray of vintage surgical instruments. The alcohol’s vintage, too. He takes a traditional slug and then sloshes it over the wound and starts to probe. It hurts like fuck, but it’s not as bad as that time with Cas extracting Gadreel’s grace. This is ordinary, hunter-level pain. It’s reassuringly normal. Sam grits his teeth and blinks sweat out of his eyes and carries on.

The probe has reached something. It’s not the slippery grate of bloody metal. It wouldn’t be, would it? The God-gun didn’t have bullets. It’s mushy, like cloth. If cloth got in there, that’s probably what’s causing the infection.

And, what, bioluminescent bacteria? Get serious, Sam. Or maybe he’s delirious. Maybe none of this is happening.

He might as well see what his brain is making up. He grabs the forceps. More alcohol.

It looks like … paper? It’s soaked with blood, of course, but Sam can still see a few smudged letters. It’s neat and round, like it was made by a hole-punch, but strangely thick. When he prods at it he realizes that it’s layered, tiny sheets stuck together. So, he’s like one of those people who have a Bible in their pocket that saves them from death. Except Sam was absolutely not going around with a Bible.

Carefully, he teases the fragments apart. They aren’t all the same. It’s hard to tell, what with the blood, but he thinks some of them are vellum. One’s wax, one’s a flake of stone, one’s thin, hammered metal. One’s … plastic and circuitry? A chip? One is birch bark. All of them have letters or symbols or patterns.

Now that they’re laid out on the tray he can count them. Thirteen. An unlucky number. Typical.

Cas and Dean don’t comment on that, which is nice of them. Cas approaches the bloody scraps cautiously, prodding with a wood coffee stirrer. His face would fit a lab coat better than a trench coat. The dots aren’t shining now like they had last night, just giving out the occasional faint flash of reflection. But when Cas tries to probe them the stirrer skids and splinters.

“Hmm,” says Cas. “Dean, do you still have the amulet?”

Dean shoots Sam a look like Sam caught him at something, but he goes out and comes back and hands the little brass head to Cas. Sam hears again the small thunk when it hit the bottom of the wastebasket he’d scooped it out of. He wonders if he’s going to be able to retrieve this latest betrayal. It’s not like he went looking for this. But he didn’t tell Dean (granted, only for a few hours, but) and then he did, and now Dean’s looking at him.

Cas swings the amulet gently above the little metal tray and light stabs, spills, scatters everywhere, like some crazy disco ball. Cas closes the amulet in his fist and the light fades back to wavering traces.

“This is God-stuff.”

“What?” says Dean.

“They’re imbued with divine nature. And with Sam, of course.”

If Sam thought Dean was looking at him before, it’s nothing to now. Then he turns his glare on the tray. He moves to touch the bloody scraps, making a face like they’re radioactive cat vomit, but his hand rebounds.

“I don’t think anyone but Sam can use them,” Cas explains. “The gun my father … Chuck … made created a quantum connection between target and shooter. Sam sustained the wound that he dealt. And, it seems, some backwash of divine power.”

“Isn’t that quantum connection thing bullshit?” says Sam.

“It sounded pretty bullshit,” says Dean, corroborating, like he hadn’t been planning to use the quantum connection thing to take out himself and Jack in a blaze of, of whatever. Sacrifice. Suicide. Murder.

Cas shrugs.

“Chuck” — this time Cas doesn’t hesitate over the name — “is a writer. He speaks, and it is created. It works if he says it does.”

“Great,” says Dean. “We’re living the physics of Star Trek. Except Chuck’s show is stupider.”

Cas shrugs again.

“But what do they do? To Sam? Will he be OK, now they’re out of his shoulder? Is he, like, infected?”

Sam imagines some creeping apotheosis, like one of those flesh-eating diseases, or Frodo when he got stabbed with the Black Rider knife. Maybe one of those things is still in him, working in.

“It’s more a question of what Sam does with them.”

Sam peers dubiously at the tray. The associations of blood and powerful are not exactly encouraging.

“What am I supposed to use them for?” he says. “They’re scraps. They’re medical waste. What on earth are they good for?”

“Their power is almost infinite. And extremely limited.”

“Thanks, Cas, that was helpful,” says Sam. Cas nods complacently. It must be one of the days he’s got sarcasm turned off.

“Aren’t you going to tell him to use his power for good and not for evil?” says Dean.

It’s a relevant question. Power that Sam’s tainted with, power that’s tainted with Sam, Dean’s thinking that that’s got a history.

“Does this make me some kind of, uh, god-monster? I don’t want to be not human. Not mortal.”

Cas pushes the tray towards him.

“They have an exact count. A limited number. That’s the essence of mortal.”

“Dean?” says Sam.

“You’re the one took a potshot at God,” says Dean. “They’re your God-dots. You heard Cas. You’ve got some quantum divine connection with them. You figure out thirteen God-things you want to do. Your God-dots, your problem. Just don’t do anything stupid.”

What Sam does is keep them in a little box. It’s silver with a pastoral scene on the lid, nymphs and shepherds or some shit disporting themselves in a landscape. The Men of Letters might have used it to keep small, cursed objects, or maybe snuff. Or cocaine. It’s a handy size and it shuts securely. Sam carries it in his pocket. The sensible thing to do is save them. Sometimes he takes them out at night and spreads them across his desk. He could do things. He could pick a thing and do it.

One of the dots is a chip of black stone. There’s nothing on it but an oval, like a zero. Sam holds it lightly between thumb and finger. He can feel a faint hum in it, like and engine working. Power.

Chuck’s out there, turning back the pages in their lives, repeating a few choice passages, tearing other stuff out. For all his talk about The End, he’s in no hurry to bring down the curtain.
That gives Sam an idea, actually, for later. But for now …

Chuck claims to be able to end things. Though he’s not in any hurry about it. Maybe now Sam can, too. At least, one thing.

Lucifer is a plot element that Chuck can’t resist bringing back. Sooner or later — sooner, very likely — he’s going to play that card. It’s not impossible to bring someone back from the Empty. All things are possible with God. And Cas came back. Nick had been trying to contact Lucifer. No way it’s not going to happen. No way it will ever end, unless someone ends it.

Sam had given Rowena the page from the book and he’d hoped she’d use it. That had been one thing, handing power to someone. Taking power himself, using it for this, he knows what Dean will say. And Dean will be right. Powering up for boss fights doesn’t end well.

Use your power for good and not for evil. One of Dean’s standards Sam’s not going to live up to. He can’t hide this behind good, something for the world or Rowena or Nick’s victims. He can’t even pretend it’s a going darkside thing, bad, but comprehensible. It’s that he can’t face it. He can’t do the next round of Lucifer. He doesn’t have it in him. That’s not evil. It’s just weakness.

It’s a long way to the Empty. Sam travels the black, round shard like a wormhole. He won’t get lost. He’s a cat, or a bee, or a migrating bird, guided by some magnetic, inhuman force. The certainty is more terrifying than losing himself between worlds. But it’s purpose, that guiding principle. He doesn’t stray from it. If there’s one thing he can do, it’s find what he fears. It’s avoiding it makes for complex navigation.

Lucifer is still wearing Nick’s form. Even here, Sam fears him. He raises his eyebrows at Sam theatrically.

“You actually walked right back to your prison. Again. Tell me, when Dean was doing his moving child-caretaker act, did he drop you on your head? Not that I’m not thrilled by your enterprise. Another quest for Not Exactly Sir Galahad. Or maybe the Fisher King.”

Sam touches his shoulder reflexively. He probably doesn’t even have a body here. Back home, he and Dean avoid talking about how the non-bullet hole hasn’t healed. It hasn’t got worse, or interfered with hunting.

The flint dot in Sam’s had is slick with sweat. Light’s coming off of it in queasy waves. Lucifer’s glance sharpens.

“Ah. You’ve been stealing power from Daddy. Like Prometheus, or me.”

Sam swallows.

“I didn’t steal it,” he says. “It’s mine.”

“Mined from you, even. A lot of strange things, down there, in your nooks and crannies. I never got tired of exploring.”

Lucifer has spent aeons in his head, dissecting. He knows all the raw materials of Sam’s nightmares. Sam keeps his mouth shut.

“And you’re here to end me at last.” Lucifer shakes his head. “God would give me another chance. The Sam I knew would give me another chance.”

Don’t get sucked in, don’t get sucked in, don’t get sucked in. But Sam’s hand wavers. Lucifer is watching him, steady, but wary. Lucifer’s afraid, too. He’s already dead, in the Empty. But absolute non-existence, that’s something else, terrifying. Sam would be scared, too. He gets annihilation. Lucifer taught him that, atom by atom. And the power to do that is terrifying. Fear is a gulf of treacherous kinship between them. Lucifer licks his lips, quick and nervous, and goes on talking. Lucifer never stops talking.

“No backsies on this one, you know. Are you really so sure? You don’t have the best track record on making decisions.”

It’s true, this is something he can’t fix if he’s wrong. He’s not up to re-creation ex nihilo. That’s feature, not bug. Facing another round of fixing isn’t impossible, like this is, but the thought is tiring.

“You know, it’s Daddy we’re both really angry at.”

Sam didn’t come here because he’s angry. But somewhere he is angry. Maybe the black dot is working, opening a wormhole path to that place. There it is, a burning bush, an I AM in the wasteland. Last time that had been Lucifer, not God. This time it’s neither. Sam is angry. Sam. He’s not going to be fucking negated, by fear or by power. He’s not going to fucking give up, fall for something easy, and then go through this again, round whatever.

“Chuck’s got nothing to do with it. You chose what you are. You made me, not your Father. You remade me. And now I’m, I’m your destruction.” Sam’s voice skids and wavers through the whole dumb, kids’ cartoon speech, his had shakes with terror and fury, but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, he’s going to do this. He hardly hears Lucifer say, “Oh, but it isn’t right.” He raises his hand. The black chip of power is bloodstained, like it always has been. But this time the blood’s his. He claims it.

Lucifer closes his eyes against the flash. So does Sam. When he opens them, Lucifer’s gone.

Sam drops to his knees in the Empty. Sick waves go through him, pain and disintegrating nausea. He falls, lands with a thud on the floor of the Bunker.

He’s sick and sweaty and shaky for three days. That’s got to be a sign he was wrong. Wrong is easier than fear, or anger. It’s familiar. There’s usually something wrong with him. He feels awful, infected. But there’s no swelling or redness or discharge around the wound, just a neat, round, unhealed hole. A zero. Sam bandages it every day and goes into the library to read. He isn’t running a fever. He just doesn’t feel like talking or eating meals.

He sits at the library table and the door in his head cracks cautiously open on the huge space in his brain where Lucifer isn’t. Where what he did happened. It’s dizzying. That’s what’s making him dizzy.

Dean’s worried enough that when Sam tells him about Lucifer he doesn’t get angry. Or he does, but he stores it away. He fusses. Sam tells him to call Rowena.

Rowena gives him a long, probing, fed-up look. Sam feels better immediately.

“I thought I was summoned to mop your fevered brow and seek out whatever belle dame sans merci had afflicted you. You are not under a spell. Diagnosis completed. Shall I collect one more IOU and take myself off?”

Sam stands up. He’s steady on his feet now.

“Can you … look at something?”

Dean won’t be pleased that he’s showing Rowena the God-dots. Though it’s not like she can use them or steal them. And Dean can’t very well worry about what she’d do if she could. Sam already did it.

He has the box in his pocket, like he always does, but he leads the way to his room anyway. Rowena follows without comment, but when Sam takes out the box and spreads out the dots on his desk her eyebrows go up.

“When you coyly invited me up to view your etchings, this was not what I had in mind.”

She hovers her hands over them, not like Cas or Dean, trying to touch them, but like a pianist at the keyboard

“These are very, very powerful,” she says. “Where on earth did you acquire them?”

“That’s not the important part. I, uh. You should know what I did with them. One of them. I killed Lucifer. No, Dean already did that. I ended him. Canceled him out. He’s gone. Completely.”

Rowena freezes. Sam told her because she of all people has a right to know, but now that he’s said it it feels needy, like he’s asking for admiration or absolution, like he’s asking her to find something to do with the space in his head.

“Well,” says Rowena after a long moment. “I’m not quite sure how to summon appropriate feeling. I’m curious, though. Tell the unimportant tale of how you acquired these.”

So Sam does.

“And you ended Lucifer,” says Rowena. “He’s really gone.”

“He’s gone,” says Sam. They look at each other in blank triumph and panic. Rowena’s lived there, too, in the zero of terror and the flare of power. That’s the real reason Sam needed to tell her, he realizes. Not because she’ll approve, like Dean hadn’t, not because she’d a right to know. Because he needs to tell someone who understands. She’s the only one who can help him give this a shape.

“I was afraid,” he says. “I went there because I was afraid. Like a reflex. Like an arachnophobe slapping a spider that’s crawled onto their arm. But then in the moment I ended him, I was angry. If I could have done it slowly, bit by bit, I would have.”

Rowena breathes out in a tiny ah, satisfaction or comprehension.

“Good,” she says. “He was a vile spider, Samuel. A nasty great one. The kind that would give you nightmares.” She shudders. Sam doesn’t think it’s an act.

“I, uh, don’t really mind spiders, actually,” says Sam. They’re one of the things he isn’t afraid of. Now that Lucifer’s gone, it’s funny, there are still plenty of things in the world Sam’s scared of, but there’s also a whole lot he isn’t.

The liveliness is coming back to Rowena’s face.

“You’re a sick, twisted man, then, to dote on the eight-legged beasties. Tell me, how did you get Dean to agree to your venture?”

“I didn’t. Well, after the fact.”

“Bold. There’s hope for you yet. And now you have fine scope indeed for endeavor. What are you going to do next? I’d be a consultant, you know, for a wee fee.”

“I don’t know. This is God-stuff. I’m not sure I’m supposed to have it. ”

“You Winchesters, always so prudish about power. These are infused with blood magic now, I can sense that much. That tends to be personal. Of course men are always like cats on hot bricks around it. But you could carry on your Crusade. You’ve done Lucifer, you could collect Michael, next.”

Go after Michael? That’s a thought. But, no. He had a right to Lucifer. He had a right because his judgment was skewed. If anything’s going to save him, it’s that human skew. If he sets out to decide, objectively, what should live and what should die, he’ll get it wrong. Even if he gets it right, he’ll be getting it wrong.

He speaks slowly, looking down at the scatter of dots on the table.

“I think, I don’t think, I don’t want to start justifying things. Dean, uh, Dean won’t mind. Dean won’t think ending Michael is something I owe him.”

“No righting wrongs, then. Let’s think outside your Calvinist box. You could do, dare I to say it, something fun. Set your hideous plaid hair-shirt aside and be frivolous. Is there nothing in all the worlds you want to do?”

Sam shakes his head.

“I wanted to end him.” And he doesn’t regret it. But he never wants to do that again.

Rowena’s expression switches again to that disconcerting kindness.

“I know,” she says. “And I am not the woman who has a mind to judge you. But the saddest and shaggiest of men can still have a life, they say. Having no great flair for it doesn’t mean you can’t learn if you only apply yourself.”

Sam’s quite sure that Rowena would be better at this than he is, he thinks, after she’s left. She’s probably going to party, to celebrate. For her the empty space will be a dance floor. She might do something appalling, if she had a set of God-dots, but at least she’d do something. She wouldn’t be walking around with them in a box in her pocket. Even Chuck, manipulative, sociopathic bastard that he is, created a world of squirrels.

Sam’s really not the creative type, though. Jess should be here. She’d wanted to be an artist. She would have made something wonderful with the God-dots, some world.

Still. The world that he’s stuck with is carrying on, with him in it and Lucifer not. Sam thinks a bit about actual, non-metaphorical spiders. There are all those things out there, existing. Harmlessly, most of them. Not all to everyone’s taste, but interesting, and not evil.

He takes the box from of his pocket and spreads the dots out again. Twelve of them now. They’re still ugly with dried blood. That doesn’t bode well for what he can do, for what kind of world would come from his head. But maybe Rowena is right about blood magic. Maybe it’s just a thing, a natural substance. Sam has a magnifying glass on his desk. He peers at one of the dots that’s a little less stained, trying to decipher the thin, blurred lines on its surface. It looks like a bird to Sam, like a hieroglyphic heron with reeds on each side. The material feels like a chip of bone, one of those scrimshaw pieces with inked lines. Sam brushes his thumb over it, trying to think outside the box.

Hunters don’t make things. But him and Dean, they do bring things back.

They have a hunt in Arkansas, a Woman in White along a deserted highway, one of Chuck’s nostalgia digs. It only takes them two nights. Dean sleeps in the next day — he always sleeps better after a job. Sam takes the car and drives at random on back roads until he pulls up in a patch of swampy wood.

He’s not sure why he fixated on this in particular. Maybe because the dot looks like ivory, and the symbol looks like a bird. Or because no one’s sure that the Ivory-Bill is gone. There have been sightings, even video.

Start small, in case it goes wrong.

He takes the dot out of the box. With Lucifer he’d had focus. This time he has to try for concentration.

The dot stirs against his hand, a brush like feathers, and a quick beat like a heart. There’s a clap of air in his ears like a beat of huge wings. Pain knocks at his shoulder, boring in. He falls to his knees. It’s not as bad as ending Lucifer had been, but it’s like, each time, it’s digging the power out all over again.

But when he opens his eyes there’s a bird. His heart gives a quick, painful thump. It’s bigger than he expected. There’s no blood-red dash on its crest. But the feathers are a glossy blue-black, and there’s the triangular white on the lower back. And its, her, beak is right, with its odd flat end.

It calls, an almost-robotic beep. Sam’s heart thumps again. That’s normal. Sam listened to the recordings.

She runs up and down the tree. Every few feet she pauses, and gives two knocks, like a double gunshot. Her eye is on Sam all the time, fearless and shrewd. He holds out his arm. He can’t just walk off and leave her alone in the woods. She takes off in a short, dipping swoop and lands on … not the arm he’s holding out. Of course, she’s a woodpecker, she goes for vertical. Her claws grip painfully on Sam’s other biceps. She’s huge. Her eye is level with his.

“What now?” Sam asks out loud. The bird looks like she’s thinking the same thing.

Sam really didn’t think this through. He’s messing up the God-thing, all right. He can’t even manage Noah’s Ark, and that was not a high point for responsible divinity. He should at least have gone for a breeding pair. Now he’s got a lone survivor, like George the snail or Martha the passenger pigeon. And — he looks closely — there’s writing on her beak, like one of the dots.

The bird’s eye is fearless. He scrutinizes it, looking for what? warmth? coldness? but all he sees is a bright attention. He strokes her chest gently, feeling for the beat of a heart. She stays still. There’s no triphammer under Sam’s fingers. There’s a clicking hum, instead, like the working of gears.

So there she is, a bird with an ivory beak in the woods, clinging to the shoulder of a god. Her body is flesh and blood and hollow bone, but also cogs and gears of ivory. The god who made her is wondering about that. Her warmth by his shoulder’s a marvel, but he doesn’t have the best associations with the unnatural. He’s thinking about himself, fresh out of hell. He’s thinking about Jack. Is he a leacher of souls who’s just made a clockwork bird out of some lack, some defect in himself? Will she be evil?

The bird doesn’t share his concerns. She isn’t worried about her place in the world, its grubs and barked trees and gods and angles of shadow and light. When she thinks of Sam as a god, you understand, that doesn’t imply worship. She looks on him as a cat looks on a human. He has power, but he’s foolish. But despite her written beak she’s a creature without language. She speaks by her dipping flight and her knocking for grubs, by drowsing and preening, by the glance of her bright, fearless eye, but it seems that none of this counts to talk sense into a god. He’ll have to seek elsewhere for counsel.

“You,” says Amelia.

The bird clinging to Sam’s back beeps nasally. Amelia’s eyes go wide.

“I’m, uh. Listen. You’ve got every right to shut the door in my face. I’m not being your stalker ex. I’ve got, uh. I don’t know any other vets. I need you to look at this. And I can’t, I’m not going to be able to explain it.”

“The man of mystery act gets old, you know.”

“Sorry,” says Sam. “I need your help. Really.”

“Men of mystery can bite me. You’ve got an animal in tow. Again. That makes this my job. Bring him in.”

“Her,” says Sam. He walks into the reception area. The bird clambers round to his chest. Amelia stops and stares.

“That’s not a Pileated. That’s a living, female, Ivory-Bill. What the fuck did you do to her beak?”

“Nothing,” says Sam, which is sort of true. “That’s part of what I need you to check out.”

Amelia opens the examining room door with a jerk and turns on the bright light above the table. Sam blinks. Amelia smiles suddenly.

“Your look is even more drifter-killer than usual,” she says.

“The, uh, she, she’s kind of hard on my shirts.”

“Not much of a loss,” says Amelia. “OK, miraculously un-extinct bird. You’re a beauty, aren’t you? You look pretty lively. Will you let me check you over?”

The bird stays still as Amelia moves her stethoscope here and there. Her eyebrows go slowly up.

“That’s … extremely strange. Will she let me get an X-Ray?”

Sam looks at the bird. She cocks her head, then climbs onto Amelia’s lab coat in a series of ripping sounds.

“Told you,” says Sam.

Amelia snorts and vanishes into the back room. She comes back after a long interval. The bird flies back to Sam. Amelia clips X Rays to a light board. Sam looks and his heart sinks. Confirmation. He can see the shadows of bones and among them the bony shadows of cogs and gears. He made her wrong. She’s a freak, unnatural.

“All right,” says Amelia slowly. “There have been rumors and sightings. I could buy a surviving Ivory-Bill, even in your dubious company. But this? What do you know? What the hell is going on?”

“I can’t tell you that. Honestly.” He could have, should have told Jess that stuff was real. But by the time he met Amelia, well. There was too much by then that he couldn’t even tell Dean. And if he couldn’t explain Lucifer, he certainly can’t get into God.

Amelia taps thoughtfully at the lightboard.

“Did she come to you legitimately? This isn’t some form of trafficking? There’s not someone making birds like her and selling them for profit?”

“She’s mine,” says Sam. “She’s, there’s just her.”

“Well. I guess I’m glad you’re not a mad ornithologist bird-knapper. At least in the conventional sense. She seems healthy and happy. You’re taking care of her.”

Is there a conventional sense for mad ornithologist bird-knappers?” Sam asks. Despite himself, he’s curious.

“Oh, yes. Birders are whack-jobs. Birders make you seem normal. You are the least strange person who could have showed up at the clinic with a cyborg Ivory-Bill.”

Sam strokes the bird, looking down.

“Is she OK? She’s not, uh, evil?”

“What kind of question is that? She’s an animal. With some oddities, granted.”

“I was worried that she was … wrong.”

Wrong’s not a diagnosis I dispense. She’s clearly a living thing. And she seems pretty bonded to you. You should try not to ditch her next time you walk out on something. She’s fine, Sam. You’re being the robo-magician equivalent of the owner who brings in her cat every time he pukes. Now get out of my office so you can take care of your bird and I can go home and eat and perish of curiosity.”

“Thank you,” says Sam.

Amelia shakes her head.

It was good to see you might be stretching the truth,” she says, “but it was certainly interesting.”

The woodpecker leans out and robo-beeps at her.

“You, it was good to meet,” says Amelia. “Don’t let Sam tell you there’s something wrong with you. You’re a marvel.”

Dean had let Sam wedge a bark-covered branch in the back of the car for the bird to perch on when Sam drives. Sam watches her clamber deftly onto it. She drowses there, film shuttering her eyes. His clockwork bird, whirring like the Impala’s engine. He strokes her back and she stirs and settles her wings.

After that Sam doesn’t do much for a while. They hunt. They hunt and they hunt. That was their bargain with Chuck. In return for him not ending them, they go on. Do what they’ve always done, keep the show on the road. It’s not a bad deal, though sometimes Sam has nightmares, him and Dean climbing an endless, dark spiral of stairs with things coming at them, killing and killing. Still, it could be worse. And it’s not like Sam could have taken Chuck on, armed with his thirteen soggy bullets. Eleven, now. Chuck has a nuclear arsenal.

Dean had acquiesced, when Sam had told him his plan, such as it was. He’d no doubt been relieved that it didn’t involve Sam dying. And he’d probably thought it was fair, Sam cleaning up this mess.

Chuck had agreed to meet. He’d looked at the bird and his face had gone calculating and amused.

“Hello, intriguing plot twist,” he’d said. She’d clicked her beak warningly.

“We want to deal,” Sam had said.

“You tried to kill me. You ended my son.”

You killed mine. But Sam wasn’t going to talk about Jack, or Lucifer. Jack’s far away and not a part of this bargain. Lucifer’s done and dusted.

“I winged you. You think I missed?”

“I guess I did make you and Dean good shots. Though I varied it a lot. Plot convenience, you know. Sometimes someone’s got to carry the stupid ball. You and Dean did a lot of that for me. I guess I do almost owe you.”

So they’d worked out a deal. Sam and Dean stick to the formula. They don’t go beyond their pay grade. They don’t try to take down Chuck. No suicide, Chuck had stipulated, no quitting.

“Fine,” Dean had said, “but we die on a hunt, we die.”

“One of you dies in the line, the other goes on,” Chuck had countered. He’d closed his eyes beatifically. “I can see it now. A lonely highway. Dean climbs out of the car. He won’t need it, not any more. His jacket still smells of smoke from his brother’s pyre. He gives the Impala’s key to the new owner, shakes hands. Then he gets onto the waiting motorcycle. There are echoes in the hills when he guns the engine. The lone hunter rides on. Scene.”

Dean’s fist had closed so tight that his knuckles went white, but he hadn’t said anything. Chuck had turned to Sam.

“Show me,” he’d said.

Sam had taken out the box. He hadn’t opened it. Chuck had stared at it with loathing.

“Those things are an existential affront,” he’d said.

“I earned them,” Sam had said. He’d dug them out of his shoulder. He’d ended Lucifer, and made a bird. “I’m keeping them.” Any ambivalence he may or may not feel is none of Chuck’s fucking business.

“A fine mess you’ll make of them. At least it may be entertaining. Break a leg. I’ll be watching. I’ll be on the edge of my seat.”

And Chuck had been gone. Sam had put the silver box back into his pocket.

Ordinary hunts, ordinary dangers, ordinary deaths. Ordinary wendigos, swiping at Dean with their claws.

Sam doesn’t even have time to imagine Dean dying this particular death. Dean’s stumbling backwards from a jabbing beak and a flurry of wings and the wendigo’s clawed hand is tossing the bird away in a ruin of black, white, and red. Sam shouts, pure fury. He hadn’t felt this even ending Lucifer. Dean already got the wendigo with a slosh of gasoline. Sam just has to fling the match and watch the fucker burn.

Then he goes to look at the bird. She’s a smear of blood and feathers and tiny toothed wheels.

“Sorry, dude,” says Dean at his shoulder. “We can give her a decent burial. Or burn her. She, uh, died a hunter.”

Sam has to try twice before he manages to speak.

“Can you just get me a box?” he says.

Dean gets a cardboard box from the car and watches without comment as Sam settles the bloody mess of her in it. Sam holds the box in his lap in the passenger seat, all the way back to the Bunker and Cas.

Cas inspects the remains gravely, without disgust.

“Can you heal her? Bring her back?”

Sam feels stupid, asking. It’s a bird. But he’s responsible for her, more than he’s responsible for anyone, even Dean. And she just threw herself on a grenade — more or less — for Dean.

Cas shakes his head.

“You made her,” he says, “not my father. Chuck. I have no authority. You could bring her back. She died obedient to your command.”

“I didn’t ask her to do it!”

“You created her. The … God-dots … were soaked in your blood. They’re permeated with you. Your feelings, your motivations.”

“So she was, like, programmed to defend Dean? That’s horrible.”

“Gee, thanks,” says Dean. But he punches Sam’s shoulder lightly.

“She did your will,” says Cas.

“OK,” says Sam. “OK.” He fishes out the little silver casket of dots and begins sorting through them.

“Seriously?” says Dean. “You’re really using another God-chip on robobird?”

“She gave her life for you, Dean,” says Cas.

“Yeah, and I feel bad. Wasn’t the first, won’t be the last. How ‘bout the actual people who died for me? If Sam wants to bring someone back, why the bird? Why not Ellen and Jo?”

And if Dean wants to criticize, why doesn’t he talk to Sam? Apart from the fact that Sam has just spent two days clutching a box full of gore and feathers and smashed ivory gears. Get a grip.

Amelia’s going to kill him.

“I have to,” Sam says. He really does, now. “I messed it up for her. I got her tangled in our shit.”

“Because bringing her back from the dead is a great way to ensure she’s not caught up in our crazy. Look, Sam. I’m sorry you lost your bird pal. But you’ve gotta have some sense of proportion. You used one of those things to take Lucifer off the board. I’m not saying that was a great move, but it makes more sense than using them on your pet.”

It’s not clear if making a bird is a step up or down from getting a dog. But Dean doesn’t get it. Sam’s responsible. She’s something he tried to do. And she’s her own thing, even if he overwrote her with programming. He’s not giving up on her.

He’s got eleven of the God-dots left. He goes for vellum. It was living flesh, once. Maybe that’s creepy, but it fits this sad, scrambling, too-late repair.

“Step back a little,” he says to Dean. He doesn’t really like Dean and Cas watching him doing this. But he can’t very well ask them to go away.

“Guess I’m the only one around here who’s read Pet Sematary,” Dean mutters. But he stands back.

Sam hasn’t chosen a setting or read wikipedia. Or Pet Sematary. There’s no blank avalanche roar in his head like with Lucifer. This isn’t an act of will. What he’s got is memories, feelings. An appeal. Rebuilding. He closes his eyes and hears the bird knocking. Free, this time, he thinks. Don’t fall for any cages.

This time it’s not pain that hits him, it’s grief. His coffee spilling in Dad’s hospital room. Bones. Bones must have been dead for years, now, wherever he is. A porcupine he ran over once on a road at night. He can hear himself sobbing. His nose is dripping snot. Dean and Cas must be appalled, embarrassed. Sam hides his face and waits. Claws grapple at his shoulder. He puts out his hand and strokes glossy plumage. He doesn’t need to look to feel her watching, her curious, concerned eyes.

Does it work, Sam’s free will gambit?

The bird might not be the best judge. She stays with Sam. Maybe she strays farther away than she used to, riddles more trees with coded punches like those old computer cards. No more of her is flesh and blood than before, but that may not make the difference Sam thinks it does. When Sam dies, two years later, drowned by a minor kraken, Dean screaming and hacking at tentacles on the shore, she still stays. He may feel guilty, in those last few moments of crushing pressure, thinking he’s only got her with him by some unwitting imperative, some wish not to die alone. From the bird’s perspective, she’s choosing. She’ll follow her fallible, mortal god to whatever place beyond places gods go to when they die. She isn’t one thing or the other, either. She belongs with him, in-between.

So we’re back at the end of the story where we began. Or maybe we’re in the middle, still deciding. It could be just the end of the beginning.

The sun’s in Sam’s eyes. He’s in a box.

There’s a beat of wings and then prickly claws on his chest. The bird. He remembers her claws in his arms clinging as he’d been dragged under. Amelia had said to try not to ditch her. She probably hadn’t meant drag her down to a watery grave.

“Hi,” says Sam, “sorry.” He sits up.

The bird flutters back to the wall and goes back to her knocking. Sam can see the lines of criss-crossing light from the holes she’s made. Thirteen of them. He reaches into his pocket. Dean must have burned his body and probably his clothes, but here he is with pockets. In one of them is a little silver box, nymphs and fauns or whatever in a stupid faux-Classical landscape.

Sam stands — the box is barely big enough — and puts his eye to one of the holes. There’s nothing to be seen but a strong white light, endless and neutral.
The bird’s going to get pretty bored here. What will happen when she’s drilled the whole box away? All Sam’s sins exposed to the light? Sam snorts. There’s not much room for melodrama here.

Black box, white light, company. This is what Sam’s got instead of Anubis.

He can condemn himself. That’s easy. He’d just have to stay here. And god knows he’s got a formidable collections of fuck-ups. He could probe for them, unstick them, lay them out on a tray. The strong white light would work very well for a lab.

But he brought someone with him. A thing that he did, that he made. A fucked-up good deed. A commitment.

Sam’s judgment is often unreliable. Sitting in perpetual judgment on his life probably won’t hone it. Doing more stuff probably won’t perfect him, either. But maybe doing isn’t about perfection. Give up on the holy grail, Sam. Take care of the bird.

“What do you think?” he asks her.

She raps twice, emphatically. She always raps twice. It serves for both no and yes.

He can’t call Rowena here, or go see Amelia, or get Dean to glare at him. There’s no way to outsource his second-guessing. He’ll get very bored, doing it himself, in a box.

Sam’s still got the God-dots. He’s pretty sure he could end them both, for real, and rest. But that’s the God-gun all over again, murder-suicide. If that’s divine power, no thanks.

The bird exists because of something that he did. That’s not an absolution. But it’s an anchor.

Being dead ought at least to give him a line to Death.

It’s weirdly nice seeing Billie’s face, though she looks inhumanly annoyed.

“Sam Winchester. Please ask your bird to stop drilling holes in the holding area. She’s becoming a cosmic menace.”

“Uh, sorry,” says Sam. He looks reproachfully at the bird. She looks unrepentantly back.

“You will be, if she wakes something with her knocking. What do you want?”

“You said — old You said — to Dean that you were supposed to reap God. Is that true?”

“In the end,” says Billie.

“So can you take these?” Sam holds out the open box. Chuck hadn’t been able to take them, or he would have tried. But Billie is outside of Chuck, beyond him. It will be easier, going back, if Sam can just be human. It will make going back to hunting easier. He’ll have to do that. Because of Dean, because of their bargain with Chuck.

Billie touches the dots lightly. Her fingers make contact. But she draws her hand back again with a cool stare.

“You died with ten of those things in your pocket. Have you ever heard of the parable of the talents?”

Sam sighs. Why can’t it ever be simple? He’d wanted a judge. Instead he’s got Death being judgy.

“You’re Death. What do you care what I do with my life?”

“I’m Death. Death is the opposite of waste. So, I’m sending you back. That will be a refreshing change. Not. At least it will stop your bird drilling holes in the fabric.”

Sam puts the box of dots back in his pocket.

“You were the one wouldn’t let me hand them over. So, yeah. I’m not stopping. I’m going to go back. I’m going to, to work at doing things.”

Billie nods her head.

“So be it,” she says.

So, this is an epilogue.

It begins with Sam and the bird at the door of the Bunker. It beats waking up in a field in the rain. The bird knocks at the door and Sam goes in.

The Bunker is empty. The car isn’t there. Shit, shit, shit. Dean’s probably just on a case. Maybe riding Chuck’s black motorcycle. But there’s nothing in the fridge, no books or old coffee mugs on the library table.

“Cas!” Sam hadn’t known he could combine yelling and praying.

“Sam,” says Cas. Would he use that matter-of-factly glad voice if Dean were dead? Sam hugs back perfunctorily and then grabs the lapels of the trench coat and shakes.

“Is Dean dead?”

“Dean’s fine. Grieving, of course. He’ll be glad to see you. We thought, this time, you’d have the choice to not come back. You did take your time about it.”

“How long was I gone?”

“A little over a year.”

The poor bird, tapping away for months. Sam strokes her back apologetically.

“Dean’s fine where?”

“Sioux Falls,” says Cas, like Sam should have figured it out. “He’s been rebuilding Singer Salvage. And helping Jody. There are a lot of younger hunters now. They need training, coordination.”

“What about Chuck? What about hunting and the show must go on?”

Cas smiles.

“Ask Dean,” he says.

The question’s not pressing enough to make Sam stop hugging Dean too quickly. They’re both wet-eyed when they step back. Dean goes inside and comes back with beer, and they sit on the hood of the car.

“Who brought you back? Chuck wasn’t reneging, was he?”

“Me. I decided.”

Dean gives Sam a long look. It’s … evaluative, Sam decides, but not judgy.

“Good call,” he says at last, and punches Sam’s shoulder. Sam takes a swig of beer. It’s good. He looks at the bottle. Dean’s been getting beer at some microbrewery. Or maybe Jody gave it to him. Sam smiles.

“What about you?” he says. “Are you reneging on Chuck? What’s with the retirement deal?”

“I renegotiated.”

“What, no badass biker-hunter ride into the sunset?”

Dean shrugs.

“I didn’t want to go on alone.”

“And Chuck let you take a retirement option? Just like that?”

“Pretty much.”

Sam narrows his eyes. There’s got to be something Dean isn’t telling him. But Dean doesn’t look like they look when they’re keeping secrets. He looks … speculative. And a little embarrassed. He clears his throat.

“I was just as suspicious as you are, trust me. But then I got thinking. I thought maybe it worked both ways. Like, you’ve got God-dots. Maybe Chuck’s got some you-bits. Some human decency.” Dean clears his throat again. That did come too close to a compliment for comfort. “Or a taste for normal. You always went in for normal.”

“Or he just finally got bored of us.”

“I’m just saying. If you want to, uh, go to law school or something, not go back on the road, I don’t think there’d be trouble.”

Dean’s shoulders are hunched defensively, but the offer in his voice is painfully genuine. All the responses are ready in Sam’s mouth: this is my life now, hunting’s who we are, who I am, how do you think being a God-wound freak makes law school more practical, you lunatic? All of those are (sort of, kind of) true. But Sam closes his mouth carefully. His shoulder throbs, possibility and pain. Dying and coming back again didn’t heal it. This feels like a last chance. He needs to not give this away to make Dean happy, to make himself good.

“I don’t want to go to law school,” he says, “but I don’t want to hunt.”

For a moment Dean’s face darkens, reflexively hurt. Then he grins. There’s a lot more grey in his hair than there was a year ago, or Sam’s just noticing more. But the lines round his eyes fall into place when he smiles.

“Me neither,” he says. “You want to stay here? Be a hunter-professor at Singer’s Hogwarts? Pass your research bug on? I know you’re, uh. Not always keen on the Bunker.”

Dean’s got a life here, that’s clear. But Sam shakes his head.

“I’ll come out here,” he says. “I’ll come out here a lot.” There’s a lump in his throat. It’s going to be weird, Dean living somewhere else. Saying I’ll miss you seems ridiculous. “But I’ve, uh. I’ve got a lot of figuring out to do. I need to do research. I need to experiment. Better at the Bunker than some place I might blow up.”

“You’re going full-on God-dot Tony Stark.”

“I’m going to ask for help. I’ll talk to Rowena and Jack.”

“If Jack’s talking to us.”

Sam nods. Dean swings down off the hood of the car. Sam’s back and he’s going away. Dean’s never not going to read that, just a bit, as rejection. Sam tries to think of what he can say that will offer Dean something, what he can confess.

“When I got to the Bunker, and it was empty, I thought you were dead. I thought you’d found a way to end it. I practically yelled Cas’s ear off.”

Dean’s face is more incredulous than moved.

“Dude,” he says. “You didn’t just try my phone?”

There’s nothing to do with that but let the stupid sink in. The bird gives her toy trumpet call. It’s definitely mocking. Dean shakes his head.

“At least you won’t be a mad God-dot genius,” he says. “More like a mad God-dot moron.”

Sam takes that assurance with him back to the Bunker.

In the woods in Kansas a bird with an ivory beak is tapping away at a tree. It’s an ordinary summer landscape, and if the bird is not quite natural — carved symbols and ivory gears — its preoccupation at the moment is an eminently normal search for grubs. Though it’s also keeping an eye on the god in the clearing.

Sam is working on bees. Maybe he’s fixated on saving the world. Or he took a hint from this particular dot, a smudged, waxy hexagon. Or it could be that he remembers how when he was seven they’d stayed in a falling-down house with its lawn run to white and red clover. Dad had gone off somewhere. Sam remembers the cool, slick tickle of stems on his neck and his arms when he lay back in the grass, an irregular thock, thock, thock sound where Dean, bored out of his skull, was throwing green apples at knotholes to keep up his aim. The tap of the bird in the background’s a little like that. But mostly Sam remembers the dense, living hum.

He remembers that stuff a lot now, along with things that he’s done. Releasing Lucifer. Ending him. Betraying and saving Dean. Helping Rowena. Making the woodpecker. Bringing her back. Keeping the little silver box in his pocket. Opening it sometimes.

“Think of them as ingredients,” Rowena had said. “Don’t just throw power; think about what you’re doing. It’s good to have goals. And don’t be morbid. Or, if you’re must, get some absinthe and do it in style.”

Sam has a water bottle. Also the steel tray that he took from the lab. The wax dot’s laid out on the tray. It’s at the center of a careful hexagram of pollen. The things at the corners are guesswork: a little rain water, a scrap of manuscript — an illuminated capital A with a tiny drawing of someone who’s meant to be Virgil, surrounded by hives; a bit of raw meat; the queen from an old chess set; a few drops of mead; a magnet. It’s guesswork, but it’s ready.

The landscape’s all around Sam, bad things happening and good things, ants fighting wars in the grass. It’s absorbed a lot of decisions. What Sam brings back to it might not be the same. His bees may build glass hives, traffic with the underworld, run on tiny gold gears. That doesn’t mean the landscape can’t absorb them, that they won’t do something for it.

The bird knocks and calls in the woods. Sam takes a deep breath. The sun is directly overhead. Sam picks up a magnifying glass. He focuses it, focuses, till the sun sets the tray on fire. Pain swarms at his shoulder, a hive of stinging bees. He falls backwards. It’s gone dark.

Something is prickling over Sam’s heart and prodding his face.

He’s not in some empty box; there’s breeze on his face and grass tickling his neck. He opens his eyes. It’s the bird’s claws gripping his chest. Around him a few ragged flowers are humming with bees.
Tags: 2019:fiction

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  • 2020 Masterlist & Participants

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