AN - And to the end of an era. This is it folks, the final chapter. It's been a long ride and I want to thank you all for sticking with it and for all the support you've given me - despite my really crappy updating schedule. Thanks to Leigh for the hand holding and nudging. Also for betaing this from start to finish. You probably feel like you have written this damn thing with me, the length of time you've been working on it with me!! and lastly, to Jenilee. I hope this was everything you wanted when you asked... well demanded... this story. I'm very very sorry it took so long to finish - I'm guessing this will be the last story you ask for from me!! :) Anywho, enough talking. To the story. Enjoy



Epilogue

Lawrence County, South Dakota

Thursday 11 April, 1996

The air was cool when Sam stepped out onto the porch, the sky a murky, overcast grey. Fastening his coat, he slowly made his way down the steps, wood creaking underfoot. He moved carefully, wending his way through the twisted car wrecks littering the salvage yard, his eyes watchful but not really seeing anything.

It had been four weeks since they had arrived in Deadwood. Four weeks since he had seen his first monster. Four weeks since the hunt that had nearly killed him. It wasn't long enough. The memories were still fresh in Sam's mind. He remembered the feeling of panic, the fear. He remembered how it felt to come so close to death only to be pulled back to safety in the last minute, and that was something he never wanted to experience again.

A wave of exhaustion nearly toppled him. Sam braced himself against the hood of a half-dismembered car, his eyes squeezing shut, his hair falling into his eyes. His ribs were aching and his body felt as if he had run a marathon despite the fact he was only a stones throw from Bobby's house. Sam let out a frustrated breath. He had no idea how his father could come home as beat up as he did and go hunting a few days later. It had taken Sam the best part of two weeks to even get out of bed, and that had been pushing it.

Mentally, he ran over the list of injuries he had sustained and raised his gaze toward the sky. Was this to be his life now? Hunting had seemed exciting, noble even, when his brother and father had talked about it, but Sam had seen the terrifying reality of their lifestyle. It wasn't brave or honourable. It was downright insane. Who in their right mind went out hunting for these things? Sam was starting to wonder if John was suffering from some kind of mental instability, one that he was pressing upon Dean.

"Sammy!" He twisted his head at the panicked voice, watching as his brother moved down the steps of the porch and hurried over to him. "You OK?" his brother demanded concerned. Sam realised he was still leaning against the hood of the car; to Dean it probably looked like he was one step from face-planting.

With a resolve greater than he felt, he pushed off the car, the metal creaking under his weight, and stood on his own. "I'm fine, Dean. You don't need to follow me everywhere I go."

He hadn't meant to snap, but Sam was finding it difficult to stand his brother's constant fussing. Dean had been... different over the last few weeks. He'd always been overprotective but since the Annis he'd been overbearing. Sam could barely take a piss without his brother hovering. He was amazed he made it this far outside before Dean had appeared.

"Clearly I do," Dean bristled. "What the hell are you doing out here anyway? Did you forget that you only just got out of the hospital?"

Sam rolled his eyes. Like he could forget. His brother listed his injuries every time Sam so much as moved.

"I needed some space," Sam replied quietly, his eyes unfocused once more as he sank back against the car. He was tired of everything.

He could practically feel Dean's frown. "Space?"

Sam slid a side-long glance towards his brother as he moved in next to him. "You're smothering me," he replied pointedly. "Between you, Dad, Josh, and Bobby, I feel like I can't move without an inquisition."

"We're just worried about you, Sam. You were pretty banged up."

Banged up, beat up, hurt, bad shape... Dean used every phrase he could think of apart from the one that covered it. Sam didn't blame his brother for not saying it; he would have felt the same. The truth was still the truth, however. Sam had nearly died. It made his family's actions understandable, but it didn't stop them from being any less annoying.

"I'm fine, Dean," Sam repeated firmly, ignoring the ache in his ribs, and the slight shake in his legs.

"Really?" Dean raised a sceptical brow. "'Cause I wasn't the one who nearly had my skin flayed off me, and I'm nowhere near fine."

Sam cringed at the memory. It was one that would stay with him for a long time. Absently, his hand strayed to the bandages covering his forearm, but his gaze remained on the horizon.

Bobby's house was surrounded by tall trees, and the smell of motor oil permeated the air thickly. They'd known Bobby for a while, and whenever they came through this part of the country, John would often stop at the mechanic's house for a few days and stock up on supplies before moving on. Sam loved it. It was the only time he felt normal. Sam was surprised they were still here. He'd expected his father to move them on as soon as he was released from the hospital. The fact John hadn't left yet proved to Sam how much his near-death experience had scared his father.

"Do you ever wish we were normal?" Sam asked after a long silence.

Dean shifted his shoulders. "Normal's overrated."

Sam snorted. "I'd take normal over this any day."

Silence fell between them both again.

"I meant what I said, you know?" Dean said finally.

"About what?" Sam asked, meeting his brother's gaze.

"About not letting anything happen to you." Dean glanced down at his hands. "I let you down, Sammy, but that won't happen again."

"Dean, you can't protect me from everything, and it's not your job to either."

The smile his brother gave him was wry. "I'm your big brother, dude. I only have three jobs: to teach you about girls, make sure you get a good set of wheels and to watch your ass." He cocked a brow. "Although considering the fact you seem to have a bulls eye painted on yours, I think you're gonna overwork me doing the last one."

Sam pulled a face at him. "It's not like I went looking for trouble."

Dean gave him a knowing look. "Really?"

Sam stiffened. He'd left the cabin – despite his father's instructions to stay inside. That was trouble with a capital T.

"Does Dad know?" he asked, a little apprehensive. If John knew he disobeyed orders, he hadn't said anything, but that didn't mean much. John had a long memory.

"Nope," Dean replied. "Me and Bobby went to the cabin to pack up our stuff while you were in the hospital, and he won't say a word. I think Bobby thinks you've more than learned your lesson about following a direct order."

"A direct order?" Sam scoffed. "We're not soldiers, Dean, as much as Dad wants us to be."

The bitterness in his tone didn't go unnoticed by his older brother. Dean's voice was filled with reproof when he answered.

"Dad does what he has to, Sammy. His methods might seem hard but, in case you haven't noticed, we don't exactly live in Disney World. We've got to be able to take care of ourselves when he's not around – both of us."

It wasn't meant as a criticism, but Sam took it as one. "She kicked all of our asses, Dean. I did the best I could."

Dean raised his hands defensively. "I know, I know, but the best you could nearly resulted in you ending up worm food, dude. You've gotta be sharper, stronger, faster."

"Screw you, Dean," Sam bit out angrily at what he saw as a personal attack. He'd always felt inferior to his brother, like his Dad saw him as weak, as the baby who needed to be looked after all the time, the ball-and-chain around his family's ankles, but having it confirmed by his brother hurt more than he could have imagined.

He started to storm off towards the house but was halted by his brother making a grab for his arm. Sam tried to shrug him off, but Dean held tight. Even one-handed, his brother's grip was iron-clad.

"Hey, I'm not judging you – I mean, you did enough to survive, and that's all that matters, Sam, but you've gotta be prepared next time. We should have taught you this crap before now."

Sam felt his temper deflate at the worry in Dean's eyes. He let his arm fall to his side as his brother released his grip. "Dean, I know you're my big brother and, for some reason, you think it's your job to throw yourself in the fire for me, but its not. We're supposed to look after each other."

Dean's expression was unreadable as he studied his brother. "We're not going to have to hug now, are we?" Dean grinned.

Sam found himself matching his brother's smirk.

"I wouldn't want to ruin you reputation, Dean."

Squaring his shoulders, Dean smiled at him. "Take more than a hug to ruin that."

The sound of an engine rumbling in the distance brought the conversation to an abrupt halt. Both boys glanced up expectantly and, after a moment, Bobby's blue truck appeared from behind the graveyard of twisted cars. Dean patted his brother's leg and pushed off the hood.

"Heart to heart over, Sammy," he said, dodging the punch Sam aimed at him as he moved towards the truck now pulling up in front of the house. Sam was just a few steps behind him.

Bobby looked pissed as he climbed out of the driver's side. John followed a moment later, his expression amused. Dean shot a questioning glance at his father, but he shook his head, his lips pulled into a tight line, trying to hold back a smirk as he moved to the back door and opened it.

Caleb slowly swung his legs out of the car, fumbling on the seat next to him for his crutches. His face still bore the scars of the hunt, as did his arms, but it was the cast from his ankle to his thigh that caught Sam's eye. Guilt threatened to consume him. Caleb had gotten hurt trying to protect him from the Annis, and he had nearly died trying to save him. Sam wondered how things would have turned out if he had just stayed in the cabin, if he hadn't gone to the library in Deadwood to research the hunt. Would Caleb have been hurt? Everything had worked out, but Sam couldn't stop his mind from wading through the 'what-ifs'.

"Are you going to help me out of this death trap?" Caleb asked Bobby, a smile forming on his lips.

Sam had no idea what was going on, but Bobby shot Caleb a dark glare.

"Help your damn self," Bobby grouched. "The doc said you need to keep moving on that thing."

"You are one surly bastard, Robert," Caleb said lightly, sliding his hands through the guard on the crutches. The look Bobby shot him was dark.

"You only just got out of the hospital, boy. You want to go back there?"

Caleb laughed. "You need to lighten up, old man."

Bobby's mouth moved wordlessly, but he didn't get the chance to reply.

"I don't mean to interrupt your lovers spat, but what in the hell is goin' on with you two?" Joshua Turner's voice sounded from behind them. Sam started, flicking his gaze over his shoulder. He hadn't even heard the hunter come out of the house, but Joshua was stood on the porch, leaning against the railing, his expression amused.

After the hunt, everyone had converged at Bobby's small house. Sam wasn't sure if the mechanic was happy or annoyed about it. Half of the time he seemed glad of the company, but as the weeks had passed his temperament had gone from irritable to downright cantankerous. Sam suspected there was a reason most hunters worked in isolation; they didn't play nice with each other.

"Ain't nothing going on that you need to know about," Bobby snapped, shooting daggers in Caleb's direction once more.

Pushing his crutches into the ground, Caleb hoisted himself to his feet, taking the weight on his good leg. "Ignore Mr Grumpy, he's just pissed."

"I can see that," Joshua replied. "What I ain't seein' is why."

"Because junior over here is a goddamn extortionist," the mechanic growled.

Caleb tentatively took a step forward, his attention split between concentrating on walking and Bobby. John covered a laugh with a cough as the mechanic glared at him.

"Oh, come on, Bobby. I've lived on hospital food for a month. Was it really a lot to ask for dinner?"

Bobby snorted. "Dinner, no. The whole damn menu, yes. You sure they didn't put another stomach in there when you were in the OR?"

"Not to mention the fact he ended up footing your hospital bills, Caleb," John added with a grin.

Caleb rolled his eyes. "I was unconscious, John, and you were the ones who decided to tell the hospital that Bobby was my loving older brother. It was completely out of my hands."

"You never heard of a little thing called insurance?" Bobby demanded.

"I usually don't stick around long enough to have to pay bills, so why would I waste my money on insurance?"

Bobby growled a string of obscenities that made Sam's ears hot.

"Oh, calm down for god sake," Caleb grinned. "I'll pay you back."

"Yeah, well, you better. Your damn treatment cost the earth, Caleb."

Joshua pushed off the railing and moved slowly down the steps towards Caleb. "So how you feelin' soldier?"

"I'm good," Caleb answered, leaning heavily on his crutches. "Admittedly, not running around, wind-in-my-hair good, but I'm getting there." He glanced passed Joshua towards the house. "Where's Russ? I thought he would have been part of the welcoming committee."

Joshua shifted uncomfortably. "You know Russ. He ain't one for big reunions."

"You mean he blames himself so he's not here," Caleb countered.

"Of course he does, it was his damn fault we were all out there in the first place," Joshua shot back.

Caleb gave him a strange look. "We're hunters, Josh. Things happen. No hunt is fool-proof."

Joshua sighed. "Yeah, but Russ ain't exactly one for planning hunts through, Caleb. If he had, we probably could've saved ourselves a hell of a lot of grief."

Caleb gave him a watery smile. "Probably, but there isn't any point dwelling on what we could have done better. Hindsight's a bitch, Joshua. Your father thought we were hunting a wolf – so did I. No one could have accounted for that thing being up there. I've never even heard of a Black Annis outside of England. I didn't expect one to turn up in the middle of South Dakota."

"None of us did," John agreed.

"Look, there's a list of shit I wish we'd done differently. Wrestling with a psychotic granny was definitely not my best plan and I'm paying for it now," Caleb said, inclining his head towards his cast, "but we did what we could with what we had at the time. Russ might be an idiot, but he hauled his ass into that thing's lair, barely able to stand up, and dragged Sam out of there before she was able to do god knows what to him. I think Russell has more than atoned for his lousy judgement."

Joshua looked contrite but didn't offer any reply.

Sam had stood quietly to one side, guilt burrowing deep inside his heart. He hadn't been in any shape to visit Caleb in the hospital but, in all honesty, he hadn't wanted to go. He hadn't wanted to see Caleb in a mess because of him. A broken leg, bruising to his kidneys and liver, multiple cuts and bruises... Sam had guilt in spades. His leg was the worst of the injuries, though. Luckily, it had been a clean break, but the doctor had pumped Caleb full of antibiotics to stave off the risk of infection.

It hadn't worked.

For a week after the attack, Caleb had been in bad shape. Sam thought it was nothing short of a miracle that their friend had pulled through at all, and hated that he was the cause of it.

Caleb met his gaze suddenly as if he knew Sam was thinking about him.

"And how about you, Sammy – how are you feeling?" he asked.

"I'm fine," Sam said quietly, "thanks to you."

Caleb smiled at him, his gaze intense. Sam shifted under the scrutiny. "I heard you'd joined the ranks of organ-less." When Sam gave him a puzzled look, Caleb continued to explain. "Your Dad said you're now spleenless."

"Oh. Yeah. They had to take it out," Sam confirmed. He still wasn't sure how he felt about the loss of an organ. It seemed like it should be a monumental event, that he should have mourned for it but, in the grand scheme of things, it seemed like a small price to pay.

"Yeah, well, don't worry about it, kid. I've been spleenless for the last five years. Never done me any harm," Joshua said with a grin.

"Even I'm organ-less," Dean added. John shot him a confused look. "Hey, tonsils count as an organ," Dean said defensively.

"As fun as this little get-together is, do you guys think we could take it inside." Caleb continued to move slowly forward on his crutches without waiting for a response. "Some of us are only functioning on one leg."

"Are you plannin' on whining till you're back on your feet?" Joshua asked mildly.

"Every chance I get," Caleb admitted. "I nearly died. I think that calls for a little whining."

"Like you need an excuse," Bobby grunted.

Caleb smiled. "Oh, and for the record, as much as I like you guys, the next time you have a hunt, please don't call me. I can guarantee, I'll be out of town."

The End...