Title: Through Autumn's Golden Gown
Disclaimer: Sam, Dean, their Dad, Bobby, Caleb and Pastor Jim all belong to Kripke and the CW.
Summary: An ordinary black dog hunt turns problematic when Dean disappears half-way through. Wee!Chester fic. Some Hurt!Dean and Worried!Everyone Else.
The title of this story comes from a song in Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds.
I know I use the word 'Autumn' when the common Americanisation is 'Fall' however I personally think 'Autumn' and 'Autumnal' are two of the most beautiful words in the English language so I feel no guilt in encouraging their use.
The first draft of this story was written in one go over two days of Cambridge folk festival so if you happened to be there and saw a woman constantly scribbling away at her notepad behind the yellow sunflower... this is what I was writing. (I'm not kidding about the constant writing, three different people stopped to ask what I was writing.)
This is NOT a character death story. The only things to die in this story are two dogs: one was already dead and the other deserved it.
Many thanks to TraSan who took time out of her own amazing writing and duck-torturing to make this story better than it would have been.
Apologies to everyone that has given me feedback for other stories. I know I'm way behind on replying. Just returned from a fortnight in Corfu and I haven't slept for around forty hours. As soon as I'm less sleep-loopy, I promise I will be replying to each and every comment that I can.
Now without further crazy ramblings on an author...
Most people that had lived the kind of itinerate life that Sam Winchester had would have given up on having any form of constancy. Sam had chosen to cling to those small things he could get: That November the second was sacred, that Dean would take any excuse to polish the weapons or annoy his little brother – often both at the same time, that his Dad and Dean would head off to hunts and finally that they'd always, always come back.
Sam was nine years old when Dean broke that rule. It was a blustery autumn evening and Sam had been left alone in the pokey apartment that had been home for the past month. It smelt of mould, the bathroom flooded every time anyone used the shower and the freezer was so frosted over that even all three Winchesters throwing their bodyweight backwards while gripping the handle had failed to open it. It was the closest Sam had ever come to a home.
His dad and brother had found a black dog to hunt in the forest and Dean had been bouncing off the ceiling with excitement. The only way their father had got Dean to settle was by threatening the thirteen year old with being left behind.
It'd been six hours since the pair walked out the front door when John slumped through the apartment door alone. The subdued click of the door closing awoke Sam from where he'd fallen asleep, curled under a blanket on the couch. "Where's Dean?" He asked, eyes darting frantically in the unlit apartment in case Dean was hiding in the shadows.
"Pack up your stuff," His dad's gruff voice stated. "You're going to Pastor Jim's."
"Dad," Sam felt the first edge of panic fluttering in his stomach. "Dad, where's Dean?"
"I said pack up your stuff!" John barked with what Sam first thought was anger but quickly realised was fear.
Sam slipped off the couch and padded towards his father, "Daddy…" John bent down and swept Sam into a tight hug, one rough hand cupping the back of his head, fingers tangling in the long hair. "Daddy, where's Dean?"
"He's… I… I lost him. Bobby's on his way and we'll find him, Sammy. I swear to god." His father made a noise halfway to a choked off sob and Sam threw his arms around his father's neck and clung as tight as he knew how. "Come on, Sammy. We need to drop you off at Jim's before Bobby gets here."
"I want to help, Dad," Sam protested.
"No, Sammy," His father's voice cut off any argument Sam was going to make before it could begin. "I need to know that you are safe. I need to know one of you is safe!"
"Dad…" Sam opened his mouth to plead.
"No!" His father cut him off once again, soothing the words by tugging Sam close to him again. "I can't worry about both of you. I just can't. Please, Sammy, don't…"
Sam had no argument to that so he slid from his father's grip and walked into the small bedroom. He grabbed his duffle from beneath the bed and began to stow away his clothes, the action seeming obscenely wrong without Dean there. The solid footsteps announced his father following him into the room. "What happened, Dad?"
John sat down on Dean's empty bed and sunk his chin into his hands. He spoke to the grubby carpet. "We picked up the black dog trail quickly but it split. I went left, Dean went right. He knew to radio in if he found anything or every five minutes. It was all going to plan for twenty minutes though there were no clearer sign of which way the dog went. Then the twenty five call-in came with no word from Dean."
Sam's dad stood then and surged out of the room and over to the kitchenette. Sam heard the tell-tale unscrewing of a whiskey bottle then footsteps as he returned, a small amber measure slopping at the bottom of the glass, vanishing down his father's throat in one gulp.
Suitably fortified, John continued. "I waited 'til twenty six past then went towards where Dean should've been, had to cut through the forest." His words only told half the story, the branch-inflicted slices against cheek and brow filling in the rest. "I found the path and tracked it up and down. I scoured the brush but there was no sign of your brother. I searched as long as I could, Sammy, I promise. In the end I had to head back to the Impala and call up Bobby, need more than one pair of eyes for this. He'll be here tomorrow afternoon and we'll strip the forest down twig by twig."
Sam put the last of his clothes into the bag along with one of Dean's t-shirts and zipped it up, looking up to his father.
John took the bag off Sam and hoisted it onto his shoulder, looking one twitch from hoisting Sam up too but instead turning and walking out to the car with Sam trailing his bootsteps. Sam slid into the backseat without thinking and throughout the journey he didn't mention how often his dad's eyes drifted from the road to the empty shotgun seat. The journey was made in silences accompanied by the twanky guitar coming from the cassette player.
The journey took six hours and left them knocking on Pastor Jim's door just as morning lit over the horizon. Pastor Jim took one look at the diminished Winchester family and ushered them inside. Sam was deposited in his usual room and couldn't stop his exhausted body curling up in the bed that was usually Dean's. When Pastor Jim poked his head in minutes later, Sam was already fast asleep.
When John Winchester returned to his apartment, the sky a banner blaze of midday sun, he tried to sleep. Despite the foggy haze smudging his mind, he couldn't find any respite. He twisted restlessly for an hour before the spluttering purr of an engine announced Bobby's arrival. He stood up off the bed and straightened the covers, leaving the boys' beds alone just as they'd last slept in them.
He opened the door seconds before Bobby's hand hit it. "Ya look like shit," came Bobby's unconventional greeting, a statement especially condemning when the other hunter considered unkempt to be a valid fashion choice.
"Thanks," John replied in a gruff voice. "You ready to head out?"
Bobby scowled, "Have you had any sleep?" John's answering scowl was a sufficient response. "Fine but you killing yourself ain't gonna do your remaining boy much good."
"I have two boys," John snapped, anger uncoiling.
"If you do, we'll find him," Bobby replied, a too calm reply which only served to cause a surge of John's barely held-in anger.
"Dean's fine. He's just holed up away from the dog. Daylights come and he'll be out looking for me." John had never been a proponent of denial but he was beginning to see its advantages.
Apparently Bobby wasn't willing to grant such leeway. "John, I'm fond of your boy, honest to god you know I am, but you need to deal with the fact we're more likely to find Dean's body than Dean. It was a cold night, there's a black dog about and Dean's only twelve." Only the slightest hitch in Bobby's voice betrayed his own emotions.
"Thirteen," John corrected automatically though it barely served to help his case. "And he's a Winchester, we don't die easy."
"Your wife proves otherwise," Bobby replied and barely were the words out than John launched a fist square into the grizzled hunter's jaw. Bobby's head snapped back but he just rubbed at the spot and grinned, "That's better."
"You are fucking nuts," John bit out, tempted to punch the other hunter again just on principle.
"Hunter, aren't I?" Bobby replied. "Better a bruise than you wallowing in self-pity."
"I wasn't wallowing."
"So I got punched for nothing?" Bobby said, his amused tone disbelieving.
"What do you expect?" John snarled. "I got my boy lost in the woods."
"Nothing else," Bobby reassured. "But that don't make it good. Where's the squirt?"
John was sure Bobby had picked up that epithet for Sam off his eldest. "Dropped him off at Jim's. Can't be worrying about him and Dean at the same time."
"Not to mention that Jim'll keep him too up to his ears in busy work to fret over his brother."
"That too," John admitted. "We're burning daylight sat here talking. Should move out."
Bobby passed an assessing gaze over John once more then nodded, "What's the plan?"
"Hunt for Dean in daylight, hunt the dog at dark."
Sam awoke to the delicious smell of bacon and immediately knew he wasn't home. Had his dad or Dean been cooking then it would have been the wail of the smoke alarm that pulled Sam from sleep. He levered himself out from the tangle of sheets and padded down the stairs towards the kitchen. As he expected, Pastor Jim was moving about the room, stirring or shaking the pots and pans. He didn't even turn as Sam entered, just said, "Take a seat. It's almost done," and turned back to his culinary charges.
Sam took a seat at the laid-out table and shifted the ketchup bottle closer to his place, knowing Pastor Jim to be a notorious sauce hog. "Any news yet?"
"Barely time for your father to have got back to the apartment," Pastor Jim said to excuse the lack of news. "I'm sure he'll let you know as soon as he does."
Sam snorted his disbelief just as Pastor Jim placed a plate piled with food in front of Sam and set one down in his own space opposite. Sam wasn't sure he could eat, even as the smell tantalised his nose and set a rumble in his stomach.
The Pastor obviously saw Sam's discomfort and tried to ease it. "Eat! Dean would want you to and I have a list of jobs need doing that I could use a younger pair of hands for so you will need your strength."
Sam dug his fork into the pile of mushrooms and shoveled it up into his mouth, chewing down and swallowing in part to appease Pastor Jim, "What jobs?"
"Church brass needs polishing for a start then I got a new bookcase that I need help putting together." Pastor Jim adhered to the same eating tenets as Dean of combining as many different things as possible onto one forkload. Unlike Sam who kept his food strictly separated. "Attic needs sorting too."
"Ghost?" Sam asked enthusiastically.
"Even worse," Pastor Jim stated solemnly. "Cobwebs! You know what that means."
"Spiders!" Sam gleed, no idea why the religious man could be so scared of arachnids. It wasn't like Blue Earth had a high indigenous population of poisonous spiders. One of Sam's favourite habits was to locate the biggest spider he could and then leave it in a place the Pastor would be sure to go. Dean encouraged the habit even if he left the handling of arachnids to Sam: The 'Little Brother Poison Test' as he called it.
"My position means I must love all God's creatures but I can't help but wish Noah had left a couple off the ark," Pastor Jim shuddered again and set about assembling another medley forkful.
"I wish Noah had kicked out the black dogs," Sam told his eggs morosely.
Pastor Jim reached across the table to grip Sam's shoulder reassuringly, "Your father and Bobby are out there now looking for him. I know no two better trackers." Sam noticed the lack of references to actually finding Dean. Hope only went so far.
Sam poked a tomato across his plate, ploughing it through a barricade of sweetcorn to nestle in the rubble, "God will look after Dean, right?"
Pastor Jim had what Dean had termed his sermon face on, the earnest mixed with compassion. "God sometimes calls people back to him before we think he should. We can only trust in his plan."
"If he calls Dean back then his plan sucks!" Sam vowed, not caring that his words were tantamount to blasphemy.
Pastor Jim just smiled ineffably at Sam and stuck a piece of bacon into his mouth. "I admit I will have some stern words in prayer if that is the case. I know that God will watch over someone as good as Dean whether it is in heaven with your mother or down here with you."
Sam felt the shaming slide of fat tears down his cheeks, "I don't want Dean with Mom, he belongs with me."
Pastor Jim walked around the table to Sam and sat by him, pulling the sobbing nine year old into his side. Sam sunk into the offered comfort even as the Pastor murmured words that Sam didn't hear. Finally it felt like every drop of moisture had been wrung from Sam's shaking frame but he kept clung to Pastor Jim, dry hitches heaving his chest.
Jim ruffled Sam's hair, murmured, "Your breakfast is going cold," and retreated to his side of the table, reaching his hand across the table to squeeze Sam's.
Sam cupped his hands around his orange juice and took a sip to ease the tightness in his throat then he picked at his food, chewing it to mush and swallowing dryly. He noted across the table that Pastor Jim was going the same.
Most of the food was still on the plates when Pastor Jim stood a little stiff from the table, "Those chores aren't doing themselves."
Sam pushed his plate away gratefully and stood, ready to lose himself in the mindless repetitiveness of the tasks.
The forest was quiet in the gathering dusk. The diurnal creatures were now seeking a safe spot to slumber through the night while the nocturnal ones were just beginning to rouse. The only noise was the quiet crunch of bronzed leaves underfoot. It was just the beginning of autumn and most leaves still clung to the branches but enough had fallen to limn the path in rust and pile about the bases of the tree.
"This is where Dean should've been at twenty minutes," John stopped dead in the middle of the narrow path. The trees were thick there, only a modicum of the remaining sun filtering through the canopy to the two hunters below.
Bobby bent to examine the ground, it was infrequently traversed which mean the tracks there were were clear. Unfortunately John's boot prints criss-crossed the area, evidence of John's frenetic search. They erased both any sign of his son's smaller feet and the occasional doubt Bobby entertained of John's parenting skills: These weren't the marks of a soldier searching for a comrade but that of a father for a son.
After minutes of searching, Bobby found a heel print too small to be that of the Winchester patriarch. "Dean came this far," It was cold comfort, little else but a starting point.
John crouched down and Bobby looked away as John traced a reverential hand through the mark of where his boy had been. John stood as swiftly and turned to the ongoing track, "Forward then."
It was an eerie and silent progression, broken at regular intervals as both men scoured the forest floor for any sign of the errant young hunter. This time it was John who spotted the broken twig and the toe print in the dirt and he turned to Bobby with a proud grin, "Dean got further out than I thought."
Bobby was about to reply with an honest compliment to the missing boy's skill when he saw what he'd been hoping not to see. In the packed dirt to the right of a path, almost hidden beneath the leaves, was a large, seven-clawed paw print. He toyed briefly with not mentioning it but knew it was inevitable. "John," He said and pointed.
It was all he needed to say. John looked and charcoal storm clouds brewed in a father's face. "That fucker tracked him."
Bobby mutely nodded, there were no plausible words of comfort for this. Black dogs were leagues smarter than their mortal kin and this one had spotted its prey and trailed it, waiting for the opportune moment. The idea of Dean walking the path, unaware of the creature mere feet away was nauseating and made Bobby glad for the hollow of his empty belly.
The men walked onwards, aware of what they were looking for now. Two scant metres on, a single boot print sealed Dean's fate. It was angled to the right and it was all too easy to picture what had happened: Dean, hearing a noise, walked off to the right to investigate and the black dog had claimed another victim. Bobby had had every trust in Dean and that he would mature into a great hunter but a thirteen year old versus a black dog was a sucker's bet.
Bobby's stomach rebelled against its lack of contents and attempted to unload itself, leaving but the bitter burn of bile at the back of his throat.
John stood stoic in the centre of the path, fist clenching and unclenching in maddening rhythm. "This doesn't mean anything," John intoned in a harsh wisp of a voice. "Dean's wily, he's brave, he's smart," John's voice trailed quieter with every syllable until he was mouthing silent to himself.
Bobby gripped John's shoulder in commiseration, not interrupting the grief-forged silence with useless words.
"We find him," John croaked, his eyes wild with the oncoming storm. "And we find that bastard dog."
Bobby nodded, "First we ring Jim. If he's looking after Sam then he needs to know."
John made no move to his phone so Bobby pulled his out and dialled a familiar number.
Pastor Jim was in the kitchen pouring two tall glasses of home-made lemonade when the phone rang. He hurried to pick it up before his young charge could hear even though he knew Sam was unlikely to hear from where he was outside mowing the grass. Operation: Distract Sammy was only a success if you ignored the frequent lip wobbles and stifled sobs.
"Pastor Jim, how can I help?" Jim answered the phone in a neutral voice in case it was one of his parishioners.
"Jim, s'Bobby." Just the inflexion of Bobby's voice broke and shattered the Pastor's fragile hopes.
"I'm guessing you called with news," Jim steeled himself, letting one silent prayer that whatever guardian angel guided him through life was watching another charge now. "What is it?"
"We found Dean's tracks… and the dogs." Those two in concurrency with the grim sadness were the nails in the coffin.
The Pastor wished for a moment that he was not a man of god so he could swear with impunity. As it was, he sent another prayer upwards consisting of a single word, 'Please.' He wasn't even sure what he was asking, only one all-encompassing plea to a compassionate deity.
If it had been to allow the littlest Winchester a few minutes more of peace, it failed as Sammy tromped into the kitchen, "Pastor Jim, I've fini…" He froze and hazel-blue eyes narrowed on the phone in a white-knuckled grip. "Dad?" A thousand emotions clashed in the boy's voice: hope and fear being the loudest among them.
"Bobby," Pastor Jim corrected and turned back to the phone. "Sam's here, Let me know about, you know." He didn't need to clarify any further.
"I will. Take care of Sammy." A dial tone greeted Jim's ear.
Jim replaced the phone and turned to the boy watching his every movement like it held the answer to the universe. Jim put a guiding hand on Sam's narrow shoulder and led him through to the sitting room, settling the boy on the couch then perching himself on the low, wooden coffee table, body leant forward. "Bobby said they found Dean's trail and that of the black dog close by."
Sam shook his head in rapid denial, tears already giving a glossy sheen to his eyes, "That means nothing. Dean could take a black dog."
Pastor Jim shook his head and reached to clasp Sam's smaller hands in his weathered own. "Sam, I am sorry. Dean on his own couldn't…"
"He could have run," Sam's words tumbled over themselves, "Or climbed a tree or dug a hole or…"
"He would have sent some signal on the radio by now," Jim cut across Sam's babble. "I am so sorry, Sam."
Sam tugged his hands away and hugged them around himself, curling small and tight on the sofa, "Dean wouldn't leave me."
"I know he would never want to," Pastor Jim twisted around to sit by the boy and looped an arm across shivering shoulders. Sam slid into him, head butting into his side. "He will be in a better place now, a peaceful place."
"Dean wouldn't like a peaceful place. Do you think they play Led Zeppelin in heaven?"
The Pastor rubbed a hand on Sam's arm, "If they didn't before, they will now."
"Will he be able to drive the Impala?"
"Anywhere he wants."
"And burgers for breakfast every morning."
"And no school."
"And no moving around all the time."
"That's right," Pastor Jim answered, knowing his words weren't comforting enough by the way Sam burrowed closer to him and the frequent intersperses of sobs with words.
"Can I go with him?" Sam asked, all innocence in his voice.
"No," Pastor Jim followed his stern words with a gentle hair ruffle. "Dean has to go alone for a while. He will be watching over you."
"Is daddy coming home now?" Sam asked and Jim could understand the boy's wish to see the last member of his family.
"Not yet. Your father has to finish what your brother started."
"Daddy will come home, right?"
"Bobby will make sure he does," Pastor Jim answered and hoped to God that his words were true.
Sam took that as reassurance enough even if he made no effort to move. Two glasses of lemonade grew warm, forgotten in the kitchen as Sam fell asleep in what little comfort he could find.