Dean and Claire salt and burn the bloodied sheets in Claire's backyard while Sam holds an icepack to his head and watches, propped up against the clapboard siding of the house. He's not slurring his speech anymore, but he's dizzy, nauseous, and his ribs are throbbing in time with his shoulder.

Dean swears he's all right, just got nicked in the hip, but his jaw is clenched and his face is too white, and every movement looks like it's going to make him puke. Claire ends up doing most of the work, shaking the salt out and kneeling to put Dean's Zippo to the sheets while Dean concentrates on staying upright.

Claire is quiet and teary, and even though everything technically was a success, with the danger of the spirit dissipating along with the smoke into the grey sky, Sam can't help but feel that they've failed this hunt in a major way.

Claire and Sam go up the steep back stairs while Dean heads around to the front, meets them in the kitchen.

"Sam," Dean says, and Sam can't help but notice that his knuckles are white where he's gripping his crutches, "we should strap that shoulder."

"Yeah."

"Just gimme a second and I'll do it."

"Okay."

Dean nods once and makes a beeline for the living room.

Sam follows, leans against the doorjamb and watches as Dean fumbles open the Vicodin, dry-swallows the pills with a grimace.

"You okay?" Sam asks.

"How's the head?" Dean answers.

"How's the leg?"

They look at each other for a moment, Dean on one side of the huge fold-out bed and Sam on the other, until Dean cracks a grim smile.

"Christ," he says. "What a fucking mess."

"It's over, though, right?" Claire asks, coming into the living room.

"Should be," Dean says wearily. "Should be." He looks at them, says, "Your shoulder, Sam."

"Yeah."

"You gotta…" he pauses, like it's suddenly an effort to speak. "Gotta take some ibuprofin. For the swelling. But later. Cause of your head."

"Okay."

Dean licks his lips, swallows. "I need to sit down for a second."

"Okay, dude. Take your time."

Dean lowers himself onto the armchair with a wince, leaning hard on his good left side. Sam can see that his fists are clenched tight.

"You okay?" Claire asks, coming over to perch on the arm of the chair next to him.

"I'm fine," Dean says.

"Bullshit," she says. "You take your drugs?"

"Yeah." His breath hitches a little, and Sam sits down on the fold-out bed, presses the icepack to his head and wishes to god that there were something he could do for his brother.

"You have to breathe," Claire tells him. "Just breathe through it till the meds kick in."

Dean manages to roll his eyes, but he gets in a few deep, even breaths.

Claire puts a hand up and smoothes his hair back from his forehead, and Sam sees that there's a few drops of cold sweat beading at his temple. Claire keeps up the movement, slow and rhythmic, until Dean is breathing ragged but regular.

"I should be comforting you," Dean says, then seems to realize that he just admitted Claire was comforting him, and tries to backtrack. "I mean, how are – are you okay?"

"I think so," Claire says, and is silent for a moment, then, "You were only half-right."

"Huh?"

"You said that the spirit wasn't my mom, not really. But. It was, though. Kind of. I mean, she was like… a broken record, the things she said, kept repeating herself. But it was her."

"That's a good way to explain it," Dean says, shifts backwards in the chair with a grimace. "A broken record. Spirits are one-tracks, they run in the same grooves all the time. It's like, if your mom was the digitally-remastered four-disc Led Zeppelin boxed set, her spirit would be the first thirty seconds of Tangerine on vinyl. Over and over. You know?"

"Tangerine," Claire sings tunelessly. "Tangerine… living reflections from a dream. I think I get it. What you're saying. I think I get it."

"Living reflections from a dream," Sam says. "It's like that, too. Ghosts."

"It's just fucked the fuck up," Claire says, and puts the heel of her hand to her eye like she's trying not to cry again. "I didn't even really remember what she looked like. I was only ten."

Dean and Sam are silent, because what can you say to that? Sam's just about to throw up from guilt and the pounding in his head and shoulder, when Claire says,

"Thank you guys so much."

"For what?" Dean asks. "You do realize you just did that hunt pretty much all on your own, don't you? Me 'n Sam didn't do anything except get the shit kicked out of us."

"But you came. Without you… I mean, my mother – she was a good person. I don't know why her spirit was so violent, but I swear, she was so wonderful when she was alive. And… I'm just glad that we got rid of the bad part of her that was still left. Cause maybe she's the digitally remastered boxed set again? Somewhere? You know?"

"Yeah," Sam says, and he sounds like he really does know. "Totally."

Dean is silent, because jesus, he never thought of it that way. They aren't in the business of setting souls to rest, they're in the business of killing shit. He'd never realized there were other ways of looking at it. Twenty-two years of doing this and the thought had never occurred to him that these bones he kept burning, the vengeful spirits he was wasting, were just little parts of people that got left behind. He doesn't know shit about theology, doesn't know if he believes in god or in the devil or whatever the fuck, but it makes some sense, what Claire is saying. And he's kind of comforted by it. Because maybe he doesn't just destroy things. Maybe he helps make them whole, too.

That'd be the Vicodin's kicking in.

"Let's do your arm, Sam," Dean says, pushes himself upright. And fucking Christ the meds might be coming on but not fast enough, because his hip feels like it's connected to every nerve ending in his body, pain jarring through his teeth and in the backs of his eyeballs.

"Jesus," Sam says, eyes widening as Dean's face contorts. "What'd she do to you, man?"

"Fuck," Dean groans in reply. He leans back in the chair, breathes for a moment, then tugs up his t-shirt and pulls his jeans down a little to take a look.

"Oh, man," Claire says, puts out a hand like she's going to touch his hip, then withdraws. It looks like a magenta sunset, purple clouds and bursts of red, hints of yellow in a vicious stripe arcing across his skin.

"Maybe I should ice it," Dean says, tries hard not to worry. His fucking hip. The whole leg was pretty destroyed, but the hip is undoubtedly the worst of it, took the brunt of the surgeries, and has the most hardware – a couple six-inch titanium pins and god knows what else, Dean's got a list somewhere but he didn't memorize it.

It took him a month and a half just to be able to sit upright for more than five minutes without wanting to put a bullet through his skull, another two months before he was out of a wheelchair and onto a walker, and almost another month after that before they let him anywhere near crutches or a cane.

He knows that at some point he's going to have to have another surgery on it, probably more than one, but he was really hoping that day wouldn't come for a long-ass time. He hopes to god that this doesn't hurry it along.

"Claire," he says, easing himself forward so he's perched on the edge of the armchair. "Could you pass me that duffle over there?"

She does, and he rummages around, finds the first aid kit.

"Strip," Dean tells Sam, and Sam glances at Claire hesitantly.

"You want me to leave the room?" she asks, makes to stand.

"No, I – it's fine." Sam gets out of his jacket and flannel without too much pain, but the t-shirt is another story.

"We're gonna have to cut this off," Dean says. "God. No wonder we don't have any fuckin' clothes."

He unsheathes his knife and slices through the thin material without much trouble, helps Sam wiggle out of the shreds, glances up to see Claire staring at them, mouth slightly open.

"No t-shirts were harmed in the making of this film?" Dean says, not sure what her problem is.

She shakes herself, seems to remember where she is. "Sorry," she says, flaps her hands. "Keep doing… that."

Dean cocks an eyebrow, shrugs, turns back to Sam, who's holding his bad arm to his bare chest, bangs in his face, looking cold and miserable.

Dean works as fast as he can, folds up the vestiges of Sam's shirt and uses it to tuck between his elbow and his body, binds the arm to his chest with an ace bandage and secures it with a couple safety pins.

"How's that feel?" he asks.

"Tight," Sam says.

Dean does up the buttons of Sam's shirt, shaking his head. "I thought I'd get to quit doing this forever when you turned four, dude."

"Not my fault," Sam says petulantly, holding an icepack to his shoulder.

Dean leans back in the armchair, cracks another icepack and settles it on his hip, feels the Vicodin wave pick him up at last, smooth things out, his limbs going liquid and everything getting brighter, like the sun has been turned on. The pain finally manageable.

"You guys are staying for a few days, right?" Claire says. "Cause no way am I letting you leave in this condition."

"We should at least stay tonight," Sam says. "I can't drive right now."

"Yeah," Dean says. "Tonight for sure."

Claire gives him a little sidelong questioning glance that's not too hard to interpret, and he hoists himself so he's sitting all the way upright. "Vicodin," he says meaningfully, and she grins.

"I'm gonna make a sandwich," she says. "You guys hungry?"

"Yeah," Dean says, but Sam shakes his head, grimaces at the movement.

"Think I'm gonna go upstairs and lie down."

"How bout you stay down here, so we can keep an eye on you?" Dean suggests. "Just in case."

"Nothin's going to happen to me," Sam grumbles, but he stretches out on the bed anyway, careful of his shoulder. Dean leans over and props him up on a couple of pillows, cause lying flat's a bitch when you've got a chest injury.

Dean lets Claire give him a hand up, because fuck it, he needs one. She does it so naturally, like it's no big deal, just holds out a hand like of course she's gonna help him up, why would there be any question? For some reason, it doesn't embarrass him the same way it does when Sam does it. Maybe cause she appreciates his body in a way that most people never will.

He trails her into the kitchen, can feel his hip pound even through twenty layers of analgesic.

"I'm going to go outside and have a cigarette," he says.

"I'll come."

They settle onto the top step, Dean's mouth tightening a little as he gets himself down.

Claire eyes him with concern. "Dean," she says. "Why do you do this? I mean, I just don't get why you don't, I dunno, apply for disability and sit at home drinking beer all day. Not that I think you'd do that. I'm sure you'd do something worthwhile. But you know what I mean."

"I've always done this," Dean says, because how the fuck else can he explain it? He can't do anything else, can't even picture himself doing anything else. He's a hunter, like Claire is a woman and the sky is bigger than a breadbox. Fact of life. He adds for good measure, "Someone's gotta do it. And why not me?"

"Don't smoke that yet," Claire says, leaning forward, gently touches her mouth to his.

His hand automatically flutters to her shoulder, and she licks her way along his closed lips, breaks the seal.

And they just sit there, making out, like they're in their freshman year of high school and second base is still a big deal. No urgency behind it, languid, slow, Claire's hands trailing through his hair, ducking under his jacket and t-shirt to press cold against his skin.

Dean pulls her a little closer, wraps an arm around her shoulders, lets his other hand come up to touch her face. Funny how as soon as a girl's lips touch his, his eyes slam shut, lids pressed together until they break apart. He can feel Claire's heart beat through the soft skin just behind her ear, and he breaks their kiss to work his way over there, tastes smoke from the fire earlier. She makes a breathy little sound, half gasp and half sigh, and he moves lower down her neck, fastens his mouth on her collarbone, nosing aside her wool sweater. She says, "Dean," low and heavy, and he presses his mouth over hers again, lets the hand that's not wound in her hair trace its way under her sweater, skim over her breasts, braless under her thin t-shirt. He swipes a thumb across her nipple and he can feel it harden through the soft cotton, and she gasps out, "I'm going to make you a grilled cheese sandwich."

"That a metaphor?" he mumbles against her neck.

"No it's – a special – oh – I don't usually eat – animal – products – " and then her mouth is occupied again.

After a few minutes Dean slips a hand between the band of her skirt and her skin and she pushes him away, says, "Later, later, save the rest for later, we gotta go inside, make a sandwich…"

"Fuck the sandwich," Dean says, trying to kiss her again, but she turns her head and he gets a mouthful of jaw, which is nice, too, so he does what he can with that and she lets him for a moment, then says, "No, really, we have to stop, not right now, can't…" She ducks out from under his arms and stands up, panting a little, Dean's hand trailing down her ass as she pulls her sweater around her body, gives him a little grin that shoots straight to his cock.

"Do you like tomato on your grilled cheese?"

"Claire…"

"Do you?"

"Whatever," Dean says, resigned. "However you make it, I'll eat it."

"Is that a metaphor?" she asks, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah," Dean says. "It was."

She reaches down to help him up, but he shakes his head. "Cigarette," he says. "Now more necessary than ever. Thanks for that."

She shakes her head a little as he knocks one from his pack.

"What?" he says, filter gripped between his teeth, looking up to see her watching him.

"You're gonna die young," she says morosely, and he lets out a surprised laugh.

"Probably," he agrees, lights his cigarette and lets out a long breath of smoke. "Ain't gonna be lung cancer that does it, though."

She shrugs, turns to go inside, and Dean feels the smile fade from his face a little. It's not like he has a deathwish, but for a moment he does wonder what he's doing to himself. Why he doesn't do what she said; have the government throw him a disability check every month, get a job in a garage or somewhere that'd be easy on his leg, invest in a lazy-boy and a widescreen TV. He grins a little at the image, because it's just ridiculous… for one thing, he'd get fat. Which wouldn't fly. And for another, yeah fucking right. He might not be exactly happy right now, but who's actually happy? He'd be fuckin' miserable in a life like that. That's Sam's territory, except instead of the lazy-boy he'd have one of those polished mahogany desks, instead of a garage he'd wear suits every day, sit in an office with huge windows – cause yeah, Sammy would totally have a corner office. He'd be a great fucking lawyer, and Dean knows it.

His heart clenches a little at the thought that, as soon as they find their father, Sam'll disappear again, back to the world that Dean can't touch, doesn't want to touch. For a second he doesn't even know why he'd want to find John, when he's got Sam. Seems like he can only have one at a time. And if he had to choose – but let's not go there, cause it's not an option to drop the hunt for their father. They have to find him. And besides, Sam'd be out of there like a flash if they didn't have the goal of John ahead of them, and then Dean would be alone. Again.

He realizes with a start that his breathing has halted, and he takes a gulp of air, forces it out, repeats the process. He takes a drag of his cigarette, thinks that, fuck, maybe Claire's right, maybe he should do some yoga or whatever – cause he'd been skeptical about acupuncture, but when he's getting regular treatments, he does feel a hell of lot better. And he's pretty sure it's not just placebo. Although who the fuck knows.

He finishes his cigarette, and fuck it, smokes another one. He thinks he's at around number thirteen, maybe fourteen, and its – he checks his watch – coming up to two o'clock, which is… less than ideal. At least he's counting. Usually he thinks of cigarettes in negative terms – how many do I have left – rather than positive – how many have I smoked. So, yeah, that's a good step. He counts, just to be sure – six left. So, yeah. Fourteen. Well, whatever, he got up early. Ish.

He's just about done when Claire knocks on the window of the kitchen, shouts, "Grilled cheese," loud and muffled by the glass.

He nods in her direction, though he can't see her, takes one last, long drag, crushes out the butt and begins the process of getting himself up, which is a lot fucking harder than it usually is, cause his hip has stiffened and his knee's gone funny on him again, though thankfully it isn't locking up.

Claire's gone way overboard, made a whole plate of grilled cheese, oozing butter, and she's already halfway through one of them.

"I eat cheese when I'm having a hard day," she explains, licking grease off her finger in a way that really should be gross but so isn't.

Dean props his crutches up on the table, lowers himself down slowly in the chair next to her.

"Here's one with tomato," she says. "I figure you need vegetables."

"Probably do," Dean says, takes a bite, and damn, grilled cheese is good. He'd forgotten, always chalked it up as baby food, but this – this is definitely man food.

"Good?" she says, and he lets out an "Mmmpphf" around his mouthful.

"I threw a little basil in there," she says. "Some white pepper and garlic. It's sourdough bread."

"S'awesome," Dean says, and licks his fingers, cause hey, she did it.

"Kind of messy," she says, then grabs his wrist without warning, brings his hand up and puts the tip of his pointer finger into her mouth as his own mouth drops open, nearly loses his chewed-up wad of sandwich. She slides his finger in her mouth up to the second knuckle, then drops it and takes another bite of her sandwich.

"You trying to kill me?" he asks, reaches down under the table to do a little much-need adjusting.

"Your fingers taste like cigarettes," she says.

"Quit lecturin'. You're worse than Sam."

"I wasn't lecturing, merely observing." She finishes her sandwich, reaches for another one. "Eat," she tells Dean. "I made like, forty of them. And you need to gain a little weight."

She takes another one, because he's hungry, and yeah, he does need to gain weight. He's definitely not as skinny as he was when he got out of the hospital, but he could probably stand to gain ten pounds or so. He'd been worried that the opposite would happen, that his decreased ability to move would mean he'd get pudgy, but he's still too thin, ribs and vertebrae too clear under his skin.

He rips off a bite, says, "We should save some for Sam."

"Cold grilled cheese? I don't think so. I'll make him more when he wakes up. These are for us."

"When you cheese out, you do it all the way, huh?"

"Oh yeah," she says. "Oh yeah."

Claire eats three grilled cheese and Dean eats four, and there are still two left over.

"Oh," Claire moans, doubles over, arms clasped over her middle. "God."

"I could go another round," Dean says. "Gimme a minute."

"Yeah right," Claire says.

Dean's feeling a little sleepy, actually, grease and painkillers and excess tension all coming to a boil of heavy-lidded eyes and nodding head.

He yawns, stretches a little, careful of his hip. "I'm gonna have a cigarette," he says, glares at her to pre-empt any complaining. "Then I'm taking a nap."

She puts a light hand on his bad knee, squeezes carefully. "Didn't get much sleep last night, huh? Wonder why that is."

"Nightmares, you know… dreamt that some crazy tree-hugger kept rolling all over me."

She laughs, and he grins back at her, starts to his feet, puts a hand on her shoulder for balance as he reaches for his crutches.

"If you were staying here, which I know you're not, do you think we'd date?" she asks unexpectedly. "Don't get nervous, I'm not being the clingy-attached girl. I'm just wondering."

Dean blinks for a moment, considers it. "Yeah. We could. Why not?"

"We'd probably break up though."

"Probably."

Claire sighs a little. "If we were dating, would you quit smoking for me?"

"Claire," Dean says.

"Sorry, sorry. If you won't quit for Sam, I wouldn't have a chance."

Dean laughs a little. "If we're done with this hypothetical conversation, I'm gonna…"

"Right. Go."

Dean smokes quickly, and takes a piss against the side of the house while he's at it, keeping a worried eye out for Claire – he just really doesn't feel like hiking up the stairs right now. When he comes back inside, she's washed up the dishes and is leaning her elbows against the counter, talking on her cellphone.

"Fuck no," she's saying. "Tell him he has to tell her today. She should know what she's getting herself into. Hang on." She covers the mouthpiece with her hand, says, "You napping?"

"Yeah," he says. "Think so."

She nods, goes back to the phone, and Dean hears a tinny Who were you talking to?

She winks at Dean. "This beautiful man who showed up at my door yesterday to do nasty things to me."

Omigod what?!

Dean grins, smacks her ass with one of his crutches, and she gives him a mock-offended grimace.

Sam's fast asleep on the foldout bed, his face uncomfortable with pain even in sleep, and Dean can't help himself, lays two fingers on Sam's neck; his heart's beating steady, and his breath is regular, so Dean steals a cushion from the armchair and lowers himself down next to his brother.

Sam's eyes flutter open and he says sleepily, "What're you doing?"

"Napping," Dean says.

"Here with me?"

Dean rolls his eyes. "Yes, here with you. This is my bed, remember?"

"Mmm," Sam says. "We gonna cuddle?"

"Shut the fuck up and go back to sleep."

Sam smiles sleepily and his eyes shut again.

Dean tries to get comfortable, puts an arm behind his head and the cushion under his knee, is so sick of sleeping on his back he could puke. He used to sleep on his stomach, but that hurts too much now, and sleeping on his side, even his good left side, is out of the question unless he's got a body pillow – or, as he discovered last night, a body.

He listens to the murmur of Claire's voice in the kitchen and thinks that yeah, he would date her, though he doubts it'd end well. He wonders if it's just the circumstances that are making him feel this way, the fact that he hadn't been laid in eight months before her, but really, he thinks he just likes her.

He closes his eyes, listens to Sam breathing next to him, listens to his own breathing for a moment. There's a low rattle in his chest, two packs a day sitting in his lungs, and he swallows, tries to breathe deep and regular, like Claire keeps telling him. In, out. In, out. Breathe. Breathe.

"Breathe through it, come on, buddy."

Dean doesn't know who's talking to him, just knows that his entire body is frozen in pain, doesn't even know where the source is. He knows he's in the hospital, which, score one for him, cause he thinks this might be the first time he's managed to locate himself, but fucked if he can remember what he's doing there or why it feels like someone's cutting through his bones with a dull butter knife.

"Give him the morphine," the voice says, and it's no one Dean recognizes. He tries to move, finds that he's restrained somehow, an unfamiliar hand pressing down on his chest, and his legs –

He gets his eyes open, and for a second everything's blurry, but then he's looking up at his right leg, suspended from the ceiling and – jesus – looking like it's been skewered by eight pounds of metal, cutting through his flesh. Bile rises in his throat and he feels his stomach churn, but there's nothing in there, so he just retches, coughs, his whole body flaring up in pain again.

"Dad," he gets out, looks around for his father, but there's no one there save for a brawny, nervous-looking orderly and a stern-faced doctor.

"You have to hold still, son, all right?" the doctor says, prepping a needle, doesn't look at Dean.

"Where's my… where is…" He knows without finishing the question that his dad's not there – that much he does remember from last time he surfaced from the haze of drugs. "Don't give me that," he says, seeing the needle come towards him. "Please, don't."

"It's just going to put you to sleep," the doctor says. "Don't worry."

"No," Dean says, because even with this pain he can't bear the thought of going under again. "No, no, don't, don't fucking touch me, please!"

The orderly holds him down with two huge hands, and Dean finds that he's too weak to do much more than thrash his head around ineffectually.

"Please," he says, "please, fuck, where's my, please don't, please, pleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease

"DEAN!"

Dean strikes out blindly at the hands gripping his shoulders, feels his fist connect with someone that lets out a pained grunt, opens his eyes to see Sam kneeling over him, doubled over in pain.

"Sam?" Dean says, unbelieving, then remembers where he is. "Fuck," he says, hauls himself upright, "Fuck, Sam, did I get your ribs?"

"S'okay, man," Sam says, puts up a hand, "s'okay, owwww. Jesus Christ, Dean, what the hell were you dreaming about?"

"Dreaming," Dean repeats stupidly.

"You were freaking out, man," Sam says. "Ow. You were thrashing around, muttering weird shit, fuck, I thought you were gonna hurt yourself. Turns out you were just trying to hurt me."

Dean just drinks in the sight of his little brother, tries to calm down. "What'd I say?" he asks, praying it was nothing incriminating.

"I don't know, man, I was too busy trying to wake you up."

"Jesus," Dean says.

"What was that?"

Dean shakes his head, tries to clear it, gives his brother a weak grin that doesn't quite reach his eyes. "Dreamed you tied me down and made me listen to shitty emo music."

"Dude," Sam says. "No, you didn't."

"I don't remember, Sam," Dean says, eases his legs over the side of the bed. "Naptime's fuckin' over."

"Yeah," Sam says. "I'll say." He watches as Dean hauls himself to his feet, goes into the kitchen. He hears the sound of running water.

He did hear what Dean was saying, but no way is he telling his brother that. He was saying Dad, and please, and where, in different combinations, all of which made Sam's heart sink low and painful in his chest. Jesus.

He hears footsteps on the stairs, and Claire comes into the living room, looks around.

"You guys done resting?"

"Yeah," Sam says absently, gazing towards the kitchen. "Guess we are."

He hears the front door slam.

"You were out for a while," Claire says. "Wanna watch a movie?"

"Sure," Sam says, forces himself to turn and face her. "What movie?"

They end up deciding on something called "Harold and Maude" – or, Claire decides on "Harold and Maude," and Sam shrugs his okay.

Dean comes back in to find them sitting side-by-side on the bed, remote poised in Claire's hand.

"Good!" she says brightly. "You're back. We're watching a movie."

"Really," Dean says. "What movie?"

He lets out a long groan when she tells him, smacks Sam on his good arm. "Dude, you picked out a movie about an eighty-year old woman who gets it on with a teenage kid."

"I didn't pick it!" Sam says indignantly as Dean settles himself beside Claire.

"It's beautiful, you're gonna love it," Claire promises, presses play.

Beautiful, Sam thinks. Fuck.

He ends up kind of enjoying it, though, and a few sneaked glances at his brother's face show that Dean's at least entertained, though it doesn't stop him from making snide comments about sagging tits and what else might be sagging.

The rest of the day passes slowly, lazily. To Sam it feels like they're on vacation. Dean starts drinking at around six o'clock, which is pretty typical vacation-mode Dean, and Claire has a few, herself. Sam, because he's freakin' concussed, sticks to water. They order a couple pizzas, Claire spouting off something about cheese and desperate times calling for desperate measures, and they both try to pretend like Dean's not a little too pale, a little too jumpy, having a little too much trouble getting up when he sits down.

Claire washes the dishes while Dean excuses himself to go outside, and Sam ices his shoulder and ribs, which won't quit on him. Rib injuries suck. He has to think about how he's doing everything, from breathing to laughing to eating to taking a crap. It's like he's getting a little taste of Dean's day-to-day life – the way he has to plan how he's going to get from one side of the room to another, plan whether or not he can make it up a flight of stairs, how he's going to sit down, get up. It's fucking depressing, that's what it is.

"We should leave early tomorrow," Dean says as they brush their teeth. Dean's sitting on the closed toilet seat, leans over the spit into the sink.

"Yeah," Sam says, shoots a glance at Dean. "Claire's pretty cool."

"Yup," Dean says neutrally, pulls himself to his feet.

"You guys gonna keep in touch?"

Dean shrugs, maneuvers himself around Sam and towards the door.

"You don't want to stay a few more days?" Sam asks, can't help himself, though he knows he's probably pushing too hard. "We could."

"What's the point, Sam?" Dean asks. "Better to just keep moving."

"I guess," Sam says, watches his brother's retreating back. " 'Night, Dean."

"G'night," Dean says over his shoulder.

Sam lies in his bed that night and tries not to listen to the sounds coming from downstairs, the squeak of fold-out couch springs, soft moans, muffled laughter.

He gets where Dean's coming from. Why bother staying an extra day or two? Their lives are regulated by movement, defined by it. Even at Stanford, Sam felt the pull. Not away from Jess, never away from Jess, but away, yes.

He puts a pillow over his head, but even through the thick fabric he hears Claire cry out his brother's name, and he feels his eyes fill suddenly, surprisingly, with tears. Not cause of the awkward, though, yeah, that too, but because Dean likes her and she likes him, and Sam liked Jess, loved her, loved her so much, and Jess used to call out his name like that, and he doesn't know if anyone ever will, ever again. Doesn't know if he wants anyone to.

Claire cries out again, and Sam feels so lonely it's ridiculous – loneliness for himself and loneliness for his brother, loneliness for his whole fucked-up family. He thinks about Dean, muttering in his sleep, Please, and dad, and where, and thinks about four years away and waking up alone in the hospital and the ghosts of mothers and about bodies that always hurt, and he falls asleep with his hand fisted in his mouth like when he was little and his father was away for weeks on end and Dean would sing to him low and soft till his voice faded away and everything went dark.

They leave early the next morning, like Dean wanted, after Claire feeds them a breakfast of yogurt and honey and granola that Sam watches Dean pretend to like, to make her happy.

"You can always stay here," Claire says. "If you're ever on the west coast again. You think we'll ever be on the west coast again?"

"Our job takes us everywhere," Dean says, then, "yeah. I think we'll probably be around these parts again."

Sam goes into the living room to get the duffle bags.

Claire leans up to Dean, kisses him deep, says in his ear, "Even if I'm dating someone, we could still sleep together, okay? I'm a fan of open relationships."

Dean laughs, and she puts her arm around his waist, fits herself up against him. He manages to prop his crutches up on the wall behind him so he can put his arms over her shoulders, leans into her, lets her take some of his weight because she's tall and strong and she can.

"You should email every so often," she says. "Just let me know you're alive. Because otherwise, every time I think of you, it'll just be worry. Is he dead yet? Is he dead yet? But if you update me, I can think about other things, like this." She dips a hand down the back of his jeans, squeezes his ass.

"Jesus, Claire," Dean says. "Morbid, much?"

She kisses him again, and Sam comes back into the room, carrying the smallest duffle, the only one his ribs will let him take.

Dean carries the rest, and Claire doesn't walk them out to the car, doesn't stand at the doorway and watch them go, just says, "Thank you so much," and hugs Sam close for so long that Dean feels himself getting a little jealous, until she turns back to him and sticks her tongue in his mouth.

"We could have been such good friends," she says sadly. "Does that sound sappy? Well, I feel a little sappy."

"It was really … I'm glad we met you," Sam says. "This was fun. Kind of? Except for, you know."

"Good luck with your artist thing," Dean says. "Your artist colony. It's… it's gonna be awesome."

Sam never thought he'd hear anything like that coming from his brother's mouth.

Dean gets behind the wheel, lights a cigarette before starting the car.

"I don't know how long I can hold out," he says. "We're probably gonna have to stop in an hour or so."

"That's fine," Sam says. "We're going to need something to eat, anyway."

"Yeah, something real, instead of that hippie granola shit," Dean snorts, takes a drag of his cigarette and ashes out the window. "Seriously. What is granola, anyway? Ground-up wood?"

"Claire was awesome," Sam says. "Even with the granola." He just wants Dean to say it, say something.

"She was," Dean agrees, takes another drag. "She was fucking awesome. And Sam, the things she did in bed…"

"Don't," Sam says, "jesus, I don't wanna know."

Dean laughs, then says, "Never thought I'd be with a girl like that. You know. Long skirts. Stupid wool sweaters. But… she was…"

"Yeah," Sam says. "Yeah."

Dean sighs, shifts in his seat a little, hip already bugging him. "When you're gone," Dean says casually, "maybe I'll call. See if she wants sit shotgun for a while. She'd make a damn good hunter."

"What do you mean, gone?" Sam asks.

Dean flaps his hand vaguely, scatters cigarette ash over his lap. "I dunno, when we find Dad and you go back. To school, or wherever."

"Dean," Sam says slowly, because he's got to make his brother understand something. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm not leaving you. Not again."

"Dude," Dean says, "I didn't mean—"

"Are you listening to me?" Sam asks. "I'm. Not. Leaving. Ever. If we find Dad and we can kill this thing – I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm not gonna just bail on you. I'm here, Dean, I'm here. I know I wasn't, not for a long time, and I – fuck, dude, I know I wasn't there when you needed me, when Dad took off—"

"Sam," Dean says, "Sam, stop it, I just meant—"

"Dean," Sam says. "Jess is dead, okay? There's nothing—you're all I've got, man. Okay? I'm not. I'm not leaving you. Okay? I'm not fucking leaving you. If I go anywhere – you're comin' with me."

Dean lets out a shaky breath of smoke, keeps his eyes on the road, pulls on his cigarette. "It ever occur to you that you may be headed somewhere I don't wanna go? Like, straight towards chickville?"

"Chickville?" Sam says, raising an eyebrow. "Seriously, dude? Chickville? That sounds like a place you might like, actually."

"Shut up," Dean mutters, flicks his cigarette out the window.

"I'm not gonna leave you," Sam says again, just for good measure, and leans down to turn on the radio. It's some alt-country thing that blasts tinnily into the silence of the car, and Dean winces.

"Put on Zeppelin," he demands, and Sam complies, slips the cassette into the deck. It starts playing where it left off from the last time it was ejected.

Baby, baby, baby, babe I'm gonna leeeaaavvveeeeee you… I said baby, you know I'm gonna leave you…

Dean looks at Sam at the same time Sam looks at Dean, and they crack up, Sam clutching his ribs and wincing, Dean trying to keep the wheel straight.

But their laughter dies down eventually, and Dean gropes for his cigarettes, one-handedly wrestles one from the pack and lights it, ducks his head against the wind that pours in from the open window.

Sam quiets, his ribs pounding, watches Dean smoke silently next to him, watches the black road stretch out in front of them, the grey sky opening up to a mist of rain. The song is much, much longer than he remembered.

THE END!!! THANK YOU FOR READING!!! MORE TO COME!!!