Full Title: "The Hitch-Hunter's Guide to Apple Country (or Why Abandoning Your Back-Up at a Dairy Queen and Setting Off to Prove Some Macho Point is a TERRIBLE Idea)"

Sorry for the delay on this one, guys. Real life kind of sucker-punched us for a little while there.

Fear not, though. We've been hard at work on these little nuggets of pain and torment, as well as the sequel, and things should move on at a pretty regular pace from here on out.

Barring unforeseen complications such as illness, artlessness, and velociraptors, of course. See you next week for Chapter 2!

Sam lies awake and listens to the sound of Dean breathing at his back.

His head is still pounding, an awful building of pressure that threatens to split his skull at the seams, his throat stings from crying, and he knows that things between him and Dean are going to be just as raw and broken in the light of day. Dean is still here, a warm, solid line at Sam's back, but Sam knows him, knows that his brother is hurt in more ways than one, and no matter how Dean tries to push it down, it's going to rise up and swallow them both sooner or later.

And in spite of all that, the truth is that Sam is so, so lucky. If Dean hadn't been carrying that unloaded pistol, if Sam had hit him a little harder, hesitated a little less…

He doesn't even want to think about it. Doesn't want to imagine a reality where Sam has to watch, trapped and screaming inside of his own mind, as he destroys the most important thing in his world.

He'd said a lot of things under Ellicott's influence that he hadn't meant – not really, not the way they came out – but there's one thing he'd said that he knows is true without a doubt: If he had killed Dean, he wouldn't have had the strength to walk out of there. That would be it. Over. Everything Sam and Dean have done and been through reduced to just another crazy murder-suicide at Roosevelt Asylum, and God, he doesn't even want to imagine.

Since Jess, Sam has felt like he's hanging by a single, solitary thread, and some days, it's like he can actually feel it starting to fray and slip from his grasp as he dangles over this dark, endless pit full of unnamed nightmares just waiting to swallow him whole, and Sam can't.

He can't do this alone.

He can't live in a world without Dean in it, came to terms with that a long time ago with an IV needle in one hand and a bowie knife in the other, and the idea of it being Sam who took Dean away? Sam's finger on the trigger? Sam's hands covered in his brother's blood?


He closes his eyes tight and listens as Dean snorts and shifts in his sleep so he's breathing right into Sam's ear, a move that would normally drive Sam crazy but, right now, just fills him with a sense of helpless, dizzying relief.

Dean is alive. He's alive and he's right here, and Sam might have damaged their relationship in ways Dean may never really forgive, and his brother still has plenty of time to come to his senses and leave before Sam gets another chance to destroy him like he's destroyed everything else he's touched, and maybe Dean will. But even if he does, even if the pain of that thought is so sharp Sam can barely breathe with it, it's okay, because at least his brother is alive.

The sound of Dean's phone buzzing on the nightstand startles Sam out of his thoughts, and he fumbles for it, flips it open and croaks a low "Hello?"

"Sam? It that you?"

Sam knows that voice, would know it anywhere. He's thought about what he'd say the next time he heard it, replayed the words a thousand times, but now all he can get out is:


"Yeah, it's me," John says.

He sounds tired, a little choked up in a way Sam has never heard him, and Sam has no idea what it means, just knows that hearing their dad sounding human and vulnerable somehow makes him angrier, like John's doing it on purpose, making Sam care about him when all Sam wants to feel is hatred. He wants to scream at his father, wants to hang up with a click and send the phone hurtling across the room, but he needs to know:

"You're after the thing that killed Mom, aren't you?"

John is silent for a moment.

"Yeah," he exhales. "It's a demon, Sam."

Beside him, Sam feels Dean stirring, eyes opening to squint up at him with blurry curiosity.

"A demon?" Sam asks. "Are you sure?"

"Hey," Dean rumbles, rolling back and scrubbing a hand over his face. "Who is that?"

"Do you know where it is?" Sam demands, holding up a hand for Dean to wait.

"Yeah, I think I'm finally closing in on it."

"Where are you?" Sam demands, scrambling for the motel stationary. "We're leaving right now."

There's a long pause.

"Sammy, put your brother on the phone."

"Why?" Sam demands, eyes narrowing.


"Don't," Sam cuts him off. "You've had six months to talk to him, and you couldn't be bothered to pick up the phone. Right now, you're talkin' to me."

Dean's eyebrows shoot up, and John exhales long and loud into the receiver.

"I called to tell you boys to stop trying to find me, Sam," he says. "I told you from the beginning not to look for me—"

"No," Sam hisses, "you drugged me and left it in a goddamn note."

Dean's eyes narrow in the dim as he elbows up, snags Sam's forearm to get the phone away from his ear.

"Is that Dad?"

"Dean almost died," Sam continues, feeling the familiar fire burning in his belly as he jerks his arm away from Dean. "Do you even care?"

Dean says, "Sam, give me the phone," at the same time John gravels, "We don't have time for this."

Sam's mouth snaps open as he dodges Dean's insistent hands, ready and willing to tell their dad exactly where he can stick his fucking time table, but John presses on.

"Now, I'm giving you an order: Stop following me. This is bigger than you think. They're everywhere. It's not even safe for us to be talking right now."

Sam sets his jaw, fingers clenching tight on the phone, because no, he doesn't just get to decide that.

"We're not going to—"

Dean snatches the phone out of his hand and presses it to his ear.

"Dad? Are you okay?" Dean asks.

John says something, and Sam watches as Dean's posture goes rigid, his face blank.

As he goes from Sam's brother to Dad's soldier in blink of an eye.

"Yes, sir," he says. "Yeah, I have a pen right here."

He tugs the pen and pad out of Sam's fingers and scribbles out several sets of names with his mouth set in a tight, dead line.

"Anything else you—? Yeah. Yes, sir. Bye."

The call goes dead, and Dean stares at it for a long moment.

"What the hell did he tell you?" Sam demands.

Dean launches out of the bed and jerks on yesterday's jeans, not meeting Sam's eye.

"Come on, we gotta go."

"They're all couples," Sam says an hour later, hanging up his phone and making a note by the last name on Dean's list. "All from different states, all disappeared on the second week of April, same stretch of highway—"

"In Indiana, yeah," Dean nods without looking away from the road.

Sam huffs, crumpling the road map in his lap up and shoving it to the floorboards.

"So, this is a hunt."

"Looks like it," Dean says, expression unreadable.

They're silent for a long moment before Sam finally huffs out an annoyed breath and says, "Stop the car."

Dean's eyes flick over to him, brow furrowed.


"Stop. The car," Sam says again through gritted teach.

"Why?" Dean demands, but he's already turning the wheel to pull the Impala onto the shoulder of the highway.

"Dad called from a payphone with a Sacramento area code," Sam explains, thumbing through Dean's call history to display the number.


"Dean, Dad said he was closing in on this demon. If that's true, then we need to be there!"

"Dad doesn't want us there," Dean protests.

"I don't care what he wants!"

Dean frowns.

"He gave us an order, Sam."

"I. Don't. Care," Sam says again. "After the crap he's pulled, you shouldn't either!"

Dean scowls at him, shoulders set straight, unbending.

"Sam, there are people in Indiana who are going to die if we don't get there."

"So call Bobby, have him get someone down here to take care of it," Sam dismisses.

"And if they don't make it in time?" Dean demands. "We're one state away, Sammy! No one's gonna be closer than us! And even if they are, you don't know that they'll be any good or that they'll take it seriously or—"

"And you don't know they won't!" Sam protests, arms flinging wide as the confines of the passenger seat will allow.

"So what?" his brother snaps. "You're ready to just risk these people's lives because you've got places you'd rather be?"

"By the time we finish the case, Dad could be gone, Dean!" Sam explodes. "Who knows when we'd get another lead on where this demon is. It could be another six months! It could be never!"

Dean shakes his head, sympathetic and resigned and Sam knows, knows he's just gonna hate whatever comes out of his brother's mouth next.

"Look, Sam, I know how you feel but—"

"Do you?" Sam demands, glaring up at his from behind his bangs, serious and sharp and not holding back, not a bit, not now.

Dean stares at him open-mouthed, and Sam gives a sad, angry laugh.

"You knew Jess for what, two days? Three?" he says. "You really wanna tell me you know how I feel? You can't. And if you did, there's no way you'd be able to just walk away from this."

"Dad said it wasn't safe," Dean says after a moment. "He—"

"Who cares what Dad said?!" Sam explodes. "I just— I don't get you! How can you still trust him after everything he's done?!"

"It's called being a good son!" Dean snaps.

"No," Sam shoots back, "it's called being a good soldier."

For a second, Dean looks like he wants to hit him. Instead, he smacks a palm against the gear shift, angles the Impala back onto the highway, and punches the gas.

"Goddammit, Dean," Sam protests. "Come on. Think about what you're doing!"

"I know exactly what I'm doing," Dean tells him. "I'm going to Indiana. You wanna go to California that bad, then you're walkin' there."

"I'm not going to go without you," Sam says, indignant, "and I am not leaving you to hunt this thing alone!"

Dean's hands clench into fists on the steering wheel.

"Why not?" he grinds out. "I could handle it."

"Are you kidding me?" Sam exclaims. "Dean, you almost died yesterday!"

"No, you almost killed me yesterday," Dean says viciously, eyes cold and jaw working. "Hell, at this point, I'm startin' to think maybe I'd be safer hunting without you than with."

Sam draws back, hurt twisting sharp in his gut.

"What are you saying?" he demands. "You want me to go?!"

Dean doesn't look at him.

"You do what you want, Sam," he says coldly, eyes not leaving the road. "Always do, right? Don't give a damn about anybody but yourself."

Sam can feel his hands trembling like a leaf, heady mixture of rage and pain making him feel sick and dizzy.

"At least I've got a mind of my own," he bites out.

Dean laughs hollowly.

"Right, how could I forget? I'm Dad's little bitch-boy. His freaking butt-puppet. Gonna follow his orders until I get us both killed, right?"

Sam sneers, can feel his face twisting into an echo of the monster Ellicott's ghost made out of him yesterday as the anger bubbles up, takes over.

"Not exactly proving me wrong, are you?"

Dean yanks the wheel to the right, skimming the Impala over a corner of grass, spewing gravel behind them as he turns onto an exit at the last possible second. Sam slaps a palm against the window to steady himself.

Dean pulls into a gas station just off the overpass, glowing dimly in the early morning fog, empty except for a pair of sleepy looking bikers and an electric blue Volkswagen with a gas pump nozzle clicking away in the tank.

"Get out."

Sam stares at him.


"Get. Out," Dean repeats.

And stupidly, Sam does. Swings open the passenger's door and stands in the chilly parking lot, expecting to see his brother emerge from Impala to give him hell, maybe even take a swing at him.

Instead, what he gets is Dean leaning across the front seat to fling Sam's cell phone and wallet at his stomach before pulling the passenger door closed with a loud, creaky slam.

Sam watches in shock as Dean peels out of the parking lot with a squeal of tires, stares blankly as the Impala tears up the overpass and back onto the highway towards Indiana.

It takes a minute for Sam to process what just happened, and then he's dialing Dean's number with trembling fingers, stalking back and forth in front of the gas pumps as it rings and trying to pretend he can't feel the stares of the bikers or the college chick who's emerged from the front seat of her Beetle to shut off the pump. Finally, after what feels like an eternity, Sam hears Dean's voicemail click on, giving him a tinny beep before it tells him to leave a message.

"Dean, what the hell?!" Sam bursts out. "Are you crazy? You can't just leave me here! Come get me, NOW!"

He hangs up, drags a palm over his face and tries not to think about the possibility that maybe Dean is following through on his threat from last night, that maybe this time Sam's pushed him too much, too far. That maybe Dean won't be coming back at all. He draws his hands into fists, not sure if he wants to drive one right into his brother's stupid face or sit down on the curb and cry.

"Hey, are you okay?" the owner of the blue Volkswagen asks. She's wearing an Indiana State hoodie and has a half-eaten cream cheese Danish clutched in one petite hand. "I mean, I've had some rough breakups, but that was just harsh."

"No, he—" Sam starts, shoving a hand through his hair. "That was my brother."

The girl winces, pink lips crinkling in a silent "oooh."

"Wow, that actually makes it kinda worse."

Sam can't say he disagrees.

"Is he coming back?" the girl asks tentatively, taking a half-step closer.

"Yeah," Sam says instantly, a lot more vehemently than he means to. "Of course he is. He's just—"

"Just what?" she asks, her eyebrows drawn together under tousled blonde bangs.

Sam glances down at the phone in his hand, doesn't have an answer to give her.

"Well, can I- maybe- give you a ride somewhere?" the girl asks hesitantly.

"No," Sam says. "Thanks for offering but. He's going to come back."

He has to come back.

"I just need to wait here," he continues lamely.

"Yeah?" the girl asks, not looking too convinced. "Well, do you want me to, like, wait with you or something?"

Sam shakes his head.

"You really don't have to do that. I'll be fine."

"O-kay..." she says slowly, spinning on her heel and walking back toward the car.

She gets as far as the driver's side door before she pauses, then turns to strides back over to Sam.

"Look, here's the thing," she says. "I'm sure you really would be fine, but this is the middle of nowhere, and if I leave you here and then see on the news that you got Deliverance-d or something, I'm going to feel really bad."

Sam can't keep himself from letting out a weak chuckle. He shakes his head.

"I can take care of myself, believe me."

The girl shrugs, gesturing toward the Dairy Queen attached to the gas station.

"Well, I'm super hungry, so I'm just going to go in there," she says. "You can stand out here or you can come sit with me. Your choice."

"Hungry, huh?" Sam asks, raising a skeptical eyebrow at the pastry in her hand.

She grins, flash of white teeth, eyes titling fox-like.

"Maybe I got a big appetite."

Again, Sam has to laugh, ducking his head.

"Fine," he says. "You win."

He stretches out a hand.

"I'm Sam, by the way."

She shakes his hand, still smiling wide.

"Hi, Sam. I'm Meg."