Crossing The Line
(c)2006 b stearns
Spoilers: Nothing specific.
Warnings: Cursing, stupid references, weirdness, and angst. The usual suspects.
a/n: The place is real and the legend exists, but I messed with 'em both.
-I-

Winchester, Indiana

"They keep finding kids in this river," Sam said.

Dean looked at him for a moment across the table, tongue stuck into one cheek. "Kids," he said, leaving it open.

"Yeah," Sam said, "Teens, preteens."

Dean gazed at the landscaping outside the window they sat against, absently poking at what was left of his toast with a fork. Another diner, another town, another false alarm. There'd been nothing but a really old and noisy sewer system involved in the last 'haunting'. So while they were around, they visited Winchester and Dean had carved symbols into the back of the sign welcoming them into town.

"Somewhere called 'Algoma Township' in Michigan," Sam said, spreading the newspaper out on the table in front of himself. "Fishermen keep finding people in the Rogue River. Near an old iron bridge called - get this - 'Hell's Bridge'. Uh...'in the 1800's, when Rockford was known as Laphamville, a man named Elias Friske murdered several children and claimed a demon made him do it. Later the bodies were found in the part of the river where the bridge is now.' Sounds like a cycle playing out."

"Where in Michigan," Dean said with a blatant lack of interest.

"North of Grand Rapids," Sam said without looking up. "I'll get directions when we get back to the hotel."

"Anybody half eaten?" Dean said, still looking out the window.

"No. No marks, no animal bites, nothing," Sam said. "Four kids so far."

"Y'know," Dean said, "You're still a kid."

Sam smirked. "Mostly just to you. Thanks." He pushed the article toward Dean, who refolded the paper to his specifications before beginning to read. Like any locally printed paper, there was more open conjecture and personal opinion than fact. Dean preferred it to the dry, sparsely careful non-information that was usually provided by the larger rags. Everyone was too PC these days, too fearful of getting sued.

"We live in a very litigious society," Dean said.

Sam narrowed his eyes a little in confusion, then decided not to ask.

"Guy really earned his paycheck on this one," Dean said. "Throwin' all the lore in."

"Yeah, but the version is gonna be different every time it's told," Sam said. "So we're still doing some research on this one."

"Don't worry," Dean said. "I'd never deprive you of that. We all need something to live for."

Sam grabbed the paper back from him with a crash. "Good. You live for talking to the guy at the paper, and I'll do some checking online."

"But it's not a chick," Dean said.

Sam looked at him incredulously. "So..."

"The article writer isn't a chick," Dean said. "It'll go better if...never mind." He flicked his fork up and dislodged the bit of toast stuck to it in Sam's direction. "If this turns out to be some angsty, teen suicide pact, you're washing the car. By hand. As in, detailing the car."

-I-

When they made it back out to said car, someone had used a fingertip to carefully engrave the words ZEPPELIN SUCKS in the dust.

"That's hilarious," Dean said in a tone that said it was anything but, hands on hips while he glowered at the offending words. "Real hilarious, Sam." He squinted in the midmorning sunlight as Sam snorted and got in on the passenger side. "That can scratch the paint, you know."

Sam leaned across the seat on his elbows to jeer up at Dean through the open driver's side window. "Don't worry. I'll touch it up with a Sharpie or something."

"That's not what I meant by 'detailing'," Dean said.

"Do you want me to write Robert Plant a letter, and apologize?" Sam said with mock sincerity. "Because, they really do suck. Not even Immigrant Song makes up for some of the drugged-out shit they tried to pass off as rock."

Dean put his hands on the door over the open window and leaned in a little. "Now you're just asking for it."

"If this turns out to be legit," Sam said, "...you have to sing a Zep song at the time and place of my choosing."

Dean drew his brows together a little, then quirked one. "You're a sadistic bitch."

"You started it," Sam said. "But you usually do. Shake on it?"

"Detailing the car - which you're gonna have to do anyway since you got your nosepickers all over it - versus public humiliation?"

"I never said anything about public," Sam said, the humor dying out of his face.

Dean tilted his head a little, trying to figure out what was going on. Sam was messing with him, and he always had an ulterior motive when he did. It was never mean - Sam was very rarely mean, and never purposely to Dean no matter how much shit Dean threw at him. Dean had to test Sam every now and then to see what he would take, to see if Sam would give up on him. Dean was more than capable of mean and used it reflexively for defense. No...Sam was after something and Dean couldn't follow the direction of his thoughts this time.

He tapped out a brief drumroll on the upholstery of the door with his fingers before getting in the car. "Whatever, dude."

-I-

Algoma Township, Michigan

The 131 Expressway ran right through the center of town. They drove around the main part of town twice, getting a sense of the place. It was a bedroom community, sedate and serene, the kind of place that was good for raising kids or retiring. And probably boring enough that kids snuck out at night to fall off old bridges.

"Yeah, look at this place. Maybe they really are throwing themselves off," Dean said.

"The one guy they interviewed that was fishing a few days ago said he saw a shape on the bridge," Sam said.

"Yeah, I know," Dean said. "And the legend says Friske had a thing about kids and how they lie all the time. So what's set him off?"

Sam shrugged, watching townhouses and manufactured homes go by. "If it's him, it's the first time he's been back since the original crime in the 1800's. Maybe kids finally rediscovered the bridge, and just their presence woke him up."

"Kids lie like they breathe," Dean said. "And babykillers always say a demon made them do it. Maybe it's just a copycat who discovered the legend and is happier doing this to the local bullies than bringing a gun to school and reenacting Columbine."

"Only two of the kids were in the same grade, though," Sam said.

They'd already been over it on the interstate drive when Sam wasn't snoozing. But they'd been switching the role of devil's advocate back and forth and it was Dean's turn again. They had to figure this one out quick enough to get it done before the bridge was demolished - in two days, on the coming Monday morning. A group of worried or grieving parents could motivate a town council into moving quickly, sometimes.

The road to the old bridge wasn't marked; it was meant to have been forgotten once it outlived its usefulness. It had never been paved, and there was nothing left but a winding dirt road that took them into the afternoon to find. It led to a turnaround that didn't seem to be there for any particular reason. They left the car and set out on foot up the trail that was barely visible through the bushes off to the right.

They heard the river long before they saw it; it had apparently been raining heavily off and on during the preceding week, and the river was running close to flood stage.

Dean stood just under the trees and watched the water tumble, grays and whites and greens, the spray hitting him occasionally. Sam came up behind and took a moment to examine the bridge just to the right. It looked like it was barely holding onto the bank after so many years of erosion. It was a rusting hulk of iron, the deck rusted through in places and thick with moss. The siderails were made of a decorative latticework that was copper-gray with rust and bent out of shape where it had likely been kicked at.

"What's ugly enough to not care about iron and running water?" Sam said.

"Something more than just a ghost," Dean said, still staring into the water. "If he's real, he's pretty bad shit."

"Bad enough that salt won't work either?" Sam said.

"We'll have to see. We'll come back after dark and wait. He's only been tossing whoever's on the bridge into the water after dark."

They walked over to the bridge and looked across into the trees beyond. Dean tested it with a foot, then stepped on. It was sturdy. The railing was high enough that no one was accidentally falling in anytime soon. Names and initials and the occasional epithet about how much someone sucked was carved into the rust. Someone had left flowers, candles, a teddy bear in memoriam near the midspan.

Dean turned on his heel abruptly and walked off back down the trail.

Sam looked at the bridge a moment longer, then followed.

-I-

Sam didn't ask Dean about all the symbols he spent the afternoon practicing on motel scratchpads. They weren't from the journal, so he left well enough alone for the time being. If Dean wanted him to know, he'd tell him. Sometimes, when he was tired enough, he accepted that.

-I-

It was close to midnight when they approached the bridge again.

Sam carried the guns; Dean carried the ammo and had several sticks of chalk laced with salt as well as two bottles of holy water. They didn't bring a flashlight because it was possible that cars on the expressway above might see them if they were looking for signs that more kids were messing around. They paused at the edge of the bridge and listened to the water rage below. There was just enough moonlight filtering through the clouds to see by.

"Shit," Dean said. "We need those, too."

"What."

"I didn't bring the goddamn salt charges. Whether it works or not, we gotta have 'em. I'm gonna start laying the lines to trap the bastard on the bridge. Run back and get the charges."

Sam was on the verge of a sigh, but blocked it. "Stay off the bridge until I get back."

"Yeah, yeah," Dean said, digging chalk out of his pockets.

"I'm serious, Dean. We don't know what the hell this is." He waited, watching Dean ignore him. "Dean."

"Dude, I heard you," Dean snapped. "Would you get it done, already?"

Sam did sigh, then, and laid the shotgun on the grass before vanishing back into the trees.

Dean walked several feet onto the bridge, well over the water, and listened for anything other than a floodstage river. He walked the length of the bridge to the far side, sidestepping the teddy bear and flowers without looking down on them.

He knelt to the deck and made sure he was finding the exact left edge, then began to draw from memory. He'd been hoping for an excuse to use this and see if it worked; he'd stumbled on the symbols in the personal library of an old, rundown and abandoned estate in Georgia. The pentagrams on the ceilings had tipped him off that it would be fun to check the place out a little more thoroughly. He recognized some of it - some of the symbols were universal for banishment - and what he didn't recognize was explained by the notes in the margins, written in a tight, close scrawl. The author had used so much pressure that the letters were bent into the pages beneath. Dean was amazed that the pages hadn't torn; but they were of a thick, homemade paper, rough-woven and aged. It was binding and banishment, and there was no better place to try it.

The bridgedeck was diamond-patterned latticework, much smaller and heavier than the railings, and Dean found himself working around the breaks to make the work continuous. Salt would never have worked; they never would have been able to create an unbroken line. He drew in silence, concentrating on not bastardizing the shapes too much while avoiding the deck's patterning.

have you

Dean paused and looked up. He shifted to glance behind; Sam hadn't come back. He listened hard, and there was nothing. He knew better than to ignore it, but unless it was going to get to business with him, he wasn't going to acknowledge it. He went back to sketching on the bridge, every sense tuned to his surroundings.

told the truth

It was as if the breeze off the tumbling water below was spinning itself into words.

god is watching you

Now, that was funny. "I'm not one of your kids, you sick fuck," Dean murmured, not caring if it could or would hear him. "Good luck tryin' anything with me." He was a third of the way across, lacing the figures together deliberately. He wasn't going to hurry just because the bullshit had started.

tell the truth.

That had a ring of finality to it. Dean didn't bother looking up. "What is this, a Monty Python skit? You gonna ask me the airspeed of an unladen swallow?"

The chalk went flying out of his hand when he slammed against the railing hard enough to lose his breath. He heard the ancient, rusting iron shriek. It didn't feel strong enough to throw him over, but it was working overtime to work him over. "Sonofabitch!"

Something whispered close enough to his ear to make him jerk away reflexively. tell the truth

"What!" Dean shouted, trying to keep a grip on the sharp remnants of lattice. Twisted edges bit into his palms and fingers and into the knee he had braced against the metal. It was cold and slick with spray and moss and seemed to be trying to repel him. "Tell the truth about what, you dumb bastard!"

stay until.

The metal gave under the combination of time, pressure and weight. Dean felt a moment of vertigo as he dropped, then the sharp bite of the metal on his hands and the wrenching in his shoulders as he hung on.

He opened his mouth to scream for Sam and couldn't. Pride and fear tore him to ribbons over the river, hands slipping on the blood-and-riverspray-slick surface; he should not have needed help and never from the one he was responsible for.

The river, flood-hungry, full of shards of moonlight, waited to catch him.

stay until.

He swung his legs and flailed a hand out, catching the crosshatching a bit higher up and snarling when his injured fingers rebelled. Something pried at them, as hard and viciously cold as dry ice, and when he looked up, a pair of pinpoint amber lights set in an amorphous blackness thicker than the surrounding dark were looking back.

The cold numbed his hands and arms, and anything he meant to say - incantation, curse, anything - caught in his throat with the last of his breath. Whatever it was, it bore down on his shoulders, too much weight when he was barely hanging on. He heard one of his shoulders pop and hoped it wasn't going to dislocate. He felt his tendons straining as the cold crept down his arms.

There was a shotgun blast, then another in quick succession, and Dean heard salt ping and ricochet off the metal above. The lights winked out and feeling returned.

"Dean!"

He listened to Sam's rough voice above the roar of the river and nothing would come.

"Dean, where are you!"

It broke. "Down here!"

Then there was Sam, leaning over the side, shotgun in one hand and the other getting a grip on Dean's wrist. Dean still couldn't get used to Sam's strength and kept underestimating it. He reminded himself to work on that, because he kept getting hit over the head with proof of it, especially when Sam hauled him up one-handed over the side and sat next to him on the bridge without saying anything for a long minute.

Shoulders burning, Dean didn't feel the cuts on his hands yet and he just sat, listening to the water below and to Sam catching his breath. He startled a little when Sam cocked the shotgun again.

"You okay?" Sam said.

Dean nodded, knowing Sam was looking at him. He couldn't say anything that wouldn't incriminate him. 'Thing packs a wallop' made him sound fallible and 'it caught me off guard' was just unforgivable in his eyes. So he nodded and left it at that.

Sam clapped him on one shoulder with something like understanding and rose. Dean wiped his hands on his jeans, wincing unseen in the dark. Having to bandage his hands always pissed him off. They never healed as quickly as he wanted them to.

stay until.

Sam turned on one heel, the stock of the shotgun snugged into one shoulder, waiting for something to follow the voice. Dean rose from the bridge in one motion, eyes searching the dark. Holding their breath to listen did no good, not with the water tumble-gushing below, but they did it by reflex all the same. After a moment, Dean took advantage of the quiet and knelt to continue drawing sigils but with his own blood this time - whether he wanted to or not. Sam stood guard without comment, using his peripheral vision more than his direct sight, knowing his first physical warning would come that way. He listened for the part of himself that knew even more, but he didn't rely on it; a lifetime of training spoke louder in contrast to something he'd had less than a year to acknowledge.

The world narrowed to the scent of blood and iron and fresh water while Dean retraced what he'd already drawn and then added on. He knew it would work better than holy water, and it didn't need to last because the bridge's life would amount to only days. Anything that had no problems with iron and running water and could toss his ass through the railing like that obviously needed something with a little more oomph to drive it off. At the least he could barricade it to only one side - the line would be uncrossable. At best, it might force it one step off their plane of existence.

"Been saving this trick?" Sam said.

Dean grinned. "Dad hasn't even seen this one."

So of course, it went straight for Dean.

Sam caught it behind his eyes first despite his preference about not depending on it; if he had to say what it felt like, he would have had to admit he'd seen from the specter's perspective for just an instant. Dean was straddling the banishment line and Sam saw him from both sides of it between beats of his own heart. It was long enough to allow him to sweep the shotgun to his right by several inches and blast the air above Dean's crouched form. Dean ducked his head in reaction but didn't flinch; he'd heard the squeak of the rubber sole of Sam's sneaker on the metal and had known what was coming.

He retreated to Sam's side of the line and closer to the bank to avoid forcing Sam to use all their shells, then stood to draw on the railing. Sam took a step back, then another as Dean completed the width of the bridge and left postscripts of a sort along the handrailing. Dean backed Sam all the way off the bridge that way until their feet were back on the dirt.

"Will that hold it?" Sam said without dropping the barrel of the shotgun.

"Jesus, it has to," Dean said. "I'm out of blood."

"No," Sam said, still watching the bridge. "You're just using the rest of it right now."

Nothing came out of the dark after them or tried to test the barrier.

"Now for the other side," Dean said.

Sam lowered the shotgun and stared at him. "Now you tell me? Dean, c'mon. We've pushed all the luck we can."

"We can either trap it in the middle, or keep it off the bridge altogether," Dean said. "No point leaving it half done. And we gotta cross again to get back to the car anyway."

"You really think anybody else is gonna come out here?" Sam said.

"Are you nuts?" Dean said, turning toward him, silhouetted against the greater darkness of the trees, his outline a silver shadow in the moonlight. "Kids'll flock for miles. Didn't you ever see Stand By Me?"

Sam sighed. "I'll draw the other side," he said.

"You don't know the symbols. And we don't have time for me to show you." Dean looked out across the river, then into the woods to either side. "We need to get it trapped in the middle, if we can. Bind it right to the structure. Then when the bridge is demolished, it'll be stuck."

"And what if they recycle the iron?" Sam said. "Is it gonna be like when you break a mirror and each piece holds a full reflection, or will whatever this is be in parts?"

Dean raised his eyebrows and mulled that over. "Dunno. Won't be throwing anyone off bridges anymore, though. And it's not like it'll keep enough power to make someone's stair railing attack them. If they melt it down and recycle it, the bastard'll be stretched too thin." He paused, and they stared at each other even though they could barely see each other. "Best we can do."

Sam dug more shells out of his pockets and chambered another round in the shotgun by feel alone. "Hands still bleeding?" he said.

"Yeah," Dean said, shaking them out reflexively. "S'no big deal."

"You can have mine, if you need it," Sam said.

"You sold on this whole blood-as-ink thing?" Dean said. "Like I'm gonna cut your hands all up. No."

Sam snorted. "Let's walk across, piss the thing off, and I'll hold it in the middle while you seal the bridge," he said in a low voice.

"Well, I don't really feel like swimming across," Dean said.

"Since you're pushing thirty, right?" Sam said. "Gets a little tough when the years start to creep up like that."

Dean reached forward and shoved Sam back a step. Later Sam would find a bloody handprint across his shirt and it would never quite come out.

"Fuck you, junior," Dean said.

Sam nodded, then stepped onto the bridge. He held the shotgun at the ready, keeping his eyes locked straight ahead so that he could make the best use of his peripheral vision and give himself the best chance to see it coming. Something thrummed across the bridge of his nose the moment he crossed the line; he wasn't sure if it was because of what Dean had set in place or if it was just residuals from the spirit's activity. They reached midpoint without incident, stepping over the makeshift memorial, nothing to hear but the rushing water. They moved fast, balancing their weight and moving in a half-crouch to make themselves less of a target and harder to pitch right over the railing should it try and hit them.

They reached the other end and Dean stood at the edge; Sam took several steps onto the bridge, gun raised again. Dean leaned down and began to draw again, and the only warmth in his fingers came from the blood still seeping out.

Sam started to ask how they'd know for sure that it was trapped; then the feel and sound of feet pounding across the bridge interrupted him.

"Well, shit," Dean said, and Sam could already see a gathering of the air out of the corner of one eye and was opening fire. The thing dissipated when the salt bisected it.

"Nice shootin', Tex," Dean said.

"I thought we agreed the 'Tex' thing wouldn't work," Sam said, silently reminding himself not to lock his knees.

"That's one of the things about you that kills me," Dean said. "You decide stuff and declare it law."

"So while you're shooting your mouth, you're still moving as fast as you can, right?" Sam said, squinting a little in the dark and alternating it with widening his eyes to make sure he didn't miss anything.

"That's one of the other things that kills me," Dean said. "Smart, that mouth." Sam could tell he was already halfway across by the direction of his voice. "We've got it pretty much trapped in the middle, so, it would be great if you didn't let it get past you."

"The only way it gets past me is by putting me in the river," Sam said.

"And you didn't bring your water wings," Dean said.

Sam opened his mouth to say something about using Dean as a floatation device, but he was jammed into the railing by something with no focal point. It was pressing on him from head to toe, then weighing on his shoulders with an intention of toppling him over. The impact was nearly enough to force the shotgun out of his hands, but a long-ingrained lesson about never dropping a weapon made it second nature to hang on.

"Sam!"

"Don't stop!" Sam shouted, bracing both feet against the railing to counter-balance himself.

stay until.

Sam dropped one hand to the trigger and fired into the air. The shot scattered wide enough to make a difference, because the pressure vanished. Sam dropped to his knees on the bridge deck before he could catch himself, hands out, the knuckles of one hand splitting when caught between the shotgun and the deck. He cursed and swung the gun up again before he regained his feet.

"You okay?" Dean said, and his voice had an edge to it that Sam always recognized as genuine emotion. Not once in their lives had Dean asked him that question to be polite.

"Thing packs a wallop," Sam said, then shook his head when, for whatever reason, Dean laughed.

"Puss," Dean said.

"Whatever," Sam said without offense.

stay until.

"Stay until what?" Sam said. "What the hell does this thing want?"

"Doesn't matter," Dean said. "It's stuck here thinkin' about it forever, now." He started up the side of the railing, not bothering to flinch when Sam fired down the length of the bridge again. One more loop there, another line, a quartered half circle, and he was all the way across the width of the bridge. "Back up, Sam," he said.

"Done?"

"We'll see, I guess," Dean said. "If the line isn't solid, it'll be all over us."

Sam backed three steps and over the line, then backed several feet away with Dean, keeping the shotgun up.

Feet pounded toward them across the metal in audible form only, then paused.

"I think it missed what we were really doing," Dean whispered.

The shriek that came out of the air directly in front of them startled them both into stumbling several steps further back. Something whirled into view just behind the line, darker than the surrounding night and spinning in place. The structure of the bridge began to shake.

Several feet of railing bent outwards on either side, bulging away from the bridge with a squeal. The finality of it was supported by the fact that nothing else followed up.

They waited several minutes to be sure.

"Kind of...bound it permanently," Dean said.

"Kind of," Sam echoed, and his tone indicated that Dean's indecision was not welcome.

"As in, now it's part of the bridge," Dean said.

"Yeah, I got that part at the beginning," Sam said. "You don't sound all that sure."

"I've never done it before," Dean said with a note of impatience. "It worked, didn't it?"

Sam was staring at the bridge, shotgun cradled loosely in the crook of one arm. "I'll guess we'll find out."

"Let's blow it up," Dean said. He sounded like it was the best idea anyone had ever had. "Save the town the trouble."

Sam was visibly annoyed, even rendered as a grayed-out shadow against the cloud cover above. "We didn't set charges."

"We can do that now," Dean said, shaking his hands out again.

"There's no way someone didn't hear all that shooting," Sam said, the incredulity in his voice sharp with disapproval. "And we can't get back across the bridge anyway."

"Bullshit," Dean said, and Sam could see the gleam of anticipation in his eyes. A dogs chasing cars anticipation. "It's my bridge, now."

He turned and disappeared back into the trees, and Sam knew he was headed for the car. It occurred to him to follow him back, knock him out, and shove him into the back of the car. No, they couldn't possibly wait for a demolition crew to do it in a couple of days. They had to blow it up.

Sam sighed and kept an eye on the bridge. The rush of water was nearly lulling after all the shooting, but he resisted. The clouds parted enough off to the east to let a bit of genuine moonlight through, and the gleam of old, wet iron was a foreboding sight.

Most people would not have heard Dean coming, cat-quiet, but Sam did. Dean passed him with a whisper of clothing and edged down the bank a little, jamming something tight under the first girder, then popping back up to head across the width to repeat the motion on the other side.

"I'll cross," Sam said, taking a step forward and holding a hand out for the remainder of whatever Dean had.

"No," Dean said, one foot on the bridge. "You stay here and watch my back."

"I will knock your dumb ass out," Sam said deliberately. "Don't think I won't. We can drive down and cross somewhere else, and walk back up."

"We don't have time for that," Dean said. "You're the one who said someone probably heard all the shooting. I'm not gonna argue with you."

"If you aren't right about this, you're gonna make me drag you out of the river," Sam said. He was careful not to say if you're wrong because Dean wouldn't hear anything else if he did. "Don't grandstand."

Dean's nostrils flared while he geared up for a tirade, and Sam said, "Floaters make really ugly corpses. I thought you wanted to be pretty when you were found."

"The thing is sunk right into the bridge, Sam," Dean said, some of the rage and part of the annoyance gone. "It's over. Don't be such a goddamn mother hen."

Sam planted his feet and raised the shotgun to shoulder height again, aiming down the length of the bridge. He kept his eyes steady down the sights and didn't even glance at Dean.

Dean snorted and walked onto the bridge as if daring something to happen.

Nothing did.

Sam watched him duck out of sight into the shadows under the opposite side, his breathing steady, hands loose to account for the way the breeze off the water below tried to move the muzzle.

Dean came back down the bridge and stood in front of Sam as the latter lowered the shotgun. They stared at each other for a long moment, and some sort of contest ensued. Sam did everything he could not to smirk.

"It's all safe now, punkin'," Dean said with no small amount of sarcasm. "Are your knees wobbly? Does him need a wittle help to the car?"

"Proud of yourself?" Sam said, and his voice was so neutral that not even Dean could make anything of it.

Dean stepped past him, digging something out of his jacket pocket. "C'mon."

Sam followed him into the trees, putting an old-growth cedar between them and the bridge that was wide enough at the trunk to shelter them both. The deeper shadows didn't seem safer, just different from where they'd been.

"Make a wish," Dean said, flipping the detonator.

All four charges went in sequence with separate thuds, and Dean leaned around the tree to watch at the last second as the old bridge folded inward and away from its moorings. The metal gave with a shriek, twisting toward the water below. Dean didn't have time to be startled when a piece of iron the size of his forearm spun in and buried itself into the tree inches from his face.

The bridge went in with a crash, and the tone of the water changed as it took on tons of metal and displaced earth.

Dean reached around and worked at the twisted chunk of iron until it came loose. When Sam held a hand out for it, Dean gave it over and watched him weigh it.

"S'pose part of it's in here?" Sam said.

Dean shrugged, then winced. It felt like he'd nearly popped one shoulder out of the damn socket going over the side. "Maybe. Makes a good souvenir either way."

When they got back to the car, Dean threw it on the backseat.

-I-

Dean sat on the closed lid of the toilet in their room's small bathroom, hands held out toward Sam in grumpy compliance.

"When was your last tetanus shot?" Sam said, having parked himself on the edge of the tub, holding both of Dean's hands palms-up to examine how deep the cuts and tears were.

"Last year," Dean said. "Get one every five now instead of ten, since I get hit with rusty stuff all the time."

"I'd really hate for you to get lockjaw," Sam said, his voice soft and carrying the barest hint of sarcasm.

"You'd cry your eyes out," Dean said, pitching his voice just as low. "Then find some way to blame yourself. Hopefully I'll go deaf, too, so I don't have to listen to the bitching." He hissed and yanked one hand away as Sam smoothed Neosporin into the worst of the cuts on his fingers.

"C'mon," Sam said, turning his attention to the hand he still held. "You don't even need stitches. Let me do this."

Dean huffed a sigh and relented. Once his hands were bandaged, he flexed them a little and started to rise. Sam blocked him with a foot, and Dean glanced down at it before leveling an annoyed frown on him. "You're seriously working my last nerve, Sammy."

"You still have one?" Sam said with feigned surprise, staring up at him. "We're hanging around one more night, aren't we?"

"What for?" Dean said, switching to genuine interest. "It's gone."

"To make sure," Sam said. "If any of the bridge is still lodged in the banks, it might still have some influence. We should salt the banks or something."

"Wasn't that tough," Dan mumbled, but there was a note of hesitation in it. "But, yeah, whatever. It won't hurt. Can I go now, or are you gonna pull a George Michael on me?"

Sam's expression was tolerant, at best. He moved his foot and watched Dean stalk away with none of the fluidity he usually leant to everything he did. He was grateful the excuse he'd come up with to stay had worked. He tried not to think about how close Dean had come to tumbling into the river, tried not to imagine himself running downriver in the dark in a frantic attempt to find him. Sometimes he wasn't sure who was assigned to protect who, and it didn't really matter anymore.

Dean had always needed him more than he needed Dean, and the idea shamed him.

Dean poked his head back in and found Sam staring at his own folded hands, head bent. He watched long enough to realize Sam was drowning himself in something morose. "Pushing thirty," he said.

Sam looked up. "Hmm?"

"Did you really have the balls to say 'pushing thirty' to me?"

Sam grinned. "If the orthopedic shoe fits, grandpa."

"I'm gonna whup your ass," Dean said, his expression full of half-amused promise.

Sam stood and stretched, gesturing at Dean's bandaged hands. "Not like that. And by the time they heal, your feeble, elderly brain will have forgotten all about it."

"I can still outshoot you at darts," Dean said. "In a fuckin' body cast, you little snot."

"And what do I get if you don't?" Sam said, falling serious.

Dan shook his head. "What is it with you and all these bets? Is this a gambling addiction you picked up at school? Do you need Betty Ford?"

Sam stared at him for a long moment, face closed for once, eyes skimming back and forth between Dean's hands and face.

Dean sighed and leaned against the doorway with one shoulder. "What do you want." There was less defeat than curiosity in the way he said it.

"You have to tell me something I don't already know," Sam said.

"Like how you're on the way to destruction, make your time?" Dean said. "Take off every zig for great justice?"

Sam smirked. "Something I wasn't there for. Something dad doesn't even know."

"You're like a creepy little stalker," Dean said.

"What do you get?" Sam said.

Dean quirked his mouth and looked at the ceiling. "You have to laugh at all my jokes," he said. "For one day, you have to laugh at everything I do and say - that's meant to be funny, anyway - out loud, like you used to."

This was the opening for Sam to say I would, if you were ever funny but he couldn't. Dean was almost serious. "Deal," he said. "I won't make you shake on it."

Dean held his bandaged hands up, palms-out. "I appreciate it."

-I-

Dean lost pitiably at darts. And didn't seem to care.

-I-

They both slept in the next morning. Sam made sure he was up first and and went for coffee and breakfast. When he got back, Dean was sitting on the side of his bed, looking incredibly disgruntled. He was hunched a little, arms folded across his chest, forehead wrinkled into a pattern of annoyance.

Sam set his coffee down on the nightstand as if it was a peace offering. "Shoulders?" he said.

Dean made an inarticulate sound that may have been a growl.

"I'll rebandage your hands when you get out," Sam said, gesturing at the bathroom door and meaning the shower. "Hot water'll loosen 'em up. I got Advil."

"There's not enough Advil in the world," Dean said in full-out grouch mode, then stood but kept his arms folded.

"Hanging off bridges kind of exceeds the warranty," Sam said.

"What are you, the fuckin' bluebird of happiness?" Dean said as he shuffled into the bathroom and toed the door closed.

Sam waited until he heard the water running. Then to himself he said, "Yes."

-I-

Dean didn't let Sam rebandage his hands. He meandered around the small room swinging his arms to loosen his muscles and started postulating. "We don't actually have to wait for dark to get the salting done," he said.

Sam was still poking around online, and didn't look up at him. What the hell didn't care about running water or iron, but was only slightly put off by salt? "Yeah, we do. You blew the bridge up, so the area's gonna be crawling with cops and rubberneckers all day. Plus, if there's anything left of that thing, it'll keep to tradition and wait for dark to come out again. If it can. And we really should make sure we got it all."

Dean knew all that. He just didn't mind hearing it all that much. It settled him. "Good boy!" he said. "You get a cookie."

Sam shook his head and kept his attention on the laptop. "So, did you decide?"

Dean paused in his pacing and arm-swinging to look at him. "What."

"What you're gonna tell me," Sam said. "You lost the bet."

"No," Dean said, swinging his arms again. "I have to choose carefully so I don't scandalize your virgin ears."

"Nice to know there are orifices you won't go for," Sam said, then ducked reflexively when he saw Dean reach for something to throw.

-I-

There was caution tape across the makeshift trail from the road to the spot the old bridge had occupied. They hadn't posted a guard to keep an eye out after dark; there was no real reason to.

The river seemed a little quieter.

The boys stood shoulder to shoulder on the bank and waited. The remnants of the bridge's feet and moorings stood as mute and jagged monuments to the missing structure, and little else. The bank's face was scored with countless footprints and whatever investigation had run its course during the daylight. It had made a muddy wreck of the earth they stood on.

Dean braced a foot on one of the moorings and waited for any kind of sign that they weren't alone. "Feels quiet," he said after a bit.

Sam nearly said too quiet by reflex but held back. He realized after a moment that Dean was fishing rather than just commenting to hear himself talk. He was trying to get Sam to confirm or deny his idea of quiet. "Nothing on the radar," he said.

Dean seemed satisfied with that.

They salted the bank and buried chunks of rock salt around the moorings. Then Sam watched while Dean poked around a little more to flip rocks and branches with his boots before he came to stand with Sam again. Neither said a word. Something seemed to shift between them after a minute or so, and they went back to the car.

--

By midmorning the car was packed and they were back on the road, east on the 131. The tape Dean had left in the player - Journey's Infinity - kicked on, and the guitar into to Wheel In The Sky wandered through the car at low volume.

"Where are we going, anyway?" Sam said.

"No idea," Dean said immediately. "Where haven't we been?"

Sam tried to actually figure that out for a long moment. Then he gave in and looked at Dean.

"It wasn't rhetorical," Dean said, keeping his eyes on the road. "It's not like we're gonna settle somewhere and wait for something to happen. So, I don't know. Pick a direction."

Sam kept looking at him, mildly amused and stymied in equal parts by what had to be some sort of setup.

"Just, uh...have a vision or something," Dean said.

"You'll just go wherever I say," Sam said, the question emerging as a flat statement.

"If it makes sense," Dean said, but there was a hitch to it, the words chosen over whatever he'd meant to say.

"East is fine," Sam said. "I don't think there's a state we haven't seen at least twice. If you wanted to go somewhere, where would you go?"

"Tahiti," Dean said. "A nude beach in Tahiti."

Sam huffed a laugh through his nose. "In the lower 48 states," he said.

"The trees and the weather change, but otherwise it's all the same," Dean said, using his right hand to feel for the charm around his neck absently, as if it grounded him. "Mountains or plains or swamps or whatever. Second verse, same as the first."

"You like some places better than others, though," Sam said, turning a little in his seat to face Dean.

Dean shrugged, then turned his face away to wince.

Realizing he wasn't going to get much more mileage on that subject, Sam said, "Yeah, so. You owe me a story."

Grimacing, Dean said, "Jeez, Sam."

"Pony up," Sam said. "Unless you wanna sing, instead?"

Dean mumbled a string of obscenities under his breath. He drummed the tips of his bandaged fingers lightly along the steering wheel and sighed.

Sam watched the road pass for a moment, nothing but trees and underbrush and ditch on either side. The road was so straight that he could see the gravel shoulder that began more than a mile ahead. It seemed to open up into fields right about there.

"I rolled a drug dealer once," Dean said suddenly.

Sam turned his head slowly back to his brother, a nearly detached feeling of shock settling over him like a net. "You...you what?" was the best he could manage.

"There was no one to hustle," Dean said matter-of-factly, and through his shock Sam could tell he was enjoying the reaction he was getting. "We were in...well, not a great place. The car needed some work, and we had to get parts, and dad thought maybe he had a lead on you-know-who..." He shrugged again, the motion barely visible. "Dad never asked where I came up with the money, and we didn't have any cards we could use right then."

"What'd you do?" Sam said, caught up against his will.

"Noticed a pattern," Dean said. "Dude, all I did was break up a crack house. Lots of traffic in and out all the time, place was falling apart. They didn't even fight when I took the door down. They knew the drill - someone kicks the door in, assume it's the cops and get on the floor. I went in there like the goddamn A-Team."

Sam was staring at him open-mouthed. He couldn't even formulate a response.

"They never even saw me," Dean said, a smirk dancing along his mouth and voice. "It was dark, I had a ski mask. And I outgunned the entire neighborhood. There were some threats, I cleaned them out, the end."

"You..." Sam shook his head. "I want to say it's the dumbest thing you've ever done, but I just know there's something else."

"C'mon Sam," Dean said. "I wasn't gonna rob a bank, or blow guys at a truck stop - "

Sam laughed aloud, throwing his head back. "Oh, man!"

"What, you don't think I could make a killing with this mouth?"

Sam laughed harder.

"Five thousand," Dean said.

"Is how many guys you'd have to blow to get out of town," Sam gasped, then went on laughing.

"No, dumbass, that's the cash I took off with."

Sam stopped laughing and sucked in a breath.

"So, you know. Maybe I'll try it again sometime," Dean said as if he didn't notice.

"No," Sam said, the humor gone. "After everything else we've seen...that's serious shit, Dean. They'll have been looking for you...maybe they still are. You didn't just knock over some crack house. Not with five grand on hand."

"It was about six months after you left," Dean said. "It's ancient history. Don't be so serious." He paused. "They never saw me."

"You really raided some dope den by yourself," Sam said.

"Yeah." Dean looked genuinely pleased with himself.

"How come you're never afraid of things you should be?" Sam said, and if there was any admiration in his voice, he tried to supress it.

Dean tilted his head. "Show me something that deserves it."

The gravel shoulder appeared on the passenger side, open fields stretching to the horizon, changing the quality of light in the car. The county line was just ahead. Sam shook his head, grinning, wondering what Dean hadn't told him.

Something flashed behind his eyes, but by the time he registered its existence, it was too late.

-I-

/Second verse

By midmorning the car was packed and they were back on the road, east on the 131. The tape Dean had left in the player - Journey's Infinity - kicked on, and the guitar intro to Wheel In The Sky wandered through the car at low volume.

"Where are we going, anyway?" Sam said.

"No idea," Dean said immediately. "Where haven't we been?"

Sam tried to actually figure that out for a long moment. Then he gave in and looked at Dean.

"It wasn't rhetorical," Dean said, keeping his eyes on the road. "It's not like we're gonna settle somewhere and wait for something to happen. So, I don't know. Pick a direction."

Sam glanced at him, looking nonplussed. "You're just gonna go wherever I say," he said flatly.

"If it makes sense," Dean said, keeping his eyes on the road, but there was a moment of hesitation and the look that crossed his face didn't match the words.

Sam nodded a little, feeling a flicker of confusion but unable to place the source of it. He wagged one knee back and forth with the same contemplative motion a housecat would make with his tail when his house-humans were being incomprehensible. He finally shrugged. "East is good. If you wanted to go somewhere, where would you go?"

"The Bahamas," Dean said. "Lots of scantily clad babes."

Sam huffed a laugh through his nose. "I meant in the continental U.S."

"The trees and the weather change, but otherwise it's all the same," Dean said, using his left hand to feel absently for the charm that hung around his neck as if it grounded him. "Mountains or rivers or canyons or whatever. Second verse, same as the first."

He frowned.

Sam frowned.

The moment passed.

"You like...some places better than others, though," Sam said, turning a little in his seat to face Dean, unsure why he felt as if he'd asked the question before but never heard an answer.

Dean lifted a shoulder in a halfhearted shrug.

Sam sighed and faced forward again to watch the road pass. Nothing but trees and ditch on either side. The road was so straight, he could see the gravel shoulder that began more than a mile ahead. It opened up into fields that would reach to the horizon. He knew that even if they hadn't come into town on the same road. "Yeah, so," he said. "Let's get to that story you owe me."

Grimacing, Dean said, "Jeez, Sam. C'mon."

"Pay up," Sam said. "Unless you wanna sing, instead?"

Dean made a sound of frustration under his breath and held his hands still on the wheel. He'd meant to drum them along the wheel but stopped just in time. "Fine, whatever. Something you don't already know."

"Or dad," Sam said.

"Yeah, okay." He thought for a moment. "I tossed a crack house once when we were out of funds."

Sam searched his face, looking for embellishment or exaggeration from the blunt statement alone. He knew it was true but that it was only surface truth, and he couldn't grasp the starting point of the feeling. "You...Dean, what the fuck!"

"We were...somewhere the usual stuff didn't work," Dean said matter-of-factly, and through his shock and trepidation Sam could tell Dean was enjoying the reaction he was getting and had probably chosen the thing that would purposely get the biggest reaction. "We needed parts for the car so we could do the work and get us out of there. Dad thought he had a lead on the thing we've been looking for, and he was thinking of taking off by himself, was gonna leave me to take care of getting the car fixed. Have me catch up."

Sam felt a zing of dread. Something like that would push Dean into doing something...unwise.

Dean gave another half-shrug, hands loose on the wheel but shoulders tight. "He never asked where I came up with the money."

"Dean," Sam said softly, urgently, "...what'd you do?"

"It's no big deal," Dean said with a laugh, the one he reserved for the stuff he wanted everyone to think he didn't care about. "It was a totally rundown hell hole, and it didn't take a genius to figure out why so many people were comin' in and out of there all day and night. They were practically asking for it." He slammed a hand down steering wheel for emphasis, wincing and jerking it away. "Sonofa -"

Sam found himself glancing back and forth between Dean and the road ahead, expecting something, needing to hear the story but suddenly afraid to.

"They didn't even fight when I kicked the door in," Dean said. "They obviously knew the universal drug-bust drill - someone kicks the door in, you get on the floor facedown and pretend you know nothing."

Sam was staring at him in breathless horror.

"Dude, they never even saw me," Dean said, but the smirk around his mouth and voice was short-lived. "It was dark, and I was wearing a ski mask. And I outgunned the whole neighborhood. It was over fast. Everybody talked some shit, I cleaned them out, the end. It was like an episode of Cops."

Sam swallowed hard. "I want to say it's one of the dumbest things you've ever done, but...you're always breaking your own records."

"C'mon, Sam," Dean said, the smirk creeping back in but genuine this time. "I wasn't gonna rob a gas station, or blow guys at a truck stop - "

Sam laughed aloud. "Wow."

"What," Dean said, "You don't think I could make a killing with this mouth?"

Sam went on laughing.

"Ten thousand," Dean said, but the tone of his voice indicated he couldn't quite stop himself from saying it.

"Is how many guys you'd have to..." Sam began, then stopped, the laughter dying. Something occurred to him and he knew it should have occurred earlier. "Shit, Dean. Just...God. That's...it wasn't just some local crack house, was it. Not with that kind of cash."

"Look," Dean said, shooting for a snarl and missing. "You asked. And it's ancient history anyway. Don't be so serious." He paused. "They never saw me."

Sam stared at him for a long moment, knowing there was something he should have caught on to. "How come you're never afraid of the things you should be?" he said, unable to supress the mix of admiration and fear in his voice.

Dean tilted his head and relented. "Show me something that deserves it," he said.

The gravel shoulder appeared on the passenger side of the car, open fields stretching to the horizon, changing the quality of light inside the car. The county line was just ahead. Sam shook his head, wondering what Dean hadn't told him.

Something flashed behind his eyes, but by the time he registered it - and recognized it - it was too late.

-I-

/Third verse

Dean paused while packing the car, struck with a case of deja vu so violent that it was almost vertigo. Then he shrugged it off because he knew he'd packed the car a million times before, in too many places to count, most of which looked alike anyway.

Sam came to stand beside him near the trunk. "Where're we going, anyway?" he said.

Dean glanced up at him and found himself realizing he had never looked down on Sam no matter how little he'd been. He'd always leaned over or knelt down to look little Sam in the eyes until he was taller, because he'd always thought he should be at Sam's level. He was tired and only half awake and his hands and shoulders ached, so it seemed perfectly reasonable to say the first thing that popped into his head. It just happened not to be a smartass comment. "Doesn't matter. I go where you go."

It took him a long moment to register that Sam was looking at him with pale, startled confusion.

Blinking hard a few times to clear his eyes and head, Dean offset his own shock by kicking Sam in one shin with the side of a foot. "It was a joke, Sam," he said. "Get in the car. Or do you wanna write more Communist slogans on it first?"

Sam shook his head and folded himself into the passenger side, staring at Dean in the rearview mirror.

Dean looked around for a moment, thinking everything was so utterly alien out there, the half-overcast sky, the colors, the way the air smelled. He shook it off and got in the car, but didn't reach to start it.

"Something's wrong," Sam said.

"You think?" Dean said sharply. The misplaced irritation vanished as quickly as it came, though. "Have you..." He paused. "Have you seen anything?"

Sam could tell that Dean hated asking. "I don't know," he said.

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It means I can't tell," Sam said keeping his eyes on his own knees. "It feels like everything is...static, like there's no point of reference. Like it doesn't matter what direction we go."

"Are we dead?" Dean said.

Sam wanted to laugh but his mouth was too dry, he was afraid he'd choke, and Dean was serious. "No."

"Is it that we have no future, then?" Dean said.

Sam shook his head.

Dean sat back and stared out the windshield for a long moment. "Okay," he said. "Nothing to do but go about our business then, huh?"

Sam glanced over and said, "Your hands are bleeding again."

Dean looked at them and started to shrug but realized he would only piss himself off. It wasn't that bad. "Third verse, same as the first," he said, then frowned. "That's not how it...never mind." He started the car and pulled out onto the 131. Journey's Wheel In The Sky started on the tape Dean had left in the player. Steve Perry mourned that winter is here again, oh lord. Dean reached over and popped the tape out, tired of the song even though he wasn't sure how long it had been since he'd last heard it. When the radio didn't come on, he messed with the dial.

Not even static.

He turned it off and didn't say anything about it. There were no other cars on the road.

Sam felt Dean's tension and it ratcheted his own up a notch. Something was wrong with all of it, the road, the sky, them. Not being able to figure out what was wrong made him feel off center and dulled around the edges, something drawn in two dimensions on a landscape in a flip-book. Animated, but just barely. He watched the road pass, nothing but trees and ditch on either side. The road was so straight that he could see the wide gravel shoulder that began more than a mile ahead. It seemed to open up there, into fields -

The county line.

Sam felt a dread he couldn't name. "Yeah, so," he said to fill the silence.

"Sing, or tell you a story," Dean said. "Yeah, I know. You're so predictable."

Instead of finding it amusing, Sam felt the dread sharpen. He had the feeling he knew what was coming and that it would make things worse, but the details escaped him. "Yeah," he said, trying to make it something more than a wooden refrain. "Something dad doesn't even know."

Hey Sam - ever think why he wouldn't tell anyone about some big adventure?

The internal voice was a warning and a jab to his conscience.

Looking for a confession? Looking for something to keep?

"We were in a rough part of Chicago," Dean said, readjusting his grip on the steering wheel to keep from aggravating his hands. "Car broke down, needed replacement parts, and we didn't have any cards or anything. Dad had a tip about the thing that - " He paused, stumbling over how to qualify things all of a sudden. It was no longer just the thing that killed mom. Like that hadn't been enough. "We were in a hurry to get out of there."

"He was going to leave you with the car," Sam said. When Dean looked at him sharply, he added, "It's what he'd do."

Dean nodded a little. "Yeah. He'd have to."

"What'd you do?" Sam said keeping his voice down as if they were sharing a secret even though they were the only two there.

"There was a house at the end of a block nearby - you'd have to be blind not to know what was going on. Folks coming in and out all night, checking around like they didn't want to be seen."

"Drugs," Sam said.

"Yeah. So I tossed the place. Took the door down in the middle of the night. Cleaned 'em out."

Sam shook his head. "That's crazy, you know that, right? Did you at least take a headcount of how many people were in there? Or how armed?"

Dean made a derisive noise and kept his eyes on the road. "Man, I outgunned the whole neighborhood. They knew the drill and got on the floor. Never even saw me." He dropped his hands to the lower part of the steering wheel, eyes scanning either side of the road. "Never saw me."

Sam thought about desperation and being left behind and felt himself gripping the door handle because Dean was lying his ass off. "I want to say it's one of the...dumbest things you've ever done, but I know it can't be. They could have been ready for something like that."

"C'mon Sam," Dean said, and somehow he sounded nervous to Sam. "I wasn't gonna knock over a 7-11 or blow guys at a truck stop."

Sam shook his head. Any other time it would have been funny, but he couldn't see past the dread. "How'd you make out?" he said.

"Twenty five grand," Dean said.

"Not just the neighborhood crack house, then, huh," Sam said.

"No," Dean said tightly. "It wasn't. Doesn't matter now, though. Dad never asked where I got the money."

Sam stared at him for a long moment. "You never let fear stop you," he said with equal parts worry and admiration. "Doesn't anything stop you?"

Dean tilted his head. "Show me something that deserves it."

"Pull over," Sam said as they came alongside the gravel shoulder. "Quick, pull over here."

Dean shot him a look of confusion, but took his foot off the gas and pulled over. Gravel crunched under the tires as if it was the only solid thing around.

Sam got out and left his door open, staring out into the fields. Grasses and the occasional tree, out into forever. There was no breeze, no birds, just them.

Dean got out and came around, leaning against the car with his hands in his pockets. "Sammy?"

"Maybe we should get rid of that piece of the bridge," Sam said. "'Cause this is weird, and the only thing different about us is that we kept that. After you used your own blood to bind that thing to it."

Dean straightened. "You think it's in there, and powerful enough to mess things up?"

"You feel it too," Sam said without looking at him. "Like everything's too familiar. Like we've done this before."

"Nothing's powerful enough to rewind time, Sam," Dean said. "That's what you're getting at, right? Lots of places look and feel the same. We've been everywhere twice, that's all."

"You're trying to talk yourself out of it," Sam said. "Earlier you asked me if we were dead."

Dean sighed, fidgeting with the bandages on his hands. "So, what's going on?"

"Did you bind yourself to that bridge?" Sam said.

"That's just an old wives' tale," Dean said gruffly. "It doesn't work - I've tried it before, and you can't bind yourself to a place or object that way. Not with just that. I'd be stuck on the bridge if it was true."

Sam glanced pointedly in the back passenger window of the Impala.

"Shit, I'll prove it to you," Dean said, and stepped around him to yank the back door open. He leaned in and hefted the piece of iron in one hand. Then he stepped away from the car and drew his arm back.

Sam stopped him by catching his upraised wrist. "Bury it," he said.

Instead of arguing, Dean lowered his arm and waited while Sam got a folded camping shovel out of the trunk. He watched with an eerie patience while Sam took chunks out of the soft, grass-patterned sod of the ditch and handed the length of iron over when asked. Sam salted the hole before tossing the item in and covering it carefully.

"There's iron in blood," Dean said, the words feeling and sounding stiff even to his own ears. "It didn't care about iron."

"Iron's not the only thing in blood," Sam said. "I really want to see the symbols you used. I know you researched them before you used them, but they might take on a different level of meaning with blood magick. Sometimes...we take what we know and do for granted, that we can beat anything."

Dean didn't say anything.

"I don't know why," Sam added, "...but...I think we'll know for sure if we did the right thing...if we can just get past the county line."

"It's his territory," Dean said, staring at the horizon. "Stay until."

Sam remembered the words of the specter of Elias Friske. Stay until. "Did it ever say anything else to you?"

"Tell the truth," Dean said. "God is watching."

Sam stared at Dean carefully, waiting.

"Sammy," Dean said softly, "That's not a horizon."

Sam stood closer and shifted his eyes to follow Dean's gaze. It looked like the horizon past the fields faded into an oncoming storm, but as Sam looked harder, he realized he couldn't make out shape or color. His brain tried to fill in patterns from memory or from the surrounding terrain, but began to fail. It didn't drop away or smear into faded obscurity. It simply stopped.

"Don't let me trap us here," Dean said finally. "Dying is easier."

"Dean," Sam said, turning his attention back. "Don't - "

"You heard me, Sam," Dean said, eyes still fixed on the distance. "Don't forget. I don't know how he did it, but he stuck us here, and I helped him somehow. Get out if you can."

"We'll get out," Sam said, concerned with the tone and with the look on Dean's face. Acceptance. Sam was mainly worried about what he was accepting. "We might have already done it by getting rid of that piece of the bridge."

"We've got no way of leaving ourselves reminders," Dean said as if he hadn't heard. "You'll have to remember. Whatever it is, break it. You're set up better to know what to do. You're the one who'll remember. You already have."

He seemed so resigned that Sam found himself searching for a way to reassure them both. But it was hard not to keep looking at the vanishing horizon.

"Sam."

Sam looked at Dean finally, then followed him to the car.

The light that hit him when they crossed the line that time was visible only to him; he knew it that time, and knew it was brighter, like it was trying to fill the world.

-I-

/Fourth verse

That morning, Sam packed the car to save some wear and tear on Dean's hands and shoulders. Something seemed off about the day that had nothing to do with the partly overcast sky or the lack of traffic passing on the 131. The world felt like a drum someone had forgotten to remove the cover from, every beat falling flat. He watched Dean try and turn the room key in at the office only to walk toward him across the gravel parking lot looking uneasy. Something flashed by his mind's eye, Dean standing in gravel on the side of the road saying stay until. He blinked, and Dean was standing in front of him.

"Nobody's in there but everything's left open," Dean said. "It's not like they stepped out, either, it's like they've had enough of the town and took off."

Sam closed the Impala's trunk and shook off a moment of what seemed like memory. "You worried?"

"What, me worry?" Dean said, walking around to the driver's side. "C'mon."

"Where're we going, anyway?" Sam said, then paused.

Dean had the driver's door open but stopped to stare at Sam over the roof of the car as if he hadn't heard him correctly. Sam rested his elbows on the roof and stared back, knowing something was happening but not what. It was like having a song stuck in his head but with only a fraction of the chorus, the rest hovering just out of reach. If he hummed what he knew over and over, the rest would fall into place...

"Don't say it," Sam said suddenly.

"You don't know what I - "

"Don't joke," Sam said, pointing at him. "Dean. Tell the truth this time. All of it."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Dean said with none of the heat the words would usually have carried.

"We both know, but it just doesn't make sense yet," Sam said, flattening his hands against the roof. "You know something is wrong." He leaned over to look into the back seat though the windows. The chunk of iron was still there. "We buried it. We were talking about...Friske, and stay until, and we buried it."

"Sam - "

"Dean, goddamn it," Sam said in a horrifyingly level voice, "Trust me."

Dean straightened a little, face suddenly evincing nothing more than an interested calm.

"We have to do things different this time," Sam said.

"What'd you see?" Dean said.

"Not visions," Sam said. "Memories. We're stuck. I don't know why or how, except it's...the bridge. You bound yourself to it, and you're going to say you didn't, and maybe that's not all there is to it. We gave Friske something. We don't know what he really was, but because we're cocky bastards lately we just think we always know what we're doing."

Sam ran out of breath.

Dean was still staring at him calmly. "If we're dead," he said, "I'm not spending eternity here. Nothing I ever did deserves this kind of boredom."

Sam smirked despite himself. "We're not dead."

"Nothing you ever did deserves eternity with me," Dean added.

"Shut up."

Dean kept staring at him thoughtfully as if he was searching for something. "If I pretend you're right," he said, "What do we do? We don't know where this all starts."

"I didn't pack the car last time," Sam said. "I should have, because of your shoulders. I don't have a sense of 'last time' before standing out here by the car. So I think this is where we start each time. It starts when we come out here and try to leave town with your souvenir in the back."

"And we already buried it once," Dean said.

"Yeah. But here we are again. So it's more than that." Sam looked at the sky and thought that if he had to keep breathing that air, he was going to suffocate. It felt like there was hardly any oxygen in it. The trees weren't breathing anymore. "I think - I hope - we'll know the rest."

"Any point to just staying here and seeing if anything changes?" Dean said.

Sam felt like he might panic for a moment.

Seeing it, Dean said, "Look - we'll bury it. We'll figure it out as we go, like usual."

Sam balked for a moment, then moved to just do something normal, something solid. "Yeah," he said. "Business as usual."

"Fourth verse, same as the first," Dean said, and this time he didn't even hear it.

They buried the length of iron just off the gravel, away from the road or any building.

When Dean started the car, the tape Dean had left in kicked on. The guitar intro to Journey's Wheel In The Sky underscored their already highly strung nerves with faintly distorted chords. Dean punched the eject button and threw the tape on the floor of the car near Sam's feet. "If I hear that fuckin' song again..." He trailed off, not needing to finish the threat.

The radio didn't even offer static. There was nothing but silence.

"It's the last good thing that band did," Dean said, pulling onto the 131, and instead of sounding defensive it came out as a disappointed announcement.

"That's charitable," Sam said, latching onto something - anything - that broke the silence. "And wrong. 'Escape' was the last good thing they did, if you ignore the shitty ballads."

"Sam," Dean said, "Don't even try and discuss classic rock with me, you emo-folk-alternative weenie ass."

"We didn't discuss it last time," Sam said. "If you don't like this topic, then find something else we can do that isn't the same. Maybe that'll change things." He paused. "Everytime I hear 'Mother, Father', I think of you."

Dean narrowed his eyes a little, and Sam figured he was trying to remember the lyrics. John had played that tape often enough while they were traveling that Sam still remembered all of it, and damn if one of Jess' friends hadn't been a rabid Journey fan.

Sam began quoting lyrics. "'Don't you know that I'm alive for you, I'm your seventh son, and when lightnin' strikes the family, have faith, believe...'"

Dean looked at him for only the briefest moment, making a connection and then tearing it away again, leaving just an instant of such a wretched misery that Sam felt stunned.

"Like I said, the last good thing," Dean said.

No other cars passed them in the oncoming lane, or came up behind. When they'd driven though the day before, it had been busy.

"Weird," Dean said, and kept checking the rearview anyway. "This is just...what were we doing last time, when we got to this part?"

"I don't know," Sam said. "We've only got...I don't know. I remember that the road widens up ahead - you can see it from here."

"Were we talking, fighting, trading recipes, what?"

"Dean I don't know!" Sam yelled.

As soon as he did, Dean carefully closed a bandaged fist and pressed it gently against the side of Sam's shoulder. "Relax," he said. "We've gotten out of worse. It's just a puzzle, and we're good at puzzles. We'll notice a pattern."

Sam remembered Dean saying I noticed a pattern. Dude, all I did was break up a crack house. "You were telling me...I made you...no. You owe me a story because I beat your ass at darts. You were telling me the story, but it changed every time."

Dean's eyes shifted rapidly between the road, Sam, and the odometer (never did change, he thought, it's either broken or we're just not going anywhere), evasive. "How many times did I - " he began.

"I can't tell," Sam said. "But you've gotta tell it again." He used his open hands in midair to emphasize the point. "You've gotta tell it all this time. Friske was tossing kids off that bridge because they'd lie."

"You sayin' I lied - " Dean began.

"Yes, Dean!" Sam shouted. "I'm calling you a goddamn liar!"

Dean stopped the car in the middle of the 131.

It wasn't like he was going to be blocking traffic.

He gripped the steering wheel, not caring that it was causing the wounds on his hands to reopen. "Which story did I tell you?" he said. He was deadly calm.

Any other time, Sam would have either backed down to avoid a full confrontation or stepped all the way up to take him on. He couldn't afford either this time. "You know," he said carefully. "You know which one. Just tell it. You can't give me the version you think I should have, this time. This is it. I don't know how long we can do this."

He said it because he was pretty sure he'd go crazy sooner or later with the almost-understanding of their situation playing in his overtuned brain, echoing and prompting.

Dean kept staring out the windshield and Sam watched the bandages on his hands begin to discolor with blood. The silence began to weigh on Sam, not in anticipation or dread, but for what he could almost hear in it: a subworld of noise, a world submerged under this place and time that they'd worn threadbare with constant repetition. The grooves of an old vinyl record would only support the needle for so long before the needle could no longer jump.

"Six months after you left," Dean said softly, starting with the true beginning this time, "...me and dad were in a bad part of Chicago. We were stuck. We needed parts and stuff, and dad thought he had a lead on the thing that, if you think about it, pretty much killed us all."

Sam stayed quiet. He couldn't react. He couldn't be part of it, and he knew it.

"Dad was gonna leave me there. There was no you, and he was gonna go on ahead and have me catch up. I'd been watching the area, like he taught us, so I could see what was going on. The goddamn house was falling down, there was no way anyone didn't know they were running drugs in there. I could have rolled anybody - a pimp, a couple of guys selling rock in an alley. Anybody. It would have been enough. I just...I took it too hard. I was...fuck." He made a motion to bring his hands to his forehead but stopped at the halfway point. "Feeling sorry for myself. Like I was easy to leave. If it worked, then we could get what we needed and get out of there, together. If it didn't, then they would shoot my dumb ass and put me out of my misery."

Sam tried hard not to voice the combination of denial and recrimination caught in the back of his throat. He kept his eyes on the dashboard and his hands folded across his stomach, unjudging, open.

"Most of 'em got on the floor when I took the door down, because they weren't sure I was just one guy. They just had a TV on in the corner, no other light, no other furniture. I shot twice into the ceiling and kept yelling like there was a whole group of me. It gave me enough time to check the back rooms. They were getting ready for a drop or something - one of the rooms had nothing but tables and one of 'em had duffle bags and money all over it. And I knew right then I'd walked into some goddamn distribution point, they weren't just cooking stuff locally. I grabbed a duffel and was gonna go out the back, but they had bars on all the windows, and when I went back down the hallway I ran into a kid. A little girl. Just starin' at me. And behind her everybody's getting off the floor, so I shoved her into the other room. She started screaming. She probably kept screaming, I don't know, because the rest of it was just guns."

He paused to swallow, and to Sam it sounded like it hurt.

"I had to back out the door, and she was back in the hallway when I shot two guys. Right in front of her. Maybe one was her dad, or her brother, for all I know. I didn't put 'em on the ceiling or anything, but I think I killed her family all the same."

The silence that followed would have been intolerable even without the world dying outside.

"I thought about going back for her," Dean said, voice softer. "Just leaving her and the money at a hospital or church or something with a note. Anything. She didn't belong there."

"Nobody did," Sam said, voice low and heavy. "You fucked up, Dean, but you didn't cause her situation. Or theirs. They chose to do what they did. If it hadn't been you, it would've been someone else, somebody willing to kill everybody in the house, including her."

Dean's face was conspicuously blank but for lips pressed together in a hard white line. "Her name was Emily," he whispered.

Sam listened to the past tense and tried not to ask. "You knew going in that it wouldn't turn out good," Sam said. "What'd you really come out with?"

"Just over fifty grand," Dean said. "Kept about five, found your bank account and deposited some. Must have confused the hell out of you. Sent the rest to Pastor Jim. He didn't ask me about it, and I didn't volunteer any info. But I know he'll have put it to good use. All I did was delay the inevitable with dad, right? I'm only useful up to a certain point. To anybody."

"Only because you put up with it," Sam said.

Dean whipped a glare at him.

Sam shrugged. "Me and dad...Dean, we aren't gonna change. Quit putting up with our shit. We're the only things you're afraid of."

"Show me something else that deserves it," Dean said without irony. He turned his face away, unable to give more than that. "We need coffee, like, immediately, and to get the fuck out of here." He started the car but didn't move to put it into gear.

"What," Sam said.

"I'm driving us off a goddamn cliff if this doesn't work," Dean said. "We never shook on the first bet, so, I don't have to sing a Zep tune for you."

"We didn't shake on the other bet either," Sam said. "And you know you want to sing the hell out of a Zep tune."

Dean had a way of calling people assholes just by looking at them. He stilled the urge to peel out and settled for keeping to the speed limit.

"No Quarter could have been a killer song if it'd had a decent vocal on it," Sam said.

Dean made a face, bending the corners of his mouth downwards and raising his eyebrows as if open to contemplating the statement. He wasn't going to justify the backhanded compliment to the best band that ever existed by saying so, though. "Houses of the Holy has its moments."

"Including some kind of Tolkien obsession," Sam said. "But, yeah. If I had to pick one, No Quarter would do it."

Dean nodded.

When they crossed the county line, Sam rolled his window down and let the air - real air - pour over them.

Sam turned out to be right about No Quarter. It was a killer song, when done with a decent vocal.

-I- -I- -I-