First appeared in Rooftop Confessions 4 (2009), from GriffinSong Press
Inspired in part by Sheila
K Hanna Korossy
She liked to sit out there, even with the sharp chill in the air. The pinks and purples of the horizon seemed to drag the heat down with them into the earth, and Lydia could almost smell the snow in the air. But the seedlings were safely inside, the plantings covered; they were ready. She was ready.
Jeremy was humming as he read next to her, and she listened contentedly as she rocked, the porch boards creaking under her chair. She couldn't recognize the tune, but then, she wouldn't know a lot of what young people listened to these days. Even at eight, he was so grown up. Melinda and Frank would have been proud of him.
"What're you reading, sweetheart?"
"Lloyd Alexander. Fantasy stuff."
Lydia smiled at that. "Are you enjoying it?"
"It's okay." But he hadn't moved for the last twenty minutes, and for a young boy that meant more than okay. She nodded and leaned back, enjoying the dark settling over the farm, the peace over her mind. Alan would be in his motel room for the night; he never had liked staying out late at the farmers conventions. Don't like leaving you 't all, he would whisper to her the night before, but twice a year she could do without him for a few days. Besides, they had Jeremy now. He was still getting used to farm life, but he'd learned so much in the five months he'd—
A flock of guineas, startled, fluttered up into the night sky.
Odd, she thought, stopping her rocking and leaning forward. Was something out there, just behind the smokehouse? It was a little late in the year for foxes…
A tall shadow detached itself from the corner of the small shed and moved toward the house with a lurching gait.
Her heart sped up, and Lydia half-rose. "Jeremy, go inside."
His head bobbed up. "What—?"
"Right now, no arguments."
He only hesitated a moment before obeying, darting in, the screen door slapping loudly shut in his wake. She winced at the noise but her eyes hadn't moved from the shadow. Her other hand crept toward the iron poker leaning against the porch railing. They used it to coax foolish Puss out whenever she got stuck underneath the porch; Lydia had never before thought it could be a weapon, too.
The shadow kept moving, and she soon recognized it as human, not animal. But the closer the man got, the more obvious it was something was wrong with him. He shambled and stumbled, movements uneven, nothing predatory about him. It reminded her of an injured heifer, and she would've been drawn to its obvious distress if not for its form. A man, a stranger, was far more dangerous than a wounded farm animal.
But as he approached, she realized he was bent over despite his height, head hanging, back bowed. One hand was wrapped around himself, while the other reached blindly for support. He limped, favoring a bad left leg.
He was definitely hurt, barely on his feet. She dropped the iron poker without hesitation and ran toward him.
There was still danger in the wounded, though, even if no harm was meant. Lydia slowed as she reached him, taking in at a glance the clinging blue jeans and flannel shirt, the bare scraped feet and scratched hands. He paused for a moment, as if sensing her, head cocked. Water dripped off him with every step, and plastered down hair she could only identify as dark. It was short, though, his skin lightly bronzed, and when his hand closed over her arm, wet and frantic, the palm was hardened with work.
"Are you all—?"
"Behind me," the stranger rasped, his next step throwing him toward her so sharply, she almost drew back. But he was not attacking, no offense or defense in his motion, his bearing. Just desperation, and exhaustion. "He's behind me."
His voice sounded like it had been poured through a strainer. Its urgency made her look him over, seeing again the welts on his hands and neck and face, the blood on his feet. And…there, a patch of darker wetness on his jeans, bubbling crimson through a tear in the material. Fearfully, she looked past him, seeking the threat. There weren't many predators here besides foxes and wolves, but occasionally a stray wildcat passed through, and the wolves could get vicious when they were hungry. But she saw nothing.
A shiver wracked him, and his grip grew hard to the point of pain. "He's behind me," the man insisted breathlessly, and tipped his head up like it took all his strength.
Lydia's breath caught at the fierceness of his unfocused gaze. Despite his tan, he was pale under the light dusting of freckles, and if his face hadn't been twisted in pain, she would have said he was almost beautiful.
"Behind…me," he repeated one more time. Then his eyes rolled back and his knees gave out.
She hadn't a hope of holding his weight, but she cushioned his fall as best she could, his head now limp against her chest, his tremors shaking her, too. Thoroughly out of her depth, she pulled him closer, scanning the darkness behind him once more for danger, movement or the glowing eyes of a wild animal. She saw nothing, though, and the man was getting heavier. Lydia finally raised her head, to see Jeremy standing frozen and frightened on the porch despite her orders. She flinched. "Jeremy, I need your help!"
He instantly ran down, slowing only as he reached her. "Is he dead, Grammy?"
He didn't often call her that anymore. She made her voice as reassuring as she could when she was near to shaking herself. "No, he's not dead, he's just a little hurt and very tired. Can you help me get him inside the house?"
Jeremy gave her a doubtful look, but he crept a step closer.
"We must hurry," she said, carefully neutral, still searching the darkness for the predator behind their injured guest. She swallowed and turned away when Jeremy touched her back.
She had to do all the work, of course. And it felt wrong draping the strange man's arm around Jeremy's shoulder, but she couldn't take both. She wasn't really sure what she was doing, making this up as she went. But there was no way they could leave this injured man here in the cold all night, with a possible prowler on the loose, and the McCloskeys were nearly a mile down the road. Lydia had never missed having a phone as much as at that moment, but their line had gone down earlier in the week under ice and it wasn't fixed yet.
Somehow, they got the man upright. His head hanging and his feet dragging limply, they lugged and stumbled and panted along with him to the porch stairs. There, Lydia sat him down on the top step, rotated his legs up beside him, then got behind him and pulled him to his feet again. It was a relief when the door swung shut behind them.
He'd have to stay in her and Alan's room. It was the only bedroom on the bottom floor, and there was just no way she was getting him up the stairs, Jeremy's help or not. As it was, Lydia was breathing heavily as she plopped him onto the edge of the bed.
Jeremy immediately stepped back, eyeing the scene worriedly.
The blood was probably upsetting him, and she was sorry for that, but they would have to talk about it later. Now, she just paused to feel the stranger's sluggish pulse, then turned to Jeremy, her hands on his shoulders. "I'm going to need your help to take care of him. Can you do that for me?"
He looked past her at the bed, then back at her and nodded.
Lydia smiled, her hands sliding up to cup his cheeks. "Thank you. I will need everything from the medicine cabinet upstairs, and three towels and an extra blanket from the linen closet. Would you get them for me, please?"
There was no reluctance this time as he nodded, then darted off.
She turned back to the stranger in the bed—in her bed—who hadn't moved except for the continued shivering. Lydia sighed and rolled up her damp sleeves. "I suppose then we should get to work."
He didn't answer. Which was more of a relief than she'd have admitted.
She was accustomed to taking care of invalids, from her own dying mother, to Rachel McCloskey after her fever. Lydia slid off the sodden pants first to check the injured leg, feeling for and tugging out one of those portable telephones as she did. The back pocket was torn and any wallet was long gone. She tossed the telephone aside, the pants on the floor, then leaned in close to examine the watery blood-smeared leg.
The damage was a neat semi-circle of deep puncture wounds. Frowning, Lydia lifted the leg, to find a matching half-moon on the back.
A cold chill went through her, and she hurried to the door of the room. "Jeremy!"
"Yeah?" she heard from upstairs.
"Before you bring me anything, please go around the house and make sure all the windows and doors are shut and locked."
His face appeared at the top of the stairs, even more stricken than before. "Why?"
She sighed, understanding his worry but not having the time to do anything about it just now. "Please just do as I ask. We'll discuss it later."
He disappeared, and a few moments later she heard the unusually loud crash of the window slamming shut.
Sighing again, she returned to her bedroom.
The bite wound—because it clearly was that—was bleeding more freely now without the constriction of clothing and the cold to slow it down. It would've had to come from a huge mouth, bigger than any predator she knew. Lydia tried not to think about that as she pulled one of the pillows out from the bedclothes at the head of the bed, shook the pillowcase free, and folded it lengthwise twice. Then she wrapped it around the injured thigh and pulled it tight.
The man groaned, head tossing as he sought relief from the pain. "Behind…," she heard him murmur.
"It's all right, we're safe," she soothed, reaching up to pat his cheek. He unexpectedly relaxed into her touch, drifting off once more.
The pillowcase roughly tied off, she relieved him of the rest of his clothing, then stood back, uncertain once more.
The man in her bed was scarred. Not farming kind of scarred, rope burns and the occasional slice of machinery and knotted hands. These were parallel slashes and scattered burns and a pucker of skin that she would have guessed was an old bullet wound on the inside of his thigh. These were scars of violence, some from human hands, but some seemingly from animal. What sort of life left such a map on the skin?
Jeremy clattered back down the stairs to check the bottom floor. Shaking her head, Lydia quickly toweled the stranger dry, then, retrieving some of Alan's clothes, dressed him in a clean t-shirt and boxer underpants. She covered up all but his leg by the time Jeremy came into the room, arms full.
She sensed him behind her, watching carefully as she worked. She unwrapped the wound, cleaned out the teethmarks, then spread them thickly with antibiotic ointment before finally rebinding them. The pressure had all but stopped the bleeding, but she still made the bandage as tight as she dared without risking circulation. Then she covered up his leg, too, and sat, staring at the pale stranger in her bed.
"Grammy?" Jeremy said quietly behind her.
She turned away from the man, smiling brightly at her grandson, all that she had left of her Frank. "I think he'll be all right. It just looks like something bit him, perhaps a wildcat, so I wanted to make sure the house was locked up for the night, just in case."
He eyed the man past her shoulder, his hand twisting uncertainly in the bedclothes. "How long will he be here?"
"Until he wakes up and we can find out who his people are. I'm sure someone's missing him very much." Remembering the telephone she'd found on him, she twisted back to retrieve it. Besides the strange necklace he wore and the ring that was on the wrong finger to be a wedding band, that was the only clue she had.
And a complete mystery to her. She reached the phone out to Jeremy. "Can you make this work? I'd like to see if his family is listed inside."
He could; she knew some of his friends at school had such devices, although what children needed with their own telephones, she'd never understood. But he frowned as he opened it and water trickled out. "It won't turn on."
"Ah. Perhaps it needs drying out."
His face lit up, as she'd hoped it would. "I can take the back off and let it dry faster."
He took after Frank in this, the delight he had in working with his hands, with machines. Alan also had it, the farm implements always purring beneath his touch. "That would be good," Lydia said warmly.
Jeremy gave her a rare smile and disappeared from the room, treasure in hand.
Another sound turned Lydia back to the other man in the house. The stranger was still shivering with cold, and his teeth had begun to chatter. His head rolled, brow furrowing even as he didn't wake up.
Lydia made a face. "I have some hot water bottles, but the quickest way…" She'd had to do it for Frank once, when he was about ten and was fished out of the same river this young man must have come from. But, well, that had been Frank, and a child. To be cuddling a stranger, half-unclothed and in her bed…
Well, Alan had always said she did what needed doing. This was no different. With a sigh, Lydia sat on the bed and slid a hand beneath the shaking shoulders. She pulled the cold, injured body up against hers, wrapping the blankets tight around them both.
There was no resistance, only the tension of spasming muscles. She wrapped her arms around him, tucked his clammy face into her neck, and pressed him to her chest.
He moaned low, fingers twitching against her stomach.
"Shh, you'll be all right. You're safe here."
"…'hin… be-hin'…" He was still trying to say it, and she marveled at that, at his need to warn others. Or perhaps she misunderstood him?
"Try to rest easy. You'll be warmer soon, and then we'll find your people for you. Shh, shh, you're all right."
He hiccupped and burrowed against her, the instinctive search for warmth as his body realized it was available. Lydia started rocking him, humming under her breath.
Jeremy wandered in and out of the room, face unreadable, clearly at loose ends with this situation. The animals still needed tending for the night, but with a possible wild animal on the loose, she didn't dare send him out. Instead, she finally suggested he bring his book in and read aloud to them both.
Oddly, the sound of his young voice seemed to quiet the stranger more than her soothing. Maybe he had a son?
She held him until she herself felt chilled but there was some pink in his cheek and he only occasionally trembled. Then she laid him back down and pulled the blanket up to his neck. She darted out to the kitchen to put the kettle on, and fished out a pair of water bottles from the pantry. Then she went out to take care of the livestock alone, toting Alan's shotgun with her.
But she saw nothing outside.
Jeremy's head was nodding sleepily as she returned, and the stranger seemed impervious now to their presence. Lydia curled a hand around the back of her grandson's head. "Go to bed now."
He glanced at the bed, frowning. "But—"
"We will be all right—the man will sleep. Go to bed, sweetheart."
He didn't argue, worn down by the stresses of the evening. He plodded upstairs after enduring a kiss from her.
"I suppose it is just you and I then." She'd returned to the bedside and spoke to the man who clearly didn't hear her. Lydia took a breath. "Would it be too much to ask to know your name, since you're already knowing my bed?"
Of course it would be.
Lydia shook her head and went to collect the water bottles from the kitchen, sliding them into the bed. Then she collected her knitting and sat on the chair in the corner to watch over her guest. Making up stories in her head as to his past, but never finding one that fit quite right.
It was the longest night she'd spent since Jeremy had initially arrived at their house to stay. He'd spent that first night with them sobbing and vomiting from the strain of his young life overturned. Lydia had gotten about as much sleep then.
The stranger's leg, surprisingly, seemed to be escaping infection, possibly washed out by the river. Fever of a different kind set in past midnight, though, probably due to his prolonged exposure to cold. As his temperature fluctuated, his cheeks flushed and perspiration pooled in his throat. She'd patted the man's face with a cool cloth and talked to him. But when his temperature rose and he'd grown more animated, his strength and lack of control had made her wary, and she retreated to the chair, venturing closer only in calmer moments to towel him dry again or offer him a drink. Two doses of fever-reducer crushed into water didn't seem to be offering much relief.
But in all his murmurings and fretting, he gave away nothing: not his or any other name, not a clue to his past. Nothing but variations on the now-familiar He's behind me: always "he," never "it." And such control even in delirium spoke of deep-rooted secrets. Lydia's unease grew with every hour. Who was this stranger, and why was he so worried about someone following him? Perhaps he was a wanted man? Or simply a bad one?
But…his face had no cruelty in it, and evil showed itself one way or another.
Troubled and baffled, she tended to him as best she could through the night.
The next morning was Sunday, and church. She felt worn and exhausted, though, and not up to the weekly fight with Jeremy to go to services with them. Alan wasn't even there to help this time. Just this once, they would stay home, and the Lord would forgive her for it.
The stranger quieted at break of day, at least, and Lydia was relieved to find his fever finally a little lower. Perhaps she could sleep a bit now, too. She pulled the chair back into the far corner, nestled into a blanket, and let her tired body relax.
It was Jeremy who woke her up, some time later.
Or rather, Jeremy's voice, loved and welcome even if still a little unfamiliar. She found herself smiling at its soft ramble, no sign of his rebellious hurt in it.
Then another, strange voice answered, and that snapped her awake completely.
Jeremy was sitting cross-legged on the bed, next to the stranger. He was talking to the man, and even as Lydia started up, she realized there was no danger involved. While Jeremy was within arm's reach, the invalid lay still and quiet, seemingly without the strength to move, even his eyes opening and closing sluggishly as though it wore him out to keep them open. But he was trying, for Jeremy's sake.
"I don't have school today. It's Sunday."
"Gonna study…anyway, right? Love studying…Sammy."
Sammy? She leaned forward a little.
Jeremy, however, seemed unconcerned with the mistaken identity. "Naw, not if I don't have to. I like reading, though. I got a cool book—Miss Feeny gave it to me."
His listener's mouth twitched. "Always…reading."
"Sometimes I like taking stuff apart, too. And the animals are kinda cool, when I don't have to muck them out. But…yeah, I like books. Do you?"
Even across the room, she could see the effort it took for the man to answer. "Not the smart one…'n the fam'ly…Sammy."
"There are a lot of ways to be smart," Jeremy insisted, and Lydia smiled to hear her own refrain coming from his lips. So Sammy was family?
"Ask him his name," she said quietly, and regretted it a little when she saw Jeremy's shoulders tighten, startled.
"What's your name?" he asked, reluctant now where he'd been easy before.
The man murmured something that sounded like…well, a term they did not use in this house except for dogs, and that made Jeremy giggle. It also seemed to be the end of the man's strength, as his eyes stayed shut and he grew quiet again, his breathing slow and labored.
"I know what he said," she said mock-sternly, pulling at her disheveled clothes and hair. "He's not in his right mind. You, however, young man, have no excuse. Have you taken care of the animals this morning?"
"You said to stay inside."
Lydia rubbed her forehead; she'd forgotten that. But she was fairly certain now the stranger's odd words hadn't been a warning. "It's daylight now, and I think the danger's passed. The animals still need us." At Jeremy's frown, she let the subject shift. "Is his telephone working?"
The boy started to scramble off the bed with fresh excitement, seemed to realize he was next to a sleeper, and climbed down the rest of the way more gingerly. "I'll go check."
"You do that." Lydia smiled as she watched him run out, then she approached the bed. The color in the unshaven cheeks was too bright, and there were lines of pain around his eyes. But he was resting peacefully and in utter exhaustion. A temporary victory over the fever.
Lydia was surprised to find her earlier suspicion had all but faded. There was no reason for it to; even evil men loved their families. But something about knowing this man had a "Sammy" out in the world with whom he talked with such obvious affection had melted a lot of her worry. Such a man knew the importance of family, and for better or for worse, she found it hard to believe he would threaten hers.
"I can't get it to call—there's no signal out here," Jeremy said as he walked into the room, bent over the small device. "But there's a lot of stuff on here I can get to."
She only had to consider a moment. "Is there a phone number for a 'Sam'?"
Jeremy paused, fingers working with an ease that amazed her. "Yeah. It's the first number in the list."
Finally. She felt her burden lift a little. "Would you please write it down for me? I'm going to wash up and change, then if you'll sit with the stranger, I'll go down to the McCloskeys and use their phone." Lydia paused as she was about to turn away. "It doesn't say what his name is, does it?"
Jeremy grimaced. "No. Sometimes people put it in their phones, but he didn't."
Another mystery. "All right." She hesitated again. "Have you eaten?"
"I can fix something," Jeremy said with a shrug.
She tried not to smile. Was this the withdrawn young man who'd resisted considering their home his own these last many months? "Good," she said warmly, and went to change.
She left the man sleeping as soundly as before, Jeremy watching him curiously from his former perch on the bed as he ate cereal, and headed out into the chilly morning air.
The McCloskeys were not church-going people and would be home. They were, however, kind and friendly. Lydia had helped Rachel through her illness, and now the families shared the fruits of their harvests and kitchens freely with each other.
Ryan was surprised to see her at the door, but quickly let her in when she explained her need. He left her in the parlor with the phone, and Lydia sat and thought a moment before she dialed.
It was answered on the first ring despite the early hour, by a young male voice. "Yes?"
"Is this Sam?"
"Who's this?" Anxiety and hope, she realized, had immediately turned into suspicion, sadly confirming his relation to her injured guest. Lydia's heart sank for them both.
"Are you missing a young man?" she asked, as gentle as she'd be with Jeremy, and knew she was right when she heard his pull of air.
"Is he okay? Where are you?"
She explained, the young man's uneven breathing the only sign he was still there as she talked. Then, halfway through, she heard the growl of a car engine and realized he was already on his way.
"I'm not far—I'll be there in fifteen minutes. Tell Dean…tell him to hang on, I'm coming."
Lydia smiled. "We'll be waiting."
She thought about the worry in Sam's voice—he sounded younger than Dean—and the relief after. He must have been close by when Dean had gone into the river, and been terrified and searching ever since. She found she had no fear about letting him into her house, even if he was far more of a risk than her incapacitated guest.
He arrived, in fact, just as she was coming up the walk, his large black car's rumble breaking the silence of the crisp morning and the silent snowfall that had just begun.
"Sam?" she asked unnecessarily as he climbed out.
He was tall, like Dean, perhaps even more so, and wore similar clothing. The hair, the features were different, but there was kinship in the eyes. And he was definitely younger. A little brother, she guessed.
"You're Mrs. Stemple?"
"Lydia. Come in."
She led him inside, sensing his restraint in wanting to rush past her. Lydia didn't waste time, heading straight for the bedroom.
She heard the sharp intake of breath behind her even as Jeremy quickly scrambled off the bed at the arrival of this stranger. To her surprise, when Sam hurried forward, Jeremy retreated to her side and leaned into her. She stroked his hair gently.
"Hey, man." Sam's quiet voice had the same affection in it as Dean's earlier. "I'm here. Dean? You hear me?" He lay a hand over the invalid's unevenly rising chest.
Her stranger's eyes flickered open, glassy and unfocused. "S'mmy?"
"Yeah. It's me. Figures I find you in somebody else's bed."
The words had been light, harmless, but the line in Dean's brow deepened. "Sam…behind me."
Sam's head dipped, his parted hair sliding into his face, instantly rendering him years younger. "I know, Dean—I was right behind you before you took that header into the river. What kind of move was that, you jerk?"
Jeremy stifled a giggle, and Lydia tried not to sigh. But she saw her misunderstanding now. Behind me hadn't been a warning. It had been the promise that someone was at his back.
Dean didn't seem aware of the tease, however, throat working, then eyes fluttering shut.
Sam's shoulders rose and fell, then he patted the sleeper's stomach. "Yeah, you get some rest," he said in a tender voice. He flipped the edge of the blanket up, examined the bandage around his brother's thigh, then his battered hands and feet, before finally turning away. His eyes rose to Lydia's before dipping again, long fingers idly smoothing the covers. "I'll move him in a minute—we've got a motel room in town."
She blinked. "He's not well."
Sam's face contorted, just for a fraction of a second. "Yeah. But we don't want to impose—"
That settled it. Lydia shook her head. "Moving him would just make him worse. Stay, both of you, until he's stronger."
He hesitated, hands knotting and unknotting the bedding, expression a little lost.
"If it makes you feel better, I'll ask you to help with a few things once he can be left, and…for you to tell me your story."
She watched his face close down as surely as Jeremy's did whenever the topic of his parents came up.
"As much as you're willing to tell me," she added softly.
His gaze darted up to hers. Then she was astonished to see his eyes grow watery. What kind of weight did these two carry? And was there no one to help them with the burden?
Sam slowly nodded.
"Then it's settled," she said firmly before he could take it back. "Now, you look like you got as much rest as your…brother?" Another nod. "As your brother did last night. The bed is big enough for two—why don't you sleep some? Dean's resting now, anyway. I'll wake you for dinner."
His mouth jerked, like he was trying to decide between smiling and crying, and his hand, she noticed, had gone from the covers to Dean's side, just resting there as if he needed the contact. "Yeah, all right." He looked up at her. "Thank you."
She smiled, then hesitated. "That's what he kept saying before, too—'he's behind me.' I thought he meant whatever attacked him."
Sam's head shook, dark hair spilling into his eyes. Younger and younger. "No, ma'am—he killed that. I'm just…well, kinda like his backup. He expected me to be there at his back, even in the water, I guess." His face shadowed with not having been there when he was needed.
Lydia nodded; just as she'd thought. She canted her head. "You're here now," she offered.
His eyes swung back to the bed, his face soft in all the places it had been hard and angled when he'd first arrived. "Yeah. I am."
She left him to it.
It turned out that Sam was a fair hand at nursing, clearly having experience at doing so.
That was a good thing, because the fever was not done with Dean. As the day wore on, it started to rise again, and Lydia spent too much time outside the bedroom door, listening to the older's broken murmurs and the younger's soft reassurances. She didn't even know their last names, but they'd settled in her room like they belonged there. Sam, in fact, always gave her a wary, assessing look when she came in.
She left him alone to his brother's care, therefore, feeling intrusive when she was present. Sam occasionally asked her for supplies, and she brought him first dinner, then supper, but otherwise she let them be.
Until Sam appeared in the doorway that evening, tousled and tired, face blank and eyes full. "I need some ice."
The snow had fallen all morning and afternoon. Lydia glanced out at it and, knowing what Sam was asking, suggested instead, "Let's take him outside."
It was far easier this time, with Sam there. He carried his brother by himself, in fact, Dean shaking and shuddering again over one shoulder, Sam's arm wrapped firmly around his legs. Outside, Lydia helped him ease Dean off, down into the few inches of soft drift.
Their feverish patient arched away from the cold with a sharp cry, hands scrabbling at his brother's arms. Sam's face was pulled tight with anguish at his brother's pain. But he resolutely kept hold of Dean's biceps, pushing him back, pinning his hips with a leg, careful to avoid the bandage even in his desperation.
"Easy, Dean, easy, it'll be better soon. Just gotta get you cooled down a little." He freed one hand to scoop up some snow, strewing it over the thin t-shirt and hot skin until Dean didn't seem to know where to curl to escape the cold. "It's gonna get better, I promise. Just hold on another minute for me."
"Yeah, it's me. I've got you." He threw a miserable questioning glance at Lydia, who shook her head with regret. Not yet. Sam's face contorted. "Just one more minute."
"Hurts. Cold 's…Hell."
"Think you got that one backwards, man."
Dean's hands spasmed against his brother's shirt. "Please…"
"One more minute." Sam's voice was wavering, his own fingers moving in desperate, clumsy massage of the arms he was forcing down. "It's almost over."
"Sam?" Dean's head rolled to the side, into the snow, teeth chattering and eyes darting. "Sam-my?"
Sam let go of one of his arms long enough to grasp his chin and turn his face back. "I'm right here, Dean. We're almost done, just focus on me, okay? Please, do this for me."
Dean's eyes seemed to clear as he found his brother again. He coughed a few times, obviously trying to force his shaking body to relax. "Needy…bitch," he breathed.
Sam sawed out a laugh. "Ungrateful jerk." He seemed to remember just then he had an audience, and glanced up at Lydia with a blush. "Sorry."
She shook her head, trying not to smile. Jeremy never said I love you either, just picked her wildflowers and drew her pictures and read to her, but she knew it when she saw it.
A full-body shudder wracked Dean, snapping his head back with a groan. Then he went limp under Sam's hands, only his chest sharply rising and falling.
An even more frantic unspoken question from Sam, and this time she nodded.
He didn't put his brother over his shoulder this time, just pulled him up against his chest and held him close, trying to warm him again even as he carried him in from the snow. Lydia watched from the bedroom doorway as Sam pulled the wet t-shirt off, toweled the melting snow off the trembling body, then carefully laid Dean down again and buried him in blankets. Sam got out the supplies to change the damp bandage, and Lydia went to get them both some hot tea.
She checked in on them again, after she'd seen Jeremy off to bed, before she herself turned in in the guest room upstairs. Dean was still lying under the covers, albeit peacefully sleeping this time. And Sam was curled up beside him, pressed up against his brother on top of the covers, forehead against Dean's bare shoulder. It was the way Margo had slept with Frank sometimes when they were both children.
Lydia got another blanket out and draped it over Sam, amused when he mumbled a sleepy, "Thanks, Dean," then shut the door quietly behind her and went to bed.
Dean slept most of the next two days.
Lydia didn't see either of them much the first one, nor expected to. Jeremy had school, and she busied herself cleaning the house in preparation for Alan's return that evening. Sam seemed to alternate between catching up on sleep and just sitting with his brother, gratefully receiving trays of food but otherwise leaving the door shut.
Alan's step on the porch that evening was a relief. Lydia met him at the door.
"I have a story I need to tell you."
They sat on the sofa in the living room, her head leaned against his shoulder as she talked, her own stores refilling at his quiet solidness. It was always one of the things she'd appreciated most about him.
"In the bedroom?" was all Alan asked at the end, then kissed her and got up.
She heard him knock on the door and exchange a few soft words with Sam. Alan was back a minute later.
"I don't think we need to lock our door tonight," was all he said. And that was that.
Jeremy had hugged him, and buried his face in Alan's middle for a long moment before letting go. Lydia knew the feeling, and clung similarly to her husband in bed that night.
The next day, they were in the kitchen talking quietly when there was the sound of throat-clearing in the doorway.
"Sam," Lydia said warmly. "Come sit down. I'll get you some breakfast."
"I'm, uh, not really hungry, but Dean's asleep, and I thought, maybe I could get started on some of that work you needed?"
Alan smiled calmly. "We're all set for right now, son. Why don't you sit a spell?"
They ended up sitting there for the next two hours, drinking two kettles' worth of tea and talking.
Good God, the things he talked about.
It took some patient coaxing, but then it was as if he found a relief in unburdening himself. She still had a feeling he held back a lot, and that was a harrowing enough thought. But what he told them was plenty, of a family history of loss, of the rare creatures they hunted, of the animal that Dean had tumbled into the water with, killing it but being hurt and swept away in the process. Of all the times Sam had thought he'd lost his one remaining family member.
Lydia left him with Alan then, because there were some things men talked about best with other men.
Crossing the hall to the living room, she realized the bedroom door was cracked open, and voices were coming from within. She changed direction and pressed herself to the crack, peering inside.
Jeremy stood by the bed. Dean had pushed himself up against the headboard so he was almost at eye-level with the boy, and his hand gently cupped Jeremy's elbow. Dean's face was still pallid, but his gaze was intense, and she put her hand on the knob to stop Jeremy from wearing out their invalid guest.
But she paused when the words drifted to her.
"…not my mom. She's my grandma. My mom and dad died."
There was a silence that felt respectful in a way adults didn't usually allow for children. Then an equally quiet confession: "My mom died when I was little, and my dad…I lost him not long ago." Dean's voice was as weak as his body surely was, but this was a different kind of softness. "I know it's hard, getting left behind."
Jeremy raised a hand and dashed it across his face, and Lydia's throat closed a little. He'd barely cried. Less than she had, in fact. "It's not fair."
"No," Dean agreed, head shaking slightly. "It's not. But we're lucky, too, dude."
"How?" Full of eight-year-old skepticism.
Dean's eyebrow rose. "Your grandparents love you, right? You've still got them. And I've got Sam. At least we're not alone, kiddo."
"It's not the same." Unabashed weeping now. Lydia's eyes blurred.
One tug was enough invitation. Jeremy was soon crying into Dean's chest, half crumpled onto the bed, and the callused and scabbed hand settled into his fine hair. Out of the boy's sight, Dean squeezed his eyes shut, swallowing hard, face drawn with grief.
Lydia moved away from the door before she was seen, and went back to the kitchen, her heart full.
Sam knew more about farming than either Lydia or Alan had expected, and ended up being a real help to Alan. Otherwise, he spent most of the time in the room with his brother, reading or sleeping or working on his computer. He showed Jeremy how to play a few games on it, too, and Lydia lost her grandson for an hour after school every day until he had to start his homework.
And then there were two times when Sam suddenly showed up in the kitchen, still a little shy and hesitant, aimless. It didn't take much coaxing to find out why.
"I was kicked out," Sam said wryly. "Dean and Jeremy are having a man-to-man."
Lydia tried to suppress a grin. "Dean does seem good with children."
"Yeah, he always has been." Sam shifted. "He practically raised me."
Lydia handed him a mug of tea; they had no coffee in the house, to Dean's dismay. Not that she would have given him some if she'd had it. "I think he's also a bit of a kindred spirit to Jeremy right now."
Sam cleared his throat. "Dean hasn't really talked much to me about us losing our dad. I'm kinda surprised he's talking about it at all, honestly, but maybe Jeremy was just what he needed, you know?"
She nodded. She knew.
They left the following day.
Dean still didn't look completely well, but he could put weight on his leg and no longer swayed when he stood nor slept all the time, and both men seemed anxious to move on. Lydia couldn't really empathize; she would have lost her mind without her home to anchor her. But she could understand it. Home came in many different forms.
Alan shook their hands, then stood back as Lydia got a hug from each.
She clung a while to Sam. Both brothers were orphaned, but there was something in Sam that melted at a maternal touch while Dean remained distant, and the mother in her responded to that craving. He hugged her back hard.
With Dean, she only gave him a quick embrace, feeling him press a hand to her back and then let go. She did the same but then leaned in and whispered, "I want to tell you something I wish I'd had a chance to tell my son: I loved him very much, and still do. We parents aren't always good at saying it, but it's no less true."
She saw him swallow, eyes downcast, and, after a moment, just barely nod. He started to turn away.
Lydia smiled and added, "And don't forget Sam's always behind you."
Dean looked back and offered her a pale grin. "Yeah, well, gotta make sure I keep Beanpole here safe."
And, oh. After half a week with them, she should've known better than to have thought Dean had ever been worried about his own safety. The words hadn't been warning of coming danger, or confidence his brother was watching his back. It was his reassurance that Sam was tucked safely behind him. The realization was like a dip in the cold water the first day of spring, and she flinched from it, feeling her eyes well. Did Sam even…?
She glanced at Sam, saw the soft, quiet way he watched his brother. He knew. Maybe not specifically this time, but he knew, and felt the same way.
Then Jeremy launched himself at Dean, hugging him hard around the waist. Startled, Dean met Lydia's gaze over the flaxen head, and she tipped her head at her grandson in silence, her thank you implicit. He ducked his head again, embarrassed this time. That made her smile, only a little unsteadily, while Sam broke into a grin.
Dean crouched, barely wincing as his leg flexed. His brother was immediately at his side in case he needed help rising again. But Dean ignored him, talking quietly to Jeremy, who nodded in teary silence. Then Dean hugged him back, and gave him a piece of paper. Jeremy folded his fist around it.
Sam did have to pull him up, although they all pretended they didn't see it. Dean muttered something to his brother, and Sam laughed as he bundled him into the car.
Jeremy came over to stand next to her, not shrugging off the arm Lydia laid over his shoulder. "What did he give you?" she asked curiously.
"Phone number," Jeremy whispered. "He wants me to call him, and he's gonna send me some postcards."
They watched as the car pulled away and disappeared down the road, Sam and Dean both waving. They waved back until the road swallowed them up, and Lydia leaned a moment into her husband.
Then she looked down as Jeremy slipped his hand into hers, and smiled at him.
"Why don't we go bake some cookies?"