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Late December 2009

 

Sam hit the wall hard, the wind rushing out of him in a whoosh of air, and he collapsed onto the dirty floor of the dilapidated house.

 

“Sammy!” Dean hollered. “You okay?”

 

Sam waved at him, without breath to speak for the moment, and focused on getting some air back into his lungs.

 

Why the hell they were going after a vengeful spirit in the middle of the fucking apocalypse, Sam had no idea, but a hunt was a hunt.

 

Maybe, someday, someone would want to live in this dump again.

 

This particular vengeful spirit had proven a little tougher to get rid of than most. They’d already salted and burned the bones, and now they were working through the artifacts in the house, looking for anything that might be tying it here.

 

In these trying times, though, most of their information sources had dried up—friends, family, and neighbors had died or moved away, libraries were closed, and the internet didn’t work most of the time. They’d been forced to break into the local courthouse for an old-school public records search, which had told them whose bones likely needed burning.

 

When that didn’t work, it was all trial and error, and an increasingly desperate search with an increasingly angry spirit.

 

Dean cried out in pain, and Cas shouted, “Dean!”

 

Cas’ voice was both relief and annoyance. Relief, because it distracted the spirit long enough for Sam to pry up the floorboards of the hidey-hole he’d found while getting back his wind. Annoyance, because nearly everything Cas did annoyed Sam these days.

 

He tried not to let that show, but his success was dubious at best.

 

“Are you all right?” Cas asked Dean as Sam fumbled for his lighter and set fire to the pasteboard-bound journal, lock of hair, and stack of letters.

 

Sam would have liked to read the journal, just on the off chance they’d discover what sequence of events created this spirit in the first place, but they didn’t have time.

 

Besides, he wasn’t nearly as curious as he’d been in the past. The apocalypse took precedence these days.

 

The spirit disappeared, but neither Dean nor Cas looked at him. Cas had his hand on Dean’s shoulder, quietly asking if Dean was okay. Sam noticed he didn’t spare so much as a glance for Sam.

 

“I’m fine,” Dean insisted. “Check on Sam.”

 

Sam stood. “I’m fine.” He could see the bruise starting to form on the left side of Dean’s face, and he knew his own ribs were bruised.

 

“Are you sure?” Dean asked, accepting Cas’ hand up.

 

“I’m fine,” Sam snapped, although he regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. He was annoyed at Dean and Cas, but he couldn’t say why, and he didn’t want to explain his bad mood either. “Let me know when you guys are ready to go.”

 

Dean frowned at him. “Do you want to try and find some ice?”

 

“I said I’m fine, Dean,” Sam replied.

 

He stalked out of the house, unreasonably angry and well aware that he was being unreasonable. Sam had a hair trigger these days, and he blamed the apocalypse.

 

And maybe, just a little bit, he blamed Dean, too, and his relationship with Cas, and the fact that Dean seemed more interested in hunting than in preventing the end of the world by any means necessary.

 

Late 2015

 

Sam had no one to blame but himself, really. He tilted the mirror shard to get a better look at his swollen eye, probing with careful fingers. He couldn’t be certain, but he was fairly sure his cheekbone was cracked.

 

He touched the bruise on his jaw and knew he’d been lucky it wasn’t broken, and that he hadn’t lost any teeth.

 

I’m losing my touch, he thought. There had been a time when he’d been able to use the five-fingered discount without anybody noticing, but the storeowner had seen him and started using his bat before Sam could run.

 

Work was scarce in Los Angeles right now, and the job Sam had hoped to find hadn’t materialized. He hadn’t eaten in three days, and he was starving. He didn’t have the money to leave the city, he didn’t have money to buy food, and the only available work was as a contractor.

 

Sam flung the mirror across the room. He remembered back before everything had gone to hell, before he and Dean split up, how Dean had asked if he needed ice. Laura would have run her fingers through his hair to soothe him, and brought him a cold cloth.

 

Now, Sam was alone, and he had no one but himself to blame. He had nothing left, so what did it matter if he took a job with Blackpool?

 

What did any of it matter anymore?

 

Summer 2017

 

Sam blinked up at the bright blue, cloudless sky, his head ringing, fighting to get his breath back.

 

“Sam? You all right?” Howl leaned over him. “Don’t know what got into Roper.”

 

“Fine,” Sam wheezed out. “Just knocked the wind out of me, that’s all.”

 

Howl offered him a gnarled hand up, and Sam took it, clambering to his feet. He rubbed his shoulder, and he knew he’d be hurting tomorrow. “Maybe you should head on home,” Howl suggested. “That was a bad fall.”

 

Sam glanced at Roper, who looked about as ashamed of himself as a horse could look. “What was that about?” Sam asked him.

 

Roper took a few steps closer and nudged Sam with his nose.

 

“That’s his way of apologizing,” Howl said.

 

“It’s not his fault,” Sam replied. “Pretty sure he got spooked by a snake in the grass. It happens to the best of us.”

 

“You want to ride back, or—”

 

Sam shook his head. “It’s better to get back on the horse right away, right?”

 

“I’ve always thought so,” Howl replied.

 

Sam grunted as he swung his leg back over Roper, and he patted the horse’s neck. “Let’s not have a replay of that, okay?”

 

Roper moved his head up and down, and Sam smiled, even though he was already starting to stiffen up.

 

“You going to Julia’s house for dinner tonight?” Howl asked.

 

“Think I’ll stay home,” Sam said. “I told her I probably wouldn’t be able to make it tonight.”

 

Howl nodded. “Well, then, I’ll tell her hello from you.”

 

Sam unsaddled Roper and accepted Howl’s offer to groom the gelding. “Sorry about the shortened day.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Howl replied. “You’ve done enough work around here for me when my arthritis was acting up. You just take care of yourself.”

 

Sam rode the bike back home, letting himself into the house and poking his head in the fridge. There were a few bottles of homebrew that Dean had received as payment for fixing a tractor, and Sam badly wanted a drink, but it didn’t seem right.

 

“Take one.”

 

Sam straightened up and glanced over his shoulder, seeing Dean standing there. “Hey.”

 

“Go ahead,” Dean insisted. “You’re home early and you’re moving slowly, so I’m guessing you got hurt.”

 

Sam winced. “Yeah, I got thrown. Roper saw a snake.”

 

“Never did trust horses,” Dean replied, going to one of the cupboards and rooting around. “A car won’t throw you.”

 

“A car won’t get you around the edges of a field to check the fence line,” Sam replied with a smile, grabbing two bottles.

 

“A bike would,” Dean pointed out, and came up with a small jar. “Trade you.”

 

Sam traded a bottle for the jar. “What’s this?”

 

“Arnica salve,” Dean replied. “It’s good for bruises, and you’re going to need it. The kids won’t be home for some time yet. The bathtub is free if you want to soak, and there should be plenty of hot water.”

 

Sam nodded. “Thanks.”

 

“Just yell if you need any help.” Dean took a long pull from his bottle. “I’ll be around. We’re having chicken and noodles tonight. Mary and Cas have been perfecting their pasta.”

 

Sam smiled, heading upstairs to the master bedroom. The tub was an old clawfoot tub, and Sam began running the hot water, stripping off his clothing and sliding in. He drank his beer, leaned his head back, and let the hot water unknot sore muscles.

 

He could remember a day when he’d been cold and hungry and alone, bruised and at the end of his rope, ready to give up completely. At the time, he would have given just about anything to have his brother back.

 

Now, here he was, and in spite of his aches and pains, Sam felt a deep-rooted contentment.