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Ages ago, I wrote 8k of an S3 AU fic where Sam determines that, for reasons, the way to keep Dean out of hell (for a little while, anyway) is to get him pregnant. I had a lot of fun with the worldbuilding of it, which was motivated by (if not apparently related to) some of what big_pink did in her magnum opus Red (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED IF YOU HAVE NEVER READ). I also got a huge kick out of my OC.

I got bogged down by figuring out Plot, though, forever my nemesis. The fic has been mouldering long enough that I can admit I will never finish it, so I'm setting it free, and here it is, for anyone who's curious.

~~~

The first time Sam broaches his latest plan of doomed genius, Dean’s chewing on a diner melt. He chokes.

Recovered, he says, “You want to do what to me?”

“It’s because of the souls,” Sam says. “The bond has to be involuntary, and involuntary soul-bonds are pretty rare, except for—”

“Are you freaking kidding me?”

“Dean—”

“The answer’s no, Sam. You want to keep me out of hell, you find something else.”

--

The second time, they’re on a stake-out, watching for a newly assertive ex-geek who’s developed a monthly appetite for hearts.

“Hey, Dean, you remember that idea I had?”

“What idea?” Sam’s had a few hundred in the last couple of months. Most of them lately have been on par with Fly to Oz and ask the wizard. Five weeks to go. Dean’d be getting desperate about now, except Sam’s already got more than enough desperate going for the both of them.

“The one with the soul bonding,” Sam says.

Right. That one, he remembers. “Sam.”

“Yeah,” Sam says. Warily, as well he should.

“You are not knocking me up. No one is knocking me up.”

“If someone else’s soul is bonded to yours, the demon can’t take you – not when it means dragging an innocent soul along for the ride. Can’t kill you, can’t do anything.”

“It’s not even permanent! You know how long it’d last me? Nine months, Sam. That’s it. That is both way the hell too long and not nearly long enough.”

“It’ll buy us time.”

“It would buy us time if we were doing it. Which we aren’t.” Anyway, Sam doesn’t need more time, not spent this way. The whole point of this was Sam being alive, but these days of desperation are acid, etching ever deeper into Sam’s face. Dean couldn’t stand another nine months, if this was how they went.

“Dean...”

“There’s Wolfy,” Dean says, nodding towards the figure moving past the lighted window. He checks his gun. “Let’s do this.”

--

The third time, they’re three weeks from the end. Dean sings out Metallica in the shower at the top of his lungs. He’s destroyed three tubes of toothpaste in succession just to get Sam to yell at him, but gave up after the third because he didn’t think Sam even noticed. He makes sure to catch all the Terminator movies again on motel cable; the early promos for the new one look awesome, but the last scene won’t even wrap until after his does.

That’s what he’s doing when Sam bangs in through today’s front door. Dean keeps his eyes on the TV screen. Lately looking at Sam is like seeing Dad all over again, those first days after the fire. Dean didn’t realize he even remembered what that looked like until now.

“Dean.”

“Not now, Sarah Connor’s about to blow something up.”

Sam huffs something that’s not so much a sigh as a minor detonation. He drops on Dean’s bed, opposite the side Dean’s stretched out on. “I’ve got a contact.”

And there’s the explosion. Sarah Connor’d be a hell of a hunter. “For...”

“Someone with power. Pretty sure she can do what we need.”

Now Dean glances up. “Which is...”

“I think she can get you pregnant.”

The looming threat of Skynet is forgotten. “We are not talking about this.”

“Yes, we damn well are. It’s the only lead we have that’s worth squat, and it’s going to keep you out of hell, okay?”

“No, not okay. So we knock me up. I’m a nine-month wonder. What happens at the end, Sam?”

“I’ll have another way to save you by then. I have leads, I just, I need time.”

“You’re not getting the picture here. At the end of nine months, there’s a kid. What are we going to do with a kid?” What is Sam going to do with a kid, since Dean isn’t going to be around to deal?

“There’s... adoption, or places where you can drop kids off, or I bet Bobby knows someone. Or maybe once I’ve found a way to save you, we can stop the spell, or whatever.”

“You sure about that? Because I’m pretty once you get tied up in that kind of mojo the untangling doesn’t come easy.”

“We can figure out what to do with the kid. That’s not the point.”

“Tell me again what the point is?”

“For you to not be in hell in three weeks!” The words bang against the ceiling and come echoing back. “I’m trying to save you, Dean, and you won’t let me! You are going to hell for me, and you won’t let me return the favor!”

“By getting me...” The word sticks in his throat. “By getting me pregnant? You’re freaking hilarious, man.”

“You sure as hell won’t let me try anything else! This is it, Dean. No freaky psychic powers? Fine. No more demon deals? Fine. So this is what you get.” Sam’s shaking where he stands, and Dean thinks only a little of that is anger. He can see Sam’s shoulders bowed under all the hours he hasn’t slept. As if Sam’s suddenly feeling them, too, he slumps back onto the bed.

Just like that, there are more important things than Sam’s really freaking stupid scheme. Dean leans back against the wall. “This is your plan, Sam?” he jibes. “You’re supposed to be the one with the brain and the college education.”

“Dean...”

“I get that you’re trying here, man, but there is no way.”

“But—”

“No, Sam. Just no.”

Dean waits until Sam nods, an acceptance of postponement, if not of defeat. Then Dean gets up and walks out of a motel room suddenly much too small.

The Impala’s there at the end of the row, long and sleek, waiting for him, and who’s he to deny a woman? He opens her door and slides in. Not much longer he’ll have her wheel under his hands. The creak of her hinges, the crackle of the bench seat leather beneath, they’re like his ocean, sounds filling his days and nights for so long that he never hears them anymore until he tries.

The motel door’s still closed. Maybe Sam’s waiting for another round; maybe he’s back to his laptop, the monitor illuminating his feverish haste.

The road beckons.

Dean turns the ignition and pulls out of the parking lot. To the left is town and the interstate; to the right, by the look of it, is a long, lonely road through a whole lot of fields. Dean turns right. At the first four-way stop, he pauses long enough to slide over and open Sam’s window, then he slides back and opens his own. The evening air is cooling but not yet cold, heavy with the rich heady smells of spring: moisture and pollen and fresh-turned dirt.

The road turns country, as promised, a two-lane gliding arrow-straight through wide open fields, some planted and some not. The light’s faded too far to identify the crops, though driving along one stretch, Dean gets a strong whiff of mint.

He could drive all night, be in Billings by sunrise, Sioux Falls by late afternoon. Not that looking at Bobby’s face would cure Dean of any of what’s ailing him now, but he doesn’t have to go to Bobby’s. Minneapolis isn’t much farther. Lawrence would take a full day, and it’d be a bitch without someone to spell him, but he could do it.

But there’s nothing in Lawrence that can save him. He knows, because they went and asked Missouri months ago. After one hearty slap to his shoulder, she didn’t even scold him for mortgaging his soul, which he figures says something about the sorriness of his state.

He’s just gotten around to considering the merits of Texas when he’s struck upside the nose with an odor so strong, so vile he wants to puke. It’s all he can do is pull off onto the shoulder and try to pull himself together, counting out his inhales and exhales.

It’s sulfur, he realizes after a half-dozen panicked breaths. His pulse steps back off the accelerator. Half-calm, he recognizes the particular flavor to this rotten-eggs aroma: fertilizer, no doubt from some nearby field. It’s not even that strong, now that he knows where it’s coming from. He’s smelled it blowing into open car windows all his life. Now he’s jumping at every stray trace on the breeze.

“Dean Winchester, you got problems,” he says.

But this is what he’ll have to get used to; in hell, it’ll be the least of his worries. He takes a deep breath, just to prove he can, and all the associations flood in: insecure windows and unsalted doors; Yellow-Eyes looking out of John Winchester’s face; the heavy dead - dead - weight of Sam leaning into Dean’s arms; the crossroads demon’s triumphant, possessive kiss.

Dean Winchester is not a man afraid of death. It’s the next thing he’s terrified of. Sam’s not there; he can admit it. Sitting there on the side of road, the stench of evil thick in his nostrils, he’s terrified.

--

When Dean gets back to the motel, the room lights are off, but Sam’s face is awash in the glow of his laptop monitor, a disembodied, blue-tinged specter. He barely even glances at Dean. Dean shuts the door, sits on his bed, and starts unlacing his boots. The second one’s loose before he musters up the words.

“So, that soul-bonding idea you had.”

Sam looks up, face taut with sudden, stark hope.

“Tell me again why it has to be...that? Couldn’t I just scope a few bars, find a girl, take her to Vegas and, hey honey, wouldn’t you love matching soul-bond tattoos?” There isn’t a woman on earth who’d want to if she really understood what it’d mean. Not like he’d ever want to tie himself down that way, either, even without the creepy-ass emotional bleedover. Still.

“Wouldn’t work,” says Sam. “A voluntary soul-bond would have to have been pre-existing when you made the crossroads deal. Probably the deal wouldn’t have even happened – I bet the crossroads demon gets, um, hell if she doesn’t check first. But involuntary soul bonds still apply, even ones made after.”

“I’m guessing from the description that I can’t actually volunteer for one of those?”

“Most of them are one-time-only deals – epic hero bonds with his sword or his shield-bearer or the goddess of the hunt or whatever, to fulfill some quest.”

“There’s a goddess of hunting?” How come they never mentioned her during world lit? God, and she’s probably hot, too. Runs around in a cute little loin cloth, jabbing evil things with her silver-tipped hunting spear.

“Goddess of the hunt, Dean. Boars and stags. Focus.”

Dean feels a frisson of something that might be hope. He can’t count the weeks since Sam last took that tone, the one that says Dean, you stupid moron brother, shut up a minute and let me finish. The one that suggests there’ll be time for irrelevent commentary later. The one that means Sam thinks there might be hope.

“I’m focused,” Dean says. “Spill.”

“I’ve found accounts of people who’ve been pregnant when their deal came due, and they got a delay.”

“People.”

“Women. If a man’s ever tried it before, I haven’t found any mention of it.”

Dean isn’t sure whether to take that as worrisome. Then again, everything about this is. “We’re not talking Alien, right? Not something busting out of me when it’s tired of squatting. Just a baby. Human.”

“That was the idea,” Sam says cautiously.

Dean stared at the television set, his mind as blank as the screen. Morning sickness or hell? More likely, morning sickness and hell, consecutively.

“It’s just until I find something else,” Sam repeats softly. From the corner of his eye Dean sees him bow his head over his knees.“It’s all I’ve got.”

“Sam...”

“How’re you gonna protect me if you’re not here?” Sam looks up, eyebrows caught in a complex display of wry and exasperated and exhausted. “Don’t know how long I’m gonna last without you, man.”

Dimly, Dean recognizes that this is dirty pool. This is the dirtiest fighting there is, but it doesn’t keep the blow from landing. He swallows. “You’ll be fine. Survived college for three years without me, didn’t you? You’re a better hunter now than you ever were with Dad, and you probably won’t break the Impala next time you take a wrench to her, and... You’ll be fine.”

“Wanna bet?” Sam says. His eyes are glistening. Sam pulls the puppy face all the time without even trying, but he learned the Winchester code as well as Dean did: real men only cry when the world’s crashing in.

“You know this is a bad idea, right? Like, really impressively stupid, Sam.”

“I know.”

“And by stupid, I mean invasive and very disturbing and probably unworkable.”

This earns him a weary hint of Sammy-grin. “Yeah, I got that.”

Dean swallows down all thoughts of how invasive, how very disturbing, and says, “Okay, so how’s this going to work?”

Sam’s grin is like a nuclear blast, so bright it vaporizes you were you stand and leaves a shadow to mark your passing. “We go talk to, uh, Sylvie and see what she can tell us.”

~*~*~


Sylvie is a second-hand – or possibly several more hands removed – contact of Bobby’s, distant enough that he has no last name and precious little info on her. What he does know: Quiet, sometimes can be found in a stick-built cabin in an isolated patch of Wisconsin woods, has her hand in the unnatural.

The instructions for finding her are clear. They remind Dean of meeting Rufus, whiskey in hand. Dutifully he and Sam stop at a greenhouse in Red Wing, Minnesota and choose a potted plant – the more exotic, the better, according to Bobby – and then they cross the state line into Wisconsin, following a winding little highway for a while and eventually turning onto what Dean hypothesizes is an old logging road. It’s not maintained, and they end up walking the last half-mile. At the end of it, there’s a cabin, as advertised.

Also unoccupied, as advertised. They leave the plant at the front door with Sam’s signed and dated note. Dean circles the house – Sam insists doing even a quick cursory inspection inside would make a bad impression – and standing around for a few minutes, but that gets old pretty fast, so they hoof it back to the Impala and Red Wing.

“Two days, man?” Dean says as they roll into town. “We gotta hang around this burg for two days?”

Sam only shrugs.

After a diner dinner, they glance through the paper, but this place is looking woefully unhaunted. They do learn that rock climbing is a thing here – “No kidding, those bluffs probably have the sharpest elevation change in the whole damn state” – and that the local shoe factory offers tours. Before Sam can go so far as to visit the local historical society for fun, Dean drags him away to a wide spot in the road a little out of town, overlooking the not-so-mighty Mississippi, where they each work on a beer and watch the river roll past.

As completely wasted days of nothing go, it’s not bad. Sort of peaceful. Unless Sam’s crap idea pans out, peace is likely to be something Dean’s soon in short supply of. He doesn’t mind soaking up a bit of it now. Nice, too, to have Sam sitting in one place, no laptop, no lore, no frenzied search for the next thing; just Sam, shooting the breeze with him.

If Dean has to go out, this is how he wants his last few weeks to go.

“So what is this lady again?” he asks.

“Bobby didn’t know,” Sam says. “Just said she had power.”

“A witch,” Dean says.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“God, I hate witches. She’s not draining anyone’s blood for me, you get that, right?”

Sam grins that Sammy grin, complete with dimples the like of which have no right to be on a grown man’s face. “I figured.”

After a few minutes, Dean asks again, “But we have no idea what she is.”

Sam drains the last of his bottle. “Nope.”

“Peachy.”

--

After two days of hustling and lounging and laundry and progressively sharper disagreement – two days being the outside limit for a comfortable Winchester vacation, Dean estimates – they drive back into Wisconsin, up the same private road until Dean dares drive no farther, and they walk the rest of the way in.

The cabin looks as empty as it ever did, the one window dark. The gift plant is gone from in front of the threshold, though. Sam looks at Dean, Dean looks at Sam, and then Sam lifts his knuckles to the door.

“Are you looking for me?” asks a sturdy, feminine voice, and they turn.

Dean isn’t sure what he was expecting - witch, hag - but it wasn’t this gangly woman, maybe five years older than him and a couple of inches shorter, her figure all angles and heavy joints, her skin translucent-fair under a smattering of freckles. Her hair hangs thin, straight, and brown.

“Sylvie?” asks Sam.

“That’s me,” she says, expression bemused but unthreatened. She carries no weapons that Dean can tell, although her jacket hangs loose on her, offering plenty of places to conceal a blade or a revolver if she were so inclined.

“I’m Sam, and this is my brother Dean. A friend gave us your name. He said you might be able to help us.”

She looks Sam up and down and twists her lips in a kind of shrug, and then walks past him to the door. As she pushes it open she calls back, “Wipe your feet.”

Inside, the place is cosy and somewhat less rustic than Dean expected, given what it looked like on the outside. There are rugs on the floor and something that once resembled a couch pushed against one wall, now heaped with blankets. Through the cabin’s single inner doorway, looming dark shapes suggest a bedroom.

There’s a sink in a countertop opposite the door, and that’s where Sylvie goes. Running water, Dean notes, but apparently no bathroom.

“Tea?” Sylvie offers, her back still turned to the strange men standing in her house. She’s trusting, whoever she is. Or fearless.

“Tea would be great,” Sam says, and Dean grimaces. He’s never been able to decide which is worse: that bitter English breakfast stuff, or the herbal shite that tastes like grass.

Once she’s set the water to boil on the gas burner, Sylvie ushers them to the table set snug in the corner nearest the sink. There are exactly three chairs, though none of them match and one looks like it might have been hewed by hand. “So tell me,” she says, sitting, “What is it you think I can do for you?”

Sam glances at Dean, and Dean lifts his eyebrows; Dean may be the reason they’re here, but this is definitely Sam’s show.

“My brother wants to have a baby,” Sam says. Dean winces at the words. There’s no way this conversation is going to be anything but painful.

“Oh?” Sylvie says. She turns her mild gaze to Dean and just looks, curious, until Sam clears his throat.

“Well, it isn’t so much the baby,” Sam says, and pauses. Sylvie glances back and forth between them.

“Damn it, Sam,” Dean mutters. He looks straight at Sylvie and says, “We want to know if you can knock me up.”

Her eyebrows rise maybe a whole quarter inch at that; Dean’s starting to wonder if she’s capable of emotion at all. Still, he’s pretty sure he hears amusement when she says, “Why?”

“Does it matter?” Sam says.

“Maybe not. But you’re asking me a favor, and I’m curious.”

They talked about this, how much they should say, how much they could get away with not explaining. I’m not telling her my life story when I don’t even know what she is, Dean said.

“It’s for protection,” Sam says. Sylvie waits. “We understand there’s a soul-bond—”

“Between the parent and the unborn child. Yes.” Her gaze slides away from them. Dean can see they’ve lost her interest, so he’s surprised when she adds, “Yes, I can do it. It will take some time to prepare.”

“How much time?” Sam says. “We’re kind of on a deadline here.”

Her expression is impassive and yet reads as plain as the sign in the office of any crotchety secretary: Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part. “A week,” she says. “Maybe ten days.”

Dean counts the days in his head. He knows Sam’s doing the same. It’ll be close, but...

“Yeah,” says Sam. “Yeah, that should work.”

“Okay, then,” says Sylvie. She laces her fingers together on the tabletop. “The real question is, can you make this worth my while?”

“We’ve got some cash,” Sam offers tentatively, although he’s surely thinking what Dean’s thinking: this is not a woman who covets worldly goods.

“Not interested,” she says.

“If you’ve got a ghost bothering you, we can probably take care of that,” Dean says. “Also vampires, shapeshifters, black dogs, wendigos, and manifestations of group consciousness, although our technique’s still kinda dodgy on that last one.”

And somehow, suddenly, this draws a grin. It’s a sunny, cheerful grin that does wonders for a face that is, let’s be honest, on the drab side. “Hunters,” Sylvie says, with a sort of fond delight. “I should have known. Tell me, Sam and his brother Dean, are those your real names?”

“Uh, yes?” Sam says.

“And do you volunteer them to every person you meet?”

“No, actually.”

“Glad to hear it. I’d have expected a pair of hunters to know better.” After another moment’s appraisal of them both, she shakes her head. “It doesn’t answer the question, though. These kinds of things, there has to be a cost, price for price. That law’s older than... well. Far older than any of us.”

“What kind of thing did you have in mind?” Sam asks.

“Well, that’s always the trouble, isn’t it?” she says.

The tea kettle whistles, and she rises and returns to the sink. In the moments while her back is turned, Dean and Sam share mutual shrugs. It’s going okay so far, isn’t it? Yeah. Not what I expected. Yeah, me neither.

She carries three mismatched mugs to the table. Dean catches a sniff of Sam’s – lemony and herbal, he knew it – before she sets Dean’s down in front of him. A wire mesh holds the leaves, which don’t smell anything like lemon. Tentatively he takes one scalding sip. The flavor’s a little sharp and vaguely familiar, though he can’t place it. It’s not terrible, he decides. At least it doesn’t taste like grass.

He looks up to find Sylvie watching him with a hint of some private amusement.

“So,” she says. “What could you possibly give me that I want?”

“Our dad collected mystical artifacts,” Sam says. “Cursed objects, talismans. Worth a fortune, some of it.”

“We are not handing out cursed objects, Sam!”

Sam ignores him. “Is there anything you’re looking for?”

“I’m not interested in curses,” she says.

“Aw, come on, honey,” Dean says, an undercurrent of sex sneaking into his voice. “There’s gotta be something you want. I’ll do anything.”

Wordless, her expression hardly changing, she manages to convey that were she the type of person to roll her eyes, her eyes would definitely rolling right now. Sam’s busy trying to hide a smirk.

So much for the time-honored practice of commerce via sexual favors.

While he’s busy ransacking the mental attic for anything else they could offer, she asks quietly, “What do you mean to do with the child?”

“We hadn’t really decided,” Sam says.

She’s looking at Dean and waiting for his reply. “Yeah, uh, we don’t know.” It feels like a confession rather than the simple logistical question it’s supposed to be. She accepts this without comment or expression.

They should have thought of this, Dean thinks. Sam should have thought of it. They weren’t expecting an inquisition; usually when it came to people – things? – like Sylvie, Winchesters shoot first and never bother with questions at all.

But Sylvie’s reached some kind of decision, and she’s looking him in the eye with an intensity that makes him wish for her earlier detachment. “It’ll have to be half mine,” she says. “The child. What you’re asking me to do, I can only do for a child of my own blood. I’ll help you conceive and carry a child, and if it survives this protection scheme of yours, you’ll bring it once a year on its birthday. So I can see it.”

Dean opens his mouth to say something smart-ass, just to give him time to think, but she cuts him off.

“It’s my only offer.”

“And if the baby doesn’t make it?” Sam asks.

Her gaze remains on Dean, searching. “Then none of us get what we want.”

There are a lot of layers in that statement. Dean’s not sure he wants to explore them all. “You gonna do witch-bitch things to it?” he asks. The kid’s purely hypothetical, but that doesn’t mean he’s turning it over for a day to get its toes cut off or its teeth pulled out, and as phrases go, child of my blood doesn’t sound entirely innocuous.

“No,” she says simply.

“Look, honey, we don’t know anything about you, or what you want a kid for, or—”

“What does anyone want a kid for?” She turns quickly away, but not before he sees a flash of pain, of something fragile. When she turns back, the expression is gone, and her gaze is hard. “You come stomping in here and you ask for my help without even a thought for the cost – you come to take, and assume you’re doing me the favor of letting me help you.”

She rises, taking their tea mugs with her. “You have my offer. Take it or not, it makes no difference to me.”

“We’re sorry,” Sam says, before Dean can get a word out. “Can we think about it?”

“Come by tomorrow and tell me what you decide. I probably won’t be here. Leave me a note.”

Dean follows Sam to his feet. “Thank you,” Sam says earnestly. Always the polite one; Dean wonders again how John Winchester ever managed to raise a man like Sam. Or how Dean did, for that matter. “Tomorrow.”

They walk back to the Impala in silence. Once they’re on the road again, steering wheel smooth and sure in Dean’s grip, Sam says, “You think she’s for real?”

“I dunno, man.”

“Do you think she’s a witch?”

Dean thinks back to her tidy cabin, her built-for-stout hiking boots, the way she looked him straight in the eye even after she knew he was a hunter and therefore probably armed to the nines. He’s not much for instinct over information and he feels none too easy about anyone who fools around with the unnatural, but he lies enough to know what genuine looks like, and he thinks she might be it. Potentially terrifying, the way Ellen is, or Caleb was sometimes, but genuine. “Not really,” he says.

That conclusion alone is a relief. It takes the to gank or not to gank question off the table, at least for now.

“Maybe she just wants a kid.”

“Dude, there are easier ways. And once a year?”

“I’m pretty sure some people’d like parenting only one day a year.”

“Yeah, well, some people I’d be happy enough salting and burning before they kick it.” Sam snorts, but he doesn’t disagree.

They’re across the state lane and within sight of the motel when Sam says quietly, “So are you okay with this?”

“Fuck, no,” Dean says. “But it’s this or hell, right?”

“Looks like.”

Dean takes a deep breath. “So I guess it’s this.”

~*~*~


The next day, they drive back to Sylvie’s yet again. “Middle of freaking nowhere,” Dean grumbles. The cabin is empty, as she warned, but there’s a note wedged between the door and doorframe.

Hunter,

If the answer’s yes, be here before sunset tomorrow.


“Vague enough?” Dean asks.

“No names,” Sam comments.

“What’s with that, anyway?”

Sam shrugs. “Sounds like the old superstitions – the power of true names, that kind of thing. Think Rumpelstiltskin.”

“Seriously old-school,” Dean says. Whatever. Apparently he trusts this woman; now, his decision made and his life on the line, he’d just as well stay ignorant of precisely what sort of person he’s trusting. He slips the note into his pocket and wedges his in its place.

Come to that, his note isn’t any more specific. Just one line: I’ll do it.

~*~*~


When they come into view of the cabin’s clearing, Sylvie’s waiting in the middle of it, a knapsack slung over one shoulder.

“So let’s do this thing,” Dean says, as hearty as he can manage.

She shakes her head. “Not yet. This is preparation.”

“What is?” he says.

“Follow me.” She turns, crosses the clearing, and walks straight into the woods. When Dean gets to the place where she entered, he finds a footpath. Deer trail, maybe. He follows her the short distance to another clearing, smaller, ringed by trees straight as sentinels. Sylvie’s standing at one side next to a towering old grandfather of a tree with a heavy, twisted trunk.

“So?” he says.

She turns to him, and something’s changed. All her features are the same, but they don’t sit naturally on her anymore. They’re a mask that doesn’t quite fit. “You came to me because I have power,” she says. Staring at her now, at the sudden alienness of her, Dean is for the first time convinced that she does. He didn’t realize before that he’d he doubted. “Some trust in men and some in horses,” she says, and lays a hand upon the huge knobby trunk. “I trust in trees. And now so do you.”

“I do?” This is the point at which he’d like to freak the hell out.

She takes his right hand and turns it palm-up. In her other hand there’s suddenly a knife, short-handled and brutish. She draws the blade’s edge across his palm, and blood wells up.

He yells at the sting and cradles the injured hand with his other one. Somewhere nearby, Sam is yelling, too. Funny. Dean forgot he was there.

Sylvie pays him no attention. She turns and thrusts the blade into the tree trunk. When she pulls down, the blade cuts right through bark and timber as easy as butter, which is Dean’s first inkling that this blade is not strictly natural. Then she pulls the knife out and slices the tree again, and then there’s a wedge cut from the trunk, six inches long and barely thicker than Dean’s hand.

“Your timing is fortunate,” Sylvie says. She grasps his hand, now beginning to ache, and slides the flat of the blade against his bloody palm. “If the sap weren’t rising, this could never have worked.” The steel is sticky and catches on his skin. Before Dean can protest – it’s not like he hasn’t courted infection before, but never quite this deliberately – she takes his hand and slides it into the fresh gaping wound in the tree.

“Be still,” she says.

Dean is still.

“How long?” he ventures after ten seconds or so.

She shifts her gaze upward until she’s peering into the leafy twilight overhead. “I’ll tell you.”

Dean’s hand throbs, and he wonders about tree germs. Distantly, the birds trill their last songs into the dusk. The smell of earth and growth and decay hangs heavy in his lungs, and he dreams of dying here, moss creeping over his corpse, birds crapping on his eyelids. It’d be peaceful, not like any hunter’s death he’s ever envisioned. There pulses in him a pull of longing, as insistent as blood but more slow.

“That’s enough,” Sylvia says.

Dean blinks at her. Unresisting, he lets her draw his hand back out of the tree. The bleeding’s mostly stopped, and now the throbbing has slowed to an ache of some tempo far slower than his pulse.

“Dean? Are you okay?” Sam grips Dean’s shoulders and peers into his eyes.

“I’m good,” Dean says. It feels truer than it has in a while. Sam’s still eyeing him with concern.

“I’ll need you again at dawn,” Sylvie says. “I’ve got a couch at my place, if you like.”

“We’ll sleep in the car,” Sam says.

Slyvia nods, and Sam guides Dean away: back along the narrow forest track and then out onto the logging road. Dean stumbles once or twice; he feels like a rubber band pulled taut, tied to something behind them. Sam catches him each time, though, a hand to Dean’s elbow, and finally he shuffles him into the Impala.

As soon as the door shuts, Dean is suffocated with leather and engine oil and greasy burger wrappers. He starts to choke.

“Dean?” Sam sounds worried and very far away.

Dean can barely gasp out the words. “Can’t breathe.” He fumbles for the door handle, but his fingers don’t work.

It feels like forever, but finally Sam gets the idea and opens it for him, and Dean swings out, ass still on the seat and feet planted on the ground, head hanging over his knees while he inhales precious air.

“Dean?” Sam says. “What the hell?”

“I don’t know,” Dean replies, hoarse. The shock of not breathing has slapped some of the fogginess out of him, though. His head feels clearer than since he first got a good look at Sylvie in the clearing hours ago.

“What the hell was that?” Sam asks. “You were, like, drugged out your mind, and then you couldn’t breathe. You’re freaking me out here, man.”

Dean nods his way through a few more breaths. Finally, when his lungs don’t feel like they’re going to up and collapse on him at any moment, he remembers his hand, and he flexes it. It feels different now. He fumbles a flashlight from his pocket and shines it on his palm. “Son of a bitch,” he says.

“What?”

Dean holds palm and flashlight up for Sam to see.

“I’ll be damned,” Sam says. It’s healed. There’s nothing left but the fine white line of a scar. “I have no idea what that means.”

“Yeah.” Dean stares at blankly for another moment and then switches off the light.

“We don’t have to go back,” Sam says.

Dean knows what it costs Sam to say that. It betrays the magnitude of Sam’s freakout – more likely over Dean’s happy tree trip than the breathing troubles – that he suggested it at all.

“Just, let’s leave the window open tonight?” Dean says.

There’s a pause and finally a reply. “Okay.”

~*~*~


Just before sunrise, they get up and trek back to Sylvia’s cabin, and it’s all the same again. Sylvie hacks a new wedge out of the tree – the old one having disappeared in the night – and slices Dean open, and he and the tree commune. Or whatever.

This time he’s warm***

“Again tonight,” Sylvie says.

Dean’s more himself than he was last night. This time, he’s able to walk himself back to the car.

~*~*~


There are a lot of things Dean’s not thinking about as he walks away from the Impala towards Sylvie’s place. He’s not thinking about what Sylvie’s going to do to him, nor what mysterious means she’s going to use to do it. He’s not thinking about the hellhound watch he’ll be on starting first thing tomorrow. He’s really not thinking about what happens if this doesn’t work.

He’s not talking to Sam, either, who’s matching him stride for stride, for all that Sam’s natural stride is the length of a wookiee’s. Nothing left to say - on either side, apparently. Sam’s marching with a dogged expression laced with occasional guilt – for talking Dean into this, maybe.

God, Dean hopes this works. He’s beginning to suspect he was wrong about Sam being the strong one.

She greets Dean with something like a smile. “I wasn’t sure you’d come,” she said.

Dean is in no mood for confessing how near a thing that decision was. “Well, I did. Now what?”

“You know the way.”

Dean follows the now-familiar track to the tree he’s started to think of as his. He knows the towering form now like he knows his own bones. The rough, grooved bark and the limbs stretching overhead might as well be his, he’s so certain of their geography.

Sam follows close behind, and Sylvie comes last, a reversal of their usual order that puts Dean edge. He wonders if it’s symbolic. There’s something about this clearing, this forest that weights everything with symbolism. He thinks back on Sylvie’s description of magic, ‘metaphor made concrete,’ and fights a chill.

“So now we get with the baby-making, right?” he says. He is taken with the need to get this done as soon as humanly (or maybe inhumanly) possible.

As if he didn’t speak, Sylvie says, “Fertility rites need three things: blood, sex, and earth.”

Dean blinks. “So I should go jerk off onto the ground and then bite my lip?”

“No, you go jerk off into this.” She hands him a wide-mouth Mason jar. “The blood’s my problem.”

Dean gapes at the jar. Sam, meanwhile, is looking much, much too humored.

“Go on, then,” Sylvie says, gesturing into the woods. “Shoo.”

Shoo? Sam mouths as Dean passes him. Dean flips him off.

Dean wants the record to show that a guy likes a little warning before he has to jerk off on command. Eventually, though, he gets back to Sam and Sylvie and hands her the jar. She seems completely unfazed by its contents. She draws her knife from her pack and slices open her palm as easily as she’s been slicing into Dean’s the last five days. She fists her hand, and a few sluggish drops fall into the jar.

Dean has long been intimately acquainted with the character and behavior of blood. Whatever that was Sylvie just squeezed into the jar, it wasn’t like any blood he knows.

“You’ll probably want to sit down,” Sylvie says.

Dean glances at Sam, who shrugs. Gingerly, Dean sits his ass down on a fallen log. Moisture immediately starts soaking through his jeans.

At some point, Dean’s expecting some words, but Sylvie is silent as she swirls the tip of her knife in the mess starting to congeal in the bottom of the Mason jar. There’s an intimacy to that blending of her fluids and his that Dean finds nauseating. After a few moments, Sylvie takes a paper packet from inside her jacket and sprinkles the contents – dust, it looks like to Dean – and mixes those in, too.

Sylvie drops to a crouch in front of Dean. “Show me your stomach.”

“Lady, there is no fucking way you’re sticking me with that.”

“Hush,” she says, and he does. God help him, he does. He’d look to Sam for reassurance or the signal to get out of Dodge, either would be fine, but Dean can’t draw his eyes away from whatever the hell Sylvie is about to do.

She pushes aside all his outer layers and slides his t-shirt up to show a couple of inches of skin just above his belt. Her knife’s still in her hand, and he is sickly certain that she’s going to bury it in him up to the hilt, blood and spunk and all. It’s practically a relief when she barely touches the tip of it to his stomach: once, twice, a tiny criss-cross just below his navel that’s now glistening with fresh-welling blood.

Sylvie rises and steps up to the tree. Then, no fanfare, no warning, she sights along the trunk with her hand and thrusts her blade straight into the wood.

It’s like every knife edge, claw, and rusty saw that’s ever so much as scraped Dean’s skin has just ripped into his stomach. It’s the sting of sliced skin and the seeping acid burn of stomach wounds. It’s excruciating. It’s going to kill him.

~*~*~


“Dean. Come on, man. Dean!”

Dean blinks at the head silhouetted against the brightening sky. If Dean can see the sky behind the head, that means the head is probably above him. Dean blinks again, because the light hurts his eyes.

“Say something, man.”

Dean pushes at the ground, aiming for something approaching uprightness, and bites off a yell at the very wrong pain ripping sharp and fresh through his stomach. He remembers. “Son of a bitch,” he mutters feebly. He feels a hand – Sam’s – at his back, helping him to sit up, and once he’s there he pulls at his shirt to survey the damage.

His midsection is whole. He stares at it, because it doesn’t make sense. There’s a thin white criss-cross scar, and nothing. X marks the spot, he thinks.

“Are you okay?” Sam’s peering into his eyes now. Dean knows that look; it’s the one quickly followed by How many fingers am I holding up and the perennial Maybe we should have a doctor look at that.

“I’m fine,” Dean says, although his stomach still feels anything but fine. Cautiously he prods the scar with a finger and then closes his eyes against the freshly throbbing pain.

“It’ll probably take a day or two to fully heal. Possibly more.” It’s Sylvie. She wasn’t crouched next to him a moment ago, he’s fairly sure, but she is now.

“The hell did you do to me?”

She smiles, wide and remote. “What you asked. Congratulations, Dean. You’re pregnant.”

“Are you serious?” He doesn’t feel pregnant, whatever the hell that means. He just hurts.

“I wasn’t sure I could do it. It’s not natural, you realize.”

“No kidding,” he mutters.

“I stretched nature to the limits to accommodate this,” she says. She lifts a hand as if to touch him, and he shoves his t-shirt down to hide his tender midsection from those ungentle fingers.

“You’re sure it worked,” Sam says. Dean forgot he was there. It’s Sylvie, he thinks; somehow when she speaks, she gathers in all his attention in and hoards it.

“I checked,” she says.

“You haven’t even touched him,” Sam says, as if that were an event to be desired.

Now you don’t believe me?” she says. She sounds amused.

“Sam, let’s go,” Dean says. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Dean, I’ll want to see you every month,” Sylvie says. “The night of the new moon, be here.”

“Yeah, that’s gonna happen,” Dean mutters.

“I’m not responsible for what happens to you if you don’t. That spell needs maintaining if you want it to hold.”

Whatever. Dean just wants to get the hell away.

--

It sits there in his mind, an irritation, like a popcorn kernel wedged between his teeth that he can’t help but pick at. Pregnant.

He’s had plenty of experience in ignoring pointless truths; he doesn’t know why this is any different. Not like he has any symptoms (yet) or like the fact of it has hell to do with his day-to-day (except for his still having days at all). Yet he’ll be sitting behind the wheel, chewing on a burger, Sam spouting factoids while staking out their potential haunted house with the binocs, and it’ll hit him: pregnant. He’ll be signing a credit card slip with his alias of the week, and between the first name and the last, some phantom twinge in his gut will remind him: pregnant.

But he looks the same; he checks in the mirror now and then just to be sure (and doesn’t listen to the voice that tells him to enjoy what he sees while he can). He feels pretty much the same (and if he’s given Sam the wheel a few times lately so he can take a siesta, well, it’s not like he’s never done that before). So he swallows down the unease until it becomes reflex, and he soldiers on.

Then the puking starts.

~*~*~


“Dean? You okay?” Sam’s voice sounds hollow through the bathroom door.

Dean takes a couple of breaths, enough to give him confidence that he won’t hurl mid-sentence, and grinds out, “I’m fine, Sam.” Then he retches up a few more strings of bile, just to prove it. He doesn’t hear any more from Sam, though; apparently he’s convinced him that he’s not dying.

He waits a few more minutes, but it seems his stomach’s done turning inside out for the morning. He flushes, wipes his mouth, and brushes his teeth, and once he’s washed out the last of the toothpaste he stands there for a moment, searching the mirror from some incontrovertible sign that this is what a man looks like when he’s pregnant.

He looks a little tired, he thinks, the shadows under his eyes darker than usual, the lines of his face a little more sharply drawn. Puking his guts out at the crack of dawn for a week will do that to a guy. Mostly, though, he just looks like himself: wary and kind of sharp at the edges.

He pushes away from the sink and opens the door.

Sam’s stretched out on his bed with his back to the headboard, typing away on his laptop. He looks up. “So you’re okay.”

“I told you, Sam, I’m fine.”

Sam clearly isn’t willing to fight him on it. “You ready for breakfast, then?”

Dean thinks about bacon, and his stomach rolls over in warning. “Uh, give me a couple minutes. This flu’s a bitch.”

“Dean...”

“Sam, I told you, we are not talking about this.”

Sam rolls his eyes and puts his attention back on the computer. “Just make sure you stay hydrated, okay?”

“Fine.” Dean sits on his own bed and ties up his boots, thinking about bacon, and finally says, “Uh, if we were talking about it...”

Sam glances up. “Yeah?”

“How, um. How long would we be talking?”

“You mean the nausea?”

“Yeah.”

Sam puts the laptop aside. Damn. Now Dean’s got him actually thinking about this, which is the last thing Dean wanted. “Usually it goes away after the first trimester—”

“Dude. Man-speak.”

He’s rewarded with another eyeroll. “After the first three months. But sometimes it doesn’t. Like how with some people it doesn’t just happen in the mornings. It depends on the person.”

“Fantastic.”

“You might also be more susceptible to motion sickness. Certain smells can bring it on, too.”

Dean swallows. “Like bacon?”

“Are you serious?” Sam lights up like Dean being deprived of BLTs is the best joke he’s heard in a week. Then his eyes narrow at Dean, who certainly doesn’t mean to project ‘pitiful’ or ‘miserable’ or any of the other things that usually bring out the Sammy puppy-eyes. Yet there they are, all sympathetic and sorrowful. “Dude, that sucks.”

“Tell me about it.”

~*~*~


It isn’t just bacon, it turns out. These days he pukes on any pretext or no pretext at all. Red meat’s off the menu entirely. Also eggs and, get this, avocadoes, which it’s a wonder he figured out at all, since it isn’t like he goes around sniffing avocadoes for kicks.

And there are women who go through this on purpose. Of course, they probably just want it to be over; they’re in it for the prize at the end, whereas Dean doesn’t even want his. What the fuck would he do with a kid? Anyway, it’s not like he’s going to get the time to figure it out.

--

AND that’s all she wrote! Never to be continued.

Crossposted from Dreamwidth. Comment here or there. (comment count unavailable DW replies)

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