"Off Balance"

Sam was gone.

Sam was gone.

The words stuck in his head like a broken record, and they still didn't make any sense.

Sam was gone.

Dean sat by himself, in a bar filled with good ol' boys and raucous pool players, slowly sipping away at a drink, not sure if he'd had too much or not enough. He rolled the half-empty glass between his palms, watching the golden liquid swirl, lifted it to his lips and then downed it in one swallow.

Definitely not enough. He could still remember what happened.

Sam had slammed out the door earlier that day, after one last shouting match with Dad in the cramped, grungy kitchen of their current temporary residence, voices raised enough that the neighbors probably came close to calling the cops. Dean had tried – tried to do what he always did. But Sam and Dad didn't listen to him; they didn't even see him. All they could see was the anger in each other and not the hurt. He'd stood physically between them at one point, backing Sam away behind him, his hands on Dad's chest. But they'd pushed him aside, and with a cold parting shot and a twisted, furious glare, Sam had walked – stomped – out the front door, a single bag in his hand, and Dad had flung his own furious last words after him.

"Don't bother to come back."

Dean had felt something break. He thought maybe it was his heart.

But his emotions were such a confused horrible tangle of rage and pain and hurt, he hardly knew what he had felt in that moment.

He helped himself to another shot of Scotch and considered.

In his own mind, he sometimes likened their family to a triangle. Or maybe a three-legged stool. Anyway, three sides. But somehow, Dean usually found himself in the middle, which was pretty hard to do, in a triangle. He balanced Sam and Dad, kept them apart, kept them from damn near killing each other, from ripping each other apart. First one side, then the other. In the middle. Taking it from two sides.

It hurt. A lot.

He loved them both. Even if he'd never said it, and probably never would, out loud. Not in so many words, at any rate. But he loved them, fiercely, and they both pulled at him, wanting him to be one thing or another, but neither ever asking what it was he wanted.

Well, he wanted his family. Together.

He knocked back the shot, barely feeling it burn down his throat. He was gonna get drunk, and if that pissed Dad off, well, too fucking bad, huh? Dean didn't really give a rat's ass.

Sammy was gone.

xxxxx

It all went downhill from there. In little ways, that added up to lots.

Dean never did get drunk enough that first night. Every angry word and gesture of that day had burned into his mind, and all he saw when he closed his eyes at night was Sam's face as he'd walked out the door. Sam's face when Dean had gone after him. When Sam had said goodbye…

John took out his initial anger and frustration by sparring longer and harder, pushing Dean and not holding back. Three days after Sam left, Dean wound up with a bloody nose and a quickly swelling black eye. He bit his tongue on a shocked curse, curled his hands into fists, and swayed to his feet to shove past his equally shocked and – though it was hard to tell – possibly guilt-stricken father into the house. He pressed a wet towel against his bleeding face and took refuge behind the closed door of the room he used to share with Sam. Now it was his room, and it was too big.

It was too quiet.

They left that house, that town, not long after Sam. John curtly told him to pack, and he did, and they hit the road. A few quick gigs followed; some simple jobs of laying uneasy spirits to rest. Nothing serious or even unusual. In their line of work, that is.

Dean soon discovered they had little to discuss with each other these days beyond hunting. If they did, it revolved around eating and sleeping and where to stop for the night and about stocking up on ammunition, and that led back to hunting, so there really wasn't much at all to talk about. The silences were long and brittle, and too full of things left unsaid.

He missed Sam going on about – well, anything. He missed the sound of his voice in the car, reading out loud. He missed having entire conversations that depended on little more than a few shorthand words and a roll of the eyes. Hell, right now he'd even put up with all of Sammy's bitching and whining and angsty, tortured brooding. Anything.

It was weird, but he still kept expecting to see Sam when he woke up in yet another crappy motel room, to see his little brother lying in a big lump under the covers in the other bed – at least, before coffee and reality hit hard and he remembered. Or he thought he could just turn around from the front seat of the Impala, and see him there sprawled out in the back, long arms and legs taking up all the space. He found he was always wanting to say something – some crass joke to share that would have Sam making a face of sheer disgust; or zinging out a smartass remark while watching some stupid late-night movie – but Sam wasn't there. Dean would open his mouth, turn his head, and hey, guess what? No Sam. Just Dad. And Dean didn't know how to deal with Just Dad. Not anymore.

They were two now, instead of three. Dean had lost his brother from the equation, his balance, and everything now felt a little off. Askew. And wouldn't Sam be impressed that he knew that word? He was still a son, the good son who followed orders; that he knew how to be, what to do. But Sam wasn't there, and Dean didn't know how not to be a brother. A big brother. It felt so damn wrong. He thought it must be like those people he'd heard about who had lost a limb. Phantom pain, they called it. Their leg or their arm was gone, but they still felt like it was there, that they could still move it, that it hurt or itched.

Sam was his missing limb. Or maybe his heart.

But Sam was gone, and Dean was lost, desperate and floundering, and he couldn't find his balance. He thought, despairingly, that he never would. Ever again.

xxxxx

Seventeen days and four hours after Sam left, Dean slipped through fading daylight and dappled shadows, little more than a shadow himself. Hunting.

It was a mid-size city, in a Midwest state, on the surface indistinguishable from so many other cities.

But like so many other cities, it had its secrets.

The wood was a strangely forgotten parcel of land amidst an otherwise sprawling urban mix of quaint 1920s bungalows and small businesses, coffee shops and a grade school. Quiet, peaceful, and utterly ordinary.

Except for the forest. People who lived near it avoided it; dark, old, and overgrown with brambles and trailing vines, it was far from inviting. A few strange stories had begun to surface of late. Of shadows and hidden eyes and eerie noises. Some dogs had gone missing from their frantic owners' yards, and the mutilated, ravaged body of a homeless man had been found on the outskirts of the wood just two days ago.

And who knew how many others had simply disappeared, not to be found or seen again.

One of John's many contacts, knowing they were somewhat in the area, had called John with the details, and they had set out at once. They rolled into the city at night, crashed at a less than stellar motel, even for them, and got to work early the next morning. Further conversation with John's friend, together with a questionably obtained police report and a handful of dubious eyewitness accounts of those strange shadows and noises, had them agreeing that it was definitely worth checking out. An afternoon's bit of research on the area and its history soon led them to believe that the isolated wood was home to . . . something, that with overtly violent results, had decided to stray a little further from its hiding place in order to hunt and feed.

Maybe an old spirit, reawakened, or a new monster in the neighborhood. Dean didn't really care.

But there was, of course, only one way to be sure.

They discussed plans and strategy, based on what they knew so far, or rather, John had discussed, utterly in his element. Dean listened and nodded in all the right places. A hollow ache had settled deep in his breastbone – seventeen days ago – and it refused to budge. It made it hard for him to care about much, even hunting, and he knew his father was annoyed with him, impatient, but also not willing to confront him directly.

So everything was all barked orders ("Get your head on straight, boy!") and in return it was "Yes, sir," and doing what he was told, being the good son, the good soldier.

So the good soldier, hunter to the core, stalked soundlessly through a wild wood, shotgun held lightly, and a brace of throwing knives sheathed in his belt. Senses alert and heightened, his eyes flicked constantly between the ground and the surrounding undergrowth, searching for signs of their prey, of the mystery that lived in the wood.

It was peaceful, actually, in a darkly malevolent sort of way; he could hear nothing of the outside world in here. No traffic noises or the constant background drone of a city and its people. But he knew he was the trespasser here. Everything about the place screamed danger warnings, and he supposed that's why the wood was still untouched after so long. On a purely instinctive level, who the hell would be stupid enough to ignore something so obvious?

Yeah, well. Present company excepted.

Dean held up a moment, head cocked, listening, but in the creeping dusk all he heard were crickets and a croaking chorus of frogs. Water nearby, then; a small stream meandered through the wood, according to the single hand-drawn map they'd come across. Oddly enough, details of the forest didn't appear on any recent maps. It was as if the land had fallen off the edge of the earth and out of conscious memory.

After another minute or two, Dean resumed his search for the…whatever-it-was, making a sweep in a general southwest direction, to meet up with John circling around the other way. They'd split up. Their usual game plan.

Except Sammy should be just off to his right, pacing him, covering him, and Dean would be doing the same for Sam, watching his brother's back, like always. This felt off, and so very, very wrong.

John hadn't mentioned Sam since he'd left.

Dean wondered if he ever would, or, if in John's eyes, Sam was as good as dead. Sam had rebelled, gone AWOL, and Dean wasn't sure if their father could forgive something like that.

Hunting was different with just the two of them. They had to rethink and shift and cover the tasks that normally fell to Sam. Like research. Dean was perfectly capable, of course; John had trained them in the pursuit and collection of scattered information just as thoroughly as he had trained them in tracking, weapons handling, and the arcane uses of hawthorn and rosemary and holy water. But Sam…Sam just thrived on research. He liked it.

Dean stepped over a fallen log and snorted to himself. Geek boy. Sammy would do great in college… Probably graduate magna cum whatever.

He glanced up. It was growing darker, and the thick canopy of trees didn't help. They'd agreed not to stay too late, as they didn't have the home field advantage here, but since the wood took up only a few acres, they thought they'd be able to at least make a cursory search to get the lay of the land tonight. Come back tomorrow –

When the crickets abruptly fell silent and off to his right the underbrush crackled, his instinctive thought was, Sam sure is making too much noise before he remembered that, no, Sam's at Stanford, you idiot.

The hair on the back of his neck rose. The wood had gone utterly still. The underbrush no longer rustled. He could feel the sudden rapt attention of something watching him, of having become the prey.

Idiot.

The shotgun was up on his shoulder as he spun and fired off a consecrated round in one smooth motion even as the thing came at him. Dean heard a cry, didn't know if he'd hit it, but then it was on him, crashing him to the ground amid fallen branches and last year's leaves. A quick glimpse of snarling teeth in a vaguely man-like face, and then he nearly gagged on the stench of rotted flesh. Sharp, flashing claws raked down his shoulder and side, sending the shotgun spinning out of his hand. The weight of the creature crushed the air from his lungs, and he could only use one arm to fend off the teeth that snapped at his throat. He could smell his own blood, even over the stink of the creature, and the pain of its claws digging in his already torn skin brought him perilously close to passing out.

Sure could use your help right about now, Sammy, he thought wildly, as his vision started to grey out. Wish you had my back…

He sucked in air, tried to roll, to reach for one of the knives in his belt, kicking at the thing on top of him. Ducking his head like a turtle in its shell to avoid the teeth, he gathered his waning strength and heaved upwards to try to throw the thing off. The movement wasn't enough to dislodge it, but he managed to gain a precious few inches to snag a knife from his belt. As they rolled and kicked and fought on the forest floor, Dean stabbed up into matted fur with what little force he could muster at such an awkward, left-handed angle, and smiled tightly in fierce satisfaction when the creature let out an enraged howl.

Dean swiftly took advantage of the thing's distraction. He got in another quick stab, felt the hot gush of blood over his hand, then shoved himself away with a tumble when the next roll left him on top. Panting, dizzily regaining his footing a short distance away, his eyes widened and he froze for an instant as he caught his first full view of the creature. It walked upright, like a man. Tall but stooped, thin, with long arms. Shaggy hair, feathered with leaves and twigs, all over. And very big teeth. Quit gawking and kill the damn thing already. He clenched his jaw, and with a quick flick the knife left his hand to bury itself solidly in the creature's thigh. Dean grimaced. Not a great shot, but hell, he'd take what he could get at this point. Another roar of pain, but it didn't slow down or even falter.

Dean swallowed heavily. His right arm hung limp, and he was losing too much blood too fast; he had to finish this soon. Left-handed, he fumbled for the second knife in his belt as the wounded creature circled him, a little warier now, growling, but not afraid. The scarily intelligent eyes glowed like a cat's in the near darkness.

He backed away slowly, favoring his wounded side, turning as it turned, keeping it in sight. Its long clawed fingers flexed and it circled closer, fifteen feet, ten, and he could see it tensing to spring. He knew he couldn't take it on by hand. The shotgun lay out of reach. He hefted the knife, flipped it to take the blade between his fingers and with a grunt let it fly.

The creature roared and flung itself forward, reaching for him even as the knife struck it in the shoulder. Dean stumbled back, weaponless, hearing the blood pound in his ears and the breath rasp in his throat. He dodged awkwardly, slipping on the leaves, and spun away from the slashing claws. It was too fast for him, even with both of his knives stuck in its flesh. He caught the blow on his bad shoulder and couldn't hold back a cry. Dark spots danced in his vision.

It stalked him, now. Playing with him. He thought it was smiling, and its eyes glittered.

His side and shoulder burned. He'd lost too much blood to keep this up. They began to circle each other again; it taunted him with a mouthful of teeth and a snarl. Staggering slightly, Dean snarled back. His harsh breathing was the loudest sound in the forest. The creature closed in, scenting the kill. Dean stumbled another two steps backwards and dropped gracelessly to his knees.

Practically on top of the shotgun. Just where he thought it was.

He snatched it up, ignoring the agony it brought to his arm, and fired. Point-blank. The blast took the creature in the face, and the recoil landed Dean flat on his back. Over the sound of the creature's scream, he heard an echoing shot, and then another, and he figured that could only mean one thing.

Dad.

The gunshots and the screaming faded, or his hearing did, and he tried to move but everything hurt. He blinked up at the trees overhead. They seemed to be spinning.

"Dad?" he whispered, or tried to. He swallowed and shut his eyes.

A callused hand brushed over his hair, briefly cupped his face.

"Hey, kiddo," his dad said. The voice was low and rough. "Looks like you went a couple of rounds with our friend here." Light hands moved over him, searching, shaking slightly, just for a moment, before returning to his face again, going still. Fingers spread warmly on his cheek and jaw, thumb against the pulse point in his throat. "Dean? Are you with me, boy?"

Dean wasn't sure. He really would have preferred just fading into unconsciousness.

"Dammit, Dean, you listen to me, now. Get your eyes open and answer me."

It was Dad's stern voice of command, but it didn't sound quite right. His dad sounded almost…scared.

And that scared Dean enough to force his eyes slowly open.

"Dad?" he whispered, looking fuzzily up into his father's worried face. Panic surged. "Dad, where's Sam?" God, he hurt. And he was so cold. "Heard him, but he…wasn't there. It was…instead." He shivered and couldn't hold back a moan. "It got him…."

"Sam…Sam's all right, Dean." The voice went softer. "He's not here, remember?"

Hands on his shoulder, his ribs. The pain deadened a little. He felt himself gently lifted then, and something warm wrapped around him. It took him a moment to realize the warmth came from his father's arms, and his head fell against John's shoulder.

"All right? Sam…really all right?" It was hard to think. Hard to talk. His head felt so heavy. "Wish he…hadn't left. Miss…his…geek face."

A sharp inhalation, followed by a sigh. "I know, Dean. I know. But Sam's all right. He's just fine. Why don't we get you outta here, okay?"

Dean's world tipped a bit. "Too…big," he rasped out, as, with a grunt, John got to his feet. There was a rumble beneath his cheek of what he decided must be laughter.

"Never too big, kiddo. Trust me on that."

"'Kay," he whispered, drifting off, feeling like a little boy again, carried against his father's chest.

He might have dreamed the next words, so quietly were they murmured.

"Sorry about the black eye, son."

"I…know," he slurred. He felt John's arms tighten just a bit. "Wha' about…it."

"I'll come back tomorrow, Dean." His dad's voice dropped even lower. "Now just go to sleep."

"'Kay," he agreed, or thought he did. One last thought chased through his mind before consciousness fled completely.

I hate hunting without you, Sammy. Doesn't feel right. Hate it that you're not here. Miss you, little brother…

xxxxx

Three years, a few months and some days later…

Dean was ready to kick the walls, or better yet, demon ass. Dad was missing, gone without a word, without a damn note, and what the hell was he supposed to do now?

He fumed for a few days. Then he headed west. To California.

"Yeah, well, Dad's in real trouble – if he's not dead already. I can feel it. I can't do this alone."

"Yes, you can."

"Yeah, well, I don't want to."

Ever again.

September, 2006