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Take the Long Way Home

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~~~

Oh god, that hurts.

Dean keeps his eyes closed for the moment, taking stock of his injuries and listening for movement around him. His abs hurt something fierce, burning in a way that he knows means bad news. There's an oozy stickiness to his shirt that squelches when he breathes, and that is definitely not a good sound. His head hurts too, but there's no feeling of trickling or dried blood there, so that's one thing to be thankful for.

He opens his eyes to less than half-mast, trying to take a look around without giving himself away to any creepy-crawlies that might be nearby. There's plush-but-dingy carpeting under him, and he's staring at a wall that's very close. He can feel another wall at his back. It's not solid – a railing, probably – so he's in a hallway, on an upper floor.

He keeps breathing shallowly, listening for any sound, anything from the monster they're hunting or from Sam. He can't remember where Sam is and it's starting to scare him, especially since the hole in his gut feels like it's about to burst into flames. No sound, friendly or not, so he opens his eyes all the way and lifts his head. He's staring at a delicate-looking foyer table. Considering the shape he's in, he's surprised it's still intact.

"Sammy?" Dean whispers. There's no response, just heavy, stifling silence.

Dean checks himself over, gingerly checking under the blood-soaked section of his shirt. It looks pretty bad; worse than it feels, actually. He stares at the wound: crisp, burnt skin around the edges, a smattering of buckshot wounds across his stomach, and a gaping emptiness where he's fairly sure there should be intestines or his spleen or something. He takes a minute to tie the flannel he's wearing over his guts, just to make sure nothing falls out. The thought is vaguely sickening.

Dean doesn't scare easy, but if he's gutshot and Sam's not close, something is very, very wrong, and he can feel the adrenaline prickle under his skin as he calls for his brother again. "Sam!"

He tries to place where he is and why he's here. The fact that those things are fuzzy probably means a concussion, too. This day just keeps getting better and better.

He blacks out for a second, maybe more. For a few glorious moments there is no pain, no worry about Sam, no nothing. He snaps back almost as soon as he checks out, though, the pain focusing his attention and kicking his brain into high gear. He looks around, seeing if anything will jumpstart his memory.

It looks like a typical sort of hunt, creepy house, old-fashioned and run-down, but not too bad - like it's only been abandoned for a decade or two. The winding staircase to his left is stone – marble, maybe – and it sweeps open to a black-and-white tiled grand foyer, complete with a large chandelier, tons of crystal teardrops hanging off it. It should be spraying prisms of sunlight everywhere, but it's overcast and there's a grey pall over everything. He's not sure how he can tell it's daytime, even, except it's not dark enough to be night and there's a quality to the light that's not quite right for dawn or twilight.

"Sam!"

He can feel dread creeping up his throat, the kind that only ever comes when he doesn't know exactly where Sam is, or if he's safe. He reaches in his pocket to pull out his cell phone, a hand over the hole in his gut to make sure nothing falls out. The damn thing's completely dead, nothing more than an electronic brick. Damn it.

"Sammy," he yells, a little hoarse now, the adrenaline really starting to kick things into gear. The pain is lessening, his face feels hot and he has to move, has to start looking for his brother. "I swear to god, if you don't answer me –"

"Dean!" Sam yells, running into the foyer from one of the side rooms, doing a neat turn mid-stride to get on the staircase and mount the steps three at a time. He's soaking wet and covered in dirt. It must be raining cats and dogs out there. A pungent smell is coming off him, something familiar that Dean can't quite place. "Dean, I'm sorry I'm late, I just –" Sam stops, looking down at Dean's stomach and swallowing hard. "I'm sorry."

"It's not that bad," Dean says, trying for pissed off, but there's way too much relief in it. It comes out sounding like he was making a half-assed joke. The adrenaline is still running high and he gets to his feet. If he's on his feet, he's all right, they can finish the hunt and get out of here, and worry about his injuries later. "See? I'm fine."

Sam doesn't respond, which is seriously bad news, and Dean looks up at him, suddenly noticing how off he looks. "Sammy?" he asks. "You okay?"

Sam swallows and nods, meeting Dean's eyes and holding them, like he's testing out the Winchester telepathy. Whatever it is, Dean doesn't get it – there's too much blank space around whatever's going on here.

Sam looks tired. Really tired, craggy in a way Dean's never associated with him before. His hair is freshly cut, though, and that's kind of weird. It's always a big deal when Sam gets a haircut, and Dean doesn't remember teasing him about going to the stylist.

"Did you stop to get a haircut on the way?" he asks, hoping it will dislodge some other memory. Why can't he remember how he got here, or why they're here, or where here is?

Sam squints at him, sharp-eyed, and that's not at all the reaction he expects. Shit, he's just given his concussion away. "Don't look at me like that," he says. "It's just a little concussion. I'm sure my memory will come back."

Sam nods, just once, like he was expecting that. It's creepy, the kind of silent treatment he only gets when Sam thinks Dean's badly hurt or dying, and he is not dying today, thank you very much. "Stop being all maudlin, Sam, or you're gonna freak me out. I'm on my feet – how bad can it be? It doesn't even hurt that much anymore."

"Yeah, all right," Sam says, his eyes skittish now. "What do you remember?"

"Waking up here," Dean says. "Gutshot. And what the hell, Sam, things we're hunting are hunting us back now?"

Sam's face falls and the tiredness comes back. No, Dean thinks as he looks more closely at Sam, concentrating on what's bothering him. The cragginess in his face isn't just tiredness. It's lines, deeply etched on his forehead and lighter ones at the corners of his mouth, not to mention some mean-looking stubble – way different than Sam's normal peach-fuzz. It's not until he notices the silver threaded through Sam's mop of hair that he gets it, though. Sam looks older. A lot older – maybe twenty years. The thought shakes him to his bones. "Holy shit, are we looking for a witch?"

That surprises Sam, and when he meets Dean's eyes this time, there's a glimmer of hope. Dean hadn't noticed until just now, but clearly Sam had been at the end of his rope – he hadn't just looked old, he'd looked defeated. "I don't think so," he says cautiously. "A spirit, something pretty powerful."

"Powerful enough to drain years? We've never run into a spirit that could do that."

Sam shrugs. "It's... different." He doesn't offer anything else, and Dean doesn't even know what to ask to shake loose whatever it is that's bothering Sam. What if they can't reverse the effects? Seeing Sam middle-aged will fuck with Dean's head forever.

"Okay," Dean says, willing himself not to think of it, "that's a start." He looks around the place again, trying to figure out why it feels vaguely familiar. There's that smell, too, out of place here, but so strong and sharp - coming off Sam in waves that make Dean want to throw up. "Well, where are we? What's the background? Give me the Cliff notes."

Sam shifts into work mode and starts explaining, thank god, because things are just getting too weird. "I got a call from Harle Tinny," he starts, and Dean slots the name into place neatly. That's why he remembers this place.

"Tinny – the skinwalker case in Newport."

There's a surprisingly bright lightning bolt and deafening clap of thunder, at the exact same time, like it hit the house. The rain hammers down on the windows, like it just decided to get serious about coming down. "Shit," Dean says, a little nervous. The water is sluicing down the windows in thick rivulets and it's turned from light grey to gunmetal inside, making the whole place even creepier.

The place is actually a castle, not a house. He remembers that much from stalking the skinwalker. Another lightning bolt lights up the room in a brief photo negative before the darkness settles back in. The thunder is later and softer now, which might be reassuring if the rain let up even a little.

"That's the one," Sam says. He waits a beat, probably to see if Dean remembers anything, which he really doesn't – he can't even remember putting down the skinwalker.

"Yeah, and?" Dean asks, going over to the wall to hit the light switch. They're going to need lights if it stays this dark in here. His hand slips on the switchplate and Sam rushes over to flip the lights on. The dim glow of the chandelier doesn't do much to brighten up the place.

"She called a year after we put it down," Sam says. "Said something was in the house." Sam shifts, clearly nervous about something. "She had to cancel the tours of the castle; she was really afraid."

Dean doesn't remember any of this – and a year? The last case he remembers is the skinwalker, and it's still a little fuzzy. More than fuzzy, a giant hole in his memory – but he remembers this place, and the skinwalker, and Harle.

"And?" Dean asks. No point in Dean racking his brain if Sam's already figured it out. "Vengeful spirit of the skinwalker? We burned that mother, didn't we?" He doesn't remember burning it, but he knows they would have. It's just his swiss-cheese brain that's giving him trouble. Maybe he won't complain if Sam wants to take him to the hospital after they finish up.

"No," Sam says, and waits expectantly, staring Dean in the face. He knows that stare – he hates it. It's Sam's you're-being-really-thick-on-purpose stare and usually Dean looks away until Sam gives up. He doesn't know what it is this time, so he just meets Sam's gaze – from those creepy, old-man eyes of his – and waits.

Sam gives up and sighs, sitting down on the stairs creakily, his knees popping on the way down like his body's actually fifty-something. He takes out his gun and checks it, like he hadn't done that before they came into the house. Not really the time, Sammy, Dean thinks, but he doesn't say it. The air is expectant now; something big is going on just outside his grasp and he has a bad feeling about it.

"Let's just go," Dean says, shapeless panic setting in. "I'll even let you take me to the hospital. We can come back when I'm feeling a hundred percent."

Sam shakes his head, droplets of water flicking onto the white stone of the stairs. He's staring down at the gun in his left hand, fishing around for something in his pocket with his right. He pulls out a lighter, a nice Zippo Dean's never seen before. Dean shivers. "What's that for?"

Sam doesn't answer, just keeps staring down at the gun. "I've salted and burned the remains," he says. "And every possession I could think of."

Well, damn it, if Sam's already done all that, then why are they here? Lightning flashes again, the thunderclap close behind.

"There's only one thing left I think it might be attached to," Sam says, flipping the lighter open.

Dean looks at Sam again, closer, and in slow motion, he sees a drop of water roll down his collar and splash onto the wet, dark blue of his jeans. The scent comes to him again, and he finally recognizes it: the sharp smell of gasoline, and Sam reeks of it. He can feel the world shift sideways as his memory comes flooding back in a flash of images that make his head hurt. Making silver buckshot for the shotgun while Sam sits on the bed researching; Harle telling them stories about the castle and trying to feed them soup for lunch; Sam pointing a shotgun at Dean because he's sure Dean's the skinwalker.

"You're not my brother. Dean would never come back here with the skinwalker on the loose."

Normally that'd be true – but Dean knows Harle is the skinwalker and Sam doesn't; he can't risk Sam getting hurt. Before he can even to try to explain, Sam pulls the trigger and Dean's midsection explodes into the worst pain he can imagine.

~~~

Dean comes back online, obviously having blacked out for a while because Sam's sitting on the steps, calmly reassembling his gun.

"How long?" Dean asks, not sure he's ready for the answer, but unable to keep himself from asking the question.

"Nineteen years," Sam answers. "I burned everything you owned." He pauses, grimaces, looks up at Dean sympathetically. "Even the Impala."

Dean can feel his heart drop. Baby. He looks down at Sam's gun, nearly put together now, Sam's gnarled hands smooth and sure.

"I looked everywhere for a way to release you, even though half of me was just happy to see you again, even dying. Always dying, every year." The snick of the final piece of Sam's gun slotting into place is loud in the empty open space of the foyer.

"There's only one thing left here that has a piece of you."

Sam flips open the lighter and presses the gun to his temple.

Dean's breath catches in his throat. He reaches for Sam, his hand passing right through Sam's fingers as the lighter sparks, the flame small and wavering. "Sammy, no!"

Sam smiles at him, a genuine smile that melts the years right off his face. "It's okay, Dean. Whatever comes next, at least we'll both be free."

~~~