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The Elko County Adventure

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The Elko County Adventure
By Candle Beck

 

Eggs at four in the morning, glowing sickly yellow under the diner's fluorescent lights, and Dean has no stomach for it. It's the hour, the highway time. Sam is nodding in and out of sleep across the table, a fork clinging stubbornly to his loose fingers.

A thousand miles behind them today. The distance has been ground into Dean's skin, printed on him like a tattoo. Colorado and Utah and now Nevada, high desert and difficult to breathe outside, the thin air.

These fucking eggs. One narrow level above powdered, sticking in Dean's throat in exactly the same way. The waitress creamed Dean's coffee without even asking him, now it looks like mud.

Dean's in a mood, which is directly attributable to Sam's mood, which is usually how it goes.

Lousy kinda scene anyway, this crappy truckstop a couple hours outside of Carson City, near deserted now. Dirty Indian tile, red vinyl booths marred by gashes of gray stuffing, sleepy thickish waitress slumping behind the counter with the wilting bouquet of a magazine drooping in her hands. Nothing to look at out the windows, not for hundreds of miles.

Sam drops his fork, looks up with bleary determination. "I'm done."

Dean nods, shoveling in another bite of eggs mechanically. "Goo'fer you."

Indistinct harmless glare from Sam, the back of his hand rubbing across his mouth.

"Let's go, it's late, come on."

Dean contemplates his eggs, the crescent moon he's bitten in his toast. His stomach feels like it's full of rocks.

"Almost done, Sammy."

Dean grins around a mouthful of egg, sure that he's got bits in his teeth and it's pretty gross. Sam doesn't disappoint, eyes widening as familiar disgust curls his lip, and Dean cheers inwardly.

"There are seriously wild animals with a firmer grasp on table manners than you have," Sam informs him flatly.

Quick digging search for any affection behind the general irritation in Sam's voice, and Dean comes up empty. Sam's still just fucking sick of him.

(--it's become a common chorus in his head recently, something said to Dean in anger four days ago, in a laundromat in Kentucky with the machines rolling over rhythmically at their backs like watches wound too tight. A single-load box of powder detergent bought out of the vending machine with a palmful of sticky car-scrounged coins, and later spilled, spraying bluish-white crystals across the floor. Seventeen minutes left to go on the first wash cycle and the Winchester brothers occupied themselves counterproductively, to say the least. It was the eighth-worst fight Dean has ever had with his brother, and number one since their father died. The heart of the matter boiled down to Sam spitting, "Just fucking sick of you, Dean," which is a vicious thing to say and an impossible thing to defend against. The buzz of the washing machine sounded like a fight bell, Dean staggering to his corner bloody and legless and down a hundred points. Not the best metaphor, really--Dean would rather get the snot beat out of him every day for a month than have to live through Sam saying anything like that again. So anyway, that's where that comes from.)

They're going to finish up here and Dean's gonna get a Styrofoam cup of Coke for the road (still fucking Styrofoam in tall snow-white towers by the soda machine, like it's 1973 and the world is still evergreeen). He's gonna put on the Cheap Trick mix that functions as aural adrenaline, and make it to Carson City before dawn if it kills him.

"C'mon, hurry up," Sam says, bitchy and tired. "If you're not gonna let us stop yet, at least keep going so I can sleep in the car."

"But I'm still enjoying my eggs," Dean says placidly, and manages to hold down his gag reflex. The eggs taste like glue. Sam's face is pretty much worth it, though.

"Dean," Sam begins, that particular climbing note that predicts a spectacular whine upcoming, and Dean braces his eyes to roll, his mouth forming a pre-emptive smirk, and then the building starts shaking.

It's brief and violent, clouds of dust from the creaking ceiling, silverware cartwheeling to the floor. A ketchup bottle jolts off a table and dies a gory death on the tile. Falling-pan chaos from the kitchen, the surprised holler of the line cook, and the waitress has disappeared, taking cover beneath the counter with only a persistent stream of profanities betraying her location.

"Fuck, earthquake?" Sam says, gripping the table as the windows tremble.

"Ob-obviously," comes jarring out of Dean, and like that's the break word for a spell, the shaking comes to a stop.

A tense moment, a collective breath held. A black-and-white photograph of men building the Hoover Dam shivers and leaps belatedly off its nail, the glass shattering.

"Is--is that it?" Sam asks. Both of his hands are still wrapped around the lip of the table. "That was kinda short for a quake that strong, wasn't it?"

"Who am I, Joe Richter Scale?" Dean looks over, and raises his voice, "Hey, everybody okay in here?"

A shout in disgruntled but uninjured Spanish answers him from the kitchen area. The waitress stands from behind the counter, scowling and feeling at her hair for any damage. "Motherfuckin' earthquakes."

"Do you get them that bad, usually?" Sam asks, standing and retrieving a few pieces of cutlery from the ground. "Pretty far east for something that strong, right?"

"Third time this week," the waitress tells him. "Fuckin' annoying, woke up my kid in the middle of the night last time and it took about an hour to get him back down."

"But where's the epicenter?" Sam persists, single-minded. "Is there a fault line around here?"

"Not that I know of. Didn't used to be like this either. Used to be just aftershocks from the big ones in California."

"But there haven't been any big ones recently. And that didn't feel like an aftershock."

"Yeah, fuckin' strange, ain't it."

The waitress takes Sam's proffered clutch of cutlery rescued from the floor, and dumps the whole mess with a clatter into the dirty dishes bin. A loose piece of graying brown hair bites at her eyes, and she smooths it back with the heel of her hand.

"Three times in the past week, you said?" Sam asks, definitely not sleepy anymore.

"Three times," the waitress agrees, shooting Sam that askance you-might-be-a-crazy-person look that all the Winchesters know so well. "If you boys don't need anything else just now, I'm gonna make sure Ramon didn't crack his skull or nothing."

Sam waves her off, then turns on the stool he's procured, facing Dean still in the booth with his gut-turning plate of eggs.

"Three mysterious earthquakes inside a week? That's a little suspicious, I'd say."

"I guess," Dean says, non-committal.

"I've been in a real quake," Sam tells him. "I had friends at Berkeley when I was, uh--in California, and they lived basically on top of the Hayward fault. Wake up and the whole house feels like it's about to come down around you, like the pictures off the walls and the books on the shelf and everything. I was sleeping on the couch, I remember I woke up on the floor."

"Yeah, what's your point, man?" Impatient, he's off the goddamn topic again, stupid fucking detours.

"We're like five hundred miles away from the nearest fault line," Sam says, a frustrated teacher's tone in his voice. "That tremor was too strong, it couldn't have been natural."

"Shit, Sam," and Dean shoves out of the booth, stalks up to the counter, one hand digging for his wallet. "You're really reaching here, buddy."

Sam glares, and he's really very good at glaring by now, the undefeated world champion. Dean can see exactly which lines are going to be carved into his face if his brother survives to middle age.

"I'm just saying we check it out," Sam says as Dean counts out cash to pay. "Takes, what, a day? Just see if anything's been weird recently."

"We're on a fuckin' schedule-" Dean mutters, and is summarily cut off.

"Fuck that, nobody wants to go to Carson City but you. That lead on the demon is bullshit and you know it's bullshit."

Sam smiles, sudden and disarming, catching Dean aback like a missed step, a stumble on flat ground.

"C'mon, Dean," onslaught of charm from Sam, eyes and all, "we haven't had shit to do for days, let's just check it out. Just real quick, check it out and it'll probably be nothing anyway, and then we can get on with it."

Dean huffs, looking away from his brother. A bottle of syrup fell during the so-called earthquake, and now there's a tacky dark puddle like week-old blood. Bad omens notwithstanding, Dean's already been won over. Typical.

"Excuse me, waitress lady," Dean calls. "We're leaving the money on the counter."

The waitress's face appears in the food window, eyeing the messy pile of bills and giving Dean an unamused look. "You call that a fuckin' tip?"

Dean peels off another single, muttering under his breath, and then leads his brother out of the truckstop. The night sky comes all the way down to ground level, uninterrupted black in every direction.

"Who the fuck are you even planning to talk to, I wanna know?" Dean asks, belligerent. "Middle of fuckin' nowhere out here."

"We're not too far away from Perfection."

"We're--what?"

Sam half-smiles. "Perfection, Nevada. Burt and Heather, remember?"

"Damn, they're still alive?" Dean asks.

"Here's hoping," Sam says as they reach the car.

Hard drop into the seat, and then Dean's hands are on the wheel, staring at the bugs murdered by the windshield. He sneaks a glance at Sam, wondering how long this little burst of excitement and civility will last. Sam's got his teeth in something and he can better tolerate Dean like this.

"It's not gonna amount to anything, you know," Dean tells him, wishing it was colder.

Sam tightens his jaw and doesn't look at him, answering, "Yeah, I know, so what?" Sam wants to add 'fuck you,' Dean can see it pressing its snarling shape against his mouth, but he doesn't, swallows it back. "Just go, man, stop thinking about it so much."

Dean starts the car, headlights showing a wedge of gray desert ground that looks like a dinosaur's been at it, claw marks in the rock and all. Used-up lonely feeling to the scene, empty tables through the truckstop windows, sodium lights and unconscious truckers entombed inside their eighteen-wheelers. Sam with that goddamn tension in his face. Highway asphalt is what Dean wants, black and smooth and broken up by the double yellow line that everybody follows, the one that runs from one side of the world to the other, and anywhere else they might want to go.

*

Perfection, Nevada, population 28, which is actually double what it was the last time Dean and Sam were here--some kind of land rush, Dean can only assume. They come down through the steep cliffs into the valley, shallow bowl carpeted in scrub brush and stunted trees, bare pale chunks of rock protruding from the thin ground.

The town proper consists of Chang's general store, and a few small wooden houses and blocked-up mobile homes disintegrating in the sun. A water tower looms low, rust-colored and squat like a snowman on stilts.

Dean pulls in front of the store, parking alongside a battered Volkswagen that looks as if it drove itself all the way from Germany. It's just after dawn, pink light everywhere. The sun is still behind the mountains.

The store is open, red Coca-Cola sign shining, and smells of fresh coffee. There is a woman at the cash register, putting her magazine down as Sam and Dean come in.

"Howdy, boys," the woman greets them, straightens up. Dirty blonde and maybe as old as thirty, more handsome than pretty with her squarish face, wide shoulders though she's a little thing, Dean can tell even while she's sitting. "Welcome to Perfection."

She smirks her way through it, like a minimum-wage greeter at some cheesy amusement park ride, and they laugh it off.

"Morning, honey," Dean says with an introductory smile. "Damn if that coffee doesn't smell good."

The clerk hops to her feet to get them both a cup, dropping a double handful of creamers and sugar packets on the counter.

"There you go. It's good stuff, drink it slow. You boys want me to make you up some quick breakfast sandwiches? We got the best sausage in the state."

Dean lifts his eyebrows, tempted, but Sam is a tangible presence at his back, slurping his coffee like a man whose train is late.

"Nah, thank you though. We're just passing through, you know."

"Vegas?" she asks.

Big grin, that's a gimme. "Damn right. Gonna come back here on the drive home and you'll have a couple of millionaires drinking your coffee."

She laughs, becomes abruptly and extremely appealing, one of those faces that works like that. Dean re-evaluates, darting his eyes down her body, considering making a play for it before remembering the dig of Sam at his back and mentally backing off.

He smiles, friendly-like. "You laugh, but wait and see."

"Dean."

Sam, hushed demanding voice skittering along the back of Dean's neck, such a goddamn bitch all the time. Dean clenches his teeth, not losing the ease of his expression.

"But listen, sugar, we're taking the long way down hoping we might stop in and see our old friend Burt Gummer. Do you know him and his wife Heather?"

The clerk blinks, stumbles over a kind of a huffing laugh. "Oh sure. Known 'em all my life, in fact, and I think I can count the times they've had friends come calling on one hand."

That you know about, Dean doesn't say. The Gummers have been established in the hunting community for decades as trackers and weapons procurers, and no doubt there have been dozens of clandestine visits to their deceptively normal-seeming survivalist stronghold.

He gives the clerk a few more notches of a grin, ducking his head for a self-conscious air. "Well, I'll be honest, we ain't seen them in about a decade, and Burt was really more a friend of our dad's--he's dead now."

There it is, the clutching of sympathy in the clerk's face, her falling eyebrows. Dean shrugs, lowered eyes, playing it up best he knows how, which is pretty damn good.

"We're on this trip anyway and figured we might stop off to tell Burt and Heather, you know, let them know how much Dad really liked them."

"Oh, of course." The clerk nods fast, a sudden silverish bolt of surety shooting into her eyes. "They're wonderful people, Burt and Heather. They, actually, they saved my life when I was a little girl. The two of them and my mom and a few others, and I've just. I've always been real grateful."

Dean pauses, and looks at her again, probing. She looks right back, steady as all hell, plain brown eyes and a pogo stick mounted like a revered trophy on the wall behind her. She's been through some shit, it's pretty evident. Dean tips his chin at her in acknowledgement.

"Yes ma'am, exactly. Can you help us remember where their spread is? We haven't been here since we were kids."

After such an expertly applied set-up, she's only too happy to help, and even draws them a little map on the back of the deli menu. It's not until they're back in the Impala that Dean notices the clerk's name and number written too, Mindy with a underline, and he smiles to himself, tucks it away.

"You told her an awful lot of the truth," Sam says, leaning his elbow on the window.

"Easier to keep track of the story that way," Dean answers. "Hiding in plain sight is what we're gonna call it. Only makes sense, town this size. There's gonna be no sneaking around a place like this."

Sam grunts, scratches uncomfortably at his hair, three days since the last chance for a shower and hippie-ass Sam always feels it first.

They ride out of town a few miles, up into the rocky foothills of the mountains, and they don't talk much. An actual tumbleweed gets caught up in the undercarriage of the car, and Dean stops to pull it free before it scratches up his paint job. He sneaks looks at Sam through the windshield while he's outside the car, saving them up for all the times he won't be able to look at Sam when they're sitting right next to each other.

*

Burt and Heather Gummer live behind barbed wire fence in a bunker that only appears small from the outside; there's at least three big rooms underground, and subterranean armory to supplement the wall of their rec room, which is a giant piece of particle board hung with dozens of guns. The couple's dinged faded red SUV rests inside the fence, caked in skin-colored dust up to its wheel wells.

Dean parks outside the fence, and they stand in the growing heat of the day, debating their next move.

"It's early still," Sam says.

"Burt was a Marine, I'm pretty sure he's up by eight in the morning."

"It's quarter till," Sam mutters, but he's splitting hairs and Dean ignores him effortlessly.

"If I chuck a rock at the bunker, what do you think? That'll get their attention."

"That'll get your ass shot."

Dean slants his brother a look of overdone exasperation. "Always such a goddamn killjoy."

"Hey, don't let me stop you from getting your ass shot. Man's gotta do what he's gotta do, right Dean?"

"Shut up." Dean has been awake for just approaching twenty-five hours now. There's crushed glass in his eyes. He's in a ditch, still shy of his second wind. "Be helpful or keep your mouth shut."

Sam is silent for a moment. Dean stares through the diamond pattern of the fence, one hand fisted in his jacket pocket. Sun's coming up, hotter out here by the minute.

"Hey Burt!" Sam shouts without warning. Dean starts, and falls back from the fence. Sam grins wildly, two points in their endless game of one-upmanship, and hollers even louder, "Heather! Are you guys in there!"

"Jesus, Sam," Dean hisses, reaching instinctively for Sam's wrist, but Sam only shakes him off. "So much for fucking subtlety."

"Wasn't getting us anywhere," Sam says cheerfully, and then the bunker door bangs open and Burt Gummer, rifle chocked into his shoulder, sticks half his head out and squints at them through the sight. Sam waves like a kid catching sight of his mom in the audience.

"If that's the car I'm thinking of," Burt yells from his lethal position at the door, "you better be the Winchester boys."

"None other," Sam calls back, spreading his arms out wide and Dean wants to grab him, pull him back. Sam's whole chest is exposed. "All grown up and everything!"

Burt laughs, and comes out into the yard. He takes his rifle with him, but flicks the safety on and it becomes a harmless accessory, looking as unremarkable in his hand as a cup of coffee would have.

"Well I'll be goddamned," Burt says as he approaches the fence, big grin taking up the space under his neat gray mustache. Still rangy and vaguely wild-eyed, dirty Atlanta Hawks cap glued to his head, which is probably a cue-ball by now, and Dean remembers abruptly Burt teaching him how to brace against the kick of an elephant gun, out in the narrow canyons where the echo sounded like the sky cracking open.

"Good to see you boys, you look great." Burt has pulled a keyring out, working at the lock on the gate. "Hell, Sam, I think you're about two feet taller than you was the last time I saw you."

"Yeah, that happened," Sam says, waiting until the gate swings open before offering Burt his hand and clapping him on the shoulder. "How've you been, man? How's Heather?"

The smile on Burt's face flickers, and he says, "Yeah you know, she's hangin' in," before moving on to Dean, all his teeth showing again. "Dean Winchester, look at you."

"Hey Burt, good to see you." Low-level smile, just the default setting of Dean's charm. "Still got this little patch of heaven, huh?"

"Gonna have 'em bury me right over there," Burt says jovially with a gesture to the high bluff overlooking the valley. "Well, come on in, boys. Car's lookin' good, when did you drop a new engine into her?"

Dean and Burt talk about the Impala into the bunker, down to the rec room, and through the first cup of coffee. Dean finds himself obliged to omit certain details of the circumstances surrounding the rebuild of the Impala, but the cover is flimsy and doesn't last long.

"What about your dad, then?" Burt asks, kicking back in his chair with the wall of guns stretching surreally at his back. "Still raising hell just to beat it down?"

It's a concrete feeling, the collapse of the look on Dean's face, like invisible hooks yanking downwards. His gaze flies to his brother instinctively, and Sam is studiously not paying attention, inspecting the elephant gun in its glass case, his back bent in a shallow bow.

"Aw hell," Burt says, voice rumbling with sympathy, and Dean is uncountably relieved that he won't be required to say the words out loud. "I'm real sorry about that, boys. What was it got him, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Demon," says Dean. "Same--the same one that. The same demon."

"Yeah," Burt says, knowing their history in the same way Sam and Dean know that thirty years ago Burt and Heather were parents to a little girl, until the werewolf came. "Motherfucker will get what's coming to him, I know you'll see to that."

"Yes sir." Dean's speaking by rote. He's watching the curl of Sam's shoulders, Sam's long fingers smudging the glass.

"Is that why you've come out here?" Burt asks, interest lighting in his eyes. "You got a lead, need to pick up some firepower?"

"Our lead sucks," Sam contributes. "Guns still work, though. Thanks anyway."

Burt looks back to Dean. "So what've you come out here for?"

"Well." Dean slouches deeper into the chair he remembers Heather knitting in, soft camouflaged ammo pouches to string onto their belts. "Sam, you wanna tell him about your crazy evil earthquake theory?"

"Don't listen to him, he's just talking shit," Sam says dismissively, and Dean's nails dig into the inside of his palm. "We felt a pretty serious shake a couple hours north of here, and apparently it's been happening for a week now. I was wondering if you'd been tracking anything like that."

"Earthquakes?" Burt says, lifting his eyebrows into the shadow of his cap brim.

"Tremors," Dean clarifies. Sam shoots him a glare, doesn't want any of his input right now.

"It was too quick," Sam tells Burt. "Didn't last long enough to be as powerful as it was. Like, almost like a sonic boom or something, a shockwave that just passed through. But, like. Like it was in the ground instead of the air."

There's a clue in that, or a code, something. Burt sits up, his hand moving unconsciously for the rifle propped up next to his chair. His long dapper face becomes tense and solemn.

"It felt like something in the ground?" Burt asks.

"Yeah." Sam has caught the flare of suspense in Burt's face, his eyes narrowing. "Like something real big."

"Up north, you said? Where exactly?"

"Uh, unincorporated Elko County."

"The sheep, the fuckin' sheep," Burt says under his breath, and then, "course she was right," and Sam glances at Dean to ensure that neither of them know what he's talking about.

"You familiar with this, Burt?"

"Maybe. Christ, I hope not." Burt stands, the chair squealing back on the floor. He paces half across the room, pulling off his cap to swipe a hand over his smooth head. "We got them all, I was sure we got them all."

"What?" Sam asks, eagerness having made its insidious way into his voice. "What is it?"

"Graboids," Burt answers, and then his mouth twists in disgust. "Always hated that damn name."

"I've never heard of them." Sam checks with Dean, "Have you ever heard of them?"

Dean shakes his head. Burt is still antsy, bestirred. He picks up his rifle for a moment and some of the tension breathes out of his shoulders.

"It's a bit of a story, boys. Might wanna sit down, Sam."

Sam obliges in that easy-to-please way that everyone but Dean warrants. The guns on the wall shine dull black and gray and brown, a calming sense of security in the excessiveness of it all.

"It was, Christ, what was it? Sixteen years ago now. The graboids killed eight people. Almost wiped this whole damn town off the map."

Burt tells them the whole story. Giant underground prehistoric snake monsters, sensitive to the slightest vibrations, a footstep, a voice raised above a whisper. A gut-wrenching nightmare come surging through a cinderblock wall, seeking snake tongues reaching blindly out of its mouth. The flocks of mutilated sheep and Old Fred's head in the sand, Edgar dead of dehydration on the electrical tower, and then the danger closing in, the road knocked out by a rockslide and the power lines down and the valley like a prison, a sprawling unbreakable cell. Nobody on the outside even knew anything was wrong.

"We tried to stay up on the roofs," Burt tells them. "But then they got smart. They're smart, these monsters. They learn. They figured out how to dig sinkholes, disabled our vehicles that way. And they figured out how to tear right through a building's foundations, bring it down from the inside. We woulda been dead meat if we'd stayed in town, sooner rather than later, so we made a break for it in the back of a Cat--attached a flatbed trailer to the 'dozer so everyone would fit."

"How many of you were there?" Dean asks.

"Nine of us got on the Cat, and we all made it out alive. Miguel and Mindy and Earl still live in the valley."

Dean nods, wanting to curl his mouth around a cat's smile and say, oh yeah, Mindy, but he bites his tongue, extrapolating that it's probably a father-daughter kind of thing between them.

"We almost made it to the mountains," Burt says, sour taste to the memory. "Just a mile or two shy, and then they--the graboids, they dug us a trap. Huge sinkhole, big enough to cripple the Cat. We made a run for a solid rock formation with them after us every step of the way, and we made it, but that was only gonna be good enough to let us die of thirst instead of being eaten."

"But you didn't die of thirst," Sam prompts.

A ghostly smile creases Burt's face, and he shakes his head, flicking the brim of his cap up a notch.

"No, we killed those bastards. Blew one of them up with a homemade incendiary, and then Val ran the last one off a cliff."

"Hell, a happy ending," Dean says, mildly surprised because it doesn't usually work out like that for people like them.

"Tell that to Walter Chang," Burt says, and then gestures away Sam's questioning look, his hard eyes moving to the gun wall. "Just an old friend of ours that didn't make it."

"Sorry, Burt," Sam says, which is unnecessary and probably unwanted.

"Yeah, well. That's baseball, ain't it."

They're quiet for a second, the standard accepted moment of respectful silence reserved for dead people you don't know, and then Sam asks:

"What happened after? How come the Perfection Valley Graboid didn't end up on the cover of National Geographic and shit?"

Burt exhales, coarse like he's been swallowing sandpaper. The rifle he shifts from shoulder to shoulder, lowering to tap the stock on the ground, spinning in his hands, an exhibition drill in extreme slow-motion. Lines dig deeper around his mouth, experience carving him up.

"It was a clusterfuck after we killed the last of them. We were gonna call the newspapers, and Rhonda--she was a graduate student doing seismology experiments out here, whip-smart--she was gonna publish a research paper, but then someone called the goddamn feds."

Dean winces in pre-emptive sympathy. The Gummers' antipathy for the U.S. government is visceral and intense, even considering the misanthropic anarchistic nature of the hunting population as a whole.

"They came down here, at least twenty of them," Burt says, bitterness drenched in his voice. "In their fuckin' trucks, fuckin' light artillery and surveillance and mobile labs and all this gear, set up tents in the desert and stayed for almost a month. Me and Heather packed up and got the hell out 'til Earl called to say it was all clear."

"What were they doing?"

"Erasing every trace--every fuckin' trace. They took all the corpses, scrubbed the rocks clean, combed the fuckin' desert. Feds even broke into our place here and took the graboid that came through that wall, took every shell casing even though we musta gone through a thousand rounds killing that fucker. But they took it all. Like it never happened."

"But there must've been pictures," Sam says, leaning forward over his knees. "You said there was a grad student, science grad student, she woulda known to take pictures."

"Fat lot a good it did her." Burt pushes his Atlanta Hawks cap back, scratches high on his forehead. "There were pictures, and the data from the seismology machines she had set up, but there was a break-in at her hotel room once she and Val got back to UCLA. They stole every piece of physical evidence, left us with nothing but a bunch of stories that made people think we were all crazy. Swept the whole fuckin' saga under the rug."

"A cover-up," Dean says, itchy shivering feeling on his tongue. He's always appreciated a good conspiracy.

"Really?" Sam's playing the skeptic, doubting angle to his jawline. "Sounds kinda elaborate, and I mean, a lot of this is hearsay, isn't it? You said you weren't around to see everything the feds were doing yourself, right Burt?"

Burt sets the rifle down to lean against a cabinet, the better to cross his arms over his chest and stare Sam down. Dean is amused, and able to hide it.

"My information comes from a man named Earl Basset, who I'd trust with my life. Did trust him with it, matter a fact, and since you're seeing me standing here, I guess he's fuckin' good for it, huh?"

Sam raises his hands, large-eyed but Dean can tell he's mostly faking.

"Shit, man, no offense meant. If Earl's word is good with you, it's more than good with me, that's for sure."

Burt holds the hostile pose a moment longer, and then lets his arms come loose. Mindless habit executed, cap tugged up, hand swept over his head, cap pulled back down. Dean catches a glimpse of the pure silver horseshoed around Burt's scalp, several shades lighter than his mustache. Burt's getting old, or maybe he already is and just covering with that big voice, low-slung madman's grin. Dean's perception of these things has been all screwed up ever since his father died.

"Hell," Burt sighs. "I didn't mean to snap at you, kid. This shit is--it was a pretty rough hunt, I'm just not looking forward to reliving it, you know?"

"Yeah, of course." Fast nodding Sam, and Dean watches his brother's hand fiddling with a closed switchblade on the table. "Hopefully it's just a weird freak fault line that's just become active or something. Have you felt anything out here?"

"I've been in Bixby," Burt says in a tone that immediately forestalls any further questions. "I'll give Earl a call, see what he knows."

"Is he, does he," and Dean doesn't know what this stuttering bullshit is about, vaguely scandalized at his own tongue. "Is he a fellow traveler?"

Burt looses a hard grin, shaking his head. "Naw, all he knows about our business he saw in that one week. Freak occurrence, you know how civilians think. Always did think he'd make a damn good hunter, him and Val both."

"This Val, he's not around anymore?"

"Went back to California with Rhonda after the whole mess. We still get Christmas cards from them, they got a whole pack of kids and everything. Wouldn't do to drag them back into it."

"No, we can work with what we have," Sam says. "Of the survivors who are still around, there's Earl, and who else did you say, Miguel?"

"And Mindy," Dean offers.

Burt nods, double-takes and lets out a surprised coughing laugh. "She was only a little girl, I don't know how much she even remembers."

"We met her down in the store, seemed pretty tough to me."

Sam is glaring at Dean. Not even shielded or subtle, but glaring right at him, murky color glittering and his mouth like something hammered out of metal. Dean doesn't have any idea what wrong thing Sam thinks he's done this time.

"Yeah, she holds her own," Burt says, lightening edge of pride. "Crackshot with a rifle, too, Heather and me taught her just about everything we know."

"Well, there you go." Dean tips back, tocking one heel against the cement floor. "So what happens now? How can we even be sure it is these graboid things? And let's not forget that this whole fucking theory is based on Sam being freaked out by a five-second earthquake."

Sam looks away just as Dean checks for his reaction, showing only a tense profile and speaking directly to Burt.

"If something's happened once, it's that much more likely to happen again, right?"

Burt huffs. "Your dad used to say that."

"Yeah I know. What do you say, man? You think there's something to it?"

"I think we're not gonna wait around until eight people are dead before figuring it out this time." Burt looks at the both of them in turn, taking their measures, rubbing his chin. "I'll try and raise Earl on the CB. If he's around we'll ride over there in my truck."

"Thanks Burt."

An unthinking nod, and then Burt's gaze drifts away to the cinderblock wall that had once exploded inward under the force of a bloodthirsty slug the size of a school bus. A weird joyless smile bends his mouth slightly.

"Fuckin' graboids again," Burt mutters, and then he snaps out of it. "All right, go on, get your car inside the fence and then lock up, okay?"

He tosses Dean his keyring and the Winchesters effect an exit, leaving Burt bent over the CB radio searching the frequencies for his friend.

Sam doesn't say anything until they're hiking their duffels and camp rolls out of the trunk, and then, "Something must have happened to Heather, right?"

Dean flinches for unknown reasons. Maybe a gnat bit him or something. "How the hell should I know?" he answers, sharper than he means to be, harsher, and that's the end of Sam talking to him again.

*

They pile into Burt's truck and drive out to the other side of the valley where Earl lives. The sun is out with full force now, heat-blur everywhere and hallucinatory curls of steam rising from the ground. Sam keeps his window rolled down because he's a lunatic, and Dean strips down to his plain black undershirt, slipping the ring off his finger 'cause he's not trying to accidentally brand himself or anything.

On the way, Burt tells them about a pattern of sheep mutilations that has sprung up in the wasteland ranch towns between Perfection and Carson City.

"That's how they start, they kill a fuckload of sheep and then move on to humans," Burt says. "Heather's been tracing it from the newspapers and state police blotters, but we were thinking a Satanic thing, a ritual."

Burt pushes his cap back on his head, disgruntled. "Never assume, only amateurs assume."

"Hey!" Dean says, recognition flare. "Our dad used to say that too."

Burt smirks. "Then he picked it up from me."

Dean forgets himself and looks to Sam in the backseat, an engaging smile on his face, but it dies a swift death. Sam is staring back at him, baldly stricken and infuriated for some goddamn reason, and not knowing why doesn't stop the reflective pain from spearing through Dean. Never could take that fucking look on Sam's face.

Dean faces front quickly, a pulse pounding uncomfortably in his throat. It's a rule between the two of them, one of those unspoken ones that always seem to mean more. They try not to talk about it. Dad. The inarguable difference in the pitch of the Impala's new engine when it's running at ninety-five miles an hour. Everything. Sometimes Dean slips up.

They get to Earl's place, which is a white double-wide trailer that's baking, splintering in the heat. There is a pick-up truck that's only a few years old in the lot, a crooked stencil on the door proclaiming, 'V+E ODD JOBS.' The man himself waits on the jerry-rigged front steps, cinderblock and two-by-eights and stapled twine.

Sam and Dean are afforded a moment of observation as Earl and Burt shake hands and reacquaint themselves with each other as if it's been a few weeks. Earl is compact in a blue cowboy shirt and jeans and boots, playing the part to the hilt. Gun-metal gray beard and hair, heavy eyebrows, scars on the backs of his hands. Burt introduces everybody, and then Earl invites them inside his trailer.

"What's goin' on, Burt?" Earl says. He sits down on the threadbare couch, and Burt pulls out the single metal folding chair from under the flimsy card table. Dean and Sam stay standing, shifting their weight on the insubstantial trailer floor.

"We got trouble again," Burt tells him, dropping his voice so Earl knows he's serious. "These boys just come from up north, and the story they tell sounds an awful lot like graboids to me."

"Graboids?" An instinctive disbelieving laugh, Earl's eyes going wide. "We killed 'em all."

"We killed all the ones back then," Burt says. "Maybe one of them left behind a buncha little baby graboids that we never knew about."

"Has someone seen one?" Earl looks immediately at Sam and Dean, distrust sparking vividly in his deep-set eyes. "Did you boys see one?"

Sam's mouth opens, but Dean beats him to it. "No, we haven't. Felt the ground shaking up in Elko County, that's all."

"And the sheep, Earl." Burt gives him a significant look, eyebrows up. "Heather's pinpointed at least three separate incidents, whole flock wiped out just like Old Fred's."

"You bringin' her the papers down there in Bixby?" Earl asks, and Burt says yeah quickly, fingers his shirt cuff and changes the subject.

"I figure we can triangulate where the sheep got killed and where they felt the tremors, give us a geographical range to work in. We'll talk to the ranchers and see if they seen anything."

Earl scratches his nails through his beard, eyes squinted. "Goin' all the way up to Elko County on a pretty shoddy hunch, sounds like."

A flash, Burt's face tightening and his thumb hooking resolutely in a belt loop. "My hunches tend to pan out."

"Yeah, all right," and Earl is chuckling, looking away. "Whatever you say, Sarge."

"Don't-" Burt cuts himself off, snatching glance at Sam and Dean who are watching awkwardly from too close, fucking tin can. Death glare for Earl, and Burt tells him, "What, you ain't got the stones for it without Valentine here to back you up, is that it?"

The slight mocking smile runs away from Earl's face, and now there are death glares going in both directions. A Mexican standoff kind of anxiety infects the trailer, and Dean picks at the back of his shirt, sweat-sticky already, not even eleven o'clock in the morning yet.

"Val ain't got nothing to do with it," Earl says eventually. "Just sounds like a goddamn wild goose chase."

"Fair enough. First rancher they find bit in half, first little girl sucked down with her pogo stick, you can be the one tells the family that we know how to stop these fuckers and that we always knew."

"Goddamn it, Burt." Earl thumps his fist on the table, making the whole rig shudder. "You're worse than my mother with your fuckin' guilt trips."

Burt lights up, sharklike smile. "Comin' along, aren't ya?"

"Yeah, what the hell," Earl sighs. "Heather'd never forgive me if I let you go alone, that's for damn sure."

"Good, get your shit together. I wanna leave no later than one o'clock."

"Are you thinkin' you're in charge or something?" Earl grumbles, but he gets to his feet.

His eyes fall on Sam and Dean, and Earl doesn't bother concealing an ill-tempered impatient grimace. "You guys better be good at something other than standing around like a pair of morons."

"Don't worry about us," Sam shoots back, straightening from his slouch to make full use of his height, shoulders stretching out and Earl's eyes widening just slightly, just those few precious centimeters that betray sudden respect, and for a moment Dean is unreservedly happy to have Sam on his side.

*

Burt drops Sam and Dean off back at the bunker before heading out again.

"Gonna check in with a few folks around town, make sure they know what might be coming."

Dean slides a hand down the back of his head and his palm comes away gritty. "Are they gonna believe you?"

"I'll get Miguel and Mindy to back me up, guess we'll find out how much good it does. Lock and load, we're moving at thirteen hundred hours."

"Sir yes sir," Dean says automatically, and in the corner of his eye he can see Sam flinching.

Burt roars off in a paling cloud of dust. Sam and Dean go down into the rec room to inspect the wall of weaponry.

"Model 70, H and H mag. Mossberg 935. This is like a whole catalog worth of Brownings. Jesus, a Heckler & Koch G3A3, I haven't seen one of these in years. They're not fucking around," Dean says, brushing his fingertips along barrels and stocks.

Sam doesn't answer. He's testing one of the Browning autos in the pocket of his shoulder, sighting up at the tiny jail cell windows.

"We have that exact same gun," Dean comments.

Still nothing from Sam, three-quarters turned away. Annoyance rises up hot in Dean, staring at the bit of his brother's neck that he can see between his shirt and too-long hair.

"What, you're not talking to me at all now? That's not gonna be awkward and ridiculously dangerous at all."

Sam fires a glare back over his shoulder. "Is it like, some physical compulsion you have to run your mouth ninety percent of the time, or what?"

"Just trying to make some fuckin' conversation, Christ. Shouldn't have even bothered, huh?"

"No, Dean, you shouldn't have, 'cause no one cares," Sam answers plainly, with an astonishing lack of care. He hunches, screws his eye into the rifle sight again; Sam's looking at the world through crosshairs.

Dean has gone largely numb, some kind of protective response due to the blinding rage, and he looks down to see an old-fashioned Colt .38 in his hand that he doesn't remember picking up. Cautiously, watching himself from afar, Dean sets the Colt back onto its pegs on the wall, then turns and books it the fuck out of there.

Up on the surface world, it's at least ninety-five degrees, hits Dean like an open-handed slap. Dean pulls his forearm across his face. Every part of him that's exposed to the sun feels shiny and overtight.

"Bitch," Dean spits at the rocks. He can say it a hundred different ways and most of them have some measure of fondness in them, but this is the dark side of the spectrum. "Bitch."

It's too hot. Dean wants to get in his car because he thinks better in his car, but it's too fuckin' hot. He paces around the bunker, out towards the short bluff where Burt intends to be buried someday.

Rough few months. The awful scene in that laundry room in Kentucky (fucking sick of you, Dean) had been an inevitability for thousands of miles leading up to it. Sam short-tempered and moody, Dean not much better, all those damaging vicious three-sentence exchanges under truckstop lights. Murdering the good feeling between them by inches, by erosion.

It's been eight months since their father died. Seven months since Dean resurrected the Impala and got them back out on the road again. Something left off-kilter, like the way the driver's side door doesn't close easily anymore, you gotta jam it in with the handle turned. The random pings of the settling metal in the new side panels, the alien whine of the engine. His dad's number is still saved in Dean's phone.

Dean picks out a handful of sturdy rocks to hurl off the bluff. His body likes the motion, the whip of his arm over top, the shifting balance of his weight from one leg to the other. His pulse ticks up noticeably under his skin.

Handling it badly, they're both just handling it very badly. They never talk about it. They get pissed off at each other for stupid things, impossible-to-fix things, all the unconscious mannerisms they've picked up along the way, John's beaten leather jacket on Dean's back, Sam's way of sneezing and saying "goddamn," because that's what their dad did.

And nothing has changed on the highways, same truckstops and diners and roadhouse bars, same ducking oil derricks and fields of unbelievable corn. All these places they've already been, all this stuff they've seen before. Imprinted on the backs of Dean's eyelids is the picture of his father with one hand on the wheel and one elbow out the window, the shuffling scenes of the world flashing by in the background. Whole fuckin' country has been seeded with landmines.

Dean chucks a rock at a cactus plant sticking out of the ground like a stubby finger, and hits it dead-on, solid thunk that he can hear.

"Strike three," he mutters, and looks back at the bunker involuntarily. Nothing, of course nothing, he doesn't know what he was expecting to see.

Dean throws some more rocks, but his hands are getting sweaty and the grip's no good. He goes over to the Impala, opens the trunk and pulls up the gun rack. He feels a little better once he has his favorite Glock in hand.

Eventually it feels like he's melting, and Dean puts everything away, closes up, trudges back to the bunker like a convict leaving the sunlight for another twenty-three hours.

Sam has a burlap sack laid out on the floor of the rec room, a few lucky weapons picked out to take on the job. Sam is sitting cross-legged next to the cache, methodically stripping and cleaning the Mossberg. He doesn't look up as Dean comes in.

Dean can ignore with the best of them. He chooses a Browning X-Bolt to work with and takes a seat in the chair that he remembers as Heather's.

A few minutes pass, totally silent but for the metallic snicks and shuffles of the weapons. Dean has Sam's curved back to look at, but he's not. He's got better things to do with his time.

And Sam says without turning around, "If you're gonna start trading stories about Dad with Burt, make sure I'm not around first, all right?"

Aggressively passive-aggressive in Sam's long-practiced way, and Dean observes his hands stilling on the rifle, noting the sensation of steel threads pulling through his veins.

"Wasn't planning on it," he answers.

"Good." Sam's curt, dismissive, and Dean wants to throw something at the back of his head. He wants to shake Sam, slap him, pull his hair. Something.

"And maybe you can stop talking about me like I'm a fuckin' idiot when there's other people around, what do you think about that?"

Dean likes his tone, likes the anger soaking his voice ahead of heartache and despair. He likes the way Sam's back stiffens, his head coming up as if hearing far-away gunshots.

"You stop saying idiotic stuff and I'll stop talking about you that way," Sam says, half-turns momentarily to show Dean a cold slicing smile. "It's a compromise."

"Oh fuck you," Dean says, and wishes he could have come up with something better. He wishes Sam would turn back around.

"Look, let's just get through this job," Sam tells him, forcibly even voice.

"This fucking excuse for a job," Dean fires back at him. "You ran a pretty good game on Burt, got him to run a pretty good one on Earl, but you know there ain't shit tying that random-ass earthquake to some freaky worm monsters that got wiped out sixteen years ago."

"Fine, Dean, believe what you fuckin' want. We're going up there regardless, and I'm not interested in listening to you disagree with everything I say and make me look like a goddamn amateur in front of these guys."

Sam lays down the weapon he's working on and gets jerkily to his feet. His hands are smudgy with black grease, fingers clawed like he has itches everywhere but can't scratch. He wipes his forehead on his shoulder and upper arm, looks down at Dean on a slant.

"I have a feeling about it," Sam says, and remarkably most of the barb has gone out of his voice. "Just, I have a bad feeling, Dean."

Dean wraps his fingers around the barrel, swallows hard.

"There could be a lot of reasons for that," Dean tells him, all hoarse and scraped up for some reason.

Brief surprise, Sam's gaze flying to meet Dean's, and then he shutters his face again and says, "I'm gonna get some more coffee," and leaves the room.

Dean sits back in his chair, heavy sigh that seems to take half the air out of the room. He rubs at his forehead, and then remembers his grimy hands, and then decides he doesn't actually give a fuck.

Burt needs to come back already. They need to get on the road.

*

Just before one o'clock, Burt pulls in front of the bunker. Sam and Dean come out to meet him, carrying guns bundled in burlap sacks. They don't recognize Burt's passenger until she gets out of his truck.

"Soon as I told her what was happening, she insisted on coming," Burt explains.

"Mindy," Dean says with a reflexive smile. "How'd I know I'd see you again?"

She smiles back, a hastily packed day bag slung around her shoulder. "That's luck for ya. Luck and graboids."

"Those two things don't belong in the same sentence," Burt says. "Seems like you already know Dean, that tall one's Sam."

"Hiya," Mindy says, friendly smile shot at Sam, who nods, affecting to be occupied with his weapons bundle. "Little bit of a detour from Vegas, huh?"

"Yeah, sure is." Dean shrugs it away. "I probably wasn't gonna come back a millionaire anyway."

"Probably not," Mindy agrees. "This is gonna be better, though. I've been waiting to face down one of these bastards for years. "

Dean bites his tongue to keep from laughing at her. Hunting as tourism is never the best attitude to have. He sneaks a look at Sam and finds him glowering, silent over-tall dark cloud.

"All right, Earl's on his way over," Burt says, spreading out one of the bundles on the hood of his truck for inspection. "You guys'll take the Impala and I'll ride with Earl in his pick-up."

"Why the pick-up, why not your truck?" Dean asks. "Yours has an actual backseat."

"Negative," Burt says. "We need the cargo room for the cannon."

"The what-"

"A cannon?"

Sam and Dean stumble over each other, talking at the same time, and Burt smirks, checking the bolt on a Browning.

"Whatever picture you got in your head about how big these mothers are, double it," Burt tells them.

"Triple it," Mindy throws in. "They're huge, really really huge and gross."

A look of exasperated affection on Burt's face as he says, "I told Val not to take you to look at that thing's carcass."

"I poked it with a stick," Mindy confides in Dean, and he grins.

"I probably would have done the same thing."

"All right, c'mon," Burt says, folding the burlap over the guns. "Gonna need all hands to get the Howitzer up from the armory."

They troop around the bunker and spend the next fifteen minutes wrestling the Howitzer cannon (an actual goddamn cannon, metallic gray and squat and ridiculously warlike) out of the subterranean armory. Earl shows up at some point, and they embark on the secondary task of getting the cannon up into the bed of his truck.

The pick-up groans and whines under the new weight, and Earl shouts, "Goddamn it Burt!" a few times when paint gets scraped off here and there.

Eventually the Howitzer rests massively, gray and stuporous, and Burt says, "You boys will have to take the cannonballs in the Impala, I don't think we wanna load anything more on Earl's old girl here."

"Cannonballs, sure," Dean says. Can't be surprised by anything in this business.

"Earl, you got some rope? Tie that thing down. I gotta make a quick phone call, and then we're heading out."

Earl and Sam commence securing the cannon to the back of the truck. Mindy runs to and from the armory, boxes of ammunition and grenades still in their fat little packages. Dean is feeling useless, and he heads back into the bunker to make sure they haven't left anything behind.

He can hear Burt on the phone in the kitchen, hears him saying, "I reckon we'll make it to Pete Weskoe's place by four or five. Good place to start, that cuss always keeps an ear to the ground." A pause, then a brief fond laugh. "I'll be sure to remind him of that, yes ma'am."

Something in Burt's voice, the soft worn-denim edge to it, makes Dean uncomfortable, shouldn't be hearing that, and he slips down to the rec room.

The switchblade Sam was fiddling with earlier is still on the table, and Dean pockets it without much thought. He stands for a moment in the center of the room, thick yolky chunks of sunlight pouring through the high windows. One of those surface trances, a floater. Dean's mind skims shallowly, firearm specifics and the road back to Elko County and his brother, thoughts of Sam like a shadow-play background to everything.

He comes out of it, blinks awake. Silent-footed back up the stairs and right to the door, but Dean still overhears the hoarse tone as Burt says, "I'll call before you go to sleep," and he can't get it out of his head for hours.

*

Earl and Burt take the pick-up, leaving Mindy to ride in the backseat of the Impala. Sam looks pissed off at this development, but what else is new?

Narrow canyon road coming out of the valley, and Dean asks Mindy, "What do you remember about the graboids from last time?"

Mindy's face catches the rearview for a second before she ducks out of the way. "My mom being real scared, and hugging me all the time. The ground shaking, like the whole world shaking. And getting tackled by Val."

"Why'd he tackle you?"

"I had my Walkman on and I didn't hear them shouting for me. There was one right near me, it was gonna eat me for sure, but then Val saved me."

"It's starting to sound like Val is the hero of this story," Dean says. "Of course it would be the one guy who's not here anymore."

"It wasn't just Val," Mindy protests. "I had a huge crush on him at the time, so I probably remember his parts better, but Earl and Burt and Heather and Miguel, they were all great too, really brave. Earl's always saying, it took all of us to get all of us out of there."

"Seems to be the way it goes," Dean says, and Mindy says, "Yeah," and then the conversation flags.

It's probably only Dean's perception (somewhere in the back of his mind a neon clock is keeping count of how many hours he's been awake, up above thirty now), but Sam is terribly conspicuous in his silence. He's watching the flood of the scenery, pushing his thumb at the outside seam of his jeans. Dean isn't careful, frayed at his peripherals, and he gives himself away, looking at Sam too often, expecting something. They've got a couple hours of featureless highways ahead of them; Sam can't keep his mouth shut all that way.

Mindy coughs pointedly, and Dean flicks his eyes to her in the rearview. "Y'all sure are taking the gigantic man-eating worm monster thing well. Most people are kinda thrown at first."

"Aw, you know." Half a smile, just to soften the ground, and Dean leans back, driving with his wrist. "There's some crazy shit that happens, never wanna rule anything out. And Burt's not much for bullshit, so if he says he's killed 'em before, I believe him."

"Oh, he's definitely killed them before. I swear he musta told me the story of the one that came through the rec room wall about fifty times," Mindy says, casual off-hand laugh. "Each time more elaborate than the last, more guns, more rounds fired. We're lucky Heather was there too, otherwise we'd never know what really happened."

Dean spots the obvious opening, lets a considered moment pass before saying, "Yeah, about Heather . . ."

He watches in the rearview as Mindy's face draws sad, eyes squinting down and making her look bizarrely old.

"He don't talk about it much, does he?" Mindy says, and Dean shakes his head. Mindy continues, "She's been in the hospital down in Bixby for about two weeks now. Ovarian cancer, just a terrible thing. Burt never says boo to any of us either, it's not just you fellas."

"Damn, that's rough," Dean says, means it. He always liked Heather, friendly grandma type with orangey hair, awesome cookies and the best homemade fireworks ever. Lots of time spent blowing stuff up in the canyon with her hands holding the earmuffs onto his head, and later drinking warm lemonade out of a thermos, perched on the rocks.

"She taught me how to make dynamite," Sam says, following close along the line of Dean's thoughts and catching everyone off-guard.

Dean looks over, and Sam is still staring out the window, one-quarter profile, shaggy hair almost entirely hiding his ear.

"The baby bombs, right?" Mindy says. "In old juice bottles?"

"Yeah, that was it. I think--I'm trying to think if I can still remember the recipe."

Sam's voice gets strangely wistful, kinda trailing away. There's a magnet or something, some curse making Dean's eyes stick to Sam with such persistence.

"Burt could tell you," Mindy says.

"Yeah," Sam answers, makes it sound like a conclusion.

There is another span of silence, but it's more comfortable, various unspoken currents subsiding to a tolerable level. Just Sam, all they needed was Sam to say something, stop being such a stone fucking idol, and Dean experiences a burst of frustrated irritation--he hates that Sam can change his mood so easily.

"So," Mindy says with the infernal pep of a small-town girl who never saw reason to leave. "Are y'all survivalists too, or do you just really like guns?"

Immediate glance at Sam and Sam is glancing right back, customary smirk curling his mouth and it hits Dean like a pellet to the heart, how very much like himself Sam looks at this moment. Dean feels like he hasn't seen it in months.

He shoots a grin at his brother, feeling reckless, brainless, all screwed up inside.

"Little bit of both," Dean says. "Can never be too careful, these days."

"Oh, for sure," Mindy says as if agreeing that puppies are good. "I remember people used to laugh at how Burt and Heather live, but once everybody got all het up about Y2K, guess whose bomb shelter was jam-packed with the whole damn town?" She sighs happily. "That was the best New Year's ever."

Dean hears a muffled snort next to him, looks to find Sam hiding a smile with his hand. Quick back to the highway, Dean blinks fast and rubs at his chest with a loose fist, weird shivery warmish thing happening and he doesn't like it, he doesn't know what it means.

"All right, c'mon," Dean says, wanting a new subject. "Tell us more about the graboids, everything you can remember."

"Well, it's kinda tough," Mindy says, a defensive slant. "I spent most of it with my mom's hand over my eyes, and her saying, 'don't look, honey, don't look,' right in my ear."

"That's just what you want to hear from the witness," Sam says, and it could be mean but he curbs it somehow, makes it kinda teasing instead.

"I was ten years old, excuuuse me," Mindy says, stretching it out and Dean is startled into a laugh because he hasn't heard anyone do that Steve Martin line in about a decade. Of course pop culture gets out to the sticks pretty late.

"But I can tell you most of Val's stories," she goes on. "Earl and Burt never wanted to give me any of the real gory details, but Val said since I lived through it I oughta at least know what it was like."

"If this thing pans out, you're definitely gonna know what it was like," Dean tells her via the rearview. "Tell us whatever you know anyway, any info is good info at this point."

Mindy pauses to think and then launches into it, describing the horrorshow sixteen years ago with all the flamboyantly romantic detail of a child's perspective. Cornered like rats in the valley, on the roofs of their houses, thunder underground that rattled windows, the gruesome stub of a snake tongue that Walter Chang had put on display in his store just a day before he died. Valentine McKee races through the desert, leaps and tumbles and smokes cool slow cigarettes while his injuries are taped up. Valentine McKee saves everyone's life at least a dozen times. Dean and Sam trade a few dubious glances, but don't interrupt.

It's interesting, Dean catches himself thinking as Mindy comes to the part where all the surviving townspeople were stranded on bare rock and looking slow death square in the eye. Interesting to come into a story that already has its hero; even if Val's not around anymore, it still feels like the role's been taken in everybody's mind.

Dean brushes it aside. He reminds himself that this trip isn't gonna turn up shit, anyway, just Sam's whacked-out imagination getting everybody riled up because he can't stand downtime, because he's so sick of Dean. Being the hero or not is hardly gonna be relevant.

They come down into another valley. Mindy talks on and on, and that'll probably get annoying after awhile but Dean's okay with it for now. Background music. The road is a perfect straight line all the way to the horizon, requiring no effort at all. The engine sings off-key, eerie whine like a tone-deaf choir, and someday, someday soon Dean is sure it'll stop sounding so entirely wrong to him.

*

As it turns out, Burt's friend Pete Weskoe is literally insane.

Burt goes in first, leaving Earl outside to flag down the Impala, though the misshapen tarp-covered Howitzer cannon in the truck bed is rather more of a clue. Dean pulls up alongside the pick-up, and the four of them stand around for better than fifteen minutes waiting for the high sign.

Earl smokes a pair of Lucky Strikes down to the filters, yellowish fingers pinched against the stubbly gray of his beard. Mindy keeps the conversation ticking along, teasing Earl about some lady sheriff in Bixby that he's apparently been seeing. Sam and Dean mostly just play audience, Earl's gruff embarrassment being pretty amusing in and of itself.

Burt comes loping back down the long drive, at least three hundred yards to where they've parked, but there's no padlocked chainlink to get around, so Dean's not gonna complain.

"Got a hit," Burt says as he joins their loose group. "They've been experiencing freak quakes all over the basin, but none of them have been serious enough to cause much damage, so people aren't too concerned."

"Great, that's great," Sam says, coming alive. "Listen, you have that map that pinpoints the sheep mutilations, right? We gotta have this guy to tell us exactly where the tremors are being reported, see if we can nail down a pattern of movement."

"Hold your horses, kid," Burt tells him. "Weskoe's not much for entertaining, if you catch my drift."

Sam opens his hands, indicating that he has caught nothing, and Dean supplies for him, "Guy's a crazy old hermit, Sammy."

Burt tries to glare in admonishment, but his mustache twitches and it doesn't really take.

"Yeah, that's roughly accurate," Burt says with a sigh. "We can't all go tromping in there, we'll scare him off."

"At least two of us, though," Sam says. "It's always better when you have two people hearing the information, like for confirmation."

"That's true." Burt executes a cap move, and something about the bend of his wrist as he rubs over his scalp makes Dean think that Burt's running some minor con here. "Well, lemme get that map."

Sam shoots a look at Dean, something pointed and urging in it, god only knows what Sam's getting at. Dean lifts his eyes, inquiring, but Sam's already turned back to Burt, saying, "I'll go in with you, Burt."

"Well all right then," Burt says, rummaging for the map in the pick-up's glove box, and then like it's just occurred to him, "Whyn't you come along too, Dean? Weskoe's got one of those samurai swords you were so crazy about when you were a kid."

Dean blinks, and tries to remember any time in his life when he was remotely interested in samurai swords beyond the baseline cool a samurai sword reaction that's pre-programmed into most American boys.

"Uh, yeah, sure. Awesome." Dean checks with Sam and gets the slightest nod in response. It's momentarily reassuring to think that at least one of them knows what the fuck is going on.

"Aw, don't leave me out here alone with her," Earl complains. Mindy beams, triumphant, and hooks her arm through his.

"It'll give us a chance to catch up good and proper," Mindy says. "Good old Uncle Earl."

"Ain't old and I ain't your damn uncle," Earl grumbles.

"Best of luck to you, brother," Burt says with a modicum of sympathy, and then leads Sam and Dean back up towards the house.

Once they're out of earshot of the others, Burt says, "Weskoe's a hunter, I don't know if you'd worked that out."

"I did," Sam says. "Dean probably didn't."

"Shut your face," Dean says in toneless reflex.

"He is a bit eccentric, though, that wasn't a lie." Burt eyes the two of them. "Just step lightly, don't get him riled up. Let me do most of the talking."

So prepared, Dean and Sam follow Burt silently across the wheezing porch and into the ranch house, which smells of must and rot and sick. There are about a million National Geographics stacked up against the walls, almost waist-high in places.

Weskoe is rooted at the kitchen table, a lump grown out of the chair. Dean's first thought is that he looks like an evil toad, dreary green cardigan and fat head with a squashed distrustful face. There's a cup of coffee at his hand, and the remains of a poisonous-looking tuna fish sandwich on a shoved-aside plate.

"Gummer, you sumbitch," Weskoe mutters, and he sounds like his insides are made of rusting iron. "Take off that goddamn ballcap in my house, show some respect."

Burt obliges him, rolled eyes to show that it's not worth the effort to fight about. Without the cap, his bald head shines, crow's feet at the corners of his eyes showing clearly with the shadow finally off his face. He doesn't look much like the guy in all of Dean's memories of him.

"This is Sam and Dean Winchester, they're in the business too."

Weskoe skewers them with a searching look, limpid gray eyes like oysters floating in milk, a disquieting looseness about his mouth. Dean tries not to fidget, tries not to glance at Sam, but he is largely unsuccessful.

"John Winchester's sons."

It's not a question, but Dean still pastes on an idiot grin and nods his head. "That's us."

"Hmmph. I met your father once."

Dean waits, but that seems to be as much as Weskoe is willing to reveal about the matter. Weskoe keeps staring at them, and Dean shifts his weight, resists the urge to rub at the back of his neck.

"Here, Pete, take a look at this." Burt unfurls the map into the uncomfortable silence, colonizing the expanse of the table, fluttering over the half-finished tuna fish. "These Xs are where the sheep've been killed, and this circle is the truckstop where these boys felt a quake."

"The sheep were eaten when they were still alive," Weskoe says in his graveyard voice, and then, "Torn apart still warm and moving."

"Yeah, awful thing," Burt says without taking his eyes off the map, brushing past the macabre semi-sequitur. "You think you can tell us the places where people have been reporting tremors?"

Weskoe scowls down at the map, features pummeled and slack, lips smacking as he chews over nothing. His hand scratches restlessly, hoary yellow nails like talons, and Dean is pretty creeped out by him, all things considered.

"Here," Weskoe says, stabbing his finger. "The Lazy T. And here, that's McConnell's spread, he's been bitching about the broken bottles in his precious wine cellar to anybody who'll listen."

"That's good, that's great." Burt marks up the map, lightning bolts for the new information, and even from this bad angle Dean can tell that a cluster is forming.

"You're going to destroy these things, isn't that right?" Weskoe asks, waiting only for a nod. "Tell me how you plan to do it."

Burt hesitates, hands spread out on the map like conquering armies closing in. He doesn't want to get into it with Weskoe, Dean can tell. Dean can fully sympathize.

"Blow 'em up, most likely. They'll swallow a bomb if you disguise it right."

"You'll make it rain the blood of monsters from the sky," Weskoe says, tremulous with his eyes aglow.

Insincere smile from Burt, really just pulls his lips back, bares his teeth. He glances back at Sam and Dean, and Dean tries to angle his chin, trying to indicate his conviction to have Burt's back if this fucking fruitcake decides to go off the deep end.

"We, uh, we're just hoping nobody gets hurt." Burt starts to fold up the map, clearly itching to make a break out of the nuthouse.

Dean's right there with him, but Sam is contrary and aggravating, and he stops Burt, saying, "Hang on, just a sec with that."

Weskoe's wet eyes latch on to Sam. Sam swallows, suppressing a shiver by biting his lip (old technique, something Dean taught him along with seven-card stud), before asking, "Is there any active construction going on in the area? Blasting or road work or anything?"

"What're you talking about, Sam?" Burt cuts in before Weskoe can answer.

"Just, I've been thinking that there had to be a reason these things came out of the desert in the first place, right?"

Sam glances at Dean, and without thought Dean says, "Right," and then is faintly aghast. Sam rolls right on.

"Mindy said two of the early victims last time around were a road crew working on the highway. So isn't it plausible that the intense vibrations caused by their equipment could have brought the graboids into an inhabited area?"

"Graboids," Weskoe says with a gnarled look of distaste. "Godawful name."

"Yeah, but that's not bad, Sam," Burt says, wagging his finger at Sam in approval. "I always did wonder what the hell made us so special. What do you say, Pete, any road work being done up here?"

"Drills and dynamite for the Diablo Pass," Weskoe says, and for no discernible reason spreads his lips in a pitted blackened grin. Dean winces, turns his face away. He's totally over this place, this creepy fuckin' guy.

"What's that?" Burt asks. "What, through the mountains?"

"They'll have a tunnel there instead," Weskoe replies, sucking on his teeth. "A hole cut through to the demon's heart, dug out still beating."

"Can you, uh, can you point it out for me on the map?" Burt says, patience tattering even as Dean watches.

Weskoe looks down, blinks, and the amorphous cast of delusional malice on his face melts away to something more practical, his mouth sealing shut. He taps the right spot.

"Route 47 going out of town. Right after the old Cooper farm."

Burt marks the map, then straightens to get a look at the whole picture. "Anybody living on that farm?"

"Some wetback family's tryin' to make a go of it," Weskoe says dismissively. "They won't give you any trouble, be too scared of getting shipped out of here."

"Nice," Dean mutters under his breath, and Sam fires a brief look of strained amusement his way, can you fuckin' believe this guy?

"Well, thanks Pete, thank you very much sir." Burt's shoulder twitches like he'd intended to stick out his hand for Weskoe to shake, but thought better of it at the last moment. He busies himself refolding the map instead. "Think we got enough to work with, enough to get started at the least."

Dean affixes a phony smile, little phony wave, edging towards the hallway. Sam is backing up right next to him, their arms bumping.

They're almost out of the room when Weskoe says, "John Winchester swore to kill me if he ever set eyes on me again."

Sam and Dean go still. Dean hears the catch in Sam's breathing, this inverted feeling like Sam's body is reacting to the cues from Dean's eyes and ears. Backwards and inside-out, and really it's just the same for the both of them, it feels the same.

Dean turns back around, aware of his brother doing the same. His gaze skims past Burt, who stands tense and buzzing with uncertainty, a man who may have found himself smack dab in the middle of a blood feud. Weskoe stares back from the table, impermeable amphibian's face, drifting eyes prodding dully for a reaction. He has moth holes in the elbows of his cardigan, Dean notices.

"Pretty lucky for you that he's dead then, isn't it?" Dean says, proud to hear almost no inflection in his voice at all.

"And neither of you will take up his cause against me?" Weskoe almost sounds disappointed. "Is this loyalty? Is this what a man is owed?"

Dean is more or less totally lost. He looks to his brother helplessly, finds Sam staring at Weskoe with sick fascination on his face.

"I don't know, dude," Dean says, doesn't even care anymore. "We gotta go hunt these snake things now, we'll see ya."

He grabs Sam's arm as he goes, unaccountably relieved when Sam stumbles after him without resistence. Making it out into the bleached sunlight feels like a mammoth accomplishment, as if they've climbed out of the world's deepest cave hand-over-hand. Dean shakes himself like a dog in the front yard, releasing fifteen minutes worth of pent-up shudders.

"Okay, that guy's a little more than kinda crazy," Dean says. They back away from the house as if it's sentient.

"Why do you think Dad said he'd kill him?" Sam asks.

"I--what? I don't know, I, I, I don't even know if Dad ever said that, maybe that was just more of that guy being a fuckin' lunatic."

"Maybe," Sam says, but he doesn't believe that and Dean knows he doesn't believe that. So goddamn transparent.

Burt comes out of the ranch house, immediately snugging his cap back on his head, and the three of them set off for the vehicles.

"That was productive," Burt says, smacking the folded map on the palm of his hand.

"It was fucking creepy as hell," Dean corrects.

"To be fair, it was both," Sam lays down like judgment.

Burt gives them the side-eye, cautious. "He shouldn't have said that stuff about your dad, but I guess you already know that."

"Yeah," Sam says, and Dean can tell that Sam is looking at him (he can feel it), but the sun is in his eyes and he doesn't quite trust himself to look back.

*

Everybody's pretty hungry, so they caravan to a roadhouse that's had billboards up all over the highway, looming picture of a thirty-foot-long T-bone steak ringed by golden fries as big as twin mattresses. Loose slots, too.

The five of them get a table in back near the pinball machines, and Dean is disconcerted to have so many faces to look at. He and Sam have traveled within an entirely self-contained world for so long now, this sudden variety is like meteors crashing in, perilously distracting.

Burt says, "One beer apiece, we gotta be sharp once we go up to the Diablo Pass."

Earl narrows his eyes, cocks his chin at the waitress and says, "Second thought, honey, bring me a Jack and Coke."

"Earl, what the hell-"

"I'm sixty-two years old, Gummer, and my mother's been dead for the last twenty of 'em. I ain't looking for a replacement, you get me?"

Burt snorts and shakes his head, raising his hands with a broad expression of affront. "Hell, ain't my job to keep you from being a damn fool. Drink on up, cowboy."

Earl makes a show of saluting Burt with his Jack and Coke, but then only sips intermittently, letting the ice melt. Probably just ordered it to prove the point, Dean thinks, and he can respect that.

The burger he orders is good but a mess, the soft bun kind of disintegrating at the end, leaving Dean to lick cheese and grease off his fingertips. Mindy watches him for a minute and then comments, "Like a five year old," and Dean pretends to grab at her with his dirty fingers as she yelps and lunges away, laughing.

Dean gets up to wash his hands, not thinking about anything in particular as he observes himself in the spidery mirror, just a humming appreciation for that burger and a diffuse awareness of the exhaustion encroaching from his edges.

He comes out of the men's and there's Mindy, smiling as Dean appears, stepping forward.

"Hiya."

"Uh, hi." Dean flashes a default grin. "What's up?"

Mindy smiles back, uneven feel to it, twiddling the hem of her shirt between her fingers. "Did you, um, did you get my number on that map I drew?"

"Oh, yeah, yeah, I got that. Ah. Thanks."

"You're welcome," Mindy says, and then kinda laughs at the weird formality of it. Dean keeps a dumb smile on his face, trying to match her reactions.

"So, um," and she's blushing, actually honest-to-god blushing as she asks, "Can I buy you a drink?"

"Oh man," Dean says, and he didn't mean to sound that despairing, doesn't know what to do with the sinking feeling in his stomach. "Uh, it's kinda. Kinda bad timing for me, actually?"

Mindy's brave little smile flickers, and she blinks, tucks a bit of sandy hair behind her ear. "Seriously?"

Dean feels his expression becoming increasingly desperate, reassuring no one. "Yeah, uh, I'm all. Fucked up and stuff. Bad news."

Dean gestures weakly at the air around his head, indicating overall disrepair. All the while it's like he's outside his own body, watching. Mindy's face softens, and she nods.

"It's your dad?" she says sympathetically. "I know that can be real hard-"

"No," Dean interrupts. His throat feels crushed. "Um, I mean, maybe a little, but no, it, it's other stuff too. And anyway, I got a, a, a rule about hooking up during a hunt."

"A hunt?" Mindy says, wrinkling her nose as Dean's blood goes ice-cold in his veins, smile withering away.

"For the. The graboids," Dean stammers, a huge roar of disbelief in his ears. "I mean. The rule, my rule is for when we, we're deer-hunting, me and my brother. The rule is for deer hunts, and this just, it feels like the same kinda thing, I guess?"

Dean manages to stop himself, biting down hard on the inside of his cheek. His eyes feel like they're gaping out of his head, pulse visibly throbbing in his throat. He's never slipped up like that around a civilian before, never once before.

Mindy gives him a strange look, and Dean throws her a last-ditch grin, whatever he can scrape off the floor of his psyche, and tells her hurriedly:

"You're really awesome, though, and I hope we kill lots of graboids together," before sticking out his hand because he can't for the life of him think of anything better.

Mindy rolls her eyes. She takes Dean's hand in a firm grip, shaking her head in amused exasperation.

"Only interested in the snake monsters, I shoulda known," she says, and Dean's laugh is not as entirely fraudulent as he expects it to be.

Back at the table, Dean slides into his seat next to Sam, immediately catching his brother sneaking looks from under his eyelashes. Scalpel looks, brusque slices beneath the skin.

"Help you with something?" Dean asks shortly, feeling raw.

Sam twists a fork between his fingers and shrugs. "You and Mindy have a good talk?"

Muttered under his breath, meant only for his brother's ears, and a pulse of anger throbs through Dean, incredulous and overpowering. He's not entirely certain why he turned Mindy down (the rule is real, though more of a guideline that keeps Dean from actively hitting on anybody during a hunt; it's never extended as far as girls who hit on him), but he is pretty goddamn sure that he doesn't want Sam talking shit about it.

"Yeah we did," Dean says, letting a wickedly suggestive smile curve across his lips. "Always good to get to know the co-workers, huh?"

Sam makes a harsh impatient noise, eyes flicking from Dean to where Mindy is sat on Dean's other side, engaged in an in-depth conversation about college football with Earl and Burt.

"Pretty stupid move," Sam says in that muted unreadable voice. "We're on a fuckin' job, here."

"Bullshit job," Dean mumbles, but that's only reflex, a former piece of faith that he's starting to doubt and disbelieve the longer they stay in Elko County.

Flashing eyes, and Sam saying, "Just keep your priorities straight, Dean."

Dean's hands are in fists under the table and he presses forward, letting the hard wooden edge dig into his arms. Breathless, almost giddy with indignation, the sheer goddamn injustice of Sam lecturing him like this, like he has a fucking right.

He's very close to snapping, just taking a swing at his brother right here in front of everybody, the whole damn restaurant, imagining the flattening of Sam's mouth under his knuckles, the white surprise in his eyes.

"All right, fellas," Burt says, and inclines his head self-referentially. "And Mindy. Daylight's wasting, let's get a move on."

Sam shoves back from the table, rattling the silverware, and Dean's concentration breaks. The tension falls out of his back and shoulders, his hands opening. He's left feeling splintered, unfinished, anger and sorrow kinda simmering in the background.

Dean takes one last long straw-sucking drink of his Coke, and then gets up, walking with his head down like a condemned man out to the Impala where his brother is waiting.

*

The ride up to the Diablo Pass with Sam and Mindy is intensely uncomfortable, but Dean's pretty sure it's just him.

Mindy is largely unfazed about having being turned down by Dean, which carries an irritating sting, but Dean knows that's a selfish shoddy reaction, and so he does his best to ignore it. Mindy gets them on a knock-knock joke tangent and they trade all the ones they know back and forth, snickering and groaning at the lame puns, reciting in unison, "Orange you glad I didn't say banana!" Sam stares out the window and gives the general impression of a deaf-mute.

It's approaching dusk. The sun clings like a bit of gold debris to the ridge of the mountains, overstretched purple clouds streaked across the sky.

In front of them, the pick-up truck pulls off the road, a spray of dust and grit. Dean pulls in behind, looking around to get a sense of place. There's a farmhouse and decrepit barn about a quarter-mile away, down the long shallow plain of the foothills. The grade of the road increases sharply just up ahead, climbing into the mountains proper.

Earl and Burt are standing shoulder to shoulder, squinting down into the plain. Burt has a sawed-off shotgun in hand, aimed at the ground.

"What's going on?" Dean says as he comes up alongside them. "I thought we were going up to the pass."

Earl points. "You see that? That dark spot on the plain?"

Dean peers and squints, and yeah, he sees it, like a cherry stain on the yellowing grass. "What is it?"

"Here, I got a pair of field glasses in the bag," Burt says, and retreats to the pick-up. Earl lights a cigarette while they wait.

Burt looks through the binocs and says, "Shit," before passing them off to Earl. Earl swears as well.

"Looks like a mountain lion," Earl says. Burt is loading his shotgun, sure click of shells chocking into place, and Earl hands Dean the binocs before joining him.

Dead mountain lion on the plain, Dean sees through the glasses. A wide circle of blood soaking into the ground, the animal has been ripped apart.

"Get strapped," Burt orders. "All of you."

Dean turns to find that Sam is already ahead of the game, shouldering one of the assault rifles and stuffing magazines into his satchel. Mindy looks a bit wide-eyed at the sudden militaristic feel, but she stays in it, picking out an assault rifle and packing magazines into her purse.

It's a long walk down the plain to where the carcass is, and with each stride their multitude of weapons clanks together like tin cans on a string. Burt walks backwards, keeping an eye on the rear.

And there's this taste in the air, this metallic undercoating. Dean is aware of his heart beating, each breath echoing inside his skull. Sam's eyes never stop, scanning the horizon and the mountains and the farmhouse with its soft-glowing gold windows, the idyllic curl of smoke from the chimney. The threat could come from any side.

The suspense works on them all, building like an approaching storm, and even Mindy keeps quiet for once. They come upon the carcass, sure enough a mountain lion. It's been ripped open and all its insides cleaned out, leaving a scrappy gory hide with the head still intact, brassy marble eyes staring up. It looks like something an Indian might wear to camouflage himself while hunting, a bygone age kinda thing.

Mindy makes a sound like she might throw up, and Dean looks over to see her staring straight up at the sky. He starts to say, "You all-" but she beats him to it, "Fine, I'm fine thanks," fast and pinched through her nose.

Sam steps lightly on Dean's foot, drawing his gaze. "You still think it's a bullshit job?"

As if Dean would give him the satisfaction of an answer. He steps forward, away from Sam and closer to Burt, who has knelt beside the carcass and is inspecting one of its paws, which hang limply like rabbit's feet on a chain.

"Lookit this, Earl," Burt says, prying one of the big cat's retractable claws out with his knife. There are bright orange smears the color of brand-new rust.

"Son of a bitch," Earl breathes out.

"What? What?" Sam asks, elbowing in.

"That's what color the graboids are on the inside. Their blood." Burt lets the claw fold back into the paw. "This cat fought back, at least. If we're lucky, he sliced an artery and the graboid left a trail for us to follow."

He gets to his feet, looks around at everyone else staring dumbly at the dead mountain lion, varying degrees of pale and wide-eyed.

Burt claps his hands together, camp counselor kinda move, and says, "Hey, c'mon people. All this is is confirmation of the theory, we still got a ways to go. Now spread out, look for a blood trail. C'mon, the light's gonna be gone soon-"

and there's probably more but none of them hear it, because at that moment the ground starts shaking.

Dean thinks it's him for a second, weak legs from the length of the day, just a personal failing, but then Mindy is grabbing onto Sam to keep her balance and Burt is swearing and reaching back for the elephant gun that's slung around his back.

Three seconds, maybe four, everybody naturally closing ranks in a back-to-back cluster, and then the tremors fade, diminished but still barely perceptible through the soles of their shoes.

"It's close by," Burt says in a hushed whisper. "Nobody move, don't scream."

"Is that the best you can come up with?" Earl asks at a similar volume.

Dean presses back against Sam's shoulder, shotgun raised with the stock pressing hard and flat to his forearm, sweeping across the patch of field that he's facing. Adrenaline pours through him, his mouth going dry. It feels like he's got a bird's heart in his chest right now.

"Me and Earl got enough firepower on us to get to the truck," Burt whispers. "Somebody's gotta get those people out of that farmhouse."

"Where're we supposed to tell them to go?" Sam asks.

"Just up on the roof for now. We'll get the truck and come pick you guys up."

"This plan seems kinda slapped-together," Sam says. Dean is glad no one can see his face, because he's smirking plainly in agreement.

"Earl, are you with me?" Burt asks, ignoring Sam.

Earl's voice rose from Dean's left. "How many grenades do you have on you?"

"Six."

A pause, as for mental calculation. "Yeah, I'm with you."

"All right then. Mindy, you're coming with us, I'll need the cover fire from that Browning."

"Okay," Mindy says, tight high-pitched voice but pretty steady too.

"Sam, Dean. The farmhouse," Burt says in a tone that brooks no arguments. Dean doesn't like following orders from people who aren't family, but he feels Sam sigh against his back and figures they better just work with it.

"Throwing a grenade in five, four, three, two," and Burt whips his arm, hurls the grenade far and long in the opposite direction of everything. "Wait for it!" he shouts, and then the deafening slam of the explosion, erupting black smoke and dirt and Burt yelling, "GO, GO!" and everybody takes off running.

Sprinting for the farmhouse, the smoking crater left by the grenade is in Dean's peripheral vision, and Sam grabs at his shoulder, stabs a pointing finger across his face, "Look, look there it is!"

Dean keeps running, turns his head and he can see it, massive scale-backed worm diving through the top level of dirt like a dolphin through waves, and it's so goddamn big. A clattering report from an assault rifle, Mindy covering for Burt, and the ground riddles around the graboid, puffed and churned, and the monster is still moving so fast, going through dirt like it's water, like air.

"Holy shit," Dean pants, and kicks it up to a higher gear, pushing his body to its limits.

The worm creature reaches the crater, ghastly alien head poking up to explore, and then there's another explosion, another distracting grenade, and the graboid dives low beneath the earth, completely vanishing as the world begins to shake once more.

Sam reaches the farmhouse first, thundering across the porch and slamming into the door, pounding at it. Dean is right on his heels, each breath thick and sticking in his lungs.

"Hey, hello in there!" Sam shouts, still banging on the door. Dean stands at his brother's back, shotgun raised but aimed at the dirt, aimed at nothing. The second grenade site is too far for him to see, he doesn't have any idea where the graboid is now.

"¡Váyase!" Dean hears yelled from inside the house. "¡Fuera de aquí, no tenemos nada!"

"Awesome," Sam mutters with a familiar bitter edge to it, and then raises his voice again, "Soy aquÍ para, um, para ayuda!"

"Do you even know what you're saying?" Dean asks.

"Kinda!" Sam fires back defensively, and then, "Do you see it? The graboid?"

"Not, not really--oh fuck."

Dean spots it, just for a second like a heat shimmer in the desert making the ground go wavy. The graboid breaks through the dirt for a split second, a whale coming up for a breath and then under again.

"Yeah, it's headed in this direction," Dean reports, and pumps a shell into the chamber of his shotgun.

"What, are you fucking serious?"

"As if I would fuckin' joke, here move," and Dean shoves Sam out of the way, shouts through the front door, "Yo, stand back in there, get the hell back," even though it's probably useless, and then Dean kicks in the door, once, twice, third time's a charm.

The splinters fly, and Dean bursts in to see a middle-aged Latino guy with thick black-framed glasses and a baseball bat cocked back ready to swing. Dean holds up his hands, meaning to show no threat, but the shotgun doesn't really help with that, and the man drops the bat immediately, unmitigated terror crashing hugely across his face as his hands clap on to the top of his head.

"No, no nos hacen daño," the man says, stuttering. "Por favor, no daño a mi familia."

"Está bien, está bien," Sam says, trying to project calm and failing miserably. "We, no quieremos nada, and, y, y solo aquí para ayudar, goddamn it."

The floor begins to shake violently, the whole house creaking and groaning, and the man staggers, almost falls. He hangs onto the wall and looks around in a panicked daze, bafflement and terror twisting his face.

"We don't have time, Sam, you gotta get him on the roof," Dean says.

"Monstro," Sam says desperately to the man, shaking his head and grimacing, "that's not it, what is it, what, um, monstruo, monstruo."

And like that's its fucking cue, the graboid surges up through the floorboards and into their lives.

A plank of flying wood slams into Dean's shoulder, knocks him back a step. He comes up already firing his shotgun into the cloud of dust and debris, unable to pick apart the chaos for a moment.

Then: he can see it. Worse than they said, worse than he could have known. Its huge maw thrust up through the hole in the floor, drill-like pincers gaping open to allow three writhing snake tongues to slither thickly across the floor, hissing and gnashing their teeth and trailing viscous slime.

The Latino guy is screaming wildly, familiar what the fuck is happening innocent bystander screaming that apparently sounds the same in every language, and it only adds to the madness of the scene. One of the snake tongues bolts towards Sam's legs, fangs catching the light, and Dean pumps a shell into it, knocking it aside.

"Get out, Sam, get him out of here," Dean shouts, and leaps on top of the couch to avoid another inhumanly strong snake tongue. The worm can't find him for a moment, and Dean registers that the tongues and the creature itself all seem to be stone blind as he reloads his shotgun.

In the corner of his eye, Dean can see Sam helping the Latino guy climb out a window and up the side of the house, his shoes dangling and pulling up out of sight. Dean expects Sam to follow right after, but instead Sam turns and runs out of the room.

"Sam!" Dean hollers in dismay, because what the hell, either get on the roof or help with the goddamn fire fight, and then the graboid lunges forward, the house shuddering as new ground is broken through the floorboards, and everywhere, always this unholy roaring, hideous snarling slobbering pincer-head peeled open and bellowing like the end of the world. A wave of rank breath assaults him, and Dean swallows back his gorge, scrambles off the couch, shoving it forward as a bulwark against the monster.

A black moment, just a few seconds later, when Dean looks behind to realize that he has backed himself into the one corner in the room without a window, when he fumbles for more shotgun shells and his hand closes in the empty pocket of his jacket, when a single grotesque snake tongue slithers over the cushions of the couch and he has to club it back, which only lets the other two know where he is, and Dean throws a gasping look towards the open window, lavender night sky, and thinks, fuck gonna die. It's fleeting, almost amazing in how simple the prospect sounds. Thirty more seconds is how long Dean's life is going to last.

He clubs one snake tongue and another darts around and latches onto Dean's shoulder, long glassine fangs sinking deep into his flesh, squealing against bone. Dean grunts, winded by pain, blinded by it. The tongue is a solid curl of muscle that jerks him forward with impossible power, into and over the couch, and what can Dean do now, not even standing anymore--odd resonating thrum of sorrow at that thought, because Dean has always assumed that he would at the very least die on his feet.

Then Sam is back, and he has a small child wrapped around his chest and shoulders but it doesn't seem to hinder him as he pumps two quick shotgun blasts into the snake tongue that has Dean by the shoulder, blowing it clean in half. Dean can feel the moment it becomes a dead amputated limb, shuddering and going still, slick heavy knotty thing. The clench of its jaw relaxes. Tearing the snake's vampiric fangs out of his shoulder is one of the single grossest things Dean has ever had to do, but he's alive and he can move, gets his legs under him on the couch and then he's jumping clear of the one remaining tongue.

The graboid is bleeding from a dozen different places, wrenching its huge bulk around as it tries to turn on Sam, but its movements are slow and sluggish. Sam dodges it easily, kid cargo and all, and looks back to say, "C'mon, rapído," which is when Dean notices the tall dark lady wrapped in a second small child, who sticks close to the wall as she follows Sam to the window her husband went through earlier. Dean flanks them, taking out his Glock and plugging a few more holes into the graboid, which wails with fury and pain as it lashes back and forth, sinking reluctantly back into the hole in the floor.

"Up we go, okay," Sam murmurs thoughtlessly as he passes first one child and then the second up to their father on the roof. Sam helps the mom up next, and then hands Dean his shotgun and follows the family.

Dean inches forward, angles Sam's shotgun into the hole and takes another chunk off the graboid, another agonized howl, and then the ground rumbles and cabinets fall over two rooms away and the pictures comes crashing down from the walls, and the worm is gone.

Dean passes both shotguns up to Sam before climbing up the window frame himself, lets Sam pull him onto the roof. The family clings together near the chimney, the little kids not much more than toddlers and bawling with their parents' hands pressed flat to their faces. Sam stands at the edge of the roof, shotgun in hand, watching Earl's truck speed towards them, headlights blaring like salvation itself.

Sam looks over as Dean comes to stand next to him, says, "Your shoulder?"

Dean presses his hand to the puncture wounds in his jacket, sticky blood but not as much as he'd feared.

"Deep but it's not leaking too bad. Flesh wound."

Sam nods, and a few quiet moments pass before Sam visibly realizes that he's just kind of staring at his brother, and drops his eyes. Strange creaking feeling in Dean, like something pressing outwards against his weakest ribs, watching Sam lick his lips and scratch furtively behind his ear and sneak a glance at Dean like it's not something he has full control over. Dean is struck by that thought alone, that maybe unwilling hyperawareness of the other is one of those things that they hold in common.

He doesn't get a chance to wonder about it much, as Sam turns away to explain to the family in the limited vocab and flubbed conjugations of his second-year Spanish that they'll all need to be getting down onto the truck in order to make their escape and not be eaten.

The trust gap between the dad of the family and Sam has been pretty efficiently bridged by Sam handing the man his kids from out of the room with the monster in it, and he nods fervently when Sam points out the truck, "Sí, okay, okay," his eyes magnified behind his Buddy Holly glasses.

Earl's truck skids to a stop in front of the porch, Mindy hanging onto the covered cannon for dear life, and Burt sticks his head out of the passenger side window.

"C'mon, we can't stay still for long! Is that graboid still around?"

"I don't think so, we fucked it up pretty good. We got four civilians up here, two little kids."

"All right, them first, let's go."

Sam hustles the family out onto the porch overhang, and down go the kids, one then the other passed into Mindy's outstretched hands in the truck bed, and then their mom and dad climbing after.

Sam looks back up the roof to where Dean is standing with one hand jammed against his bloody shoulder, his mind in a dampening swoon. He blinks and Sam is at his side, serious dark Sam eyes seeking across his face.

"Are you okay, are you gonna pass out?"

"Anythin' could happen," Dean says, and Sam grabs him as he pitches forward, sudden slide of arms around him, his face mashed against his brother's chest and Sam's surprised oof of breath warm against Dean's forehead.

"Jesus, Dean," Sam says, and he's laughing, it sounds like he's laughing, but that can't be right.

Dean tries to get a look at him, wants to see it, dying to, but he's all weirdly twisted up and Sam is manhandling him down the slanted overhang and the throb in his shoulder feels rooted in his goddamn soul. Dean can't manage anything more complicated than staying on his feet just now, and he tells himself it's okay, it's all right. Nobody's dead and so it doesn't matter if Sam laughed and he missed it.

There are more important things, after all.

*

Earl drives hellbent to the nearest town of any consequence, almost twenty miles before finding a convenience store parking lot illuminated by reassuringly intense sodium lights. There are people inside, moving around like silent movie theatre through the glass walls. There are teenagers smoking cigarettes on the stone benches.

The whole scene is disconcerting and incongruously normal after the past half-hour of their lives. Dean and Sam climb down out of the cramped bed of the truck. The civilian family stays where they are, shell-shocked and staring at the Winchesters as if they have sprouted wings.

Thankfully, Earl steps in at that moment, and Earl, as it turns out, speaks Spanish.

"Live in Nevada for half a century, you'll pick it up too," he says when Dean lets surprise hike his eyebrows. Earl doesn't bother much with any accent other than his own, so the words come out flat and square instead of roundish at the edges, but Dean can tell from the sharpening looks on the mom and dad's faces that it's close enough to understand.

"His name is Josué and she's Amaya," Earl says after shaking both their hands. He introduces the Winchesters and Mindy, who's already making friends with the couple's two little boys, and points out Burt picking up bandages and water inside the store.

Josué says something to Earl in Spanish, and then looks to Sam and Dean, taking off his smudgy glasses to reveal grave brown eyes, saying, "Thank you very much. My family. Thank you very much."

Dean and Sam both nod fast and shrug their shoulders, trying to act like it was nothing. Amaya's eyes are glittery with tears, but Dean doesn't think she's going to allow them to fall, something about the carved set of her mouth, the tension in the line of her jaw.

"What is it?" Josué asks carefully. "¿Es una serpiente gigante, o, o, ah, un dinosaurio?"

"We don't know," Sam says, and then, "No sé, or I mean, no sabemos."

"Dude, could you guys pick a language and stick to it, please," Dean says, and is rewarded with a quick shut-it-shortbus look from his brother, which is such a spectacularly regular look for Sam to give him. Dean grins all woozy from blood loss and relief, humming thickness in his mind, trying to keep his balance.

Earl and Josué converse in Spanish for a minute with Sam listening intently, probably picking up every fourth word or so. Earl asks a few questions of Amaya, too, rubbing his beard thoughtfully and nodding as if their responses fall perfectly into line with his extant theories.

"They've been feeling the tremors pretty regularly but reckoned it was the road crew up in the pass," Earl reports. "They don't keep sheep, but their family dog went missing a couple days ago."

"They can't go back to their house," Sam says. "Not even to pick stuff up or anything. Make sure they know they can't go back there until we're positive all the graboids are dead."

Earl tells them. Josué listens carefully, head tipped towards Earl, and then he glances quickly at his wife, and asks something gravelly and serious. Earl huffs, looking unpleasantly startled as he crosses his arms over his chest and shakes his head.

"No, no se puede," Earl says, and Josué's mouth takes on a stubborn shape. He says something fast and emphatic, and Earl responds back in kind, and they argue for a second before Sam stops them, "Hey, slow down, c'mon, cállate. What are you guys even talking about?"

Earl jerks his head, scowling at Josué, who has his wife's hand in a death grip, and glares right back. "He wants to come with us when we kill the things."

"But that's crazy." Sam looks at Josué doubtfully. "He doesn't look crazy."

"Oh, he says it's his land and his family and his home and whatever else, he's got to defend it." Earl blows out an exasperated breath, having exactly no luck in staring down the other man. "I thought boneheaded machismo was an American thing."

"Still is, you just don't have to be born into it," Dean says, and Sam makes an amused sound of agreement at his side.

Burt comes back from the convenience store with a brown paper bag sagging in his hands. There are three big bottles of water, iodine and bandages and aspirin, candy for the kids. The smaller of the two boys climbs into his mother's lap, brandishing a pack of M&Ms for her to open.

"How we doing?" Burt asks at large, taking a swig of water and passing the bottle to Earl. Burt touches the brim of his cap, nodding at Amaya. "Ma'am."

"This damn fool wants to get in on the fun," Earl says, and Josué fires back, catching the gist if not the literal words, and the debate begins anew. Dean yawns, distantly amused.

Sam digs out the bandages and iodine, says, "C'mon Dean, let's get your shoulder dealt with," and the two of them walk around the side of the store to where the bathroom is, next to the propane tank.

Just one little room, dingy gray overlay on everything, deep ochre ring around the sink drain. There isn't a window, just more graffiti on the walls.

Dean's shoulder feels huge, swollen to twice its size, and the ache is unbelievable, goes down so deep. He removes the blood-soaked T-shirt he'd wadded against the wound, and needs Sam's help to get his leather coat off, his arm wooden and immobilized by pain.

Sam comes around to Dean's front, his gaze clinical and intent, thin nervous mouth. Dean gazes dopily at his brother's face, noticing the things that require close proximity, the near-invisible freckles and tiny scar like a bit of white ash just at the point of Sam's eyebrow. Strange surfacing thoughts in Dean's mind, bodies rising from the lake floor, and he flinches minutely as Sam ghosts fingertips over his throbbing shoulder.

"You can't lift your arm," Sam says, not a question. "Gonna have to cut your shirt off, sorry."

Better judgment flickers weakly in Dean, and he nods, blinking fast and trying to get his mind back in order. He remembers the switchblade in his pocket and hands it to Sam. Quick smile from Sam and then the snick of the blade, and it does something to Dean, shocking twist of heat in his stomach, his skin breaking out in goosebumps.

"Hold still," Sam says, crumpling the hem of Dean's T-shirt between his fingers and tugging it away from his body.

Dean holds still, holds his breath, watches in a disarmed fog as Sam carefully slices through the thin black fabric, blade sliding up the line of Dean's sternum so neat and clean, Sam's knuckles brushing the bare skin of his chest as he pulls the rend in the shirt up and apart.

"Oh dude, gross," Sam says, his forehead knotting as he gingerly peels the shirt away from Dean's injured shoulder.

Glance down to see the extent of the damage, and Dean winces, gross being a tremendous understatement. Four crimson puncture marks, ragged at the edges where he had to rip the snake stub off, and the bruising that has already begun is lurid-dark, skin stretched and shiny. The whole arm down to his elbow is sticky and marooned by blood.

It hurts a lot more now that Dean has looked at it. He turns his eyes up to the ceiling, fighting a roil of nausea.

"Just get it done, man," he says, an impression of Sam nodding in the lowermost corner of his vision.

Sam washes the tacky blood away with water from the sink, pats it dry with a paper towel and then warns, "Iodine. Deep breath."

Hard suck of air between Dean's teeth, and Sam presses a damp piece of gauze to the puncture marks, and it's like fire, it's like being branded.

"Fuuuuuck," Dean groans through gritted teeth, squeezing his eyes shut.

"Hang on, you're okay," Sam mumbles, standard quit-whining tone to his voice, and his free hand closes warmly on Dean's side, holding him steady. He swabs the iodine-soaked gauze across the other puncture wounds, swift and efficient and painful as all hell. Dean trembles, doesn't make any noise.

"All right, almost done," and Sam presses a blessedly clean piece of gauze to Dean's shoulder, tapes it down. Dean breathes through his mouth as Sam lifts his arm far enough to be able to wrap a bandage around it, his torn muscles lancing with agony at the movement.

"There, that should do it," Sam says, lowering Dean's arm back to his side.

"Ow," Dean says belatedly.

"You're welcome."

Sam hasn't moved back, and Dean flicks a look at his face, find Sam staring with hooded eyes at the place where the bruising fades into the clean skin of Dean's shoulder.

"What?" Dean says, and clumsily brings his fingers to the spot Sam's looking at, checking for blood but there's nothing. His head is spinning, leaving him shaky on his feet.

"Dean, listen," Sam says, and then stops there. Dean watches Sam's throat move as he swallows.

"What, what's going on with you lately?" Dean hears himself asking, hears the hitch in his voice and wonders what Sam is gonna make of it.

Sam shakes his head, looking down with his eyebrows hunched, but he doesn't move back; his feet are six inches from Dean's and he's still not moving back.

"I can't keep this up much longer," Sam says, hoarse and apologetic.

"What?" and Dean has gone cold inside, echoes clamoring for space (just fucking sick of you Dean), his vision tunneling down. "What are you talking about?"

Sam makes a distant falling sound, and with his eyes still turned away he reaches out and places his open hand on Dean's bare chest.

Dean looks down at it, and then up at his brother, asks again in perfect confusion, "What?"

Lips parting slightly, Sam doesn't answer, just drags his fingertips lightly down Dean's chest, just a few inches and not reason enough for the flood of heat that goes through him, the skittering rush up his spine. Dean jerks, his eyes going wide.

"Sam," he breathes out, and he means stop but he doesn't say it, he means what are you doing but the words won't come.

Sam's face is on fire, breath coming short through his mouth. Half-closed eyes and his hand feels heavier than iron, big and spreading out, fingers itching across Dean's skin.

"You make it impossible," Sam says, broken moan at the end of it, and then something breaks in his face, and his palm presses down hard.

He steps forward, crowding Dean against the wall and the cool rough against his bare back makes Dean gasp. Sam is standing on one of his shoes, so close they're in the same place, and he curls long fingers around Dean's ribs, slides his other hand down to Dean's fly.

"Oh god what're you," Dean manages, bitten off with a curse as Sam shapes fingers around his dick through his jeans, and Dean's hips jerk into the touch, instantly starting to go hard and what is this, what the fuck is happening right now?

"Be quiet Dean," Sam says in a pleading whisper, and presses his forehead against Dean's, down to his cheek.

Dean is coming apart, pinned to this wall and twisting and shivering against his brother. Sam's hand is perfect, working his cock all the way hard through denim and cotton, and Dean's body bows, striving forward. His fingers scrabble at Sam's shoulders, insanely not pushing him away, hanging on.

And Sam is mumbling almost unintelligibly, hot scraps of breath against Dean's throat, "lemme just, please, just once let me," and Dean can't listen to it, it's wrecking him, and so he curls a hand in Sam's hair and pulls his head down, Sam's searing open mouth immediately latching on to the battering thud of Dean's pulse, and everything goes briefly white and that's gonna be it for Dean, that's gonna be basically all he needs to get there--

and then--

A fist hammering against the locked door, rough voice hollering, "Hey, you guys all right in there?"

Sam rips himself away from Dean. It takes a fraction of a second, less than a thought, and then he's standing in the middle of the little room, an expression of pure terror slamming down across his face.

Dean might as well be nailed to the wall. Gaping eyes and stunned mouth, flush staining his skin, still shirtless and rock hard and just staring at Sam, who's just staring back.

"What the hell, don't make me break down this door!" comes from outside, and it's Earl, just Earl come to check on them because they've been taking so long, and with that realization a string snaps. The moment breaks.

Dean falls against the sink, wrenching the tap on and hunching to throw cold water on his face. He's panicking, he can feel it. Disbelieving arousal still buzzes under his skin, crippling him from the inside. Behind him, Sam unbolts the door and says in a respectable imitation of mildly annoyed exasperation, "We're coming, man, settle your ass down."

Whole face mostly numb, Dean opens his eyes into the frozen splash of water, thinking in desperation that it might be better for all concerned if he accidentally blinds himself and never has to look at Sam again.

*

They all pile back into the truck bed, leaving the shotgun seat for Amaya and her lapful of children, and Earl takes them in a westerly direction.

Dean and Sam are separated by the bulk of the covered cannon. Dean can see a bit of Sam's hair, still remember the soft crush of it between his fingers. There's a place on his neck that itches and burns, defined and brought into being by Sam's mouth. He shakes himself, feeling dizzy and sick, so far beyond tired there just aren't words.

Burt and Mindy are wedged in the same corner as Dean, everybody's elbows jarring together. Mindy's blonde ponytail flaps in the wind, pastes itself across her face and she scrapes it off.

"How's your shoulder?" Mindy asks him.

Dean touches the bulk of the bandage through the worn flannel shirt that Earl lent him. Still throbbing despite the six aspirin he swallowed, same stomach-turning pressure. He affixes an invincible grin.

"Not even worth complaining about. Takes more than that."

"Okay, He-Man," Mindy says on a laugh.

"It's gonna stiffen up pretty bad by tomorrow," Burt tells him. "Those fangs can get in pretty deep."

"Aw, I've had worse."

"Long as you can still handle your weapons," Burt says.

"Don't worry about that," Dean answers with an cocky scoff. "Also, where the hell are we going? I gotta get back to my car."

"We're not going back there till daylight," Burt says emphatically. "Your car will be fine, nobody's gonna mess with her."

Dean doesn't much like the sound of that, doesn't like the thought of the Impala parked on the side of a foreign highway all night, with the monsters underground and the thieves on top. But he's stuck in this truck, jammed in a corner with his knees against Mindy's and an obtrusive bag of ammunition at the small of his back, and there's eight other people here so Dean's opinion doesn't count for very much.

And there's something wrong with him, anyway. If he cranes his head to a specific angle, he can see the line of Sam's neck running into his shoulder. When the wind blows right, he can hear the halting pieced-together bilingual conversation that Sam is having with Josué, Sam's low careful voice.

When Dean closes his eyes, he can feel Sam pressed up against him, nudging his legs apart, huge hand open on his chest.

Dean opens his eyes, breath caught in his throat. Mindy smiles at him and offers some Skittles. Dean takes a small handful, moving on autopilot. This feels like a fucking dream--how many hours has he been awake now, anyway?

They're going to Amaya's cousin's place, which is a three-room apartment over a liquor store in a shady-looking part of town (not that that's saying much, Elko County being the rural wasteland that it is). The cousin is a skinny twitchy guy not much older than twenty, pencil-thin mustache under his nose, and he rushes around making up nest-beds for the kids out of blankets and beach towels emblazoned with the Corona logo. There's a fold-out couch for Josué and Amaya, and everyone else agrees that the floor looks pretty damn enticing, just now.

The conversation leading up to lights out is mostly in Spanish, and Dean is able to drift in and out, the patter and beat of the language washing over him. He relives the fantastical night they've had in the rises and falls of their voices, lying full-clothed on top of his sleeping bag, on the floor of this stranger's apartment in northeast Nevada.

Sam is on the floor in the other room. Dean can't see him and Sam's not talking so there's nothing to hear, but that awareness thing, that pinging radar in the back of his mind--Sam is right over there.

Dean closes his eyes tight, and there they are again, Sam backing him into the bathroom wall, fitting his fingers to the sleek bare skin of Dean's ribs. The pictures bombard Dean, and then they begin to fracture and dissolve as fast down he goes, dragged by total exhaustion. It's a hair-thin silver lining, but he's too tired to dream.

He wakes up some hours later when Burt steps on his hand.

Dean wakes instantly, stays motionless until his location and the location of Sam and the location of his car and the location of his Glock have all been established in his mind.

He opens his eyes to see Burt carefully easing out the front door, pulling it slowly shut to keep quiet. Dean's stomped hand hurts, faint bootprint in embossed red, and he curls it in against his chest, sits up to dig his phone out of pocket. His wounded shoulder comes awake violently at the movement, agonizing wave of pain flooding over him, and he hunches his back, shakes silently until it passes. Then he checks his phone.

It's six-thirty in the morning. Dean got about eight hours of sleep, which is probably why his skin doesn't feel like it's about to slough off anymore. His body feels like his own again, maimed and desecrated though it may be.

Dean gets up to use the bathroom, where the shadowy beginnings of violet light are growing in the beveled glass window, and when he's coming back he can see into the other room, see Sam's empty sleeping bag like a shed snake skin on the carpet.

Searching the apartment takes approximately twenty seconds, and requires no more than six total steps. There's Josué and Amaya on the fold-out with one of their boys tucked as a stowaway between them, there's the other little kid conked out with his thumb in his mouth, and Mindy next to him, white-socked feet sticking out at the end of a Corona towel. There's the point-counterpoint of Amaya's cousin snoring in the bedroom and Earl snoring on the bedroom floor. No Sam.

Dean presses a hand to the incessant throb in his shoulder, and slips quietly out into the hallway. His choices are the front door or the fire escape, and Dean opts for the bird's eye view as a proper starting place, and climbs up onto the roof.

Sam's up there.

He's sitting on the edge, in the crushed gravel. He's facing east towards the rising sun, and Dean stands for a moment staring at his brother's back, the shape of his shoulders against the early morning sky.

You could leave, Dean says to himself, and considers the possibility, plays out the train of thought to its hypothetical ends. Turn around, back down the fire escape and through the hallway window, back into the quiet sleep-shrouded apartment overflowing with family, and when he sees Sam later in the morning they'll pretend that thing that happened yesterday never did, and go on for the whole rest of their lives pretending it never did.

To his immense surprise, Dean finds that he doesn't like that idea at all.

It's that thing that's gone wrong with him again. Whatever it was that kept him pinned to the restroom wall when one good shove, one harsh shout would have gotten Sam off him, whatever pushed Dean's body into his brother's and made him lose his breath and his mind and everything else, whatever this fucking malfunction is, he's been on the planet long enough to know he's not gonna get over it without bringing Sam with him.

So across the roof he goes. Boots crunching in the gravel, and Sam's body tightens as he registers it, his back turning into a shell. Dean clambers down to sit alongside his brother, maybe about a yard away in the interest of re-establishing boundaries and such. His legs hang over, boot heels tapping on the brick face. It's only a two-story building, so there's no real peril involved, but Dean still likes the look of it, the two of them sitting on a sheer ledge, cut out against the sky.

Sam hasn't looked at him. His eyes are trained down on the sidewalk, and Dean follows his gaze to see Burt standing at a pay phone outside the liquor store, one arm bent on top and his head down in that classic talking-on-a-pay-phone stance that Dean remembers mostly from old movies and train stations.

"I don't know who he's talking to," Sam says in a subdued pre-dawn voice.

"He's calling Heather in the hospital," Dean tells him, and Sam makes a little sound like he shoulda figured that out.

They watch for another few seconds, silent scene like watching television through a neighbor's window. Dean wonders what that conversation must be like, pay phone call to your wife of thirty years as she lies dying of cancer two hundred miles away. It makes him feel cold, and he shivers, looks down between his dangling feet.

A minute passes. The sky gets lighter so slowly you can't track it. Not much to look at, just two intersections and maybe a dozen places of business, half boarded-up and abandoned. Standard dying wide-spot-in-the-road kinda town, where it wouldn't be out of place to see guys riding in from the ranches on horseback, and everything feels a hundred years old.

Dean sneaks a look at Sam. Sam's eyes are scanning the sprawl of the desert in every direction, this sorta longing expression in it that makes Dean's stomach turn over.

"So," Dean says eventually, and figures that's probably enough for Sam to go on.

Sam makes him wait for it. He picks up a few pieces of gravel and chucks them into the street below. Dean watches Sam's nervous hands, his feet hanging over empty space.

"Can't explain it," Sam says at last, soft and doomed-sounding. "I, I've been trying to. Just for myself, trying to figure it out, but it's not--it's not the kind of thing that you can put words to, really."

"You're gonna have to, man," Dean tells him.

"I know. I know that."

Another long pause, like this is how their whole life is gonna be from now on, fractured bits of conversation interrupting spates of terrible silence. Can't live like that, Dean knows already.

"Everything gets magnified," Sam says. "On the road like this, and, and because of the job. Like, you almost died last night."

Dean tips his head, not seeing the relevance. "That happens a lot, though."

"That's the point. This--the job, all this life and fucking death stuff, it makes everything seem so. Final. Like every day could be my last chance."

"You can't--you can't think about that side of it," Dean says, basic stuff here. "It's the quickest way to lose your nerve."

"Yeah, well. If you know of some magic spell to keep it the hell out of my head, I'm all ears."

Dean rubs at the back of his neck. "That's why you've been in a such a shitty mood?"

"Yeah. Or, I don't know, I guess so. It's. Sometimes it's easier to deal with when you're pissed off at me."

"Only sometimes?" Dean asks. Sam nods, something so deeply goddamn sad in it that it hurts just looking at him.

"Only sometimes," Sam confirms in a soft voice.

"So, this, it's. It's new? I mean, you haven't always-"

"No," Sam says fast, and Dean jolts with unexpected relief, hadn't even realized how terrified he'd been that he'd misread his brother his whole damn life, that nothing had ever meant what he thought it did.

"It's since, since Dad," Sam goes on, grimacing like it actually physically hurts him to say the name. "I think maybe, maybe it's since Jess and since Dad, because you're all I got now and for awhile I was panicking about how you were gonna die next and maybe my brain just kinda. Warped. Got all fucked up about it."

Dean nods, but that doesn't mean he understands. Sam's face is in profile, his hand busy setting pieces of gravel on his knee and flicking them away. Sam's never gonna look him square in the eye again, Dean realizes.

"I didn't mean to ever actually do anything about it," Sam says to the street. "I was just, I was really tired last night," and his voice cracks on the last word. Dull flush on Sam's face, pinned-down corners of his mouth. "And I'm sorry."

Dean feels like someone took hold of his insides and pulled hard. He touches a hand to his chest, and breathes through it, vaguely stunned. He doesn't want Sam to be sorry. What the fuck.

"That's," Dean says without a clear idea of where he's going next, and cuts himself off. Deep breath, and then another one, and then Dean says, "I was tired too."

It's accurate, and topical, but still feels like a non-sequitir. Sam steals a look at Dean, ducking his head, lower lip pulled briefly between his teeth. Dean stares blatantly back at him, thinking that he's done with goddamn subtlety, and if he wants to stare he fuckin' well will.

"Do you," and it's Sam's turn to stop short, regroup. "I know you never. Thought of me. I know it's just me."

That's a trick. It's a question masquerading as a a statement of fact. Dean picks up a jagged piece of gravel to roll between his palms, and hopes Sam doesn't think he's fooling anyone.

"I never thought of you," Dean says, and watches something flinch back in his brother's face. "Not like that."

Sam nods quick, his gaze locked on the place on the horizon where golden light is gathering, the rising sun just beyond the sharktooth mountains. Dean watches Sam's throat move, watches his nails scratching miserably at a crust of mud on his jeans. There's something huge beginning to stir in Dean, a creeping feeling like fault lines in his foundation, termites in the framework.

"I never did before, Sam," Dean tells him, secret-keeping voice with the slightest weight on the word before, and then Dean watches in awe as Sam blinks at the sky, turns to look at him with shock and disbelief and wild unspooling hope in his eyes.

"What's that mean?" Sam wants to know, all wrecked and desperate-sounding. "What do you mean by that?"

Dean shakes his head, he doesn't want to explain it. He doesn't really think he can, Sam should understand that at least.

"I don't know," Dean says. "Of course I have to think about it now, you made that kind of inevitable. But then I. I keep trying to figure out why I didn't tell you to stop."

"Yeah. Me too."

They fall silent, looking at each other from sideways angles. Tripping vertigo sense in Dean, and it's less the open air under his swinging feet, more to do with the tentative shifting forms of his brother's mouth.

"Dean," Sam says below a whisper, and Dean tips closer to him automatically. "If there's even a chance--you should tell me."

Dean can't speak. There's a part of his mind that is alive with horror and outrage, forcefully reminding him exactly what they're talking about here, his brother Sam, his little brother Sam who wants to fuck him, and the answer is no, of course it's no, what the fuck is wrong with you if the answer's not no?

Sam curls his hands around the edge of the building, looking down. Dean's been quiet too long and Sam has read into it, rejection and misery etching familiar lines on his forehead and Dean hates that look on him, can't fucking stand it.

Dean reaches out, touches the back of Sam's wrist. Sam's head jerks up, searching Dean's face intently, and Dean swallows hard. He wants to know what Sam sees in him, if he can define it, but that's not the kind of thing you just ask a guy. Dean draws a little figure-eight on Sam's wrist with his fingertips, watching as if it's happening to someone else.

"I don't know if I can," Dean says, and pauses, catches his breath. "If I'd be able to."

Wide-eyed look from Sam, looking from Dean's fingers on his wrist to his brother's face, and back again. "But you. You don't know that you can't, either."

"I don't know that I can't," Dean agrees quietly, the truth of it coming to a shuddering rest inside him. He takes his hand away from Sam's arm.

"Then there's a chance," Sam says, and the ill-concealed ascent in his voice makes Dean's skin draw tight, feeling accused in a weird way.

He bites the inside of his cheek, not looking at his brother. A cold flush washes across him. What did he just admit to? What is Sam doing to him?

"I don't know," Dean says, feeling like his own echo.

Sam makes as if to reach out for Dean, and then stops his hand, draws back. Dean is grateful for that, doesn't think he could take Sam initiating contact right now. Dean is raw nerve endings all over.

"Listen, I won't, I, I don't want to make you think-" and Dean doesn't get to hear what Sam doesn't want to make him think, because at that moment, from down below:

"Hey, Winchesters!"

It's Burt, down on the sidewalk peering up with his cap knocked back on his head, and the identical jolts of ugly shock rip through Sam and Dean, the thought that someone might have been watching. You forget about the rest of the world, sitting on the edge of the roof and having a conversation that might wreck two lives.

"Get your asses down from there, we gotta get some grub and then hit the road!"

Burt is casual, voice raised enough that Dean feels secure they were only seen and not overheard, but still, jittery near-miss adrenaline has his hands shaking.

"Yeah, we're coming in," Sam calls down, and Burt lifts his hand, goes in through the street door.

Dean is careful getting up from the ledge, learned behavior from a lifetime of lousy luck. Sam attaches less grace to the maneuver, pushing a shallow spray of gravel off the roof as he climbs to his feet, and sways like a headrush, canting dangerously towards the drop. Dean catches Sam's arm without thought, pulls him back.

Sam flashes a grin that makes him look more crazy than anything else, manic and frayed at the edges. "My hero," Sam says, high false ring to it, and Dean has never experienced the sensation that rolls through him at that, never even come close.

*

Breakfast is eggs and honey toast and beans, with canned pineapple for desert--basically whatever Amaya's cousin Ricky has on hand. Burt offers him a fifty to go grocery shopping and Ricky nobly refuses the first time, only to immediately take Burt up on his automatic "You sure?" response.

The apartment is overcrowded, but everyone's pretty chummy by now, so it works. They sit around on the couch and floor of the living room, eating beans out of coffee mugs and talking about the job.

"You say you did some damage to the graboid that busted into the farmhouse, right?" Burt says, and gets a nod from Dean, remembering orange blood and the great writhing worm slinking back. "Hopefully we'll be able to track it back to its nest then."

"How exactly are we gonna track something that moves underground?" Dean asks, feeling like it's one of those big obvious questions that can go unasked because everyone assumes everyone else already knows.

"If it was hurt, it'll stay close to the surface, looser dirt to move through up there," Earl says. "There should be signs."

Burt nods along confidently, but Mindy snorts a laugh, sitting on the floor with the slightly bigger of the two little boys on her lap.

"You guys are really just pulling things out of your asses at this point, huh?"

"What? It makes sense," Earl says defensively.

"Oh for sure. It's still speculation, but at least it's pretty reasonable speculation. Guess that's all we can hope for with these things."

"If you got any other ideas, I'm dying to hear 'em," Earl says, spreading wide his hands.

"Well, since you asked," Mindy says with a syrupy sweetness that instantly rouses Dean's suspicion. "I think it might be about time to call in the cavalry."

Dean glances at Sam, lifts his eyebrows. "You guys still have a cavalry?"

Mindy laughs obligingly, but her eyes are lit up, intent. The kid in her lap is solemnly gnawing a boomerang of toast crust, oblivious to the rest of the world.

"We gotta tell somebody official, get some real firepower out here."

"Wait, you're talking about calling the damn cops?" Burt asks.

"I'm talking about calling the damn army," Mindy fires back. "I saw what that thing did to the farmhouse, and I think we're out of our league."

"What happened to, 'I've been waiting to face down one of these bastards my whole life'?" Burt wants to know.

Mindy smiles, humorless. "Be careful what you wish for, I guess."

"C'mon, you're not just gonna give up," Dean says.

"Somebody's gonna get killed, Dean," she says sharply. "And that's gonna be on us, because we thought we could handle these things when obviously we can't. The government can come out here with tanks, and, and tracking equipment, and special underground weapons, and they can get these things, that's their job."

"Won't happen like that," Earl says, and then looks mildly surprised when everyone's attention turns to him. "I mean. Government's official position is that the graboids never existed and any reports to the contrary are the result of a mass delusion. We call 'em up and tell him about this new deal, they'll just stonewall and deny it. Especially without any victims yet."

"You don't know that," Mindy says.

"Yeah, I do. Val told me that Rhonda was writin' letters and petitionin' for almost a decade, just trying to get some kind of acknowledgement that what happened actually happened, but nothing ever came of it, just a bunch of hot air and half-assed intimidation tactics. And then she got that job teaching at the university and they figured it wasn't worth the risk to keep on rocking the boat about it."

"But there's, we have other witnesses now," Mindy protests, gesturing through the kitchen doorway to where Josué and Amaya are seated at the table with Ricky. "They weren't with us the first time, and they got no reason to lie about what happened to their house."

"Yeah, they got no reason to lie, but the federal government sure as hell does," Burt says. "If it comes down to our word against theirs, you think they'll hesitate for even a moment before screwing with Josué and Amaya's immigration status, just to keep their mouths shut?"

Mindy huffs, and shakes her head, shifting the kid to a more comfortable position. "That's so paranoid."

"That's the world, girlie, that's how it works," Burt snaps. "The sooner you learn that, the better."

Dean is watching the debate like it's a soap opera, Sam sitting against the wall next to him just as enthralled. They've never traveled with an ensemble like this, never had the chance to appreciate all the attendant drama.

"I want to know if you have an actual plan," Mindy says, her fierce expression looking incongruous on top of the kid's detached toast-eating Zen state. "If we're even able to track it, what happens then?"

"Grenades," Burt says with a matching steely glare. "We got enough to blow up a dozen of those mothers."

"Grenades," Mindy repeats flatly, drawing it out to make sure it sounds extra stupid. "Just gotta figure out how to get the giant underground snake monsters to swallow grenades, piece of cake."

Hard cold smile from Burt, his head inclined. "Pretty much."

Mindy exhales tightly against the kid's spiky black hair and levels Burt with a distinctly unimpressed look.

"If you don't like it," Burt says with a warning tone, "you feel free to stay here with the kids and we'll pick you up when we're heading home."

"Shut your mouth," Mindy says hotly, offense blooming stark on her face. "If you're gonna do stupid things, you're gonna need me there twice as much."

Burt coughs, half a laugh, and rolls his eyes. "Then what the hell are we arguing about?"

The tension subsides. Mindy leans back with a surrender of breath, smoothing her hand across the kid's hair. Earl passes her a pineapple can as an olive branch, and she gives him a little smile.

Dean looks to Sam, corner of his eye. Sam has his head tipped back on the wall, his throat a knobby line, and his eyelids are half-mast. Dean wonders for the first time how much sleep Sam got, how long he was up on the roof before Dean found him there.

Such a strange feeling, like Pop Rocks and Coke or licking your fingertips and touching a wall outlet, not entirely pleasant but for some reason worth doing again. Dean hunches into his dad's leather jacket, flipping up the collar because sometimes he likes it better like that.

Josué comes to stand in the doorway separating the living room from the kitchen, and says, "Okay, we go?"

Earl sits up on the couch, wagging his finger at the other man. "Oh no, I told you. We got enough hands on deck as it is." He switches to Spanish, remembering himself.

Josué's eyes become stony behind the lenses of his glasses. His response is heated, but Dean can't shake his impression of a kindly high school science teacher, short-sleeve plaid button-up and all.

Earl responds, and they go back and forth for a minute, as cousin Ricky and Amaya watch from the kitchen, wearing identical expressions of concern.

"Hey, can we get some subtitles over here?" Dean asks after a decent interval. Earl throws him a look, his frustration evident in the heavy lines etched on his face.

"I'm trying to tell him it's too dangerous even for those of us who know what we're dealing with, but he won't hear it. He's a stubborn cuss."

"What about training?" Burt asks. "Weapons training, the military, anything like that? We don't have time to teach someone how to take the safety off."

Earl asks quickly, and Josué's flash of hesitation before his brief answer tells the room everything it needs to hear.

"No, definitely not," Burt says like a decree. He inclines his head to Josué. "Lo siento, amigo, but I can't be worrying about an amateur, not when it's up against a graboid."

Earl translates, and Josué pounds his palm with his fist, determined and speaking fast.

"Oh, c'mon, Josué!" Earl says in exasperation, dragging a hand through his hair. "It's like a damn quest with this guy, I don't know what else to tell him."

Just then, the kid crawls out of Mindy's lap and goes tugging at his dad's pants leg, lifting his arms above his head. Josué bends down and picks his son up, still arguing his case in rapid-fire Spanish, and Sam says, "That's it, that," pointing at the two of them. Josué stops short, looking at Sam.

"Tell him we can't take him with us, and not 'cause he doesn't know how to use a gun or 'cause he's never hunted these things, but just 'cause of the kids. Because he thanked us for saving his family last night, and it's the same thing. We're not gonna take anybody's dad out there. That's why."

Earl blinks at Sam, and he's in good company because Dean is too, back to staring ceaselessly, entranced. Sam's jaw is tight and he doesn't look back at Dean, but Dean gets this bedrock feeling that Sam really wants to.

"Go on and tell him, Earl," Burt says, and Earl nods, getting up to walk over to Josué and tell him right, a hand on his shoulder and a hand on his son's back.

Josué's eyes grow large and shaken behind his glasses, and he looks mutely at Sam, tired and scared and hugging his little boy tightly to his chest. Sam just looks back, slumped against the wall with the entirety of his family at his side, and Dean doesn't know how anyone could argue with that.

So they are reduced again to the five they came with, and the kids wave goodbye out the apartment window at Dean and Sam and Mindy in the back of truck as they drive away. Dean and Sam and Mindy wave back, big smiles and all, but it's pretty much an act, and they drop it as soon as the kids are out of sight, road dust on their teeth and the perilous day rushing up to meet them.

*

First things first, and that's getting the Impala.

Dean slips into the front seat with a greedy sigh, running his hands over the steering wheel. Sam fits himself into the passenger seat, giving Dean a faintly amused look.

"Should I give you two a minute alone, or what?"

"Don't be a smartass," Dean says absently, petting the dash. He starts her up, great rumbling purr that envelopes them, and Dean shifts around just to hear the leather squeak, see the sunlight bounce off different pieces of chrome.

It's always easier once Dean's got his car around him.

Just a taste of it, though, the half-mile roll down to the yard of Josué and Amaya's farm where Earl's truck is parked. Mindy and Burt are standing in the truck bed, unhooking the tarp and revealing the cannon, which looks ludicrously out of place.

"Finally putting that thing to use, are we?" Dean says as he gets out of the Impala, one reverent hand sliding along the perfect black line of her hood.

"It's the secret weapon, ain't it?" Burt answers. "Grab the shells for me, huh?"

Sam's already at the propped-open trunk, and Dean joins him there, briefly hidden from the others' view. Sam glances at him, momentary gouge of a look that feels like Dean's skin being coarsely stripped off, and hands him a shotgun.

"It's a dirty shame that we don't own a bazooka, am I right?" Dean says, mugging slightly in his attempt to break the moment.

Faint almost-smile from Sam as he fills his pockets with shotgun shells and his satchel with magazines for the Browning.

"I was thinking that landmines would do the trick," Sam says, confidential like a trade secret. "Course it's generally looked down upon to bury landmines on other people's property."

"Well, hell, Sammy, don't let them fence you in."

That earns Dean an actual laugh, short and covered up in a cough though it is, Sam pushing his arm across his nose. Dean's reaction is extraordinary, a razor-edged heat coalescing in him, stupid tic of a grin passing across his face.

They finish with their own cache and regroup with the others, who are clustered around the truck gate Ramboing up. Earl has the elephant gun braced between his feet to be loaded, the barrel against the dirt. Burt examines every grenade before he clips it carefully to the bandolier that he'll be wearing. Mindy is using a multitool to punch extra holes in a holster belt that's too big for her.

"You see that?" Earl says, pointing out a long furrow of churned earth stretching east from the farmhouse. "That's what the ground looks like after one of them has been through it close to the surface."

"So he says," Mindy murmurs, and looks up to find herself the subject of a disapproving avuncular glare. She smiles with a self-conscious eye-roll. "Just messing with you, Earl."

"Yeah, quit that," Earl says.

"Anyway," Burt says pointedly. "We're gonna follow it out in the truck, see where it goes."

"Drivin' out into its territory, you're gonna have one busting up out of the ground before we get a half-mile," Earl says, not quite a reprimand so much as a promise.

Burt grins, and pump a shell into the shotgun's chamber. "I can only hope."

This whole job has been ridiculous, Dean decides. They're all overloaded, hunchbacked under the weight of their weapons and climbing carefully into the truck. This pervasive delusion that enough guns can kill anything, which Dean has lived long enough to know is total bullshit. He wonders if this is how Burt and Heather have hunted their whole career, just suit up and stride right the fuck in there. It's amazing that the two of them have lasted this long.

Sam and Dean and Burt hunker in the truck bed, and Mindy sits in the open passenger side window, assault rifle steadied against the roof of the cab, eyes scanning the ground as they inch along at no more than ten miles an hour. Burt mans the Howitzer, long slow sweeps across the land behind the truck.

Sam is close to Dean, close enough that their knees bump when Earl drives over a bigger rock or chunk of scrub brush. They have shotguns in each hand, propped on the sidewall of the truck, and Dean feels like he's in a Mad Max movie, which is awesome.

The furrow of churned earth that they're following leads them up towards the mountains. There are signs that they're going in the right direction, smears of pumpkin-colored blood on the bare rock, but then the trail abruptly vanishes, the ground settling to its usual desert disarray.

Earl comes to a gentle stop, and sticks his head out the window to look back at the guys in the truck bed.

"Where the hell did it go?"

"Deeper underground," Mindy says, and climbs up on top of the cab to get a better perspective. Earl joins her up there, pulling himself sturdily out the window.

"There ain't nowhere for it to go," Earl says. "Look how rocky the ground gets just up there, that's the mountains starting and we know it can't go through that."

"It was hurt," Sam says. "Bleeding pretty badly, right, so maybe it burrowed down to, like, pass out or whatever graboids do to recuperate."

"Well then," Burt says. "Let's try waking that mother up."

"Hey, Burt, don't-" Earl starts to say in a warning tone, but Burt has already tugged a grenade free of his bandolier and tossed it onto the ground.

"Fire in the hole!" Burt shouts, and they all duck, turn their shoulders, Mindy lying flat on the cab of the truck and burying her head under her arms.

Tick tick, BOOM, and a short spray of dirt and rock rattles against the side of the truck. Dean rustles grit from his hair, aiming his shotguns at the dust settling on the grenade crater.

"Goddamn it, Burt!" Earl shouts familiarly, and Burt shushes him with a cut of his hand, dropping his voice to a stage whisper.

"Quiet, be quiet and listen."

They lean forward. Dean shifts his weight in the truck bed to get a better angle with his shotguns, and his leg presses up against Sam's. Sam glances at him from the side, through his eyelashes, and then back to the crater.

A minute passes, and nothing. Earl is the first to lower his weapon, whispering at Burt, "You wanna keep the authorities out of this, you should probably stop hucking grenades before the thing even shows up."

Burt straightens up over the Howitzer, keeping his hands on the grips. His jaw works over an invisible piece of cud, sending Earl an irritated look.

"And what's your great plan-" Burt starts, but then the ground begins to shake, the truck rattling with life, and everybody shuts up, readiness whipping through their company.

Dean is expecting the graboid to come bursting through the ground like it did through Josué's floorboards last night, but instead the snake tongues emerge first, seeking carefully at the seared edges of the crater. One and then two and three hideous blind snake tongues pushing up through the dirt, slime seeming to exude from every inch. Sam nudges Dean, getting his attention without them having to look at each other.

"That's not the one from last night. This one's not hurt."

Dean nods, very gingerly cocking his shotguns back as he tosses a glance back and holds up two fingers, pointing at the monster.

"Gross," Mindy breathes out from where she's in a prone position peering through her assault rifle's crosshairs.

"We gotta get Daddy up here," Earl says, loud enough that the snake tongues jerk in his direction, and then he fires at them. He takes off a chunk of orange flesh, and the ground shakes, the urgent sense of mammoth weight jarring under their feet.

Sam blasts a scatter pattern across the snake tongues, pellets chipping into them, and the graboid roars, still mostly underground but rising, surging upwards. The dirt buckles and bends and here it comes, jailbreak out of Hell and here now, filthy black pinchers opening and enormous thumping worm body propelling itself forward out of the earth.

And then: pandemonium.

Gunfire from every side of Dean, the rat-a-tat of the assault rifles and thudding echo of each shotgun blast, and it occurs to him that earplugs would have been a sensible purchase for the group. The monster roars and lunges towards them, pockmarked with bullet wounds but not visibly slowed, snake tongues swiping within a foot of Sam's face, and Dean grabs his jacket, pulls him sharply back. A blast from Sam's shotgun flies high and wide, and he shakes Dean off, lips moving, I got it I got it, the world too loud for Dean to actually hear.

Then Burt is screaming from behind and above them, "Giddown, giddown!" and Sam shoves against Dean and into the window of the cab, barely getting hands over their ears before the Howitzer fires.

Huge explosion like the granite of the mountain cracking apart, like being inside a cloud for a thunderclap. Dean isn't watching, pressed between his brother and the cab of the truck, Sam's breath hot on his neck, shotgun against his thigh, and so he doesn't see the shell disappear into the monster's gullet, direct hit. And then the graboid blows up.

It gets fucking everywhere.

Big chunks of snake monster whap against the truck and the five of them, nauseating orange viscera raining down for a good few seconds. Identical cries of disgust from all of them, but even as they're recoiling back, Burt is hollering with triumph:

"Got you, you graboid bastard!"

"Hey, nice shot, man, hole in one!" Earl calls, a white grin breaking the block of his gray beard.

"There's still another one," Sam says, pushing away from Dean and steadying his shotguns again. "That wasn't the one from last night."

"Uh, yeah," Mindy says, and Dean looks up to see her facing the other direction, assault rifle raised. "I think that one's over here."

They all spin around, crowding to the other side and there's an approaching furrow of earth, brief glimpses of the graboid's long body breaking the dirt. A volley of rifle fire from Mindy and Earl on the cab, as Dean and Sam are shoving fresh shells into their shotguns and Burt is trying to get the Howitzer spun all the way around. Bullets chew up the land, but the graboid surges forward, too close already and then it's directly beneath them and erupting up through the surface. The truck flips like a fucking toy.

Dean is flung a fair distance and lands mostly on his head, so there's minute or two there that he doesn't quite remember. He returns to his senses to Sam's face hovering above him, big hand feeling carefully across his head. Dean is dazed, a reddish fuzz on things, the time and location uncertain but he knows he's happy that Sam is here with him.

Sam's mouth moves, fast urgent shapes forming, but Dean can't hear him. The sky looms far above Sam's head, and there's that sound like when you wet your finger and run it around the rim of a water glass, eerie high-pitched ringing everywhere and everywhere. Dean gazes at his brother, blind to all else.

Sam has Dean by his shoulders, and he pulls him up to a sitting position, hands cradling Dean's head and Dean kinda twists away because his head hurts, everything. He catches sight of the pick-up truck then, lying on its side in the scrub brush and dust.

Dean snaps back. His hearing returns in a rush, and he can hear Sam now, he can hear someone screaming.

"I'm okay, 's okay," Dean mumbles, and pushes shakily to his feet. Sam stands up alongside, hand attached to Dean's arm.

"Your head, Dean, you're bleeding," Sam says, clumsy fingers pushing across Dean's forehead.

Dean wipes his eyes clear. "It's okay," he says again, and there's one shotgun still in his hand. There's still someone screaming in the background.

Dean hobbles around the truck (left ankle feels sprained but not broken, can't worry about that now), Sam right behind him, and there's the graboid, shoved up out of the ground with its shrapnel-scarred hide crusted with dirt. Only one snake tongue survived the assault of the night before, and it's wrapped firmly around Earl's lower leg.

Earl himself is clinging desperately to the door of the flipped truck, and he's the one screaming. His leg is already soaked with blood, the snake tongue's fangs ripping deep into his flesh, and his whole body strains in an effort to deny the immense strength pulling him back towards the mouth.

Grabbing onto Sam for balance, Dean blasts at the snake tongue, but the shot kicks up dirt short of the target. Dean tries again and his shotgun clicks empty.

"I'm out, fuckin' out," Dean says, trembling hands scrambling into his jacket pockets but he musta been upside-down at some point while being thrown off the truck, 'cause his pockets are empty now, useless.

"Earl, hang on!" Sam hollers, and jerks Dean back behind the truck, snatching the shotgun away and digging into his jeans pocket for a shell, and Earl wrenches violently, arms hooked through the truck door and his leg whipping the snake tongue back and forth but it doesn't let go, wrenches right back and there is a sudden crack like ice breaking as Earl shrieks in pure agony--the graboid has fractured his leg.

"Hurry, Sam!" Dean shouts, pulling out his Glock and firing a few ineffectual small rounds into the graboid's thick hide.

But Sam is off his game today and shaky, and the shotgun shell slips out of his hand as he attempts to press it home. Sam swears brokenly, reaching down for it.

Too late already, too late. The graboid rips Earl away from the truck and begins reeling him in, and Dean catches sight of the man's rolling white eyes, the frantic loose hinge of his jaw, bloody-nailed from clawing at the dirt.

Dean says like a plea, "Sam," but before his brother can save the day, there is a deafening clatter of assault rifle fire from above and behind, a raze of bullets tearing raggedly through the snake tongue.

Fast twist of his head to see Mindy, standing on top of the flipped truck with her feet shoulder-width apart, absorbing the battering kick of the Browning. Her face is stricken and flour-colored, and she pulls up as soon as the snake tongue is fully severed, shouting down to the Winchesters:

"Get him out of there quick!"

Possibly-sprained ankle be damned, Dean dashes forward with Sam, grabbing double handfuls of Earl's shirt and dragging him back. The graboid bellows and ripples hugely towards them, but it's sluggish, half-crippled, and they're fast enough. Earl is mostly unconscious, face a shade of gray several shades paler than his hair and beard, half-mast eyelids flickering. His leg is a work of gore, long trenches of raw flesh and foot dangling at an unnatural angle.

They get Earl behind the truck, Mindy's assault rifle a constant riot in the background, and Sam immediately sets to some first aid, taking off his belt for use as a tourniquet, covering Earl with his jacket as a flimsy guard against shock.

Dean grabs the shotgun from where Sam let it fall, intending to climb on top of the truck and help Mindy finish off the injured graboid, but then he spots a flash of khaki and denim in a mess of scrub brush, Burt, and Dean staggers over there instead.

Burt is strewn like he doesn't have bones, legs and arms all akimbo, bandolier of grenades heavy on his chest. Dean checks his pulse and it's there, steady and strong, he's only been knocked out.

"You'll be all right, man, but you're gonna miss the big finish," Dean mutters, putting his numb fingers to work on the buckle of Burt's bandolier.

"Is he alive?" Sam shouts over from where he's trying to staunch Earl's bleeding.

"Yeah," Dean calls back, and then hears Mindy from on top of the truck, "Hey, little help up here!" as she fumbles to fit a fresh magazine into her Browning.

Dean runs over, bandolier loose in his hand and held high so the grenades at the end won't bump on the ground. The truck is lying onto its side, and he scales the wheels and undercarriage, joining Mindy in standing on the dented doors.

"Hiya," Mindy says, and Dean grins, liking her a great deal at the moment. "Excellent, you brought grenades."

"Yep."

The graboid is within a few yards of the truck, blind and grimy with a mud of new blood and dirt, making its last tremendous surge forward. Dean yanks the pin out of a grenade, cocks his arm back as his father counts in his head, one mississippi two mississippi three--now Dean!

He pitches hard overhand, and it's a perfect strike, disappearing immediately down the graboid's jag-toothed maw. Dean grabs Mindy and they both jump to the other side of the truck, hitting the ground and rolling clear just as the collapsing boom of the grenade rattles the world.

The force of the explosion knocks Earl's truck back onto its wheels, big clanking thud reverberating in the ground as Dean lies face-down on the dirt, face buried in his arms.

Chunks of the graboid shower down on them again. Thick warm wet slap against Dean's legs, and he squirms and scrapes disgustedly against the scrub, trying to get it off.

He sits up. The world has gone abruptly silent, no more assault rifle or shotgun blasts, no more unearthly roaring from the graboid. Mindy is coated in graboid gunk, her face twisted in disgust.

"Is that it?" Dean asks, and his own voice has a ringing echo in his mind. "Is that all of them?"

"Yeah, seems like," Sam says from over where he's hunched over Earl, barely having missed being crushed by the truck tipping back over. "We gotta get Earl out of here or he's gonna lose his foot."

That jolts new urgency into the scene, and they run around testing to see if the truck will still drive after having been on its side for several minutes (it does, thank god), and then hauling Earl and Burt's unconscious forms into the truck bed and getting the hell out of there.

Dean is standing in the back of the truck as they speed away, one hand braced on the Howitzer cannon, which now rests at a distinct tilt. Shotgun in hand, eyes on the charred earth and moon craters and gore as orange as homemade napalm splattered across the whole scene, Dean breathes out for the first time in what feels like days.

"What the living fuck," Burt says in a gravelly voice.

Dean looks down to see him blinking away on the floor of the truck bed, an expression of such perfectly enraged bafflement on his face that Dean is surprised into an actual laugh. He looks immediately to Sam and his brother grins from where he crouches near Earl's mutilated leg. The crash when their gazes come together bears all the earmarks of a sucker punch, but Dean is high on adrenaline and triumph, and he can't feel anything but the thrill.

*

Dean hops into the Impala and follows Earl's truck speedily back to the highway. Sam stays to keep an eye on Earl's leg and Burt's likely concussion, and Dean gets to watch his brother moving around in the back of the truck from his cautious following distance, absurd carrot-and-a-stick set-up but he's got to admit that it works; they're making excellent time.

The little county hospital they go to looks like a freakin' plantation house, but that's slightly better than the converted barn Dean was fearing. Earl is rushed into surgery as Sam and Mindy collaborate on a bullshit story about him getting attacked by a mountain lion, being the two least-ass-kicked of their number. The nurse seems to buy it, or maybe she's just bored, it's hard to tell.

Burt, glaze-eyed and woozy while still doing his best to grasp the reins of the situation, herds everyone into the appropriate restroom to wash the gun powder and graboid viscera off. In the men's, Sam wets a paper towel and carefully cleans the blood off Dean's forehead and around his eyes. Dean stands still, not leaning into the steadying hand Sam has on his shoulder, though he is aware that he wants to very much.

"I can't believe I missed the end of the fight," Burt grumbles, testing his fingers around the knot growing on the side of his head.

"You got the first one," Sam tries to reassure him. "Awesome shot with the Howitzer, by the way."

"Hmph. Probably never have a chance to hunt these fuckers again, just wish I'd had a shot at that last one."

Dean chuckles, eyelids shut firmly against the gentling swipes of Sam's fingertips through the damp paper. "Wasn't it, like, only yesterday that you were telling us how awful this hunt was the first time?"

Burt grins, kinda sheepishly, rinsing off his trembling hands. "We were trapped the first time. And we didn't know what they were or what could kill 'em, and most of the people were as civilian as it gets--remind me to tell you about Melvin sometime. And I--Heather was there."

Dean feels Sam's fingers stop momentarily, and then resume, hears him asking in a neutral voice, "She made it harder?"

"Having to worry about her getting killed made it harder," Burt says, eyes locked on his own reflection in the mirror. "Even knowing she was better-trained than anybody out there, and even thinking I was probably gonna die too, I still--it still gets to you."

Sam and Dean are quiet. Sam's fingers inch under the collar of Dean's jacket, brushing at the bare skin of his throat. Burt gets this look on his face like suddenly remembering his head injury, and he harrumphs, shaking water off his hands and pulling his battered Atlanta Hawks cap out of his back pocket and onto his head.

"All right, let's go," Burt says gruffly, and Sam and Dean follow him out of the restroom, wet hands dripping.

They sit in the hospital waiting room for the next four hours, waiting to hear word on Earl.

It's less than climactic.

The chairs are the molded greenish-gray plastic that hospital waiting rooms across the country have in common. No way to sit comfortably, everyone shifting and leaning forward over their knees, getting up to pace shallow circles around the room. Candy bars and stale coffee from the machines, a sun-dark farmer type sitting stoically with a blood-soaked rag wrung between his hands, praying for some mysteriously stricken relation.

Mindy flips through every out-of-date magazine in the place, and then says to Dean, "Lemme borrow your car."

Dean is slumped next to Sam, staring foggily at the place where their knees are touching. He starts. "What? No way."

"I wanna go tell Josué and Amaya what happened, c'mon be a sport."

"Take the truck."

"That thing's all messed up, did you not hear the engine? We're lucky it got us here without falling apart on the highway."

The presence of the truck had a pretty big hand in saving all their lives, point of fact, but Dean is achey and feels nailed to the chair. Sam is breathing evenly beside him, watching the discussion with mild interest.

"That doesn't mean my car is suddenly the community vehicle," Dean says, and Mindy huffs out a breath, that quick cutting grin of exasperation that girls do so well.

"Then come with, if you're gonna be so stubborn about it."

Dean weighs out his various options, exchanges a subdued look with his brother. Sam is slanted towards him, hips cocked, shoulders just turned. There is a scrape on the edge of Sam's jaw, raw red patch of skin no bigger than a quarter stretched oblong. Dean finds himself exceedingly disinclined to move.

Digging the keys out of his pocket, Dean says, "Take her. Be careful."

Mindy nods and fires off a mock salute on her way out. Dean glances at Burt, who's dozing a chair away, and reaches over to give him a prod.

"Wake up, sleepy pete," Dean says, and hears Sam's little hmm of amused recognition. Something their dad used to say, another one of those things.

Burt grunts, and opens startled eyes. "I'm up," he says, and shakes his head brusquely. "I'm all right."

"That's just the concussion talking," Dean says, mouth hinting at a generalized smile. "Keep your eyes open, man."

"Said I'm fine, you should try listening," Burt says, grumpy at being coddled by a pair of guys young enough to be his kids.

"Here," Sam says, and leans across Dean, their shoulders pressing firmly together as Sam passes Burt the handful of change they've accumulated from the vending machines. "Go give Heather a call while we're just sitting around."

Burt takes the coins, still grumbling but getting to his feet and bee-lining for the single lonely pay phone with a metal folding chair set up underneath, because god knows how many hours people have spent in this room, waiting out injuries from tractor accidents and car crashes and long falls out of haylofts.

Sam settles back, leaves his arm pressed flush to the line of Dean's. Dean sighs, and he can't interpret it even for himself. He doesn't shift away from his brother.

A few long minutes pass. Dean reads all the public health posters lining the walls, and watches the admit nurse working methodically through a Sudoku book. His shoulder and ankle throb in time with each other, and he doesn't really mind.

"Nobody got eaten," Dean says eventually, low contented tone.

Sam nods in his peripheral vision. "Despite all efforts to the contrary. We can put alien-worm killers on our resumes now."

"Sure, if we had resumes. Which would be weird."

Sam's shoulder presses against Dean, spreading warmth through his body. Dean checks, vaguely dazed, and finds that his knee is still leaning against Sam's. Sam's shoe is right up against his own, and Dean is transfixed for some reason, their dirty mismatched boots side by side on the industrial green linoleum, getting bloody mud everywhere.

"Dean," Sam says, stirring depth in that single word.

Dean's gaze flies up and Sam is watching him intently through narrow eyes. Dean swallows, hears it click like a hammer being drawn back.

"Not here," Dean says, and wonders immediately and with building panic what he means by that. Quickening pulse, heat rushing his head as he stands and limps out the hospital's front doors, Sam close on his heels.

The parking lot isn't good enough; Earl's truck with its new dents and broken headlights feels like a witness. A sidewalk runs around the side of the main hospital building, and Dean follows it back to a small patio littered with cigarette butts, midday sun beating off the cement.

"Crazy," Dean says hoarsely, speaking for the world, and then Sam grabs his shoulder and turns him around, both hands hot on Dean's face as Sam's mouth fits against his, and it's a kiss, they're kissing right now.

Dean makes a falling sound in the back of his throat, his stomach curling and shivery heat running across his skin. Sam licks against his lips, presses in and open and kisses him deeply, slick tongue moving with Dean's own, hard fingers cupped around the back of his head.

And too much time goes by, lost to the moment. They break apart gasping, clutching at each other's collars.

Dean would like to just kind of gape and stare at his brother for a minute, try to process this is in some reasonable fashion, but Sam always ruins everything, and he derails Dean's train of thought with a sudden giddy grin.

"I told you," Sam says, gleeful. His hand rasps against the side of Dean's neck. "I totally knew this was gonna happen."

"You knew jack," Dean replies, automatic. He's staring directly at Sam's mouth. "Most ridiculous shit you've ever fuckin' pulled-"

and Sam kisses him again. And Dean lets him, tips his chin and parts his lips and lets Sam press them together and slide a leg between his, bend his neck back. Wild drunk feeling, and pain everywhere, his snake-bit shoulder like hot lead under his skin, his bad ankle wobbling beneath him. His head is fucking killing him. None of that is going to make him stop, nothing.

Dean has most of his weight resting on his brother. Sam pulls away from his mouth, panting, and drops his face into the hollow of Dean's throat. Scalding breath, teeth and tongue in rough reminder, and Dean sucks in air through his teeth, gripping a hand in Sam's hair.

"Jesus Christ," Dean says to the incredibly blue sky.

"I know," mumbled, and Sam kisses Dean hard just under the shelf of his jaw, lifts his head. "You can see how it's been distracting."

Sam doesn't make any sense, never even tries to make any goddamn sense, because no way did he know it was gonna be like this. Dean drags his fingers through Sam's hair to see momentary pain line his forehead, to see it smooth immediately away. He can feel Sam against him from shoulder to knee, long solid planes of his body shifting as Dean shifts, keeping up with him.

"So weird, Sammy," Dean says like a confession, eyes down.

"Yeah, you gotta. You just gotta live with it a little longer," Sam tells him, stroking his hand against Dean's cheek and somehow that's worse than everything else they've done so far. Splintery feeling in his mind, Dean gets his good leg under him and straightens up, puts a few desperately needed inches of space between them.

"I don't know if this is the kinda thing I want to feel normal, either," Dean says.

"No, never that." Sam's hands itch forward but he restrains himself, fingers curling back short of Dean's shoulder. "Obviously there's something very wrong here, but it's--doesn't it mean something that it's wrong with both of us?"

Dean shakes his head, meaning i don't know. He's fantastically aware of Sam's proximity, sweat and dirt and chemical hospital soap, the tiniest visible scars on his face, and Dean wants him persistently, dry-mouthed and kinda crazy when he thinks about it too long. A look to the ground shows the toe of Sam's boot overlapping Dean's own, and Dean thinks about taking that crucial step back, considers it and conceptualizes it and plays it out in his mind, and does not move.

"I. I keep trying to think," Dean says haltingly, still staring down at their shoes, because that's where his head is today. "Trying to, like, visualize."

"What?" Sam asks, leaning incrementally closer.

"Any possible way this ends well," Dean tells him, and risks a look at Sam's face, heart lodged in his throat.

Sam registers fear for a moment, and then he picks that up and puts it aside, because he's a Winchester and that was the first thing they ever learned.

"That's assuming it ends," Sam says, and Dean wants to laugh at him, his bright eyes and earnest tone, the surety in his expression, so fucking absurd Dean can't even handle it.

So he does, head back and eyes closed, laughs right out loud, but it sounds different than he intended, amazed instead of jeering, high-toned with awe, and when Sam closes his fist in Dean's shirt and pulls him forward, Dean just goes, no thought, no question.

It always works out better for them when Sam is the one with a plan, after all.

*

They come back into the waiting room, disheveled but not worse than what the graboids managed, so Dean figures it's a wash. Nothing too interesting could happen out on the smoking patio, leaving Dean with the jittery skin-tight feeling of being ramped up and left hanging. His palms are crawling.

Mindy has made it back, the Impala returned unharmed. She's brought Josué and Amaya and the kids with her, and the room is about three times as loud as it was when they left.

Relating the story of what happened with the graboids is an all-around effort, Sam throwing in random Spanish vocabulary words and Josué squinting seriously behind his glasses, piecing the narrative together with help from his wife, who seems to understand much more English than she speaks out loud. In an attempt to stay conscious, Burt takes it upon himself to act out the destruction of the first graboid, crouching with his hands on the bank of chairs standing in for the Howitzer. The kids get in on the fun, crowding near Burt and firing invisible guns of their own, pow pow ¡matar al monstruo!

Sam and Dean sit side by side by the coffee machine, watching the show. Haze across Dean's vision, double images shuddering in and out of focus--it's been the longest kind of day. Sam isn't much better, rubbing his eyes like he's been out in a sandstorm.

At some point everyone joins hands and says a prayer for Earl and his ability to walk. Odd dissociative layer to it for Dean, because how many times has he seen a loose circle of people praying for mercy, hospitals and scenes of atrocities and every other black circumstance to which this life has taken him, how many times? Always with a kind of sneer, lookit 'em talking to their imaginary friend in the sky, but now Dean's got Amaya's rough-palmed hand in his own, rosary beads pressed like small smooth stones between them, and it makes a certain amount of sense to him. It's nice to have something tangible to hold on to. Nice to hear Josué and Amaya murmuring in unison, and then Burt rumbling, "Through Christ our Lord, amen," and everyone acting like the words have the power to protect, everyone believing it even if just for the moment.

At this point, Dean's like ninety-five percent he has a bit of a concussion himself, but he's not terribly distressed by the thought.

Earl gets out of surgery near sunset.

The doctor, a barrel-chested good ole boy with a reflective bald head under his scrub cap, pushes through the swinging doors, chart in hand, and gives their motley assortment the fish eye.

"Who's here for Earl Basset?" the doctor asks, and an amusing look of surprise opens his face when first Dean, Sam, Burt, and Mindy raise their hands, then Josué and Amaya, then the kids.

"Well. All right." The doctor coughs, scanning across the lot of them and choosing to speak directly to Burt as the oldest white dude present, which was pretty funny considering Burt had been dipping in and out of consciousness for the past four hours.

But the news is good. Earl's leg has been saved. He'll walk with a limp for the rest of his life, but he'll walk.

They pack into the room Earl is sharing with an old fellow who seems to be in a coma, the television bolted to the wall and showing a rerun of The McLaughlin Group that features a lot of shoulder-padded pants suits for the women and terrible eighties hair for everyone.

Earl looks as gray as someone who's been dead for three days, but his eyes crack open when they come in, and a small almost-smile tweaks his expression.

"Burt, you look like hell," Earl says raspily.

"Oh that's rich," Burt says, eye-rolling and coming to stand at Earl's bedside with a critical eye. "Got yourself pretty good and laid up, didn't ya."

Earl gestures weakly at the white plaster encasing his lower leg, foot up in a sling. "Three steel pins," he says, practically bragging. "You can just call me the Six Million Dollar Man."

"You're gonna be okay, though," Sam tells him. He reaches out and gives Earl's good leg a shake. "Gonna walk right outta here."

"Well, on crutches," Dean amends, not wanting to get anybody's hopes up unrealistically.

"You got that graboid tried to eat my leg, right?" Earl asks.

"Sure did," Mindy says, pouring Earl a cup of water from the pitcher and pressing it on him until he smirks and takes it. "Blew him up into gross little graboid pieces."

"That's what I wanna hear." Earl drinks his water and sighs with weary contentment, then catches Josué's eye and grins, stretching out a hand for him to grasp. "Hey, amigo, bueno verte. ¿Amaya, como está?"

There's an interlude in Spanish. One of the little boys attempts to climb the side of the bed like it's a vertical cliff, and Dean picks him up, puts him over the guardrail on Earl's good side, where he promptly curls up with his head on Earl's stomach and falls asleep. Dean watches Sam smiling in a soft way, bruised under his clothes, happy.

"So listen," Earl says eventually. "I'm gonna have to be here overnight but I can probably talk them into releasing me tomorrow. Amaya's just offered to put y'all up for the night at their house, nice lady that she is."

"Back at the farm?" Dean asks. "You figure it's safe to go back there?"

"I'm pretty sure there were only two," Burt cuts in. "I think that was their homebase we found, and the healthy one was trying to protect the injured. If there were any others, they woulda been there too."

"I love this reasoning," Mindy says, sounding pretty sincere even if the smile on her face edges towards a smirk.

Burt shoots her a suspicious look, then continues, "We should be there anyway, of course, just in case. But I think we'll probably be okay."

"Right, so that's settled then. Piensan que es una buena idea," Earl relays to Josué and Amaya, and everyone grins and nods at each other for awhile, and the other little kid claws at Dean's jeans until Dean picks him up and puts him on top of Earl's good leg, one hand spread out on the his fragile back to keep him from crawling onto anything sensitive, and the whole scene is idyllic like a marketing brochure for something, but Dean can't quite pinpoint what.

He checks with Sam, stabilizing glance that Dean is beginning to recognize as his default response to every single goddamn thing, and Sam looks half-asleep on his feet, one hand curled around the silver bar of the bed's guardrail. Sam looks up like he can feel it when Dean's eyes land on him, and there's color on his face as he smiles at his brother, color on Dean's own as he helplessly smiles back.

*

That night.

After they spend a few hours cramming debris into the giant hole in the living room floor, and Sam chops apart the orange-gore-soaked coach to fill in the gaps, and they nail down a big square of blue tarp to keep the kids out of it until a more permanent repair can be effected. After a dinner of huevos rancheros because eggs are what there are the most of, and peanut butter sandwiches because there's still not enough eggs to sufficiently fill anyone up, and beers on the back porch watching the sun go down behind the mountains. After an evening of amusingly cobbled-together conversation on all sides and the little boys having an epic dogfight with their plastic fighter jets and the shadows crawling up the walls, after all of that.

Sometimes past midnight, Sam shakes Dean awake on the floor of the spare room, warm hand over his mouth before he can speak out loud. Burt and Mindy are both sound asleep in their twisted sleeping bags, little-kid sweatshirts balled up under their heads. Sam and Dean slip out of there silently, Sam's fingers careful around Dean's wrist.

Dean is foggy, the western half of his mind clinging to sleep. It never occurs to him to do anything but follow Sam, out of the house and onto the crunching dirt of the yard. Enormous moon tonight, like a cue mark on the film of the sky, approaching the change-over.

Sam unlocks the Impala, which is parked a little ways away from the darkened farmhouse, and puts his hand on the backseat door handle, looks at Dean.

"Okay?" Sam asks, muted and searching and hopeful, seeming especially dark-eyed though it is dark everywhere.

Dean nods, sticky-mouthed. Heat lurches in his stomach as Sam grins wickedly, pulls open the door and pulls Dean into him.

Both of them in the T-shirts and jeans that they fell asleep in, and Dean is overwhelmingly aware of it as Sam's fingers slide up his bare forearm, scrape roughly against the tender hollow of his elbow. Sam has him off-balance, pushing him down into the backseat of the Impala and crawling after him, and Dean gets up on his elbows, breath coming unevenly as he watches Sam press his bent legs apart and take up the space between them.

Sam turns to check for dangling feet, and then slams the Impala's door shut behind him. Implacable darkness for a moment, Sam palming his big hand on Dean's knee and Dean's whole body jerking, and then his eyes begin to adjust and the moonlight pours in through the windows, and it gets better.

"Dean," Sam whispers, and shifts forward, hand fumbling across Dean's chest. "You gotta--gotta tell me what I should do."

A disbelieving laugh from Dean, broken exhale kind of a thing. Sam's thumb brushes his nipple through his shirt and his spine stiffens with a jolt of pleasure. The fingers of Sam's other hand are lined up on the inseam of Dean's jeans, some six inches north of his knee.

"You can't expect me to. Talk," Dean says, his face alight with mortification at the very idea.

Sam groans, amazing collapsing groan as he leans down over his brother, missing Dean's mouth and kissing hotly across his cheek and jaw, down his throat. Dean jerks, head cracking into the car door, and his arm hooks automatically around Sam's shoulders.

Time compresses again. Making out in the backseat of the car, dreamlike, locked away like this with even the moon dimming as the windows fog. Dean's higher thought processes never really came online before Sam pushed him down on the seat and crawled in after, and he's long gone now, reduced to the physical, the wash of sensation.

Sam has one of Dean's legs bent and pressed against the seat, the other held sprawled open in the foot-well. At some point, he got Dean's fly undone and now Sam's fingers rub curiously and carefully at Dean's cock through his boxers as it twitches and comes hard under his brother's hand.

"It's okay, this is okay," Sam says in a breathy rush against Dean's cheek, and it seems like he means it to be a question.

Dean arches, pushing his hips up into Sam's hand and muttering, "Yeah, 's great, keep going," because once you're in it, you might as well be in it all the way.

And it's amazing, anyway. The size and weight and heat of Sam's body over his, the bizarre creeping thrill of having someone between his legs like this, Sam's long-fingered hand stroking just right through damp cotton. Arousal soaking through him, Dean kisses his brother's chin and then his mouth, and Sam groans, kisses him back messily.

That lovely blur again. Something about not caring about air when he's kissing Sam, something like that. Dean returns to himself to find that they've jumped forward and his cock is bare now, bare and slick and pressed up against Sam's, Sam's huge hand clasping them both together and Dean can only stare for a long moment, breathing out raggedly against Sam's shoulder.

His hips surge up before he's ready, and Dean whispers, "Christ," as Sam strokes and squeezes them both together, mouth moving restlessly on Dean's throat.

"Dean, it's working," Sam manages through panting stifled moans. "Isn't it, it's good isn't it," with his thumb rubbing hard and beautiful over the heads and he can't actually expect an answer.

Dean's body rocks up into Sam's, his chest shuddering, heaving. Sam braces above him, eyes fierce and rapt in the dim.

"It's gonna work, Dean, see," Sam says, and then a moan catches him off-guard and Dean takes advantage, wraps a hand around the back of his head and pulls him down into a kiss.

Sam swears into it, almost sobs, moving his hips jerkily against Dean's with his hand caught in between. Dean licks at Sam's lip, sucks on his tongue, overwhelmed.

"Almost," Sam mutters against Dean's mouth, and shifts to give himself some room, their jeans rasping together.

Dean groans as Sam lets go of his cock, protests breathlessly, "Sam, c'mon," and Sam's moving before Dean stops speaking, sliding and curling awkwardly over Dean's body. Sam sucks the head of Dean's dick into his mouth and Dean shouts, hot wet and tight amazing fucking amazing and then he's being shoved up and over and off, coming hard down Sam's throat.

The first clear thought Dean has upon resurfacing is, that didn't take long, and then the awareness that Sam is knelt over him jerking off becomes rather paramount.

Sam pants audibly as Dean's flickering dazed eyes meet his. He's got a hand pushing up Dean's shirt, drawing urgent designs on his chest and stomach, his other hand fisted around his cock, stroking hard and fast and slippery-slick. Dean feels wrung-out and shaky from pleasure, watching his fingers tremble as he reaches out to help Sam. Sam gasps his name as Dean's fingertips twist around the head of his cock, and he grabs his brother's hand, presses them both down together. Dean stares at his face as Sam uses Dean's hand to grind off on, wet-open mouth and shadow-weighted eyes and the flex of his thighs against Dean's. Crazy feeling, impossible, but yeah, Dean wants to tell his brother, yeah it works.

Sam finishes sharply, crying out and falling down over Dean, seeking a necessary kiss. Dean pushes a hand into Sam's hair, kisses him like he's air.

They lie like that for a few minutes, blur time again. Sam is crushing Dean and it's kinda hard to breathe. Doesn't seem important. Dean is in that faraway place, distant and joyful and okay with suffocation if it means he doesn't have to move.

Eventually Sam shifts, and his lips brush Dean's throat. "Told you," he mumbles.

Dean twitches his fingers in Sam's hair. "You keep saying that like you think I'm gonna believe you or something."

"'s okay, Dean," Sam says muffled. His thumb traces the edge of Dean's lowest rib, curving around his side. "You're a little slow sometimes, but that's why you got me."

"Dude." Brief yank of Sam's hair should put paid to that, but Sam's hissing pained inhale against his neck only confuses Dean's poor overstimulated body. "I thought. Thought this was gonna stop you being such a bitch."

Strangest feel, Sam grinning with his mouth flush to Dean's skin. Dean is shivering and he can't say why, can't really hide it.

"I don't know where the hell you got that idea," Sam says. His hand slides further up Dean's body, touches the place where everyone's told their heart is.

"Honestly, Sam," Dean says on a long exhale, and closes his eyes.

And they get about fifteen minutes like that, just like that. At long last: they stop talking, stop moving around, and just stay.

*

Dean sleeps fitfully in the farmhouse, sick of spending the night on floors and in his clothes, pining for the stale overly laundered sheets of budget motels. He dreams about the graboids and about Sam in the back of the Impala, and he comes jolting awake half a dozen times, as if déjà vu works better than terror.

Sam is dead to the world when Dean wakes up for the last time at sometime approaching dawn, and the rest of the farmhouse is quiet but for the give of the rafters, slow mournful whine.

He's done trying to sleep, and so Dean writes a note and raids the cache of tools in the storage closet. He drives the Impala back over to the hospital, figuring he might as well kill some time working on Earl's truck.

First he has a pen-light bit between his front teeth and beaming across the cavern of the engine, but then the sun comes up. Dean tinkers happily under the hood until his back starts to ache from the extreme angle, and then goes inside for some terrible vending machine coffee.

Earl is awake when Dean strolls past waiting for his coffee to get cool enough to drink, and Dean goes in there, checking on the coma guy and he hasn't moved an inch.

"Morning, Earl," Dean says, tipping his little cardboard cup.

Earl grins, waves Dean forward. "Dean, hey Dean. I was, was tryin' to remember your name. You an' Sam 'cause you both have the same name, right, but I couldn't remember it."

"Uh, Winchester, you mean?"

"Winchester!" and Earl's being pretty loud even if his roommate is in a coma. "I knew it was something to do with the guns, Val didn't believe me when I said it was about the guns."

"Wait, you talked to Val? And also, are you drunk right now, or what?"

Earl's hand flaps through the air again, pale blue hospital bracelet loose on his wrist. He has a beatific smile on his face, clearly flying high. "Came by and gave me my shot just a little while ago, the pretty one with the dark hair, didja see her, Dean?"

"No man, I missed her." Dean pulls up a chair, because crazy old roughneck on a morphine high sounds like pretty solid entertainment to him. "When'd you talk to Val, I thought he lived in California?"

"Oh he does, sure 'nough he does. Rancho, Rancho Park Los An-geh-les California 90025," Earl recites, emphasizing the hard G that old-timers like to throw in the middle of the city's name.

"It's six in the morning there too, did you wake him up?"

Bobbing nod of Earl's head, heavy doped-up eyes skittering and slipping off Dean's face. "Yeah, he hollered a bit, but what do you expect, what can you? Time's the same over there as it is here, works the same, I hope you know."

"Yeah, I, I know, Earl," Dean says, biting back his grin. "You're loopy as fuck right now, it's pretty hilarious."

"Yep yep. Good of you to come, Dean. Winchester. Hey, lemme get some of that coffee."

Dean passes it over, asks, "Did you tell Val about the graboids?"

"Oh surely. And you want him to holler, you wanna make him really holler, you kill a couple graboids without telling him about it, hoo boy."

"Yeah, he wished he coulda been here, huh?"

"Talks and talks and talks, you ever heard that guy talk? Thinks we musta done everything wrong and I screwed up bad letting my leg get hurt, but he's just talkin'. I know what it's like when he's just talkin'."

"Yeah," Dean says. "Can't listen to that negative stuff, not after we survived and everything."

"And he wanted to come out here too," Earl says, almost spills Dean's coffee with his violent hand gesture. "Just hop in his car and drive on up like it's not seven hundred miles, can you believe it?"

"Um, I guess not." Dean rescues the cup, licking a hot brown drop off the side of his hand. "You don't want him to come out?"

A flicker then, Earl's stoned smile wavering briefly like there's a wind blowing through him. "What's he gonna do? Graboids are already dead, leg's already broken. He ain't magic, I don't care what Mindy's been telling you."

"No, she just--I thought you guys were really tight. Like, like brothers kinda."

"Yeah well," and Earl is trying to get it back, tacking on a phony see-through smile. "Long time ago, you know."

"Yeah," Dean says, swallowing hard. He doesn't want to say anything more, feeling like he's pressing his luck in some weird way.

"Told him, I was always telling him, you gotta have a plan," Earl says, his eyes drifting out of focus, searching across the ceiling. "Never get anywhere without a plan, just be running in place. Didn't think he was listening, but lookit this, after all that which one of us got out?"

Dean nods along, though Earl is not looking at him. Earl rubs a hand across his face as if every part of him has gone numb, like the drugs are the best ever. Look on Earl's face that's half stymied affection and half heartbroken cynicism, the kind of thing you have to live six decades before being able to pull off.

Earl's gaze wanders down from the ceiling to catch up with Dean's again, and he says, "You're lucky. What's your name again?"

"Winchester," Dean says, freshly baffled. "How exactly am I lucky?"

"Even twenty years from now and seven hundred miles away, even if you never talk to Sam 'cept on the phone and only see him in Christmas cards, even so you'll still have blood in common."

It knocks the wind out of Dean, blows him away. He slumps back in the chair, staring at Earl's face all carved up by the years separating the life he'd wanted from the life he'd made for himself in its absence. Earl looks back, gray and pale against the still paler hospital gown, and it's not entirely regret, not overwhelming like that, just a reflective sort of pain, a long-healed scar throbbing before the rain.

"Yeah," Dean manages. "I guess that's something."

"It's a lot," Earl mumbles, marble-mouthed. "Lot more than other people have."

"Yeah," Dean says again, hoarse kinda tone that doesn't sound much like him.

"And the graboids are dead again," Earl goes on, obscuring fog continuing its advance across his face. "Everything's easier once the graboids are dead."

Hitching smile, Dean's chin tilts up, little agreeable nod. "True enough."

"You can do anything once the graboids are dead," Earl says like a litany, a gauzy fanatical look in his eye even as exhaustion and morphine drag him down. Dean watches his descent with fond interest, pretty tired himself but that's like the default at this point.

Just then, Dean's phone vibrates in his pocket, and he fishes it out.

Hey are you coming home any time soon, Sam wants to know, and Dean stares at the screen for too long a moment, thinking what a strange thing to ask, what a strange name to give this place in the middle of nowhere.

He passes his thumb over the buttons on the phone, something immense buckling like an earthquake in his chest, and types, yeah pretty soon, looks up to say, "I gotta get back, man," but Earl has already fallen asleep and Dean's not talking to anybody.

*
*
*

Four months later, word reaches Sam and Dean that Heather Gummer has died.

They've made it as far as Iowa, running down a busted lead on the demon, and now they're holed up in a motel room with liquor and oranges and cable television, the boneless sprawl of Sam on the bed.

Normal now, almost normal. Dean sits down next to his brother with a towel around his waist, and Sam lifts his hand at an awkward angle, traces a drop of water as it snakes down Dean's side, casual and without intent. Dean watches the spaceship movie on the TV, sore and feeling bent, over-used, but he still likes Sam's hand on him, the vague following itch of Sam's fingers over his ribs. It's been two days since they've traveled farther than the vending machines.

This is what life looks like for them now. The weirdest part is that Dean doesn't really feel any differently about Sam than he did before they went to Elko County.

Sam likes to argue with him about that. Sam says, "Of course it's different, of course you don't love me the same, unless you've always wanted to bend me over things and just weren't saying."

But that's just the physical, that's not what Dean means. He looks back and can't help but notice that it took less than a day to go from Sam jerking him halfway off in the gas station bathroom to kissing his brother on the hospital's smoking patio. A lot of action-adventure stuff happened in there too, but still: it didn't even take him a day.

Dean has come to realize that his heart and mind have been in it for years, maybe forever. Disquieting thing to think at first, but Dean isn't too bothered by it anymore. He's starting to feel like it all came together in the end.

Sam's fingers spider over an old scar on Dean's stomach, softened and pink from the heat of the shower. Sam murmurs like a little song, "When I was a boy I cut my arm."

Dean glances at him, upside-down Sam with his lovely slanted eyes, his clever mouth. "Cool story, bro. You got any more?"

Sam grins, his hand slipping to the place where Dean's towel is tucked into itself, answering, "Come down here and I'll tell you all about it."

There's a message waiting for him when he finally gets around to putting on jeans and finds his phone in the pocket, a terse FYI kind of thing-- Heather has passed. Burt.

It gets them moving.

The drive to Nevada takes all night and half the next day. Sam and Dean trade stories about Heather and Burt, and they talk about the graboids and they wonder how Josué and Amaya and the kids are doing. Sam takes a refueling nap against the car door, hair mashed out of shape on the window, and he says Dean's name in his sleep.

Perfection is exactly the same, and Dean figures it'll probably be that way three years and three decades from now, dirt roads and the faded schoolhouse red of Chang's general store and the rounded apple-dented trucks up on blocks.

Burt comes out of the bunker to unlock the chainlink and let them in, and they exchange quick thumping hugs in the yard, stumbling over their condolences. Burt is sallow, noticeably thinner with his eyes sunk back, his shoulders curved as if under invisible weight. He still puts on that big camp counselor's voice of his, still claps his hand on their shoulders and herds them inside, "Good timing, boys, got a familiar face downstairs."

It's Earl, stationed in a chair with his cane propped up beside him. Their reunion is exuberant but subdued, marking the occasion. Earl spins the cane into his hands to show Sam and Dean, running stubby fingertips over the intricate engravings that depict tiny graboids rearing out of the earth to menace tiny humans on tiny roofs, a tiny truck with an even-tinier Howitzer strapped to its bed speeding towards the scene.

"Awesome," Dean says, and Sam comes in right behind him, "Best cane ever, it's perfect," and Earl grins, turns the cane to show them where he's carved PERFECTION, NV in tall bold letters.

They spend the afternoon in the rec room of the bunker, drinking beer and telling stories. Burt's voice is a raspy fraction of how Dean remembers it. There are tears in his eyes as he describes meeting Heather for the first time, but no one mentions it and he is able to blink them back.

Mindy joins them after getting off work at the store, and hugs Dean so tightly he can feel his ribs creak, before whapping him on the head for not keeping in touch. Dean hunches and gives her an abashed smile, thawing her out almost as much as the beer Sam brings her. The oft-mentioned Miguel arrives a little later, rotund and bald with a drooping dark mustache and an appealing manner reminiscent of Cheech or Chong, not stoned just friendly.

Dean can't remember the last time he and Sam went to a memorial service for someone who wasn't due to become an unsettled spirit. It's an odd feeling, mournful and companionable at the same time, everyone wearing a similarly downtrodden expression, trading the same sad smile back and forth.

Halfway through his third beer, Sam speaks up into a lull.

"My dad met Heather in the wintertime. They were hunting the same thing. A--bear. This was in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, probably about thirty years ago. They were following the same trail and stumbled across each other by accident, and you know how hunters can get territorial when they're hunting bears. A, a really big bear."

Sam glances at Dean and Dean's lips twitch, makes no other sign. There was never any bear, of course. Dean remembers this story: it was werewolves they were after, one specific daughter-killing werewolf in Heather's case. Sam looks back at the assembled group, leans forward a bit over his knees, and Dean watches the side of his face, the neat line of his throat moving as he speaks.

"So my dad tells Heather to get lost and Heather tells my dad to get lost and they stand there arguing, and meanwhile it's starting to snow. That real thick mountain snow, like where even the sky turns white, and they got caught up in it."

"Never could read the weather worth a damn," Burt adds from his armchair. "She'll show up for summer in ski boots."

"Yeah." Sam directs a subtle smile at him. "Our dad wasn't much better. So they're out there, in the snow. And Heather was the one to stop them arguing eventually, saying they gotta get under some cover. Her truck was closer than Dad's, but he just bundles up, you know, prepares for the hike.

"And Heather says, 'Where do you think you're going?' Dad gives her this look, you know," and Sam does the look, wonky confused eyebrows with an overlay of suspicion, "tells her his truck is still a little ways off and she says, 'Don't be a jackass, get in mine before you freeze to death.'

"And maybe Dad was still feeling sore about losing the--the bear's trail, but he said something like, 'What, you ain't worried about me taking advantage,' just to be a jerk, really, but then Heather wasn't even fazed, and Dad swore this is what she said, like, verbatim: 'Well, I'd be worried for you. But that wouldn't stop me from kicking your teeth in, so don't let it stop you.'"

A breaking moment of laughter fills the room, the skimming surface laughter that befits a wake. Sam sits back against the couch, smiling and checking with his brother to make sure that was a good story to tell. Dean tucks his elbow into Sam's side, because it was, it was perfect. Dean watches Burt blinking swiftly down at the floor, his hand twitching towards the empty space at his right hand.

At twilight, they tromp out to the canyons. Burt leads the way with an urn clasped to his chest, a backpack full of homemade explosives on his back. Everybody else is carrying rifles.

On a sheer cliff, where there is a tree with initials carved into it, Burt steps away from the group, and says, "This is the place Heather loved best." He pauses, breathing carefully. "And she's the one I loved best."

With nothing further to say, Burt kneels and scatters Heather's ashes. A powder gray wind whips around him and away, dissipating within seconds and she's gone, just like that, gone.

Burt stands on the edge of the cliff for a long few moments. Nobody says anything, and Dean concentrates on Sam's arm just touching his, Sam solid and whole beside him, under no threat from the wind.

"All right," Burt says, turning back to them with an indescribable look on his face. "Take arms, men. And Mindy."

Their small ragged company spreads out a bit, rifles swinging around. Burt takes up a spot just to the side and behind them, digging into his backpack for the homemade explosives.

"This one is for my wife," Burt says, lifting his voice, and he hurls an explosive into the darkening purple sky.

Earl is the first to get a bead on it, rifle crack and simultaneous burst of vivid green light pulsing against the low-lying clouds. Mindy shouts, delighted. Fireworks, Burt had said, because Heather loved fireworks.

"This one is for our daughter," Burt says, kinda strangled but fighting through it. Another explosive thrown out over the cliff, and Mindy says fast, "Got it, got it," before blowing it into an overflow of brilliant violet sparks.

Again and again, flung bombs arching and picked off, flower bursts of gold and pink and orange, household chemicals in every shade. For our life, for our home. For the good we've done. For our unanswered prayers. Burt's voice falters, nearly gone, and maybe he's crying now, but no one turns around to see.

Dean looks to his brother. Sam's face is unlined and intent, tilted up towards the sky with his cheek against the rifle stock. Behind them, Burt calls like a warning over the echoing canyons, "For our love," and Dean watches, entirely riveted, as Sam shoots that new star right out of the sky.

THE END