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Epiphany

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Any hunter worth the salt they carried knew the apocalypse was coming. Not all of them were religious folk, but even those that scoffed at God were familiar enough with His Word to recognize the signs: pestilence and plague, rumors of Horsemen, some sort of showdown with Lucifer--and the Winchesters tied up in the middle of it all.

After the apocalypse came to a screeching halt, some said that Sam Winchester died in the crossfire and his brother had gone rogue. Those who were friendly with the Winchesters said that Sam fought Lucifer himself. Most said that Sam was Lucifer, or as good as. Dean didn't feature in many of the tales, mostly because Dean disappeared as surely as Sam did. The only person who might have had any clue as to his whereabouts was Bobby Singer, and folk knew better than to ask him.

The point is that legends are as good as myths--everyone has his own opinion, and not half of them are right.

The point is that Sam Winchester returns from Hell three months after he jumped in, and there's nothing that's legend about that.

-

Dean is slumped at Bobby's kitchen table, nursing what would be the hangover to end all hangovers but for the fact that he had the same one yesterday and the day before that.

The wind chimes on the porch are tinkling in the rising breeze, herald of the gray thunderheads blowing in. They drove Dean crazy for the first couple of months, but since then he's learned to tune them out. Bobby, on the other hand, is impossible to ignore. He was sympathetic in the weeks following Stull, watching Dean and the trail of empty bottles he left behind without a word. More recently, though, he's been pouring out the liquor Dean brings home and leaving Dean sprawled on the floor the nights he passes out.

And mercilessly clattering around the kitchen in some misguided attempt to still care for Dean by feeding him.

Dean cradles his head with ginger fingers as Bobby whisks pancake batter with a fork, doing his best to minimize the clanging in his skull. Bobby shoots him a knowing glance, and Dean figures if he's going to pretend he's all right, he might as well go all in.

"Didn't know you cooked," he rasps.

"Fed you and your brother more times than I can count," Bobby counters, wincing a little as he says the words. He pushes a plate of pancakes under Dean's nose and scoops more batter into the pan. "Eat up."

"Never figured you for the pancake-making type, I mean," Dean says. He dumps a spoonful of brown sugar over the pancakes on his plate, knowing he won't make it through half of them. "Except for birthdays," he amends. "Special occasions. Whenever Sam asked." He puts down the spoon and pushes the heels of his hands into his eyes, choking on the sickly sweet smell of brown sugar. He laughs a little to himself and wonders if he can vomit at the same time. Bobby's looking at him, he knows, but he can't bring himself to look back. "Guess I forgot a few things."

"There's a lot of things you forgot, kid," Bobby says quietly and anger stirs in Dean's stomach.

"That mean you're going to give me back my car keys?"

"That means if you drive home drunk one more time, the only thing you're going to get is a concussion the minute you open the door. Now shut up and eat. I've got a scrap yard to run."

Bobby turns his back in stony silence, one that Dean's stubborn enough not to break, but he's quieter when he takes the pancakes off the stove. Dean closes his eyes and picks up his fork, figuring the best he can do to make peace is try to get through what's on his plate. He's surprised when Bobby nudges his arm with a mug.

"Coffee," Bobby grunts.

"Hair of the dog," Dean says, lurching up to fish the bottle of Jack Daniel's from the top of the fridge. When he sits back down, Bobby's watching him. "What," Dean says flatly.

"Nothing."

Bobby turns away and Dean puts the bottle down with a thump, fits his head into his hands again and prays that the hangover passes before it starts to thunder.

As if in answer, the chimes give a discordant jangle just before scattered raindrops hit the windows. Zeppelin noses his way through the screen door to snap at stray raindrops and bark at the dark clouds rolling in.

"Ought to close that door before it starts coming down," Bobby says.

Dean grunts, shifting in his chair, the smell of rain making the humidity more bearable. He can hear the Rottweiler pup run from one end of the deck to the other, panting and whining, probably trying to get at the wind chimes. Then there's a heavy thump, Zeppelin barking like the roof is coming down.

"Hell if that dog got into the MREs again." Bobby tosses the spatula into the sink.

"Thought somebody was going to pick them up," Dean says.

"Somebody was going to pick them up. Yesterday." Bobby jerks his head to the door as the barking increases. "See what it is, would you, and bring Zepp in the house. I'm going to call Martin, give him a piece of my mind."

Dean gets to his feet and pushes open the screen door, expecting to see the dog nosing around the spilled box of rations.

Instead he finds Sam.

-

Sam returns from Hell on a rainy day in August.

He's spewed out in Stull Cemetery, clutching handfuls of wet grass and coughing air and rainwater into his lungs. He catches a glimpse of the rusted cemetery gates before his vision flashes white and he's sprawled out on Bobby's porch. There's barking and shouting and hands pulling at him. Then, nothing.

He wakes in the middle of a devil's trap, tied to a chair with Dean forcing salt and holy water down his throat while Bobby recites an exorcism. When he manages to splutter out his brother's name, Dean leaves the room to vomit in the kitchen sink.

All in all, it's an improvement.

-

The second time Sam wakes, it's at the tail end of a ritual involving knives, judging by the thin red lines on his arms and the row of bloodstained blades on the table. Consciousness is slow, but strong: already he can wade through the haze and piece things together in a logical order. Latin and Hebrew, silver and brass blades, chalk and herbs and smoke. An exorcism. Heavy-duty. Bobby was reading it and...Dean...

Sam jerks in the chair and the sting of his arms is the extra jolt he needs to lift his aching head and focus. He opens his eyes, groaning Dean's name, and is surprised to feel Dean's hands skimming along his forearms, gripping his shoulders. "No," he says and swallows, voice no more than air. "No. What'd you do?"

"It's just me, Sam. Hold on. Bobby, can we get him loose?"

Bobby comes closer but keeps himself on the outside of the chalked markings on the floor. "Dean, hang on a second. We need to finish the ritual and then--"

"We did enough, it's done."

Dean's hands leave Sam's shoulders and Sam's head bobs, the colors of the room blurring. Something hard and cold presses against Sam's skin--brass, Sam thinks--and then the knife is slicing through the ropes on Sam's wrists and they slither to the floor. He wants to flex his arms, make a fist to get the blood flowing, but he can't. He wants to hold his head up, too, but even that's getting harder to do, the adrenaline fading from his system.

"You did s'm'thing," he gets out through the grit coating his throat. "Something, a deal. You made a deal."

"No, Sam, no. Just lay down here, come on." Dean's arm has crept behind Sam's back and he's slowly being moved, tilting and being caught, Dean's hand on his collarbone the only thing keeping him upright. "Bobby, damn it, are you going to help him or not?"

Rough hands support Sam from the other side and the room spins. When he opens his eyes, he's on the couch, muddy boots elevated by a stack of pillows. Dean's face swims in front of him.

"You with us?" he says and he sounds a little bit like he's underwater. Sam lifts a hand and it connects with Dean's sternum, slides to his arm, drops.

"Dean," Sam says, coughing and tasting mud in the back of his throat. It's everywhere, chilly against his skin, caked on his forearms and legs like he crawled out of Hell instead of getting yanked out. Bargained out. "What'd you do?" he asks but the words slur together.

"Listen, Sam, don't talk right now, okay?"

"Dean," Sam repeats stubbornly and Dean's hand comes up to rest on his head, a warm counterpoint to the cold that seems to have made a home in Sam's chest.

"I mean it, Sam, shut up," Dean says, hand tightening on his scalp briefly. "You're a mess, dude, you look like you rolled in a puddle." He uses the corner of his shirt to scrub at a line of crusted salt on Sam's chin. Sam lifts a hand to rub it away but Dean stops him. "Quit it. You're getting blood on your face. Just hold still."

Mud. Blood. Salt. He's been reduced to the elements and it makes him laugh. Dean frowns and fits both hands to Sam's face.

"Sam?"

"Did," Sam says and the lines on Dean's face deepen.

"What?"

"Think I did," Sam croaks, "roll in a puddle."

Dean's face is blank and then splits on a grin. "Yeah. You're gonna be okay."

Sam's hand finds its way to Dean's shirt again and pulls until it's bunched in as tight a fist as he can make. His fingers are fumbling, weak with that trembly feeling from trying to hold a pencil after laughing too hard. But he's not laughing now. Not at all. "Dean." He shifts a little, trying to sit up, trying to get every word out clearly. "Tell me. What did you do?"

Bobby comes in with a bucket of sudsy water and sets it and a stack of towels on the floor by the couch. "This won't get the half of it, but at least you'll be recognizable. Don't worry about the couch, damn thing is old and half the springs are gone."

Dean nods his thanks, attention drawn back to Sam when Sam's hand tugs his shirt. "I didn't do anything, Sam, I swear. Ask Bobby, I've been here the whole time, there's no crossroads, no deal. Okay? You hear me?"

Sam searches Dean's face and then breathes deep, tension sliding from his shoulders, eyes slipping shut. "Good. Good."

"Okay. Think we're going to save washing your hair for when we're working with more than a bucket. Hey. Wake up." Dean flicks Sam's cheek until he opens his eyes. "Come on, stay with me for this. No one's going to accuse me of bathing my comatose brother without his consent."

"Sponge bath," Sam mumbles. "Doesn't count."

"Well, stay awake so I don't get all the fun. Hey, eyes open all the way, pal, no checking out on me now."

Sam nods and tries to swallow. "Water?"

"I think that can be arranged." Dean gets up for a second and comes back with a glass of water and a straw. "Careful. I'll hold it."

In the end, Sam does fall asleep while Dean washes most of the mud off his face and arms. He wakes up when Dean unlaces his boots and stays awake long enough to get down a mug of soup. He watches, heavy-eyed, as Bobby and Dean put away the knives and the herbs, the smudge sticks and the rock salt, sweep away the dirt and scrub away the blood. He watches and he breathes and he smiles until it hurts.

Dean sees him and says, "Don't go anywhere."

So Sam doesn't.

Dean says, "Promise me, Sam."

So Sam does.

-

Between the two of them, they get Sam upstairs, Bobby helping with Sam's socks and overshirt, leaving Dean to get a wobbly Sam into a pair of sweatpants. It's the first night in a long time that Dean gets any rest, the first night in an even longer time that he goes to sleep without a few slugs of whiskey. He takes the liberty of checking Sam's pulse before he gets into his own bed and for the first time in months he doesn't dream.

Waking up without a pounding headache and a tongue made of cotton is strange but not unwelcome. He can already smell Bobby frying bacon, probably making pancakes again, and Dean swallows and takes a breath before turning to look at the other bed. Sam is curled on his side, fists tucked under the pillow, making himself small in a way that he never did before. As if he can feel Dean's eyes on him, he shifts, eyelashes fluttering.

Then shoots up, tangling with his sheets and falling to the floor with a yelp that would be funny if Dean couldn't hear the panic in it.

"Hey, whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa, Sam." Dean jogs around his bed, falling into a half-crouch and raising his hands when Sam flinches. "It's just me, just Dean. We're at Bobby's," he says quietly, watching Sam take in the twin beds with their faded quilts, the nightstands topped by brass lamps, the piles of books stacked in the room's corners. "Sioux Falls. You showed up on Bobby's porch yesterday and we dragged you in, cleaned you up some. You remember that?" Sam nods a little. "Okay? Come on, let me help you up."

Sam hesitantly fits his hand into Dean's and allows himself to be pulled to his feet where he sways slightly. "Dean?" he echoes and Dean smiles.

"The one and only. You gonna be okay if I let go?" Sam nods again, looking more sure of himself, and Dean gives him a gentle pat on his back. "All right. Feel up to a shower?"

"Yeah," Sam says.

"You remember where it is?"

Sam nods and opens the door, moving unerringly to the hall bathroom. Dean blows out a deep breath and then heads down the stairs and out to the Impala, rocks digging into his bare feet as he fumbles with the keys.

When he jogs back up the stairs, he knocks on the bathroom door before opening it. "Sam, I got clothes from your duffel," he calls over the sound of running water. "I'm leaving them on the counter here." He waits for a second. "Dude, say something."

"Something," Sam says, and an arm is thrust around the shower curtain to wave in Dean's general direction and drip water all over the floor.

Dean snorts. "Don't take up all the hot water. Bitch."

"Jerk."

Dean closes the bathroom door and sits in the middle of the hallway and cries for the first time since May.

-

Sam sleeps pretty solidly for the next three days. Dean is on pins and needles for the first thirty-six hours, then collapses into an exhausted sort of numbness until Sam wakes up and says he's hungry. Over the rest of the week he plies Sam with food, graduating him from soup to sandwiches, and would insist on afternoon naps except Sam seems to end up on the couch more often than not anyway.

Dean doesn't even realize he's hovering until Bobby sends him into town with a grocery list. He brings back steaks and baked potatoes and at dinner Zeppelin nudges Dean's leg with his nose, begging for a piece. Sam nods off long before the meal is over, and Dean gets a shoulder under Sam's arm, hauls him to his feet and up the stairs to the sound of Sam's muddled protests.

"Sleep well," Dean whispers, grinning at the way Sam is out the instant his head hits the pillow.

But Sam doesn't.

Two hours later, Dean hears movement upstairs and heads up to find Sam coming out of the bathroom, claiming he had a weird dream. An hour after that, he goes up to check on Sam and Sam is already sitting up, running a hand over his face. Dean opens the door a little farther, letting the light from the hall penetrate the gloom. "You okay?"

Sam huffs and pushes his hair out of his face. "Fine. What time s'it?"

Dean checks his watch. "A little after nine."

Sam ducks his head and takes a breath, then lies back down. "Close the door when you go out?"

Bobby is at his desk, seemingly engrossed in the sheaf of papers spread out in front of him, but gives Dean a sharp look when he comes in. "How's he doing?"

"Says he's fine, maybe having trouble sleeping. It's still pretty early but the poor guy was almost facedown in his potatoes."

"Well, so long as you're not about to hit the hay, here." Bobby holds up a Sumerian cleansing ritual. "See what you make of this. If you need help," he points at a stack of books on the table, "there might be something in one of those."

An hour and a half later, Dean's ready to call it quits. He's chewed his pen cap to shreds and Bobby looks like he's ready to throw his own book across the room. He rubs the grit from his eyes and gets up, stretching to get rid of the kinks in his back.

The shout has him tearing up the stairs--stiffness be damned--with Bobby hard on his heels.

He barrels into the room not knowing what he'll find, terrified by a thousand possibilities: Sam, riddled with pain, coughing up blood, taken by demons, by angels, by hunters. Instead, there's just Sam, sitting up in bed, eyes wide, looking for anything like he's five.

"Dean," he breathes. "Bobby. Sorry, did I...did I wake you guys?"

"What's going on? Are you okay?" Dean sweeps the room, finds nothing wrong but the way Sam's hands are trembling.

"Yeah," Sam says, getting up and fumbling in his duffel. "Nightmare. Sorry."

"Sam," Bobby says, "you sure you're okay?"

Sam nods, still digging in his duffel until he pulls out a small bottle of pills and gives it a shake. "Yeah. Gonna take some Advil and go back to bed."

Bobby gives them both a last look, says, "All right, then. Night, boys," and goes downstairs to lock up. Dean sits on the edge of his bed, knees weak with fading adrenaline. Sam shakes out a few pills, mutters something about needing water, and goes down the hall. Dean peels off his jeans and overshirt and sits on his bed, hands knotted. He watches Sam out of the corner of his eye when he comes back in.

"So a nightmare, huh?" he says and Sam nods, visibly calmer but studiously not looking at Dean. "Anything in particular?"

Sam shakes his head mutely, climbs into bed, turns out the light. Dean is left sitting in the darkness, the room faintly illuminated by the moon outside.

"Sam," Dean says quietly, "you know you can tell me, right?"

"I know," Sam says.

But he doesn't.

-

A week passes and so does Dean's patience. During the day, it's as if Sam never left. He attacks Bobby's translations with enthusiasm, takes his turn at cooking with good-natured chagrin, even goads Dean into a game of football in the yard. At night, though, Sam faces nightmares that he refuses to talk about.

One night Sam wakes up with a jerk and Dean makes the mistake of giving Sam's knee a comforting squeeze. Sam flies out of the bed, knocking over a nightstand and bruising his elbows to hell, but he's not scared when he gets to his feet. He's angry.

"Give me a minute, damn it, Dean!" he shouts.

"Sorry," Dean says, too stunned to do much else.

Sam stares at him, then puts a hand to his head, muttering about needing another Advil. The bottle in his duffel is empty, so he goes down the hall to raid Bobby's medicine cabinet. When he comes back, he has an apologetic grimace on his face.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I just... It's hard to shake things off right away. Sometimes I need some room."

"No, I get it," Dean says. "I shouldn't have crowded you." He hesitates, then says, "You know, you can tell me--whatever it is. Share and care, man. I'm offering. Here's your rare opportunity."

"There's nothing to talk about," Sam insists, expression stony. "All I'm saying is I need some space. You grabbed me, I freaked, end of story. Could you..." He lets out a breath, tension draining from his shoulders. "Next time could you just wait until I give you the okay or something?"

"Yeah," Dean says. "Sure."

A few nights later, Dean opens his eyes to find Sam hunched over, gripping his scalp. He kicks his sheets off to let Sam know he's awake and waits for Sam's muffled, "Okay," before he sits on the edge of Sam's bed.

"Headache?"

Sam straightens and rubs a hand under his nose. "Guess so. Must be fighting off the flu or something."

"I wouldn't be surprised. You haven't exactly been a model sleeper lately."

"Understatement."

They sit for a moment in silence, Sam rubbing his hands over his face every once in a while. "Clowns again?" Dean finally prompts and Sam shakes his head.

"I don't want to talk about it."

"C'mon, they're not so bad, Sammy," Dean says, but Sam doesn't take the bait.

"I mean it, Dean. They're just nightmares. Let it go," he says, then lays back down like he expects Dean to do just that.

And Dean does, after a fashion.

The next time Sam wakes up with a dream, Dean waits for the okay and tosses a sketchbook and a ballpoint pen on Sam's stomach.

"You don't want to talk about 'em, fine. Don't talk."

It's a truce of sorts and Sam takes it because there's a drawing that Dean can't make heads or tails of on Sam's bed the next morning.

Sam catches him looking at it and says, "Those are wings," pointing at a row of loops, before he goes downstairs to feed the dog.

-

Over the next two weeks, the sketchbook gets filled, but Sam's sleep is still just as troubled. Dean is willing to wait it out, sure that soon enough they're going to turn a corner and Sam will stop waking up in the middle of the night like he did in the months after Jessica's death.

A corner does come, but it's not the turn Dean was hoping for. Sam wakes up and won't talk, pushes away the pad of paper Dean tosses him. Fifteen minutes later, he's puking in the toilet.

He's still sick the next morning. Bobby and Dean are forced to tiptoe around the house and avoid the creaking stairs at all costs. Dean manages to slink halfway up to leave a bowl of soup for Sam on the stairs, and he pauses, listening. When he doesn't hear anything, he slides up another two steps and waits.

Nothing.

"Sammy?" he whispers, avoiding the second step and skirting past the loose board in the hallway. He cracks open their door and Sam's not in his bed, but the light is on in the bathroom down the hall. He sets the soup down on the nightstand and knocks softly on the bathroom door. "Sam?"

Sam groans and Dean pushes the door all the way open to find his brother hunched over the toilet, gripping his hair as though he's trying to rip out the roots.

"Hey." Dean pads over in his socks and puts a hesitant hand on Sam's shoulder. "You okay?" he whispers.

"Head," Sam whispers back. "Really hurts."

"Okay. You throw up?" Dean asks. Sam closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, as if the suggestion is enough to push him over the edge. "I'll take that as a no. Want help back to the room?"

Sam lifts an arm in invitation and Dean levers him up, hitting the light switch on the way out. He gets Sam back in bed and nudges the bowl of soup over to him. Sam looks green at the thought.

"Okay, no soup. Guess you got the flu pretty bad, huh?"

Sam's eyes open, thin lines of pain creasing their edges, but the look in them is almost hopeful. "The flu? You think so?"

Dean almost laughs. "What else would it be, you moron?"

"Don't know." Sam's eyes sink closed.

He leaves the soup for Sam and goes back downstairs to grill some sandwiches for him and Bobby. The smell of smoke greets him once he reaches the landing. He comes into the kitchen to find blackened sandwiches already on plates and Bobby waving a dishcloth at the smoke rising from the pot of chili on the stove.

"You burned it?" Dean gripes, knowing it'll get a rise out of Bobby.

"A little smoke never hurt anybody," Bobby growls. He pours the chili into bowls and grimaces at the blackened bottom of the pot. "Balls."

"I hear there's a sale on cookware at Macy's."

"I hear there's a hunter about to earn himself KP for a month if he don't shut up and eat."

"Yes, sir." Dean grins.

"How's he doing?" Bobby lifts his spoon to the ceiling to mean Sam.

"Fine, I guess. Sick as a dog but he's holding his own."

"You really think it's the flu?"

Dean shrugs. "Judging by the hourly vomiting session last night, yeah, I'd say so. Unless it's a migraine or something."

Bobby sets down his spoon and pushes his bowl aside. "Dean." His voice is quiet, that grave tone to it that Dean hates to hear.

"What?" Dean pushes his own bowl away and leans his elbows on the table. "What exactly do you think Sam has?"

"I don't know. Maybe we should run some more tests, see what's what."

"Test him for what?" Dean says.

"I don't know," Bobby repeats. "I just think maybe we're trying to simplify something that shouldn't be made simple."

"Bobby, the guy's been through Hell. He needs some time to get back on his feet, that's all."

"And that's exactly what I'm saying." Bobby leans forward, lowering his voice. "Sam needs his rest because he didn't get the jumpstart you did."

Dean raises his eyebrows. "Come again?"

"Sam's in his old body. Scars, trick shoulder, the works. All this time and you didn't notice?" Bobby curses at Dean's blank look. "You got out of Hell and your hide was as smooth as a baby's behind. Sam's isn't."

"So what does that mean? Huh? What does it mean, Bobby?" Dean asks. Bobby doesn't answer. "You think Heaven didn't pop Sam from the box," Dean realizes. "You think someone else did."

"I'm not saying anything for sure," Bobby cautions.

"You think Hell wants him? Some demon gets the bright idea to free Lucifer from the Cage and ends up freeing Sam instead?"

"No, I don't think that, because we are the local experts on Lucifer's Cage and there's only one way in and one way out, and the Horsemen's rings are gone."

Dean opens his mouth to say something, then changes his mind and closes it. Finally he says, "So what are you getting at?"

Bobby folds his hands together, thick fingers resting between gnarled knuckles, hesitating before saying, "Nothing. An old man being cautious, is all."

-

Sam's flu lasts for another two days and then he's fine, no more headaches during the day, exhausted enough to sleep through the night. He starts jogging around the border of the scrapyard in the morning, the dog bounding at his heels, helping Bobby with translation work at night. Dean hauls out a thousand piece puzzle when it becomes clear that Sam will read through Bobby's entire library if he's not given something else to do.

Dean's fixing a leaky pipe under the kitchen sink when Sam kicks his boot and says, "Take a look at this." He wriggles his way to a sitting position and takes the newspaper Sam offers, eyes skimming the highlighted portion.

"What is this? Is this a hunt?" Sam quirks a grin and Dean cranes his neck to see Bobby at his desk. "Bobby, is this a hunt?"

"Last I checked, it's a newspaper." Bobby slides his chair back and props his feet on the corner of his desk, hands folded behind his head.

Dean flicks the newspaper at his brother. "What is this, Sam?"

Sam shrugs, the picture of nonchalance, but there's a gleam in his eyes that Dean hasn't seen in a long time. "My guess is a chupacabra. I'm open to suggestions, though."

Dean studies the article again and shakes his head. "Too aggressive. It's roaming too far. Chupacabras tend to hole up, remember?"

"No, they don't." Sam yanks the newspaper from Dean's hand. "What do you think it is?"

"Doesn't matter." Dean disappears back under the sink but can't avoid the disappointed look on Sam's face. "We're not going."

"Why not?" Sam asks. "You got anywhere else to be?"

Dean shrugs and fumbles with the wrench. "I don't think it's a good idea, is all."

"Why?" Sam's voice is firm now, bordering on angry. "Because I'm some sort of liability?"

"Because a week ago you had the flu." Dean sits up to swap out his wrench. "And you know how I feel about the Impala's upholstery."

"That's a crap reason."

"It's still a reason," Dean says, wriggling back under the sink. "Look, let's give it a few days. Other hunts will come up."

"What difference is a few days going to make?" Sam says. "I said I'm okay."

"And I said no."

Sam swears, boots loud as he storms away, the back door slamming in his wake. Dean can hear Zepp barking as Sam goes out into the scrap yard, probably intending to do something destructive, only to end up fixing something instead. He sighs and tosses the wrench into the toolbox, levering himself to his feet.

Bobby, for all intents and purposes, looks like he's engrossed in the book on his desk, but Dean knows better. "Did you tell him it was a chupacabra?"

Bobby turns the page he was looking at. "All I did was show him the newspaper. Kid figured it all out on his own."

"Well, thanks for that," Dean says. "Now on top of everything else, I've got Sam feeling like a reject because he's still dealing with a few things, never mind that he just got out of Hell a few weeks ago."

Bobby takes off his reading glasses and looks Dean square in the eye. "I gave Sam that newspaper because he needs something to do. I don't know if you've noticed, but the two of you are going stir crazy." At Dean's scoffing headshake, Bobby continues, "You got out the tool box and started working on the sink this morning. I only had to ask you once. Sam's ripped through every bit of translation work I can find; tomorrow, I'm going to turn around and he'll be teaching the dog to behave."

"Has everybody forgotten that he was tossing his cookies pretty regularly just a week ago?"

"No one's forgotten and no one's trying to force your hand. But you can't treat him like he's made of china forever, Dean. I hate to break it to you, but the kid's twenty-seven." At Dean's look, Bobby rolls his eyes. "Don't give me that, you catch my drift. Sam's been making his own decisions since he could talk. I still remember him scraping the jelly off his toast, told me it wasn't the kind he asked for."

"He's not ready to hunt."

"Says you."

"Yeah, says me. Look, I trust Sam to make his own decisions, but that doesn't mean I don't get to worry about him. And right now, yeah, I'm worried."

"About what?" Bobby asks.

Dean glances at the back door. "Sam's not stupid. I'm pretty sure it's clear to him that we're not going to be getting buddy-buddy with any hunters anytime soon."

Bobby considers that and closes the book in front of him, a small cloud of dust rising from the pages. "You think they're going to want to string him up for being Lucifer's meatsuit."

"Walt and Roy were ready to take us out--hell, they did take us out--and that was just for Sam opening Lucifer's Cage. Think of how he's going to sound to hunters now, the guy who started the apocalypse and finished it by letting the Devil ride him straight into the Pit."

Bobby pulls a hand through his beard. "I should've thought of that before," he mutters. "I'll see what I can do, try to get you somewhere to stay."

"Here's fine."

"Here is Hunter Central. I've got crazy coots coming in and out of here on a weekly basis, and what with the Roadhouse gone, it's gotten worse. Can't go a month without someone knocking down my door in the name of friendship."

"Where do you want us to go, then?" Dean asks. "I don't see a crowd of thankful civilians offering their pullout couches."

"Hold on to your panties, boy, I ain't kicking you out. I'm just saying, if people get wind that Sam's back, it won't take long before they put two and two together and come here with their questions. When it comes right down to it, motels might be the safest place for the two of you right now. You and Sam can still hunt, you just need to be careful is all, stay under the radar."

"Bobby--"

"I can't say that the break hasn't been good for Sam," Bobby interrupts. "He needed to get grounded, and now he is. But it's time to start figuring out your next step, and your brother should be a part of that. I don't care what you do: hunt, don't hunt, ransack a convent for all I care. But don't lock him away like your grandmother's china."

Dean runs his hands down his face wearily. "We're not ready."

"He's walking and talking, Dean," Bobby says quietly. "He's Lucifer-free and off demon blood. He's a hell of a lot better than either of us expected." Bobby gets to his feet, stamping a little to get the feeling back in his leg. "Give it time. And get thinking about what you boys are gonna do next. Put the training wheels back on. Go on a hunt."

"Yeah. Maybe."

"I mean it. Get out of my hair for a few days, while I still have some. And don't leave that toolbox sitting in the middle of the damn floor."

-

When Dean pushes open the screen door, he finds his hunch was about right. Sam's doing his best to brood in the scrap yard--while also playing ball with Zepp. "For the record," Sam says, tossing the ball deep into the maze of cars, "I'm fine."

"Fair enough."

"We've hunted a lot more running on a lot less. This isn't the minor leagues, Dean. I can handle myself."

"Okay."

Zepp brings back the ball, tongue lolling out of his mouth, and drops it at Sam's feet. "Bobby gave me the paper, said he thought the article was interesting. I was the one who thought we should take it. Maybe it's a hunt, maybe it's not, but it sure beats sitting around the house all day. You know I haven't even been into town?" Sam throws the ball again and Dean makes himself comfortable against the doorjamb. "Almost three weeks of sitting around doing absolutely nothing and I'm about to lose it. Okay? I've got too many questions and not enough answers, and I'm going to go crazy if I can't do something."

Dean waits a minute after Sam's tirade, then raises his eyebrows. "You done?"

Sam shakes out his arms, considering. "Yeah. I'm done."

"'Kay good. Pack your stuff."

"We're going to check it out?" Sam asks in disbelief.

"I'm game if you are."