As always, Sam, Dean, and the Impala are not mine. Everything else is up for grabs. Please review.


The rumble of the Impala on rough gravel jolted Sam from a restless sleep. A bleary-eyed glance out the windshield revealed a tree-lined, unpaved road snaking along, twisting out of sight. "Where are we?" Sleep weakened Sam's voice to a growl. His mouth felt cottony and he smacked his lips, trying to summon some moisture.

"Just outside Petoskey." Dean didn't look over at him, but kept his eyes on the road. He rolled one shoulder, letting out a little grunt of pain as the muscle protested, a remnant of their afternoon's activity. There was a patch of dried blood in the center of his lower lip. "A friend of Bobby's has a farmhouse out here where we can get you stitched up, maybe catch a hot shower."

Sam glanced down at his leg, where a bloom of blood had turned the shin of his jeans black. The bleeding had stopped, but Sam felt pretty sure that as soon as he pulled the fabric of his pants away from the wound, it would be gore-fest all over again.

The black dog had put up more of a fight then they had expected. The damn thing just wouldn't go down. Finally the beast had backed Sam up against a tree until the world was nothing but teeth and claws and hot breath, and Sam had shut his eyes against the oncoming pain. But instead there was a blast of a shotgun, a blood-curdling, animalistic scream, and Sam opened his eyes to find Dean standing over him, panting, dripping blood from his mouth.

"Dead Sea salt, bitch," Dean had wheezed, offering Sam a hand up. "Works every time."

Dean guided the car around a sharp bend and a rambling, clapboarded farmhouse came into view. "You brought me to the Amish for medical help?" rasped Sam, taking in the red wooden barn and the horses grazing in the paddock.

"Shut up, Sammy. Would you rather I just stitched you up myself with dental floss?" Dean killed the Impala's engine and stared up at the house. There was a strange look on his face, one that Sam couldn't place, and it made him uneasy. "It's been ages since I've been up here." Dean turned to Sam, a half-smile lurking on his face. "This broad can get anything you ask for. Silver bullets, apothecary shit, brass daggers, whatever. Fucking Wal-Mart, man." Dean's door opened with a squeal of hinges, and Sam forced himself to exit the car as well, wincing against the pain in his leg.

Dean swaggered up to the back door of the house. "Her car's not here. She must not be home." He mashed his face against the window. "Can't see her inside." He gestured to Sam. "Pop that thing, Sammy."

With a little groan, Sam knelt on his uninjured knee and pulled his lock pick from his jeans pocket. "You know, Dean, normal people would ring the doorbell." He was rewarded with an extension of Dean's middle finger. A few practiced flicks of Sam's wrist and the door's lock clicked open. He reached up and turned the knob, pushing the door open with a little shove, only to find himself face to furry face with a stubby-legged corgi dog, all ears and tail, which was staring inquisitively at him. There was no upward curl of the lip, no rumbling growl, but Sam still backed slowly away, hoping against hope that this stumpy hound wouldn't decide to take a nip at his nose. Instead, the dog muscled its way past Sam and proceeded to dance stiff-legged around Dean, yelping and wagging. When it gave a particularly spectacular leap, Dean caught it in midair and buried his face in the fur. Sam stood, twisting the crick out of his back, and followed his brother into the house.

The silence in the pin-neat kitchen was almost complete, broken only by the steady tick of an over-the-stove clock. A huge calico cat blinked lazily at them from atop the refrigerator, and then parted its jaws in a wide pink yawn. It seemed the quintessential country kitchen, all eyelet curtains and brass pans hanging on the walls, but something didn't feel quite right. Sam's eyebrows quirked upward as he scanned the room. Everything seemed oddly out of proportion, low to the ground, which made him feel even more freakishly tall than normal. The only thing out of place was a crumpled pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes tossed carelessly on the counter. He smirked at Dean and snarked, "What is she, a chain-smoking midget?" Dean gave him a nasty glare, and then a voice behind Sam startled him into a crouch.

"Who's the asshat?"

Sam whirled to see a gangly woman seated in a bashed-up wheelchair. Her hair was graying at the temples, and a faint scar snaked its way from the bridge of her nose across her cheek to her jawbone. A nine-millimeter Glock handgun was strapped to the side of her chair in a jury-rigged holster.

Dean strode forward and bent to crush the woman in an embrace. "Stell!" He planted a smacking kiss on her cheek and she shook her head with a grin. "I realized how long it'd been since I'd been to see you, and who am I to deprive a lady of the pleasure of my company?" She swatted Dean's leather-clad arm and he let loose a bark of laughter, and gestured toward Sam. "Sam, this is Stella McCourt. Stell, this is my kid brother, Sammy."

"It's Sam." He extended his hand and Stella gave it an iron-strong shake. A pause, then, "Sorry about the midget thing."

"No problem, kid. If I can tolerate your brother's smart-ass, I think I can handle you."

Sam gestured at the handgun on her wheelchair. "So are you a hunter?"

"Yes, Sam. Evil quails at the sight of my gleaming wheelchair of righteousness." Sam flushed and Stella snorted a little laugh, patting him on the elbow. "No, I don't hunt anymore. But I get a lot of your type through here, so I like to be cautious. Just think of it as just sort of a supernatural bed and breakfast."

"And if you treat her nice, you might even get pie." Dean spoke around a mouthful of said-pie, having helped himself while Stella wasn't looking. He seemed to have forgotten about the gaping split in his lip, which had reopened and was dribbling blood down his chin.

"Help yourself, there, bub," said Stella dryly. "And would you mind not dripping blood all over my clean floor please?" Dean dashed his hand across his mouth and regarded the crimson smear.

"Sorry. You know I can't resist your raisin pie." He grinned, cocking his head in that infuriating way. "Okay if I grab a hot shower?"

"Please do," Stella answered, brushing a crumb from Dean's shirt. "Lord knows you need it." Sam shot a look toward Dean, not comfortable with being left alone with this strange woman, but he was ignored. "Fresh towels in the regular place."

Dean flashed Stella a cheeky grin, forcing another blossom of blood from his busted lip. "By the way, can you check that cut on Sam's leg? It's awful ugly, and I'd hate to see his beauty pageant career cut short by an unsightly scar." Sam flipped Dean the bird and was rewarded with an obscene gesture in return.

"That one will never change, I guess," Stella observed As Dean loped out of the kitchen, she reached over and pulled a chair away from the rough-hewn wood table, gesturing for Sam to take a seat. When he did, she flicked her wrists to push her wheelchair close to him, and patted her knee. "Put it up here, then."

With a grimace, Sam settled his foot into Stella's lap and rolled up his pant leg. A nasty gash gouged across his shin, with a gleam of white bone peeking out from the gore. "Afraid to say this is going to need a few sutures. You up for it?"

"Can't think of any better way to spend an afternoon." Sam gusted a wavering laugh. "You can't be any worse at it than Dean." His voice was a bit gravelly with discomfort, as his jeans had been fairly well glued to the wound with dried blood, and now the cut was bleeding afresh.

"Dontcha just love this job?" Stella gently removed his foot from her lap and wheeled across the kitchen to a low cabinet, from which she retrieved a sizeable tackle box. "How else can a guy get sexy scars?" She gestured and Sam settled his leg back onto her knee. "Good lord, son, you have feet like a Sasquatch."

Stella popped open the tackle box and Sam was startled to see a neat arrangement of every type of first aid equipment he had ever seen. "I'm almost scared to ask what's up with the first aid kit."

Stella smiled as she gently swabbed a square of gauze across Sam's shin. "Well, when one associates with hunters, one has to be prepared for any eventuality. I try to make this place sort of one-stop-shopping for ya'll. Any and all services provided." She stopped, gave a sly grin. "Well, maybe not ALL." She glanced up as Sam let out an inadvertent hiss of pain. "You need a beer or something to take the edge off, champ?"

"No, I'm okay." Sam fisted his hand in his lap, digging his fingernails into his palm to take his mind off the stabbing pain in his leg, and changed the subject. "So you get a lot of hunters through here? How did you get caught up with all this?"

Stella made sure Sam saw her tip a bottle of antiseptic over a clean gauze pad so that the sting wouldn't startle him. He nodded, nibbling at his lip, and she softly wiped the gauze over his leg. "Bobby is an old friend. We sort of grew up together. Not that I'm as old as that hairy ol' coot, mind you. But he got me into the business. Thanks a lot, right?" Sam's laugh morphed into a yelp, and Stella grimaced an apology. "Anyway, I ran into some problems with a raw-head, ended up hurt pretty bad. My partner managed to get me out of there, but as you can see, I was in no position to finish the job. Bobby came up with some other hunters to do it. They've been coming through pretty regular since then."

"The raw-head did this to you?" Sam gestured at the battered wheelchair.

"Broke my back, yeah. But I'm a stubborn old broad, anyway. I just had to find other ways to stay in the fight, is all." She held up a gleaming needle threaded with strong silk, making sure Sam was prepared. "This life doesn't just let you go, you know. Once you're in, you're in for good."

"That's what I'm afraid of." The words escaped Sam before he could stop them. To her credit, Stella did not even look up from her work.

"Not a fan of the life, huh?" There was a wry smile on her face, a knowing tone in her voice. Sam winced as he felt the bite of the needle in his flesh.

"I don't know how Dean does it." Sam's voice was soft, barely audible. "To do this, be on the road year after year, to know that you have no chance for a normal life. It has to be so hopeless, so..." A painful lump in his throat strangled his voice into silence.

"The life is a sacrifice, Sam. For everybody. You just take normal wherever you can find it." Sponging away the last of the blood, Stella smoothed a bandage across Sam's shin and bound it quickly with tape. "You want to know something? While you were away at school, Dean used to come see me pretty regular. At least every couple of months I'd see him, a couple of days here, a couple of hours there. And you know, it wasn't because he needed supplies, it wasn't because he needed advice on a hunt. He came here to sleep in a bed that hadn't been slept in by a thousand other people, and to have a meal that wasn't made in a greasy-spoon kitchen. He would come out here and mow the lawn, for fuck sake, then drive away in that damn loud car of his."

Stella backed her chair away from Sam, letting his foot slide out of her lap. Sam rolled his pant leg down over the bandage, grimacing at the clammy, blood-soaked material. "Not to be rude, but then why is this the first time he's ever brought me here?"

A ghost of a smile flickered across Stella's face. "Dean came here because he was looking for a taste of normal. He came here to pretend for a few days, to take a deep breath of real-world-air, before he went back to the life. But when you came back?" The older woman leaned forward in her chair, seeking Sam's gaze. "He didn't need this anymore. You're his normal life, Sam."

"I don't understand." But he did.

"You're the only constant thing Dean has ever known. He grew up on the road, going from one shitbag motel to another. Your dad would take off on trips, leave you two with Pastor Jim or Bobby. What was the only thing that was always in the middle of all that chaos?" Stella ducked her head again, capturing Sam's eyes with her own. "You're his normal, Sam. That's your job."

Sam blanched and suddenly felt that he might slide bonelessly from his chair to the floor. All he could see in his mind was his brother's pale, blood-smeared face as he begged for forgiveness, for understanding, as to why he had thrown his soul away. It was his job, his job to look out for Sam, he said. His job to save him at the expense of his own life. And this was what Sam gave him in return? Normalcy?

"You okay, bub?" Concern lowered Stella's voice to a murmur, and Sam raised his swimming eyes to look her in the face. "You need me to get Dean?"

As if in answer to her words, a loud thump rattled the dishes in the cupboards, and both turned with hunters' reflexes toward the sound. Dean, hair tousled, was on his back in the carpeted living room, wrestling playfully with the dog, his wet head flipping water everywhere. Stella gave a bewildered sigh. "I'm not even sure who to root for." The exasperation in her comment was completely belied by the affection on her face.

As Sam watched his brother, he couldn't remember the last time he had seen his brother totally at ease, completely relaxed. If normal meant that Dean could let down his guard, could stop watching for danger around every corner, then maybe Sam's job was more important than he first gave it credit for. Dean felt their eyes on him and rolled over to flash a grin, the dog panting wildly over his shoulder.

"Any more pie?"