Author: LadyVic PM
Misunderstandings and insecurities throw the brothers off balance and land them in the path of a wildfire as they face a dangerous foe and the line between hunter and hunted blurs.Rated: Fiction T - English - Angst/Hurt/Comfort - Sam W. & Dean W. - Chapters: 18 - Words: 113,058 - Reviews: 446 - Favs: 192 - Follows: 85 - Updated: 01-09-08 - Published: 11-19-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3900631
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Summary: Misunderstandings and insecurities throw the boys off balance and land them in the path of a wildfire as they face a dangerous foe and the line between hunter and hunted blurs. Brother whumping in later chapters. Takes place in S1, after Shadow.
A/N: In very simple terms, the Navajo people believe that everything around us is interconnected. Hozho is a state of harmony, beauty, and happiness that occurs when all of the elements of our lives, both natural and spiritual, are balanced. When Hozho is disrupted, it can lead to illness and great misfortune until that balance is restored. My simplification truly does not do justice to the complexity and beauty of the Navajo Way, and for that I apologize. I will place translations at the ends of the chapters as needed.
This is my first foray onto ffnet. The story is unbeta'd and I am solely to blame for any mistakes. If any of them are annoying enough to have you grinding your teeth, please let me know and I will attempt to not repeat them in later chapters.
A Special Thank You to all the members of the SFTCOL(AR)S board. They are a truly special and talented group. To Maygin and Brenna who beat me over the head at the Chicago Con to finish this monster. And most especially to Jenilee, who has held my hand through a good portion of the story. Pimp the Limp!
Warning: The boys talk like men who live a tough life and were raised by a marine. In other words, they curse.
Disclaimer: I don't own them. The incredible fun of playing with them is the only profit I receive from the story.
Susan Macy was nearing the end of a very long day. The business at her coffee shop swelled in the summer when visitors flocked to the area to enjoy the peaceful mountain scenery along the Shenandoah River. She did a booming business with the water sport crowd, but her favorite customers were 'her kids', the weary hikers who trickled in from the nearby Appalachian Trail.
Word of mouth on the Trail had turned her shop into one of the Trail's most keenly anticipated milestones. After weeks of living from a backpack, her famous apple pie ala mode had been known to bring some to tears. In exchange for the good food and warm welcome, Susan was treated to their stories about the trail and the people they had met. So much so, that the shop had turned into a well known clearinghouse for informal trail info.
Susan stuffed a handful of receipts into the folder sitting on the table in front of her and flipped the old fashioned ledger closed with a satisfied smile.
"Hey Gus, you about done with that pie?" she questioned the large man seated at the lunch counter.
He swiveled his stool around to face her and patted his round stomach with regret. "Yeah, I guess," he said with a sigh. "Susie darlin', I'd eat that whole damn pie if it was up to me, but my Mary said if I gained one more pound she'd put me out." He shook his head morosely. "She's a cold, hard woman."
Susan laughed as she walked around the counter to take his plate and put it into the sink. "Your Mary has to be one of the sweetest women I have ever met. How she's put up with your nonsense for the past forty years is beyond me."
Gus glanced down at his watch and his eyes widened. "Jeeezus! I'd better get to picking her up. You shoulda said somethin' darlin'. You didn't need to stay here so late just to humor an old man."
"Don't be silly, I was glad for the company." She grabbed her keys from a shelf in back of the counter and walked around to let Gus out of the front door.
He held his hand out and blocked her from closing the door as he looked around the dark parking lot. "Seriously darlin', it is gettin' late and you're pretty isolated out here. How bout I at least wait till you're ready to head on home?"
Susan shook her head. "I'll be fine, Gus," she reassured him. "I'm just locking up and then I'm leaving. I've been doing this for 10 years and never had a bit of trouble."
"If you're sure…"
"I'm sure. You give Mary my best and tell her I'm still waiting for that coffeecake recipe she's been promising me."
She shut the door and relocked it before hitting the switch to turn off the lights in the dining area. The rising moon gave her just enough light to watch the large man cross the gravel parking lot to his pickup truck. She waited until he pulled out onto the road before she stepped away from the door.
Susan sighed when she thought of the work she would have to do at home if she was going to be ready to make some phone calls in the morning. It would be worth it. Somebody had to look out for her kids. She gathered her purse and the bank deposit bag from behind the counter before heading out the back door. The lamp above the door threw a soft cone of light that stretched to her old Nissan where it was parked twenty feet away.
A soft breeze stirred the trees that blanketed the slope rising up beyond her car and the parched grass in front of them whispered dryly, almost hiding the sound of a small stone clicking against rocks as it rolled downhill. Susan stopped next to her car and her eyes searched the edge of the trees in the moonlight.
The sound came again, only this time there were several stones bouncing down the packed dry dirt of the trail. Could be a deer, or could be that one of her kids was in trouble on the trail and looking for help. God knew cell phones could be useless up there.
She unlocked the driver's door and pulled it open, dropping her keys and the other items in her hand onto the driver's seat before grabbing a small flashlight from the door's map pocket. She walked around the car, shining the light towards an opening in the trees. It marked the start of a spur trail that wound a mile up the mountain before intersecting with the Appalachian Trail.
"Hello? Is there somebody there?" The only answer was a slight breath of wind stirring the leaves. When it died away the night was silent. Completely silent. Even the ever present cicadas and crickets were quiet. Despite the warmth of the evening, small goosebumps rose on her bare arms.
Her heart jumped at a slight movement caught by the corner of her eye and she whirled to shine the flashlight towards the trash cans at the far corner of her building. The moonlight didn't reach that side of the building and the darkness there was almost complete. The weak flashlight beam did little to lighten the heavy blackness. Shadows slid over shadows, impressions of movement that were fleeting enough to defy identification.
The shadows moved again and she was able to distinguish an outline, a solid form almost hidden in the gloom. A couple of soft huffs reached her ears before the screech of claws swatting a trash can confirmed her suspicions. She sagged against the car in relief and gave a shaky laugh. It was only a bear checking out the trash can.
Black bears were common in the area, shy, and with rare exception, harmless. She banged the flashlight on the roof of her car. "Get away from there! Go on now! Shoo!" Her confidence dimmed when he ignored the downed can and began to move farther out from the edge of the building. "Jesus! You are a big fella!" Her breath froze in her throat when he came fully out of the shadows.
The form lumbered towards her and she began to edge backwards. The driver's door was the only one unlocked. It was still open on the other side of the car, offering a safe haven. He picked up speed and she turned to race around the back of the car in a panic, expecting to feel his claws snagging at her T shirt any second. She spared a quick glance behind her as she rounded the trunk.
There was nothing there.
Her eyes were wrenched back to the front of the car when the driver's door slammed shut with enough force to rock the vehicle. She could only stare in disbelief at the creature standing on all fours in front of her, huffing softly. He had anticipated her escape attempt and veered to the driver's side of the car.
Slowly he stood up on his hind legs until he towered over her. Intelligent red eyes gleamed down at her and a scream began to build in the back of her throat. A massive paw slammed into her and she flew sideways, landing several feet from the car. He dropped to all fours and ambled slowly towards her as though he had all the time in the world. She had almost convinced herself that this was just an incredibly bad nightmare when his next blow snapped her neck.
Sometimes you had to just sit back and enjoy the little pleasures that life had to offer. Good food, good company, and quality entertainment. Dean Winchester reached into the bag next to him and threw a peanut M&M into his mouth before snatching the remote off of the bedspread and raising the TV's volume another couple of notches.
"Sammy, check this out! This part is classic!" He watched the screen with a large smile of anticipation. "You're missing it, dude…DOH!" Dean started to laugh. "How could anybody be so stupid?" He glanced across the hotel room to where his brother was seated at the unit's obligatory small table. The laptop was open in front of Sam and his fingers flew over the keyboard. "Dude! You paying attention?"
Dean dug an M&M out of the bag and flung it across the room with deadly accuracy. It bounced off of Sam's forehead and landed on the table in front of him.
"OW! What was that for?" Sam stared at his brother with a scowl as he rubbed his forehead.
"You haven't heard a word I've been saying!" Dean accused.
"What are you, five? He's stupid because he's a cartoon character named Homer." Sam looked back down at the laptop and continued to type. "I heard every word you said," he muttered. "I just chose to ignore you."
Dean dug another M&M out and contemplated it for a moment before tossing it into his mouth with a shrug. They were just too damn good to waste. The action on the TV caught his eye and he started to laugh again. Good food, good company, quality entertainment…Hell, two out of three wasn't bad.
It only took about fifteen minutes before his attention began to wander again. He'd been getting antsy lately, the tension slowly building in his muscles over the past couple of days. He snuck a look at Sam, still typing away with a small grin on his face. The claw marks left on his face by the daeva's in Chicago had healed nicely. They were barely visible in the sunlight, in the soft glow of the computer screen you couldn't see them at all.
That encounter had laid both brothers up for a while. They holed up in a series of nondescript hotel rooms giving their wounds time to heal. When the boredom became too much after the first couple of weeks they confined their hunting to a few textbook salt and burns. The jobs were easy on their scabbed over cuts, but did little to raise their flagging spirits.
Dean aimed the remote at the screen and began to flip through the seemingly endless channels looking for anything that could hold his interest for more than five minutes. He was bored already and it was barely 7 pm. He stole occasional glances at his brother trying to gauge just how much the constant channel flipping was annoying the younger man. If he could distract Sam from the computer he could sometimes cajole him into heading out for a beer.
The kid remained oblivious, however. He was too wrapped up in the computer to rise to the bait, and Dean sighed in frustration. Ever since St. Louis they had fallen into a silent truce. Dean pretended not to know that Sam still sent regular emails to his college friends, and Sam just didn't talk about them. They hadn't really 'agreed to disagree' on the matter, that implied some understanding of each other's viewpoints. This was more of a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.
A familiar cold spot bloomed in Dean's stomach when his brother snorted a quick laugh at something he read before a new spate of typing. He turned the TV off and threw the remote down before swinging his legs over the side of the bed. His little brother's company was not required for him to have a good time at the small bar right down the street.
Sam muttered a soft "huh" and Dean's hand stilled as he reached for his wallet on the nightstand. Sam was staring at the computer screen with a thoughtful expression and Dean's spirits perked up. He'd seen that look before.
"Huh what? You find a new gig for us? Something good on one of the news sites?" Dean stood up eagerly and crossed the room to get a look at the computer.
"Uh, no, it's probably nothing…" Sam grabbed both sides of the computer and pulled it closer to himself.
Dean reached across the table with a smirk and latched onto the laptop trying to free it from his brother's possessive grasp. It was a big brother's prerogative to occasionally take away a little brother's toys.
Sam leaned back in the chair with a resigned frown when Dean won the brief tug-of-war. "Just something that caught my eye," he explained "I'm going to dig around a bit and see what I can find."
Dean's enthusiasm died a quick death when he turned the computer and looked at the screen. Sam wasn't on a news site, he was still playing with his emails. He forced a smile. "Another college buddy who needs our help? Cause, I mean, last time turned out so well."
"Last time we saved an innocent man from prison and stopped a shapeshifter from killing more people. All in all, I'd say things went okay," Sam answered quickly.
Dean looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Dude! I'm a dead serial killer in St. Louis! Define 'ok'!" He was gratified to see that Sam had the good sense to look embarrassed.
"Well, I meant besides that part." Sam tried to reclaim the computer but Dean pulled it farther out of his reach.
"Probably wouldn't think it was okay if you were the dead serial killer," Dean muttered as his eyes dropped down to the screen. "So what is it this time? Ghost in the frat house keeps draining the keg? Possessed cheerleaders?" He tilted his head to the side with a dreamy expression. "Although that one might not be bad. Imagine how grateful—"
"Are you done?" Sam interrupted. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at Dean from under the curtain of his bangs. "It's August, Dean. They're not at school. Kurt's been hiking the AT for the past couple of months."
"Appalachian Trail. Kurt and his girlfriend Cindy took the summer off to do some section hiking…" he stopped at Dean's puzzled expression. "Some people try to hike long stretches of the trail over a couple of weeks or months instead of just day trips. It's called 'section hiking' or 'through hiking'."
Dean looked at him with a complete lack of comprehension. "And they would do that…why?"
"Because it's a challenge, a way of getting back to nature—"
"And you think WE'RE weird?" Dean snorted.
Sam threw his hands into the air. "It doesn't matter why they do it! The point is, Kurt said there are some strange stories making the rounds of the trail. People disappearing, animal maulings," Sam leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table as he warmed to his subject. "And get this. When they got to Harper's Ferry they ate at a little restaurant right off of the trail. The owner was talking to a couple of other hikers, telling them to be careful because of the weird stuff that was going on."
Sam spread his hands and gave a little smile as though he was about to impart a great secret. Dean was struck by how intense his brother could become when a hunt piqued his interest. He hadn't seen that intensity since Chicago and he found himself starting to take an interest in the story.
"Dean, when they went back to the restaurant the next morning the cops were there. The owner never made it home that night. She was just gone. Cindy's so spooked they're going home a couple of weeks early." He looked at Dean expectantly.
"And that's it? I don't know, Sam, seems a little weak."
"C'mon Dean, we've checked things out with less to go on."
"The stories the hikers are passing around could just be urban legends, you know, trying to scare each other around the campfire. And the lady who disappeared…" Dean's eyes skimmed down the email as he talked. He paused as a couple of lines caught his eye and he reread them, a slow burn starting in his chest. He straightened up and looked at Sam with hard eyes. "And the lady who disappeared," he repeated, "well, people just 'go away' every day for reasons that have nothing to do with the supernatural. Don't they, Sam?"
Sam sighed and his eyes slid away for a moment before he brought them back to look Dean in the eye as he talked. "That's why I wanted to check things out without bringing the email into it. I knew you'd misunderstand."
"Misunderstand what, Sam? He says they looked for you in Massachusetts before they started down the trail." Dean looked down and read a line from the message, turning it into a question. "He's sorry you didn't make it to meet up with them?"
Dean hid the hurt behind the coldness of his voice. "Were you planning on telling me you were going, or was I just gonna get a call from the trail? Why didn't you go?"
"No, Dean, I wasn't going to—"
Dean ignored him while he did a quick calculation in his head. The burning in his chest reached his throat when he came up with an answer to his own question. "That would have been…what…June? What happened? Our little run in with the daevas put a crimp in your plans? Couldn't think of any way to explain the claw marks across your face? C'mon, Sammy, you're a smart boy. I'm sure you could have thought of something."
Sam pushed himself to his feet and leaned over the table, resting his weight on clenched fists. "Dean, just shut up for a second and listen to me!" His voice was caught somewhere between anger and pleading. "Yeah, we talked about hiking the trail together." He held a hand up to forestall a new outburst. "LAST SUMMER! Jess and I spent a couple of weeks hiking with them in New England last summer and we talked about doing a long stretch this year! That was before you came to get me at Stanford! Before any of this." He waved his hand to encompass the room, their duffels, the salt lines at the doors and windows. He took a shaky breath and continued more softly, the anger gone, just the pleading left in his voice. "This summer was gonna be the four of us together after graduation. Before we had to face the real world and jobs and grad school." Sam straightened up and ran his hand through his hair wearily. "Those plans died with Jess, Dean. I had no intention of meeting up with Kurt in June."
Dean stood ramrod straight, shoulders back, feet planted, his expression unreadable. He managed not to scoff at Sam's mention of facing the 'real world'. Sam new damn well that the safe, normal life he craved was the illusion. The real world was a dangerous place populated by monsters. Sam was looking at him hopefully but Dean didn't relax his stance. The knot of fear in his chest was still burning too hot. A small smile curved his lips but didn't come within a mile of his eyes.
"I didn't go away to a fancy school like you, Sam. Maybe you could explain it to me, 'cause I just don't get it. Why did you let him keep thinking you might be going with him?" Dean relaxed his shoulders and raised his hand to wag a finger at his brother as he continued conversationally. "You see, I'm thinking you were keeping your options open. Because you sure as hell have no problem saying 'no' loud and clear to me or Dad when you don't want to do something." Dean pushed down a moment of regret as he watched the hope leach out of his brother's face.
Sam shook his head with a humorless chuckle. "Why do I bother?" he asked quietly. He plopped back down into the chair and pulled the computer back toward himself, turning it to face him. He leaned over to retrieve a small notebook and pen from the backpack next to his chair, placing them neatly next to the computer. "Believe what you want. I'm going to see if this looks like something we should check out." He turned his attention to the screen, effectively shutting his brother out.
"You do that," Dean said, grabbing his wallet. "There's a bar down the street that definitely looks like something that I need to check out." He pulled the door open and stood in the doorway for a second with his back to Sam. "Don't wait up," he said quietly, pulling the door shut without ever looking back.
Sam pushed the computer away from himself after hearing the soft click of the closing door. No slamming doors for Dean. He held his emotions too tightly to give in to a display like that.
He propped his elbows on the table and dropped his face into his hands, his tense shoulders slumping. He was just so damned tired. He had been since Chicago. Standing in that dirty alley he'd realized that none of this would be ending soon. John Winchester was on the run. The mighty John Winchester was scared. That spoke of an evil far greater than a single demon, no matter how nasty a bastard he was. His dad had said the fight was just starting, and he was right. Sam could feel it in his bones. Hunting was a quicksand that would never let him go.
Sam snatched the notebook from the table and heaved it against the wall with such fury that it hit with a loud smack, torn pages fluttering to the ground like giant confetti. Guess he didn't have his brother's self control.
Sam had never felt so alone before. He kept his grief over the dreams that died in Chicago to himself. He didn't share his fears about what was coming, or his frustration over being denied the chance to face the demon that killed Jess.
He and Dean were both hurting and withdrawn after they separated from John in Chicago, both dealing with their own issues. When the time finally seemed right to talk about everything, Sam had been met by a brick wall wearing his brother's face.
Dean had been his rock for as long as he could remember. Even when he was away at school he'd known his big brother would be there if he needed him. But he'd hurt Dean in Chicago when he said he wanted to go back to school after the demon was dead. He didn't make it clear that he was rejecting hunting, not rejecting his big brother. He couldn't imagine a life without his brother in it. They were too much a part of each other. He just wanted more, for himself and for Dean. More than the limits John had put on their world. He'd thought Dean would know that without being told, like so much of their relationship was just accepted as a given without discussion.
He hadn't counted on the depth of Dean's insecurities.
On the surface things seemed fine. They still laughed and joked, worked smoothly together on a couple of easy jobs. But underneath, something in their foundation had cracked. Their fights were becoming more frequent and more ferocious. Dean had begun treating every mention of school, or friends, or Sam's desire for normalcy, as warnings of imminent desertion. Sam's attempts to get to the root of the problem were turned away with a flip remark, or met with outright hostility. Dean seemed to be in denial that there even was a problem.
The wall that Dean had built was pushing Sam farther and farther into the cold, and the chill was starting to eat into Sam's soul. It was becoming more obvious every day that, deep down, his brother no longer trusted him. Every reminder of this new reality cut into Sam a little more, made him bleed a little heavier.
Sam didn't know how to fix it. He could only hope that time, and some jobs that they could sink their teeth into, would help to heal the rift.
They needed the type of job that would challenge them, make them work hard, make them work together. Uncovering what was behind the incidents on the Appalachian Trail, and dealing with it, just felt right to Sam. He didn't think his belief in this particular job had anything to do with its ties to his past life. But he'd have a tough time convincing Dean of that. He had a lot of work ahead of him.
Sam pulled his phone out of his pocket and punched in a familiar number. While he waited for the call to connect he walked across the room and began to gather the pages that had ripped from his notebook. He had no control over the big grin that relaxed his face when he heard a voice answer at the other end.
"Kurt? How the hell you doing, buddy? It's Sam."
Dean closed the hotel room door slowly, wincing when the latch slipped into place with an audible click. Slight movement from the far bed indicated that the soft noise had not gone unnoticed. Years of training weren't discarded even in sleep.
"It's ok, it's just me," he whispered. The movements stilled and he waited until he heard Sam's breathing slow back to a sleepy rhythm before he moved. The delay gave his eyes a chance to adjust after the glare of the early morning light outside. The room's window shades were not exactly the 'black out' variety. Enough light filtered around their edges to give Dean a clear view of the room.
The sight of the table and the floor around it elicited a soft whistle. Somebody had been a very busy boy. He moved closer for a better look, careful not to disturb the piles of paper on the floor next to the table.
On the table itself were several sheets of notebook paper taped together to form a long strip. Sam had drawn a crude representation of the east coast down the strip, with state lines and major cities mapped for perspective. There was a red line traced from Maine to Georgia that Dean guessed must be the Appalachian Trail. Small numbered crosses traveled down the red line, some directly on it and others in fairly close proximity. Most had dates jotted next to them, although a couple bore question marks. Dean shifted the map on the table so that it was lit by a shaft of sunlight and grunted in admiration. The kid could give their dad a run for his money when it came to putting patterns together. There was a clear time progression heading south down the map. The most recent highlighted mark was also the farthest south, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Dean picked up a pad of paper sitting on the table. The first few pages were covered with his brother's handwriting. Well, actually, it started as handwriting, but eventually began to resemble chicken scratch. Sam had jotted down notes about each of the crosses on the map. The incidents listed ran the gamut from cattle mutilations to missing people, missing pets, animal attacks, fish and wildlife agency investigations…there were even some for property damage. They were so varied that if you weren't looking for a pattern you would never see it.
The amount of work represented by the map and all of the papers around it was impressive. Sam must have worked on it through the night. Stubborn ass definitely needed a hobby.
Dean moved over to stand next to the bed and looked down at his little brother. Sam was still in the T shirt and jeans he'd had on when Dean walked out the night before. He looked like he had just collapsed onto the top of the bed and hadn't moved since. The blankets under him were barely rumpled.
He was lying on his side facing Dean's bed and Dean squatted down in front of him. God, the kid looked whupped. When had those bags taken up residence under his eyes? He placed a hand on Sam's shoulder and shook it gently. "Wakey wakey Clarisse," he said softly.
Heavy lidded eyes opened slowly. "wha…" They blinked a couple of times before focusing on Dean. "Dean…you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine Sammy."
Sam gave a slight smile and his eyes started to drift shut. "Good…glad you're back," he murmured.
Dean shook him gently again. "Oh no, little bro, time to get up. Help me get this place packed up and then you can sleep in the car."
Sam's forehead scrunched in confusion and his eyes opened to the merest slits. "Car?"
Dean gave a little shrug. "Looks like we're going to West Virginia."