Author's note: Angsty! The muse would not be satisfied unless she's had her fill of angst. You have been warned!
I've decided to go ahead and publish this before my beta reader finished it, so all mistakes are mine-Sorry, Ainaof. :) Uber amounts of gratitude goes to Ainaof for patiently beta reading the story for me!
And Thank you! To everyone who has graciously taken time to read and commented on this story... you reminded me why writing is its own reward.-Tams!
Biospherical en Verticalis
John Winchester scoffed at his fifteen year-old son as he dumped his duffel on the rickety motel room table. He slipped off his jacket and shoes, then headed straight for the whiskey.
"You reading?" the hunter poured a small amount of drink into a glass, swirled it and dropped it down his throat.
"Sorta, I guess." Dean raised his eyes over the cover.
"Class project?" John collapsed into the stiff chair and unzipped his duffel.
"What is it, then?" Dean shrugged, closed the book and displayed the cover. John squinted at the dark cover art. "What the hell is that, Dean?"
"Called the Necronomicon."
"Let me see it."
Dean assumed his father's usual disapproval but obeyed anyway. He slipped off the bed with hopes John kept his voice down and not wake his little brother. Sammy slept hard; sick three days with the flu.
John huffed half a gruff laugh as he turned the first page. "What is this crap?"
"Just something I found in the library. H.R. Giger or Geeger or something."
"Supposed to be based on H.P. Lovecraft." John rolled his eyes.
"I know, it's just fairy tales," Dean defended. He swept his book from his parent's hands and aimed for the bed.
But his father grasped his wrist and brought him back. "Sit." John waited for his son to settle. Dean waited for a lecture, sorry he ever set eyes on the book. "I want you to understand something, Dean," his dad said simply. "Just because it's wrapped up as fiction and crappy art doesn't always mean it's a fairy tale."
Dean blinked, surprised. "Okay."
"Many times people experience things they cannot explain; things outside the norm. They can't always just go to the police or tell anyone else about it. So they tell stories to entertain. Now it's likely that this guy... Lovecraft... earned money and a reputation from telling a good tale. But learn to look between the lines, Dean. The world is not flat and squared. Not all light shines with the same brightness. Not everything is as cut and dry as you perceive it. What you see is not always what is really there. The world and the life in it exists in layers, Dean. Very few of those layers are obvious and scrutable."
At the time, Dean didn't get it. He only knew the world at large lived in ignorance and denial. Things that crawled, crept and killed lived in the dark crevices of people's lives. Much of the time that kind of evil lived outside a normal person's periphery; just outside their standard perceptions.
But those things were real. Believing in their existence was easy; Dean often saw them. He never doubted that he cultivated the ability to find such things, but it wasn't until he was much older that Dean Winchester realized he was genetically inclined to finding or seeing such things as ghosts, unknown entities or monsters.
At first Dean could not decide to feel honored or disgusted that he and Sam had been manipulated in such a way-again. He had no doubt angelic and demonic interference made he and Sam what they were.
What really disturbed Dean Winchester was the fact that Earth wasn't the only plane of existence. Heaven, Hell, Fae, Purgatory, the Water Gates, the Abyss and many, many other places mentioned in myths and legends all existed. In the larger scheme of things, Dean understood there really was no such thing as supernatural; merely other planes of existence.
The non-corporeal was just as real as the world of flesh and bone. What makes things such as ghosts, demons, angels and all other things seem supernatural to Mr/Mrs. Average Joe Blow is they are not common on Earth.
That train of thought led Dean to another track. He and Sam have been so involved with the supernatural, gotten so deep into it, he could not help but wonder if that connection and involvement made him and his brother supernatural themselves.
Did that make them less Human?
Or is it that Dean's personal definition of humanity itself was flawed? What was Human? What was supernatural? What did that make him? More than that, what did that make his brother?
Dean scrambled off the ground, his movements clumsy and uncoordinated. Squinting against baleful daylight, he scanned the surroundings with waning enthusiasm. Green grass, tall trees and a glaring cloudy sky told him nothing. No signs of civilization; not so much as a telephone pole or sounds of a distant highway clued him to his whereabouts.
Humidity and mild temperatures gave Dean the impression it was either a cool summer day or a nice autumn afternoon. Just how alone was he...
Where was Sammy? Did Sam... did Sam choose to stay in Heaven?
No answer. Dean called again and again with similar results.
Dean's throat tightened and he ground his teeth against oncoming tears. He was alone. But if Sam chose to stay in Heaven, at least he was safe and happy. Dean had no right to begrudge his brother's choice. After all, a life without sanity... what would that be for them? Dean tried to convince himself that an insane Sammy was not something he wanted to deal with. Dropping out the window of a two-story building or writing stuff under the bed or dealing with suicidal depression simply wasn't a happy life.
Dean wiped off a tear. Thank goodness no one was around to see him whine and bawl like a little girl who can't have her teddy. Just grow up and deal with it! Besides, Lisa and Ben... Were they even still alive?
Dean checked his pockets for a cell phone. No such luck. No gun, no knife and no lighter. At least he wasn't butt-naked.
He started walking, crushing grass and weeds under heavy steps. He didn't know where to or care which direction. He just walked forward and hoped to encounter a road or some place with a phone. The situation struck a familiar chord. Walking out of the grave, remembering where he was but not how he got out. First impulse: contact Bobby.
Two miles of soft slopes, long grasses and fir trees gave way to a highway. Dean was never happier to see blacktop except in his car-with Sam.
He choked up again and reminded himself that Sam made the right choice. He'd see his brother again and that's what was really important.
A few moments later, Dean spotted a dog (pretty sure it was a dog) bounding down the road toward him. He thought it weird that he'd encounter a dog where there should be cars and trucks. Maybe he traveled a back road; a place used only by summertime tourists. But as the dog galloped closer, Dean recognized the creature and picked up his pace. Adrenaline poured into his veins and he let Marco ram into him. Dean dropped on his ass and laughed, greeting the rottie-shepherd mix as she licked and kissed him. Her tailless rump wagged with excitement.
"Rwar-oo rwar, rwar, rwar!" She cried.
"Marco!" Dean hugged her close. "Marco, dammit, how'd the hell did you find me? You're such a good girl! Yes you are!" he couldn't help himself. Dean searched the sky, face bright with relief. "Thanks," he said.
Marco slipped from his grip and danced, jumped and baited Dean to follow her down the road. Dean picked himself up with a sigh of relief. At least he wasn't alone now. Marco darted off and came back as he walked along. He hoped she didn't just appear like he did; out in the middle of nowhere. But that wasn't Winchester luck. Chances were, he and Marco were twenty, maybe fifty miles outside of Nowheresville, USA. His four-legged friend pranced and teased him tirelessly, dancing as though her heart would burst from her chest (he hoped not).
"Sure missed you, girl," he said at length. "I think I like you this size much better than riding you like a horse. No more canyon-jumping from here on out. Deal?"
"Rwar-oo rwar, rwar." She sneezed and her silliness settled to a trot.
"Good. Glad we agree on something." Dean followed her two miles or more before they encountered a road sign:
BLUE RIDGE 5 MILES
Dean paid no attention to the rest. He searched his vacant head for references to Blue Ridge... mountains? Then it clicked. "We're still in Georgia!" He glanced left to repeat it to his companion but found Marco sniffing out a spot to 'fertilize' the ground. Dean rolled his eyes. "Come on, Marco. It'll take us a good hour to get there. Hopefully we can sweet talk some nice lady out of a free dinner and use her phone." Marco did not follow and whined until Dean turned back around. "What?"
She stood there and panted.
"What?" Dean repeated. "Aren't you coming with me?"
She gave him the saddest look and back tracked, nose down. Dean huffed. "Oh I get it. You know this area better than me, is that it? You're now a GPS on four legs? What about food? I promise to feed you."
He followed, figuring Marco probably found someone living off the road nearby. Hopefully they weren't cannibals or weirdos of another sort. Dean had more than his fair share of strangeness. He ducked through tangled brush and low tree limbs before reaching a wide clearing.
He didn't need to see the full picture. With a 'no way' hanging between his lips, he bolted for the Impala and rounded the car to the driver's side. Sam sat with the door open, feet on the ground, head bowed. He didn't look up even when Marco happily nosed him. Little Brother shivered and rocked, arms wrapped tightly about himself.
"Sammy?" Dean's voice barely escaped his throat.
"Help me," Sam whispered. "Help me... help me..."
Dean grabbed his little brother by the shoulders, hauled him up and squeezed him tightly. "It's all right. I'm here, Sam. I've got you. I'm here. I'm here." Sam's hands and arms gripped Dean about his head and shoulders. He shuddered and wept silently, repeating "I can't... I can't..."
Sam's distress locked his body; he could not move. Dean guided his brother a step at a time around the car where he tucked Sammy into shotgun. Marco scrambled into the backseat and watched as Dean plucked out an extra jacket, a blanket, Sammy's meds and an extra cell phone before jumping into the driver's side. Marco snitched a kiss in Dean's ear then two between pants. Dean covered Sam securely and grinned. "Thanks for the lovin' Marco."
He settled behind the wheel and dialed Bobby's number. Nothing. The phone's readout declared NO SERVICE. With a grunt, Dean dropped the phone and started up the Impala. Such a lovely sound to his ears! He carefully picked their way back to the road. Dean did not want to know the details; the who and how his brother and his Baby ended in the same place. He tossed another prayerful thank you heavenward as the Impala passed the exit into Blue Ridge.
Sam shivered even with the heat on. He soundlessly wept until Dean gently rubbed the back of his neck.
"Sammy, honestly, you could have stayed. I won't lie; I would have missed you like ..." he almost said 'like hell' but it wasn't the right thing to say. "I would have missed you... m' whole life. But you would have been better off."
Sam sat quiet for a long time. His eyes followed the road as they passed trees and hills and wound their way through the mountains. "Are you upset with me?" His voice came so quiet, uncertain.
"No," Dean said with similar volume. "Hell, no. But you could have, and you didn't."
Again a long silence stretched between them until Dean drove into Dawsonville. Dean said nothing to his brother about the eerie empty streets and a few seriously damaged buildings. He tried the cell phone again. No service. But with an uncommon stroke of luck, Dean spotted an open Subway complete with a drive through. Two cars waited ahead of them and Dean tried not to think too much about the unusual silence hanging in the small town. Sam's brother rolled his window down and checked Marco's status in the backseat. He noticed the McDonald's across the street stood dark and empty.
"You went to Hell, Dean," Sam finally, finally replied. Their eyes crossed paths. He took a deep breath to steady his voice. "And you didn't have to."
With an affectionate pat on his brother's knee, Dean ordered four sandwiches (two for Marco), two coffees, four bottles of water, one orange juice and three chocolate chip cookies. He thanked the young man with a broad smile and dug out a cookie before driving off.
Had he taken an extra moment to glance behind them, Dean would have seen the young man vanish and the Subway restaurant suddenly shut down.
With shaking hands, Sam downed his meds with the juice. His nerves sat on edge and he wavered between rage and tears. Dean slipped in a 'quiet' music tape he put together years ago when Sam suffered migraines and could not handle the head-banging. Metallica's 'Sanitarium' wasn't exactly George Winston, but at least it was a happy medium.
Dean drove half an hour to Cumming, Georgia and found the city park with ease. They settled at a table and let Marco out before diving into their sandwiches. Neither brother spoke as they ate and occasionally tossed some of their munchies to their furry companion. Marco wolfed both her one-foot subs and raced along the grass. The air chilled as the day slowed toward sunset.
Dean checked the phone a last time as ate his second cookie and emptied his second bottle of water. "Damn," he muttered. He lightened his mood: "Should have asked that kid at the window what the day was."
Sam chewed thoughtfully. "It's Thursday."
"How do you know?"
"Cuz all good things start on Thursdays."
Dean shrugged and nodded. "I'll go along with that. But what if it's not Thursday?"
"Then we're missing time." Sam finished his coffee and held up the cup. "By the way, thanks for the coffee-and the sandwich. It's a brave thing you've done stopping at a place that doesn't normally use six quarts of grease to cook their food."
Dean grinned. "I like their Philly subs, Sammy. Cheese, extra meat, toasted-"
"-stirred, not shaken?" Sam matched his brother's grin.
Sam softly laughed and Dean thought it the most beautiful sound he'd ever hear. He rolled the sandwich wrappings and tossed paper and plastic into the nearby trash.
"So what's the plan?" Sam asked as he finished the last of his meal.
"We're going to head back to Atlanta, see if anybody misses us. If there's nobody there, it'll be Indiana." Dean watched as Marco tried to bite flies buzzing around her. He hoped to find Lisa and Ben in one piece, safe and sound. He hoped to find everyone in their circle safe and good. After that was anyone's guess. Maybe it was a good time to take that trip to the Grand Canyon.
Sam's voice reached him in soft, somber tones. Dean came back to the moment, knowing Sam wanted to say something important. Drawing a deep breath he raised his brows at his brother and hoped it wasn't something bad.
Sam hesitated, signifying what he wanted to say was going to be a sensitive topic. He fingered the table a moment, summoning whatever courage he had. "Dean," he repeated, "ah... this is really hard." Sam had his brother's attention but knew if he looked Dean in the eye, he'd not be able to finish what he needed to say. "I... I know you said that, um, that you want me to stick around-"
"Damn straight, Sammy."
Sam meekly nodded and swept his eyes up to meet Dean's intense gaze. "The thing of it is, Dean... I can't hunt anymore. I just can't. I know Camila says I'm good. That's not the problem. It's the cost, what it does to me after. All those guys who sent me stuff, like the video I watched when you first came... they're part of a small group for whom I did research."
Dean searched his little brother's expression, hoping to guess where this was leading. "Soo... you're saying all you wanna do is research?"
"Well, no... more than that, Dean." Dean shook his head, held his palms up, unable to guess. Sam gave an earnest look. "I want to start a school... for hunters."
Dean had no idea how to take that. The only experience he had in school was either goofing off or pain and suffering from sheer boredom. "What... you want to set up a... Salt & Burn High School?"
"Well, no." Sam grimaced. "Actually I thought of Archangel Institute." He shrugged and pressed on. "We'd find a secluded, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere place with lots of room. You'd handle the weapons and physical training and I'd handle the craft, spellwork and history." he watched Dean as his big brother sifted through the idea, sowing seeds of images that grew into possibilities. Encouraged, Sam continued. "It won't be a large school-ever. And we'd pick and chose who'd be accepted. Think on it, Dean: most hunters learn from other hunters. Or hunters learn from their families. And even with the Water Gates closed, there's things out there that can't be handled by the handful or half dozen hunters crossing the country."
"You've been thinking about this for a long time, haven't you?"
Sam drew a deep breath and wrapped his arm around Marco as she nosed him. "Yeah." He choked up and did not bother to wipe the tear tracking his cheek. "It's just that... I've seen enough death... in my life, Dean. Even if I can't remember everything prior to Abby and Mike rescuing me, I remember enough of Hell to know that I have no business seeing more of it up front and personal. I..." Sam teared up and embraced Marco closely. "I can't live a life afraid that one day I'll find you ripped apart. I can't... I can't..."
Dean left his seat and sat next to his brother and hugged him tightly, hand in Sammy's hair, chin on little brother's head. "It's a good idea, Sam," he said softly.
Sammy nestled his head on Dean's shoulder and shuddered. "Yeah?" Dean's warmth chased off his anxiety.
"Yeah," Dean agreed. "Yeah, it's a really good idea. All we need to do is pull it off somehow."
Sam smiled. With Dean Winchester, anything was possible.
The forty-five minute drive between Cumming and Atlanta made Dean wish he'd taken a longer route. The highway lay desolate; Damnation Alley in both directions. Except for a few stubborn trees, the land lay bereft of anything green. Dark scars smoldered along other stretches. Part of a highway overpass caved over the northbound road. Deep giant claw marks etched the roadway surface so that Dean had to drive more carefully the closer they approached Atlanta.
He kept his eyes open for signs pointing their way toward Stone Mountain and hoped he did not have to wake his little brother for help with directions. Sam slept fitfully and whimpered until Dean laid a hand on him. Honestly, they should head straight for Indiana and from there to South Dakota. Dean could not explain to himself why he bothered to head toward Stone Mountain. He certainly should not drag Sam through any place that resembled Hell in any form.
Dean recalled the sculpture replica of the Enforcer. He involuntarily shivered and shoved his thoughts as far from his time Downstairs as he could. He called up his favorite bar-B-Que recipe and decided the first weekend they'd get, he'd make it for Sam. But Dean could not completely fool himself. Hell simmered just under the surface of their memories, raw and ugly like scars, fresh from a bad surgery.
Dean narrowed his eyes as he coached his baby along a series of seriously damaged roads. Blown and melted buildings slumped and scattered in every direction. Smoldering ruins puffed ominous amounts of black smoke. Several automobiles and a bus resembled rocks of molten metal and glass. Dozens of buildings carried freaky claw prints along their sides.
The worst of it were the bodies. Dean gave his sleeping brother another cautious sidelong glance and prayed Sammy stayed asleep. He did not need to see the unbelievable number of dead in their cars, on the sidewalks or half dangling out building windows. Dean shut the Impala's air off and hoped to get through Atlanta without sucking in too much contaminated, poisonous air. The bloated, rotted, fried and half-eaten carcasses forced him to keep swallowing.
Sam had no idea how long he slept. He surfaced from abstract dreams to the sounds of a most familiar song. It was beautiful, but lost to a life in Hell. His lungs refused another breath and Sam struggled against another onset of tears. He stirred against the blanket and earned a double glance from his brother.
"Hey, Sammy," Dean greeted wearily. "We just shot out Atlanta's backdoor. How 'r you feelin'?"
"Like-" Sam quickly cleared his tight throat. "Like I've been MIA for a century." Sam cast his gaze away, instantly regretted the words.
Dean swallowed a lump against the reminder and reinforced his attention on the empty road and the oncoming bridge in the distance. They were both old beyond their years. Sammy's voice squeaked with tears again. Dean wanted to lay eyes on his brother but chose to give Sam some momentary emotional privacy.
"It's been years... Dean, since I've heard this song. I just, um... I can't remember the words. I can't... I can't even remember who sings-"
Dean smiled, but kept his eyes forward. "Styx, Sammy. Babe."
Confusion, uncertainty and disgust masked Sam's face. "Did-did you just call me Babe?"
Dean shook his head once with a wide grin. "Oh, I'm sure there has been a time or two that I should have-WHOA!"
Sam braced the dash. The Impala climbed the bridge and Dean swerved hard against the right-side railing to avoid collision with the boney wing of a fallen dragon. Metal against metal screeched in Dean's ears and he flinched as though he cut himself. He just scratched the hell out of the Impala's right side.
The grey and white dragon's huge carcass slumped across the overpass, its left wing and long tail draped over the edge. Dean came inches from smashing the Impala's windshield.
The boys sat, mouths open, hearts pounding as the Impala purred. Marco set her front paws behind Dean and yawned.
Sam drew a deep breath. "I think I just lost half a year, Dean." He shuddered.
Dean rolled his window down for a quick cool breeze but rolled it back up. The stench made them gag and they covered their noses and mouths. Marco whined and settled back. Shifting Baby in reverse, Dean drove off the overpass and took the exit and made a right hand turn. "I could really learn to hate dragons," he growled. He glanced furtively at Marco. "You okay back there, girl? Huh? Lost any lunch? Marco." She responded by sitting up and panting. Sam sunk into his seat and stared at the sullen clouded sky. Dean drove six blocks before taking another chance for fresh air.
"'kay, well, I guess we're going to need an alternate route, Sammy. Got car, will travel."
"Do we have a Georgia map?" They blinked 'no' at each other.
One obliterated neighborhood after another forced Dean to head southeast. Sam switched cassette tapes twice before he sighed wearily. "Dean, I know you're driving, but why are we heading this way?"
Dean shook his head and shrugged. "I dunno." He shrugged against Sam's confused expression. "I dunno," he repeated. A block and a half later, Dean took a sudden left turn and parked next to a small neighborhood store. "All right. I'll go see if there's a map somewhere." He exited the car and before stepping into the dark, uninhabited mini store, Dean detoured around the car to check the damage. He grimaced at the long, ugly scratch and turned away, whimpering.
Sam watched his brother disappear into the vacated store. He didn't like Dean going in alone, although he had no inclination to follow. Sam slipped out of the car and grabbed the Glock from the glove compartment while Marco slipped out. Sam leaned against the Impala and watched the rottie as she sniffed for a good spot.
Little Brother eyed the houses around them. No cars. No children's toys in the front yards. Very little damage done to the buildings around them. There were, however, strange holes in the asphalt. Sam's inquisitive nature beckoned him to investigate, but he knew Dean would kick his ass for leaving the car. Marco trotted back when Dean's .45 barked from inside the store. Sam startled and ran three lengths when his brother burst out the door, a ridiculous smile painted over his face.
Dean waved the map in one hand and held a paper bag of goodies in the other. "Got the map! What?"
Sam shook his head and suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. "I assume you ganked yourself a mutant rat."
Dean plopped behind the wheel and slipped the keys in the ignition as Marco bounded back to her place in the backseat. "Well, not a rat, exactly," he admitted. "Don't know what it was. But it's all over the back wall, now."
Sam set the safety on the Glock and quelled another shudder. His gaze lingered at the number of holes in the street while his brother rummaged through the bag of goodies. The potholes measured the same width and depth and they lined just like animal tracks.
"Gotchya water, Sammy," Dean handed him a bottle. "I looked for yogurt or something close to it but the um, occupants inside were using the frozen and 'fridged section for their mad science experiments. So I got cheese, crackers and jerky. You okay with that?" Sam gave his brother a weak smile and took the munchies with quiet gratitude. Dean read the unease in Sam's eyes and waited a moment longer. "You okay?" he asked with softer tones.
Sam did not meet his gaze. "I was just surprised by the gun shot. I heard no warning and thought..."
Dean dragged his visual focus out his own window. Note to self, he thought, don't go goofing off unless you say something to Sam; he worries. He scowled to himself. "Sam, I'm sorry." He received a nod but did not feel it was enough. "I'm not going anywhere, Sammy. I'm not going to die on you. And if I do, I'll come back and haunt your ass-start communicating through Marco or something."
There it was; the smile he loved so much. Dean rummaged the bag until his hand grasped the right object. "Look, uh, I was gonna save it for later, but..." he handed Sam a chocolate Wake-Me bar. Little Brother's smile broadened. That did it; all was right with the world, as far as Dean was concerned.
With a mouthful of Peanut M&Ms, he rolled Baby along, heading straight, still clueless as to why.
Sam ate three crackers with cheese and scanned the map like a marksman. Marco sniffed his hair then nosed his ear. "You'll have to ask Dean, girl," he said to an unspoken question.
"Marco. She wants out."
"What's she gonna do, push the Impala?"
Rrrmph. Marco yawned and Sam rolled his window down. The rottie lapped her front paws over the seat behind Sam's shoulders and sniffed the air. She whined until Sam folded the map and caught sight of something clearly out of place.
"Dean, stop. Stop the car." He opened the door and slipped out. Marco flopped over the seat and jumped after Sam. Dean spotted what caught his brother's attention. He parked the car, checked his gun's payload and joined them, wearing caution on all sides.
Sam knelt before the skeleton of some freaky black thing lying headless in the middle of the street. Four long, tapered legs sprawled five feet in each direction. Something tunneled huge gashes into the creature's sides. A long boxy tail snaked another body length from the monster. Dean poked a long leg with his toe. His face scrunched in disconcertion. "What the living hell is this thing?"
"I don't know," Sam stood and backed off a step. "I... can't say I've seen anything like it."
"Well, something tried to make a turkey sandwich out of it." Dean wondered why they did not see blood. Wincing, he returned to the Impala's safe interior.
Sam turned to follow his brother when Marco caught a scent on the ground. She paused, sniffed, trotted off and repeated the process. Sam returned to the car then hesitated before getting in. His eyes glued to Marco, hypnotized by her movements.
He lost mental contact with the world around him. The houses along either side of the road faded out, replaced with soot-stained boulders. Dead trees, sculpted from the bodies of the damned, stood as ominous witnesses. The world dimmed to blood red, illuminated only by fire. Screams of the condemned inside and outside the cage filled the hot, stifling air like song birds. Sam vaguely remembered this point in his life. He had been 'rented out' to a party of exceptionally powerful demons tracking Morgus, an escaped prisoner from the city of Necro Occularus. Six Hellhounds the size of cows led the hunters on the several days' old search. Two dogs trotted alongside three chariots pulled by great dinosaur-like beasts for which Sam had no name.
Portude, a demonic frog with wings, was promoted Grand Inquisitor after Alistair's embarrassing demise. He led the hunt with such enthusiasm he lopped heads off anyone who moaned about the futility of the chase. In a scratchy growl, he ordered underlings to trudge ahead of his own chariot. To make his point clear, he snapped one such underling with a poison-laced whip.
Standing beside the demon frog, Sam used his psionic abilities to pick up Morgus' trail. Large heavy shackles bound him to the front rail bar. The spikes along their undersides bit deep into his wrists. Blood covered his feet and the floor. Now and again Portude wiped Sam's feet with his sharp boney finger. He licked and moaned as though Sam's blood were of chocolate.
"I do so love our time together, my dear Samuel." Portude dragged his barbed tongue along Sam's cheek, drawing fresh blood. "Lucifer must be somewhat pleased with our work to let me use you to track that scourge."
Wincing against the pain, Sam nodded left. "West," he said quietly.
Portude leapt upon the bar rail and balanced his weight with his large round toes. His sturdy leather wings expanded and he hopped from one fell beast to the next. He glided several yards ahead and caught up with Norcav, one of his three favorite lieutenants. They spoke quietly before Portude returned to Sam.
With a command from Norcav, the hellhounds howled and wailed. The hunting party turned west. They raced down a rocky slope and crossed soggy ground. Another incline gave the party greater momentum and they sped over a vast charred and rocky plane until they found their quarry.
The hellhounds caught Morgus first and yanked the runaway off his feet. The tracking party surrounded their prey and Portude laughed and whooped. He gripped Sam's shoulders and sank his nails deep into skin and muscle and scraped Sam's bones until he got the screams he sought. Portude settled his mouth over Sam's neck. He tore at the skin and relished Sam's pitiful whimpering.
Releasing his hostage, he settled dark, hollowed eyes into Sam's. "Ahhh, Samuel. My sweet, sweet Samuel." Portude ripped at Sam's lips and tore into his hair. Sam struggled against the shackles as pain needled his skin and scraped his bones.
"Sam!" Portude ordered.
That was not the demon's voice.
Sam found himself on the ground, wrestling his brother. Breathless, he froze and searched Dean's eyes. Was he dreaming? Was that a clouded sky and real color? Was that fresh air he breathed?
Dean's eyes did not turn black. He did not use a sinister smile. Sam gulped air and gripped Dean's shirt as though his life depended on it. Dean nearly lost his balance but caught the extra weight and wrapped Sam securely in his arms.
"Here!" he said, "I'm here, Sammy! You're here with me, you're safe. Sh, sh, sh." He gently rubbed Sam's back while Little Brother wept. Sam trembled, clenched and released his fists until his breath slowed and he calmed. Sam rested his head against Dean's, grateful for physical contact, grateful for the reality in which he now lived.
"Dean," his voice came small, weak with grief. "Dean?"
"Yeah, Sammy," Dean imagined the world around them slowed to a stand-still. He didn't even notice Marco returned and patiently sat at a respectful distance.
Sam swallowed air and tears. "I... if I promise to be good, to be as good as I can be, will you promise to always be my brother?"
To the outsider, the question sounded childish and absurd. But Dean understood. In Hell, you lose yourself, you lose your name. Escaping Hell meant you don't come back quite right... if you come back as yourself at all. He slightly squeezed Sam once. "Yeah, Sammy. I promise to be the very best brother. I promise."
Sam dropped to sleep as Dean slowly steered the Impala along Marco's path. He didn't question the hellhound's trajectory; but he did wonder why he kept going in this direction when he knew he should be heading north. Dean's eyes skittered between Sam and the quiet road. He paused at the cross street and laid the back of his hand along Sam's cheek, checking for fever. Although his brother was okay, Dean considered looking for a place to crash for the night and make other plans later.
Marco returned to the Impala and stood with her paws on Dean's door. She whined and licked her nose. Dean threw her a dubious glance, not particularly happy that she marred his car with her paw prints. "What?" he asked softly. "Don't look at me, you're in charge here. And keep it down. Don't wake Sam."
The rottie darted off. About twenty yards out, she turned, eyes trained on the Impala. When Dean did nothing, she came back and did the same thing.
"Yeah, yeah. I get it," Dean muttered. He turned the engine over and rolled slowly after her. Considering how his life was filled with the weird, wacky and creepy, Dean did not think it strange that he followed a dog. Marco bounded away, silly as a puppy.
They passed through a nondescript neighborhood just as unpopulated as the last several. Sam woke with a start. He shot glances everywhere until he met his brother's eyes. He settled with a heaving sigh.
"I didn't sleep very long, did I?"
"You almost fossilized, Sam. Me and Marco sat here and made faces at you the whole time. How you feeling?"
"Like crap." Sam sank lower. His skin burned. Someone poured acid cotton in his head. He rolled his window down as Dean turned right, following Marco at a languid pace.
"What the hell is that?"
Sam lifted his dry eyes to the left. All houses stood undisturbed except one where someone or some thing sliced off the front wall. He sat up and reached for the Glock. Dean pulled the Impala to a stop as Marco disappeared into the mangled house. He parked the car and rechecked the payload on his .45 before exiting. He stole a last glance at Sam who nodded, indicating he'd hang back at the ready.
Dean slipped out, made not one sound, kept his hands free and ready. Sam slipped out and stayed behind the door. His gun aimed right of his brother's position.
Sam instantly relaxed at the sound of Camila's voice. He followed Dean into the house and smiled at Castiel as Marco nosed the angel between breathless pants. Camila released Dean from her embrace and gently embraced Sam.
"How did you know where to find us?" Sam only smiled. "Aw," Camila laid a hand on his rough cheek. "Have you taken anything, Sam? How long ago?"
She sympathetically hugged him closer.
"Cass!" Dean declared, "I see you've found yourself a cozy spot. There's a pretty girl willing to wait on you. All you need is a TV and a personal chef."
"Looks are deceiving, Dean," Castiel answered, non-committal.
Camila turned from Sam and sifted through her bag for another bottle of water. "I found him lying face down on the sidewalk, wounded." She handed Sam the bottle and hardened her eyes when he refused.
Dean ran his eyes along his friend's form. "What happened, Cass? Me and Sam took a left turn at Oz." Castiel averted his eyes. His shoulders slumped with weariness.
"It's complicated, Dean."
Camila answered for him: "Abaddon stole Castiel's Grace and it shattered."
"What?" both men echoed.
Camila poured water into a bowl for Marco. "The complicated part is that dragons rescued Castiel after they received parts of his Grace."
Dean stared at Camila while his head tried to put her words into some logical equation. No go. He slowly blinked. "You tellin' me that those monsters who gleefully hate-banged our planet now share some of Cass' angel mojo? Aaaand where's that lead? We're not buying Girl Scout cookies from them now, are we?" He glowered when she shrugged.
Castiel answered for her, "Adrith said they've already begun reconstruction-"
"Cass," Dean cut in, "no matter how much FEMA they put into the world, the fact is, they're going to be hated, hunted and hung up for Chinese New Year decor. The best thing for them to do is leave the planet."
Castiel slowly sat up. His beautiful blue eyes settled on Sam who occupied himself with Marco. "There's a hitch in that plan, Dean," he answered slowly.
Dean's jaw line tightened. Castiel almost never used slang. "And that is?"
"The dragons don't possess all of my Grace, only splinters of it. The rest of it is lost."
"Lost?" Dean and Sam asked together.
Sam turned from Marco and staggered to his feet. "Where do you think it might be?"
"That's just it, Sam. We don't know. The dragons are searching everywhere for the pieces, but so far they've found nothing."
"Maybe we can help out, Cass," Sam offered.
"Not here in Stephen King's back yard, Sam," Dean objected. "Let's get this cast and crew back to Indiana. We can rate and debate there." He turned to go, hesitated, then stepped back with a mischievous grin first at Cass then at Camila. "You two get to share the back seat with Marco."
Dean drove straight through the state line. Not a car or a soul occupied the toll booth. Afternoon drooped into the stillness of the late spring evening. Castiel and Sam slept slumped against their doors. Camila sat silent as The Who played one of their 'twelve-inch' versions of "Who Are You".
Marco lay between Camila and Castiel as though they were pillows. She stretched and yawned every so often and until they were half way to Nashville, the hellhound did not stir. They were just at the outskirts of Columbia when Marco sat up and whined.
At first Dean ignored her. He also did not see Sam's left hand clench and release once. Marco whined again and set her forepaws on the back of the seat. She licked her nose.
Dean glanced over his shoulder, a little annoyed. "Hey, paws off the 'pulstry, Pooch."
"She probably needs out," Camila suggested.
Marco whined and tried to reach Sam with her tongue. She panted and whined until Dean hit the turn signal to shift lanes.
Sam jerked from sleep and slammed his palms against the dash. His breath came in short, panicked bursts and he slapped the windshield, then his window.
The Cage was a dimension within the dimension in Hell. What experts either don't know or fail to say is that Lucifer was never the only occupant in the Cage. But how could the experts know? As far as he knew, Sam was the only person to escape. The Cage was filled with Things, with Creatures and Persons the likes of which no Human knew. Along this landscape of eternal punishment lay devices meant to reinforce the horror of the Afterlife in Hell.
For example: The Box. A simple metal trap, enclosed save for a single mesh screen at the front. Boxes dotted the Cage's dismal landscape. Victims trapped in them suffered horrors Sam only knew by their screams. He avoided them merely on principle. But he ran into Michael. After hiding from the condemned archangels for months, Sam accidentally ran into Michael and things went from worse to much, much worse. Michael, who refused to let go of Adam, chased Sam along the Gully, a trench of fire and blood that ran from the Hills of Char Ostan to the Gates of Tannin.
Michael caught him and shoved Sam into a Box. It compressed him, squeezed as tightly as his frame allowed without breaking bones. And there Sam stayed, hunched in one position for weeks until he thought he'd lose all his rational. Then the box flipped open and stretched and Sam's body stretched with it. Long and far, the damn contraption pulled Sam's joints clear out of their sockets. Arms, legs, fingers, toes, even his spine pulled to the point of damage.
Night and day he lay in excruciating pain until one afternoon steel spikes shot up and impaled Sam head to toe. He jerked once.
A curtain of night enveloped an empty Tennessee highway replaced the blood-red sky. And although his eyes snapped wide open, Sam did not register the difference; he saw only Hell, heard the chilling screams and suffered blistering pain.
He jerked again and fell out his door the half second Dean stopped the car. Sam slipped down the ditch and waded through the bitter stench to the other side. He climbed up the rocky bank and ran and ran. Voices of the damned called him to free them. Their wails and pleas nipped at his ears and tore at his heartstrings.
The Box never came with a key. Someone else had to release him. And someone did; by accident. Sam remembered her wail as he lay in the heat and flame from the ground. The woman came to feed on him. Instead, she laid a hand on a trigger. The box ejected Sam and snapped on her like a living thing.
Sam lay half dead, incapable of feeling anything but waves of agony. MOVE! MOVE! MOVE! Every cell in his body shrieked with survival instinct. If something crawling along the ground did not find the prey, unspeakable things in the sky certainly did. Forcing his bloodied, weary body into action, Sam staggered to his feet. He stumbled along at first, treading along acid-laden soil. He did not know at what point he broke into a run, he simply ran; direction and destination held no meaning.
A familiar bark sounded far, far away and yet excruciatingly close. Sam paused in his desperate flight. A force gently knocked him to the ground.
And Marco licked the side of his face and whimpered. Sam gripped her for dear life and sobbed. The sweet darkness of night pushed aside the dismal landscape of Hell. The smell of long grass and the noise of a distant highway replaced the stink of despair and the cries of the accursed.
Best of all came the comforting firm voice of Dean Winchester. "Sammy."
Dean and Camila helped his brother back to the car. Sam shivered until he returned to sleep. They arrived at the ten-mile mark north-side of Nashville and crossed the state line into Middlesboro, Kentucky. Dean pulled into a truck stop, never happier to see something that resembled normalcy. He stared at the Impala's gas gauge and wondered how the Chevy still sat at the half way mark. Honestly, he should have filled her up twice by now.
He didn't dare question it. Glancing at his brother, Dean relaxed, glad to see Sam slept soundly. Marco lay between them, her head on Sam's lap.
Camila stirred and stretched while Castiel, much like Sam, remained undisturbed. Gazing at the huntress, Dean nodded to the outside, indicating he wanted to speak with her outside.
Camila managed to close the door quietly and joined Dean outside. She waited as he tried his cell phone for the billionth time. Several yards to their right a family of six chattered about food, or rather the lack thereof. The children romped in and out their minivan. The mother nagged while another adult female announced the lack of signal on her cell phone.
Dean sighed heavily and clicked his phone off. He held up his keys, his eyes dark with exhaustion. "I'm still getting no signal. I'm seeing double right now and I'm not about to do something stupid."
"You want me to drive?" Camila asked carefully.
"You whisper a word of this to anyone and I'll send something icky after you."
She scowled. "No need to get huffy. Where do I go?"
"Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Take I-74. It'll lead straight to Cicero." She nodded but Dean stared hard, uncertain.
"Okay!" she insisted.
Dean reluctantly slipped into the backseat and checked on Little Brother. Marco lifted her head, ears perked. She greeted Dean with a weary butt-wag. As he settled at the corner between the seat and the door, Dean glimpsed at his angel friend and for half a second, thought he saw a smile. It vanished and Castiel once again rested peacefully.
Dean hoped the smile wasn't about his relinquishing control of his car to a girl; he'd never live it down.
Sunrise greeted the Impala two and a half hours after Dean traded with Camila. The huntress pulled into Cicero with silent trepidation. All three men and the dog slept as though under a spell. But Camila was not fooled by Dean's calm outer appearance. Now and again his hand clutched whatever weapon he hid in his left jacket pocket.
She maneuvered the Impala along unpopulated streets. The whole city huddled in quiet corners. No children played in the streets. One police car patrolled the down town area. Fallen trees blocked many streets. Litter, trash and debris scattered along every street, yard and sidewalk. Camila winced at a brown PT Cruiser lying upside down. Deep jagged cuts wounded the chassis. Someone or some thing savagely flipped the car; the driver, now a stiff corpse, still occupied the vehicle.
That wasn't quite so bad, now she thought on it. Things could have been far worse for Cicero. Camila took a final right-hand turn and parked in front of Lisa's house. She stared at the door and windows, hoping to determine whether or not someone inhabited the house. Camila looked to Sam. His open eyes stared into nothing; awake, but not alert.
Dean woke with a deep breath and disembarked. He examined the neighborhood while he mentally gathered his bearings. His training took over and the hunter spotted things missing or out of place. Claw marks scraped deep gashes into the sidewalks and asphalt. The neighbor's house across the street suffered a brutal attack. The shattered windows reminded Dean of gaping wounds. The door hung open like a broken, protruding bone. A dog lay under the brush next to the neighbor's driveway, half-eaten.
Dean allowed himself to examine his wife's home. Tell-tale signs of a rough rainstorm splattered the front sidewalk with mud and wind-whipped leaves. The grass stood at least eight inches. Lisa's car sat in the driveway. All the windows glittered in spider-web patterns. No telling what broke them; a weapon, a rock... Dean hoped it wasn't someone's skull.
Camila tinkled the Impala's keys like a windchime and Dean acknowledged they needed to get moving. He tapped at Sam's window. "Hey," Dean peered in as Camila rounded the car from her side. "This is not what it looks like."
Confusion crossed Sam's features. "What. That you were tired and let Camila drive the car? It's not that big a deal, Dean."
Dean squinted at the sky. "My reputation is at stake."
Sam kept his expression neutral. "What? You want me to roll my eyes, sigh and tell you you're not funny?"
Dean tapped the bonnet. "I need Marco, Sammy. She available?"
"Got an appointment? I'll stay with Cass." Dean nodded. Sam handed his brother two guns and ordered Marco to keep an eye on Dean and Camila.
The huntress rounded the Impala and traded car keys for the Colt 1911. "What's going on? What are we doing?"
"You and me are taking Schnookums and heading inside."
"You don't think they're home?"
Dean led her across the overgrown yard. "I don't think anybody's home anywhere around here." He tried his cell as they approached the door. No answer. No service. He tried the door. Locked.
With a huff of breath to keep calm, Dean signaled for Camila to take Marco and sneak into the garage while he rounded the back yard on his own. They split up and Sam's brother threw a final glance at Camila before he slished along tall grasses, silent as a cat.
The wooden fence on his side of the house lay splintered. Claw marks left deep gashes. Dean didn't want to guess what made them. He peered round the scraggly brush and frowned at a lawn not mowed since their departure for Delaware. Amid the tall grasses, Dean rested his eyes on a mound of dirt and stones. A cross crafted of splintered fence boards capped the north end. The home made grave lay as long as a person. Dean swallowed against further thoughts.
Don't panic, he told himself. Get all the facts first. Maybe the house was empty and that Lisa and Ben escaped to a safe place. Lisa was smart. She'd do that.
Dean rounded the back, kept his weapon at the ready. He lowered it with relief when he found Roxi tied to the back porch.
She stood and whined at his approach.
Dean undid her leash and pet her round the ears. "Did you know it was me, girl? Huh? Is that why you didn't bark?" The poor creature felt thin under his hands. Her dirty coat suggested a lot of time passed while they were away. Dean spotted a bowl of water and an empty food dish. He frowned. "Okay, let me tend to some business first then we'll get you something to eat, okay? Go find Sammy. Go on." He watched her leave, bypassing the lonely grave. A sick, worried feeling spread from Dean's heart to the rest of his body. He pushed it down, refusing to assume anything.
Sneaking past the dirty sliding glass doors, Dean ducked under the dusty kitchen window. He tip-toed into the dark house using the utility room door. From there, He eased over a pile of moldy laundry and into the hallway. He froze and stared. Claws or blades sliced up the walls and left pictures, photographs and their glass frames in pieces. A trail of blood lined one wall and Dean's heart quickened its beat. His hunter side suggested things his heart refused to consider. Swallowing fear again, Dean passed the bathroom door then the room Sam slept in.
Camila met him from the other side of the livingroom. Marco followed, sniffing everything, even the air. Furniture lay in as many pieces as the backyard fence. Dark brown splatters covered the carpet and the walls. Old blood smeared across the livingroom wall above the broken TV: WINCHESTER.
Dean caught his breath when Camila silently pointed to a lone figure sitting backwards in a chair, staring out the dirty kitchen window.
Dean put his gun away. He didn't see Lisa from the backyard. He wiped a hand over his face in relief. She was alive. He inwardly mocked his hunter's sense. The family was safe. Dean took two steps toward the kitchen and glanced back to Camila.
Lisa lifted a bottle of warm beer to her lips. She spoke with a tired, scratchy voice. "You know, I should have known better than to let you back the last time you came, Dean. Really. Have no idea what persuaded me to take you back. I think... I think I believed I could somehow housebreak you; that I could domesticate the hunter. Can't do that with someone in your line of... occupation. At least... I know that now."
Dean entered the kitchen and spotted Ben's name carved into the table. Big letters, chiseled deep into the wood: BENJAMIN BRADEN 2001-2014.
Dean's heart dropped. Grief stole his breath and whatever words he might have had for his family, for his wife.
Lisa did not turn. She took another drink. "I knew what you were, Dean. I knew what you did for a living. Had thought that if I chose not to believe in it, it'd all just fade away." She scoffed, "as if, somehow you were a little boy living in a dream world and I'd just enjoy the companionship and the sex and appreciate that you were a good father figure for Ben."
His voice cracked under the strain, "Lisa... Honey, I'm sorry." Her words shredded his heart. The front door opened and closed quietly. Camila took Marco and silently stepped outside to allow them privacy.
"Don't feel sorry for me, Dean Winchester. Don't you dare." Lisa turned to him with hollow eyes and a drawn face. Her chapped, blood-stained lips matched the red scabs lining her cheeks and arms. A deep scar lined the right side of her pretty face. She approached the hunter with an eerie cool calm. "I waited for you to come back. I waited and hoped. It's been two months. I don't know where the hell you've been. But at this point, I don't care, either. I'm... I'm passed it. I've dealt with it. I'm here. I just... can't understand how the world..." her voice trailed off and her hardened gaze drifted sideways.
Lisa leaned against the kitchen counter. Her slender arms crossed, her face set as hard as her voice. "You know that weird feeling when you make a choice that you know you'd normally not make but you make it anyway? One of those choices that you're not quite sure it's really you that's making the choice? Well, that's what happened. I felt badly for you, sure. I wanted to help, yes. But... but there was something more, I think. I mean..." her brown eyes lifted to the ceiling as she searched for words. "I mean it wasn't all bad. Don't get me wrong, Dean. But while you were with us, something in me kept saying 'something's not quite kosher.' You and your little Robin-Hood friends took off for Delaware and a few days later I found out why it was that for five years I kept suspecting."
"Suspecting what?" Dean's mouth ran dry. He didn't want to face this. He hoped to never see his wife like this, battered and traumatized. Now the world lay as broken inside Dean's soul as it stood outside the door. He choked on his anguish. He hurt for her. He ached for every scar and scab that marred her skin. Dean tried to swallow the tsunamic sorrow flooding his being.
"I suspected something was going to happen to take you away from me. I realized the day Bobby called was the day you were going to leave. Don't get me wrong. It wasn't your trip to Delaware that changed my mind about our relationship, Dean. I'm sure there were reasons why you didn't come back, why you didn't call me after the first three times." she paused. Her lips trembled with evil memories.
Dean failed to suppress the tear as it escaped his eye. He could not breathe, could not speak, could not move. Lisa was strong but fragile; his flower, now trampled by tragedy. Why, why, why was he always the curse in someone else's life? Why? He wanted so desperately to scoop up his crushed flower and make everything better, to hold her in his hands and make her happy again. This was his fault. His. Because he was selfish and stupid enough to believe he could have everything.
The 'flower' spoke with an eerily calm voice, telling of her suffering as though she were describing a movie: "It was the thing that came looking for you." Lisa's eyes searched the ceiling then returned to Dean. "I say 'thing' because he was barbaric. He and his friends walked right through that door." she pointed to the front door, her face now hardened with rising anger. "They tortured me for six days. I begged them to leave my son alone. I begged them, Dean. They kept asking about you, where you were, who you were with and why. I told them you were in Delaware. I didn't know why. I told them you were with Bobby Singer. What was I supposed to do? They had my son! And Alex, whatever his last name was, he thought it was funny to carve symbols on Ben's face. He..." she choked on a sob. "He..." she choked on another one and gasped for breath, "THAT FUCKING SON OF A BITCH MURDERED MY SON! AND I WANT HIM BACK!" her demeanor dissolved into tears. Lisa fell to her knees, bowed over and bitterly wept as if to pour her broken soul upon the floor.
Dean dropped before her and held her close as she repeated: "Give him back! Give him back!"
At a complete loss for words, Dean could only hold her and waged a war with his own grief. The child who should have been his son was gone.
Camila leaned against the Impala, arms crossed, eyes cast on the dogs. Roxi and Marco quietly played on the overgrown grass until mid afternoon when seventy-degrees plus with a gentle breeze made for a comfortable lazy day.
The huntress settled into the driver's side but left the door open. Castiel sat silently, his blue eyes stared into nothing and Camila wondered if he were seeking revelation. Sam slept and woke with a start several times. She took his hand at one point and offered a light smile, one he could not return.
Three P.M. hit and Camila sighed deeply. "I guess I should go see what he wants to do."
"I advise against it," Castiel objected quietly. "You do not want to know what's going on."
She looked to Sam, her question repeated only in her expression. Sam scrunched against the door and rubbed the back of his left hand. "I only care about what's good for Dean, Camila. If Castiel says to give Dean time and space, then I'll give him all that he needs." Sam turned away, choking up with anxiety.
Camila heaved a sigh. "All right. We wait, then."
"I will not leave Ben. And you cannot stay."
The words burned Dean's heart like an epitaph. He trembled and swallowed hard. "Lis, Sweetie... just come with us to South Dakota-"
"-I don't..." she dropped her head as tears rained down her bruised face. "No." she drew a stuttering breath. "No... Dean. No. Don't ask me that. I can't leave." Her voice squeaked with grief. "My son's here." tears drenched her face and the grieving mother did not bother wiping them. "I'm not leaving him. And I don't want you to stay."
"Please." Dean begged. "I know it'll be hard. But you and me-"
"No, Dean. There can't be a you and me. The minute you found your brother... the minute you answered the call from your friend Bobby, it was over." she shuddered and sniffed but rebuffed him when Dean tried to wrap his arms around her. "No. No." she drew another shuddering breath. "No. Your brother has his dog. I'm going to stand here and watch you leave."
"Lisa-" Dean barely held the dam. He kept swallowing to keep from breaking. If he broke, Camila and Sam would have to come in and drag him out.
"I'm sorry, too," Lisa whispered. "There is nothing you can say or do."
"Lis, don't do this-"
"You can't bring Ben back, Dean. You cannot replace my son. You can't fix it. You can't fix me. It was me or Sam and you made your choice."
"Lisa, if you'd just let me-" She turned from him; their relationship fully dissolved. The haunted woman's eyes settled out the window and stared at her son's grave, yet fresh and untouched by grass or weed. "Good-bye, Dean."
He gave the 'hand painting' above the fireplace a final gaze. No doubt his name was written in Ben's blood. Alex better hope he never finds Dean, or that Dean never finds him. Tearfully, Dean fished through his pockets and found a twenty dollar bill. It was all he had with him. With trembling lips and tears he could not keep bound, Dean set the twenty on the table and quietly departed.
He shivered the moment the door closed behind him. The sun cast western shadows on the ruined neighborhood. Without a word to his companions, Dean popped the trunk and reached for a pocket glued to the back of the subwoofer. He plucked out an envelope, figured the amount of cash they might need for the trip back to South Dakota and took out the rest. He returned to the front door and was not surprised to find it locked. Undeterred, he slid the cash under the door. It was the very, very least he could do. His hand rested against the door. Sorrow clouded his face and before tears escaped him again, he aimed back for the Impala. But rather than getting in, he walked the way they came in.
Camila gaped at his behavior and wondered whether or not to wait longer. She looked to Sam whose mind wandered elsewhere. She settled down and sighed heavily. "God, what am I supposed to say to him?"
Castiel stirred and winced in pain. "Just drive behind him, Camila. Dean Winchester carries his grief his own way; he has to deal with it alone. It's just how he is."
She looked to Sam and realized he'd been silently crying. He nodded in consensus. Camila felt like a fool for her lack of empathy and started the car. She kept the Impala at a discreet distance while Dean walked through his grief far into the wee morning hours.
By eight A.M. Camila decided she had enough and parked the car at an intersection nearby a golf course-two towns over. Sam startled out of sleep and batted his eyes open as the huntress left the car, slamming the door.
"Oh, God," Sam muttered. At least Dean was not as prone to hitting women as he would a man. Sam winced at that thought and wondered why that occurred to him.
"Hey!" Camila called. "I need you to take over."
"Just keep driving." Dean snarled.
"I've been driving, Dean," she retorted. "Look, I'm sorry about what happened. I'm sorry there's nothing anybody can do to fix this-not even you. But I do not know my way around South Dakota, it's cold and none of us have had anything to eat in twenty-four." she paused as he kept walking as if he hadn't heard a word. Damn, he could be stubborn! Camila pulled out one more card from her sleeve: "Dean!" she called again, "your brother cannot take the trioxalate without food! Now you either get your perfect ass back here and drive or I'll let you walk to South Dakota!" she did not give into his wet, anguish-filled eyes.
Dean drove in dead silence. Grief and anger pumped enough adrenaline in his veins that they arrived in South Dakota in four hours. Sam wondered offhandedly how his brother managed to evade speed traps. But then, much of the world lay in ruins. Chances were law enforcement had greater problems than a speeding driver. Sam tried to call Bobby on several occasions with the same failed service as Dean.
Dean wasted no time on the highway. Roxi smelled awful. Her fur lay matted under the topcoat and she whined now and again, offering kisses to Camila who didn't exactly find them charming. He pulled the Impala up to the wrecking yard gates by ten-fifteen PM. Three hunters, two dogs and an angel sat and stared in silent trepidation. The dark, quiet yard sent chills down Dean's back.
Dean turned the car off and searched for sigils, traps, salt lines and hidden cameras. "Anybody home?" he asked quietly.
Sam stirred and winced over stiff joints and a throbbing head. "How about I let Marco out?"
"No..." Dean checked his gun and the ammo. He fished the glove compartment and from a hidden area produced a packet of special bullets. He pocketed those then turned to Camila. "I don't think even a hellhound can get through there. Me and Camila will sneak around. Do not leave the car."
Sam was fine with that. He sunk as if to disappear into his jacket. Castiel sat up and kept a quiet eye on Sam and the world outside the Impala. Roxi whimpered then panted. The angel settled back and reassured himself they were safe in the car; with or without the dogs.
Dean led Camila west of the property and along a sturdy wooden fence. Knowing Bobby Singer had been in the business longer than she'd been out of high school, Camila did not doubt the path Dean took was the only one not booby-trapped along the outer edges of the wrecking yard. She copied him move-for-move and kept her mouth shut. Toward the south-western plot, Dean pushed his way between a series of carefully-planted shrubs.
"Careful," he kept his voice low, "there's rat traps in here. Unless you don't mind losing fingers, don't use anything but your shoulders to push your way through."
Camila kept her chin down, hands close to her body. Their feet crunched on clumps of rock salt and as they passed the fenceline, Camila spotted a series of Enochian symbols glowing softly in the dark. Alex was smart, but not this smart. Her heart skipped a beat when she recognized the sweeping, fluid lines of Sam Winchester's work.
They emerged into the wrecking yard between two fence posts. Dean froze and glanced left then right. He grabbed her hand and ran for a pile of cars then leaned against them. With a finger across his lips, he warned her to remain quiet. He counted to ten and they dashed into another isle of automobiles. He relaxed and heaved a sigh.
"Okay. It's clear."
"What the-what was that?"
"Noise detectors. Bobby can't keep an eye on the whole yard. Even with a good dog, the place can't be guarded by one person. Come on. We'll bring the car in then check out the rest of the place."
"Well...is Bobby here?"
Dean flipped on his cell phone. No serivce.
Marco woofed once and Sam snapped awake. The front
gate opened and a piercing bright light shot into the car. Bobby stepped out, shotgun in hand. "Dean, that you, Boy?"
Relieved, Castiel stepped out the car to answer. "It's me and Sam, Bobby. Dean and Camila-"
"Git yer butts inside right now! I ain't comin' out t' carry you in 'cross the threshold! An' where in the hell's your brother?"
Sam grinned in spite of his weariness. He followed Cass inside. Marco and Roxi trotted behind as they playfully battled over who went in first. Bobby closed the door, flipped on the porch light and struck up a pot of coffee. Sam sat at the kitchen table and simply stared at the cloth. Castiel found himself a stool. Neither said a word until Bobby set coffee in front of Sam and sat at the other side.
"I'm glad you're okay, Bobby," Sam's voice strained for strength. The front door opened and Camila's lilting voice called before Dean's footfalls thunked the floor.
"Hello, there. Sorry to intrude." Her smile came forced and weary.
Dean set the safety on his gun and set it down. "Izzat coffee I smell?"
"It's fresh, anyway," Bobby grunted.
Camila smiled at Dean's surrogate father. "I'm really glad you're okay, Bobby. I'm sorry I couldn't get to you."
"No worries, Missy. A dragon died and crashed near the hospital I stayed in. I signed out AMA and the nurses all but pushed me out as the emergency room flooded with new victims. And Sam, you're drooping there, Son."
Dean set his coffee down and signaled for Sam to go with him. He paused. "Aahh... Camila, there's a couch in the library you can crash on. Cass, you can use the one in the livingroom. Me and Sam will take a light snooze and then I'll take you back to Wisconsin in the morning, Camila."
She shook her head. "Don't worry about it. I have contacts here. Chances are phone lines and cell phones are out of service in and out of Green Bay. I can't get a hold of Abby. But I am making pancakes in the morning." Camila winked at Sam.
Dean led his brother and the two mutts upstairs. There was a good deal of things to sort out, stories to be told and other situations to be resolved. But for now, for tonight, they were home.
Sam thought how nice it would be to have a shower. But sleep in a real bed tucked away from the world and its troubles overrode the idea. Roxi parked herself on the floor, Marco by the door.
Dean took his shower and returned, finding Sam still up, staring into his hands. The eldest sat on his own bed and hesitated. "Sammy?"
Sam did not look up. "What happened, Dean?"
Dean did not need to guess Sam meant Lisa. He hesitated. All the emotion he walked off in Indiana threatened to cloud his heart again. The wound in his soul bled and he did not want to talk about it. "Alex." Dean could not finish that sentence. So he tried another one, "Ben..." he couldn't talk about that, either. He heaved a sigh, "Lisa... Lisa had to bury him."
Sam stared, speechless and horrified. His lungs constricted with regret. If he had stayed in Green Bay... if he had been smarter, found a better way to send Dean back to his home, maybe they'd be alive. Sam sank into himself. He knew Alex and knew what Alex was capable of. But this... a child? Sam looked away. He should have... or should not have... one way or another, it was his fault. Dean lost everything; a home and a family. All for what? To save the world? To be a brother to someone whose head wasn't screwed on right? He wanted to tell Dean how sorry he was, but Sam didn't even know where to begin to apologize. He could never make up for that loss. Never. All the air left his lungs as Sammy tried to keep his reactions to himself. He gripped the bedding, batted his eyes. In three strides he made for the door.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Dean spun around. "Where do you think you're going? Sam!" he took one step after his brother when his flooding emotions caught up with him and Dean bowed over, struggling against them. He should have said nothing until morning. Everything laid out raw inside his heart. He wanted to just let Sam go and he wanted to bring his brother back. Lisa...
Bobby called Sam's name downstairs as the front door opened and closed. Camila ordered Marco outside. Torn between personal grief and concern for Sam, Dean remained frozen in place, bowed over. Silent tears splattered the floor while he gasped for breath. It was bad enough he wept, he wasn't going to wail like a little girl. He wasn't!
The soft rustle of material outside the bedroom door was not lost on Dean's hunter instincts. "I'm alright, Castiel." his voice dropped between sadness and resolute determination. He didn't need anyone to coddle him.
"I am sorry, Dean. I wish I could have helped."
"Well, you can't-and you couldn't." Dean pushed himself up. God, he hurt inside! All the outward pain in the world wasn't going to make it better. He sat on his bed, drained. "Why can't I have..."
Castiel rounded the corner doorpost. "The best of both worlds,?" Cass finished for him. He frowned. "That's a rare thing, even among angels."
"Tell me, Cass: would Ben be alive were it not for me?"
"Dean, sooner or later-"
"Yes or no, Cass!"
Castiel kept his voice calm, "Sooner or later Alex would have connected the dots between Mason and Sam. And from Sam he would have found you. It was only a matter of time."
Dean raised his eyes to the ceiling. "That son of a bitch is dead. He wants a fight, I'll give it to him." Dean half expected Castiel to put up an argument. But the weary angel said nothing and turned to go. Dean pursed his lips. "Cass," he searched those blue eyes and found no impatience or annoyance in them. "Thanks." Cass tilted his head, confused. His lips moved 'for what', but no sound came from his voice. Dean stood. He wanted to crash hard and not dream. But Sam came first. "For trying to give me a heads-up earlier."
Castiel opened his mouth to ask what that meant, but Dean only pressed by, descended the stairs and left the house.
Cool night air made Dean realize summer approached its end. Two months gone meant he and Sam missed the Dakota two-month summer. Christmas was coming and Ben wasn't going to be there. Dean choked as he passed the Impala. Deep breath. Concentrate on the moment, not the past.
"SAM!" he called. "Sam! Don't make me come out there and hunt your ass down!"
This year would be his first Christmas with Sam in five years. And no, don't ask him to do anything about Halloween. No masks. No ghosts, ghouls or devils. No pumpkin art.
However, if summer ended, it'd be a perfect time to take a few trips. First on the list: Colorado. Maybe two or three concerts. Sam always loved concerts, no matter how he denied it. Sea World.
"SA-there you are! You made me come and hunt your ass down." Sam sat on the back end of an old sedan. Marco lay on the ground, her head on her paws. Sam held himself tightly and stared into nothing. When his brother remained tight-lipped, Dean sat next to him and raised his eyes to the stars. He almost counted the seconds between them but could not stay silent.
"Sammy, it's cold out here. You and me 'r both tired and strung out. Let's deal with crap in the morning, okay?"
Sam trembled and shrugged. He batted his eyes, swallowed hard. If he said anything, his voice might betray him.
"Sam, come on." Dean slid off the car and tugged Sam's right hand.
But Little Brother shook his head and swallowed hard again. "You were happy," his voice squeaked. Two deep breaths. "I wanted you to be happy. And... and there's nothing-" he cut himself off as his eyes shot away.
Dean ground his teeth. "Can't we just talk about this later?"
Sam uncharacteristically grabbed Dean by the shirt collar and stared hard with full-black eyes. "If it weren't for me-! I did this!"
Dean gripped his brother's wrists as a light kindled in his eyes. "You did nothing! You hear me? None of this is because of you! I WANTED YOU TO COME HOME! Good Christ, Sam! I'm the selfish one! I wanted you to come home to me! You had the right to stay in Heaven but you chose to come home to me!" Dean yanked Sam off the trunk and gripped him tightly.
"I'm sorry!" Sam tearfully voiced into Dean's shoulder. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
Dean choked and finally released his anguish into Sam's jacket. He made his choices; he chose Sam. Sam chose him over Heaven. Dean held tightly to that thought. He wasn't okay. Sam wasn't okay. But they had family. That was everything they needed.