The boys pulled up to the curb seconds after Abby. They got out, cringing again at the squeak of the car doors, and stood awkwardly in the street.
"So, you guys have already been here," their hostess asked as she approached.
"Yeah, we looked you up in the phone book." Sam hunched his shoulders and tried to curl his fists into the sleeves of his light jacket.
Dean stuffed his hands deeper into his pockets.
"So I guess you went up to the door," she asked.
"To knock on it, yeah." Dean clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. The cold was cracking the firm hold he'd decided to take on his sarcasm. "Listen this mountain air is as refreshing as all get out, but…"
"Oh sure, let's go in." Abby opened the gate and went in ahead of them. She walked quickly to the porch then turned and watched them make their way through her sleeping herb garden. Satisfied, her smile widened as they stepped onto the porch. "Well done," she muttered under her breath.
Dean had a vague feeling they'd just passed a test.
Abby unlocked her door, "Please come in."
As Dean stepped across the threshold behind Sam, blessed warmth hit him. He straightened out of his turtled position in the collar of his leather coat then took a deep breath. The smells of baking bread, herbs and meaty sauce made him go weak in the knees. He bumped into Sam in the dark. Abby flipped on a light.
"Wow," Sam breathed, eyes closed, taking in long, slow inhales through his nose. Dean's stomach growled agreement.
Abby bustled around the room hanging up her coat, turning on lamps and lighting candles all in quick flowing order born of long habit. "Hang your jackets on the pegs there by the door."
Gaze moving in and out of the pools of light her circuit created, the boys took in the growing impression of rich, warm colors and soft textures that filled Abby's living room. Wood plank floors gave off a buttery glow where they peeked from under the swirling florals and complex geometrics of many colorful rugs. A stone fireplace with a wide, cluttered mantle faced two over-stuffed chairs and an inviting, deep-green leather sofa. Every chair sported at least one soft afghan and each of the many little wooden tables tucked handily next to chairs held a book, candle or bundle of dried herbs, some had all three.
"Do you have a roommate?" Dean asked.
"No, just me," Abby stopped her circuit at the base of a wooden staircase.
"Then who's cooking dinner? Oh, or maybe it's magic." Dean wiggled his fingers in a caricatured spell casting.
"Yeah, that's it, Dean," Abby said cocking an eyebrow at him. "I put a spell on my magic slow-cooker and my magic bread machine this morning before I left for work." She showed him her teeth. "I'm going to go change. Would one of you guys light a fire? There's kindling in the basket there. Oh, and there's beer and wine in the kitchen, soft drinks too. Just make yourselves at home. I'll be right back." She trotted down the hallway beside the stairs.
"I guess I'll make the fire," Sam volunteered.
"You remember how, boy scout?"
"I think I can handle it. How 'bout you pour me a beer.”
"Comin' right up."
There was no television in evidence, but on his way across the living room, Dean spotted a stereo system tucked into a wooden cabinet. She had a turntable! His heart skipped a beat. Dean was a slave to classic rock, the serious stuff, but he loved it best on the rare occasions when he got to listen to it roaring off spinning vinyl.
He longed to flip through her record collection, but his stomach vetoed anything other than the most direct route to the rich, meaty scent he was following. He flicked on the turntable and dropped the needle. As he followed his nose into the kitchen, the close harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel filled the room. He could deal with that.
Dean found the slow-cooker and bent over it lifting the lid. He could almost take a bite of the puff of steam rising from the pot.
Abby's kitchen was old; not in a dusty, neglected kind of way, but in a living museum kind of way. The pine cabinets gave off the same buttery glow as the floors in the living room. A formidable looking old stove, resplendent in buttercup-yellow porcelain, stood on sturdy legs and had more doors and big clunky knobs on the front than he could figure out a use for. He spotted the bread machine and fought the urge to open it and take a whiff. He had some vague notion that bread making was delicate business and best left undisturbed.
Opening a couple of beers he called to Sam, "Is it just me or is this place abnormally homey?"
Sam chuckled as he carefully piled a generous bundle of kindling on the fireplace grate then laid three oak logs on top of that and crumpled newspaper underneath. He checked that the flue was open then found matches and quickly set the newspaper alight.
On top of the wide, wooden mantle was an organized clutter. Sam got caught up in the gallery of photographs. A much younger Abby stood in a cap and gown squeezed between a proudly smiling elderly couple. It must have been summer; the yard was a riot of plants and flowers. His gaze moved to the next photo and froze. Sam picked it up.
His dad looked out at him; arm around Abby, her head resting on his shoulder. They looked tired, but happy to be sharing that moment with the photographer. Sam squelched a surge of envy for the easy familiarity between them. He hadn't felt that comfortable with his dad in years; maybe never.
"Dean, look at this," Sam said quietly.
Dean set a beer on a low wooden table and stood beside his brother. "Whoa."
"It’s weird, isn't it?" They both jumped at the sound of Abby’s voice. "Your dad's told me so much about you guys, I feel like I've known you forever."
Dean stared at the young woman who’d just walked in. She is a witch. She's put on some kind of glamour. Abby had unleashed her dark hair, weaving the sides back off her face, but leaving the back to fall in a riot of shiny curls. A soft sweater the color of pine needles followed the subtle curves of her body. Her skirt was a full, colorful patchwork ending below her knees where a pair of dark leather moccasins laced down to her feet. She was simply, radiantly beautiful and she wasn't even trying. Neither of the boys spoke.
Abby looked down and checked her clothes. She felt her cheeks flush. "What? Did you think I lived in that uniform?"
Jaws snapped shut, throats were cleared, feet shuffled and the spell was broken.
"Obviously not." Sam recovered first. He took the picture from Dean's hand, passed it to Abby.
Her brow smoothed as she looked at it and smiled fondly. "This was taken about 6 years ago; shortly after your dad saved my life."
This just gets deeper and deeper, Dean thought. Who is this woman?
She smiled. "Let's eat while we're talking. I don't know about you guys, but I'm starved."
Abby served them each a bowl of chunky venison stew and a thick slice of homemade bread. A home-cooked meal after weeks of eating nothing that didn't come in a crinkly, plastic bag overwhelmed their ability to make anything more than barely polite conversation. Abby did most of the talking.
"When I met your dad, I'd been living here with my grandparents for a year or so. My folks were killed in a fire in Kansas City." Both boys' heads swung up. She could see their minds drawing connections that weren't there. "Nothing supernatural," she said. "Just ordinary, faulty wiring."
Dean's shoulders relaxed and he said, "I'm sorry."
Abby nodded and pushed the old, familiar grief aside. "Thanks. I wasn't home that night. I came back from a sleepover the next morning to…hell; fire trucks, ambulances, chaos. I don't remember much except the smell of smoke. It clung to me for weeks."
"Yeah, I remember."
Dean met her gaze and she knew that he did remember. John had said that Dean was about four when his mom was killed and their home burned.
To their astonishment, Abby told the boys that their dad had been coming to her grandparents' place for years. And thanks to John’s stories, Abby remembered more about their childhoods than they did. By the time the last hunk of bread sopped up the last drop of stew, she had them laughing at tales from their own elementary school days.
For Abby, this was a reunion not an introduction. Yet she had to admit, they were different than she'd imagined them all these years.
Soft spoken, intelligent Sam wasn't the rebellious little brother, or at least not just the rebellious little brother John had drawn for her. He wasn't little for one thing, definitely not the gawky fifteen-year-old she always pictured in her mind!
And Dean…Dean was something different altogether. She'd expected the bad-boy attitude. His broad, square shoulders and lean, muscular build were like his dad's, but the grace in the careless way he moved was all his own. She knew both of the boys could handle themselves in a fight. John had hammered them into warriors. But there was softness in Dean; vulnerability under all the bravado that she found incredibly…interesting.
When she opened her Sight and took a peek, their auras, though very distinctive, blended and merged when they were close like now. It linked them; made them stronger than they could be alone. She envied them.
Peeping Toms, especially on the astral plane, were never appreciated, she reminded herself. Abby closed her Sight. She shook off her musings and brought herself back to the table and reluctantly back to the conversation she knew she was going to have to start.
Dean saved her from being the one to wet-blanket the evening. He wiped his lips on a napkin and leaned back. "So, Dad saved your life?"
"Let's move to the comfy chairs by the fireplace for the rest of this, ok?" She stood and picked up her dinner plate. "Does anybody besides me want to switch to herbal tea? I can guarantee sweet dreams."
Sam doubted that anything could sweeten his dreams these days, but hot tea sounded good. He was about to accept her offer when Dean accepted for him.
"That sounds good for Sam, and I'll take some as long as it's not gonna put me to sleep?”
Sam was too tired to protest Dean's mother hen routine. A glare was all he could muster. "Yes please, tea sounds good."
Abby poured three steaming mugs of hot water then chose a few herbs from her many jars lined up on the counter. “Meet you in the living room,” she said.
"We'll be there in a sec." Dean's gaze lingered as she walked into the living room.
Sam brought his dishes to the sink then glanced back over his shoulder and said in a low voice, "So, what do you think?"
"I said, what do you think about Abby?"
Dean dragged his attention back to the dishes. She's incredible, funny, gorgeous…
"She's interesting," he said blandly.
"Interesting?" Sam asked. "Who are you and what've you done with my brother?" He turned his head and found empty space. Dean was already walking into the living room. Realization dawned. "Yeah, you find her interesting all right."
Sam’s body felt warm and heavy, his mind pleasantly slow as he lowered himself onto the moss-green couch. He eyed it wondering if it would be long enough for him to stretch out on. Abby finished her "potions" and handed each of them their own custom brewed mugs of tea. Sam blew on the steaming liquid and took a sip. Ohhh man, that's great. The warmth of the crackling fire caressed his right cheek, soothing the kinks and jagged edges he'd grown in the past couple weeks. Abby's image blurred into the firelight.
Sam tugged his chin up with a jerk. He glanced at Dean. Turned impatiently away from that annoyingly concerned frown and concentrated on catching up with what Abby was saying.
"…he'd come to see Grams and Poppa for a professional consultation, the first time we met."
"Your grandparents were hunters?"
"Retired by that time, supposedly. Grams was a witch; a wise woman. People around here came to her for herbs and tinctures. She had a reputation for cooking up stuff that worked. Poppa did most of the actual hunting and Grams backed him up with protection charms, detection spells, counter curses, healing when he needed it. They took care of any nasties that came within about a fifty mile radius of here. They were an awesome team."
For a moment, missing them became a raw thing again for Abby. She deliberately turned her thoughts back to John and grinned up at the boys. "Oh, I had such a crush on your dad!"
Dean sputtered into his tea, "Our dad?"
"Oh yeah, he's such a hottie."
Sam didn't know whether to scowl or grin so he did both, it hurt. "Hottie is not a word I would ever associate with my father."
"I grew out of my crush," Abby said. "Eventually." The boys groaned. "I hadn't lived here more than a year when John showed up on our doorstep. Poppa'd put the word out to the in-crowd that he suspected there was a demon in his territory. Instead of making a phone call or writing an email, your dad..."
"Just showed up," Dean said.
Abby smiled. "Exactly. They spread their combined notes out on the table and stayed up hashing over everything for hours. By the time the sun came up, they'd identified one extremely elusive coven."
"The Order of the Nine?" Dean asked.
"Yeah," She looked up sharply. "I'm confused. Your dad did tell you about all this?"
"No, this is something we found in his journal," Dean said. "That's why we're here. There was a clipping on a sacrifice gone bad." Dean saw Abby's cheeks flush. He frowned. "Were you involved in that?"
"Yeah, I guess you could say I was involved." She looked up reluctantly, "I was the intended sacrifice."
"Whoa.” Sam's drowsiness disappeared. Dean pulled up out of his slouch. Their questions tumbled over each other.
"Wait, wait." Abby held up her hands. She'd expected to have to defend herself for pulling such a stupid stunt. That's exactly the reaction she'd gotten from John. But unlike Winchester senior, Winchesters junior were on the edge of their seats like geeks at a gamers' convention. They are waaaay too into their work, she thought and grinned. But then so am I.
She started again with a little more enthusiasm for the tale. "When Poppa died, I decided to keep up surveillance on the coven for him. Things went fine until I tried to infiltrate them." She paused. "I was so…"
"Stupid?" Dean asked.
Expertly raising one eyebrow at him, she said "I was going to say, young and naive, but stupid will do. It turned out I'd been the coven’s target all along."
"The sacrifice ritual at St. Stephens. That was you?”
The concern in Dean's voice set her teeth on edge. She nodded. Get a grip, Abby. Sam could be the one in the middle of this now. She unclenched her fists and wiped her sweaty palms on her skirt. Her face lit with the next memory.
"Just picture your dad charging into this dark, rat infested church, eyes wild, baseball bat in one hand and squeeze bottle of holy water in the other. And charging right next to him, my seventy-five-year-old Grams, grey hair streaming, eyes flashing. John knockin' heads. Grams throwing spells right and left."
"The whole coven was there?" Dean asked, a wolfish grin growing on his lips. "Nine of them against…"
Sam interrupted. "Abby, you said you'd been their target all along. What did you mean?" He'd felt like he was walking around with a bulls eye painted on his chest ever since these new nightmares started. "How did they choose you?"
Abby's smile faded. She swallowed and slowly turned to Sam. "They chose me for two reasons, first, revenge. My grandfather'd been a thorn in their side for years; poking around, showing up at their ritual sites. After his death, Grams kept up the pressure. The coven wanted to hit them where it would hurt the most."
"So they hit you," Dean said. "Makes sense."
She took a quick gulp of tea. "Yeah. And second…they were attracted to my gift."
"Gift?" Sam asked, his gaze sharpening.
Abby really, really didn't want to tell them about this. Some people just didn't react well. She took a deep breath. "I can read auras."
Okay, the blank look on Dean's face was a little anticlimactic. Abby frowned. "Not all the time. I have to consciously open my Sight." She watched for a reaction. Still nothing. "Auras… the psychic energy that surrounds all of us. It's like a mood ring you wear over your entire body. I can See basically how you're feeling, what kind of a person you are… and I always know when someone's lying."
Dean choked. "Always?"
Now he gets it. "Always. So…," she continued quickly, "…the coven chose me so they could screw with my grandparents and because they target people with psychic abilities."
Dean turned to Sam. "Well crap!"
"When John cut me off of that altar…I was in pretty bad shape." Abby raised her eyes and happened to catch Dean's. The furious glint in them reminded her of his dad. "He brought me to Grams, and then took off after the priests. He didn’t catch them, but whatever he did, it sent the three of them into deep hiding. John was furious that night." She looked at Sam. "But afterwards…I'd never seen him so scared."
"Dad pissed the head honchos off, just like your grandfather did." Dean looked at his brother who was staring fixedly into the crackling fire. "And he has a kid with a gift, like your grandfather." Dean raised his eyes to Abby. "Dad couldn't risk coming back here; couldn't risk Sam ever coming here. That's why he never mentioned you or your grandparents to us. He knew we'd get curious."
"Yeah, I think you're right." Suddenly, Abby felt exhausted. She'd told them what she knew. She'd even confessed her gift. But what good had it done? "And here you are in Colorado Springs anyway," she said flatly. "I tried to call your dad because I think the coven is gathering members. They're going to perform the ritual again. They'll need a sacrifice." She looked up at Sam. "It's two days till Halloween."
Cold, so cold. How long? How long had he been chanting in the dark? He shivered. A piercing ache sent agony through shins, palms, forehead. Like shards of ice thrust through the stone floor bringing pain even as it numbed him.
The master wouldn't leave him, not him. The master knew how special he was, how vital to the chant. The master loved him! His fingernails scraped across the gritty stone as he clenched his fists.
The master raised him from his so-called life. His bitch of an ex-wife had used him like a doormat. She made him believe that the whole filthy mess was his fault. She'd twisted things; turned him into a sniveling, guilt ridden ass!
Then he'd met the master.
The master understood his needs, even applauded them. The frigid harpy had driven him into the arms of that other woman; another whore, as it turned out. The others understood him too. Understood his anger; his right to impose justice. The master had shown them all that together they wielded more power than they dared dream!
The ex-wife had suffered.
A shuddering sob racked his body. He convulsed tightly to choke off the sound. Breathing hard, he wriggled a few inches and pressed his forehead into a new frozen spot on the stone.
Pain is power.
She'd suffered. Measly human law didn't apply to the master, or to him.
The master was the only law.
And the master'd been proud, proud of his courage. The thought warmed him. His ragged breathing slowed. It didn't matter how long he'd knelt here in the dark. The numbing cold didn't matter. His pain had a purpose.
Pain is power; power for the chant.