Circular Argument
K Hanna Korossy

Brains were hard to wash off once they'd dried on.

Not that they would have had any opportunity to clean up the night before, Sam silently conceded as he worked, what with dealing with the aftermath of having just killed about twenty of Sioux Falls' rampaging undead. Still. Probably wouldn't have hurt to throw some bleach or pine cleaner or something up on Bobby's walls to work on the congealed tissue and blood overnight.

"It's been three hours."

Sam glanced over to his left, where Dean was scrubbing just as hard to remove the new décor from Bobby's place, although with an automation that said his thoughts were a million miles away. He wasn't usually one to state the obvious, either, so Sam raised an eyebrow and took the bait. "He's holding a funeral. No timetable on that, man." Frankly, he wouldn't have been surprised if Bobby stayed out in the yard with the ashes of his wife all day. He had no clue how long he and Dean had stood and watched John Winchester's funeral pyre, except that they'd started in the dark and stumbled away in full light.

"I know. Doesn't mean…" Dean's hand slowed and stopped, scrubbing brush hanging loose between his legs. He cut a sideways glance over at Sam. "You should go talk to him."

Sam's second eyebrow joined the first in the ascent toward his hairline. "What? Why me? You're his favorite." It was kind of a joke and kind of not because they both knew it was true. Not that Sam had ever minded; Dean had needed a father figure since their dad died a lot more than Sam did. He had Dean.

"I'm not—" Dean chewed on his lip, seeming to stare at a clump of blond hair stuck to the wall, but Sam was pretty sure that wasn't what he was seeing. "Look, I just…I got nothing for him right now, okay? I've never been in love. Maybe I'm not even able to—"

"Dude." It was enough to shut down the ramble Sam was pretty sure his brother hadn't even realized he was verbalizing. If he'd had any doubts that Famine's words still haunted his brother, though, that near-confession would have put them to rest. The idea that Dean was dead inside, that he couldn't really feel, was ridiculous to anyone who knew Dean Winchester...except for the man himself. Who never had given himself enough credit for anything, including a heart that was big enough to worry about Bobby's grief even when clearly feeling like he himself was dying inside.

Suddenly, talking to Bobby seemed by far the lesser of two Herculean tasks.

Sam dropped the brush into red-tinged water and pushed to his feet with a huff. "Fine, I'll try to talk to him. But if you hear gunfire, you get your ass out there."

Dean's mouth curled a little. "I'll come save you from the big bad old guy in the wheelchair," he promised, the humor half-hearted at best.

"You better," Sam said, and turned to head outside. Behind him, he could hear Dean start scrubbing again.

If only they could clean up the massacre of their lives as easily as they could the Singer home's walls.

00000

He wasn't usually the sentimental kind. Didn't put much stock in traditions or mementos or conventions.

Didn't explain what he was still doing there, staring at the ashes of an extinguished funeral pyre.

It wasn't like he was sitting there basking in memories or anything. Or at least, he was trying not to, although the smell of her hair, the off-tune sound of her humming, the feel of her smooth skin against his callused fingers… Bobby dragged in a breath. He wasn't wallowing, honest to God. He just couldn't seem to move on.

He heard the quiet approach far later than he should've, and even then made no move to defend himself should it be foe instead of friend. It was all he could do to squeeze tears back and try to wipe some of the ragged emotion from his face. By the time he realized it was Sam stepping up behind him, Bobby was pretty sure he could open his mouth without bawling like a baby.

"You finish inside yet?" he asked sharply, because no way was something gentle coming out of his rough throat.

Sam coughed a little. "Dean's almost done with the stairwell. Still got the window to replace, and the closet's gonna take some time, but the rest is cleaned up. Well, except for the holes…"

Bobby chuffed at that. Right; not all of the shot had lodged in the zombies' heads. Small holes peppered the closet and door and the walls around it. And then there was the big hole in the wall by the bed upstairs…

Sam shifted in place. "Hey, Bobby. Uh, when Jess died—"

Bobby couldn't help the bristle as he suddenly realized what was coming. "Don't, boy. Just don't. No disrespect to your girl, Sam, but you knew her, what, a year?"

"Nineteen months," Sam said, subdued.

Bobby nodded tightly. "Well, Karen and I were married seven years. Courted for two before that, knew each other since grade school. So spare me the 'I know how you feel' speech, all right? You don't." He hadn't meant to spit the final words exactly, but couldn't bring himself to feel too bad about it, either.

There was a rustle; Sam was probably shoving his hands into his pockets, shoulder hunching. It was the same body language of contrition from when he was a kid, long before he had any height to try to minimize. "You're right, I don't know how it feels to have to kill your wife," Sam began hesitantly.

The rock inside Bobby's gut shifted again, just like it did every time he was reminded of how Karen had died, both times.

"…but I know how it feels to be responsible for your whole family dying," Sam continued in a low voice, "or for the love of your life to be killed because of you. Or to pull the trigger on someone you care about, just because they're a victim. It's like…it would've been better if you hadn't been born." There was a soft pain in his voice now that struck a sympathetic vibration with the grief in Bobby. "But you know, I'm still glad I got to meet Mom and spend a little time with her, even if…" Sam petered out after that with what sounded suspiciously like a sniff.

Bobby chewed on his lip, vision getting watery again.

Sam cleared his throat. "I'm, uh, gonna leave you alone now, okay? Go…take a walk or something." He stumbled away, toward the front of the yard, away from the house.

Bobby took a deep breath, made a face and looked up. "Sam."

The bowed figure froze, back to Bobby.

Sometimes it was hard to remember he wasn't the only one who'd lost so much. The boy in front of him had faced far more devastation than Bobby in half as many years. He licked his lips. "Thanks," he managed.

It made him feel better to say it, anyway. Wasn't so sure about Sam, who paused another moment, then kept going, still looking oddly small for someone his size.

Well, not like any of them would be fixing what was wrong with them in a few words, or days. Probably not even years. Bobby emptied his lungs and turned to stare once more at what was left of Karen.

He was too lost in his thoughts to keep track of time. He had no idea how much later it was when he heard the yell.

It sounded distant and from the direction Sam had gone in, and definitely the youngest Winchester's voice. Bobby was less sure what the yell had been, but maybe…a call for Dean?

He frowned and turned his chair that way, rolling forward a foot. "Sam?" he called out. "Answer me, boy!"

Silence. Only the soft pop of embers from the pyre and the rustle of bare trees.

The rock inside him felt like it was coated in ice now, and twice as big. Bobby turned his chair toward the house and hollered with everything he had.

"Dean!"

00000

Soak, scrub, rinse. Repeat. There was a precision to cleaning that Dean had always appreciated. Okay, so it was usually weapons and bloody t-shirts and a dusty car he worked on, not a biohazard of a wall, but same difference: you put the work in, you got results. Not like life, where you tried and struggled and gave it all you had and still ended up worse than you'd started out. Bobby was already stuck in that friggin' chair; he shouldn't have had to pay this price, too. And why, because he was a friend of the Winchesters?

It wasn't fair. Wasn't right. Didn't make any sense at all. Nothing had in a really long time.

So Dean kept scouring, giving Bobby back his house, his sanctuary, because that, at least, he could do. The stairway was almost clean; next up would be the door he—

"Dean!"

The holler yanked his head up, more for the tone than for his name. Bobby sounded…shaken up. Maybe they hadn't found all the zom—

Dean pelted down the stairs, grabbing the shotgun at the bottom as he ran.

Didn't take long to make it across the yard to where Bobby had set up his final farewell. The older man's face was set in tense but unbloodied lines. Dean scanned the yard behind him, seeing nothing, then searched Singer's face again.

"Bobby, what—?"

"It's Sam. Took off that way a while back, but I just heard him hollering. Sounded like he was calling for you. Hasn't answered me since."

Crap. Dean's heart, which he could have sworn was already down in his boots, sank even lower. Crap, crap, crap. Because it never ended, the burden was never enough. Dean swore under his breath as he pulled out his phone. "Where was he going?" he asked Bobby as he dialed. "I thought he was out here talking to you?"

Bobby's jaw and eyes shifted. "Yeah, well… We didn't talk long."

"This is Sam—"

"Straight to voicemail," Dean growled. "Moron turned off his phone." Which meant no finding him with GPS then, either.

"Or…" Bobby exchanged a grim look with him.

"Go inside and call Sheriff Mills." Dean was already stalking in the direction Bobby had pointed him to, toward the front of the junkyard and the road beyond. "Stay sharp, Bobby."

"I know what to do—you go find him."

Right. 'Cause it was always that easy.

The yard was quiet as Dean passed through the graveyard of cars. He'd always loved the playground of Bobby's yard, the shelter and education and beauty of it. Now the piles of dead cars were just towering shells, husked out and ominous. He pulled his flannel shirt closer together and wished passingly that he'd grabbed his jacket along with the shotgun, even if that was covered in blood and brains, too.

Still no sound as he neared the front gate. Dean had been trying not to think about what that meant, trying not to think at all about what he'd find; his head was always so full of Sam as it was. Sam hurting, betraying, struggling, lying, pleading, hitting, caring. He couldn't deal with Sam missing, too. Not now. He just couldn't.

But no one seemed to be listening.

Past the monoliths of the salvage yard, the South Dakota landscape stretched flat and unbroken except for occasional trees. The weather was clear enough that you could see for at least a mile in every direction, and Dean did, turning in place as he stared down either length of the road, the horizon, the yard's fence. Nada.

"Sammy!" He yelled it from his gut, fear shoving its way into the words, but Dean was willing to pay that price for volume. If his voice carried to Sam in some ditch down the road, or curled up behind a tree, he didn't care how obvious his worry was.

Because nothing answered him except the South Dakota wind, and Dean felt the cold all the way in his gut.

He tried the phone again, unsurprised when it once more skipped straight to voicemail. It could be a foot away from him and he wouldn't know it if it was turned off. Sam could be just as close, injured and silent, hidden by the uneven runoff that trailed the road, the dips and—

Something caught his eye. Dean stepped closer and crouched, then swallowed.

It was just a couple of drops, but they were still tacky to his fingers, if cool. Dark red and viscous. Not a lot, maybe the result of a punch to the face, nothing more. But it was blood and it was Sam's. Had to be.

Dean's eyes narrowed as he looked for any other clues. There was nothing in the drainage ditch that ran along that side of the road, and a quick jog to the other side revealed nothing there, either. The hard-packed dirt of the shoulders was scuffed, but that could've been anything. There was some rubber on the asphalt just a few feet from the blood drops, not that that would help much. Still, a touch found them to also be fresh, not yet flaking in the weather or dusted by the wind. A car accident? No, not enough blood—thank God—and anyway, visibility was terrific. Even if Sam had just stepped out from the gate—and Dean was at least fifteen feet from there—any car should've seen him in plenty of time to stop. No, this…this was deliberate. Either Sam got a ride, or…

Anger, his old friend, cleared his head of some of the mindless fear. Deliberate meant logic and hints and an answer. It meant a foe Dean could actually pound instead of just rail emptily against. It meant he could fix this, find Sam.

Because of all the pain that Sam filled his head and heart with, there was still one thing there was so much more of: love. And that was what made everything else bearable.

"Sammy," Dean murmured to the empty road. Funny how he almost wished at that moment that Famine had been right about him and he couldn't feel a thing. He turned back toward the yard, face blank and soul aching.

Bobby was waiting for him on the porch. "Anything?"

Dean shook his head. "Little blood, maybe some skid marks. Truck. No sign of Sam."

Bobby's mouth tightened. "Jody wasn't too happy about it, but she's started looking. Not sure she's gonna have much help, though."

Dean nodded his weary understanding. He couldn't exactly blame the residents of Sioux Falls. Those whose spirits hadn't been crushed by the returning undead were still less than crazy about the Winchesters and their coincidental appearance at the same time. "Yeah, we're probably not gonna win any popularity…"

Realization settled over him like a blanket full of bricks. He saw the same light go on in Bobby's eyes.

"Who would you say—?" Dean began.

"Oh, I've got some ideas." Bobby already had his phone in hand and was dialing. "Jody? We got ourselves a suspicion."

"Names, Bobby," Dean demanded, snapping his fingers. He knew from experience that the only thing some folks would see was that they'd lost a loved one and the Winchesters were somehow involved. If a local yokel decided to get some zombie payback from Sam, time was critical.

Bobby made some arrangement over the phone and snapped it shut. "We'll run the possibles down. Doesn't mean we'll find anything, at least not at their homes. Dean." Bobby shook his head. "Your best bet's just to get out there and start looking."

He hated it, but there was sense to that. If some fine upstanding citizen of Sioux Falls had grabbed Sam, chances are they wouldn't be taking him home for tea. It was far more likely they'd mete out their brand of justice some place deserted but nearby, maybe between Singer Salvage and town. Dean had been on that road a hundred times and a couple of likely spots were already springing to mind.

"I'll keep in touch," Bobby promised more quietly as Dean ran through options, none of them too appealing. "We'll find him."

Dean met his eyes and found the steadiness there that had been missing the last few days, since Karen Singer's return. He hadn't quite realized how much he'd relied on it until he suddenly felt like he could breathe a little easier. "Right. Okay. Call if you get anything."

"I will."

With effort, Dean got his feet moving, back down the porch stairs, to his car. Storm clouds were rolling in, and the wind had sharpened. A few needles of cold rain stabbed his face as Dean got into the car. Awesome. He just hoped Sam wasn't outside somewhere in this weather.

Then again, since when did their luck run anything but bad?

Afternoon gradually dimmed into evening, any sunset buried behind dark clouds. Drizzle turned into a cold, soaking rain, the kind that stiffened healthy bones and made old ones ache. It cut the visibility, too, and Dean's head had long started aching from trying to focus through the dark downpour to see any movement or human shape.

Bobby and Mills had talked to one guy who'd lost his wife a second time but found he was too busy with his kid to be any trouble. Another widower wasn't home. They were on their way to the third name on their list, a dad who'd taken his zombie son's return hard, but Bobby hadn't sounded too optimistic.

Dean, meanwhile, was running through his own list of possibilities.

A zombie they'd missed? Wasn't impossible, but the undead weren't subtle or neat. Sam should've seen them coming a mile off, and if one did somehow get the drop on him, there would've been more than just a few drops of blood.

Maybe Death hadn't left town yet. God knew a Horseman was a serious enough threat. But…if the Horsemen were working for Lucifer, they wouldn't hurt Sam. Even if Death had tipped Lucifer off as to Sam's location, the Devil seemed content enough to wait for Sam to come to him in his own time. And the angels apparently didn't care about Sam one way or another, completely on board with the big Showdown at the Angelic Corral plan. Dean gave a dry snort. Figured that the one thing the angels and demons would agree on was screwing the Winchesters over.

Which left…well, a lot of things. There were plenty of old enemies out there, everything from the whole spectrum of generic uglies, to hunters looking to stop the Apocalypse, to your garden variety human with an ax to grind. Or even just a too few many drinks under their belt. The fact was, most of world, natural and supernatural, was not on the Winchesters' side, and the list of potential suspects threatened to drown Dean in despair. How was he supposed to find—

"Sam," he whispered, jamming on the brakes.

Because there, in fact, was his brother, outlined in the glare of the headlights as he stumbled along the side of the road toward the Impala.

Dean shoved his door open and scrambled out, heedless of the rain that immediately plastered his hair to his head. "Sam!" he yelled.

The figure, now not ten feet away, stopped, swaying in place.

Dean made himself slow down instead of grabbing Sam like he'd intended. Something was wrong, and he knew better than to startle a hunter who wasn't all there. "Sammy?" he said instead, and moved smoothly and measuredly, reaching out to take his brother's arm. "Hey, you with me?"

Sam was still wearing the clothes Dean had last seen him in, which meant only two layers of shirts and a light jacket, now completely soaked through. But his face…

"Sammy," Dean murmured, reaching up carefully to hover over the puffy black eyes, the swollen, discolored cheekbone and jaw, and the fat lip. He finally laid his hand along the back curve of Sam's neck, sliding up icy skin and sodden hair only to find another split and swollen bump. "Dude, what did you get yourself into this time?"

Sam stood there a moment longer. His eyes were invisible in all the swelling, but Dean still felt them peering at him, studying him.

Then Sam folded silently into his arms.

"Whoa, hey!" Not that Dean hadn't completely seen that coming, but catching two hundred pounds of deadweight still took some serious juggling. He grabbed and clung urgently to keep Sam from hitting the wet pavement, touching down with his own rear instead as he gathered Sam to him. Those stupid long limbs stuck out every which way, but Dean finally managed to get Sam leaning against him, wet hair sticking to the skin of Dean's neck, ribs rising and falling a little too fast against Dean's. "Sam?" he tried.

No answer. The guy was out cold.

But he was breathing, his heart was steady, and he was shivering even if he felt like he was on the wrong side of hypothermia. And he was there, sprawled undignifiedly in his big brother's lap, but in Dean's care now, no longer lost, or at someone else's mercy, or worse. This, Dean could deal with.

"Let's get you home," he said quietly, voice lost in the rain. No matter; wasn't like anyone would hear it. Shaking his head, Dean got his arms under Sam's limp ones and braced himself to do some hauling.

He called Bobby once they were heading back toward the house. Sam was tucked into the back seat, buried under every blanket Dean could find, breathing congestedly into the vinyl. Dean's eyes were on him as much as on the road as he talked.

"You sure that's the guy?...Heh, yeah, sounds about right—Sam wouldn't've gone down without a fight. …Yeah, his face looks like someone really whaled on him…I don't know, haven't had a chance to check yet. But he's breathing okay, not coughing up blood…Yeah. Bobby? Uh, thank Mills for me, huh? Tell her I owe her one…I know she was married—jeez, Bobby, give me some credit!" Shaking his head, Dean shut the phone and put it away.

Sam shifted in the back, groaning quietly before going still again.

Dean's gaze ping-ponged between the dark road and the back seat. "Hang in there, man, almost home. Then we'll get you fixed up." He sighed, rubbing his eyes quickly. Long, long day. With a chuffed laugh, Dean shook his head, glancing back at his passenger once more. "Only you, dude. Only you would go out for some sharing-and-caring and end up in a beat-down."

At least some things hadn't changed.

00000

It felt strange, coming home to a house full of light. For a second, his heart stuttered Karen, but Bobby beat it back mercilessly. She was gone, and this time, God willing, she wouldn't be back.

The Impala stood in front of the house instead, parked as near to the porch as was possible while still leaving room for Bobby's chair to get up the ramp. Bobby frowned, knowing what that meant: Sam had been in no shape for a long walk.

Jody pulled up next to the black car and got out, collecting the wheelchair from the trunk. Neither of them paid much attention to the rain at that point, as wet as they were gonna get in the thick waterproof coats all Dakotans owned. Still, Bobby gave her his thanks as he transferred himself from her cruiser's front seat to the chair.

"You gonna be all right from here?" Jody asked, eyeing first him, then the lit house critically.

"I'll be fine." He gave her a half-smile. Nothing like a zombie uprising to make some new friends, but it was good to have some law on his side for once.

She nodded. "Call me when Sam's up to giving a statement."

"Will do."

Bobby didn't wait for her to get back in her car, knowing she'd still move a lot faster than he. By the time he finally gained the porch and was opening the door, the cruiser's lights were disappearing out the gate.

Bobby sighed, braced himself, and went inside.

The boys hadn't done a bad job of patching up the place, actually. He hadn't really been able to appreciate their progress when he'd rushed in before, his mind only on a missing Winchester, but the living room didn't look like a slaughterhouse anymore, at least. There was a tarp hung over the front window to keep the rain out—a belated act, if the water on the floor around it was any indication—and a blanket had been thrown over the closet door to hide the mess remaining there. Bobby found himself touched that Dean had thought to do as much even with his focus on Sam. The rest of the place was pretty clean, though, and Bobby felt another little piece of disquiet reluctantly settle inside him.

"Dean?" he called, not as loud as he could but loud enough.

Sure enough, a head popped up over the back of couch, blinking tiredly at him. "Hey, Bobby."

Bobby was surprised for a second, but it made sense: the only bed downstairs was his own, and Dean wouldn't take that unless one of them was dying. Or Sam was dying, at least. But the couch was long and fairly comfortable, co-opted as a Winchester bunk often enough in the past, and wouldn't require hauling a bruised body up the stairs.

Bobby wheeled around the sofa, taking in the scene at a glance. Dean was sitting on the floor facing away from the couch, his head tilted back to rest on the cushion beside his brother's. Sam's face was badly bruised and swollen but relatively peaceful as he lay sleeping under a pile of covers. His hair curled with dampness, but a towel was draped over the top of his head. The one hand that stuck out from the blankets had two fingers taped. But in all, he looked better than Bobby had expected, between how beaten up Marcus and his buddies had been and the way his own imagination had run.

"How's he doing?" Bobby asked nevertheless, because Dean would know down to the tiniest bone and smallest temperature change.

Dean dragged a hand through hair that was as damp as his brother's, his eyes flicking back to the sleeper. "It's mostly surface—lot of bruising, swelling. Looks like they mostly just used him as a punching bag." His voice was sorrowful more than angry; anger took energy, and Dean looked like he was past empty. "He'll live, even if he might not want to for a few days."

Bobby snorted at that. He peeled off his coat, letting it fall on the floor, and shook the rain off his hat. "Marcus Friar's already confessed. Idiot saw Sam on the road and just 'couldn't resist.'"

Dean's fist curled. "Let me guess, kin of one of the ungrateful dead?"

"Brother," Bobby said wearily.

The spark died just as fast in Dean's eyes. "Oh." He rubbed a hand over his face, a tell of how exhausted he was. "He's locked up, right?"

"Yup."

"Fine." It wouldn't have been once; Dean would have wanted to tender his own brand of justice. But times were oddly simpler these days: surviving, doing the right thing, and being together had become their only standards for good. Let the world deal with its own injured and idiots.

Alive, together, and unbroken. Karen wasn't, but truth be told, Bobby's heart had let her go a long time ago. His current family was still there, however, sticking with him through handicap, loss, and, God help him, even his threats to shoot them. That wasn't something to make light of, even if the loss was also great.

Bobby cleared his throat, breaking the prolonged silence. He could feel Dean's attention, even though the kid was still watching his brother. "Sam talked to me, you know, before Marcus and his two boneheaded friends grabbed him."

"Yeah?" Dean said quietly. Sam shivered in his sleep, and Dean adjusted the blankets, tucking them around Sam's neck.

Bobby made a face. "Gave me the whole Tennyson bit about it being better to have loved and lost. Or is that Browning?"

Dean's face screwed in confusion. "The gun?"

"The poet, you moron. You want to hear this or not?"

Dean's mouth tucked in, maybe over a grin, but Bobby was ignoring that, and Dean lifted a hand in surrender and please, continue.

Bobby stuck out his jaw, sighing grievously. "Thing is…he was right. It was…God, it was good to hold her again, hear her sing. And…she told me something before she died." His eyes were on his damp jeans, and the tear she'd mended with her tight, neat stitches. "She said she…forgave me for what I had to do, both times. She was lying there dying and she forgave me…" He had to swallow hard to keep the sob in.

A hand settled on his shoulder, squeezing lightly. He hadn't even heard Dean move.

There was quiet for a very long time, just them breathing, watching Sam, soaking up the quiet that was broken only by the gentle sound of rain outside.

Then, "Welcome to Team Free Will, Bobby," Dean said softly, patting him on the shoulder one more time before returning to his post by the couch.

He wasn't totally sure what that was about…but Bobby had to admit, even a ragtag, underdog team beat being alone.

He dreamed of Karen that night, and she was alive and happy.

00000

It was hard to breathe. His face felt stuffed full and tight and his chest ached. His eyes wouldn't open very far and he couldn't see.

"Dean?" Sam tried to keep the breathy panic from his voice.

"Hmm? Oh, hey, I'm here. Here, Sam." The surface he was lying on rocked to one side, then Dean's hand flattened across his chest. It felt warm. "Dude, you okay? You remember what happened?"

He gave up trying to open his eyes. Or sit up. Or do anything but breathe and curl two stiff fingers around Dean's. "Mm. Ticked s'mebody off. 'Gain."

Dean chuckled quietly. "Yeah, we're good at that. You're back at Bobby's. Not gonna be eating solids for a few days, but it's not too bad. Get some more sleep, man. It's, like, three in the morning."

"'Kay." Sam took in a cautious breath, feeling his brother's hand still resting atop his ribs. "Dean?"

"Yeah."

"Bobby al'right?"

"Good as any of us."

Sam scoffed lightly. "That good, huh?"

"Shut up and go to sleep, Sam."

"Yeah, 'kay."

They could talk about it—or not—in the morning.

The End