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"I'm going with you," Sam said. His determined tone broached no room for argument, as if that would ever stop Dean.
"No, you're not." Dean said his voice firm. "You can barely walk straight. You're definitely not in any shape to dig out a grave."
"I can still shoot," Sam insisted. "I can sit, hold the shotgun, and have your back."
"And draw the ghosts right to us," Dean said, bluntly. "You know they're attached to you."
"And you know that half the time, no matter what they're attached to, spirits are drawn back to their graves. That's what makes digging one out so dangerous. Please, Dean, I can do this."
"Dean, trust me. I've got your back." And there it was: the earnest puppy-dog look that Dean always teased his brother about. To make matters worse, it nearly always worked.
Dean placed a hand on Sam's shoulder. "Of course I trust you."
Although Dean knew he'd lost the battle before he'd really even started, damn if Sam's smile wasn't worth the ulcer.
Three hours later they'd both showered, and with the Impala packed and ready to go, Dean was itching to head out. He hesitated, fingers wrapped around the key in the ignition. Sam glanced over from his spot, safely ensconced on the passenger side.
"Nothing," Dean said with a shake of his head. No way was he copping to an internal freak-out. He glanced over at his brother, who was freshly shaved and looking more like his normal self. Was it really too much to ask that Sam stay out of harm's way for more than twenty-four hours?
"Nothing?" Sam asked, his forehead bunched with disbelief.
Sam tilted his head toward the steering wheel and a smirk crawled across his face. "Are you planning to drive us there?"
"Shaddup," Dean muttered at his brother's chuckle. He twisted the key, looked back, and pulled out of the parking spot, turning out onto the street in moments.
"Ah, not to criticize your driving, but you're headed the wrong direction, Dean," Sam said, jerking his thumb over his left shoulder.
"We're not headed to the cemetery," Dean answered, casually.
Sam sighed. "Dean, we don't have to go over this again, do we?"
"No." When he saw Sam's jaw set and his eyes narrow as he prepared to protest, Dean continued. "We're headed for Bismark first. We need a few things to free you from those spirits before we dig up their graves. Not to mention which, if we went straight there we'd be doing this thing in the daylight." He shook his head. "Not our best plan ever."
"We have a plan?" Sam teased, a small, genuine smile appearing briefly.
"Yeah, course we do," Dean said with a nod.
"Really? 'Cause most of the time it feels like we're just making it up as we go."
"That's a plan," Dean asserted.
Sam puffed a laugh. He winced and wrapped an arm around his torso. "Dean?"
"What are we getting in Bismark?"
Dean spared his brother a glance and noted the look of pinched concern. "Nothing weird."
Sam snorted and settled gingerly against the door and seat.
"Okay, nothing more weird than normal," Dean amended. "Just, angelica root, asafetida, sage, you know the usual."
"Promise me something," Sam said, his tone serious.
"This thing goes sideways, you don't worry about me. You just do what it takes to stay out of their way." Sam's hand hovered over the sigil Dean had drawn in soap on the passenger window. "You don't know what they're capable of doing."
"Sure," Dean said, fixing Sam with a pointed look before refocusing on the road. "While I'm at it, I also promise not to eat any more pie, I'm growing my hair out long like yours, and the next chance I get I'm donating the Impala to a nunnery."
"Now, you're just being an ass," Sam grumbled, turning toward the window.
Dean knew it was to hide whatever emotion was tumbling across his brother's face. "Look, Sam, I know you're annoyed with me, but I can't…"
Sam's head whipped around, Champaign hazels swimming in his pale face. "Annoyed?" His voice was thick and hoarse, but the volume continued to climb. "Try furious. This isn't a joke."
"Never said it was, bro." Dean wanted to pull the car over to the side of the road and have this conversation the way they should, but he wanted to get the spirits off Sam's tail more. "But you can't ask me to just ignore Greta and Harpo if they come at you. I can't do that."
Sam worked his jaw, nostrils flaring.
"Tell me if the situation was reversed that you could," Dean said, softly.
Sam thrust out his chin in defiance, but didn't contradict his brother.
"That's what I thought." He placed a hand on Sam's shoulder, squeezing gently. "We do this thing the way we always do – watching each other's backs, no matter what."
Sam nodded, his expression softening. "Yeah, okay," he said in a near whisper.
"Good. Glad we cleared that up."
The car was dead silent for five minutes before Sam puffed a laugh. "Nunnery," he muttered under his breath.
Dean chuckled and flicked on the radio. A little road trip before grave digging and things were definitely beginning to feel like normal.
The drive was uneventful, Sam falling asleep only ten minutes in and not waking until Dean slid back into the car after his stop at the only new age, pseudo-apothecary shop in town. Sam cleared his throat, sat up, and blinked hard.
"We here already?" Sam glanced around, trying to orient himself.
"Try finished," Dean corrected. He shook the paper bag in his hand. "Got the stuff to lay some good mojo on you, Sammy."
The corner of Sam's mouth quirked and his stomach rumbled. "I think I'm hungry."
The surprise in Sam's tone was enough to make Dean want to throttle the Schmidts based on that fact alone. "Think you could eat real food?" Dean asked.
"Food sounds good."
It didn't take long to find a drive thru, grab some burgers and a shaker salad, and hit the road. On the way out of town Dean spotted a small park. They had to make the gris-gris bags and a nearly deserted park on an early spring afternoon worked for him.
"Why're we stopping?" Sam asked around a mouthful of fries.
"It's as good a place as any," Dean said, with a shoulder shrug.
Sam nodded in agreement, curled his fingers around the bag of food, and slid out of the car before Dean had a chance to even turn off the engine. By the time he'd grabbed the bag of goodies from the herbal shop and made a quick swing by the trunk for a few things, Sam had nearly finished his slow trek to the picnic table. In a few rapid strides Dean caught up to his brother.
He deposited everything on the table and began laying a line of salt around it. When he finished and sat down, Sam was staring at him with a look of amused annoyance. "What?" Dean asked.
"Nothing," Sam replied softly, before he looked away and tore into the food bag for more fries.
Dean knew full well what the look had meant, but if Sam was willing to let it go without drama, he certainly was. "Toss me a burger, will ya?"
If he hadn't been watching his brother, Dean would have missed the way Sam's face turned a decided color of green when he fished out the hamburger. "What's wrong?"
"Huh?" Sam shook his head as if to clear it and focused on Dean. "Nothing, nothing's wrong."
"You look like you're about ready to hurl." The tone was teasing, but his concern was genuine. He should have remembered his brother's reaction to the hamburger last night, but Dean had chalked it up to how overwhelming everything had to be for Sam. Turned out, there was definitely more to it.
"No, uh, I don't think I was ready for fast food yet," Sam groaned, holding a hand to his stomach.
A grain of truth and a side-step for distraction, it was a classic Sam evasion technique. "There's a salad in there. Maybe that would go over better," Dean suggested. He dug into the paper sack from the quirky herbal shop and laid out three small squares of cloth.
"Yeah, maybe," Sam said distractedly. "Need help?"
Dean opened his mouth to dismiss him, but he caught the words in his throat. Sam needed to help with this as much as he needed nourishment. "Hand me the angelica root?"
Dean didn't need any special brother awareness to see the relief on Sam's face. Anything his younger brother wanted to hide from him that much was definitely something Sam shouldn't be hiding at all. "Thanks."
"Don't we need crossroads dirt?" Sam asked, passing him the sage.
Dean's eyebrows shot up toward his hairline.
"What?" Sam placed a sprig of eucalyptus on each of the cloths. "We made similar ones with Missouri, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember." He remembered being overwhelmed and begging Dad to help, going upstairs and finding Sam nearly unconscious with a cord wrapped around his throat, and seeing Mom's spirit before she sacrificed herself to save them. All in all as therapeutic as going home was, even after all this time it still wouldn't make his top ten list of favorite hunts. He nodded towards the bag. "There's graveyard dirt in there. We're improvising."
Sam smiled. "That's a plan."
"Now you're talking."
Dean paused from the task at hand when a family with two young girls walked by with their picnic gear. One of the children was talking animatedly about her cat, Fluffernutter, and the cute backward flip off the table he'd done. The mother was nodding, but not paying much attention. The girl's pigtails reminded Dean of Shelly.
"I looked for you for days," Dean said, his voice rough. "I tried everything I could think of, Bobby and Rufus put out feelers, but you'd just – disappeared."
Dean shook his head and looked everywhere but at his brother. "I wasn't sure I could find you. I was so damn worried, Sammy."
He caught sight of Sam nodding out of his peripheral vision. "I'm sorry."
"I wouldn't have found you at all if it weren't for Shelly and her stupid missing cat." Sam gagged and Dean whipped his head around. "Sam?"
Dean scrambled over the tabletop and then sat down on it, placing a hand on the curve of his brother's back. Sam vomited the meager contents of his stomach and continued to gag and retch until finally, he coughed and spit out a wad of mucous.
"I'm okay," Sam assured him between deep breaths. "Just give me a minute."
Dean handed his brother a bottle of water and then slid off the table. He turned to face Sam and placed his hands on the table invading his brother's personal space. "No offense, Sam, but that's bullshit."
Sam stopped chugging water. He spit the last mouthful onto the ground and sat, head hanging between his knees, shaggy hair obscuring his face. "Dean, I," Sam started. He paused, cleared his throat, and then sat up, brushing long bangs back across his head. "It's no big deal."
"Great," Dean said, with a flippant tone, "then it shouldn't be any big deal to tell me why you yakked up the only real meal you've eaten in eleven days."
"Not the only meal," Sam whispered.
Dean waited quietly for his brother to continue. He knew the isolation, the beatings and the unwanted touches weren't the only secrets Sam had from his time with the Schmidts. Hopefully whatever he was about to divulge was one of the last ones so he could start to move past it. Sam was resilient. He'd bounce back if life would give him a moment's peace to do so.
"I guess they couldn't exactly run down to the store and buy food," Sam said with a snort. "So, they made do."
Dean narrowed his eyes. "What exactly did they do?"
Sam swiveled to face him, his eyes wide and earnest. "I swear, Dean, I had no idea. It was dark and I couldn't see."
Dean placed a hand on his brother's shoulder mindful of the welts on both his chest and back. He squeezed gently to ground Sam.
"Shelly's not getting her cat back," Sam finished in a rush, dipping his head again.
They fed him the damn cat! Dean clenched his free fist and exhaled in a powerful rush. It could have been so much worse he supposed. Not that it made it any better for Sam, and it didn't stop the surge of disgust or the renewed anger and outright hatred he had for Gertie and Tim.
"It'll be okay, Sam." Dean resisted the urge to chuck his brother's chin to get him to look up.
The shaggy head shook and Sam puffed a laugh. He lifted his face offering Dean a genuine smile, wide enough his dimples showed.
"What?" Dean asked, his voice clearly conveying his confusion.
Sam chuckled, leaned back, and set his water down on the table.
"Dude, I could be bleeding out my eyes, I have been bleeding out my eyes, and you always tell me it'll be okay."
Dean fixed him with an intense gaze, his voice lowered with conviction. "I always mean it."
"I know," Sam said, quietly. His eyes fell to the table and he picked up the abandoned hamburger. "You should eat."
"I will if you will," Dean offered. He moved back around to the other side and took a seat in front of the cloths he'd laid out earlier. The spring breeze had scattered some of the herbs, but it wouldn't take much to fix it.
"I don't think I can," Sam admitted, moving to one end of the table, presumably to avoid the mess he'd left on the ground.
"Just try the salad," Dean encouraged. "Otherwise, I embarrassed myself ordering that rabbit food for nothing."
"Wouldn't want it to be for nothing," Sam replied, his tone light. A quick shake of the cup and he dipped his fork in for the first bite. "I've been thinking about the salt and burn tonight."
"What about it?" Dean paused in his efforts to give his brother his full attention.
Sam looked at Dean and held up his hand to shade his eyes from the setting sun. "I couldn't find any more information on the exact location of their graves. There're thirty-two other pauper sites and there's no way we'll be able to dig up another one, more or less know which other one to dig up before it's too late."
"We're doing this thing," Dean insisted, tapping the table with each syllable to accent his conviction. He dug into the paper sack and pulled out the sunglasses he'd purchased for Sam at the herbal shop. The plastic rims were actually some type of biodegradable potato material. He'd almost been surprised to find out they weren't made from hemp.
Sam took the proffered sunglasses and slipped them on, the tight lines around his eyes relaxing. "Yeah but," he started.
"Are you telling me you'll be able to verify where they're buried if we wait?" Dean interrupted.
"How sure are you that you have the right spot?"
"About ninety percent, but," Sam tried again.
"Then we do this tonight." Dean carefully tied the three bags with red string.
"Dean," Sam protested.
"Don't look so constipated," Dean said, cutting him off. He ignored the look of disdain his younger brother tossed him. "It's all good. Sam, your guesses are worth more than most people's facts. If you're ninety percent sure, I'm not worried at all."
The corners of Sam's mouth twitched in a would-be smile and a light blush colored his cheeks.
"And don't think I haven't noticed all you've done is play with that salad," Dean reprimanded, waggling a finger in the general direction of the shaker cup. "Not that I blame you, but you have to eat something."
"Yeah, I know." Sam ran his hands over the gray, weathered picnic tabletop. "I just," he paused and then continued in a near whisper. "I'm not okay."
"Sam, it's barely been a day," Dean said earnestly. He leaned forward, bridging some of the distance between he and his brother. "No one except you expects you to be okay."
Sam scowled, pulling loose a splinter of the table. "It's just, I don't," he started, finally making eye contact. "I don't want you to think…" his voice trailed off again.
"I don't." Dean waited until he received a nod of acceptance from his brother. "We're taking this one step at a time. Waste the son of bitches who did this and then we take a few days off, maybe head to Jim's old cabin or something."
"Heck yeah," Dean said with a smile, hoping he could carry Sam along for the ride. Dean wanted his brother to cut himself a little slack. "It's too early for fishing, but it's still pretty nice up there this time of year."
"Dean, we haven't been there in years," Sam said, shaking his head. "For all we know it's been sold by the church."
"It hasn't," Dean said, his voice rang with surety. He nodded towards the salad. "Finish up and we'll head out."
"You too," Sam insisted, pointing to the paper wrapped burger growing cold on the table.
"I think me and the burger are going to take a walk. I need my knife to finish these bags," Dean said, gesturing to the herb-stacked cloths in front of him.
Sam raised an eyebrow and gave him a knowing look. "You mean the knife you have in the front, left, inside pocket of your jacket?"
Dean narrowed his eyes and started to form a response when he decided subterfuge wasn't going to get him anywhere. He sighed, forcefully expelling air with a helpless gesture of defeat.
"It'll be fine," Sam said, his long reach easily extending to the hamburger in question. He shook it insistently in front of Dean. "Please, just eat."
Dean grinned, grabbed the burger, and dug in. Sam smiled back, sneaking peeks at him over the top of his hippy, knockoff Ray-Ban's. Yeah, Sammy would definitely be okay.
Sam had needed the break at the park more than he'd known at the time. He genuinely felt better, more relaxed, and definitely surer of himself than he had since his rescue from the Schmidts. He supposed it wasn't saying much considering it had only been a day, but he was taking the small victory for what it was.
Sam braced his back carefully against the rough bark of the massive elm tree. The light of the nearly full moon allowed him to easily make out his brother's shadowy outline from this distance. The circle of salt glittered in the silvery moonlight and the smooth metal of the rifle felt cold against Sam's leg where it rested.
Dean looked up from digging, casting perhaps his tenth glance in his direction. The first coffin had been unearthed and he was working steadily on the second. They'd gone in with the plan of digging up both graves before salting and burning either of the Schmidts. The brothers knew once one of the duo disappeared in a flash of flames, the other would definitely be hot on the Winchester's tails.
Sam tensed, readying to react if something happened while his brother was busy watching out for him instead of watching out for the spirits. He would have preferred to be closer, but sometimes the trick was knowing which battles to wage and which were a lost cause. He was lucky to be here and not sitting in the motel room because if Dean had really wanted to push it, it wasn't as if Sam could put up much of a fight right now.
A northern breeze shot up over the hill and straight down Sam's collar. He shivered, pulling his jacket tighter with one hand and fingering the sachet his pocket with the other. A quick glance at the salt reassured him the granules were intact. Movement caught in his peripheral vision and Sam's head whipped up, eyes searching the darkness. There, over Dean's shoulder, was the pale outline of Gertie.
"Dean, drop!" Sam bellowed, as he lifted the shotgun.
A soldier's instincts had Dean on his belly in the nearly exhumed grave by the time Sam had his weapon sighted. The blast from the shotgun was normally something he didn't even give a second thought. Tonight it ripped agony through his chest from the recoil, but his aim was true and Gertie dissipated in a swirl of vapors.
"Dean, you okay?" Sam shouted. He didn't lower his weapon, waiting for a reassurance from his brother.
"Yeah," Dean grunted, his face appearing above the grass line. "I broke through the coffin when I landed." He pulled himself out of the grave and walked over to the bag for the salt. "Good thing they've been dead for awhile," he called over his shoulder.
Sam grimaced, nose wrinkling in disgust. "You better hurry. It looks like they've figured out we're here."
As if summoned, Tim materialized directly between the brothers. There was no way to fire without possibly hitting Dean before the spirit had time to react. "Dean!"
Sam stumbled out of the salt circle, hoping to either lure Tim away or gain a better shooting angle. He hadn't counted on the sheer speed of the disembodied spirit. The ghost was behind him before he had a chance to register the movement. A cold arm wrapped around Sam's neck squeezing his throat mercilessly.
"We've missed you," Tim whispered with a sibilant hiss in Sam's ear.
Sparks danced in Sam's waning vision, but he held tight to his weapon. His chest heaved with a horrible wheezing sound and he heard Dean call his name over the blood pounding in his ears. Orange flames licked his vision and the pressure on his neck disappeared in a rush of angry wind. He fell to the damp ground and his knees sank into the spongy sod.
"Dean," Sam rasped, lifting his head in time to see Gertie appear once again behind his brother.
Dean whirled around, but Gertie was faster. In a blur of muted color Dean went airborne, arms and legs pin wheeling as he flew nearly twenty feet before connecting with a monolithic headstone. Stone cracked and groaned, ultimately giving way under the force of the impact.
"Dean!" Sam called, his strained voice hoarse.
Without a moment's hesitation, Sam fired the shotgun. The spirit's essence swirled as it disappeared for a second time. As much as he wanted to check on his brother, Sam fought against the urge and headed for the second grave. The bitter wind bit into his skin and he spared a glance at Dean's prone form. He needed to hurry.
Literally ten agonizing steps from Gertie's final resting place, her spirit reappeared, a crooked smile on her translucent face. She reached up to stroke his face with the back of an impossibly cold hand. "You have to come home with me now. It'll be so lonely without Tim."
Sam recoiled, taking a tiny step backward. His skin itched where she'd touched him and his heart thudded painfully against his chest. "I'm not going anywhere with you," he hissed.
"Once your brother is gone, you'll be lonely without me, too." Gertie ran her fingers through Sam's hair on her way past him and slowly drift-walked toward Dean, twisting to glance occasionally back at Sam.
Anger replaced fear. She'd used Dean against him before and he was so damn tired of being afraid, of being touched, of not being himself, and there was no way he was letting her hurt his brother. Sam stumbled forward and grabbed the salt canister in shaking hands. He heard Dean moan even over the roaring of blood in his ears and the rush of wind all around.
Sam poured salt on the remaining corpse and followed it with an accelerant chaser. He'd just finally managed to dig the lighter out of his pocket when Gertie called to him. "Sammy…"
Sam whirled around, the now burning lighter hidden behind him from the spirit's view. She was holding Dean in one hand over her head and his body moved sluggishly in an attempt to wriggle out of her grip. Sam couldn't see the color of his brother's face, but the harsh pants of breath were enough to make him stop cold.
"If you aren't a good little pet, you'll be eating brother dear for your next meal."
Something that sounded like "bitch" wheezed from between Dean's lips and for once, Sam couldn't agree more. The corner of his mouth twitched in a humorless grin. "Maybe you haven't heard, but we don't swing that way."
With a flick of his wrist, he dropped the lighter into the open grave. The whoosh of flames preceded the heat that licked at his ankles. Gertie disappeared with a shriek and Dean dropped boneless to the ground.
"Dean!" Sam staggered to his brother, falling to his knees by Dean's crumpled form. Sam grasped his brother by his jacket collar and pulled Dean upright ignoring his screaming ribs. "Dean?"
Dean coughed weakly once and then with more force. He patted Sam on the shoulder to signal he was okay and Sam released him, sitting back on his heels. "Are you okay?" Dean rasped.
Sam nodded, a genuine grin on his face this time. "I'm good. Are you?"
Dean nodded in return and slowly attempted to climb to his feet. Sam grasped him by the elbow and they supported each other to their feet. They stood there for a moment before a wicked grin spread across Dean's face.
"Maybe you haven't heard, but we don't swing that way?" Dean didn't even try to hide the laughter in his voice.
Sam punched him lightly in the arm. "Shut up."
It didn't take long to pack up their supplies and once Dean had Sam resting peacefully in the car despite his protests, the graves were refilled before the sun crested the horizon. Dean slid into the driver's seat smelling of smoke and dirt. "To the cabin?" Sam asked as Dean started the engine.
"We have one stop to make first," Dean said, "in town."
Sam tossed him a questioning look, but didn't ask as they headed back to town. "Hey, Dean?"
"Don't forget to call Bobby."
"Shit!" Dean exclaimed, fumbling in his pocket for his phone. "Thanks."
Sam smiled briefly and then turned to gaze at the shadowed landscape. As sunlight slowly illuminated the car and the heater warmed his toes, Sam half-listened to the animated conversation between his brother and Bobby, and he knew he was finally on his way back to normal.
Sam had fallen asleep again, but he woke when Dean opened the passenger door and crouched down beside him. "I need you to hold something for me," Dean said.
Sam's brow crinkled in question, but he held out his hands. A warm, tiny bundle of fur was placed in his palms. "Dean?"
"I promised," was all he said in reply. Dean stood and carefully shut the door.
Sam swallowed down a lump in his throat. A pitiful mewl had him looking tentatively at the kitten. His heart thudded, but he pulled the kitten in closer to his chest with minutely trembling hands and scratched it softly behind the ears. When his brother slid back into the car Sam turned to face him. "Dean?"
"You can do it, Sammy, and that little girl needs a new cat," Dean said, answering both questions posed in his name alone.
Sam sat back against the seat and a sandpaper tongue gently washed his thumb. He smiled at the kitten and then over at his brother whose attention was seemingly focused solely on the road. Sam petted the kitten as he watched the scenery go by. He could do this and if he ever doubted himself, he had an awesome brother who made sure he never forgot.
AN: This chapter was, embarrassingly, two-thirds of the way finished for the last five months. I finally, finally got my writing muse back and completed it!
Thanks to all who read and especially those who came back after so long to read the conclusion!