Author: Harrigan PM
Sam Winchester is 16 and only wants two things in life: his family to be safe and a chance to go to college. Normal kids can have both–why can’t he? But it’s beginning to look like he has to choose. One he’ll have to fight for; the other he may lose.Rated: Fiction T - English - Hurt/Comfort/Adventure - Sam W. & Dean W. - Words: 25,469 - Reviews: 25 - Favs: 61 - Follows: 5 - Published: 08-15-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5305346
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's Note: This story is a one-shot, written for a fic exchange at community [dot] livejournal [dot] com [slash] summer_sam_love. Check it out for dozens of fun stories in which Sam is awesome!
The prompt for this fic was this: Preseries: Sam is badly hurt on a hunt, when he and Dean are separated from their dad. How do they manage to survive when they are the ones being hunted?
(I actually like both Sam and Dean, and therefore they both get to be heroic and whumped in this, I'm afraid. Additional author notes and credits are available at harrigan [dot] livejournal [dot] com [slash] 17234 [dot] html. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed imagining it!)
Not even Sam could screw up spaghetti.
At least, not if he kept his mind on it. Problem was, his mind usually wasn't.
The first one home every evening was responsible for fixing dinner in those days, and when Sam didn't have after-school activities, that job had his name on it.
He was beginning to suspect the only reason Dean was able to talk Dad into letting him sign up for any extracurricular stuff was so they wouldn't have to eat Sam's cooking. On the other hand, they probably thought Sam burned dinner on purpose, just so they'd give up on him and let him go out for cross-country and forensics. That way Dean would get home from his job at the sawmill and already have supper started before Sam showed up, more often than not.
Sam wasn't that devious, though.
Well, actually, he was. But not about this.
Sam just felt he had to do homework while he was cooking, and writing an essay on the theme of 'pietas' in Virgil's Aeneid that one time had turned out to be a lot more engrossing than the porcupine meatballs on the stove. And when Dean's recipes included instructions like "remove from heat 5 minutes before smoke alarm goes off"… well, Sam couldn't help it if the pan ended up with a vacuum-packed seal and they'd had to throw the whole thing out.
Sometimes – more than sometimes – Sam felt that the value of being 'academically gifted' was inversely proportionate to the ability to be seen as competent and useful and independent in the eyes of his family.
This evening, he had a saucepan and a pot both bubbling on the stove and a thick library book open on the kitchen table. Research for a hunt this time, not schoolwork. It took some effort to concentrate on Celtic monsters and mythology instead of his plans to sneak out on Saturday. The last thing on his mind was monitoring how long the water was boiling for spaghetti. Scratching notes on the blank side of a junk mail envelope, Sam's shoulders tensed when he heard someone pulling up the driveway. Then he sagged back in relief when he recognized the throaty rumble of the 30-year-old Impala. Dean.
A gust of cold wind followed his brother in through the back door. "You find anything at the library, Giles?"
Sam took his nose out of the book long enough to give him the finger in reply, but it was just force of habit. Actually, he had found something. "Yeah, Buffy, I did. What about you? You get anything from the kid's sister?"
Dean's face broke into a cheesy grin, eyebrows waggling, and Sam rolled his eyes at his brother's suggestive leer. "I mean about the attack on their cows, dumbass."
Dean turned away to peer over the stove, and took a long whiff. "She didn't see anything." He grabbed a sharp knife, and the blade made a satisfying thwacking sound against the cutting board as he minced a handful of garlic cloves. "But she's plenty scared," he added, shoveling the pieces into the saucepan. "I think she believes her kid brother."
"Believes him about what?"
Their dad's deep voice made Sam jump. How the hell did he get in the house without them hearing him? For as broken down as this dump was, Sam thought it wasn't fair the front door didn't creak or something. At least John wasn't reaming them out for letting him get the jump on them this time.
"We talked to that kid – Eric Mullins. The one who claims to have seen something," Sam told him, getting to his feet. "An ogre, he said, hulking in the shadows behind their barn."
"He's just a first grader though, Dad," Dean added over his shoulder, tossing a pinch of baking soda into the tomato sauce.
"The kid, that is - not the ogre," Sam clarified almost inaudibly, hiding a smirk. Dean didn't need to see it to know it was there, and accidentally elbowed Sam off-balance and into the corner of the fridge.
John shrugged off his leather coat and dropped it over the back of a kitchen chair with a weary groan. "Great. I met up with Pastor Jim yesterday; interviewed some of the folks at his church who reported attacks on their livestock. They never saw anything. Just the mutilated remains." He sighed and rubbed his jaw. "Guess our only eyewitness is, what, six? Seven years old? What'd he have to say?"
"What Eric described sounded like a buggane." Sam left the envelope to mark his place, flipped the book closed with a soft thud, and moved it from the table to the counter to make room to eat. "It walked upright, he said. Shaped like a man, but bigger."
Dean held out his dripping wooden spoon about waist-high. "Kid's a peewee, though. Coulda been a pygmy ogre for all he could tell, and it would still look big to him."
"That would be a negoogunogumbar, not a buggane," Sam scoffed. "This sounds like a buggane. Eric saw long black hair. Glowing eyes. Tusks and claws. And a buggane would live in caves or in the woods, which are all over the place around here."
Dean shook his head in amazement and went back to stirring. "Negoogun…. How do you even know that stuff?"
"It's called research, Dean? Dad wanted me to check it out, so I did."
John grabbed a beer from the fridge, then scraped a chair across the linoleum and sat heavily at the Formica table. "From the timing of the attacks, it sounds like the predator was last seen in north Essex County and may be migrating this way. Anything on how to stop it?"
Sam waited till Dean had dumped the spaghetti in the colander and the steam was starting to clear before he answered. "According to the legends, a buggane can't cross sacred ground or running water."
"Running water?" Dean's face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. Well, like a normal kid on Christmas morning, anyway. "Cool! We just need to pick up some Super-Soakers at Toys-R-Us…."
"Dean!" Their dad wasn't amused. He had a way of making that one syllable sound like a bitten-off growl, dragged through gravel and dripping with disapproval.
Sam watched the humor fade out of Dean's eyes. There was a flicker of guilt, and then Dean's stoic game face was on. Sam hated the way their dad could stifle Dean's spirit sometimes. John Winchester was all business and no pleasure when it came to hunting.
"We don't know how reliable the lore is," Sam said quickly, diverting their dad's attention. Dean quirked an eyebrow at him and grabbed a beer, indulging in a long swallow while he took his seat. Sam poured himself a glass of milk and followed suit. Their eyes met across the table, something unspoken communicated under John's nose. "The buggane legends are mostly from the Isle of Man," Sam added, loading up the plates and passing them around. "That's in the middle of the Irish Sea. If they can't cross flowing water, how would they get here?"
Dean reached for the parmesan cheese. "I dunno, but there's plenty of Irish names at the sawmill. Cahill, Darcy, Gleason, Flynn.… Maybe there's some connection."
Sam nodded and twirled his spaghetti onto his fork as he thought out loud. "Makes sense. During the Potato Famine in the 1840's, probably a million Irish left for America." He grew more animated as his brain settled into a comfort zone, sifting through all that obscure data he seemed to store away without trying. "Ships to Canada were cheaper than to the US then. I bet thousands came through Quebec and settled in Ontario or Upstate New York, near here."
John grunted around a mouthful of pasta. "Not important, Sam. Stick to what's important."
Sam dropped his head, shoulders slumping, and glared at his plate. His dinner sat in his gut like it was lead. Not because the criticism was unexpected but because it was so routine.
"If Dean says there's a large Irish immigrant population here," John continued, shoveling away food like he'd forgotten to eat lately, "it could be a tulpa. A thought form made real. The fact that enough of the population believed in it over the years could have made their belief into a reality."
"If it is a tulpa, how do we kill it?" Dean asked. John nodded at him with approval, and Dean straightened in his chair, a weight slipping off his shoulders.
"Some of the local farmers at the pub were talking about setting traps." John snorted, his fork scraping noisily against the nearly empty plate. "Civilians!" He shook his head. "No. Whether it's some kind of buggane that's native to North America, or a buggane-shaped thought-form, we kill it the same way. If it can't tolerate sacred ground, consecrated iron would probably work."
He stood abruptly, chair teetering behind him, and drained the rest of his beer. Then he tossed the empty in the trash, his aim as unerring in the kitchen as with a weapon in the field. "We'll camp out this weekend in the woods near that Eric kid's farm. See if we can pick up a trail." He turned to look down at Sam, certain which of his two sons was most likely to protest. "The forecast is for snow late Friday night, and I need you boys looking for tracks or scat before the snow covers it up. So be ready to leave right after school tomorrow."
Sam's fork stalled in mid-air. For a moment he couldn't breathe. He felt frozen in place, his dad's words shattering his carefully crafted plans like an ice pick. Not this weekend!
Dean darted an intuitive glance at his brother. "I already told the boss I could work overtime Saturday, Dad," he said, looking back up at John. "You know we could use the money. Stretch here can't wear hand-me-downs any more. He's gonna need boots and a winter coat that fits – oughta have them already the way this weather's turning."
Sam bristled. It wasn't his fault he was still growing. Why not say they could use the money because Dad didn't bother working now that Dean had a steady paycheck, and had spent their meager savings on a truck, so he could take off whenever he wanted and Dean could still get to his job? Or that they could use the money because – hey – it might be useful if they could afford cell phones? But he held his tongue, thinking it was a minor miracle that Dean was acting in Sam's best interests without knowing it. And Dad was way more likely to acquiesce if it was Dean's suggestion than if it was something Sam wanted.
"What if," Dean suggested tentatively, not pushing. "What if we scout the area tomorrow before it snows, but come back that same night? I'll put in my eight hours at the mill Saturday, and Sammy can hit Goodwill."
John knew Dean had a valid point. Unusual weather patterns – a sign of potential demonic involvement - was one of the things that had drawn them to the area to begin with, but they still weren't prepared for snow in October. They did need to re-stock. And credit card fraud was all well and good when they were on the road, but when they hit local shops, where people knew them, they couldn't use credit cards with fake names. They needed more cash.
John looked from one son to another, his expression inscrutable. It was Dean who had the pleading look in his eyes, but John's gaze lingered on his younger son. His sixth sense was telling him that there was more to this. But his boys were getting more enigmatic to him every year. He couldn't tell if it was Dean with an ulterior motive or Sam. Maybe Dean in Sam's behalf. Maybe all of the above.
"Remember that death worm we dealt with awhile ago that spewed acid? Ate through our gloves?" Dean kept building a case when his dad didn't answer right away. "Sam could pick us up some gloves, too. Then we come back Sunday, or even Saturday night if you want, and find and gank the beast."
Sam realized he was holding his breath, and dammit but his dad always, always noticed signs of weakness like that. He carefully let it out, nonchalantly as you please. He couldn't let them know how much this meant to him.
And then, miracle of miracles, Dad said okay.
Sam was the first to finish his reconnaissance sector. Yesterday's relief at salvaging his Saturday plans had worn off; now he was wallowing in the reality that his Friday night plans were still forfeit. He sat scowling in the front seat of the Impala, nursing a grudge like his dad would nurse a bottle of Jim Beam. Feeling the resentment burn down his throat as he swallowed his frustration.
Just this once, he'd needed to be able to count on a hot meal and an early night. He'd been planning it for days – right down to saving Dean's hearty leftover stew for Friday dinner, and scrounging up enough blankets to burrow under that he could sleep through the night. No hunger gnawing him awake. No cold, drafty fingers of a damp October wind to rattle the windows and creep under the frame, taunting him out of sleep. Not this time. He'd be alert and rested come morning. Piece of cake.
Instead, he was shivering in the car, belly empty and aching, and for what?
Another futile hunting exercise. Sam had covered his assigned search grid east of the old one-lane bridge, and there wasn't any sign of a buggane. Or a tulpa masquerading as a buggane. Or a wendigo or yeti, or even a friggin' bunny rabbit for that matter.
Sam didn't know why Pastor Jim had chosen the Adirondacks to spend his sabbatical, but he wondered if Jim hadn't made more out of the recent signs than they really warranted, just to get John Winchester out here. Which isn't to say Sam wasn't grateful. The high school in Port Henry was awesome – Sam had no complaints there. It had surprisingly strong academics for a rural community – even AP Latin! At the same time, the school was small enough that Sam could shine at whatever extracurricular activities he could sneak under Dad's radar. Like the cross-country team and forensics this year. Pastor Jim always said junior year was the most important in making yourself a candidate for a good college, and Sam knew the priest went out of his way to subtly help any way he could. Like somehow getting John to commit to a community with a great school this fall.
But was there really anything supernatural out here?
Cattle mutilations? Check – but no real evidence that it was anything paranormal. Even the locals (other than one seven-year-old kid) thought it was probably wolves, or coyotes. Maybe even a bear.
Weather fluctuations? Check again – couldn't argue that, when a thick snow had just started falling, and it was only the third weekend in October. But that wasn't completely unheard of, not this far north.
And what did weather patterns and cattle mutilations have to do with each other? John had gone suddenly tense when Pastor Jim called to tell him about it, so agitated he up and moved them to Upstate New York to check it out more thoroughly. But he wouldn't explain why when Sam asked, and that really raised Sam's hackles.
Of course, like father, like son, when it came to being tight-lipped. Sam hadn't told his dad or his brother about the PSAT exam tomorrow morning either. Sam had kept last year's practice test results hidden, and when he was alone sometimes he'd pull them out. He'd smooth out the stapled note from his guidance counselor and run his finger across it like it was a crumpled secret from a fortune cookie. Mrs. Bradshaw had written that Sam had a good chance at a National Merit Scholarship – and ever since that day, that had become his Holy Grail.
His dad's Holy Grail was finding and destroying the thing that killed Mom. Sam had the same driven personality, whether he realized it or not, but he didn't even remember his mother. So he channeled that obsessive energy toward something he craved as deeply as John wanted revenge. Sam just wanted a life where he felt safe. Where he could enjoy the satisfaction of doing what he was naturally gifted at, without facing the inevitable disappointment from the people he cared about. He wanted to find out what it would be like to be Sam Winchester - not defined as someone's son or brother. Just – Sam.
He could have that, he thought. If he knocked it out of the park on the test tomorrow morning.
A National Merit Scholarship.
A chance for a ticket out of this life.
Sam ran a hand through his hair, tugging it at the roots in frustration. He was tired – tired of training and hunts that last into the night and fighting with his father and never being good enough.
Never good enough at anything - except keeping secrets. Years of lying and fake names and made-up stories to explain bruises and how his mom died and what his dad did for a living…. The one skill John had successfully drilled into Sam down to his very bones was how to keep secrets. It was almost second nature now. Easier than telling the truth.
He glanced at his watch. It was already 9 p.m. Dean was due back at 10. The way the weather was deteriorating, they'd be lucky to get home by midnight, Sam thought sullenly. He told himself he should close his eyes, at least try to catch twenty winks, salvage what extra sleep he could. Maybe it would be enough, and he could still ace that test.
Except he couldn't get comfortable. It wasn't like dozing in the car while the sun slants in through the windshield, warm and clean, and the tires eat up the asphalt, rhythmically ticking off each utility pole they pass against an endless sky. It wasn't like falling asleep to the sound of rain beating against the Impala, the wipers a hypnotic metronome, the sky black as coal.
This was being stuck somewhere you didn't want to be. Waiting. Leg and back muscles protesting their confinement because there's nothing to distract you from the fact that you're trapped here.
For years Sam couldn't wait to finally top six feet and look Dad and Dean in the eye. It had never occurred to him how cramped the car might feel when he achieved his goal.
He felt a tension headache building. The last thing he needed was for his skull to crack like an egg, which felt pretty likely right then. With a sigh, he popped open the glove compartment, rummaging for one of those square sample packets of painkillers they always kept tucked away there.
Victory. Or so Sam hoped. He flicked on the dome light to make sure it wasn't really a condom wrapper, because you could never be sure just what else Dean might store there.
And what Sam found he had in his hand was just about as useless. Yeah, it was a pharmaceutical freebie, all right, but it was Excedrin. Which had caffeine in it. Which would keep him awake when he needed to sleep.
Just as he was about to knee the glove box closed, Sam realized he could hear something coming from inside it. It sounded a little like the ticking of an engine cooling – but it didn't make sense that he could hear that better with the compartment door open. He slipped the Excedrin in his pocket – he'd probably need the caffeine and the headache-relief in the morning – and reached back inside. His fingers closed around a metal lump muffled by a wad of paper, and Sam pulled it out cautiously.
It was a beat-up old alarm clock, the wind-up kind. Which someone had wound up. Sam held it closer to the overhead light and squinted to make out the setting. It was due to go off at ten.
He smoothed out the pages wrapped around it and recognized his brother's handwriting on the top sheet.
Since we're searching near the Mullins' place, and Lisa sounded kinda freaked by what her kid brother saw, I'm going to check on how she's doing. If you're reading this, it means she needed a little extra reassurance, if you know what I mean. So take off, and I'll meet you at the rendezvous, tomorrow. 30 mins before Dad said to meet him.
I wasn't lying to Dad about work. I'll get Lisa to take me to the mill and back from her place Saturday. See you tomorrow, and take care of my baby. Remember - if you hit ice, steer INTO the skid and don't brake!
Stay warm, kiddo. I know I plan to!
P.S. Which reminds me - just how many sizes did your feet grow since last winter, anyway? Make sure you do get yourself some winter duds. Use the cash in the rent jar – I'll pay it back from my overtime. And whatever you have planned for the rest of your day off? Good luck dude!
The first time Sam had ever driven the Impala by himself, no one else in the car, was just a few weeks before. John had called from a pay phone, where his sons found him covered in blood and guts and the smell of cheap whiskey. Dean drove their dad home in John's truck, and sixteen-year-old Sam got to follow them back in the Impala. After that, Dean had a copy of the car keys made for Sam to hang onto – a rite of passage maybe. Sam wasn't sure how he felt about that at the time.
He was fine with it now, though. He was sliding behind the wheel of the car before he finished reading, already imagining being sprawled under the covers in his own bed. Barely wondering exactly what Dean meant at the end of his postscript.
Dean Winchester could sleep just about anywhere. At least in those days. Lumpy bed that smelled funny in a crappy motel. Saggy mattress on springs that creaked in whatever trailer or bungalow John Winchester had established as their latest home base. Even the bench seat of the Impala, cramped but familiar, was as comforting as being swaddled in a cradle.
The only thing Dean really needed was the relaxed rhythm of his brother's breathing, deep in slumber, a few feet away.
He never fell asleep before Sam did. Dean still had vague memories of their mom singing to Sammy so many years ago; he knew she must have done the same for him. Ever since her death, Sammy's soft inhales and exhales as he slept, quiet and steady like waves on the sand, had almost become Dean's lullaby. It meant that his little brother was safe. Dean had done his job well another day, and he could rest.
On this night, though, there wouldn't be any sleeping.
Dean was lying huddled in the snow, twisted like one of those giant carnival pretzels he normally liked so much. But he definitely wasn't enjoying this. He'd lost his shotgun. Didn't know where it was, only that it had flown out of his hands when he'd felt claws reach out of the ground, sink into his shin and yank him off his feet. He thought maybe the gun had gone off when it hit the ground, but honestly? At that moment, the explosion of agony in his right elbow when he landed wrong in the bottom of the ditch was all he knew.
And then nothing, until now. Nothing except that he was friggin' freezing, lying on his back on the wet ground. He could feel something dripping along the side of his face. Wanted to wipe it off; wanted to believe that the stinging sensation he felt was just the searing cold of snow on his cheek. But he couldn't. He couldn't raise his arm, not his right arm twisted painfully underneath him, and not his left arm trapped the way it was across his chest. He couldn't see, for the same reason he couldn't move his limbs. It wasn't claws that had brought him down; he had figured that much out. It was a barbed trip wire, stretched taut across the trail and hidden under several inches of drifting snow. He was tangled in a whole nest of it. When his flashlight had gone spinning out of his hand, he'd seen the steel loops and whorls an instant before he'd tumbled into them, unable to stop his fall. And now he was immobilized, the tiny spikes digging through cloth and into his flesh. There was pressure on his closed eyes, a ribbon of steel strung tight across his face. One needle-sharp barb was pricking an eyelid, like a wendigo's talon toying with its captive prey. One sudden move….
Any sudden move might….
Dean didn't want to find out what gory mess might result. He kept his eyes carefully shut and hishead just as carefully motionless. He couldn't see his watch, but knew it would be at least another eighteen hours before he was missed. There would be no sleep for him that night. Because it might not be that long before the creature they were hunting picked up his scent.
Kid thought he saw an ogre, John Winchester reflected. According to Pastor Jim, the word 'ogre' probably comes from the Italian 'orgo' - originally 'orco' - which translates as 'demon'. That fit with the disruptions in weather patterns. Demon. The thought made his palms sweat.
He wanted to search the caves himself. That was the most likely area to find any traces of what they were hunting, and the most dangerous task belonged to him, not his sons. The caves were located at the furthest edge of their search grids. Far enough away that he'd decided it was more practical for him to hike out and make camp there, the better to observe any movements at night or at dawn.
So that became the plan. They took the truck and the Impala. Each of the Winchesters was armed, and had a designated sector to search Friday night. With orders to observe only. The boys would scout their assigned terrain and return home, but they'd all meet again at the rendezvous Saturday at sunset. Compare notes and establish a plan.
The gravel road where they'd left the vehicles had just petered out, ten or twenty yards after crossing a wooden plank bridge. The stream it crossed was fed by Mill Creek in spring and summer, but there'd been a drought in September and the stream was dry now, like a carcass stripped clean by scavengers. An abandoned shack teetered on the shore, a remote put-in spot for kayaks and canoes, waiting for Mill Creek to rise again next year.
This time of year, the place was forgotten, and the Winchesters made that their rendezvous point.
The hike from there toward the caves had quickly turned steep. It had started snowing just as they'd each set out, and snow had fallen steadily ever since. It was now 10 p.m., and John had only just arrived at the caves. His boys, he thought, should be safely on their way home by now. He wondered for a moment if he'd been too soft, letting them go.
He dropped his heavy backpack under a tree, and was tired enough to set up the tent and call it a day, but he couldn't rest yet. Not without a quick reconnoiter.
John approached the opening of the main cave and stopped, one hand braced against the mud archway. He balanced his weight evenly on both feet, standing solid and still like he was carved out of granite. Like a gravestone. He listened carefully, peeling away each sliver of sound – the faint trill of a distant bird, the soft thud of snow falling off a branch too thin to bear its weight. One by one he processed and dismissed what he heard, until only one sound remained. Almost inaudible, but it was there, coming from the darkness just inside the cave. The harsh chest rattle of something not human.
Dean thought maybe he was going to go crazy trying to ignore the pain in one eye and the urge to open both of them.
He couldn't open just the one good eye. He'd already tried that, and it made the other eyelid scrunch up tighter, and that made something razor sharp stab into the tender skin there. Then his eye really hurt, and he could feel blood run down and mat against his eyelashes. So, both eyes were evenly shut, now. Relaxed. Well, it was more like he'd convinced his muscles to unclench; his heart was still thudding like he'd just finished another one of his dad's more punishing training runs. When he lay still, he thought maybe his eye was no more irritated than if he'd gotten a speck of sand in it.
Or, okay, maybe – a needle.
He tried to shift his weight enough to see if he could slide his right arm out from under his back, and the pain in his elbow flared like explosions of artillery fire behind his closed eyelids. He was pretty sure he'd passed out. When he could think again, he thought he was colder and more stiff than the last time he'd done a status check. On the positive side, his arm was growing numb, as long as he didn't try to move.
It was weird, lying there alone, arms and legs twisted like a corkscrew. Nothing to do except lie on his back, catalog his injuries, and imagine getting flayed alive by some slavering beast with tusks and claws. Dean wasn't used to spending so much time thinking about himself. It was always about Dad and Sam. Sometimes lately he felt just as trapped trying to keep the peace between them as he was lying in this barbed wire entanglement. And just about as helpless.
His face and hands, exposed to the elements, were starting to burn with the cold. He was glad for the boots and heavy leather jacket. And that the trip wire had landed him in a ditch, and not in the creek that he could hear gurgling close by. The barbed wire formed sort of a nest that was actually keeping most of his body off the snow. Of course, he'd planned to be wrapped up in Lisa Mullins about now instead of barbed wire. But all in all, it could be worse.
At least there was no sign of whatever they were hunting. Because Dean felt like he was lying out in the open like the entrée at an all-you-can eat buffet.
In the quiet he became more aware of the snow falling on top of him, thicker now. It was the kind of snow that sighed when your feet sank into it. Like – that sound Dean could hear now in the distance, soft but determined. It sounded like fists thumping into a punching bag. But slower and steadier. Like chewing, maybe. Giant molars munching on something solid and kind of gristly.
That wasn't an image that Dean wanted to dwell on. He lay as still as he could, pictured himself sinking into the earth, completely out of sight.
The sound seemed louder now. Closer. Then it stopped. Silent a moment, like something was sniffing the air. And then another soft thud of a footfall, and another. Something stalking him, creeping closer.
He was going to have to open his eyes. Even if it meant that the steel barb nicking his eyelid was going to pierce something more vulnerable than flesh…. Dean swallowed, and made himself finish the thought. Well, he had two eyes, didn't he? One to spare?
The crunching footsteps grew louder. And then slowed, like it was searching for someone hiding.
Dean's fingers uncurled, sluggish with cold. He had no idea how he could fight off a buggane, what with one arm trapped across his chest, and the other one he couldn't even feel any more. But when the creature found him, he wasn't going to simply lie there.
He was a Winchester, dammit.
And then –
"Dean? God, Dean…what the hell…?"
He felt hands batting at his jacket. "Sammy?" If his voice came out a little squeakier than usual it was only because it had to squeeze past his heart lodged in his throat.
"Yeah, I've got you. It's all right." Dean felt a puff of warm air against his face, his brother's words floating close to his ear. "It's gonna be all right."
He was aware of Sam's fingers sliding under the taut wire, heard the hiss of pain as Sam tugged the sharp strand away from Dean's eye. Metal scraped his eyebrow and fresh blood rolled over his closed eyelid and onto his cheek.
"Don't move – "
Sam curled one hand across Dean's eyes, keeping them firmly closed, while he worked the wire carefully over Dean's forehead with his other hand. "Christ, this is a like a crown of thorns…." His fingers were wedged between the thin cable and Dean's face, pulling and pushing the wire and trying to protect his brother's skin at the same time. "Keep your eyes closed until I say. This'll just take a sec – "
And then the barbs were sliding through Dean's hair like a comb. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt a comb drag across his scalp. It had never felt better. And it would be fine with him if he never felt it again.
"Don't open your eyes yet."
Dean sighed and resisted the urge that was growing stronger by the second. He heard a zipper being tugged open, and the slide of nylon, and then cloth being ripped.
Sam had shucked off his jacket and plaid shirt and was sitting on his haunches, turning a flannel sleeve into some sort of bandage. He angled it over Dean's forehead so that only the bloody eye was covered, and then his palm was cradling the nape of Dean's neck to lift his head.
"How bad…?" Dean had to ask. His neck muscles corded with the strain of holding his head up so Sam could have both hands free to tie a knot in the cloth.
"Not sure." Sam's fingers floated across Dean's hair, ear, cheek, and then withdrew. "There's a lot of blood.… It's probably gonna be fine, but I just think it's safer keeping that eye closed and covered until we get out of here."
It said something about how fucked up their lives were that Dean maybe losing an eye was the least of their worries right then.
Dean swallowed, nodded a fraction of an inch, and finally opened his other eye.
Sam's flashlight was wedged in a nearby shrub. It cast a weak pool of light around them, showing Dean trapped in a rats' nest of steel strands that encircled him like giant fingerprint whorls.
Sam sank back on his knees beside his brother, shivering. He pulled the remains of his flannel shirt back on over his tee, clumsy in his haste. The jacket followed, stretched too tight in the shoulders, sleeves too short exposing his bony wrists. Then Sam reached for the flashlight and brought it closer to scrutinize the mess Dean was in.
Dean tried to turn his head to see the damage, and felt something thin and sharp tighten around his throat. There was just a little slack – enough for him to track the light as it started at his boots. He could see blood, a ribbon of black against the denim of his jeans, where the trip wire had first caught his leg.
Sam panned the Maglite upward, and now they could both see that the trap was something that someone had thrown together hastily from whatever was at hand. There was a mix of shiny new razor wire that glistened like tinsel, and loose braids of old-fashioned barbed wire dulled by rust. Dean could feel it digging into his thigh, like a kitten discovering its claws. More hooks snared in the leather of his jacket, jagged vines wrapping around him and pressing against the back of his left hand where it was pinned against his chest. He couldn't see the wire under his chin, hadn't felt it slice into his skin there yet, but he could feel it ready to strangle him if he moved too quickly. More wire bobbed like seaweed just out of reach, waiting to snag any flesh that came within range.
Sam forced a grin. "Jeez, I know you're a Steve McQueen fan, dude, but this isn't the motorcycle scene from The Great Escape." He put one hand under Dean's right shoulder and started to lift him up, careful not to make the noose around Dean's neck pull any tighter.
Deadened nerves flared back to life. "Don't – ahh!" Dean scrunched his eyes shut and sent a frantic telepathic message, because he couldn't breathe to get any more words out. Don't – just, please, don't drop me back down on top of my arm!
Sam understood. He scooted closer to wedge his own knee between Dean's shoulder blades, keeping his brother's upper body off the ground. "I think I can work your arm free," he said after a minute of careful study. "There's enough play in the wire to ease it out. But – " Sam turned his head to read Dean's reaction before he did anything more. "It's probably gonna hurt like hell. 'Cause I don't think your elbow should bend like this."
It was a toss-up, Dean thought, between wanting his limb back in a normal position - putting an end to the torque that had him swallowing a scream - and not wanting anything to touch his arm. At all. Push comes to shove though, and it was gut instinct to have his shooting hand free. He'd worry later if it would actually function or not. "Do it."
"Okay. Hold on." Sam propped the Maglite against a rock on the ground, and then ran his fingers along the wire, slipping the barbs out of tiny puncture holes in the leather as he went.
"Just. Be careful with the jacket, dude."
"Right. It's the holes in the jacket I'm worried about. Jerk."
Lips pressed tightly together, Dean concentrated then on breathing through his nose. The grunts and curses that punctuated the night air were all Sam's. Some of them were quite inventive, in combinations Dean had never imagined. "I don't think I've heard those before, bro. New compound words on the PSAT vocabulary list?"
"What?" Sam was so startled he stopped. Something like guilt flashed in his eyes, and then he bent his head to the task again, pausing only to shake out his hands. "You wanna tell me what happened here?"
"I picked up a trail." Dean winced as Sam started to move his trapped arm through the widened gap. "Sign didn't look fresh, but something big definitely came this way." Dean paused, swallowing a whimper. Because real men don't whimper.
Sam was watching him carefully and stopped again, until Dean gave him a nod to continue.
"Thought I saw something creepy in the branches of a tree over there," Dean went on, tilting his head in that direction. "When I moved closer to check it out, something grabbed my leg. And then the ground – it just went out from under me."
"Huh." Sam caught his lower lip between his teeth, as he dragged the wire over Dean's shoulder. "Ow! Dammit.…Okay. Okay.… Got it!" Then he took hold of Dean's right arm and gingerly drew it the rest of the way out until it was more or less settled along Dean's side.
Dean felt dizzy with relief for a moment. His head and right arm were free. But barbed wire still hugged his legs and chest. And he felt like there was a garrote of piano wire tightening around his throat. One studded with razor-like teeth.
"How'd you even know to come looking?" Dean finally asked, panting, hyper-aware that there was something sharp pressing on his carotid artery.
"Heard a gunshot. We weren't supposed to engage the buggane without back-up. So I figured someone was in trouble. Then it was easy enough to track your boot prints in the snow." More muttered obscenities followed, inarticulate under Sam's breath as his fingers traced the barbs along Dean's flank.
Dean was relieved to find that the echo from the discharge of a firearm would carry that far. But…. "How'd you know which one of us to come after? How'd you know to follow my trail instead of going after Dad?"
Sam stopped what he was doing for a moment, frozen in the memory. His jaw clenched, and Dean suddenly imagined his little brother's night shattered by the sound of a gunshot, frantic with worry, and having to guess who needed help. Knowing if he guessed wrong….
Sam didn't answer the question, changing the subject instead. "Were you shooting at that creepy tree lurker? Did you get it?"
"Nah. Lost the shotgun when I fell. Must've gone off when it hit the ground." Dean looked around, to the limited extent that he could turn his head. "You didn't see it?"
Sam picked up the Maglite again, illuminated the terrain around them, and shook his head. "We're in sort of a hollow here," he noted, and then cast the beam across the snow, caught a reflection of water in a nearby creek, and then aimed it up toward the bare tree branches arching over them. A worn sign was nailed to one of the larger trees – the print barely legible but familiar. It wasn't the first time they'd encountered the inhospitable sentiment: "No Trespassing."
Dean snorted. "Too bad the bugger can't read."
"It's buggane, Dean. Not – never mind." Sam huffed an exasperated sigh as he continued to study the woods around them. "And who knows?" he added. "They aren't dumb animals in the legends. You'd be surprised. In fact – " Before he could finish that thought, he flinched as the light caught a misshapen mass moving in the trees, and he nearly dropped the flashlight. Whatever it was slipped back into darkness. Slowly, Sam brought the light to bear again. It froze on feathers, first. Then claws, a beak, and finally dull, beady eyes.
"I think – I think it's a turkey," Sam said, voice flat. "Suspended from the tree. Upside down."
"That's what you do with wild game you're planning to cook. You know that…." Dean stopped in mid-sentence. "Or – it's bait."
Sam redirected the Maglite to scan the perimeter of the barbed wire entanglement. "Someone dug a trench here, Dean. Probably camouflaged it."
"A trap." Dean caught Sam's sudden smirk and glared. "Don't say it –"
Sam, of course, couldn't resist. "You got caught in - a booby trap!" But his gleeful grin quickly faded. "What the hell were they thinking? Barbed wire?"
"Yeah, well.… Dad said the local farmers were gonna try to deal with whatever was attacking their livestock. I figure this is their genius idea."
"But they don't know what it is they're trying to catch."
"Or how to kill it." Dean's good eye darted nervously around the landscape – what little he could see that wasn't shrouded in inky darkness. "You armed?"
"Crossbow." Sam gestured to the top of the ditch where he'd left it so he'd have his hands free when he first scrambled down into the pit.
Dean twitched a muscle, testing. Turned out, the nerves that carried instructions from his brain to his right arm weren't worth squat right now. But the nerves that communicated pain from that arm to the brain were working overtime. That just wasn't fair.
Something was seriously wrong with his elbow. No way he'd be able to defend them. That's okay, he reassured himself. Sam is damned good with the crossbow. Just because he's only ever shot at targets with it is no reason to worry.…
Dean forced himself to sound positive. "Iron field points?" he asked, eyeing the metal tips.
Sam nodded. "Consecrated iron, like Dad said. Should be effective. Assuming it is a buggane. And that Dad's theory based on the lore isn't wrong."
"Dad's never wrong." Dean's left arm twitched futilely against his chest and fell still. "D'you bring anything to drink?" he asked.
"Sorry – no. Damn." Sam shook out his fingers, like they were cramping. "I left in such a hurry when I heard the shot; I didn't grab anything but the flashlight and crossbow. No water, no matches or anything we could use to melt some snow…. What?"
Dean's lips were twitching in a barely suppressed grin. "You said 'lore', dude. That means we're supposed to take a swig."
Sam barked a laugh. "We'll have to take a rain check on that, man. I think we've got higher priorities right now." He tucked the flashlight in a tight gap in the twisted cables that stretched between Dean and the edge of the ditch, and then leaned forward to tackle the wires around Dean's leg. One strand had hooked a loop on its own barb, and Sam focused on untangling it. "Remember when you taught me speed knot-tying? You know, I could tie my sneakers three times faster than anyone else in kindergarten."
"No bunny ears for my kid brother." Dean said fondly, appreciating Sam's attempt to distract him. But it wasn't long before he was feeling antsy again. He couldn't see what Sam was doing at that angle. And he couldn't help. That only left talking. "So. You got any stories about anyone who actually defeated the buggane?"
Sam didn't look up but his mouth twitched. "You can say the word 'lore', Dean."
"No, really. I can't. Not without a drink."
Sam glanced at him sideways, tried to hide a smile, and gave up. "Do you know the legend about the tailor named Tim?"
"Tool Time Tim Taylor?"
"No, Dean." Sam heaved another long-suffering sigh, and Dean realized how weirdly comforting it was to have his brother's smug pedantic presence at his side. It was a totally different atmosphere than when he was on a stakeout with his father. He kind of liked this.
If it weren't for the being maimed and torn up and freezing and possibly being hunted by an ogre part of it.
"Not Home Improvement, Dean. Jeez.…"
"Yeah." Sam switched his attention to the razor wire around Dean's throat, and to keep him occupied and still, he started to tell him the story of Tim Myrlea and the Buggane of St. Trinian's Church.
Dean promptly tuned him out. It was some long, boring story about a tailor who sat inside a church, on a bet, sewing a pair of breeches while the ogre taunted him. All night long they just argued back and forth. Kinda like Dad and Sam, he thought.
"Long story short –"
"Long story short - the tailor was so annoying that the buggane ripped its own head off and threw it at the tailor's feet, where it exploded like a bomb shell. Or so the legend goes."
"And the tailor – Tim?"
"He lived to tell the tale. Obviously."
"Good to know. Maybe if we meet up with it, you can bore this ogre to death, too. OW!"
"Sorry." Sam leaned closer. His fingers were warm against Dean's neck, working their way further under the wire, trying to find more play. It was tangled with the cord to Dean's amulet, and he gave it a tug. His fingers slipped and he bit off another curse.
In the eerie glow of the flashlight, Dean watched Sam bring his hand up to suck the knuckle of his index finger. He caught a fleeting gleam of color, red and shiny and not just on the knuckle. There were dark streaks crisscrossing both of Sam's hands. "Did it cut you?"
Sam dropped his hands back to Dean's neck. "M'okay."
But Dean could feel something wet trickling in the hollow of his throat now, and he knew the barbs hadn't pierced his own skin there. It wasn't his blood.
That was enough. "Look, Sam," he said, bringing out his most reasonable tone. "It's pretty obvious we're gonna need a set of wire cutters. Why don't you leave me here, and get back to the Impala. Bound to be tools you can use in the trunk."
"What about you?"
"I'm not goin' anywhere. Trust me." Dean grinned. "I'll just wait right here. Catch a few zzz's maybe." He schooled his features to look more confident than he felt. He didn't really want to be left alone – but he could still feel one wire digging its claws in his shin, another wrapped around his thigh, and a damned barbed hangman's noose around his neck. The fastest way out would be for Sam to leave him and bring back something to cut through the wire. Maybe they'd even luck out and find that Dad had decided to return to the truck to camp out there and wait till dawn to return to the caves.
Dad would know what to do.
"Dean, the car is - it's probably a good three miles back."
"So - what? You've been training for that sectional cross-country meet coming up. You run a 5K in under twenty minutes easy, right?"
"On roads, sure. In my running shoes. Not in the woods in these ratty sneakers. In snow. In the dark." Sam frowned, tucking his throbbing hands under his arms.
A gust of wind stirred the trees. The turkey carcass spun lazily under the creaking rope. The snow continued to fall, clumping on Dean's eyelashes, and he blinked his eye so he could see his brother clearly.
"You keep plucking this razor wire, you're gonna mess up your fingers, dude," Dean told him. "Isn't that PSAT thing in the morning? It's a timed test, right? You need your hands to be nimble."
"You – you know about that?"
"They didn't just invent them you know. Of course I know about them. They wanted me to take 'em when I was a junior, too."
Dean didn't tell Sam, however, that he'd found those practice PSAT test results in Sam's gear back when they were in Arbuckle last summer. Didn't tell Sam he'd seen the teacher's note, too – the one encouraging Sam to try for a National Merit Scholarship. They'd never talked about it. Never talked about what it might mean if Sam got the scores his teachers thought he was capable of.
Sam was all about keeping secrets these days. Too often, when their family secrets had come out, the consequences were disastrous. Sam had learned the hard way – and had the emotional scars to prove it - that the only way to keep safe was to keep things to yourself.
And Dean? Dean had an invisible cigar box he kept locked away in his mind that held all the memories he didn't want to examine too closely. He'd stuffed the one about Sam's PSAT practice scores in the box pretty much as soon as he'd discovered them, and snapped imaginary rubber bands around the lid to keep it tightly closed. Out of sight – out of mind. Because Dean Winchester preferred to deal with the Here-And-Now and not with What-Ifs. No good can come from thinking about what can't be. Dad would never agree to let Sam go to college.
What-Ifs were dangerous. Here-and-Now was saving people, hunting things. Keeping Dad happy and taking care of Sammy.
And taking care of Sam right now meant sending him for help. So Dean could get free ASAP and go back to his job of protecting his brother.
And, dammit, so Sam could get back in time for that stupid test that was going to destroy his family.
"Look Sam. Plan A - I can lie here and starve until I'm scrawny enough to slip through these wires. Or Plan B – you can go bring back a bolt-cutter. If you wanna make that test in the morning, I think you gotta go with Plan B."
Sam dropped his hands to his sides. The cold snow was soothing and numbed his torn skin. Dean was right. There just wasn't enough give in the barbed wire to get him free.
"You're sure?" Sam pressed one hand against the ground to push himself up and gasped at the piercing pain. Yeah. No point wrecking his hands any further.
"Yeah, dude. Go."
Sam picked up the flashlight, and the light faltered and dimmed. He whacked it on the side of his leg, and that must have shifted the batteries enough: the beam steadied. Then Sam gathered up the crossbow with his left hand, unsure if he'd even be able to work it anymore. But it was clear that Dean couldn't. With a reluctant nod at his brother, he took off at a trot through the trees, disappearing from sight within moments.
He could be back in under an hour, he convinced himself. And Dean would be fine alone until then.
Hunter. Prey. John Winchester knew which one he was. This would go down a lot easier, he figured, if the creature he was tracking recognized its own role in this contest.
The plan had been a simple reconnaissance – find the enemy, study it, and report back to strategize their attack. Naïve locals in the bar had talked about setting traps, hunting it themselves, but they had no idea what they were up against. The only eyewitness was a seven-year-old boy whose description sounded more like something out of a fairy tale than the native wildlife the farmers were expecting.
John had dropped his rucksack and gear near the entrance and now took one step into the cavern. Cautious - like he'd learned to track VC down a tunnel. Some things you never forgot.
The smell struck him first. Like fresh road kill, pungent and cloying. The harsh wheezing of labored breathing had stopped, but a new sound crept from the darkness. A faint mewing.
He stooped down, felt around for a fist-sized rock and tossed it underhanded into the depths of the cave.
There was no reaction.
His right hand held the shotgun steady, bracing the weight of it against his left hand that held the flashlight. With a flick of his thumb, he turned the light on and stepped forward.
Against the wall of the cave, about a dozen feet away, he saw a mound of wet fur. The flashlight skimmed its length, revealing four limbs. Claws. The beast wasn't moving. Wrinkling his nose at the smell, he swept the beam back up to the head. Tusks, just like the kid had said. The creature's eyes were open, glazed and unseeing. It seemed gaunt, ribs pronounced. The chest was still. It was a female, and the dirt under her hips was saturated with blood, still damp. That was his first clue that she had recently given birth.
Buggane, he thought. Sam was right.
The boy may not always have his priorities straight, but he never shirked his research.
The mewing sound came again. John covered his nose with the hand carrying the shotgun, breathing through his mouth, and stepped closer. The flashlight illuminated a small, moving ball of fur, clinging to its mother.
There were two babies, he saw now. Their eyes were still shut, their rust-colored fur damp and matted. The runt wasn't moving at all, except for tiny tremors. His brother was rooting around their mother's fur, trying to suckle.
John dropped slowly to his knees, oblivious to the pool of blood. He picked up the tinier one first. It stopped shivering and nestled in the palm of his hand as if the warmth was a comfort. Its little mouth gaped like a fish, or maybe a baby bird. It was hungry.
They would starve if he left them here.
Recon and report back, John reminded himself. Assess as a team. And then deal with the threat together. It would be good training for the boys, he thought, to be responsible for dealing with these critters – assuming the little things lived through the night. Dean would do what he'd been raised to do, John was sure. Wouldn't take much against something this fragile. Might snap the neck; might choose smothering instead. But Dean would see the sense in it. Those babies weren't natural, and there wasn't anything else to be done about it.
Sam, though. Sam wouldn't like it. Sam didn't like much of anything to do with hunting these days. He needed to learn this lesson. Needed to be reminded that being weak is a death sentence. One day – if John was honest enough with himself to admit it – one day he would find and destroy whatever killed Mary, or he would die trying. And if it was the latter, Sam had to be strong enough to stand on his own and defend himself.
School wasn't making him any better prepared to face whatever was after their family than these little orphans were prepared to fend for themselves. Sam needed to figure that out.
Sam had plenty of time while running back toward the car to figure out a number of things.
Snow was soaking through the split canvas of his too-small sneakers, and his toes were painfully cold. Running made the wind chill factor worse. It felt like he was inhaling frost instead of air, and his lungs were burning after just a few minutes.
At least, though, he was warmed by the exercise. Dean didn't have the option of moving to keep warm. He was stuck. Lying on the frozen ground… defenseless….
Sam flinched and ducked his head at the last second as the trail took him under a low branch. It whipped his cheek and his ear as he jogged past, drawing blood. The trees - black, wraith-like shadows - seemed to be crowding closer. Their limbs were reaching out toward him, like a hoard of hungry zombies in a damned Romero flick.
Sam's Very Bad Feeling about leaving Dean alone was growing stronger.
Was that a sound?
He skidded to a stop, hands on knees to ease the knives in his chest, and listened intently. There was nothing. Must have been his imagination, he decided. And yet….
Even if Dad was wrong about something supernatural in the woods – and much as he disagreed with John Winchester about so many things, Sam had to admit his dad was rarely wrong about recognizing a threat – something was mauling livestock in the area.
And he had left Dean alone and unprotected.
Why? Because Dean had said to.
But Dean didn't always make the right decisions.
He always made the decisions that protected Sam.
Maybe it was time for Sam to step up. If he wanted to be treated like an adult, like an equal, maybe he should think like one. Act like one.
Yes – getting a bolt-cutter from the Impala would probably be the fastest way to get Dean free, so Sam could get him warmed up and check out his injuries. And yes, to be honest, it would also be the fastest way to get home and maybe get some sleep before the exam in the morning, if he was going to factor his own needs into the equation.
But he couldn't risk it.
Even if he couldn't get Dean out at all - not without shredding his hands to ribbons, or not until they missed their check-in and Dad came looking for them – that was still safer than the chance that something might attack Dean when he was alone and couldn't defend himself.
Sam was more than halfway to the car. Turning back now felt wrong, like running a cross-country race and turning around when the finish line was almost in sight.
But he did it anyway.
The buggane knew that dawn and dusk were the best times to seek fresh meat. But that knowledge, which had served him well for as many seasons as he'd been hunting, seemed no longer true. There'd been no rain for so long that food had grown scarce at any time of day, and he'd seen nothing to eat at all since the cold winds had come. Not in the woods where his kind lurked. The only smell of fresh meat had come from across the pastures.
The first time, he had followed the scent to a heavy spotted animal on four legs, eating grass. It was less skittish than the animals in the woods, and it was easy for him to bring it down, even weakened by hunger as he was. He didn't have the strength to drag it back to the cave, but he'd been able to tear off a hind leg, and meat off the ribs, and he carried that back, dripping blood.
Nothing had followed him.
The second time, he saw creatures on two legs guarding their herd with long rods in their hands. He remembered learning about 'Man' and their ways from the Old Ones, long ago in his childhood, in another time of famine. He had even learned to recognize some of the sounds that Man used to communicate, but he had forgotten much of that lore since then. His kind was dwindling; he hadn't seen an Old One since before he'd reached his full growth. He did remember one thing the elders taught him about the tools of Man. Their cold rods couldn't kill him, it was said, but the bite of their weapons would be painful and was best avoided.
So he'd reluctantly backed away that second time, into the shadows, and only the smallest Man had seen him. By the time the wee one raised the alarm, he was long gone.
But now his mate had grown so frail she couldn't leave the cave. Her time was nigh. He had to find nourishment for her, and for the litter that would come very soon, so their young would grow strong. He would teach them as his father and the elders had taught him. To seek caves when it was time to rest. Never to attempt to cross flowing water, or fields with crosses rising from the ground.
He would teach them how to hunt to survive.
The hollow in his stomach ached and rumbled, and his path through the snow was uneven. Exhaustion made him stumble. But he had promised his mate he would have food when he returned. Her eyes had held his with such enduring faith that he couldn't consider turning back empty-handed. He raised his head, sniffing the air. He would find fresh meat and bring it back to his family. If all he could find were Man, even if they were armed, he wouldn't let their weapons stop him this time. He would rip out their hearts and present them to his mate, and she would feast and deliver strong sons.
An hour. Sam would be back with help in an hour.
Dean could make it that long. He was pretty sure.
He still needed something to occupy his thoughts, though. It was too bad he couldn't just sleep. Maybe – he should review what Sam had gone on (and on and on) about the various buggane myths, while they were on the road trailing their dad's truck here. Replaying the conversation (okay, lecture) would surely put him to sleep, and that would be a blessed relief. Right now, pain and anxiety had his nerves vibrating like they were caught in a feedback loop on an electric guitar.
What had Sam told him?
First, there were the ingredients to make a sachet for protection: sprig of a rowan tree, a bunch of wormwood, and a feather from a sea gull's wing, tied together with… oh yeah. A strip of the skin taken from the belly of a conger eel. Awesome. Those dudes grew to ten feet long! Unfortunately, they didn't happen to have any conger eels in the trunk.
Then there were the stories – like the time the buggane challenged the famous Irish giant Finn McSomething to battle. Finn's wife offered the ogre buttermilk and barley bread first, and they sat down for a nice chat…. Maybe there was an exciting end to that story, but as soon as Dean figured out that the fight was called off, he'd lost interest and quit paying attention. After all, he was driving at the time. He couldn't afford to fall asleep at the wheel.
He was paying attention now, though. All thoughts of falling asleep fled.
Something was crashing through the trees, coming right at him, and it was too soon for it to be Sam, so it had to be….
But it wasn't.
It was Sam, sliding down the ditch to land on his knees beside his brother.
"Sam! The hell? It hasn't been long enough… has it? What are you doing back here already?"
"I couldn't. Couldn't…. It would take too damn long, Dean!" Sam tossed the crossbow aside and bowed his head, breathing hard.
"Too long? How is it longer than never? Because never is how long it'll take you to unravel this mess with your bare hands."
"It was too long - to leave you alone," Sam panted, implacable and determined, looking older than his sixteen years. His brother was just going to have to deal, Sam figured. It's not like Dean could do anything about it.
He was here now, and he would keep Dean safe.
And then his flashlight dimmed. And abruptly died.
And no amount of frantic whacking would resuscitate it. The darkness closed in on Sam, making it hard to breathe. He couldn't see Dean. He couldn't see anything. He was utterly and completely blind.
An icy chill of dread trickled down his spine, momentarily paralyzing him. Stealing away his resolve. Then Sam heard his brother's voice.
"Well, that sucks," Dean said wryly. "On top of everything else, now it's as dark as the belly of a disemboweled tauntaun."
Sam snorted weakly. "I guess that means it's finally my turn to play Han instead of Luke, and rescue you."
"Dude. No way you're Han." Dean sniffed. "At least it doesn't smell like tauntaun guts."
Sam felt a reluctant smile stretch the frozen muscles in his face. The flashback to childhood movies and games settled his nerves. Dean always was good at that.
A light saber – that's what he needed. One would certainly come in handy right now. But they didn't have one. He wasn't Luke. Or Han.
His mouth tightened into a thin line, lips blanched. He knew what he had to do. His shoulders twitched, steeling himself for the task, and then he sucked in a deep breath and went to work. Started plucking needle-sharp knots out of fabric and skin like he was playing a guitar riff, producing curses under his breath instead of music.
Other than that, it was dead quiet. Like in the movies, he thought, when all the forest animals suddenly disappear, hiding from something ominous and deadly.
The silence in the woods sounded wrong to Dean, too. "Sam?"
"We don't even know for sure," Sam said through gritted teeth, punctuating his sentence with small yanks on the wire, "if consecrated iron will really stop it. If it doesn't," Sam panted, pulling big loops over Dean now, until he was free except for one leg and his neck. "If iron doesn't stop it, I can't leave you trapped here. We've got to be able to run."
There was something in the air; they could sense it now. A noise, like whispering in church, floated toward them. Not close by, not yet.
Just branches rustling in the breeze, Dean tried to convince himself. Only – this time, he realized, there wasn't any wind now. And the rustling seemed to be getting louder. Drawing closer.
For a crazy moment, Dean felt like he was stuck in a Disney flick. It was ass-backwards, because he was a hunter, and hunters were supposed to be the good guys, but he suddenly felt like Bambi's mother, sensing danger and wanting nothing more than to yell at Sam to run!
Sam had heard the sound, too. The barbed wire seemed to cling to his fingers, sticky like spiders' silk. He imagined Dean caught in a web, unable to escape, the predator advancing….
"Dean. I can't…." The sentence stopped short. Sam's voice sounded raw. It reminded Dean of when Sammy was little, when he'd failed at something Dad had set him to do, and had to fight not to cry. It had been years since Dean heard Sam sound that desperate.
"Sam. Leave this. Get the crossbow!" Dean made an effort to help, now that his left arm was freed, but his struggles just tightened the steel band wrapped around his throat and he froze with a gasp.
Sam tried to still the tremor in his hands. Dean wasn't going to get them out of this one, and Dad wasn't here. It was up to him, and he had to find a way. There wasn't any other option.
Mind racing, he surged to his feet, crouching over Dean, and then moved away, trailing his fingers lightly along the wire like a blind man in a blizzard tracing a clothesline back to the house. The wire disappeared under a mat of snow-covered leaves and Sam brushed the clumps of soggy mess away, crawling after the strand along the ground until it emerged again in the darkness a dozen feet away, wrapped taut around the trunk of a sapling.
"Just hang on, Dean," Sam called over his shoulder. His fingertips, stiff with cold, fumbled to unwind the twisted knots. Just like straightening a coat hanger to break into a locked car, he told himself. Nothing to it. Except that the razor wire sliced into his flesh and the blood made the task slippery.
A deep growl rumbled from the black void of the forest.
"Sam! You gotta find a weapon!" Dean grunted, left arm flailing as if one might magically appear within reach.
They could hear footsteps now. A steady thudding, slow and deliberate. Stealthy. Circling them.
"Got it!" The last curl was tugged free and the length that had been coiled around the trunk of the tree whipped loose, no longer tethered. Sam crawled back to Dean, ignoring the bright red splashes of blood under his hands. The wire was slack now, and Sam was able to peel it away from Dean, like unwrapping a mummy.
It snagged, finally, on Dean's amulet, the cord drawn too tight under Dean's chin to pull it over his head. Sam didn't know whether to cry or laugh. His well-meant gift to his big brother all those years ago, a talisman for protection, could end up costing Dean his life.
The fingers on Sam's right hand weren't functioning properly any more, the pain almost blinding. He could feel Dean's heart hammering under his ribs. Sam's hands trembled a moment, as if he was trying to summon the nerve to touch an electrified fence. Then he just grabbed a fistful of the razor wire in his right hand and yanked it away from Dean's throat while he untangled the knotted cord and wire with his left.
The moment it came loose, Sam saw Dean's unbandaged eye widen, white-rimmed and alarmed, locked on something behind Sam. Sam turned his head and saw a flash of movement coming up fast.
Free at last, Dean scrambled out of the ditch. The sudden movement awakened a stabbing agony in his wounded eye, and he pressed the heel of one hand to his eye socket and swayed with dizziness. Sam grabbed his left arm, but Dean shook him off and reached for the crossbow, half-sunken in the snow, lying closer to him than to his brother.
The nerve endings in his right elbow woke up and screeched like a banshee. Dean was counting on the adrenaline to keep him on his feet and fighting, but his battered body couldn't keep up. His knees folded. His vision dimmed, like fireworks in reverse. Explosions of darkness instead of light blossomed all around until…
Dean woke with a shiver. "S'furnace out again?" He burrowed tighter into his jacket, still not fully aware, and added, "Your turn to check the pilot light, Sammy." He tried to roll over and go back to sleep, but an arm across his shoulder was holding him in place, and he heard a terse, "Stay still, Dean."
"What is it?" Like someone had snapped their fingers, Dean came fully awake. A lifetime of training kicked in and he froze, listening. Then he opened one eye and discovered that the other was blindfolded, or… bandaged? Startled, he realized that they were outdoors, huddled together under the low hanging branches of an evergreen tree.
The events of the night started to creep sluggishly back to him.
He listened harder. They were hiding from something. What? Then the memories came rushing back in a flood. A buggane, even more badass and fugly than he'd imagined, charging toward them. Was it out there now, stalking them?
Where were they? And how did they get here?
He didn't hear any movement outside their impromptu nature shelter. The only sound was a distant trickle of water and a steady inhale-exhale close to his ear.
Dean knew all the different sounds of Sam's breathing. He knew how his brother sounded when he was deep in relaxed sleep, and when he was fighting a nightmare. He knew how Sam sounded when he was sucking wind after a tough workout. And he knew the shallow panting breaths his brother used when he was trying to manage pain.
"Sammy?" He moved to sit up, more carefully than before, and this time Sam let him. Dean found his jacket buttoned closed at the bottom with his right hand tucked inside, keeping his hurt arm secured close to his side. There was a sample-sized packet of Excedrin resting in his palm.
Dean winced at the effort of moving upright, and that eyelid twitch woke the stabbing pain in his covered eye. Sam's jacket slid off them both, and Dean realized they'd been curled under it together, like they used to huddle under the same quilt when they were small enough to share a twin bed. Before Dean could say anything, Sam's hands disappeared in the sleeves and he shrugged his jacket back on.
"Where are we?" Dean asked, bringing his hands together so he could tear open the packet without jostling his bad arm.
"Across the c-creek." The words floated in tiny puffs of fog in front of Sam's chapped cheeks. There was a raw scratch along his cheekbone, and dirt, like he'd been propped against the bark of a tree for much of the night. "G-guess the legends were right. They can't cross running water."
"But it's still out there. Waiting. Hunting." Dean shook the two tablets into his palm and stopped. "You got more of these?"
"Forgot I even had 'em till this morning. I already took some."
"Okay then." Dean tossed his head back and dry-swallowed the meds, then leaned forward, pawing the dirt for the shotgun or crossbow. His probing fingers found nothing but exposed roots and pine needles. "Weapons?" he asked, still groping. His hand brushed against something sodden and cold. Sam curled his legs away and Dean grabbed an escaping ankle. "Dude, your legs are soaking wet!"
Dean stared at Sam's sneakers - shabby old Pumas that had gotten too small, with holes in the canvas and cracks in the rubber treads. Patches of ice flaked off them as Sam wrestled his foot free.
Dean's own legs were cold, but they didn't feel like crushed ice. And he would have remembered splashing across the creek to escape, wouldn't he? "Dude. Did you carry me?"
Sam grinned – his teeth a flash of white in the shadows. "Like a bride across the threshold."
"Bride of Frankenstein, maybe!" But Dean's smile in return faded when he noticed how colorless Sam's lips were, and the patches of waxy white on his brother's stupid pointy nose. Similar symptoms were probably written across his own face, he thought, suddenly aware of his cheeks tingling. It occurred to Dean that he could see pretty well now without a flashlight. And Sam had mentioned morning.
Dean reached out with his good arm and swept aside a low branch. Snow spilled to the ground with a soft plop as he tucked one branch over another to let in more light. Peering out over the tops of trees, he saw a cloud-free sky the color of white marble, mottled with just a hint of blue. The same shade as Sam's face. And hands? Dean looked down to check, but Sam had his hands tucked snug under his armpits, conserving heat.
And that nylon jacket really wasn't heavy enough for this freezing weather.
Warmer clothes weren't the only things they needed badly right now. Sam had never answered his question about the crossbow, or his shotgun. "Our weapons?" Dean asked again.
"Couldn't carry a weapon, and you, too." Sam shrugged.
Dean rubbed his hands together to generate some warmth. "Any reason you didn't start a fire?"
"No matches." Sam tried to suppress his shivering. "If you can walk, we'll warm up soon enough." He got his knees under him, moving stiffly, and climbed to his feet, stooped over, arms still crossed. Then he shouldered aside the branches and stepped out into the sun.
Dean eyed him suspiciously and then held out his good arm. "Help me up."
Sam pressed his lips together, then leaned back down and offered Dean an elbow. Dean grabbed it with his left hand and awkwardly pulled himself to a stand. Outside their snowy evergreen hideout, Dean squinted against the sunlight and flipped his collar up one-handed to block the wind. Sam was unsteady on his feet, shoulders hunched, looking miserable and exhausted.
"Might help if you zipped that up," Dean told him, nodding toward Sam's jacket.
He watched Sam think about it – pondering something that should have been a no-brainer. So Sam wasn't thinking about complying, Dean knew, but about his answer.
Then Sam unfolded his arms, and there it was: the real reason Sam didn't try to bring the weapons. Swollen and bloody, both hands were scored with deep lacerations across the palms and fingers.
"Jesus." The word fell off Dean's chapped lips and turned to frost. "Can you – can you move them?"
"The left hand, a little." Sam curled a thumb and two fingers toward each other, hissing. On his right hand, he got nothing more than a twitch.
"Probably just the cold," Dean said, feigning a confidence he didn't feel. "And the swelling makes 'em stiff."
"Yeah. Probably." Sam looked at him and for the first time, Dean felt that his brother saw through him, wasn't placated by phony encouragement. Instead, Sam tried to reassure him. "At least, the cold stopped the bleeding," Sam said. "How about you? You doing okay?"
"Numb." Dean was pretty sure if he tried to move his right arm, that numbness would disappear fast, but he didn't want to put it to the test. As for the rest, the scrapes and punctures from the barbed wire were comparatively trivial. His eye hurt like a motherf---, but he was hoping the drugs would deliver their promised magic soon.
A mental light bulb clicked on. "You couldn't have opened that Excedrin. You didn't take any, did you?"
Sam shrugged. "That was all I had, and you needed it more."
Dean opened his mouth to argue, but Sam didn't let him. "You were in so much pain earlier that you passed out, Dean! Don't even try to deny it."
"Seemed like a good idea at the time," Dean muttered. He was pissed at Sam for lying to him, but this wasn't the time or place to give him hell for that. As cold as he felt, he didn't want to find out that the stream was shallow enough to freeze at some point and allow the buggane to cross.
If Sam could move out, Dean could, too. He just hoped they wouldn't have to try to outrun anything.
But first things first. "C'mere."
It said something about Sam's fatigue that he didn't even question the order, he just stumbled closer. Dean crowded into his personal space, and Sam let him, until Dean could reach the bottom of Sam's jacket. "Can you hold this?" he asked.
Sam dropped his left hand, and took hold of the hem with the fingers that still had the ability to grip, though the effort made him suck in a harsh breath.
Dean lined up the zipper with his good hand and clumsily fought it into the slot. The teeth closed when he gave it a tug, and he gave a sigh of relief when he found he could pull the slider up to Sam's chest.
"Just like when you were in kindergarten," Dean said, eyes shining fondly.
Sam looked about as vulnerable as a five-year-old, and Dean took advantage of his docility to reach for Sam's right wrist. He turned the hand over gently and caught his breath.
Sam hadn't been lying – the bleeding was pretty much stopped. But the lacerations in the fingers went clear to the bone. And across his palm… well, Dean had to wonder if there was anything about palmistry in Dad's journal. He hoped it was all a bunch of hokum, because Sam's lifeline was shot to hell.
He dropped Sam's hand and looked around. "I figure if we stay on this side of the stream and follow it south, it'll take us back to the bridge where we parked. It's not the shortest route. But it's the safest."
Sam nodded and fell into step beside him.
The snow came up over their ankles, masking hazards in the terrain. Sometimes when the ground was uneven they had to throw out an arm to keep their balance. Every wobble made Dean's elbow flare in protest, and there was always the constant sharp feeling of something painfully wrong under his bandaged eyelid. But they forged on, the way their father had trained them.
Once Dean stumbled and Sam grabbed him without thinking, and the pain drove both of them to their knees for several long, gasping minutes.
John used to relish giving his boys wilderness challenges. Dean was too much of a hedonist to enjoy them, but he took pride in driving himself to keep going without complaint. Once Sam hit adolescence, Dean embraced the competition - pushing Sam to the breaking point, determined that his little brother be the one to ask for a rest first.
Sam had grown equally stubborn. Just as resolved to hide his own distress, hoping Dean would break first.
Only – this time it wasn't a contest.
Dean stopped and turned to check on his brother. Sam was shivering so hard it made Dean's bones ache in sympathy, and Sam's movements seemed clumsy in a way that had nothing to do with his recent growth spurt, all gangly arms and legs. He wasn't picking up his feet so much as shuffling through the drifts like his limbs were heavy. Like they were blocks of ice.
"Sammy? You doin' okay?" Like Sam would admit it if he wasn't. And yet –
"Huh?" Sam didn't even look at him – just kept his eyes fixed on the ground as if it required everything he had to stay upright and moving.
Dean's worry ratcheted up another notch. Sam's voice sounded dull, his wits slow in a way Sam's never were. He watched as his brother took another step forward, and then Sam's knees buckled.
"Sammy!" Dean got to him just before he face-planted, and propped him up as they sank down to the ground together.
"Just need a minute," Sam mumbled. "Can we? Can we…." his voice trailed off.
"Sure, Sam. Sure we can." Dean wracked his brain. The 'umbles', that's what their dad had taught them to watch for. The first signs of hypothermia – stumbles, fumbles, mumbles, grumbles. Add crumbles to the list.
"Hey. How about we take a break, huh?" Dean suggested. Sammy should be gloating over apparently outlasting his big brother. Dean would happily admit defeat if Sam would just claim victory, but the only expression on Sam's pale face was relief.
Dean could see a patch in the woods not far ahead where the trees thinned. Several large rocks sat soaking in the sun beside a dead pine, still bristling with brown needles like a discarded Christmas tree. Dean led his brother toward it. Sam followed mutely and sat where Dean pointed, jaw working to stifle a yawn.
"You get any sleep last night?" Dean asked, rummaging in his pockets for something sweet, anything that he remembered might help stave off hypothermia.
Sam shook his head. He coughed, pressing a wrist to his aching chest, and then forced out a simple answer. "K-kept watch."
"Yeah? When we're defenseless. Good plan. 'Cause it's so much better to be awake while being eaten." Dean shook his head, still searching. He felt plastic in the hip pocket of his jeans and pulled it out. What they needed was something like hard candy. What he found stashed away was – a condom.
He'd forgotten all about Lisa Mullins.
Sam remembered now, too, a weary smile teasing at one corner of his lips.
Dean wanted to grin back, but he was scrambling his wits for a reason not to start feeling desperate. Sam was in trouble and they had nothing. There was nothing but sun and sky, trees and the creek, for as far as the eye could see.
Sun. Trees. Creek.
Using one hand and his teeth, he tore the packet open and awkwardly unrolled the contents. Sam's eyes widened, puzzled, as Dean crouched beside the stream and let the flowing water fill the latex, stretching it until it slowly swelled into a small sphere.
"Let me guess." Sam was starting to perk up a little. "It's a crystal ball to tell us where the buggane is now."
"Nope." Dean pinched the end closed, then cradled it in the makeshift sling formed by his buttoned jacket, and fumbled his way to tying a knot in the end.
"Water balloon?" Sam guessed next. "A little Latin blessing, and we have a holy water hand grenade to use against it?"
"Dude – that's not a bad idea! But – no." Dean set the transparent globe on the flat surface of the rock and reached overhead to start plucking dry pine needles from the tree, building a little nest.
Sam stumbled closer, mesmerized. Then Dean picked up the iridescent ball of water and held it over the tinder, angled so the sun's sharp rays focused on a shiny dime-sized spot on the rubber. Smoke started to curl from the dry needles underneath it.
"Hey! I get it!" Sam sounded more alert than he had all morning. "The convex surface focuses the photons from the sun's rays…."
"You don't have to explain it to me, dumbass!" Dean knocked shoulders against his brother. "I'm Bill Nye the Science Guy here. You're just the assistant - who blows." He smirked, set the water balloon down, and bent to add some twigs to the pile. Sam leaned forward, pursed his lips, and breathed lightly over the wisps of smoke like he was blowing out a ritual candle.
Flames flickered to life, and Dean felt their energy spark as well. It never actually amounted to what he would call a genuine blaze, but the Little-Campfire-That-Could warmed them in ways that had more to do with confidence and teamwork than actual core temperatures. Though they each did hunch forward over the little fire to savor the heat on their frost-nipped faces.
"Seriously – " Sam asked, stretching his cold fingers toward the dancing flames. "You didn't really get this 'Fire by Condom' idea from Bill Nye on TV." His voice rose uncertainly. "Did you?"
"I don't know what you mean, Sammy." Dean fed another stick into the flames. "You mean they're good for something besides starting fires?"
Sam's face flushed red and Dean grinned, pleased with himself for succeeding at getting some color back in his little brother's cheeks. Eventually, the flames started to sputter out and rather than find more dry tinder, he let the fire die and rolled his left arm to look at his watch. "Think you can move on now?"
"'Course I can. You were the one who called for a break."
That's my boy, Dean thought.
"Time's it?" Sam asked after they had fallen into step again.
They were marching to the cadence of Zeppelin's Ramble On in Dean's head, and he interrupted the earworm to answer. "After eight."
Sam fell silent, and Dean remembered that Sam had had plans to be sitting in a classroom with a number-two lead pencil right at that moment, scribbling in little ovals and leaving all his classmates in the dust.
"I'm sorry, man."
"About what?" Sam knew what he had given up. He'd been surprised to find out that Dean had known about the PSAT exam all along. But he didn't think that Dean knew how much it really meant to him.
Getting money from a college with his erratic school history? Sam was doing everything he could to have the grades and activities and recommendations that would just make him a contender. But he knew how rare, how competitive academic scholarships were. It seemed like every high school had straight-A students, who were also congressional interns who saved the whales and donated spare organs for the needy on the side.
If he was honest, his best chance lay in the only level playing field where he had an equal opportunity with everyone else: a standardized test.
The PSAT was more than a routine high school obligation. It was his whole future on a plate.
Dean's eyes searched his. "Sorry I fainted like a little girl last night? If I hadn't, well, maybe you wouldn't have missed your test."
Sam shrugged, and held up his wrecked hands. "I don't think it would have mattered, Dean." He couldn't even hold a pencil, much less string two coherent thoughts together for an exam. Sam had known the moment he decided to turn back without the wire cutters that this might be the cost.
There was a reason Winchesters weren't much for apologizing. They didn't know how to accept apologies any better than how to offer them, and no one ever felt better for having made the effort.
But conversation was still a good strategy, Dean figured. He wanted more of a heads-up if Sam was going to buckle again, and getting him to talk would be a good way to monitor that.
"So really, dude," Dean said, slowing his stride to match Sam's. "What would you have done, if that buggane had been able to find us while I was out cold?"
Sam's expression eased into what Dean called his Cogitating Look. After a moment, his eyes sparked with a flash of mischief. Dean always could pull him out of his funks. "Did'ja ever hear the story of the two hunters who were stalked by a wendigo in northern Minnesota?"
Dean shook his head. Thinking: This is working. Keep talking, Sammy.
"The first guy hears a noise. You remember what a wendigo sounds like – it's not a sound you forget. Anyway, he hears this enraged and hungry growl outside the tent and starts pulling on his running shoes," Sam explained. "The second guy, panicking, says, 'What're you doing that for? No one can out-run a wendigo!'" He paused there, wheezing a bit as the terrain grew steeper.
Dean was reminded of when he used to tell Sammy bedtime stories, so many years ago, and drawing out the cliffhanger moment. Sammy sitting up in bed with his arms wrapped tight around his bony knees and his eyes wide. Not exactly lulling the kid to sleep, Dean remembered ruefully.
Starting forward again, Sam got to the punch line. "'I don't have to out-run the wendigo,' the first guy says. 'I just have to out-run you!'"
It took a beat, and then Dean started to laugh, holding his elbow tight so it wouldn't jostle, but laughing.
It was contagious. Sam chuckled, too, weak but genuine, and they plodded on. When the stream they were following forked, they followed the southern branch.
The slight elevation gain made their hike more of a challenge, but it was gradual. They never noticed that as the terrain rose, the stream grew more and more shallow. Soon it was covered with a thin veneer of ice. Then it became nothing more than a few intermittent splotches of puddles. Eventually, snow settled in the bottom of the creek bed. By that time, the boys were too focused on just putting one foot in front of the other to notice.
It was a pretty scene. Peaceful.
But it didn't offer the protection of running water any more.
John camped out in the woods within sight of the cave entrance. The pup tent and sleeping bag were barely adequate against the brutal cold, but he had to stay close, had to make sure the creatures he'd found were alone and not part of a pack. The cave interior might have been warmer, but John couldn't bring himself to bed down with the dead family. It haunted him more than he thought it should. He lay awake a long time that night, remembering when his own boys were little like that. Tiny enough to carry in one arm, tucked close to his chest. Mary used to tease that he carried the boys like he was a running back protecting the football.
Staring up at the night sky, John was also remembering the feel of the little newborn bugganes cradled in his hands, and how fragile they felt before he snapped their necks.
When dawn came with no sign of any more activity, he began the laborious hike back to the truck, feeling every year of his age in his bones.
He had no regrets. They weren't natural, those creatures, preying on livestock – cattle torn to ribbons, dragged off, devoured. It was only a matter of time before a child like Eric Mullins would have been taken.
In the end, he couldn't leave the infants for Sam and Dean to deal with. Couldn't take the babies with him, and he couldn't leave them behind to starve, or to be eaten by some predator that belonged in the forest, before he'd made it back with the boys. So - John had taken care of them.
Whatever made his chest ache and his heart feel heavy, well, it didn't have anything to do with what was inside that cave. Feeling wound up tight, a little more quick to violence and anger, and a little more maudlin, too – those were sure signs it was coming up on the anniversary of Mary's death. Sixteen years now, and it never got any easier. But a little Jim Beam would see him through it, like always.
At least the hunt was over for now. No sign of any more creatures. He could call off the search for the rest of the weekend, John thought. Wait and see if there were any more attacks reported before they ventured out in the woods again.
Snow had finally quit falling, but the icy wind was still blowing gusts of snow all around, obscuring his vision and melting in cold tendrils down his neck. By the time he reached the abandoned shack where he'd left his truck, John was ready for that warming shot of bourbon. Lost in his thoughts, he shrugged off the heavy pack on his back, tossed it into the open truck bed, and then he noticed. The Impala. Still parked exactly where he'd last seen it, but now covered under several inches of snow.
His heart turned to a block of ice.
The boys had never returned home. They were still out there.
And now a pristine white shroud of snow had erased any clues to what had happened.
John had no idea where to begin.
Should he try to re-trace Sam's search pattern? Or Dean's first?
Should he find the nearest phone and call on Pastor Jim to help? To cover twice as much ground, twice as fast?
Panicked thoughts whirled through his head - no more substantial, no easier to grasp and hold onto than the flakes whipping around him.
There wouldn't be any reason for the boys to actually be in the car, he thought frantically, would there? Asleep maybe…? No. Not unless they couldn't get the car started. But the old girl would never let them down like that. Still, he swiped the snow off the windshield with his bare hand and the sleeve of his jacket so he could peer inside.
Maybe, he thought, they'd left him a note. The doors were locked, and now frozen, dammit, and John's hands shook as he pulled out a lighter and held the flame to his key. Finally, he got it warm enough to thaw the tumblers, and the door yielded with a metallic groan. John crawled into the front seat.
If there was a note for him, they'd have left it in plain sight.
John had just run to his truck to see if they might have left any clues there when he heard the sound of birds overhead screeching in alarm, their wings beating in furious escape. Whipping around, he caught sight of a creature much like the one he'd encountered in the cave. This one was even bigger. Brutishly large, and lumbering through the trees on the other side of the bridge, along the far side of the stream. Moving farther away from him.
Moving toward two figures John could just now make out in the distance. Two figures that had to be - his boys.
By the time they came within sight of the road and the dilapidated old bridge where they'd parked, both brothers were so wracked with cold that they didn't have enough energy to shiver. They just plodded forward as if on cruise control. When they reached a break in the trees, Dean raised his head, felt the sun warm on his chapped face, and stumbled to a stop to wallow in it for a moment.
Sam followed suit, breathing hard, allowing his head to fall back, closing his eyes.
Then he heard his name, quiet and terse. "Sam."
His eyes flew open and he stared in the direction his brother was facing. A shadow, moving through the trees, between them and the bridge. Coming toward them.
It looked even bigger in the daylight than it had at night. Much bigger than they were; a great ugly beast. Head disproportionately large, with slavering jaws. Shaggy black hair and eyes like… well, Sam was expecting something inhuman in the eyes, if the lore was to be trusted. Glowing red eyes maybe. But these were dark and wary and seemed to study them as hard as Sam was studying it.
It raised its head, sniffing.
Trying to decide if this new source of meat would be as tasty as his usual fare? Dean wondered. He took a step away from Sam, thinking wildly that maybe he could get the creature to chase him – give Sam time to… what?
But there wasn't time. The buggane lunged closer, spittle flying from its tusks, and Sam took a step toward it and shouted, "Wait - stop!"
Unbelievably, the creature did.
"What are you doing?" Dean ground out, voice low.
"What else can we do? We're unarmed," Sam whispered back. "Plenty of lore says they're capable of communication. That they talked with their enemies."
"Not Tim again!"
"And that Irish giant and his wife.…"
The creature dropped to a crouch, head lowered but eyes boring into them. Like a giant wolf preparing to give chase.
"You're planning to invite it to a friggin' tea party???"
Sam shook his head, his eyes still locked on the creature, and he held out his arms in a peaceful gesture. "We don't want to hurt you," he called out.
Slowly, it rose to its full height and tilted its head. Sam thought it looked like it was actually trying to understand the language.
But they never found out if it could. They heard the unmistakable crack of a shotgun blast, both barrels, and then the creature was pitching forward. It fell and the ground shook like a massive ancient tree had been uprooted and then slammed against the forest floor.
The buggane didn't die instantly. It crawled an arm's length or two, and then another. Not toward the brothers but in the direction of the caves their dad had gone to search. A sound was dragged from its throat. A word – a question – a name? Then a sigh, and then it was still.
Behind it, the boys saw their father lowering his weapon.
All night. His boys had been out in the woods – in the snow - without sleeping bags or tents, no food or water. All night long. Hell, maybe it wasn't any worse than something he'd conjure to toughen them up, but John Winchester didn't like it when he wasn't the one masterminding the challenges.
Still, the buggane was dead, and they were okay.
Well, mostly okay. Sam looked unsteady, and Dean, to be honest, looked like crap. He had a makeshift bandage askew across one eye, scratches on his face and neck, and an arm tucked awkwardly into the front of his jacket.
"It's his elbow, Dad," Sam told him, head hanging and hands shoved in the pockets of his jacket, looking too much like a guilty child.
"Hospital it is, then." John knew elbows were risky. Too prone to complications beyond something that could be fixed with an amateur's quick twist of bones, especially if a long time had passed since the injury. Swelling tended to get in the way of manipulating the bones back in place. Home was an hour or two away, but there was a county hospital much closer.
He'd learned the hard way never to embark on a hunt without knowing where the nearest medical facility could be found.
Both sons limped to the Impala and then stood staring at it like they couldn't remember how to open a car door. John figured the long hours in the cold had made them a little punch-drunk. He opened the doors on the right side and watched his sons climb in stiffly, Dean taking shotgun but watching Sam duck his head and slide into the backseat first. Not until Sam had tucked in his long legs and huddled onto the bench seat would Dean would take his own place up front.
John palmed the doors shut, hurried around to the driver's side, and got in to start the car. He'd crank up the heater and set things to right quick enough.
He didn't want them passing out before he had a chance to chew them out. Something had gone wrong. He didn't know what, but the one thing he did know was that they hadn't followed his plan. Mission discipline is critical. When he'd left them, they were armed, they had separate sectors to cover, and they were supposed to be safe at home by now. Instead, they're unarmed, neither of them was in their assigned search grid, and if he hadn't shown up they'd probably be dead right now.
Dean was a curled-up mass of pain in the front seat. He opened his mouth to say something – ask a question – explain - but his father just raised a hand, silencing him. John glanced over his shoulder as he pulled the car around, fast enough to spit gravel out from under the tires, and saw Sam rocking slightly back and forth in the seat behind his brother, an abject bundle of misery.
Explanations could wait. Questions could wait. They'd be at the hospital in a few minutes, and the only thing they had to talk about right now was whatever cover story they were going to use. John didn't even know what Dean had been doing when he got hurt, but he was sure it wasn't anything you'd want to admit to the authorities.
Meanwhile, he focused on compiling a mental checklist of urgent tasks he still needed to tackle. He needed to figure out how to dispose of the creature's remains. He needed to come back and get his truck, and that would mean a second driver. It looked like Dean would be out of commission for a while. Glancing in the rear view mirror, he decided Sam looked pretty worthless, too.
Sam sat hunched over on one of the hard plastic chairs in the waiting-cum-triage room. Forearms pressed heavily against the tops of his thighs, his hands dangled loosely out of sight between his knees, throbbing. He'd almost forgotten the pain in his ruined hands. Ever since his semi-frozen lower legs had finally started to thaw, the capillaries in his feet felt like they had caught on fire. He'd had to stare at his sneakers to convince himself they weren't wrapped in flames. Then he squeezed his eyes shut, closing out any distractions so he could pour all his energy into not screaming.
For a shattering moment, Sam felt the relief wash through him that his big brother was there with him; Dean would notice and would fix everything. He took a shuddering breath and looked up.
It wasn't Dean. Sam remembered now: Dean was in a treatment room, being examined. Sam blinked back scalding tears and saw their father standing in front of him, looking exhausted and worried, and probably angry. John dropped down into the seat next to him and kept his voice low. "Dean tell them what we discussed?"
"Yeah, Dad." Sam lowered his head again, hair falling in his eyes. "We were out jogging; said it was a long training run for the sectional cross-country meet next weekend, and Dean ran into some sort of barbed wire trap." The upcoming race was real enough. And there was no use pretending Dean's puncture wounds and the flecks of rust in his scratches were caused by anything else. "The triage nurse said she'd heard about people putting up barbed wire to deter bikers, but she didn't think she'd ever see anything like that here. She wanted to know if we were gonna press charges."
"Jesus, Sam!" John's hands tightened on the clipboard he was holding. "You know we can't stay under the radar if the police get involved."
"It's okay, Dad." It was getting harder for Sam to pretend his hands and feet weren't in agony. He was afraid if he said anything at all about it, he might start to cry. And he wouldn't do that, not in front of his father. "Dean told them we didn't. We saw the No Trespassing sign and ignored it; that was our fault. So he said we just want to get fixed up so we could go home."
Sam knew Dean thought his younger brother was getting medical attention at the same time he was. And Sam would be, if the ER weren't so busy. There were other people hurt worse than Sam was, he figured, so he hadn't said anything yet. He could wait. Except now he wasn't so sure.
"Good," John muttered. "Dean did good." He wiped a broad hand across his face, like he could just erase his exhaustion like chalk off a blackboard. Then he leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes and thought.
Once they got Dean home and squared away, he and Sam could go back out and get his truck, and deal with the buggane's dead body. Except that he didn't need to open his eyes to remember how wiped-out Sam looked after a grueling night in the woods. He might have to give Sam a few hours to recover first.
But John really didn't want to wait that long to eliminate the evidence.
Pastor Jim was responsible for setting them on this hunt in the first place, with his tantalizing report of cattle mutilations and weather fluctuations. Weather that in hindsight was probably just a coincidence. Maybe, John figured, he should call on Jim to help out. But the thought of imposing on Jim left a bad taste in his mouth.
John was willing enough to oblige when Jim needed a hunter, but he never liked being the one to ask for help. John Winchester was a prickly bastard; there's no denying it. Over the years, he'd alienated almost everyone he could trust. Jim Murphy was a rare exception, with the patience of a Man of God. And even Jim's friendship had its ups and downs.
John owed Pastor Jim, for all the times he dumped the boys with him over the years. But he still held a grudge over the time Jim freaked Sammy out, telling him the story of how God told Abraham he had to sacrifice his son. Then again, John did owe Jim for teaching him exorcisms. On the other hand, he was pissed that Jim went behind his back last summer to help Sam take some AP correspondence courses. For what? Just so Sam could stay in the Gifted-and-Talented track in school, or some such nonsense? John didn't understand it.
But the fact was, Jim Murphy was one of the few hunters who wouldn't threaten to shoot John if they ever crossed paths again. The final point was in his favor.
"I should get moving," John said wearily, making no move yet to open his eyes and get to his feet. "I need call Pastor Jim. Make plans to get the truck. To deal with…" He cracked one eye open, and made sure they were alone before finishing that sentence. "To deal with the body."
Sam wanted to ask his dad what they would do. He knew his dad didn't like to leave any suspicious evidence behind, especially if they were sticking around. It was an hour or more away from Port Henry, but it was still close enough to trigger Dad's justifiable paranoia. Sam wondered if they'd be able to burn the body without anyone noticing the smoke, or if they would have to cut it up and scatter the remains for scavengers to deal with.
But he couldn't bring himself to ask.
Not while he remembered looking into the creature's eyes. Seeing a flicker of intelligence there. Not while he remembered the creature stopping to listen to them… and then the crack of the shotgun and the creature jerking forward, an all-too-human expression of betrayal on its face, before it fell to the ground and the light in its eyes dimmed.
"I'm gonna find a phone," John said abruptly, standing, peering down the hallway. "You sure you didn't leave anything behind, back there? Anything else we need to take care of?" His thoughts still churned over covering their tracks. God, he needed a drink. He was getting too old for this shit. Camping out in the cold, that wasn't the worst. That was just physical discomfort. It was killing those babies with his bare hands. And then realizing a few hours later that just as he'd snuffed out the buggane's two sons, the creature came that close to paying him back. He'd nearly lost his own boys. Nearly lost everything.
Sam froze at the unexpected question, forced to remember when they'd escaped the barbed wire, and his struggle to carry Dean after his brother had passed out. His lacerated hands suddenly flared to life again, throbbing with an intensity that made him shove them under his arms to try to muffle the pain. He had to force his eyes up, ready to meet his father's. "The crossbow. I left it by the barbed wire."
John turned back to face Sam. The scar on John's cheek blanched while the rest of his face started to flush angrily. All the emotions he'd been bottling up were suddenly spilling out, but they came out all wrong. He didn't mean to lose his temper; it wasn't Sam he was mad at. But his nerves were strung tighter than the string of that missing crossbow when it was fully cocked. And all his worry, his fear, his fatigue, it all let fly without thinking. "Sam, I can't believe you be so careless! Even if we don't file charges - small town like this? You know the law is going to look for that trap. They're figuring it might be drug dealers or who knows what. If they find the barbed wire entanglement but nothing else, they'll check out the owners, tell them to take it down, and that'll be the end of it. They find a crossbow? They start looking for those 'joggers' to ask them some more questions."
Sam didn't look away, no matter how much he wanted to. He knew Dean always met their Dad's accusations with his head up and no excuses. Even when there were perfectly valid reasons. If John Winchester didn't ask for an explanation, then he goddamned didn't want to hear one.
"Jesus, Sam. You beg and whine to stay in one place, and then you do something so goddamn stupid." A little voice in John's head told him to shut the hell up. Told him he was upset and worried about Dean maybe losing his sight in one eye, and everything else, and it was his own damn fault for not watching out for his boys. But it's human nature - when you feel guilty, sometimes you just turn the blame on the nearest person instead. So John didn't shut up. It was like there was a volcano inside him and he couldn't stop the lava flow. "You want that, Sam? You wanna have to move again because the cops come around asking questions?"
Sam's eyes darted around the room, worried that someone might hear the shouting and come in. "No, sir," he said quietly.
Sam looked wrecked, John realized suddenly. The boy was pale and shaking. Maybe he thought John would really make them move again. It wouldn't be the first time. Sam had missed the end of the last semester, when John pulled them out of school to exorcise a herd of demonic pigs. Sam had almost had to repeat sophomore year; would have if he hadn't fought to take summer courses.
John wasn't a heartless bastard. Of course he wanted to Sam to finish school. He didn't want Sam to be unhappy either. He just wanted him to be prepared. If John failed, if the demon that took Mary… if one day it took John, too, then he wanted Dean and Sam to be able to fend for themselves.
Sam just didn't understand.
And John – well, he never was any damn good at explaining himself. He spoke with actions, not words. He sighed, and headed toward the door, trying to find the words to take back what he'd just said. "I'll take care of it," he said with heavy finality.
When John said that, he was actually thinking: I'll fix it, Sammy. You can count on me. We'll pick up that crossbow so no one else finds it, and you'll be able to stay in school.
But when Sam heard "I'll take care of it", it got translated into: You screwed up again. I'll have to go fix it. The unspoken rebuke triggered a reaction that made Sam's backbone stiffen. "We lost a shotgun there, too," he told his father's retreating back, chin jutting forward, almost challenging John to lose his temper. "And our flashlights."
But Sam was wrong – John wasn't mad at him. Sam might have seen that if his father had turned around, said good bye. But John didn't.
When his dad left, Sam pushed himself shakily to his feet. He turned to the nurses' desk, ready to ask for help now. His toes felt like they were being crushed in a vise, and the light in the room went suddenly very bright. Then it started to go dark around the edges, and he felt like the room was being tipped over like a cereal box or something, and he was the crushed prize in the bottom. Falling up. And then it all went completely black.
When Pastor Jim arrived at the ER, the nurse at the admitting desk couldn't tell him where John Winchester had gone. She knew they hadn't let him back in the treatment room area with his sons. He wasn't in the cafeteria or the patient intake waiting room or the family lounge. Jim didn't figure he'd find John in the tiny hospital chapel, but at a loss, he checked there, too.
Fortunately, people were always willing to help a man in a clerical collar. A janitor finally approached, and told him a rough-looking guy with a salt-and-pepper scruff of beard had charged out the door, fumbling in his pockets like a man desperate for a cigarette. Maybe he might want to check the smoking area outside?
Jim pressed a hand to the janitor's shoulder like a benediction, and nodded his thanks. After a moment's thought, he filled a couple styrofoam cups from the coffee vending machine, snapped on their lids and made his careful way outside. He didn't go to the smoking area, however; he knew John Winchester better than that. John would want to be alone, and it wouldn't be nicotine he was craving.
It wasn't hard to find something as distinctive as the Impala in the parking lot, and it wasn't long before he located the car, with its owner, parked at the far end of an aisle next to a mound of recently plowed snow.
John sat motionless behind the wheel. The driver side window was rolled down, and his left arm perched on the open window frame, hand curled loosely on the steering wheel. His right hand clutched a silver flask. He was staring stonily out the windshield at the snow flurries that skated across the hood, heedless of the flakes that drifted inside the car.
He'd been sitting there awhile, to judge by the dusting of crystals melting on the dashboard.
Jim stacked the cups so he had a hand free to open the passenger side door, and he slid into the front seat beside his friend. "I can take you back out whenever you're ready."
John didn't answer, and Jim knew that something more important was on John's mind. Was glad to see it, in fact. Sometimes he wasn't sure about John's priorities.
"The boys are gonna be okay, John," he said, quietly reassuring. "They told me at the nurses' station that they won't even have to stay overnight. They should be ready to go within the hour." John would have been told the same thing, Jim knew, but maybe he needed to hear it again. From a friend who would listen, if John wanted to talk about it.
John didn't answer at first. Just glanced at Pastor Jim, then faced forward again and took another swig from his flask. "You know," he said after a moment. "You know - Sam didn't even tell me he was hurt. A nurse came and told me he collapsed. He doesn't – he won't talk to me."
When Winchester was drinking, Jim thought, he didn't do so well at masking the emotions he kept so tightly under wraps at any other time. He saw loneliness in John's eyes – the burden of a man who was raising a family on his own and felt overwhelmed by the responsibility. He saw worry thrumming in the slight tremble in John's hands. Saw the self-recriminations in the muscle tensing in his jaw, and anger at the people who had unknowingly hurt his boys.
"Damn civilians," John muttered, broad hand tightening around the flask like a fist. "What the hell were they thinking, using barbed wire?"
"Just trying' to protect their own," Jim said, his voice calm like he was offering absolution to someone in a confessional. He set one of the cups on the dashboard in John's line of sight. "Like the pioneers who invented it to protect their crops and contain their livestock."
He opened his own coffee cup and took a deep whiff of the strong aroma, buying time. There was something more he wanted to say to his old friend, but John didn't take kindly to parenting advice. For starters, you had to wait for a moment when he wasn't holding a weapon. And even then, you had to work up to it gradually, and hope for the best.
John picked up his coffee with his left hand, thumbed off the lid and took a sip. His mouth tightened in a grimace, and he raised his flask and poured a splash of bourbon into the steaming cup.
"You know, American Indians in the Plains called barbed wire 'devil's rope'," Jim finally ventured. He tried to imagine Dean trapped in barbed wire, every twitch flaying his skin a little more. Tried to picture the razor wire slicing deep into Sam's hands as he wrestled with it to free his brother. "It's the work of the devil, all right," Jim muttered to himself, and then sent a silent prayer heavenward that the boys would recover from their ordeal with no serious complications.
But those unthinking farmers who set the barbaric trap weren't the only responsible parties in Jim's eyes. He licked his lips, took a long look at his coffee, and then spoke his piece. "You know, John. This life you lead. The rules. The training. The discipline. It's kind of like a devil's rope around those boys."
"Maybe you should lay off the communion wine, Padre." John drained half his coffee in one long swallow. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about."
"It's chewin' those boys up, somethin' fierce. And I don't mean just today."
"Nobody asked for your damned opinion."
Jim twisted in the seat to confront John. "The Lord knows, there is Evil walking this Earth. And we are lucky you're in this battle with us, fighting against it. God's Army needs more soldiers like you. But we need men and women, John. Adults who can freely choose. Not children."
"My boys are already as good as most hunters out there, and you know it."
"I'm not talking about if they can do the job. I'm saying they deserve a chance to grow up first. To make their own choices about their lives and what they want. It's how you become a healthy adult – by striking out on your own and making your own decisions. You – you've got them wrapped up tight in barbed wire by this quest to find what took Mary."
John tossed the coffee dregs out the window, crumpled the empty cup in his hand, and took another long swig of bourbon. Felt it loosen the tight fist that had clenched around his heart ever since he'd found the abandoned car. "Those pioneers – they were just using it to keep what's theirs safe," he mumbled. "Keep 'em close. Together. Safe. That's all." He sighed heavily. "I just want my boys to be safe. Something is after this family, and there's no running away from it. Gotta be ready."
Jim reached for the flask, took it from John's lax fingers, and added a shot to his own black coffee. God may have all the answers, but Jim Murphy sure as hell didn't. If a little whiskey made his own limitations easier to bear, well, he was only human.
"Sam doesn't see it like that," he said eventually, handing back the flask. He knew that wasn't news to John; anyone would have to be blind not to see it. But the man didn't understand it. Wouldn't accept it.
"For Dean," Jim added carefully, "the rules, the discipline, the training – he gets it. The way a homesteader accepts the need for barbed wire. It has a purpose. It's their way of life. But Sam? To Sam, this devil's rope around his life doesn't feel safe. It feels more like the barbed wire around a concentration camp."
"He should be more like his brother," John said stubbornly. "You raise your sons the same way. Just like the military. No special treatment. They should be the same."
Jim shook his head. "I know I'm not a parent. But even I can see that it doesn't work like that."
"If it keeps him safe? That's all that matters."
"The thing is, John. The thing is – Sam proved something last night. Not even devil's rope can stop him, if something matters enough to him."
But John didn't give any sign that he was still listening.
Sam felt self-conscious sitting in a wheelchair, being pushed by someone half his size into Dean's treatment room. Sam's legs were finally warm and dry, feet slathered in antibiotic ointment and covered in gauze. The doc wanted him off his feet and to keep them elevated for the time being, so a wheelchair it was, at least until he went home. And it wasn't like he had dry socks and shoes here to put back on anyway.
On the positive side, they hadn't had to cut his jeans off of him. Sam only had a couple pairs that fit right. Dean never said anything, but every time Sam got new clothes, he noticed that they ate a lot more ramen noodles for awhile. So, salvaging this pair was good. And the fact that the hospital kindly came up with a pair of blue surgical scrubs to wear instead of cold, wet, clingy denim was a relief.
On the negative side, Sam couldn't even change into them without help. It should have been embarrassing, being manhandled like a toddler, moving his limbs on command while they slipped clean, dry clothes on him. But honestly? He was willing to put up with anything if they would just do something to stop the pain, and tell him that Dean was okay.
He wasn't worried – much – about himself. They told him he'd gotten there in time, before frostbite and gangrene set in.
His hands, though. The doctor had frowned over them. And poked and prodded, and wheeled him next door to Radiology. Sam saw an X-ray of someone's right arm still clipped to a light board there, and he knew it was Dean's. He could see the bones were lined up all wrong, not nestled together in the joint the way they should be. But they wouldn't tell him anything about his brother. Not about his elbow or about his eye.
God, what if Dean was blind in one eye?
Sam worked himself into a fine state of worry about that, welcoming the distraction from his own injuries. Whatever they gave him for pain wasn't strong enough. After all, they wanted Sam to be able to tell them what hurt, as they tested for finger strength and range of motion. Worrying about Dean kept his mind off his own discomfort, while they debrided his wounds and stitched the lacerations.
They explained why they were doing everything they did, but Sam could barely focus on their words. Phrases like 'torn flexor tendons' and 'possible nerve damage' and something about a referral to an orthopedic surgeon in a week, after the risk of infection was eliminated – he couldn't process those now.
He'd figured out that Dean was in the room just next door, and he couldn't think past getting in there to see if Dean was okay.
Finally, after a tetanus booster shot, they were finished with Sam, and agreed to take him to his brother. Not only was he helpless and embarrassed, stuck in a wheelchair, but his hands were wrapped in gauze, and he couldn't maneuver himself at all. Dean would mock him for sure.
He'd put up with any amount of teasing from Dean, he thought, just to hear his voice.
But now that they were reunited, Dean wasn't saying anything.
Dean was lying on a gurney, flat on his back, dressed in scrubs that no doubt hid welts and bandages. It reminded Sam of the way Dean would stagger back into the motel room sometimes after a grueling hunt and just flop down on the bed, boneless. Mumbling that he'd get up again in just a minute…. But exhaustion invariably pulled him under, until he'd finally wake up, still flat on his back, when Dad or Sam yanked back the curtains in the morning.
No gun or knife under his pillow here. Sam couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Dean sleeping calmly without the comfort of a trusty weapon within reach. Watching his brother sleep, it struck Sam that this was how he started every day - the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes each morning. He wondered how many more mornings that would be true.
Maybe – more than he'd thought.
College seemed a lot more like a pipe dream than a goal right now.
He'd blown his chance at the National Merit Scholarships. And the extra-curriculars he'd fought so hard for, to improve his college applications? He could cross out competing in the track-and-field sectional next weekend, too.
In fact, if his right hand did end up needing surgery - and they seemed to think it would - Sam knew from experience what that would mean. Of course, Dad would agree to the surgery. Sam couldn't hunt with a disabled hand. But Dean's insurance from the sawmill didn't cover Sam. A brother wasn't a legal dependent, just because Dad was unemployed.
Sam knew they could get away with phony insurance and credit card fraud when they were transient, but not when they were staying in one place. That meant Dad would make payment arrangements, and Dean would end up working more overtime to pay the first couple bills. Then they'd miss a couple, and about the time it would get referred to a collection agency, they would skip town.
Sam could count on finishing the semester, but he'd probably get yanked before the end of the school year.
Just like last year.
His eyes burned, and he pressed the heels of his hands against them to make sure he didn't do anything stupid like get teary-eyed or start to wallow in self-pity.
He felt a hand on his arm and looked up to find Dean's nurse speaking to him. He blinked to clear his eyes and get her nametag into focus: 'Katie'.
She gave Dean a final appraising glance and then smiled back at Sam encouragingly. "Your brother came through the procedure just fine. There weren't any underlying fractures, and the doctor was able to reduce the dislocation without any complications."
"What about his eye?" Dean's eyes were both uncovered, Sam realized, and his heart stuttered with hope. There were some butterfly bandages on his face and neck, but….
"I don't think there's anything to worry about." Katie moved about the gurney matter-of-factly, disconnecting the monitor leads, and leaving just Dean's IV port in place. "He has a corneal abrasion, which can be very painful, but it looks like there's no permanent damage. We gave him antibiotic drops, and he should see an eye doctor in the next day or two. But I think it should be fine."
The wave of relief was so strong Sam almost didn't hear her next words. "We gave Dean a sedative for the elbow procedure. It should wear off in about fifteen minutes. You may have heard of Versed referred to as 'twilight sleep'. You can talk to him now if you want, but I should warn you - if Dean says anything, it might not make any sense. He probably won't remember anything that's said over the next quarter hour."
Katie smiled and nodded. "I'm going to leave you with your brother for now. With this freak weather, we're expecting more MVAs – Motor Vehicle Accidents. I'll be back, but you can holler if you need me sooner."
"Sure. I can watch Dean. And – thank you."
She squeezed his shoulder as she passed him, and slipped out the door. She didn't have a doubt in the world about his willingness to watch his brother.
Sam wanted to position his wheelchair even closer to Dean's head, and huffed with frustration when the pain in his hands made it obvious that it wasn't a good idea.
"So, Dean," he said, and stopped. What could he say to someone lying there asleep? It wasn't the first time he'd kept vigil in a hospital over Dad or Dean. And he knew it wouldn't be the last – not as long as they continued hunting. Next time, it could be for something far worse than just waiting for a sedative to wear off. And that realization made Sam's chest feel tight, longing all the more that he – and his family – had lives that were safe.
"You know, Dean…" Sam started again. "I just can't… I can't do this for the rest of my life."
Dean just lay there, resting quietly and unresponsive.
"I really thought maybe Dad would have found the thing that killed Mom by now. And then we could. I dunno. Stop. Be a regular family." There was a reason, Sam thought, why they never had these conversations. It made his throat ache to push the words out.
"I don't think that's gonna happen, now. I think Dad's gonna hunt till it kills him." Sam blinked, tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling; couldn't look at his brother and say this. "Till it kills us."
He was so used to keeping everything bottled inside, but sometimes that was just so damn hard, too. And now that he started, he found he couldn't stop. "So I made this plan. Had it all figured out. Get a National Merit Scholarship – get into a really good college, you know? I guess…" His hands went instinctively to scrub nervously against his knees, and he had to consciously refrain. "I mean – I can still try. To find a way. If I have to get a job driving a forklift in a warehouse and start part-time at a community college, I'll do that. I just have to find a way."
Dean's eyelashes fluttered, eyes moving erratically under the eyelids.
"I dunno," Sam said, quietly. Almost sheepishly. "I think I wanted this scholarship because I wanted Dad to be impressed with the kind of school that would want me. Sam Winchester. I wanted him to be proud…. Crazy, huh? Like that kind of thing would make him proud."
Sam faltered. He cleared his throat, and added a little defiantly, "There's other ways to help people besides hunting, you know?"
Dean's eyes cracked open, but they weren't focused. Not curious. Not aware.
Sam reached his bandaged left hand toward his brother, toying with Dean's hospital bracelet. Sam wore one just like it. He slid a finger under the Teflon-coated paper strip until it was resting lightly on the underside of Dean's wrist. He didn't think about the gesture mirroring his actions the night before, trying to protect Dean's skin from the razor wire. He just left his hand lying on the gurney, barely touching Dean's. Quiet and still, until he could begin to make out Dean's pulse, warm and alive.
He traced the blue vein idly along his brother's wrist. "I know you'll take care of Dad when I'm gone. You always have. But don't forget to take care of yourself, too. Don't be reckless, okay, Dean? Try to stay safe."
"Sammy." Dean's voice was soft, barely heard.
Dean's gaze wandered around the room and skipped past his brother, no recognition in his eyes. He didn't answer.
After a moment, Sam went on. "I can't – I can't really talk to you about this stuff. About college, I mean…. If I let you in on my plans, then it's like I'm making you pick between me and Dad. And - I don't want that. Because whichever side you pick, you'll feel guilty. And – if you did side with me against Dad…." Sam looked away again. Even though Dean wasn't really listening, wasn't making eye contact, he couldn't say this to Dean's face. "If you side with me against Dad, he'll look at you, like you let him down or something. That look just guts you, Dean. You always hide it, but I can tell. So – " Sam took a deep breath. "So - I just have to keep this stuff to myself right now."
He glanced at the clock on the wall. If Katie was right, Dean was still in that 'twilight sleep', but he would be coming out of it soon. Sam didn't know if Dean would remember what he said next, or not. Probably not. But the floodgates were open now and he couldn't stop.
"I just want you to know. If you need me, if you really need me for anything, you can call me. I'll come back. Not for good. But for as long as you need my help." Sam squeezed Dean's hand, as much as he could close the fingers of his left hand. "'Cause you're my brother, dude."
"I know you will, Sammy." Dean was looking right at him.
"Yeah. You came back for me. Last night. So I know you will." Dean slurred the words a little, like he was just this side of drunk, or on the edge of falling asleep.
"Okay." Sam's vision blurred, eyes swimming. "Might not matter anyway. I mean… I don't know how exactly I'm gonna make college happen now." His hands throbbed, a deep ache the meds couldn't completely erase, reminding him of the morning's lost opportunity and what the latest hunt had cost. He let go of Dean's wrist and sat back, taking in a deep, shuddering breath and letting it out slowly.
Dean's eyes seemed to focus gradually. Then he noticed his arm in a sling, the hospital blanket, the gurney. He shifted restlessly, winced, and lay still again, letting recent memories catch up with him. Before he'd even finished processing them all, he asked, "So. How soon can we blow this popsicle stand?"
"I think Dad was gonna call Pastor Jim. I guess they still need to do something about…. " Sam lowered his voice, "the evidence. Then Dad can pick up his truck, too. When Jim gets here, I think we can go."
Dean lowered his voice to match, even though they were alone. He sounded more with it, less sleepy. "You think they're gonna chop up the remains for scavengers? Or bury 'em? Or you think maybe they'll burn 'em?"
Sam didn't like to think of the creature with the intelligent eyes being torn apart. There was dignity in fire. "Burn it, I hope."
Dean's face lit up in a grin. "Who do you think'll supply the condom? Pastor Jim or Dad?"
"Dean!" Sam did as much of a face-palm as he could with his hands wrapped in gauze.
Dean's gaze sharpened, taking in the wheelchair, the bandages, and Sam's pallor underneath his flaming cheeks. His smile faded, and his head lifted off the pillow. "You okay?"
"Yeah, Dean. I just borrowed this to practice wheelies, 'cause I was bored waitin' for your sorry ass to wake up."
Dean looked skeptical, but Sam's determined face reassured him. He was telling the truth – Winchester style, anyway.
"Seriously. I can go home whenever you do," Sam added. "Some time this morning for sure." No point in dwelling on the additional doctor visits in their immediate future. The important thing was, they were going home.
Dean sagged back, and let his eyes drift shut again. "Good. Good. Dad pissed at us?"
"Yeah, well." Sam shrugged. "What else is new?"
Rhetorical question. Before Dean could say anything more, he felt a shadow cross his face.
"Dean Winchester! Come back!" Katie had returned and was leaning over him. "Don't go toward the light!"
"Yes, ma'am!" His eyes flew open and he grinned. Just because Katie was over 40 didn't mean Dean couldn't appreciate a perky figure.
She tapped him on the shoulder, continuing to speak a little louder than normal. "You're awake?"
"He looks pretty wide awake to me," Sam observed wryly. "He's been talking my ear off."
"Doesn't mean he was awake," she reminded him. "Dean – do you know who you are? Where you are?"
Dean went blank for a split second. What name were they using? He caught Sam's eye – saw no signal – and remembered they didn't need an alias this time. He even had insurance under his real name. "Dean Winchester. Hospital. And before you ask – the Yankees won the World Series."
"Lucky guess," Katie said, sliding the IV out of Dean's arm. "They won four of the last five. How about the first thing you remember when you woke up?"
"My brother, here, telling me we can get out of here."
Sam flashed a curious look at Dean, his expression a mixture of regret and relief.
"Well, he's right about that." She grinned and helped Dean to sit up, careful of the sling. "In fact, we need this room more than you do right now. You and Sam can just park it in the waiting room until your ride shows."
Funny, Sam thought, how Dean always shrugged off Dad's help or his when he was hurt. He didn't seem to have any objections to Katie's hands on him.
Dean was eager to get out of bed. More eager than his various aches would allow. He swung his legs off the gurney and had to sit a moment before his vision cleared. Katie helped steady him while he toed his feet into his boots, and then he waved her off, determined to prove he could do this. When he took a step away from the bed, he grabbed the handle to Sam's wheelchair until he had his balance, and then decided he might as well take the opportunity to push his brother into the corridor.
"Take it easy there, cowboy." Katie gestured at Dean's sling. "I got this. You go ahead."
Dean glanced at her two hands wrapped competently around the wheelchair grips. He had to admit, he was liable to have trouble steering Sam's heavy ass with just one hand, and he didn't really want his brother's injured feet slamming into any obstacles. There was a time for macho protectiveness, and this wasn't it.
"If you say so, sweetheart!" Dean swept up his clothes bag from the foot of his bed and tossed it on Sam's lap. With a last look over his shoulder at his brother, to reassure himself that Sam was okay and in good hands, he led the way out of the room like he was leading a squad into battle.
Katie leaned her face close to Sam's as she propelled him after his brother. "Don't forget. He probably won't remember much of anything you said to him before the Versed wore off. So whatever you guys talked about, you might want to have that conversation again."
Sam shook his head. Winchesters weren't really much for heart-to-hearts.
Dean knew about the PSAT. Sam thought back on Dean's efforts to get Saturday off, not just for himself, but for Sam, too. The way Dean watched him, sometimes.… He was beginning to think that maybe Dean knew him better than Sam thought he did.
"It's okay," Sam told Katie, and the thought was surprisingly comforting. Dean had his back. And – even though they didn't talk about it – it wasn't just on hunts. Sam guessed that Dean always had. Always would.
"I don't think I told him anything just now that he didn't already know."
He just hoped Dean knew that Sam had his back, too.
They found their dad and Pastor Jim waiting at the discharge desk, John completing paperwork and Jim holding onto the after-care instructions they'd been given.
John looked up and examined his sons with a critical eye. The stoic mask was back in place, hiding the rush of relief and pride.
Dean's eyesight was going to be okay. John honestly felt a little weak in the knees about that. The elbow would need physical therapy, but they could do that at home - it wouldn't need a professional. And Dean had still managed to bring Sam home, kept him moving on frozen feet, didn't get lost, led him to safety. He knew Dean would go to the end of the earth and beyond to protect Sammy.
And Sam? He would bounce back from near-frostbite and hypothermia with all the resilience of a sixteen-year-old who thinks he can accomplish anything. His fingers were in bad shape, there was no denying that, but some good had come of it, too. Sam wasn't always a good soldier about following orders without question, but he proved last night that he would sacrifice himself for his brother. That was a step in the right direction.
They were going to be fine.
Sam and Dean were already arguing over who was going to cook now. Each claiming to be too much of an invalid. Pastor Jim volunteered to stay for dinner and cook them his famous porcupine meatballs, and then didn't understand why the boys dissolved into giggles.
Must be the painkillers they were on.
As long as the boys stayed together, John knew he could count on them to keep each other safe. That was the important thing. No matter what happened to him, in his relentless pursuit of Mary's killer, he was sure that they would take care of each other.
He would just have to make sure they stayed together.