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Ten in One

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Translation was never possible.
Instead there was always only
conquest, the influx
of the language of hard nouns,
the language of metal,
the language of either/or,
the one language that has eaten all the others.

[Marsh Languages - Margaret Atwood]

-*-

La verità è piena di assurdità che possono avere la sfrontatezza di non sembrare verosimili, e sappiamo perché? Perché queste assurdità sono vere.

[Luigi Pirandello]

(Liberally translated: Truth is full of absurdities that have the boldness of seeming improbable, and we know why? Because these absurdities are true.)

-*-

Out of the Woods

Dean's first conscious thought – the one he can place with distinct certainty – is of cool cotton under his cheek. The second, barely a step back, is of pain. Nothing sharp or biting, let alone unbearable: more a memory of it, pervading but distant, and muted under the blanket of painkillers. He learns not to move too suddenly, after the first time he does. He's sure, as much as he's sure of anything, that he loses many days afterward to the deep haze of chemicals.

Throughout September – Sam tells him later – he doesn't open his eyes. If someone asked him why he wouldn't know the answer. He is awake. He can assign voices and touches to the people they belong to without any effort: cool and soft – Ellen's; callused and dry – Bobby's. So big they entirely cover the expanse of his chest – Sam's. Still, he doesn't open his eyes. He remembers wondering, in the moments of more clarity, if perhaps Hell has blinded him. He remembers being grateful, almost comforted by the idea. He remembers thinking that if the price for his release – his salvation - is total blindness, he's ready, almost happy, to pay.

When he gets bored of that dark isolation, he follows the serpentine presence of the pain as it snakes, slow and languid, under his skin. Sometimes, it curves heavily on the hollow above his stomach; other times it stretches down the length of his legs, rests its head on his shoulder – like a sated woman. No matter what, he knows with perfect precision when it will surge forward ready to bite.

On the forefront of his consciousness, there is information he clings to. Like the fact that he's not in Hell. Not anymore. The thought of Hell makes his heart race. His body trembles in relief.

The mechanics of the rescue aren't clear, but he retains a clear image, a painted picture, of Sam as he stands tall and straight amid the flames.

Usually, as he looks at this picture of Sam from behind the dimness of his eyelids, a sensation like panic flares high. It's then that he forgets he promised his body stillness. It's then that the voices get louder. Their tones are frantic: a perfect counterpoint to the rebellious jerks of his body; to his heavy heartbeat, to the wild flailing of his arms. It's then that the snake under his skin uncoils, bites, and sinks its teeth into the muscles of his triceps, into his flank, under the ribs and left of his stomach. Lower, around both knees.

A tri-headed serpent.

One day, he decides to open his eyes, and it is simple. Cream-colored wallpaper fills his vision. In the right corner, though he never moves his head to check for sure, something else interrupts the wall. A window that leaks sun into the room, so close Dean could touch it if he stretched his arm. He looks away, at the wall, counts the papery flowers – thirteen – then follows the curvy stems as they twist and intertwine around each other. He follows them hoping to find a point of origin.

Or maybe an end.

-*-

Dean rolled the stretcher under the lamp and pulled away the sheet that covered the body.

"It could be a cougar," Sam said skeptically.

"C'mon," Dean said without looking up from his inspection of the body. "Does this look like a cougar to you?" He pointed a finger to one long scratch on the man's back. Too neat to be a claw, and Sam ought to see it.

Sam shrugged, a barely visible ripple.

Isaac Terrier had been a big man in life: way more than six feet tall, long bones and the peculiar musculature of someone who worked out every day. Black hair and white skin. Sam's breath was warm on Dean's face when he leaned in for a closer look. The scratch that picked up Dean's attention was the middle one of a set of three, so deep that the white plate of the shoulder blade blinked through the wound. The body had been washed out and cleaned so that there was no trace of the blood the man had lost.

Dean's arms trembled with the effort of keeping the body rolled to its side so he could look at its back. When he let the body roll to its face-up position, it fell against the metal with a dull thud.

Sam took a step back from the gurney, away from the circle of light the lamp cast. He brought a hand to his mouth, looked intently at the body and never at Dean.

Dean imitated him, a hand cupped around his mouth so he breathed in his own breath; the reek of formaldehyde and death was starting to get at him. Fuck, he hated morgues.

"Still looks like a cougar attack to me," Sam said and shrugged at Dean's raised eyebrow. "Okay. You want to know how I think it went?" Now Sam sounded amused rather than bored, but Dean decided to ignore the tone and focus on the words. He didn't say anything, made a gesture with his arm, then crossed them both against his chest. Sam wanted an attentive audience and Sam got it.

"The animal attacked the guy from behind, I'm thinking from above, maybe a ledge on the rocks. He falls under its weight," Sam acted it out with two short steps, then he bent slightly forward. "With how much? One hundred fifty pounds on his back, he tries to crawl. He breaks his nails, scrapes his chest badly against the rocks. Finally, he's able to dislodge it. He turns around, stands up, but the animal's ready to pounce again. It's fast and motivated. This time the attack is efficient. The cougar only needs to plant its paws into the pectorals, his teeth to the jugular." He pointed to the mass of flesh the neck once was. "This way the prey is vulnerable and he can deliver the killing blow."

Sam pointed at the lower part of the body when he was done talking. The stomach and upper legs were deeply scarred, parallel lines from navel to thighs. It was evident, even without the medical report, that the cause of death had been one of those deep wounds.

Isaac had bled to death, all right. Still.

Reluctantly, Dean nodded, said, "You could be right." He stepped closer to the gurney, lowered the lamp so that it cast its light right above the guy's chest. He breathed shallowly in a futile effort to avoid the smell. "Come here."

They both bent over the body. Dean scrunched up his face. Sam didn't even flinch.

"What are you looking for?" Sam asked, a challenge in his tone that to Dean screamed fight.

"You just look," Dean said, and it came out sharper than he intended. He wondered if it would be enough for the fight Sam was itching for to finally break loose. But Sam said nothing else and Dean inhaled deeply, his nostrils filled with the decayed scent of the dead. He wouldn't fall for Sam's provocations.

He kept looking at the skin, instead, and Sam did the same. Dean didn't know what he was looking for. Proving Sam wrong was in the equation, a weird need.

Sam had called the shots one too many times lately, but it shouldn't matter. It never had.

The dead guy's skin was a bluish hue, maroon with broken vessels where the bruising was, around the pectorals – probably when whatever had attacked him had thrown him against some rocks, like Sam said. Scratches and nicks seemed like the drawings of a madman, a contrast to the clean Y of the autopsy. They went on without any apparent sense over arms and legs. Not as deep where the skin had been protected by clothes. The broken nails were clear evidence that he'd scraped the dirt, probably in a vain attempt to crawl away from the attacker.

Dean inspected the legs, cold seeping through the thin layer of the latex glove when he spread them apart. The skin of the inner thighs was intact: only a birthmark broke the uniformity of the livid skin, black against it.

He took a closer look. Bingo.

"Here," he said, and Sam bent to look closer. The birthmark wasn't a birthmark at all. Dean could feel the raised edges of the cuts when he passed his fingers above it. It curled in two halves, like a heart. Nothing random in it, the edges clean and too perfectly drawn to be random.

"Take a picture," he told Sam.

Sam didn't say anything. He turned to the lamp, arranged it at an angle that pleased him. When he straightened up, his face was still dubious, but he took a picture with his cell.

"I don't know, Dean," he said. "I still think it's a wild animal attack." He breathed noisily before going on. "I think we're wasting our time."

Dean turned the lamp off before he replied: they were done here and the night outside was taking on gray hue. Time to leave the hospitality of the Lane County Morgue.

"We've moved for much less," he said as he walked to the door.

Sam's voice, when he finally spoke, came as if disembodied. "Okay," he said. "We'll check it out."

Like Sam was the tolerant parent and Dean the child he was trying to mollify.

-*-

They left the morgue the same way they'd entered: through a small window in the basement. The lock had been ridiculously easy to pick considering the facility was in a government building. Sam went first, crawled through it and onto the sidewalk and then turned to help Dean. But Dean was already halfway out and he pointedly ignored Sam's outstretched hand.

On the way back to the car, Sam paced his steps to Dean's anyway, even more than usual. He hunched over against the cold. Early mornings in March were still chilly. The sky was barely lightening and they could easily keep in the shadows. It was their time. The one they roamed freely, between dark and light.

So close to the coast, there wasn't snow. But the humidity coming from the sea was annoying: it seeped into Sam's bones and made all the old hurts and the new ones ache.

Dean walked slowly, like he was taking a stroll, hands in his pocket. Sam could hear the click of his Zippo as he opened and closed it inside his pocket, faint and muffled by the cloth. It was a tic Dean had developed recently, and it scared the shit out of Sam when he thought about it too long. Dean's limp was barely visible in the way his left shoulder fell lower than the right. The left knee hadn't healed well, would never heal properly – another one of Sam's shortcomings: he hadn't found a way to admit Dean to a hospital.

The humidity had to make Dean's joints ache terribly, but he never said anything. He never complained. Not about those scars and hurts.

They climbed into the car without talking, and Sam was grateful for it. He didn't want a hunt, didn't want Dean to talk him into one. Not when he felt swollen twice his size with Dean's distress; it had mounted up like a tide, and Sam felt as though he could crash anytime now, water against rock.

They'd driven straight to the ocean in incremental steps since leaving Bobby's, until there wasn't any road anymore, only the vastness of the Pacific, and California. Then Dean had turned up north, toward the cold, with the ocean on their left.

Sam concentrated on the road when Dean eased the car from the curb. Florence was waking up: Sam saw a pale face behind a yellow window turning to look up at the deep rumble of the Impala.

Dean drove fast to their motel and by the time they were back in their room, exhaustion had settled into Sam's bones. He needed sleep and Dean needed it too. They needed to talk, but that wasn't something Sam was looking forward to.

Going straight to the blue table chased against the wall, Dean shuffled through the pile of stuff there, sheets of paper and empty coffee cups, some greasy bags covered with cartoon characters and filled with half-eaten sandwiches.

"Let me tell you what I found," Dean said when he found what he was looking for – a notebook, a thick yellow folder. He sat on his bed and bent his left leg slowly, a grimace on his face that could have been a shadow's fault.

Sam sighed and sat in front of him.

There were things Sam couldn't prevent. He realized it when Dean started unfolding a map on his bed. He could see black ink notes written in Dean's clear handwriting on the margins, dark scars that stood up against the blue of the rivers and the red and orange of the roads.

There were many things Sam couldn't prevent, the list so long Sam had stopped trying to count. One of these was keeping his brother from a hunt when Dean decided he'd found one.

Dean glanced at him expectantly and Sam nodded.

"Let me tell you what I found," Dean repeated in an even tone, and if he was glad Sam had capitulated, Sam couldn't say.

-*-

Dean talked for more than an hour. Sam listened.

He'd done comprehensive research – when, Sam didn't know, he hadn't noticed. But Dean had singled out four deaths, two women and two men, scattered across four states. All dated in the last year, all of them found mauled in secluded spots in the woods, off a beaten hiking trail. All of them apparently killed by a wild animal. Dean snorted when he said that, like he knew better.

He rummaged through his notes and came up with a newspaper clipping, a small rectangle of thin paper, the type that usually caught their attention, pushed to the bottom of the page, dwarfed and hidden to the unpracticed eye by a half-page ad for the latest model of a SUV, a sexy perfume, the best insurance plan.

"Listen to this," Dean said before reading from his notes. "Montana. Colorado. Idaho. All of them the same. People swear they've seen a big man covered in fur. You get the gist? Now don't tell me this is a coincidence. These people were all expert hikers."

When Dean finished, Sam took a deep breath. "Dean, this… this means nothing. You have four deaths and all of them could be animal attacks. No way it's a werewolf because the hearts aren't missing. No way it's a ghost cat because those can't travel so fast across half of America. It's definitely not a wendigo."

Dean huffed. "You're forgetting the symbol."

"What symbol, Dean?" Sam took his cell from his jeans pocket, scrolled to the picture he'd taken of the guy's inner thigh, blew it up, but every way he looked at it, he couldn't recognize any particular shape.

He turned the cell so Dean too could see it. "I can't see any symbol, here," Sam said. "This is a bruise, a scratch. For all we know it could be older. The guy was all about the extreme sports, right?"

Dean shook his head. "Fuck, Sam," he said quietly. "Fuck, why the hell are you fighting me on this?"

And it'd never been a fight before, never been called that. It was their method: when Dean found a hunt, Sam played the devil's advocate, asked questions, doubted the evidence, the thought process, everything. And Dean did the same for him. It was constructive, it kept them grounded, so they didn't go off unprepared. So they didn't end up being utterly, horribly wrong. Sam was only doing his job, a job Dean had never questioned.

Dean put away his notes, careful, neat, un-Dean-like. More changes, little details only Sam could pick up, more things that were different. Sam wanted to tell Dean to stop, wanted to see him put away his things in Dean's organized disorder, wanted to puzzle over Dean's system and resign himself to never deciphering it.

"It could be anything," Dean said. "Something we've never encountered before." He stood, went to the window, opened the curtain then closed it. He rubbed his mouth, his eyes and then scrubbed his hair away from his forehead, left it raised and spiky like a porcupine. Finally, he let his arms fall to his sides, where one hand went to his pocket, reaching for his Zippo.

Up and down, up and down. The metallic click-clack filled the room.

-*-

Sam awoke to the noise of Dean checking his gun. Dean was sitting on his bed, fully clothed, and he glanced up when Sam moved. Dean had left the curtain closed and Sam couldn't tell the time for the lack of light. It felt like it was still morning, though. Too much noise outside, and Sam's body felt only marginally rested. A couple of hours, Sam guessed, but it'd been uninterrupted sleep and if he dreamed he couldn't remember.

"Where we going?" he grunted out, swallowing around sleep's sour taste in his mouth. But Dean only shook his head.

"Later," he said, voice a croak, as if Dean too was talking for the first time since he woke up.

The room came with kitchenette, a stove, and a sink lined with rust. Dean busied himself there while Sam went to the bathroom. When he came out, he could see only Dean's back. He stood there, immobile, and Sam thought nothing of it while he went to the window to peek outside.

He opened the curtain with a finger and barely any light at all filtered into the room. The small slice of sky he could see was gray, gloomy, the clouds heavy with rain and so black they looked like they were drawn in blue ink. It was mid-morning, eleven-fifteen according to his watch, but it looked like late afternoon.

When he turned from the window Dean hadn't moved from his position. He seemed frozen, his back rigid and Sam called him, twice, stepped around the bed and closer to the kitchenette. He could see Dean's profile, face downward and shiny with sweat, pale like the white walls of the room and bruised black around the eyes. His left hand was hovering right over the blue flame of the stove, and the other hung in mid-air, coffee pot in it, forgotten, like he'd been interrupted in the middle of putting it on.

Sam called to him again, didn't go closer, knew he shouldn't, despite how much he wanted to. He kept staring at Dean's hand, though, ready to spring in case Dean did more than feel the heat coming from the flame. The open map crackled loudly when he sat on the bed, Sam's legs suddenly heavy.

"Dean," he said again, proud his voice came out as steady as ever, the trembling in it easily masked by the roughness of just-awake. "Where are we going?" He held his breath when Dean didn't give any sign he'd heard. It worked – it had worked so far – grounding Dean back to the here and now, to whatever he was doing before he spaced out like this. Gone, Sam could only guess, where Sam couldn't ever hope to follow.

It crossed Sam's mind, during the long minutes that passed before Dean shuddered back to himself, that maybe he should let Dean lose himself the way Sam himself wanted to. That maybe that was what he was supposed to do. Let it happen. Just once to see where it took them.

But the moment passed and Dean moved, put the pot onto the flame, wiped the sweat off his forehead with the long sleeve of his shirt.

"We're taking a stroll in the woods," Dean said nodding to the map Sam was sitting on, answering Sam's question as if he'd just asked it. "I made coffee," he informed Sam, as if Sam hadn't been watching him for the last fifteen minutes.

Sam couldn't work enough moisture into his mouth to say a word.

Dean sat on the chair to put on his boots, ignored Sam – Sam couldn't believe his close scrutiny would go unnoticed – as he followed his every move. Sam wanted to ask, he so wanted to ask where Dean went, sometimes, when he got that faraway look. But Sam knew that his guilt slipped too easily into anger, fury at himself turned inside out.

He took two deep breaths. He'd sat on the map so he took it, unfolded it fully, mostly to distract himself from the sight of Dean when he got like that. This new Dean that was broken in ways Sam couldn't fully understand.

The map was a blow-up of the Oregon coast. The two counties of Lane and Lincoln were mostly woods, a cut alongside the coastline: the Pacific Coast Highway. He'd driven on it once – not this far north, though – with Jess. The money for the gas had taken them no farther than Redwood, just over the Oregon border. Sam had refused to let Jess pay for it: they were using her car so Sam should pay for the gas. They had argued, one of their most memorable fights, all the way back to Palo Alto. Sam had been unable to explain, without full disclosure, why he would only spend money he had earned.

He looked at the map, those memories someone else's, so distant Sam sometimes wondered if he'd just dreamed them. The way he was now… it was hard imagining Jess beside him, wanting him the way she'd wanted the man Sam had been at Stanford.

Dean put a coffee cup under his nose, said, "Hey, you still sleeping?" And right there another wrongness. The way Dean talked now was so stiff as if he rehearsed his words before he spoke them.

Sam took the cup from Dean's hand, looked back at the map, elided the memories some of the printed names recalled, and focused on Dean's notes instead. He'd marked with a black cross the place where the guy – Isaac, his name was Isaac – had been found dead, up a hiking trail ten miles east of Devil's Elbow State Park; another cross, smaller with a 'C' beside it, showed where the guy had left his car, closer to the state park. Dean had marked a couple of possible routes, from the Park to the scene of the accident, one in red and one in blue.

Sam flung the map away, startling Dean, who was staring out the window. They didn't have any business traipsing through a fucking wood. With Dean the way he was, they didn't have any business hunting, and Sam should stop this madness now.

Dean turned around, glanced at the map where it had fallen on the floor, then up at Sam. "We don't have much light left," Dean said. "I can go alone, if you want to stay back."

Both a threat and an out. As if Dean didn't need Sam. And it hurt. It hurt more than Sam could show.

-*-

Dean had been pretty much unstoppable. He'd needed the job and the hunt, wanting this to be one, badly. Something serious, something hard to take, a challenge, not like the shit Sam had been picking up – harmless ghosts whose bodies always burned bright and high, the restless spirits that were better left alone, that didn't deserve to go to Hell. Nobody did.

But the wood was dark, ominous in a way Dean associated with nature's volatility, and suddenly he didn't feel like going. Didn't care about Isaac-fucking-Terrier and how stupid he'd been hiking off a beaten trail.

Gravel crunched under the tires when he drove the car to the side of the road, then under his boots when he climbed out. The noise of the door opening was so loud in the perfect silence that Dean winced. He looked up, tall pines and spruce, dense wood with the soil entirely covered by underbrush. The forest was way darker in the distance with no sun and the approaching storm. Dean took a flashlight from the trunk, even though he knew they would be back before dark.

Sam hovered close, always at his elbow, and Dean tried not to balk too much at it, at Sam. He was annoyed, hoped he wasn't giving away his hesitation. Sam was so ready to pick up clues, and maybe he picked up the wrong ones more times than not. But sometimes he hit the mark, pissed Dean off mightily when his tone went low, reassuring. Calm.

"You ready?" he asked. Sam nodded. He too was staring at the woods.

Dean unfolded the map on the hood of the car, or tried to. He rubbed his hands together to make his stiff fingers work. It was so damn cold. Not like in South Dakota, not like in Kansas or Nebraska: the winter was kinder here, lacking the bite winters had within the continent, salt-air sweeter with the influence of the sea. Still, it was friggin' freezing and bound to get worse as they walked the trail. Dean just hoped the rain would hold until they got back to Florence.

Dean had marked two possible ways to the place where Isaac Terrier's body was found. Both were parallel to Cape Creek Trail, but one went upstream while the other followed the natural ridge of the hill. He wanted to follow the stream, hoped for an easier hike and more daylight. He checked his watch: three hours, four at most.

"Dean?"

"Yeah, yeah." He checked the route again, folded the map and put it into his duffle bag. He took the lead, because that was an unwritten rule between them, and Dean had only those now, the automatic actions and reactions he'd relied upon for so many years his body didn't need a command to remember them.

-*-

For days after Sam drags Dean out of Hell, he feels dirty, like Hell's filth left a thin film over his skin he can't get rid of.

Tonight, he awakens to a full moon, to warm air coming from the open window. Sam walks the familiar route to the bathroom still half asleep, bumps into furniture and chairs, stubs his toes against unexpected obstacles in the living room. But he's so numb he never feels any pain. Never feels anything but the grime on his skin. In the shower, he turns the water on as hot as it goes, the burn clean, different than the one of hellfire and he never gets confused, not even when he closes his eyes.

With the water beating on his shoulder and the faint scent of soap in his nose to remind him that he's clean or getting there, Sam lets his memories linger on to when he'd snatched Dean back from Hell.

He'd thought he was too late. Dean lay unresponsive, more than unconscious - dead - limp in his arms. But there was a world of hurt behind it, echoes of it scraping Sam's own skin, and Sam had lashed out, the ability coming easily to him, without any effort, as if it had been always there. A fast learning curve.

He'd caused enough chaos to scare even Ruby. But she'd smiled, oh, she had. Her teeth had gleamed white and perfect under the soot, like she was proud of the shrieks of the souls and the demons all around them. A growing noise that had became a long screeching wail Sam still hears if he tries very hard.

He can tell Bobby ten times and more that he only had good luck and Ruby's help on his side when he rescued Dean. But he knows that luck hadn't figured at all. And Ruby had only been a silent, useless companion on that trip.

He turns the water off, listens to the noises the house makes when it sleeps, the groan of the beams settling, the whine of a window as it strains against the wind. Upstairs, where Dean is, he can hear the hushed voices of Ellen and Bobby as they change bandages and apply ointments.

Tonight, while he roams the darkness of Bobby's house, Dean's moans, his soft cries of pain, rope Sam to his room. He stops by the threshold, doesn't want to see. He doesn't want a reminder of the horrors of Hell. Of what his brother's body had been. He'd seen too much when he'd brought him back, and he wants to forget, bleach his brain of the memory of Dean covered in blood. The chains around his knees – slick with it – had exploded sending metallic rings flying. The spikes that pinned Dean to the wall had made a sucking sound when Sam had pulled Dean from them.

He stares at Dean covered by a white sheet, by bandages. And it isn't Bobby's disapproval or Ellen's disappointment that drive him through the physical barrier of the open door. It's the way Dean always calms down when Sam touches him, a hand on his chest so he won't dislodge the IV, another on his shoulder against skin so hot Sam fears it will never cool down.

Sam knows what to do from past hunts, from past hurts, and he figures Dean's body remembers that too. Some things Dean would only allow Sam to do, and maybe Dean is too out of it to recognize his touch, but his body isn't.

That realization alone is enough to calm Sam too.

-*-

For an hour Dean led Sam steadily north, off the clear trail and into one of the hiking tracks marked by semi-visible signs. The pathway was littered with fallen branches, signs of the winter storms, nearly completely hidden by blackberry bushes and Oregon grape . Maybe the trail was navigable in summer, when hikers were frequent, but the winter weather had cancelled any trace that humans had passed there.

It was slow, made more complicated by the fact that they were descending the slope, going down toward a valley. When the path opened on the stream, it was like coming out of an underworld, a green one, with roots that kept making them slip and Dean curse.

The stream was overflowing with melt. It ran fast, dark gray like the sky and just as threatening. It wheezed and foamed against the rocks, carried debris in the center –branches, foliage and other shit Dean couldn't recognize – all of it swirling fast in the current. Pushed and pushed toward the sea.

Sam stopped beside him.

Dean wondered how it would feel to get lost in the fast current, to be directed and led toward a destination. Let the water do the job. He felt as if all his fucking life had been a long and tiring swim upstream.

He started walking.

The riverbank was almost intact. It hadn't rained since Isaac had been found dead. Dean had checked, and that was why he'd been eager to check the place out. If there was something to be found it might still be there.

Sam fell in line behind him, head focused on the ground. If a cougar strayed so close to the coast, it would need water and this was the best place to find its tracks. Dean was sure Sam didn't want to miss the chance to prove Dean wrong. Fuck him.

Dean was looking for different clues, but it was too soon. He stopped before climbing a small rock, opened the map to check his position. They were close, but they had to abandon the riverbank, go back into the woods for two-and-a-half miles. He looked around, found a less dense spot in the wall the trees made. The trail was there, faint yes, but still visible.

He climbed the rock, veered right toward the trail without calling Sam who'd fallen back to stare at something on the ground.

The forest was like a physical presence after the relative light of the stream. He sensed Sam when he caught up to him. Sam grabbed his arm and said, "Crap, Dean. Wait for me next time, okay?" Sam was breathing fast and it damn sure wasn't because of the brief run.

Dean ignored him, shook Sam's hand away, kept walking. He used his shotgun to push the branches apart to open a man-sized passage. But because it was him and it was always hard not knowing even when he didn't want to, he asked, "Found something?"

"Actually, yes," Sam said, no trace of smugness in his voice, a tiredness so deep that it startled Dean. He forced himself not to turn.

"Cougar tracks. All along the riverside."

"It doesn't mean anything," Dean said. Because it didn't. An animal could have come along after, when the guy was dead. He had to admit it was a stretch; the coroner would have recognized post-mortem wounds. Maybe he hadn't looked closely enough, though.

Dean slashed at the foliage with the barrel of his sawed-off.

Sam didn't reply until they passed under the natural arc of two trees so intertwined it was hard seeing where one started and the other ended. They bent in half nearly crawling, and Dean touched the soil, grabbed a handful of earth; it was moist and soft in his hands.

"No," Sam said when they finally stepped into a glade. "It doesn't mean anything."

Dealing with Sam was out of the question now: Dean couldn't, didn't want to. He stared at the glade. He was suddenly weary; his knee ached from the long walk. The hunt seemed unimportant. Dean couldn't remember why he'd been so bent on it, why it had been so essential that he solve a death that could have a perfectly normal explanation.

He looked around, then up at the slice of sky visible through the trees. They didn't have much light left.

The clearing formed a rough rectangle, the western and farthest side shorter and less clean-cut than their side was. The soil was soft like the underbrush, covered in leaves and scrawny tufts of grass and yellow wildflowers. Dean saw immediately where the body had been found, even from a distance, more clearly because of it. The weeds were bent out of shape, flattened. He walked to the spot with his eyes fixed on the earth, looking for tracks. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sam as he walked the perimeter, head turned up to gaze at the trees.

The earth was still disturbed and there were many footprints – Dean recognized the nailed boots of the rangers – that overlapped. He crouched to take a closer look, found the blood under the grass, a brownish spot the ants were feasting upon. He turned on his heels, saw where the guy had fallen and crawled: two long furrows, knee-shaped, more blood, this time on the grass.

 

So far the evidence spoke of nothing more dramatic than an animal attack. It was rare but it still happened. He sighed, stood up. The air was so much colder – the wind had steadily picked up since they'd left the stream. The storm that had hovered at a close distance since they'd crossed into Oregon was finally coming. Dean hoped it would hold until they walked back to the car.

He called Sam, who was just over the edge of the clearing, his jacket the only thing that kept him from disappearing in the dark intricacies of branches and brush and trees.

Sam waved without turning, intent on something, and Dean went back to examining the red soil. They'd been lucky it hadn't rained since Isaac had died or Dean would be looking at mud. He tried to gauge which direction the guy had been coming from when he'd been attacked, then walked the other way.

He didn't realize the wood had gone still and quiet until the wind calmed completely down. The air had an icy quality that made him shiver and reflexively hunch in on himself. He cocked his shotgun, felt the wrongness in the pressure against his chest, recognized it from hundreds of hunts. Very slowly he turned around, swept the spot Sam was supposed to be only to find it empty.

He almost called him, stopped, mouth hanging open when he caught the movement, way to his right, a deeper shadow against the darkness of the trees, too fast to see it well. Tall, definitely. Too tall to be an animal. He realized suddenly that he was in a bad position, too exposed, completely visible against the light that illuminated the clearing like he was on a fucking stage.

Stepping into the relative darkness of the woods wouldn't cut it now, not when whatever was out there had already seen him. Dean strained his senses, tried to feel any movement, caught a barely distinguishable brush of leaves against leaves way ahead. Still no sign of Sam. He considered shouting for him, abandoned the idea in the faint hope that whatever was out here hadn't seen Sam.

More movement ahead, the position different. Son of a bitch. It was circling him. It was heading toward where Dean last saw Sam.

He started running the same moment the thing did, still hidden by the underbrush, but Dean caught the shape of an arm, something that looked like it, blurry with movement, until it gained ground on Dean and he couldn't see it anymore.

He tried to run faster, cursed his damned knee when he almost tripped on a mound of earth. Sam couldn't be too far. He bit down on the need to shout a warning, scared Sam's reply would give away his position, put him in more danger.

Then it was too late. Dean's heart dropped: a yell – Sam's voice – suddenly cut off. Then Sam's shotgun went off. The silence, after its boom, deafening. Shit, shit, shit.

Dean stopped behind a tree trunk. He hoped Sam had pegged whatever had been stalking them. He wanted to run straight to him. Call him. Do something. He willed his heart to calm instead, breathed through his mouth so he didn't sound like an old locomotive. He tried to listen beyond the quiet, beyond the unnatural stillness. It wasn't gone.

He needed to think, to stop imagining Sam hurt. Worse. The thought was paralyzing, and he pushed it aside. He edged from the slim protection the tree gave, keeping low. Hoping to confuse it, he walked in a large, slow circle around where he'd heard Sam's yell. He hoped he was moving carefully enough, that he wasn't screwing both Sam and himself.

When he was sure he'd changed his position, he cut back toward where the shot had come from.

One of Sam's legs almost made him fall. Dean knelt, his freakin' knee popping so loud might as well have been a shout. Sam had fallen on a blackberry bush, his body completely hidden by it. Dean followed the shape of Sam's leg with his hands, saw them trembling and he clenched the collar of Sam's jacket to steady them. His eyes clouded with relief when he found the beat, a bit fast, but strong. A sticky substance on Sam's neck that could only be blood. He slashed at the shrub, and it came away easily. Sam's face, when he finally saw it, was badly scratched.

He looked around. The air was heavier and colder. He tried to remember what kind of creature manifested this way, but couldn't think of anything. The cold reminded Dean of the one a ghost created: the pressure made breathing hard, like right before a prairie storm.

They needed to go. He shook Sam, called him softly almost in his ear. Sam's head was bleeding a lot, but head wounds were always messy and bloody. Dean needed to calm the fuck down and start thinking.

"Hey, Sam," he whispered and checked him over, slowly this time, in case there was a hidden injury he'd overlooked: He found the shotgun instead under Sam's side, covered in dirt and still warm to the touch.

Sam groaned but didn't open his eyes, and Dean put a hand over his brother's mouth to muffle the noise. He tried to lift him to a seated position by the lapels of his jacket, but Sam was heavy enough when awake and cooperative, weighed like fucking lead when passed out.

He let Sam go when he heard the noise behind his back. He pivoted on his heels, shotgun cocked and ready. He hadn't thought it was this close. Too close to aim. Right there looming tall behind him.

He had time to see its shadow, an impression of dark blue skin – that didn't make any sense. Then there was a sharp, encompassing pain at the base of his neck, and nothing.

-*-

Sam chose to taste his way to wakefulness before he opened his eyes. He lay on his right side, his belt painfully digging into his skin. Whatever he was on was soft, though, a mattress maybe. Wriggling his toes revealed he had his boots on. He dared to move his arm and it moved easily.

He gathered more data listening to his surroundings. For one, he was indoors. Rain pattered on the glass of what Sam assumed was a window. It was raining hard, a real deluge from the sound of it, the smell of ozone so strong it streamed inside.

Now, the noise of the rain made listening hard, and Sam attuned his breathing to its rhythm hoping to block it off, straining toward the sound he was looking for and found in a weak groan – more a loud breath – coming from behind him. Dean.

The relief almost broke his stillness and he bit his lip to keep from turning around. He opened his eyes instead, sure he was facing a wall, maybe even the window itself. He was right, even though he couldn't see very well. His eyes were clouded and he remembered the attack, how fast whatever hit him had been. It hadn't left him time to think, to fend off the blow in any way.

He wondered why he wasn't dead. Why he and Dean weren't dead.

A door opened, and Sam froze. Whoever it was had no weight behind them, took short steps. The footsteps of a child, but there was no childlike hesitation in them. The door closed immediately and Sam heard a rustling sound, followed by metal against metal that could have been anything. Something scraped against the floor, wood on wood.

"I see you're awake," a male voice said. Mature. Not a child.

Sam turned and immediately regretted it. He only had the time to see someone – a man – before he had to close his eyes against the spinning room.

"Easy," the voice said, much closer this time, level to the foot of his bed, and Sam tensed. The guy must have sensed it, because when he talked again his voice came from the same distance. Sam felt too queasy to be grateful.

"Take deep breaths. And don't move so fast the next time." The tone was authoritative. Commanding. The accent heavy – Eastern Europe, perhaps.

"My brother?" Sam asked. He blinked twice and looked up at the ceiling, waited for the lines between wooden beams to stop waving and swelling.

"Concussion," the man said. "Just like you. You will live."

Sam closed his eyes, remembered the state of Isaac Terrier's body. They were lucky to be alive at all. "What happened?" he asked, needed to fill the holes before Dean awoke.

"Orlando found you in the woods," the man said. "He brought you here."

"Who… where? Are we in Florence?"

"No," the man said. "You are in my house." But Sam sensed indecision, a faint hesitation when he said it.

He almost nodded, stopped himself in time. He still hadn't taken a good look at the man. He wanted to see Dean first, though, and he rolled onto his right side very slowly. Taking deep breaths seemed to help keep the nausea at bay and he dared open his eyes again. Even though it was very dim, Sam squinted against the lamplight on the nightstand, which looked like a school table. Beyond it, on another bed, was Dean, his head turned to his left side facing the door so Sam couldn't see his face, only the white spot of a bandage on his neck.

He closed his eyes again when the room started swirling around him, and he swallowed the extra saliva in his mouth; the simple movement was too much. This time he felt the pain, focused around his neck and the right side of his head, along his right shoulder. He felt the place where it was sharper and found the rough texture of gauze. A match to Dean's bandage.

"Don't touch, please."

The man sounded annoyed, and Sam looked straight at him for the first time, forced himself not to gape stupidly at what he saw. The man was perched on a stool, his legs almost too short to rest on the first rung, jeans rolled up over kids' shoes. A scowl on the too large face that matched the tone of the voice. Something blatantly challenging under it that was way more upsetting than the glare, and if Sam was honest, mortifying. He looked away, felt the heat of a blush spread on his face.

"I'm Doctor Kesbit," the man said, and judging by his voice Sam had pissed him off. "And you crazy fools are taking up space in my infirmary."

The doctor climbed down his stool, his movements rapid and confident despite the obstacle of his short limbs.

Sam had an apology on the tip of his tongue, a defense there too, because it was true, he and Dean were crazy fools, just not the kind the doctor imagined. But then Dean groaned again, loudly this time, sounding distressed, like he was caught in a nightmare and Sam forgot all about it.

Dr. Kesbit glared at him when Sam tried to stand and Sam collapsed back down. He kept still but forced his eyes open so he could watch every single move the doctor made while he took care of Dean.

Dean said something under his breath, but Sam could only catch a couple of words that didn't make any sense. Dean's eyes were bruised blue, the skin around them thin and translucent – the usual after-effect of a concussion. From what Sam could see he didn't look harmed in any other way.

Sam thought suddenly how vulnerable they were, both of them injured, in an unfamiliar place. He wasn't sensing any danger, but he felt exposed. He thought of their weapons, the shotguns, and scanned the room trying not to move his head too much. A long table and a metallic cabinet were the only furniture apart from the beds; no decorations on the walls. The stool the doctor had sat on and a high-backed chair completed the furnishings. He saw their shotguns propped against a wall, Dean's duffle on the floor beside them.

Sam scooted his leg to the side of the bed, then sat very slowly. He ignored the doctor when he said to lie back down, too focused on stilling the world that kept moving behind his eyelids.

Dean groaned again and Sam stood up.

"I can assure you, young man, that I can take care of your brother," Dr. Kesbit said, with a tone of superiority that Sam recognized for having heard it in some doctors when they were either very good or thought they were.

"No offense, Doctor," Sam said, staring hard at him. He knew anger was spilling into his face and didn't care. He was angry. At himself, at the doctor. At Dean for putting them in a dangerous situation.

Dr. Kesbit paled slightly and Sam wondered once again what came upon his face at times that drove people away. Because it wasn't anything Sam could see in a mirror, even though he looked very hard.

"Very well," he said acidly. "You can find fresh bedding in the closet. Bathroom is in the hallway, second door to the left." He walked to the door and opened it, stopped on the threshold, like an afterthought. "A thank you would have been appreciated."

He went away without waiting for an answer, shaming Sam for the second time.

Alone, Sam looked around once again. Past the closed window he could see only a liquid darkness, against the glass he could hear the insistent pattern of the rain; no other noise came from the rest of the house. They weren't going anywhere tonight.

Dean groaned louder this time. Sam held still, crossed his arms around his middle. The room smelled of dust mixed with water. The oil lamp on the nightstand wavered when a gust of wind beat on the window, casting dancing shadows onto the walls that made Sam's nausea worse.

Another groan emerged from Dean, then a whimpering sound, long and pained. He moved his lips around words that Sam knew wouldn't pass his lips. Sam hugged himself more firmly, felt the wave of Dean's distress rise. A velvety touch, exploring at first, then more insistent.

Dean rolled on his side and Sam took a step back. More distance. Dean reverberated through the walls and under the soles of his boots. Sam's legs bumped on the bed and he sat, heavily, like falling.

Dean gasped.

Sam said, "Wake up."- A whispered plea.

He did.

-*-

It never bled into dreams, and if it did, it was too scattered for his memory to retain. Sam's voice was a sharp call back. Then the smell of mildew, wet wood. Cold and aches and pain Dean could firmly place outside of it.

A monster of a headache. His knee stiff and probably swollen inside his jeans. A cut on his left hand that caught the loose threads of the blanket. More annoying than painful. All of it.

Dean didn't move from the bed. The mattress was floppy and smelled of dust and humidity, the blanket flimsy – mismatched patches of cloth their colors long since washed away. More than that, there was no reason to move. Their host – Sam had said – had offered them shelter for the night.

The pit-patter of the rain was sharp against the window, the darkness behind it masked by the reflecting glow of a petroleum lamp. He stared at the ceiling. The room grew dimmer. Sam's breathing slowed, until Dean thought he'd fallen asleep.

Dean started when Sam spoke.

"What did you see?"

Dean heard the question, got confused before he righted himself to the answer.

"Something, I think." He stopped. The stains on the ceiling were moving with the flame, like Chinese shadows. Clouds without a sky. A horse. No, Dean, it's a camel.

"It was cold," Dean said suddenly.

"Ghost?" Sam asked, not bored, not. Indifferent, mostly. No trace of anger.

"Yeah, maybe."

"What else?"

"It's not a cougar." And Dean meant it as an observation, not the snappish remark it ended up being. He shook his head: the apology ready on his lips dissolved into nothing when he actually opened his mouth. Dean dragged in a big lungful of air and held it inside.

Sam didn't say a word. Above Sam's stillness and his silence, the pattern of the rain. It changed swiftly and became lighter.

"What do you think it is?" Sam asked.

Dean turned slowly on his side. The flame of the lamp in between their beds blinded him to Sam.

"I don't know." The flame expanded in his field of vision, dark yellow in the middle and pure white on the edges. Dean closed his eyes and kept seeing it.

"Sleep," Sam said and Dean opened his eyes, followed Sam's fingers when he lowered the flame to half its size.

Mabel

The next thing that comes to Dean is speech. He barely recognizes his voice when he speaks. The sound is different than he remembers, scratchier and deeper. It doesn't go higher than an unenthusiastic low note. He thinks it's too low for Sam to hear, but Sam is at his bed in the time he needs to swallow the dryness in his mouth. He smiles into his face, or he thinks he does. Sam smiles back, but it's so empty he looks like he's crying. He takes his time observing Sam: the hollowness of his cheekbones, the lines, like deep furrows, around his mouth. Sam's eyes are gaunt, aged like he's a hundred years old.

This time when Dean says, Sam, it's a question that Sam doesn't answer.

Afterward, Sam gets lost. Always hovering out of reach. On the threshold. On the foot of the bed those nights Dean gets confused about where he is and he wakes up thinking he's screamed, hoping he hasn't.

Afterward, Dean gets lost in the needs of his body.

He learns the new limits of it: not raising his arms above the shoulders, short steps, feet barely above the floor, like he's a turtle and twice as slow. As if he's scared of leaving the earth. Climbing up stairs is out of the question, and it shames him when Sam just picks him up – he's always there at the right time, so Dean doesn't have to ask. Climbing the steps down is easier. He doesn't need to bend his knees so far, and he can clutch the handrail with one hand, Ellen's shoulder with the other.

She's good, never trying to touch him before Dean nods that he's ready, before he takes the first step.

One morning – he shaved and cut his hair to a buzz all by himself – he's going downstairs, a feat he accomplishes in no less than twenty minutes. All he can think of while he navigates the steps is how long Ellen's neck is, how her hair falling haphazardly from a loose bun looks soft and smells good. Her skin is wet and shiny, slightly damp with exertion. The first pang of arousal, a stirring in his loins, is unexpected, leaves him breathless and unable to go on.

Ellen stops. She thinks he's too tired.

Dean remembers to say, I'm never tired of you, babe. She smiles, sort of sweet, hooks a slim shoulder under his armpit, and the unexpected touch leaves Dean shaken and trembling all day.

-*-

The storm raged all night long, stopped sometime around three a.m., wakening Dean with the lack of noise. When dawn brightened behind the window, Dean was on his feet and feeling less like his head was gonna blow up every time he so much as moved. He changed his shirt for the clean one he kept in his duffle, then woke Sam up, ready to get the hell away. He had to admit that resting had done him good, had done Sam some good too, even if Sam's eyes looked sunken and blackish in the harsh light of dawn.

Sam had told him, admitting it wasn't a lot. They'd been found by a guy named Orlando and brought here, where wasn't clear, only that a doctor apparently lived in the house. A small person, said Sam.

In a reverse of yesterday, the day brightened with a promise of sun, the sky washed clean by the rain. Good, they'd have to hike back to Cape Creek Trail to get to their car. A long walk that would be easier without a freakin' deluge.

At ten to seven, Dean figured whoever lived in the house was awake, and Dean was definitely ready to go out. From the windows he'd been able to see just an unkempt porch, then trees, trees and more trees. He tried not to think of it while Sam readied; the thing that attacked them had been fast, stealthy, moved like a man and Dean knew only a handful of creatures that fit the bill. None of those had blue skin, though. None could make the temperature drop so far and so fast.

The knock at the door made him reach reflexively for his sawed-off, though he didn't take it, drawing comfort from its closeness.

"Yes?" Sam said loudly.

Nothing could have prepared Dean for what he saw when the door opened. He didn't notice at first, distracted by the doctor. He knew what to expect, had a good idea from Sam's description. He was still shorter than Dean imagined, but the scowl was exactly like Sam had said. Fierce and full of disdain. Another man followed him, thinning red hair scattered with gray, attentive pale blue eyes that contradicted the too-large smile on a sun-weathered face. The guy wore working clothes, a purple checkered shirt and jeans on a wiry body, walked forcefully loose, like he was trying too hard to look harmless. Dean had a hard time guessing his age, forty-five, maybe fifty.

"Oh, good morning," Red-hair said cheerfully, but Dean saw the guy's eyes narrow when he spotted the shotguns. And then someone else was at the door, blocking it completely. A man so tall Dean blinked twice. No way he was seeing what he was seeing.

The man bent to pass through the door and when he straightened Dean stretched his neck all the way back to look at his face. The guy couldn't be less than eight feet tall, his height more impressive because he was wearing what looked like a fur coat. A very long and big fur coat over bare legs.

It looked like they'd found the mysterious 'tall creature' Dean had read about in the newspapers. Dean glanced at Sam's profile, found him staring, mouth slightly open, at the giant. Dean hoped he wasn't wearing the same dumb expression.

Dwarves and giants. What the fucking hell.

Red-hair smiled, shark-like, and Dean realized that throwing them off-balance was exactly what the guy had in mind.

"Imposing, eh?" he said. "Orlando here tends to make a big impression." He chuckled. "You already met Dr. Kesbit, right?" Actually Dean hadn't, but the doctor was sitting on a high stool since entering the room and didn't seem interested in an introduction.

"I'm Gary Driscoll," Red-hair said. He stretched out his hand and Dean took it. A good shake, firm, not aggressive. Dean relaxed a bit.

They were waiting for Sam or Dean to say something, but Sam seemed to have lost the power of speech. Not that Dean blamed him: it wasn't every day they met a frikkin' giant. Dean shook his head, introduced himself and Sam, but stuck to first names only.

"Okay, Dean and Sam," Driscoll said, bending their names with some sarcasm, then smiling again with that false smile. "Let's get this over with so we can all go have breakfast. I imagine you want to know how you ended up here."

Dean nodded, crossed his arms. Knowing where 'here' was would be a good idea too.

"Our good Orlando likes taking long walks in the woods. I'm sure you can imagine how hard it is for a man of his… stature to stay indoors all day long."

Orlando muttered something that sounded like a yes and Dean noticed that he was standing very still, close to the wall. He realized how crowded the tiny room was with five people in it, how much harder it would be for a man of Orlando's size. Dean exchanged a look with Sam.

"Anyway, he was walking back to the town when he found you two and thought he'd better bring you to our doctor."

Driscoll smiled and shrugged like finding two people passed out and bleeding in the woods was an everyday occurrence, slightly amusing at best.

"Lucky us, then," Dean said, and he too smiled a large smile. He craned his neck back so he could look at Orlando, and found him red-faced. "Well, thanks, Orlando," Dean said, but all the man did was avert his gaze before he nodded sharply.

Driscoll didn't let the silence linger for too long. "Okay," he said, and slapped his hands together like some important and difficult deal had been made. "Now that everything is clear and settled, I'll be happy to have you as my guests at breakfast."

Dean glanced at Sam before replying, and Sam nodded slightly.

"When you're ready, then," Driscoll said.

Dean took his duffle, nodded to Orlando, who hadn't moved and to Dr. Kesbit, who hadn't said a single word the whole time. Apparently, the invitation for breakfast didn't extend to them.

Dean started to follow Driscoll toward the corridor when he noticed Sam had stayed back. He turned to call him, heard him saying something to the doctor so softly Dean couldn't hear. He looked flustered, embarrassed in such a Sammy-like way that Dean felt a twinge of nostalgia.
But things were what they were and thinking about them now was a dangerous distraction, so he focused back on Driscoll who was leading them through a short corridor and a scarcely furnished living room, toward what Dean assumed was the front door.

Once there, Driscoll stopped and turned on his heels to face them.

"Before going outside," he said, "I think you should know that this town isn't...." He stopped as if he was trying to find the right words, scratched his balding head, then smoothed his hair twice. He looked at Dean's duffle, then sighed.

"Look," he said like he'd decided something important. "You've met Dr. Kesbit and you've met Orlando. You've seen them, right? The rest of the townsfolk are… special like them."

"Special how?" Sam asked.

Yeah, Dean thought, curious himself.

"I, um…. Okay, I think the best thing is if you see. Welcome to Violetta's Itinerant Show."

He opened the door as though drawing a curtain.

-*-

The flair in Driscoll's voice reminded Sam of a speaker announcing some kind of extraordinary show. But Sam saw only a decrepit-looking town during the short walk down the street. Some of the buildings they passed by were dilapidated, windows and doors closed with boards, the grass tall against the walls. Nature was already taking back what was hers. The town was a flashback to Cold Oak, and he tried to recall if there was a ghost town in Lane County. He or Dean usually made a point of knowing about them.

Others houses, though, seemed in good condition, with white curtains waving from the open windows and the faint noise of life coming from behind the walls.

They met nobody while walking though.

Driscoll kept apologizing for the state of the town, the poor state of the house he led them to – a two-story modern house with a bare lawn that looked like it had been scrubbed recently. In the foyer there were packs and luggage piled upon each other and Driscoll apologized again, led them to what Sam assumed was a big living room. He called it the 'cookhouse' and it looked like a dining hall to Sam. There was no one in the room, even though Sam could hear the noise of pans clanging behind a closed door. The secondhand sounds of life.

Driscoll led them to a table close to the window, acted like a good host, engaged them in a conversation about how hard it was closing a house for winter: he told them a big storm last December had undone all their work during the previous spring. He acted like they were old friends discussing the weather over a meal. Sam's sense of unease crept higher.

Dean kept silent the whole time, nodding or grunting when required, but his back was straight and his hands kept clenching, eyes always moving.

"I apologize in advance for the children," Driscoll said in a lull in conversation. "They aren't used to meeting strangers." He checked his watch and smiled. "They should be here soon."

Sam saw Dean straightening in his chair, knew well what it meant when he narrowed his eyes, how deceptive his calm tone was. Sam too straightened, wondered what he'd missed that was pissing Dean off so bad.

"You know," Dean said, "I keep wondering what kind of show you guys work here."

Driscoll seemed taken aback by the question, like he didn't expect Dean's hostility. And Dean had sounded hostile, lips drawn in a thin line to show his teeth in a parody of a smile. Again, Sam wondered what he'd missed. If there was something to be missed, Dean too unpredictable and mercurial, his moods unreliable, swinging back and forth from one extreme to the other without an apparent pattern.

He looked around. As if on cue, the excited voices of children came from the hall. He saw Dean's face pale to a worrying white. Children. Of course. The fastest way to push Dean's buttons. Sam got the implication of Dean's question, felt a rush of anger himself, but his own always burned colder than Dean's, as if his brother took harm done to children personally. He crept closer to Dean, ready to stop him in case he decided to do something foolish. Wondered if restraining Dean would be in their own best interest, remembered that their position was still vulnerable, despite Driscoll's apparent bonhomie.

Driscoll raised an arm when Dean stood up. "No, no. Please," he said. "Please, sit. It's not what you think."

And then the children came into the room and their giggles echoed dully on the bare walls, and Sam realized fully what Driscoll intended when he'd said that the townspeople were special.

"Dean," Sam called, because Dean wasn't even glancing at them, too focused on glaring Driscoll down. "Dean," he said again, putting a cautious hand on his bicep. The muscle was so stiff his entire arm was trembling. "Hey, man," and slid his eyes toward the children.

Slowly, Dean turned. To his credit, Driscoll didn't say anything else for the time it took for Dean to take it all in, but sat where he was, his eyes fixed on Dean's face with a concentration that made Sam uneasy.

There were five kids, from toddler to a girl probably in her early teens, though it was hard to tell her age as a thick mass of dark hair entirely covered her face, longer on her head. One of the older kids carried a toddler who didn't appear to have any legs. Another kid had short stumps where arms were supposed to be, ending in small, fully formed hands. From what Sam could see, there was nothing wrong with the remaining two.

A tall woman about Dean's age clothed like Driscoll in a flannel shirt and jeans herded them toward a table on the opposite side of the room. She nodded at Driscoll when she passed them but Sam and Dean might as well not have been in the room: she looked past them and through them and Sam felt invisible, irrelevant. She said something to the kids, her voice firm, when they wouldn't settle. The kids giggled more, as if to a joke, then sat.

Sam glanced at Dean, saw the same shock he was feeling reflected on his face.

"What kind of place is this?" Dean breathed.

"Please, sit, " Driscoll said quietly. "And I'll try to explain."

Only when they sat, he said, "Afterwards, you can tell me what two hunters are doing in Lane County."

-*-

The bastard liked to blindside people. And they'd been hooked, line and sinker, to whatever game he was playing

Dean sat. Had Driscoll looked inside the duffle when they were passed out? He tried to remember what was in it, apart from the usual stash of supplies. Didn't think there was anything that would give them away, but it was hard focusing. The headache was a persistent throb behind his eyes and the bright sunlight coming from the window wasn't helping. They were right under it. Fuck him if the guy hadn't chosen this table on purpose.

More people came into the room, in groups, alone. Everybody trying too hard to act normal, but Dean felt their looks. He and Sam were being observed, measured. It was unnerving.

"We had a council last night," Driscoll said. "And some things were… decided."

Dean looked back at Driscoll. "Yeah? Because you know, you keep saying you'll explain but so far you've only bullshitted us around." He leaned back in the chair, into the shade, so he didn't have to squint his way through this conversation.

Sam was a steady presence at his left. He'd dragged the chair away from the table and closer to Dean, sitting still in the way that Dean associated with Sam's nervousness, like he was trying hard to clamp onto something, his back so straight Dean feared it would snap in two.

Driscoll smiled, bent his neck to stare at the table, put a hand on it, palm down, the fingers splayed apart.

"I know," he said. "And I'm sorry. But you have to understand. We," he pointed to the rest of the room, "we have to be very careful. Especially lately."

Driscoll stopped talking when a white-haired woman came to their table, bringing cups and a coffee pot. The smell of coffee was so strong that it made Dean's mouth water. He didn't think he'd be able to eat, but coffee he welcomed. She put the cups onto the table, then poured hot liquid into them. She leaned so close Dean could see that what he'd thought was a very large scarf around her neck was actually skin folded and hanging loose, like overabundant cloth. The same around her wrists, in a lesser way.

She smiled shyly at Driscoll but her eyes kept flicking to them, and again Dean felt like he was on display.

"We have eggs, bacon and I made pancakes for our guests," she told Driscoll, then with a last glance thrown at the table, she walked away quickly, as if she'd stayed too long without meaning to.

Dean waited for Driscoll to drink from his cup before he took the one closer to him. The coffee was surprisingly good, strong and hot like Dean liked it. He saw Sam grimace when he sipped his, that's how good the coffee was.

"So, who are you guys exactly?" Dean asked before Driscoll could take control of the conversation again.

"We're like…" Driscoll seemed to have a hard time finding the words. "We're like a shelter," he said, nodding like he was happy with what he'd came up with.

"You said you've just arrived," Sam said.

"We always come back to Mabel in the spring. The air is good for the kids. You know, sea air, salt water, iodine, all that shit. Doc says the kids need to spend the summer in a warm place."

Dean shook his head. "Which gets us right back to square one. Who the hell are you? A sect? A hippie commune?" And most importantly, "How do you know we're hunters?"

Driscoll stared at Dean over the rim of his cup, again with that assessing look. Pissed Dean off but good.

"Okay," Dean said and stood up, made a point of dragging the chair back so it scraped loudly against the floor. Many faces turned his way. "Whatever. Thank you for dragging us out of the woods and thank you for the coffee. Now, if you don't mind, we're going."

"Dean," Sam said, but he didn't move, was still seated, if on the edge of the chair.

"What, Sam? Driscoll here likes jerking us around, fine. Do we have time for it? No. There's something in the woods killing people and that's all I care about right now." Just saying it brought back that ominous cold he'd felt in the woods, the silence. Driscoll paled under his tan.

"How do you know about that?" he asked.

"What about you give us some answers first, eh?" Dean said. He was close to shouting and couldn't care less. "You say you're a show, what kind of show? Do you tote these people around and put them on display?" These children? "Why are you living in a ghost town?"

The room fell silent. Dean glanced at the kids' table, found them staring back wide-eyed and fearful. The toddler was sucking his thumb and watching Dean behind the protection of the woman who had brought them inside. He met her face and found her glaring so fiercely he had to look away. Great. Now he was scaring kids, too.

"We're not a show, Dean." Driscoll said, using his name for the first time since the room-turned-infirmary and with no sarcasm in it." We're just people trying to survive. And we need your help."

Dean looked around again. Everybody was staring at him. Every face turned up and fixed on his every move, some expectant, some closed off, others downright hostile.

"I've got to get out of here," Dean said, the need for fresh air so strong he had to keep himself from bolting to the door. He didn't bolt. Weird being proud of that, but he walked out of the room slowly. The only thing he couldn't force himself to do was look back to see if Driscoll – or even Sam – was following.

-*-

Sam followed Dean outside, found him pacing the porch while dragging noisy gulps of air without even attempting to disguise his distress and Sam felt stupid because he knew Dean didn't deal so well with crowds anymore. Those people had been so overtly curious Sam should have figured out sooner how much it would bother Dean.

Driscoll came out after a moment, leaned against the wall calm as you please, as if he was used to dealing with skittish people.

When Dean stopped, Driscoll took his clue and started talking.

Driscoll called the place a shelter and that felt right to Sam, considering some of what he'd seen.

"Everyone here has a chance to fit in," Driscoll said.

Sam thought there was more to it. But Driscoll was entitled to keep some secrets, especially from strangers; he knew all about that particular need.

"What about that thing in the woods?" Dean asked, as if it were the only subject that really interested him, the only subject that made him look alive.

"I've been trying to contact a hunter for several months," Driscoll said. "I had a number but the man who gave it to me never answered and then it was disconnected. Your kind is hard to find."

Chances were the hunter was dead. Sam saw the same certitude when he met Dean's eyes. Hunting wasn't conducive to a long life.

"What did you need a hunter for?" Sam asked.

Driscoll stopped mid-step. He stared at the ground. "Something's killing my people," he said. "We lost Brian and Jake in Montana, Brit in Colorado, Kris and then Hanna, Ivan, Jill." He swallowed. "Christ…." He stopped, as if surprised by how long the list was.

Sam sure was. Seven people. With the four Dean tracked down it added up to eleven. He wasn't sure but the locations fit and that constituted more than a pattern. He glanced at Dean, expecting to see something on his face, a raised eyebrow, a hint of told you so, found Dean's expression blank.

"Sorry," Driscoll said after a moment. "It's been a hard year."

"There's no records these people ever died," Sam said. He didn't mean to sound as cold as he did, thought too late that he should have offered his condolences.

Driscoll smiled a bitter smile. "There's no records because nobody but us knows they're dead. Hell, scarcely anyone knew they were alive."

Sam nodded. It came to him, the memory of his father's funeral. He and Dean the only witnesses to John's death.

He spread his arms. "Take a look around. For all the rest of the world we don't exist. They don't want to see us and when they do it's with morbid curiosity."

"What makes you think you need us?" Dean asked.

"Apart from the fact that you're here?" Driscoll shook his head. "If I had some doubts before, now I don't. Something's hunting us down. We… we lead a nomadic life. We follow the same route over the year, stay three, four months before we pack and leave. Whoever's killing my people has been following us."

Driscoll shook his head. "It doesn't make any sense. It doesn't. But…. Christ, you should have seen the bodies—".

"I'm sorry," Dean said, and even though it came out stilted and awkward, it was way more than what Sam had thought of saying.

"I tried," Driscoll said. "We scoured the woods after we found Kris, he was…" A hesitation and Sam wondered if Kris was special to Driscoll. Son, brother, friend. "When we found him dead. But whatever it is out there, it's fast and it left no tracks to follow."

He stared straight at Dean. "We need your help."

-*-

Dean accepted when Driscoll offered to walk with them back to the clearing. Locals called it Cape Creek Bluff, from the name of the stream.

The town of Mabel was closer than the trail he and Sam followed the day before, which was way up on the other side of the bluff. The rain had left the soil wet and treacherous, and Dean had to look out for soft patches of mud to avoid twisting his knee. He'd be close to useless if he did, the joint already aching from the exertion; he knew he'd need a hot compress by the end of the day.

Driscoll walked swiftly, agile for his age, grip easy and loose around an old but well-kept rifle. Dean looked ahead, squinted when the sun filtered through the trees, through the leaves, blinding him in sudden white flashes. Now and then Sam asked Driscoll a question, always too low for Dean to make out.

Orlando had come with them, but he walked some ways back. He looked taller in the light of day. Amid the trees he really looked like a giant.

His size alone would have been enough to make him a suspect, but Dean didn't get any bad vibes from the guy, despite the silences and the weird look he'd seen on his face, an odd reluctance, like entering the woods was a painful task that he couldn't avoid. So much for someone who enjoyed taking long walks in it. He was hiding something, Dean was sure, but he couldn't wrap his mind around the idea that the guy was a killer.

He wasn't getting anything from the woods either, not this time. It was simply trees and bushes and nature, wilder after the long winter. Wet after the storm.

Climbing the bluff wasn't easy. Dean kept sliding and losing his footing, and by the time he was on top, his hands were scraped raw and his jaw was aching fiercely, he'd clenched it so hard. He knelt on the ground, glared when Sam tried to help him stand. Damn it. Always breathing down his neck, as if Dean hadn't done this job all his friggin' life and for way longer than Sam.

He stalked ahead of Sam, ahead of Driscoll, ignored the glimpse of hurt on Sam's face, the open curiosity on Gary's. Orlando took point after the bluff, climbed it easy as you please, and Dean followed his big shape back to where they'd been attacked.

This fucking trip was a waste of time. The woods were clean, smelled clean, of resin and broken twigs that crackled under his boots. Dean didn't know if it was the sun that had cleared the sky or the storm that had raged during the night, but the day was perfect, tepid air coming from the south, every detail in sharp relief, the green brilliant, the earth red. The sea glinted in the space between the trees.

The day was a tease though, an oddity, one of those that fooled you into thinking winter was over and done with before fucking you up with a snowstorm the day after. There were clouds crowding east, over the mountaintops. They wouldn't get any snow, not this close to the coast, but Dean would bet his best knife that rain would roll in before nightfall.

"We're wasting time," he said without turning, without meaning to. And he didn't know who he was chiding. He'd been the one who wanted to check out the spot again. After a deluge.

He kept walking, and Sam kept being silent, but Dean felt his eyes boring into his back until they arrived.

Everything was the same. He and Sam separated the same way as the day before: Dean checking the spot where Isaac Terrier had been found, and Sam walking ahead, looking up at the trunks like he was trying to remember something.

Driscoll stood, hands on hips and face unreadable. "Well?" he said.

Dean shook his head, walked to where he thought he'd first seen the creature. It bothered him that he didn't know what it was. But there was nothing, nothing that could give him an idea of what they were facing. He found freshly broken twigs that could have been the storm's fault. He wasn't finding any tracks, not even partial. Nothing. Nada.

Sam called him from somewhere ahead and Dean followed his voice. Driscoll was at his left, still in the clearing. No sign of where Orlando had gone off to.

He arrived where Sam was standing to find him and Driscoll as they stared at the trunk of a pine.

"Look," Sam said and took a step back to make space for Dean.

It was almost hidden by the foliage but definitely there, something carved in the wood, deep furrows bleeding with resin and crawling with insects. Dean swiped the ants away to see better. Two curved halves, heart-shaped, a thick line between them, all of it encased in a rough circle. It looked too much like the 'scratch' they'd found on the inside of Isaac's thigh.

"What is it?" Driscoll asked.

Dean let him see. "You ever see anything like that?" he asked Driscoll.

"No," he said after a while. "Never."

But he kept staring at the carving – the symbol – and Dean thought at least they knew the creature had hands to hold a tool with.

"A scratch, eh?" he told Sam. He grinned and slapped Sam on the shoulder, suddenly in a good mood.

Sam didn't smile back.

-*-

Late October a front cold arrives, violent with rain and wind. It leaves the ground frosted and glazed over in the morning.

Sam leaves the house at dawn, walks through the multicolored cemetery of Bobby's junkyard, amidst carcasses of rusted up cars and iron, broken glass and frayed rubber.

He heads east toward a cluster of bare trees, follows a trail until it bends behind a low hill and he can't see Bobby's house anymore.

The second week of October, the day after Dean walks on his own from the kitchen table to the couch in the living room, Ruby joins him. She comes out of the shadow of a tree and follows him up the hill and out of sight from the house.

She doesn't say a word that first morning, disappears the way she's come, dark shape blending into darkness. The next day she's back, walking behind him. And the next, and the next.

At the end of that week, Sam tells her to go away. But she only smiles – all black eyes – says, Don't be stupid, you need my protection.

She doesn't walk so close to him afterward, and Sam finds he breathes a little easier. He keeps up with his walks, lets his body loosen up.

By November, winter has turned all the way in. From the hill Sam sees smoke coming from the chimney of Bobby's house. He thinks of the fire, burning in the fireplace and he stands there, waiting for something to happen that never does.

Toward dark he walks back, finds the house quiet and silent. He finds Dean. He's sitting on the couch, motionless and in the fireplace there are only ebbing embers.

Ask me, Sam thinks. Why aren't you asking me?

But Dean seems to not have heard him and Sam leaves the room as silently as he's come.

The next day, Sam talks to Ruby.

"They aren't here anymore," he lies, tapping his chest with his fingers, where his heart is. He thinks, I don't want them. I don't want to be like you.

She turns toward Bobby's junkyard and frowns. "Your brother's been back for how long? Two months? And you're back to denying who you are. He should kiss the earth you walk on, that stup—"

Sam raises his hand, stops her before she can say the words. The rage is flushed skin on his chest and neck spreading to his ears, hot beat of his heart. He wants her dead so much, he can taste it, her death, sour and sweet in the back of his throat. But she knows how far she can push him, she's learned it, and she's never made him snap so far as to actually kill her.

She comes closer, slowly like she doesn't want to upset him, stands on her toes and with a hand she caresses his cheek.

"You're right," she says, taps his chest, hand above Sam's. "They aren't there." Her hand moves. "They're here."

Her fingers are cool and soft on his temple.

-*-

Sam would never get used to it. He couldn't. Sam wasn't that strong. He missed Dean, he missed him so bad he could barely breathe if he let himself think about it.

Sam hadn't lived under the illusion that Dean would come back intact. He'd been operating on the assumption that Dean wouldn't be back at all, that just getting his damned brother out of Hell was the goal, anything else was gravy. In the long months Sam had spent finding a way to open the portal without unleashing another horde of demons on the world, his deepest fear was not that Dean would be lost to him, but that he'd get back something different, something that wasn't his brother.

He'd tried to prepare himself for the idea that Dean would die the moment he brought him back, that he would be gone somewhere, same as Dad. He'd come to terms with that likely outcome in the time it took him to prepare his rescue. It wouldn't have been a terrible result, anything better than Hell. That had been his mantra.

And yes, maybe he'd worried about different things, first of all that Dean would come back changed, that he would come back more like… Ruby. He'd had no references: nobody had survived a trip to Hell and back and lived to tell the tale. Dean was unique according what Sam knew. Sam was unique, changed by Hell in a way he was still trying to understand, and he had spent only a small amount of time down there compared to Dean.

He fell back on purpose on the return to town so he could watch Dean. No matter how much Dean tried to hide, Sam could always see the hitch in his steps. More than merely a limp, Dean's gait was ginger, as if he was always trying to find his balance. Sam heard a noise on his left and he turned toward it. The treetops fluttered like they'd been hit by a fast wind and Orlando came from the relative darkness of them.

Sam tensed, stopped when Orlando walked toward him. Sam avoided getting too close to the man, had no rational reason for it but an inexplicable wariness.

"I see her," he said. His voice was a shock from such a big person, soft, no more than a whisper.

"Her?" Sam asked, a bit confused and showing it. "Who?"

Orlando was already walking back into the woods in large steps, the same way he'd come, but Sam saw the tears when he turned, his face awash with them.

"She says she can't go," said Orlando, turned fully to Sam. "Help her go, please."

He was gone, disappearing back into the woods, in the next blink.

-*-

Driscoll drove them back to the Impala in a beat up pick-up that must have been white once, but now was gray and crusted over with dirt and mud.

The truck seemed to Sam like everything in Mabel, houses and fences, streets and the people in it; it was in a perpetual fight against the threat of being buried, forgotten, wiped out. The men could spend years mending fences or straightening the walls, and the women could wash the wood planks clean until they shone: there would always be a violent storm, a flood. A fire. Something. Why couldn't they see how futile it was?

Driscoll gave them a small history lesson on Mabel on their way out of town. Empty of people since after Word War II, falling off the maps in 1957 when the post office had closed. There was something past in it, something gone, like the town had already given all it had.

The people who lived there were destined to become ghosts themselves, only they didn't know it yet. Or maybe they did. Driscoll sure seemed to know it. His voice sounded sad, resigned, a forced enthusiasm to it when he talked of his people and their plans. Like he knew he was living the tail-end of a gone era.

Sam knew how it felt to see something good end.

He'd thought leaving Stanford and coming back to this fucked up life on the road with his brother had been his own decision. The great divide between what could be called then and what was now. He'd mourned it, he'd grieved for it. He'd cried over Jess' death, yes, but he'd cried over that loss too.

He'd thought that was it. That he couldn't lose anything else that was as fundamentally good and right. And then Dad had died and Dean had died, and Sam knew he'd been utterly wrong.

It showed on Dean's face how wrong Sam had been; he knew it was branded on his body in scars and burns. The tangible list of Sam's losses. He glanced at Dean's profile. His head bobbed with every bump on the road and he'd closed his eyes, leaned a bit on Sam's side, like he was ready to sleep.

The drive to the Impala took no more than ten minutes, and Sam memorized the road, made a mental note to mark it on the map, together with the position of the town.

Driscoll left them with the promise to see them later, then he was gone and only the thump-thump of a loose muffler could be heard when the truck disappeared around the curve.

They stood there listening to it until it was far enough away to become nothing more than a confused noise.

Dean gave a long sigh, rubbed his eyes with both hands and when he looked up they were red rimmed and inflamed.

They needed to rest. They needed food and a shower. In whatever order they could manage.

"Well, fuck," Dean said finally.

Sam could only nod. "What now?"

Dean opened his arms, shrugged. "I don't know, man." He walked to the Impala and sat on the hood. For long minutes there was only the non-silence of the woods to listen to.

Dean said, "Christ, Sam. Did you see that boy?"

Sam wondered which one of the children Dean was referring to, but he didn't say anything. It was pointless, anyway, he knew they'd help Driscoll.

-*-

Back in their room in Florence, Dean asked for first shower – asked didn't take – and Sam nodded, played it cool, always cool. He started to pick up his clothes from where he'd left them the previous morning.

Driscoll didn't tell them much. He'd never seen the creature in the wood, only what it left behind. Man-sized prints that could have been boots or not and too scattered to track. Usually fading somewhere in the underbrush, on the riverside. But Driscoll wasn't being completely forthcoming: Sam sensed it, and it made him nervous.

Sam went to the table where Dean's research was piled neatly, took it to his bed, together with the map of Lane County. He unfolded it, marked the town's position then calculated the distance from the town to the clearing where Isaac Terrier had been found dead. Less than a mile of woods and shrubbery, a small slope, and Orlando had brought them back all by himself. Two grown men, not small by any definition.

So they had something that was specifically targeting Driscoll's people, but that didn't shy away from killing whoever got in its way. It was man-shaped and according to Dean had blue skin. But it hadn't killed them. Isaac Terrier's body had been mauled. Gary had said they'd had to pick up the pieces of his friends' bodies. But the thing hadn't killed them.

And it had gone for Sam first. Not for Dean. For Sam.

The main question was why it was killing Driscoll's people. Sam had some answers and none of them was comfortable.

In the bathroom, the water stopped running. He put Dean's research back together and into his backpack. He should boot up his laptop, check Gary Driscoll out. He listened to the noises coming from the bathroom instead.

The children were Dean's deciding factor, Sam was sure of it like he was sure he was breathing. It should have made him happy, it should have been a relief to see a glimpse of the old Dean after so long.

But the townspeople made Sam nervous. The look in their eyes was hard to take. Freaks? – he'd used the word many times in the past, felt like a freak his whole life, never really fitting in anywhere, always vaguely different. And now, now different was the way Sam was, the way Sam breathed.

He booted up his laptop: for once their motel had wireless that actually worked.

Dean came from the bathroom after a while, fully clothed. Sam glanced at him out of the corner of his eye.

He looked back at the screen. He'd downloaded the pictures he'd taken of the symbol carved on the tree. Blown up and cleaned up, it looked like one of those ink shapes shrinks used to decide if you were batshit crazy. Rorschach tests. Sam would have answered 'butterfly' if asked. The two halves curved large like wings. A butterfly trapped in a circle.

"Orlando said something weird when we were walking back into town," he said to Dean's back.

Dean didn't turn from what he was doing bent over his bed. "Yeah?" Distracted again. Almost uninterested.

Sam gritted his teeth. "He told me he 'sees her' and that she can't go. He was crying."

Finally Dean turned and Sam got a glimpse of the bed. Shirts and underwear and pants all folded neatly beside Dean's duffle bag.

"You think Orlando has been killing those people?"

Sure, he was strong enough to do it and there'd been something desperate on his face. "I don't know." He looked back at the laptop: no match for the symbol.

Dean shrugged. "Well, you can ask him later, at the party."

"Party?"

Dean shrugged again. "Driscoll said they've been planning it for a long time. A mood-lifter after… you know. Invited us over."

Dean twisted his hands together. Started pacing the room, door to window. Five steps and back.

Sam put his laptop away very slowly. "And you want to go?"

"Yeah, yeah. I mean, we'd get to meet the rest of the townsfolk. It's good, right? For the hunt. Ask them some questions. Driscoll said maybe we'll meet Miss Violetta."

"Who's Miss Violetta?"

"She's the boss." Dean waved his hand, then tested the pockets of his jeans.

"Huh? Really, I thought Driscoll was the boss."

"No. I….Christ Where the hell is it?"

"What, Dean?" Sam asked, heart beating fast, but he didn't move. Barely breathed. If Sam stood still he would ride out Dean's swift fall into anxiety. It'd happened before and Sam knew what to expect, what to avoid doing – moving, for example – and not because Dean would react badly to that, but because he didn't trust himself not to grab Dean and stop him from being so broken.

Dean's eyes were jumping from the beds to the nightstand, to the floor and back to the nightstand. To the door, the windowsill and then again to the nightstand.

"Dean? Hey, we don't have to go if you don't feel up to it…"

Dean froze, head bent. The silence stretched again.

"I need to start somewhere, Sam." Dean's voice when he spoke was shredded. "I can't…" He swallowed.

Sam rose from the bed and Dean tensed, crossed his arms as if he were cold.

"We don't have to, Dean," said Sam. We shouldn't even be hunting, he didn't say. "We could go through what we know, hit the library."

Dean didn't move.

Sam fell silent, but he stood still, two steps shy of Dean's personal space. "Figure out what's out there. What do you say?"

But Dean shook his head. "No, we go." He looked up, his eyes bright and wide in the glow of the lamp. "I don't want to be like this forever," he said.

-*-

Dean regretted the words as soon as they left his lips. And it was not like he had a problem, not with people, in general or with these in particular. Fuck, no. He hadn't.

He stalked back into the bathroom when Sam opened his mouth: he didn't want to hear what he had to say. How sensible Sam would be. About the job, about the hunt, about Dean. He didn't know. Damnit, he didn't.

The bathroom was small, smaller than a moment before. He turned the faucet. There was barely enough light to see anything, but Dean didn't want any light. He didn't need to see. Everything was clear in his head, all the gory details, the mess he'd made of things. Of Sam's life. His own.

He splashed the water on his face and it tasted of salt and iron. Tasted like blood. He took a deep breath. He was getting distracted by things he couldn't change. He needed to think about the hunt. The hunt was important, gave him purpose. Saving people. You can't even save yourself. And the demons had said it while wearing his father's voice, his father's face. Sometimes, it'd been Sam's instead, which was worse because he knew Dad had climbed out of Hell – without any help – but Dean hadn't known for sure where Sam was. Couldn't know if Sam had gone down there right after Dean.

Shit, shit, shit! The hunt, he needed to focus on the hunt. Safe topic. He'd ask Gary about Orlando, he'd ask around to the rest of the people, if they'd talk to him. He knew they would. That was why he wanted to go to the party. He'd seen the way they'd looked at him. Like they knew. Like they could see him. Maimed and beaten and wrong.

He wiped his face on the towel hanging from the rack. Back in the room the only light came from the glow of the lamp and it was like coming up for air.

Sideshow

Dean gets better. His body does. Wounds heal, scabs form on the shallow cuts and then fall. New skin grows, pink and shiny where burns were.

He catches his reflection in a mirror blurred by the shower's steam. Pale skin, not pure white, nothing pure about it, but rather, pasty, washed out. The bright colors of bruises and faint lines of scars-in-progress run over the older ones, twist and fade until they melt into his skin.

He's never spent a lot of time caring for his appearance, not really, apart from cropping his hair and shaving regularly. But he used to take pride in his scars, nips, scratches, bruises. He waved his body like a flag – naked or clothed – as long as it said what Dean wanted. I'm dangerous. I resist. I don't break.

He dries himself with Bobby's stiff towels. Some are plain, yellow and pale blue: others have the distinct evidence of a woman's touch, lace and tiny red flowers scattered along the edges. The red has washed out to pink, like watered blood.

There hadn't been a lot of blood in Hell. It had seeped into the porous earth, between the bones, so fast like the ground was starved for it. He reins in the thought before it gets him further than that simple realization. He puts his jeans on and that too is getting easier every morning.

The steam dries on the mirror and when he looks up, he catches a sharper reflection of his torso, the part of his back that's twisted sideways. He averts his gaze, stares hard at his own eyes instead. He doesn't think he looks broken. Thinks, those aren't the eyes of a broken man.

He picks up the towels. There's water near the shower, and he wipes it away with one of them. The towels end up folded neatly on the toilet lid.

The day is a collection of hazy memories of eating, talking and walking in small circles, literally: around the kitchen table. From the stairs to the front door and back.

He walks another mile from the couch to the stairs, climbs four of them before he has to stop. He wipes dust off the walls with his fingers on his way down.

Don't strain. Don't overdo. You've got to do this right. And he does: he takes it easy, does it right.

Bobby's house feels different now that Ellen's gone. Bobby's couch is lumpy, smells of dust and old books. There's something metallic on the windowsill that glints in the sun when Dean moves his head just so. He's passed by that window so many times he ought to remember what's there, but he can't. It drives him crazy.

A tin box. No, a silver frame. A knife glinting with the fire. A razor, sharp and burning when it cuts his skin.

He sends the thoughts away, leans forward, hands on his knees, until the sun goes down.

Bobby's house gets cold in the afternoon and it's still empty of Sam.

Where's Sam? he asks in that scratchy voice that won't clear.

He's out, Bobby says, then frets at the fireplace, swipes yesterday's ashes and puts on new logs. The logs are damp from the rain, and the fire is smoky and pungent.

It's so warm close to the fireplace when the fire finally picks up – clean, high flames that dance with the wind coming from the chimney. Dean stares at them until darkness falls.

-*-

It would have been clear if it weren't for the clouds that rolled over like a promise kept. Instead it was coal black and the only light came from the lighthouse when its beam spun inland.

The air was cold and Dean shivered. He followed the cone of the flashlight's beam as it jumped up and down with each step. Mabel was dark, the shapes of the houses confused. But music was drifting from ahead and it didn't take them long to see the lights, yellow and spilling from the windows of the same house they'd had breakfast in that morning.

Three steps and they were in, the door ajar. Sam a step behind, stood in the shadow, his face obscured.

"Huh. Must have a generator somewhere," Dean said.

In the hall it was already warmer, the music louder – Dean recognized the typical sound of an accordion, the higher notes of a violin – a polka or some shit like that. He dragged in a big breath before entering the room, and then Gary Driscoll was there, large scoundrel smile on his face.

The music hitched when they entered, and many faces turned. For a moment everybody stared at them. There was a murmur, like an excited breath, before the music picked up again. Happy and fast.

"There you are," said Driscoll. He thrust a beer bottle into Dean's hand from seemingly out of nowhere, like magic. The neck was seeping cold against his palm and Dean wet his mouth.

"I'm glad you came," Driscoll said, leading them through the room to a buffet table in a corner. The room seemed different. All the tables had been moved against the wall to create a small dance floor. Under the window there was a stage, and drapes covered half the walls – red and black satin that caught the light of many candles and low-power light bulbs scattered all over the room.

He glanced at his brother. Sam's face was set in a closed-off expression.

"The guys wanted to do something special for you," Driscoll said. He smiled. "As a thank-you for agreeing to help us. I hope it isn't too much."

Dean shook his head, bemused. It was… nice. The room was pleasantly warm: it melted the cold right out of him and left him with a weird sensation, like falling.

Maybe thirty people were already there, but more townsfolk were arriving, small groups, some in pairs, some alone. A whirlwind of large skirts, heavy make-up and clean-shaven faces. Two couples were dancing to the fast rhythm of the polka and Dean recognized Dr. Kesbit as the shorter half of a duo, his face pressed against the generous bosom of a woman twice as tall as him.

In a corner as if that could make his size less impressive, was Orlando. A woman Dean recognized as the one who served them coffee that morning stood by him with a large plate that Orlando wasn't taking. His lips were set in a tight line and Dean was reminded for a moment of the way Sam refused food when he was a child.

"It really wasn't necessary," Sam said. Dean turned. He'd heard the nervousness in Sam's voice, and he understood why when two people masked as clowns climbed onto the stage, one armless and the other legless. Delighted squeaks rose from somewhere in the crowd. The children.

A laugh bubbled on his lips, slightly hysteric. Sam and his fear of clowns. "What's this?" Dean asked. He had a good idea but he hadn't thought the townsfolk were circus people, which was stupid because Driscoll had said that they were a traveling show. Still, Dean didn't know what to expect.

Driscoll shrugged. "We need the money, my friend. And this is as good a way as any to make it. We work a show maybe four times a year. One in each town we visit." He leaned in as if to share a secret. "Our marks are selected and… loaded. You wouldn't believe how much people are willing to pay to see an authentic sideshow. But this, my boys, is the real stuff. Top coin."

Dean shook his head. "So you're really flaunting these people," he said. He wasn't as upset as he'd been in the morning, not when he could see the kids sitting in the crowd and looking so happy.

"We're artists," Driscoll said, not unpleasantly but with an edge of his own. "Let me introduce you to some of my friends." He turned around, effectively shutting down the conversation.

Dean and Sam followed Driscoll who'd stopped by the children, near the stage. The children were sitting on the floor, quivering with a barely contained excitement.

"Ah, there you are," Driscoll said again, raising his voice to make himself heard above the music "Sam and Dean, meet Alan, Mickey and Elise. And this big boy here," he dragged the toddler into his arms, "is Robbie."

Robbie smiled, all wide, curious eyes. Dean's eyes kept straining to the empty place where the kid's legs should have been. There was a big pad of gauze around Robbie's hands and Dean stopped short of asking how he'd hurt himself. Dean smiled and bent on his knees so he wasn't towering over them. His knee made the usual popping sound and he grimaced. Robby giggled from Driscoll's lap.

"And this beautiful young lady," Driscoll continued, "is Sophie." The girl smiled, lips barely visible under the thick hair that covered her face and Dean felt his own mouth stretch in a smile when she blushed.

"The kind of show we're having is called a ten in one," Driscoll said when the children settled. "Ten acts, one show. You would have found it at any freak show before they were banned, but now," he whistled softly, "now we're the only one still surviving."

Dean nodded. He was curious about what kind of show these people would offer. He felt himself relaxing and he stretched his legs. Someone sat on the box beside his and Dean recognized the woman who had been with the kids that morning.

"Ah, Eva," Driscoll said. "You made it."

She nodded to Driscoll and regarded Dean for a moment before deliberately dismissing him.

Dean made a point of studying her. Short black hair and white skin, high cheekbones, dark red lipstick on her mouth that in the dim light seemed nearly black. A gauntness to her face that made her look like she was starving.

"Gary," she said, "these the guys who are supposed to help us?" She squared Dean and Sam up and her expression was dubious, like she'd appraised them and found them lacking.

"Eva…" Driscoll said lowly. "Please, we talked about this."

"Yes, yes," she said, and this time she did look Dean's way. "So you're our saviors. I feel like I should say thank you."

What the hell. Dean smiled, shrugged. "We do what we can," he said, staring back hard.

She curved her mouth in a cruel half-smile that didn't look good on her face. "Do you dance, Dean?" she asked, stretching her arms above her head, like a cat. "I'm in the mood to dance."

Driscoll laughed, but there was a warning on his face. "Eva, sweetheart, stop embarrassing our friends."

Eva laughed too, with no amusement in it.

Driscoll shook his head. "Sam, why don't you sit?" he said. "The show'll be starting soon."

Dean glanced up at Sam.

"If you don't mind," said Sam, "I'm going to stay in the back. Dean?"

"Nah, I'm good where I am. Got first row for the show, right?" he purposefully asked Eva just to see her reaction. But she seemed to have lost interest in them, in him. She whispered in Sophie's ear and the girl giggled behind her hand.

The music picked up in intensity before Dean could say anything else. It changed to a syncopated rhythm with the accordion creating windy notes that stretched long and mournful.

-*-

It wasn't the clowns that were making Sam nervous. Letting Dean believe it and seeing the amusement on his face had been worth it, though.

The show was a different thing. The people. Hard ignoring how unusual their company was. Beside Orlando, who towered over everybody despite the fact he was standing in one of the corners and close to the wall, there were the rest of them.

It hadn't hit him completely until now the true extent of how different these people were. It was amazing, seeing them all together even if they made him uncomfortable in a way Sam didn't want to look at too closely.

A man stood beside him and Sam nodded when he smiled, tried to avoid staring at the skin around his eyes and neck – scaled like a reptile's skin.

He watched as the clowns did the usual gags, falling and rolling and poking at each other. When they completed their act, they climbed from the stage, one with an exaggerated bow the other with a mad flailing of his arms, then they came back abruptly – the legless one hopped back – and threw a bucket of multicolored confetti toward the children. Shrill laughs came from their direction. Sam caught the half smile on Dean's face, stared at his profile and watched him for a while.

The music rolled again, slowed down to a melodic song Sam thought he recognized.

Up on the stage, the clowns came back with a table, small, maybe twelve inches by twelve inches. A man with silver hair came behind the clowns wearing tight black pants and shirt. He leaned onto the table on his arms in a contortionist position. He stretched his legs behind him in a perpendicular axis, then bent them up against his torso until his body was perfectly folded in two. He spread his bent knee across his sides, first one then the other, passing them under his arms, in a position that Sam was sure the human body could not assume. Not even with exercise and training.

"Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome."

"Dr. Kesbit." Sam straightened from where he leaned against the wall, thought too late maybe it wasn't such a good idea and he hunched over a bit to fill the gap between their heights.

The crowd applauded when the performer on the stage made a different figure, even though chances were they'd seen this number many times already. Sam waited for the noise to fade. "Sorry, you were saying?"

"Lack of collagen that results in hypermobility," Dr. Kesbit said, nodding to the stage. "John has a very rare form, stretchy joints and, unfortunately, very fragile skin."

Sam watched John as he twisted his hips. The contortionist held the pose for long minutes until the crowd exploded in more applause. Sam had to ask.

"Isn't there a cure? Something…"

He wasn't thinking only about John and Dr. Kesbit seemed to understand that. The doctor turned toward Sam, sighed. His face was blotched, red spots high on his cheeks and sweat beading his forehead, like he'd drunk too much. But his eyes were clear, sharp and intelligent.

"Medicine has done a lot to correct nature's foul-ups," he said, sarcasm edging his words. "The joy of medicine is that it isn't always accessible. Or cheap. The next show should be enough for Sophie's next treatment. We're doing what we can."

Sam nodded. That he also understood. Grasping for whatever hold was available. Surviving.

The music changed again when and John left the stage, long harmonious notes, a bit melancholic. A magician took the contortionist's place, launched into a routine with cards and flowers that became multi-colored squares of cloth. He had no fingers, though and Sam stared fascinated by the way those strange, crab-like hands worked.

A movement to his right caught Sam's eyes. "What's up with Orlando?" he asked Dr. Kesbit. The giant seemed restless and the only one who wasn't having fun, judging by his expression.

"Well, to start with, his pituitary gland is hypertrophic, it's called acromegaly--"

Sam shook his head. "No, I wasn't talking about that. He looks sad."

Dr. Kesbit regarded Sam. "He's been very stressed lately." The tone didn't call for more questioning and Sam shut up. On the stage the performer exploded a shower of golden and silvery sparkles. Dean, caught right under it, tensed for a moment before laughing as hard as the children.

"What's up with your brother?"

Sam's eyes rested on Dean. "He's been very stressed lately," Sam said very low.

"I guess being tortured does that to you."

Sam turned sharply, and this time he straightened to his full height on purpose.

"Calm down, young man," Dr. Kesbit said. "I'm a doctor, remember? I saw your brother's scars when Orlando brought you to me. Yours, too. I hope you two know what you're doing."

"Everything is under control," Sam said. Everything. And maybe if he said it often enough he'd convince himself it was the truth.

-*-

After the sword eater came onstage, Dr. Kesbit asked Sam to follow him upstairs. Sam tried to catch Dean's eyes before he exited the room, but Dean was involved in a conversation with Gary and he didn't glance Sam's way. Not even once.

Dr. Kesbit led him to a room on the first floor. The corridor was too dark to see well, and the music, already muffled on the stairs, was nothing more than a distant noise.

"Miss Violetta wants to talk to you," Dr. Kesbit said and Sam detected something like an admonition in his words, but he went away without saying anything else. Sam knocked on the door; when nobody replied, he entered.

The room was large with panels of wood on the walls. The yellow glow of a lamp came from a desk in the far corner, close to the window. Too many shadows to see if someone was sitting behind it and Sam walked inside.

The desk was solid wood and big, the surface nearly covered with sepia-toned pictures, some stained by water and ink. A stack of what looked like magazines stood in a corner. Believe It Or Not, Sam read. He fingered through the pictures, took one of them and turned it toward the light. A girl smiled at him from the picture. The hairstyle reminded Sam of an actress of the Thirties. It must have been her pose, though, the silken scarf around her neck. She didn't have arms or legs. The way she stood on a long, slim stool reminded Sam of a mannequin. The picture was signed in a corner. Miss Violetta – 1953.

"It was different then."

Sam started, and he turned, picture in hand. She was sitting on a chair, close to the window, even though sitting wasn't exactly the right word as she would be in the same position either way, sitting or standing.

She laughed and Sam felt a flush spread across his neck and face.

"I'm… I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be nosy."

"Oh, not to worry," she said.

Sam sat in front of her. "Is that you in this picture?"

"Yes. That was me many years ago, though," she said. "Some of those pictures are truly unique pieces. I'm very pleased to meet you. Sam, right?"

"Sam Winchester." He didn't know what compelled him to tell her his full name. His eyes were getting used to the dim light, and now he could see her face better, the net of crinkles around her eyes, silvery hair tied in a bun. He could see in the girl in the picture the woman in front of him. The eyes hadn't changed – they usually didn't - the smooth slope of her cheekbones and the soft curl of her mouth were still the same.

She smiled wistfully, the smile old people had when they followed a good memory.

"I worked in circuses and sideshows for fifty years," she said, sweet accent from the South still noticeable in her words and Sam wondered where she was born. "It was different then. We really were a family, not just freaks."

Sam stiffened at the word and she noticed it.

"I appreciate your sensitivity, Sam," she said around a smile, "but words can hurt you only if you give that power to them. It's what I am. It's been my job for years and it's been a good living. I loved the crowd and the looks. The surprise on the children's face when I'd move my head, the gasps and the laughs. I never looked at their parents, only at the sons and the daughters. What else could I have done?

"Do you understand, Sam Winchester?"

No, he didn't. How could someone be happy being put on display? Always singled out as different. "I… I wish I could, Miss Violetta."

"Don't worry none. Gary told me you and your brother are helping with our problem."

"Yes, Ma'am," he said softly, even though they hadn't done a lot to help. Not yet.

"Good. I appreciate it very much. Hunters, eh?" She seemed amused. "It's been a while since I met one. I think it was… four years ago, during winter. Such a good man. But you're younger. Different."

Sam twitched in his seat, looked away from that penetrating gaze. He hoped she wouldn't ask more, because he'd never been good at answering questions about what he did or why he did it.

"May I ask you a question, Miss Violetta?"

She bent her head gracefully. "Of course." Her immobility was disconcerting in a way, not less effective, though, as she conveyed a lot with those eyes of hers.

Sam realized how much he was used to picking up on body language, but it wasn't really the body – it was the hands and the arms. Dean was never still when he talked. Had been. Never still. He pushed away the thought with a shake of his head.

"You could, you know… you could have…. Prosthetics." He waved at the place where her legs should be.

She stared at him very seriously. Age and bearing gave her an authoritative aspect that was intimidating.

"I have lived for seventy-eight years like this," she said. "How would you cope if you suddenly had three arms or three legs?"

And wasn't that a good question? Because Sam wasn't. He wasn't coping with his new ability, his third arm, this extra limb. He'd never considered his – what? Power? – like that. But he'd used it unashamedly when Dean had been gone, a secret new appendage that made Sam faster, better. It was getting hard not falling into the temptation to use his powers again. He'd done good things with it, he'd brought Dean back thanks to it.

Demons shoved away with a flash of his hand, the euphoria when he realized that he could – he actually could – save Dean. It had sprung out so fast, like a fast-growing bough. And all because he'd wanted it badly enough.

"Have I upset you?" Miss Violetta asked.

Sam shook his head.

"Good." She smiled. "You're probably wondering why I've asked you to come."

Sam nodded.

She dragged in a long breath before speaking, leaned back into the chair.

"You've made a great impression on Gary," she said.

"Thank you. But he barely knows us."

"Gary's a good judge of character. Always has been, despite what he may think on the subject." She moved. Weird seeing it – a push of her hip and she straightened on the chair.

"Our community is dying, Sam Winchester. I worry for when Gary will be too old to protect us, for when Dora will be too weary to cook for us."

Sam opened his mouth to talk but she straightened her back – halted him as effectively as a raised hand.

"I'm not good at talking around the issue. I have an invitation for you and your brother. A proposition."

Sam straightened in his seat. He thought he knew where this was heading and he felt his eyes widening.

Miss Violetta must have seen the realization on his face and she smiled. "What do you think?"

That it was unexpected, that was what he was thinking. And impossible.

But Dean had relaxed at the party downstairs, preferred the townsfolk's company to Sam's. Would Dean consider the possibility? Sam had lined up simple hunts for Dean, assumed that it was what Dean wanted because it was what Sam wanted. The road, the hunts, going back to it all as though the months Dean spent in Hell never happened.

It came to Sam then, that he, like Gary and Miss Violetta and all the people in Mabel, was hanging onto the past, wanting it back so badly.

The road and the hunt. His brother.

And in all those months, Sam never actually asked Dean what he wanted.

Miss Violetta was watching him and Sam would have said something to break her hard stare, but then the door banged open and he stood reflexively.

Dr. Kesbit appeared, heaving and serious. "It took Sophie," he said to Miss Violetta, then to Sam, "and your brother's gone after it."

-*-

The first hunt after Dean comes back – coming back. Like from a vacation, a short trip – his first hunt is a ghost in Luverne, just over the Minnesota border and an hour's drive from Bobby's place.

Sam drives and Dean fidgets in the passenger seat, tries to find a comfortable position, a way to stretch his legs that feels familiar and right.

Sam sits in the driver seat like it's the most normal thing in the world and Dean thinks, of course it is. He'd left him the Impala, the only thing of worth that Dean had possessed, and it'd already been Sam's, like everything else that was Dean's.

The passenger's seat is firm under him, like it's been a long time since someone sat on it. Dean wriggles, stretches his legs. His hand goes to the stereo on an impulse but he stops shy of the knob. The car is Sam's now.

Sam revs the engine, gives her the right amount of gas to make her start, as smoothly as Dean remembers – as Dean used to – as if the tires could glide on the asphalt instead of roll.

In Luverne, Sam finds the victims. Sam discovers the connection. Sam finds the grave. The soil is soft when Dean tries to dig it –it should be frozen, the earth, hard like cement – and yet Dean's arms are too weak and he has to give up after the second shovel, has to let Sam dig the grave, too.

Dean stands on the rim of the hole. The coffin splinters into shards of wood when Sam breaks the lid with the blade of the shovel. The body's still rotting, exploding with gas and liquids through the nose, the ears, the lips.

Dean swallows the extra saliva in his mouth when the smell floats up to him. Looks away. Under a pine, the ghost that inhabited the body blinks in and out, in and out, like a motel sign. It opens its lips as if to speak, then disappears.

Sam, Dean says. But he's only thought it and Sam's inside the grave, breaking the rotten wood of a coffin, hidden from view.

Dean follows the shape of the handle of his shotgun with his hand, cocks it, and then the ghost is in front of him and when it talks, its voice is the buzz of flies. Ripped flesh. Blood gurgling in its throat.

A shot coming from its right dissolves it before Dean can make sense of what it had said. A shout follows the boom of the shotgun – his name – distant and faded like an echo.

The ghost comes again. The lines of the body are sharper on ripped clothing, its features contorted and angry.

Don't send me there, it screams, like its voice has finally come free and it doesn't know how to control it. Dean staggers back, but the ghosts grips the lapels of his jacket and Dean's trapped, under that vacant gaze that seems to know all about him.

The ghost says it again, Don't send me there. And Dean nods, because he can't. Can't send it there.

It's a pointless decision, though. Soon after, fire envelops the ghost. The flames don't burn Dean. He only feels the heat on his skin, so close he could touch them. Yellow and orange and red. The ghost dissipates into ashes with a small explosion that makes Dean flinch.

In the empty space, there's Sam, tall and dark, his face scrunched up in a frown. His arm still outstretched and hanging midair where the ghost was.

Sam had only touched it.

-*-

Driscoll dodged Dean's questions like a pro, no matter how sideways Dean asked them.

By the time the sword-eater came onstage, they were on a first-name basis and Dean knew everything about sideshows and had an idea of how these people had come to live together. But he knew nothing about Driscoll himself.

Gary's voice was soft, even in Dean's ear, trying to make himself heard above clapping and music and the voices, a constant soundtrack. Dean relaxed, progressively, sliding down in the rhythm of the music, the colors that swirled on the stage, the fast movements of the performers. The beer he was nursing was cold, a nice contrast to the warmth of the room. Dean was becoming loose and for some blessed minutes he believed that if he wanted he could let the tension seep away. Everything else with it.

When the show ended the music changed back to melodic folk music. The children went away – flocked outside by the woman with the hair as white as snow, who Dean recognized as their host from that morning – and Dean found himself saying yes when Eva asked him to dance.

Her body was hard, muscled under the cotton layer of her red shirt, her expression as hard as her body but she was a good dancer, seemed to enjoy it, and he let her lead him, didn't mind that his elbows hit the other dancers on the crowded floor. His boots thumped on the hardwood floor, made him clumsy, but everybody was smiling, open and trusting – grateful – even though Dean only promised help he had yet to deliver.

Dean drifted for a while, let himself go into the rhythm of the dance, the simple two-steps, the hard-bone warmth of Eva, the flames of the candles and the filaments of the light bulbs that stayed impressed on his eyes when he closed them. Lost in that haze, it took him a moment to realize that the music had stopped. It made everything come to a sudden halt, including Dean's wandering thoughts. He shook his head, shook Eva off and she slid off him without any resistance, as if she didn't really care. Someone was crying and Dean thought Sam, innate reflex, but he'd forgotten about him, all that time, he had. He looked around, but couldn't see him anywhere. The old panic he'd lived under his whole fucking life robbing him of his voice.

He elbowed his way to the noise, toward the door, barely aware that Gary was at his side. More shouts rose from the crowd, more cries until Dean finally saw the Doctor holding a woman – not Sam, God not him - her face bloody, three long scratches on her left cheek that dripped blood onto her hands and the floor, red spots on her wet shirt, the white-as-snow hair loose around her face.

"Dora, calm down," he heard the Doctor say. But she wasn't calming. She freed herself from the doctor's restraining hands as soon as she saw Dean, was in his space in two steps, her cold hand going at the collar of his shirt. She breathed out and blood spattered from her mouth.

"Sophie…. It took her," she said, dry hiccups and sobs drowned by a collective gasp. Eva's cry was audible above them all.

Dean dislodged her hands from his shirt as gently as he could. Something cold fluttered inside, uncoiled and spread as fast as oil on water.

"Look at me," Dean commanded, proud that he could fake the right tone of voice. "Tell me, where. Where did it go?"

She nodded, dragged in air, painfully like it was too thick. "I was taking her back to her room," she said. "I tried, oh God, I tried. But it hit me, and grabbed Sophie and I tried to follow but it was fast and I couldn't see… I came here. Please."

Her lips were quivering. Dean took her hands in his own and they too were shaking. "Look at me. You've got to tell me where it took Sophie."

"I don't know," she said. "We were close to the old school." Only a sigh and Dean gave her to the doctor's ready hands.

Dean nodded to Gary, ran into the street. It had started raining, a cold drizzle, shocking after the warmth of the house, darkness a solid barrier Dean tried to blink off. He knew the old school's general direction. He'd seen it, one of the most decrepit buildings in the town, almost caved in and reclaimed by the woods. But he let Gary direct him anyway. Followed the bounce of the flashlight on the terrain without looking straight at it.

It was weird, how little he felt right then, physically. Not the rain or the cold, not the ache in his knee. Adrenaline surged in his veins, and for the first time since forever he felt his body responding like it was his.

He took his gun out, grabbed Gary by the arm when he saw the dark shape of the building, put two fingers against his mouth and hoped Gary didn't ask any questions. Gary didn't, he simply nodded and turned off the flashlight without being prompted.

Again there was that awful cold that made the air slow. It had seeped through his clothes, the thin layer of his shirt, and he realized he'd left his jacket inside. Dean closed his eyes to tune out the pounding of the rain, the thudding of his heart after the short run. When he opened them the night wasn't as dark as before. Sort of gray with the clouds hanging so low: it cleared briefly when the lighthouse's beam of light spun inland. He signaled Gary that they should approach the school from different sides, watched him as he crept closer to the school until he blended into the deeper shadow. He walked to the opposite corner, intent on circling around the building when he heard a scream coming from the trees at his left. Long and terrible. Wet with blood. It set his heart racing again, his legs, too.

Fuck! Alive. It means Sophie's alive, his brain supplied. He had to climb a steep slope and he skidded on the mud, used his free hand to avoid falling. Another scream, garbled and then cut off. But it gave Dean a clear sense of the direction. It angered him, such boldness. Dean was killing this fucker right now.

He sensed Gary behind, not too far, some ten or fifteen feet down the slope. He spared a glance above his shoulder and saw the glow of the flashlight, fainter because Gary was keeping it shaded with a hand.

He didn't care about being seen. Whatever was out there – Dean wanted it to hear him coming. He had to slow down when he hit the trees, though. Dark and treacherous terrain.

Not dark enough to hide Sophie.

She was already dead. No way she'd survived, not with a cut so deep around her neck. Gary arrived, directed the flashlight over the girl's corpse, and the harsh details of her death came to life. Blood everywhere, still red and gleaming on her body: fat drops of it had caught on the hair on her face, on her chest, on her ripped clothes. Dean had never thought of asking if all the victims from Gary's people had had physical anomalies. He knew the dead hiker hadn't, but Dean hadn't thought of asking. He hadn't asked so many things he should have, and maybe Sam was right. He was off his game, foolishly thinking he still could do some good.

"Sophie, oh my God…" said Gary, soft and broken and Dean broke a bit himself, forced himself not to close his eyes. Didn't deserve a break, had to witness. She'd been ripped from throat to navel, gutted like a fish with intestines and bones hanging open and exposed to the air. Beer came up in his throat and he chased it down. Felt the burn of it down to his stomach.

Gary moved the flashlight up, startled Dean back to now. Focus, Winchester, damn! He followed the light; it barely penetrated through the leaves, but Dean saw the movement, the gleam of skin that stood out against the dark, partly hidden by the trees, a splatter of blood and a feral expression on its face, and Dean aimed and shot, half-blind, only years of practice on his side.

"Matt?" Gary said so softly Dean wasn't sure he'd heard well. He didn't have time to ask what Gary meant when he heard a grunt of pain loud enough to give Dean a bleak satisfaction, even as Dean immediately lost sight of it. He went to where it'd been, scooped up blood watered down with water.

"Dean, where are you going?" Gary's voice sounded old, tired, the words scraped raw like they'd gone through sandpaper. Dean turned. Gary was kneeling by Sophie, flashlight hanging loose between his legs. It had stopped raining.

"I winged it," Dean said, like that could make up for his failure. But he had, and that meant that his gun could hurt it. Maybe kill it – with ordinary bullets. He left Gary in the dim glow of the flashlight, following the cold and the darkness. He heard movement up ahead, a flutter of leaves loud in that damned silence. Dean knew he was still exposed, and he stepped more into the darkness of the trees, winced when he snapped a twig with his boots.

Leaves exploded on his side and he rolled under the solid weight of cold flesh. He hit the earth, thick carpet of leaves under his back and the sour smell of old sweat in his nose, the impact hard enough to drive his teeth through his tongue. The pain blinded him for a moment, the taste of his own blood worse than the hurt and he gagged.

Desperation edged closer to the surface when his right hand closed around nothing – the gun lost in the fall – and he kicked, bucked hard against the crushing weight of its heavy body, legs and chest until the thing fell away or let him go.

Dean rolled to the opposite side helped by the soft mud – so cold, damnit – and got upright as fast as he could, took the knife from his boot in the tumble. A reflex. Luck. The thing circled him, back straight and arms loose at its side. Dean saw a blade curved like a hook, jagged teeth on the edge and still dripping with blood. Every detail was clear and Dean dared to glance around for the source of light, saw a glow behind the thing's back.

Shapeless, but still recognizable as human beings once. Ghosts. Dean tried to count the faces, but they were heaped together, in a blend of open mouths and noses and eyes. His brain supplied the number, eleven victims meant eleven ghosts, and everything clicked together: the intense cold – so deep because they were so many crammed in a narrow space. If they'd been real people Dean would have thought that they were cowering in fear, drawing comfort from their closeness. Dean drew a breath and it froze his lungs. He didn't know if the thing had sensed it too, that drop in the temperature, but it turned to the ghosts, made a shushing noise, raised its hand and petted – fucking petted one of them like it was a dog – and even thought the ghost didn't have a voice to talk with, Dean felt the ghost's broken whine, saw its fear as it tried to avoid the thing's touch.

Dean took a step back and the thing turned to him.

"Why are you trying to stop me?" it asked, the tone weird, petulant like a child. It bent its head sideways, eyes dark and puzzled, and Dean could see the curiosity on its face, under the grime. The thing's body was covered in tattoos, thick black lines all over the arms, the exposed skin at its neck, curved together in an intricate design. So many of them the natural color of the skin had disappeared under all that blue ink. Dean thought he recognized some of the symbols. A mojo bag hung from a rope around its neck. It looked human for fuck's sake. It had arms and legs and a black t-shirt with ripped-off sleeves.

Not it. He. Human.

Dean widened his legs, boots firmly planted on the ground. He blinked rain from his eyes.

"Who are you?" Dean asked. Blood dripped from Dean's mouth when he spoke and he spat it out, wiped his lips with the back of his hand.

Dean shivered and the thing moved. Dean had only time to thrust the knife forward, both hands curled on the hilt, before he got tackled again.

This time he banged up against a tree trunk; his head bounced twice and his vision exploded into a star-lit sky. He panicked when he couldn't move his legs, the pain in his back threading upward: it fucking felt like an electric shock every damned time and Dean couldn't breathe. An arm, meaty, hard as rock and as unmovable, pressed on his windpipe and he clenched his hands, discovered they were still curled around the hilt of his knife. He moved it, felt the pull and suck of flesh and bone. The thing growled in his face with a puff of smelly breath. Dean twisted his hands as much as he could in the narrow space between their bodies, heard the bone of his left wrist crack before his brain registered the pain.

The thing – fuck, but it was a man, a man, smelled like a man, sour sweat and unwashed skin – said something Dean couldn't hear above the rush of blood in his ears. And then, suddenly, like a granted wish, the weight against his throat was gone and he was falling. His legs folded, his back scraped against the rough bark of the tree.

Breathing had no right to be so difficult.

-*-

The rain made everything harder, a thick curtain through which Sam couldn't see. It stopped all of a sudden, like a faucet had been turned off.

He circled the old school when it was clear Dean wasn't anywhere to be seen. The mud was dragging him down, his boots heavy with it, and he skidded and almost fell on his ass when he turned the corner. He looked around, frantic, because it was taking him too long, and he was going to be late, late, late. The woods grew right behind the building, another barrier, made of solid wood and leaves and where the hell was Dean?

A sound, slightly hysterical, came to his lips, pushed to pass through them, trapped by the serrated edges of his jaw. Sam clamped down on it – forcefully – afraid he'd start screaming his brother's name like a lunatic fool, squashed down that other feeling that screamed Dean, Dean, Dean and that had been surging steadily since Dr. Kesbit had burst into Miss Violetta's room.

He raised his head and saw a glow, a clearing, barely discernable within the trees, and he followed it, found Gary kneeling by a body – too small to be Dean – but it took Sam a moment to connect the thought even though he knew it couldn't be Dean. Gary pointed ahead without being asked but Sam didn't need directions.

Dean was screaming at him, not in words, but louder still. An extra beat, outside his heart, the part of Dean that had bled into Sam.

He ran blindly in its direction, ten, fifteen, fifty feet of darkness and silence and stillness, then a grunt, something strangled and choked and Sam's eyes zeroed in on the movement of two bodies bathed in the white unmistakable white glow of ghostlight. He had time to pick out individual ghosts, count them and dismiss them as unimportant, irrelevant. Dean's pain, it made Sam stumble and he caught himself against a tree trunk, felt the bark rough and uneven under his hand, the crawl of life, veins of sap running deep inside the wood.

It washed over him, a tide of fear and hurt and despair – lack of air – and Sam let it go, let himself go with it, had time to think that he was getting his wish, that he'd finally know how it would feel to be taken over by this thing, let it grow until it filled every empty nook and cranny Dean's absence had left in him. His bones shifted on a mysterious command, some part of his brain or blood that wasn't conscious, and he reacted, felt like he was growing taller, as though Sam was ten men in one.

Sam thought of Ruby when he grabbed whatever was pinning Dean against the tree – like an imperative: remove the threat! – and her claim that Dean was the cause of Sam's avoidance. Thought that she was oh so wrong when he saw Dean's face – swollen red, eyes wide and bulging. Lack of air. For all her cunning, Ruby had never figured it out. It had always been all about Dean.

His hand closed around the cold flesh of the thing that was hurting Dean.

Dean whimpered and Sam swelled larger and he pushed, shoved hard – not physically - reached into that corner of his mind that was dark and unknown and reliable.

The thing flew sideways, crashed against the trees and then flopped down somewhere where Sam couldn't see it. Sam didn't stop to look at it. He went to Dean who had folded in on himself.

Dean was gasping, his breathing frantic as an asthmatic engine. Sam dragged him upright by a handful of shirt, found it wet and dark. Blood dripped from Dean's mouth. Hot splatters on Sam's fingers. Sam saw it, a rich red in the phosphoric beam of the flashlight.

Sam shook him once, hard, against the tree trunk

"What the fuck are you doing?" Sam shouted. He had to, to make himself heard above the roar of the wind.

Dean's eyes widened. He batted feebly at Sam's hands, but Sam wasn't letting him go and he shouted the same question again.

"Lemme go," Dean mumbled.

Sam let him go. He watched as Dean folded on his knees, then caught himself at the last moment with one arm, the other curved against his chest.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" he said. The wind whipped hair and dust into his eyes, thrust the cold into Sam's jacket, under the shirt and onto his skin. Such a contrast compared to the searing heat of rage and worry and fear.

"Where's he gone?" Dean said then immediately put a hand against his throat. The hand was dark and covered in blood and dirt.

Sam knelt, even with Dean's face. The mud was cold but soft under his knees. Dean straightened and they were face to face, so close the wind hissed in the narrow space between them. He curled his fingers around Dean's jaw. "I chased it away," Sam said, enunciating it slowly so he was sure Dean understood him. "And I didn't even touch it."

"Let go of me," Dean said.

Tiny droplets of blood showered Sam's face. But Sam wasn't letting Dean go. He would never do that again.

"I didn't bring you back from Hell so you could get yourself killed," he said, and squeezed Dean's jaw between his fingers. Not hard. Not.

"Let go of me," Dean said again and if it wasn't for the tiny explosions running up and down Sam's body, he would have acknowledged Dean's fear. The pleading in his voice. Instead, everything narrowed down to Dean's eyes, like they caught all the light.

Sam let it flow and it felt right. Nothing dirty about it, nothing evil in it. It didn't feel wrong. Not with Dean alive and breathing under his fingers through the small contact of skin on skin.

"I didn't ask you." Dean croaked out. Cold like ice and just as sobering. Like a circuit opening, the world rushed back clear and sharp, turned to its normal speed.

Sam let go of Dean and collapsed back, hands closing uselessly in the dirt.

Dean slumped against the tree.

The wind calmed down. Sam looked around. The clearing was empty, no sign of the monster, the ghosts gone. Only him and Dean kneeling on the wet soil.

"What are you doing, Sam?"

Under the fear, Dean sounded deeply disappointed.

-*-

Sam lost sight of Dean after they walked back to the house of the party, heart still racing with Dean's accusations, feeling tired and dirty, with blood and the mud that had dried on his pants and hands.

He'd seen Dr. Kesbit approach Dean boldly and at least he hoped Dean was letting the doctor give him a look. He was grateful and completely ashamed, but he wasn't sure he'd deal well seeing Dean's blood up close, the bruises he'd had a glance of. The shape of his fingers he was sure he'd left on his jaw.

I didn't ask you.

It was out there, in the open. Couldn't be unsaid and Sam felt drained. It wasn't fair. It wasn't. Sam had done what he had to, to save Dean, take care of him.

He helped Driscoll compose Sophie's body, then spent two hours just hanging around in the cookhouse where some of the townsfolk were taking vigil. Between himself and Dean, they should have thought of protecting the people somehow and even though Sam couldn't think of a single thing that would have accomplished that, he felt like he'd failed. He knew he'd failed.

Sometime after midnight, Driscoll sent him off to sleep and Dr. Kesbit accompanied him back to his place. On the way there, Sam asked about Dean and the doctor listed his injuries: sprained left wrist he'd put a bandage on, a cut on his tongue, bruises and scratches, but the only thing the doctor was worried about was that Dean's throat would swell from the trauma of being choked.

Inside, Dr. Kesbit's house was cold. Sam couldn't stop the trembling of his body. He found the door of the room Dean was sleeping in closed and Sam rested his hand on the knob, his face against the peeling wood, not sure he had the strength to deal with Dean right then.

When he finally entered, the room was quiet, Dean a lump on the bed barely visible in the glow of the lamp. Curled in on himself under a threadbare blanket, he looked half his size, like the best parts were missing.

Dean was immobile, but Sam knew he wasn't sleeping: the stillness was too forced, lacking the telltale signs of deep sleep Sam knew from having shared his space with Dean day-in and day-out.

Sam would have undressed if he'd had the energy to untie his boots. He didn't. He flopped onto the bed, feet dangling over the edge, shirt damp on his skin. The ceiling was stained with the dark shapes of water and mildew.

"You know, I almost didn't come," Sam said. "Ruby kept telling me I couldn't… no way I could bring you back."

He sighed, closed his eyes so he could better hide in the darkness. "She kept telling me that you were gone. Forever. Every day, she said, You can't save Dean, Sam."

Dean wasn't even breathing from what Sam could hear, but Sam wasn't going to stop. "I hit her, without touching her. And she laughed. Her teeth were stained with blood and then she told me that that, right there, was what I was supposed to do.

"Dean… nothing was working. Nothing. And you were…."Gone. More than dead –damned.

His voice broke and he coughed, afraid of the silence coming from Dean's bed. Those months, the things he'd done. "I'm not sorry, though. I will never be sorry. And I get why it scares you. It scares me shitless…. Sometimes I wish, I just wish--

"I hate the way you look at me, Dean. Like…" Like Sam was a freak, weirder than Orlando or Miss Violetta, as if they were less grotesque to Dean with their missing legs and arms and clawed hands. More acceptable than Sam's powers. And yet Sam couldn't say in all truth that he wished they'd never come – those abilities. There wasn't a single thing he wouldn't have done again to bring Dean back. And he longed for Dean to say that he'd done good, that it was all right.

But it wasn't about him. It was about Dean. Offering him a choice, for once.

"If you want to leave…" Me. Leave me. "I will understand, okay? You don't owe me. You don't have to stay. I can't promise I won't…" He steeled himself, steeled his voice. There were things that were easy to admit to, like being happy he'd brought Dean back, like being glad he could protect him, finally.

"I did what I had to do, Dean. It felt right. Jesus, Dean, you were gone and I couldn't leave you there."

And then he had to stop, his throat so dry all his words shriveled and turned to dust. Silence fell on the room without his voice, tremulous like a held breath.

Dean kept still. Not even an exhalation to acknowledge Sam had spoken.

Come Back

They never talk about the hunt in Luverne. Dean doesn't ask on the drive back. He looks at the road, instead, huddled against the passenger door, all shrunk in on himself, as far as he can go from Sam.

Sam uses the wheel to stop the tremors in his hands, uses it to curl his fingers around. The road is long and dark, the car fast, and Dean falls asleep with his head pressed against the side window sometime after crossing the South Dakota border.

Two weeks later, Dean steps out from the shield of Sam's body right into the trajectory of a Phineas's claws and Sam doesn't think, he reacts, bares his teeth and the thing flies into the air, falls to the base of the wall in a heap of bloody limbs and high-pitched screeches.

And Dean still doesn't ask.

The day before Christmas Sam awakens to an overcast sky. The wind pushes against the window, hisses and turns and bangs and everything smells of fresh snow. He awakens and knows Dean's gone.

He scrambles off the bed and he's at the window in two steps. The Impala is missing from its usual place – all gleaming and shiny like a minor sun.

Sam says, fuck. Puts on jeans and boots and shoulders past Bobby, all silent and grave on the front porch. He's taken the keys to Bobby's truck from the metallic rack beside the front door without asking and Bobby – Bobby doesn't stop him.

Five minutes later, four miles off Bobby's propriety, he finds the car parked on the shoulder of the road. Through the rear window, Dean's silhouette is visible, dark and unmistakable. Sam parks behind the car, climbs out slowly, and feels something settle low and easy alongside his skin.

Dean doesn't say a word when he sees Sam. Doesn't turn his head from whatever he's watching straight ahead on the empty road. After a while, he simply revs the engine and makes a u-turn, drives back toward Bobby's.

Sam drives Bobby's truck, stays behind the Impala and feels like a herd dog.

They find Bobby where Sam left him, on the front porch, still grave, still silent. Sam leads Dean inside, to his bed. Says, "Sleep, Dean. You look tired." Dean does, lies down, stretches on the bed without taking his boots off.

"What have you done?" Dean asks when Sam's nearly out the door and Sam knows what Dean's asking. He stops at the threshold, stills his heart and his hands. He can't turn around and see the disappointment in his brother's eyes. He can't turn and see the betrayal, the sick realization that Sam's given in, more than once.

When Sam's voice comes out clear and steady, it's a surprise and he masks it with a hitch of his shoulder.

"They were hurting you," he says.

"Sam," says Dean and his own voice is weary and tired and so damn low Sam wants to scream.

"They were hurting you," says Sam and it's the bare truth.

No more. No less.

-*-

In the morning, the night's drizzle became a downpour, the streets turning into rivers of mud that squelched under Sam's boots. A sucking wound. Sam shivered when a small procession passed in front of him.

Dean stood under the porch, meager protection from the rain with so many holes where the wood was rotten, and Sam stopped to study him. Dean had already been gone when Sam woke up, left behind only his silence and a bed perfectly made.

From his position at the side of the house, Sam could only see Dean's profile. A bruise, angry red at this side of his neck, large and blotched with broken vessels, but it wasn't that one that caught Sam's eye. Higher still, on Dean's left cheek, a pale rounded mark, the spot where his thumb had dug into the soft tissue there, above the ridge of the bone.

Sam forced himself to look at it, memorized its position. He rubbed his thumb against his forefinger, as if to wipe out the memory of Dean's skin under his thumb, the shift of Dean's jaw when he'd locked it. He swabbed his hand on his jeans but even that didn't chase the feeling away.

By now, the procession was midway along the main road. It was slow going, hindered by the rain and the condition of the street. Sophie's body, carried by four men on a flat plank of wood, had been covered with white sheets that were now sodden and limp around the form of her body. The women trailing Sophie were still wearing their party clothes, the bright-colored skirts of the night before, heavy make-up, red lips turned downward, crocheted shawls on their heads their only protection against the rain. Gary brought up the rear. Tall and somber, but he noticed Sam and nodded in his direction. He looked aged in the unforgiving light of the morning, like John looked sometimes, especially during the last days.

Earlier that morning, Sam suggested that they burn Sophie's body, gave Driscoll rock salt and words to ease the passing. As if it would change anything.

He scraped his boots on the hard wood of the catwalk and Dean started, body tensing then relaxing slightly when he saw Sam.

"Hey," Dean said, voice so brittle Sam winced in sympathy. Dean only flicked his eyes toward Sam for a moment before going back to watch the progress of the funeral.

Suddenly a high-pitched wail rose from the crowd. A keening, long and mournful, that made a shiver run down Sam's back. It went on and on, that primitive cry, then ceased as suddenly as it had started.

"Christ!" Dean shook his head, and Sam took a step toward him, stopped short of touching Dean's shoulder.

"I'm sorry," Sam said, because he was – sorry and sad – for a lot of things, and for Sophie who'd died on Dean's watch.

Dean made a distressed sound, something guttural and hoarse that made Sam wince.

He said, "She was alive, she was--" A wave of his bandaged hand to fill the missing words.

"It's not your fault, Dean," Sam said, because it was his place to say it, but it was also true. The reassurance – like some kind of comfort – it had gone back and forth for so long between them it flew naturally. As natural as Dean's refusal of Sam's absolution.

"Don't," Dean said, and his voice was all cut edges through his bruised throat, like it was mixed with jagged stones. Another wince and a swallow and Sam forced himself not to take a step back. Then Dean looked at Sam, green eyes so bright and miserable, and Sam knew, realized then that it was Dean's anguish Sam had picked up last , mistaking it for merely physical hurt. And he had messed everything up.

When the procession disappeared around the corner down the street, Dean turned to look at the road. Sam saw the way he held his body still, the stiff quality of his movements, raised his hand when Dean's breath hitched, but Dean's flinch froze Sam's arm mid-air and he let it fall to his side.

"No, Dean…. No. I'm sorry about what happened with Sophie."

Dean turned his head, east toward the trees and the mountains behind them.

"I saw the body last night," Sam continued, "before, you know, they—" sewed it up. "It drew the symbol again. On her back." It had been there, on the dip of her tailbone and he'd asked Dr. Kesbit to shave the spot so he could take a better picture.

The wind carried a whiff of woodsmoke, wet with rain, and Sam saw Dean's eyes widen, saw the painful swallow in the shift of tendons on his neck. Was it bad of Sam that he wished Sophie hadn't died only so his brother wouldn't feel so guilty? He used to feel sympathy for the victims, and now he could only spare pity for Dean.

Dean gathered himself, a lock of muscles and joints and he stood straighter.

"He. It's not an 'it'," Dean said.

"What?"

"Our killer's a man," Dean said. "He was tattooed. Arms, neck, part of his face. I couldn't see well, but I'm sure that symbol was all over him. I stabbed him" – Dean pointed at his own abdomen – " and he didn't so much as flinch. There was something hanging from his neck. A root bag, a leather pouch or something like that. Whatever mojo he's using, it's working. Goddamn Superman."

And there'd been ghosts all around this tattooed monster, Sam had seen them, was sure that Dean had seen them, too. An idea formed in Sam's mind, still shapeless, in need of analysis before giving it voice. He nodded.

"How do you want to play this?"

Dean took a step back, as if surprised by Sam's words, scrubbed his hair with the flat of his hand and left it there for a moment before he let his hand fall limp at his side. The rain chose that moment to stop and Dean spoke in the abrupt silence.

"I need to talk to Gary," said Dean. "You could, you could hit Florence's library, the Internet, maybe call Bobby. We should have done it before."

"Okay," Sam said, trying not to translate Dean's suggestion as a need to have Sam gone.

Dean fished his keys from his pocket and gave them to Sam without saying anything else. Sam took them, curled his fist around the metal of the keyring, still warm from where it was inside Dean's pocket.

"I better go, then," he said. Turned away.

"Sam," Dean called, low like a whisper. "Christ, Sam wait a second."

Sam did. He wouldn't have been able to move anyway, the fear a living thing under his skin; that Dean would send him away right now, on the porch of a decrepit house somewhere in the woods along the Oregon coast.

But he was ready. He offered Dean that same option less than nine hours ago and he'd meant it. He looked around, would Mabel and its people be good for Dean? He seemed to like them quite a lot. Sam hardly remembered the last time Dean smiled like that to Sam. With Sam.

"I'd go with you," Dean said, though, let it hang until Sam turned back and he saw for himself that Dean wasn't sending him away.

Dean struggled, then, "I'd go, but we'll be faster if we're both working from either end." And Sam knew what he wasn't saying, understood. It wasn't about leaving or being left.

Sam stared at him for a long time. His face felt red from the cold and damp from the rain. Sam's knees weak with relief.

"Okay," he said. "Okay."

Dean drew in a long breath. "Good. Okay. We're good, then. Okay. I… I'm gonna talk with Gary, while you play bookworm." And if the delivery was stilted and the barb weak, Sam didn't care, because Dean was trying – God, he was trying and Sam would have to be happy with it.

He smiled himself, sort of. It couldn't look good on his face the way his lips stretched awkwardly.

"Go easy on him. He's pretty shaken by Sophie's death," Sam said.

"You'll come straight back after you're done, right?" Dean asked.

Sam nodded. "I will, Dean." And he was ready to go now, really was, but he stopped anyway on the lowest step and when he told Dean to be careful, Dean just said, "You, too."

-*-

Dean watched Sam's walk, back straight, steps sure, unhindered by the mud or the unpaved road, like Sam could fly over the potholes, walk above water. He waited for Sam to disappear behind the curve that led to the road, at the edge of the town.

The car rumbled to life and Dean followed the sound until it faded, until it became one with the noise of the wind in the trees. The day was wretched, gray shades everywhere and then the smoke rose thicker from behind a house and Dean had to go inside before the smell of burned flesh reached him.

The hall was dark, the living-room-turned-cookhouse turned-theatre was still decorated with ribbons from the show of the night before. The bright colors were mocking him, all reds and yellows and electric blue. The room smelled of candle wax and failure. The stage where the jesters had clambered and clowned looked small now, no more than boards put together with nails.

He sat on a chair, back to the wall and facing the room. Dean was tired. He knew it with every bone in his body, with every ache and pain. The grate of ribs against each other and the swell of his throat that made swallowing hard.

He took his Zippo from his pocket, the metal warm from his body's heat reminding him that he was alive. Sam's words the night before, his actions in the morning, his offer, he'd seen the desperation in Sam, had longed to wipe it out. It used to be easy.

He passed his thumb on the inscription on the side of the lighter, felt it barely there, all smoothed away over the years first his father's hands and then his.

Always Faithful.

Dean hadn't been afraid of Sam in the woods. Deep down Dean knew he hadn't been afraid.

He'd been afraid for Sam. For months now, Dean had pushed and pushed to see where Sam's snapping point was. A way to make Sam stumble and fall. He should have known all along that the only place Sam's control would ever crack would be Dean.

The click of the cap when he opened it was loud in the empty room; he rolled the trigger and saw the flame spark to life, faint smell of butane, blue at the base and yellow and hot against his palm. But it didn't burn.

He clicked the cap shut. It was time to talk to Gary.

-*-

Gary was behind the generator, bent in half inside the engine compartment of his pick-up. The hum of the machine was loud there, the smell of gasoline strong. Dean approached slowly. Gary had brought his car in under the tarp that covered the generator. Despite the noise, Gary heard him.

"Do you know cars?" Gary asked before Dean could say anything.

"I know a thing or two," Dean said.

"You look the type." Gary straightened, didn't meet Dean's eyes when he turned. He wiped his hands on a red rag smeared with oil. Carefully and slowly. When he was satisfied by his hands, he hooked the rag on his belt.

"I was waiting for you," Gary said.

Dean crossed his arms against his chest. The hum of the engine was loud enough that it would hide their voices from anyone passing by. Hard under the wool of his jacket, the butt of his gun felt reassuring against his fingers. Gary mostly looked tired and defeated, though. Old.

"Why don't you tell me what the hell is happening here?" Dean said.

Gary nodded. He sat on the front bumper of his pick-up, fell heavily on it as though someone had cut the threads that held him upright.

"I wasn't sure before last night. Hell, even now I'm not entirely sure that I saw what I think I saw."

"Who's Matt?" Dean asked.

Gary sighed, a long exhalation that hissed between his lips when he let it go.

"This, what you've seen of us... I didn't plan it. It happened. Some of us… we've only known this life. I've worked in circuses and carnivals since I was twelve. I don't know anything else. But I liked it. And then they took it away. Suddenly we were outlawed, the simple sight of us too much for new sensibilities. They starved us, that's what they did. What we're doing here is important, for the kids. For us. We'd be useless otherwise. But we made mistakes. I made mistakes.

"Matt Caldwell. He came to us five years ago. We were in Nebraska at the time. He seemed legit. Eager. Generous. Passionate about the show. I let him in. He was young and strong. We're old, Dean. I'll be fifty-five next month. We're hanging onto the past, it's what we know, but I know it's going. It's gone. I thought Matt might be the right guy to carry on. The kids needed, they need someone younger who'll take care of them."

"What happened?"

"Matt wasn't stable. There was something not quite right with him, and I'm not talking about an extra leg or arm. He scared me sometimes, the way he took to the job. We live off the need of people to watch and stare. It's acceptable, as long as they pay. You don't let the assholes get to you."

Dean nodded. He got it. He'd learned not to care. The remarks, the jibes. Is that your Dad? A nervous giggle if it was a girl, something close to horror and pity if it was a teacher. He'd stopped giving a fuck about what people thought by the time he killed his first werewolf when he was seventeen; he never got why Sam was so crazy about being normal, about fitting in.

"He beat a guy to a pulp during a show," Gary continued. "Something like that puts us all in danger. Even more enlightened people carry the suspicion that if you're ugly outside it must reflect what you have inside. I should have known that night. It took Orlando's strength to pull Matt off the guy. We were lucky he didn't die."

"Okay," Dean said. "So now what? He's pissed off and bent on revenge? That's it?"

It didn't sound quite right. Rage was a powerful motivator, but this was more than rage. He'd seen Sophie's body the night before, ripped open and bloody, but weirdly composed. Dean was sure he'd stopped Matt from completing whatever ritual he was going to perform on her. He'd seen the ghosts. If revenge was Matt's motivation, then why was he keeping his dead victims with him?

Gary shook his head. "It doesn't make any sense, the people he's killed."

"What about them?"

"The people he's killed. Jake, Hanna, Jill, all the others, they were close. To Matt. They were… they didn't want to send him away. Jesus, even Sophie, he loved her like a daughter and she loved him. She fucking cried the day Matt left."

Gary shook his head again. "If he wanted revenge, he should have killed me first. It's my fault. It happened again, some months later, and I had to send him away. He was putting us in danger. We didn't need that kind of attention."

He stopped like the next words pained him. "I gave him something and then I snatched it back I gave him a family, a place to belong, and then I took it away." Gary stood up, then, turned to his car. "Damn. I think the valve cover's gone."

Dean recognized the trick: conversation over. He had to clench his hands so he didn't snap at Gary. Had to remind himself that Gary had lost close friends to this Matt. He breathed in slowly.

"There's something else I need to know. And you better give me a straight answer if you don't want me to pack and leave right now."

Gary's back tensed, but he was listening, so Dean didn't wait for an answer.

"Matt's using some kind of mojo." Dean touched his aching ribs reflexively, remembering the inhuman strength. "He's carving symbols left and right. He's got tattoos and believe me they're not the kind you find in the ink joint down the street. You know something about that?"

It took a long time for Gary to talk again. "The best explanation I can think of is a hunter. Matt was still here the month the hunter I told you about stayed with us. I tried to call him remember? When all this shit started to happen. I knew there was something weird going on."

A hunter. There was nothing accusing in Gary's words, but it wasn't necessary; Dean knew he and Sam could take responsibility for that by the simple fact that they belonged to the same group. He nodded sharply. He'd opened the eyes of countless civilians to the world of monsters and ghosts and demons. And the reactions were always different; it was bound to happen that someone would use the knowledge for the wrong reasons.

Gary shrugged. "I'm only guessing. I don't really know where he picked up these tricks. I don't know how he's doing it. He was getting tattoos already, though. You have to understand, Matt wasn't a freak, but he wanted badly to be one."

"Why?"

"Because he wanted to fit in. He wanted to be like us."

"You're being cryptic again, Gary. Did you see what Matt did to Sophie?"

"Christ, Dean…."

Dean let the man collect himself before pushing again. He talked to Gary's bent head. "I need to know how this man thinks if you want me to stop him. You do want me to stop him, right?"

Gary raised his head, eyes wet with tears. "I told you everything I can."

Not everything I know. Dean was ready to call Gary on his bullshit again, but Gary's next words shut him up.

"Yes, Dean, Matt has to be stopped," said Gary. "But there are things that aren't mine to say." Then, like an afterthought, "You need to ask Eva these questions."

Dean stared hard at Gary. "Okay. Sam's in town right now. I need to call him."

Gary nodded and sat again on the bumper. "Half a mile in the direction of the coast, there's a ledge of rock. I think you'll get some reception there."

-*-

The rain went back to a drizzle as soon as Dean left the town. Dean didn't mind, he was soaked through anyway, his boots so caked with mud he felt like they were bolted to the ground. Dean headed west, toward the coast, in the deep of the woods. It was treacherous terrain, all short shrubs and mounds of earth he had to dodge. Hell on his knee. But the walk maybe would clear his thoughts, the smell of salt water stronger and purer with each step.

He thought of Matt's victims. Gary had said that he'd taken something from Matt but hadn't said exactly what, damn him and his enigmatic answers. Next step would be understanding the role Eva played in all of this, but Dean didn't look forward to talking to her, which brought him back to the victims.

Dean didn't know if Matt had completed the ritual he was performing on Sophie's body, if she was one of Matt's ghosts, too. The idea of the victims being forced to stay with their killer after their gruesome deaths made his skin flush with rage.

The trail Dean was following ended in a fork and became two different trails that ran parallel through the woods. He stopped, unsure. In the distance to his left he could see the dark line of Pine Creek Road, a barely visible ribbon of asphalt.

Gary had said that he'd taken something from Matt, something that maybe Matt wanted back. Felt important. It was there, under the surface of thoughts becoming suddenly murky, but the more Dean tried to grasp it, the more it slipped away.

He huffed and took the trail at his left. The trees opened in a clearing not more than a hundred feet after the fork, a pond in the middle, the water still and green with slime and leaves.

He heard a splash, a heavy weight falling into water and he froze, hand to his gun. More noise came after a moment, a rhythmic splash. A swimmer. He walked closer. The water on the shoreline was clearer, not as murky as it had looked from the trail. Gray like the sky.

Eva saw him the same moment Dean recognized her. She waded to the water's edge lazily, like it was a summer's day, and not on the edge of winter, got out in front of him, completely naked and no sign of shame or discomfort on her face.

Dean made a point of not averting his gaze. "You shouldn't be out here all alone. It's dangerous."

She shrugged, stretched her arms at her sides, hands open, palms turned upward. Her skin was wrinkled from the water like she'd been in it for a long time. She shivered. "What do you think?"

Dean regarded her. He was angry, at Eva for being out here where Matt could kill her, and at himself for letting her confuse him with her strangeness. But he looked, like she'd asked, let his eyes linger on her body: full breast and dark aureoles, nipples erect from the cold, the skin around them puckered and raised.

She stood still under Dean's eyes, water up to her thighs, pubic hair black and wet, pale cock, soft and unexpected between her legs.

Dean's head snapped back up to her face.

Eva's face twisted into a sneer. Mouth drawn tight and downward, she stepped so close to Dean that water dripped from her hair onto his boots. A part of Dean's mind was aware that the forest had gone silent, the only sound now the gentle sloshing of the water on the shoreline, no birds, not even a breeze.

"Do you like me?" she asked.

"I think you're beautiful," Dean said, breathed it on her face, she was so close. Found it to be true the moment he said it.

She snorted, a puff of cold breath. "My father sold me in Vegas, since I was sixteen. Figured he'd get double for me, you know?

Dean felt his face redden in shock and revulsion. Fury. He wanted out of there. The clearing felt claustrophobic, the air sluggish, like he was inhaling mud. Hard to breathe in the face of the naked pain in her eyes. She dared him to say something with a tilt of her chin. Kept him rooted to the spot with her gaze.

"Have you ever been to Vegas?"

"Yes, I have."

"Did you like it? Bright lights, strippers and hookers at every corner. It smells of piss and vomit. I still smell it."

Dean mostly remembered the light of the stars and the yowls of the coyotes. Hunting at night in the desert and walking for miles and miles with sand in his boots.

Suddenly she took his hand, put it forcefully against her cock, palm first, the grip of her bony fingers surprisingly strong.

"Eva, no…"

"Do you want to fuck me, Dean?" She was soft, skin wet, cold from the lake water and her voice was low and scratchy like after a bad cold.

"Stop it, Eva-"

"Or maybe you want me to fuck you?" She raised an eyebrow, licked her lips in a parody of arousal, an obscene innuendo. "I can do that, too."

She was being cruel, and Dean had never felt more insulted. Scared too. He struggled to push down the memories, words that had been said before, and he didn't want to remember, couldn't. He had to fight the natural response of his body at being restrained, even though he knew he could break free of her fingers at any given moment.

"I'm not… I'm not that kind of man," he said in the end, all too aware of the fact that she was still pushing his hand against the unusual shape of her vagina.

She sighed, then, let his hand go. The fight went out of her, her shoulders slumped. Her attitude changed so fast, Dean's head spun and he staggered, swayed and had to spread his legs to find his center again.

"Then, tell me, Dean," she said like she meant it. "Tell me, what kind of man are you? Would you want to tell me who you are?"

She acted before he could react, raised her arm to his shirt, to the buttons at the collar. The tips of her fingers brushed slightly against the skin at his throat; he let her unfasten his shirt and it wasn't the first time a woman had undressed him, but it was the first time he'd felt like he was being bared.

The cuff of his shirt caught in his gun and he passed it on his left hand, gripped it awkwardly and loosely with his weak fingers, then it switched back to his right hand when she eased the shirt from his arm. A darker cloud rolled overhead, dimmed the light when she let his clothes slide on the ground.

Her hands were cold.

She took a step back.

Dean knew what he looked like: not even sideways glances at the mirror had kept him from knowing he looked like he'd gone through a slaughterhouse.

But she didn't comment on his body, following instead the thread of her own thoughts. "Matt," she said. "He saved me." She circled him. Her hand on his back made him flinch. She trailed it alongside his spine, followed a pattern there – curses and maledictions and screams and screams that burned his throat. His voice gone, burned too. Wouldn't ever be the same, no more than his body would.

"Who saved you?" she asked, fingered softly the skin on his flanks, the slick patches of burned skin the shape of a demon's palm, a handhold for when they'd – the single syllable of Sam's name said until it'd lost any meaning. But he'd been there. Afterward, when Dean stopped screaming, Sam had come.

"Sam," Dean stated. Quietly. And it came to him the same moment he said his brother's name that yes, Sam saved him. And he'd been doing that over and over, since Dean came back.

Eva sighed. "He wasn't the first, you know?"

"It happened every few months or so," she continued. "They'd look at me, some of the johns, and they'd say that they were going to save me. Looked damn earnest too with their dick deep in my cunt."

Dean flinched when her hand rested lightly on the jut of his hipbone. She ignored it. Ignored him.

"I believed them." Her voice dropped. "Every damned time."

She completed her circumnavigation and stopped in front of him, her face as hard and angry as ever. Dean counted the deeply carved lines around her eyes and brow, the downward slope of her mouth. She looked like she was a hundred years old, but she couldn't be older than Dean. Did he too look that old?

"They said they'd save me, take me to a wonderful place. They'd believe it, too. But Matt was the only one who did it."

She dragged air from her nose. A ragged sound. "I didn't want this to happen," she said, "but I couldn't. I… He saved me. He brought me here. To a wonderful place. And now, now he's taken Sophie... I should have stayed."

Dean bent his neck, stared at the ground. God – had she known all along?

"Tell me about him," Dean said, and it cost him putting together those words because she was staring at his chest, at the scars Dean avoided looking at, like she couldn't make sense of what she was seeing.

She flattened her palm against his heart. "Do you ever think that you should have stayed?"

"Stop, Eva." Christ. He had. He did. Some nights he looked at Sam while he slept and thought that maybe it would have been better if he had.

"Tell me about Matt, please."

She looked him straight in the eyes, nodded and took a step back, arms falling to her sides. The wood seemed to take a deep breath, as if it too was hanging onto something dangerous and dark.

"There's nothing to say," Eva said. "He saved me. When Gary kicked him out he asked me to go with him. I said no because he was sick, and violent. A rabid animal. End of the story." Every trace of sympathy she'd shown a moment before was now gone under the deep frown on her forehead.

Dean bent slowly, took his shirt and jacket from where Eva had let them fall on the ground, pulled them on while Eva too dressed, her back to him.

"But now he's killed Sophie." Matt had murdered many more, worse than murdered, but Dean had seen Sophie with Eva and he knew she'd been special to her. "Did you know? That it was Matt. Have you known all this time?"

She kept dressing, a checkered shirt and a thick sweater, solid boots she left untied.

"No," she said. "I didn't know the bastard was Matt." She turned abruptly and went the way Dean had arrived. Left her words hanging in mid-air with the strength of her hate.

-*-

Traffic intensified when Sam got closer to Florence, cars everywhere and people, and it was disconcerting, all that noise, after Mabel. He navigated the streets slowly, careful of Dean's car, circled twice around the block until he found a parking spot big enough for the Impala, even though it was a good fifty feet away from the only diner Sam had spotted.

He ran there without even bothering to avoid the rain, stopped on the threshold and the heat coming from inside was shocking. He'd been cold for so long.

He shook the rain from his hair and tried to straighten his jacket. A lost cause: he hadn't had a shower since the morning before and his clothes were damp, his boots dirty. He could feel the scratches on his face pulling at the skin where they'd closed. Ding-dong chime when he closed the door and the waitress looked up at him from behind the counter.

Brown hair, gray at her temples. She raised an eyebrow, eyes fixed on Sam's clothes and Sam resisted the impulse to flatten his wild hair. He left boot-sized prints of mud all over the floor to the booth in the farthest corner.

He opened his laptop and booted it, found a wireless connection at his first try. He needed to call Bobby, but first he wanted to check on something. He put the pictures he'd taken on the table; the first one, barely visible inside the dead hiker's thigh, the one of the carved tree, and last the one of Sophie's back. The smell of food tickled his nose and he felt nauseated.

The symbols were all similar but not identical because Matt had carved them each on a different canvas. He copied it onto a new page in his notebook. Two curved halves and in the middle a thick line that split into two shorter segments on one end. He drew a perfect circle around it.

He looked at it. A butterfly enclosed in a circle and Sam smiled: apparently he'd known all along. He hit the search engine.

Sam was absorbed in reading when his cell rang. He answered automatically without checking who the caller was. Dean's voice came over scratchy and stilted. Sam shifted on the seat, suddenly alarmed.

"Dean? What happened?"

"Calm down, Sam, everything's good." Sam only caught 'Sam' and 'good', and a weird evenness in Dean's tone that belied the words.

"I can't hear you very well." Sam pressed the phone into his ear as if that was enough to make Dean's voice clearer. His ear hurt against the plastic edge of the phone.

"I know, man. Had to walk a mile before this piece of crap gave a sign of life. Fuck!"

"What's up, Dean?"

"I talked to Gary. He knows the killer. Matt Caldwell. He lived with them for some years, three, maybe four. Gary says he was violent: they had to send him away."

Sam wrote the name beside the symbol. "Did Gary say anything else?"

"Yes. Sam. 'S why I called you. Matt spent time with a hunter four years ago. I'm thinking he picked up some tricks."

A hunter. Probably the same one Miss Violetta was talking about.

"Okay," Sam said.

A tickle of static. "I can't hear you, Sam."

"Dean, hear me out. I know what the symbol is."

"The symbol?"

"Yeah. It's a mandala." He talked in a rush, afraid he'd lose the connection. "It's Sanskrit. It isn't inherently bad. It's used to connect the spirit to a place, often a house, the conscious to the unconscious. But he's modified it."Bent it backward into something evil. "Dean… do you hear me?"

Dean's voice was broken, scattered psychedelic light. "Yes, yes. Go on," he was saying.

"I think he's using it to trap the souls of his victims." Silence, only Dean's breath came over on a suddenly clear connection. "Dean? Do you remember what Orlando said?"

"Yeah, I do," Dean said, after only a moment of hesitation. Sam cursed softly. The waitress chose that moment to collect his order and Sam glared at her. She answered with a scowl of her own and Sam mouthed 'coffee and 'muffin'.

"I think he was seeing her ghost," he said to Dean. One of the victims. Dr. Kesbit had said Orlando was mourning.

The silence went on for so long that Sam thought the connection had fallen. He stood up, swore loudly and this time the waitress said something but Sam didn't gave a fuck. Then Dean's voice came again and Sam molded himself back into the booth.

"Fuck! Fuck, Sam. I think I know what he's doing."

"What?" he asked, kind of quiet considering the way Dean's distress was hitting him.

"… I think he's taking back his people, the ones he liked best. We need to free them," Dean said and there was something raw in his voce that made Sam flinch. He had to force his muscles to relax, followed the waitress' movements when she brought him his coffee and a brown muffin.

"Do you know how to free them?" Dean asked after a long while.

"I think I do." But it was a lie. He only had a vague idea and he should research it more, but the need to be close to Dean was trumping everything else. He eyed his notes. "I'm done here. I'm coming back. You… just stay put, okay? Wait for me. I'll figure something out on the way back. Okay, Dean?"

"Okay, Sam," Dean said and that simple capitulation was enough to speed up Sam's heart.

-*-

Sam spotted Dean as soon as he drove into town. He was standing still at the other end of the road, the trees at his back and heedless of the rain. Sam had to force himself not to press the accelerator and drive straight through the muddy road and to Dean. Instead, he parked on a patch of grass-covered soil, bracing against the cold before he stepped into the rain himself.

Dean didn't move, not even when Sam walked to him. He was staring at the ground, chin tucked against his neck. Sam stopped a couple of feet away, took in Dean's soaked clothes and hair. He called Dean but Dean didn't answer and didn't move for a long time. Sam waited for him, patient. Covered Dean's back while Dean was… away.

"Hey, Dean," Sam said softly when Dean's head snapped up. Confusion and recognition played one after the other, before Dean's face cleared of its frown.

"Hey," Dean said finally. "That was fast."

It had been. Sam had probably broken every traffic law and regulation on his way back to Mabel. "You said to hurry."

"I think I know what Matt wants," Dean said. He turned to the woods. "Gary told me he's pissed off because he snatched something from him. And I know what it was. Who." He scrubbed his hair with a hand. Water fell in droplets on his jacket.

"Okay. Okay, but why don't we go inside to talk. It's freezing here."

"Uh? No. No. We need to talk to Gary." He started to walk and Sam grabbed his arm. He tensed when Dean did, the memory of the night before too recent. But Dean relaxed at once and Sam let him go slowly.

"What happened, Dean?"

"I… I met Eva in the woods. She is…" Dean shut his mouth.

"She's what?"

"She's the next one," Dean said firmly. "Matt's gonna go after her."

Dean started pacing, two short steps up and two down before he stopped in front of Sam, arms loose at his side, palms up as though he were surrendering. His shirt, the suede one, looked nearly black it was so wet, the tails heavy with mud like he'd dragged it over the ground. Dean had missed at least three button holes and had actually buttoned half the shirt to his jacket.

Jesus. Sam had only been gone for a couple of hours.

Sam took a deep breath. "Dean, why don't we go inside and then you'll tell me what you think Matt's going to do?"

Dean shook his head. "No, no, we've got to stop the fucker before he does anything. This is why I need to talk to Gary.

"Haven't you already?"

Dean jerked his head up, stared at Sam with a frown. "Fuck, Sam. Aren't you listening? Of course I did."

"Okay, okay." Sam raised his arms. "You aren't making a lot of sense, Dean. Why do you want to talk to Gary if you think Matt is going after Eva?"

"God, Sam I know. It's just. Christ, I don't know. I think he's gonna kill Gary, not Eva, but he wants Eva back. Jesus, Sam. I know what he's doing."

Sam dared a touch, a brief brush of his fingertips against the fabric of Dean's jacket but Dean didn't flinch, didn't move, and Sam curved his fingers around Dean's bicep, made the touch a true one.

"Would you tell me what's going on?"

"Bastard's getting his family back," Dean said and the word family came out broken in the middle. "The binding ritual and the…What did you call it?"

"A mandala ."

"Yeah. That. That's what he's using it for. The dead hikers were a coincidence, that's what was confusing me, but he's kept them, too, the fucking bastard."

"How do we stop him?" Sam asked.

"Did you find a way to cut those ghosts loose?"

Sam had, on his way back. "I'm guessing killing the mojo bag will be a starting point." That had to be it. "But he's carved symbols on his body, too. I don't think it will be enough."

Dean nodded. "Then we burn the mojo bag, and we kill him. Will that be enough to free the ghosts? "

"Yes, Dean. It will, don't worry."

Dean looked away, swallowed. After a moment he seemed to gather himself. "Good… yeah, let's find Gary."

-*-

There was a reason why Dean had stopped under the rain at the edge of town. And he was suddenly reminded of it when he tried walking. A step that was mostly a wobble, bones made of rain. But Sam hovered close, always at his elbow, and Dean leaned into him.

They didn't find Gary, though. Behind the generator, the hood of his pick-up still open and exposed to the chilled air, tools scattered around it, like Gary had been interrupted in the middle of a job. They asked around, but nobody had seen him since the funeral.

"Fucking idiot, he's gone after him," Dean snapped and he should have known.

"What now?" said Sam.

"We keep looking. We should separate, you go--"

"No," Sam said. Stopped suddenly. Six feet and a hundred miles of stubbornness. But it hadn't been the possessive, half-crazy 'no' Sam had used many times in the last months, more a request, a veil of fear over it Dean got only too well. Dean had no problem accepting it.

"Okay."

They walked along the main road, from start to end. They were at the old school, right at the edge of the ghost town, when Dean heard a crashing noise. He glanced at Sam. He'd heard, too.

They approached slowly, without trying to hide – the space in front of the building was empty, a desolate open ground littered with shrubs and blackberry bushes – the front door a black hole, like an open mouth. They stopped this side of the threshold, Dean on one side, Sam on the other. Positions assumed smoothly and easily, like the old times, and something that had been heavy and strung out till now unraveled in Dean's stomach.

Voices were coming from inside, too far away to discern words. The entryway trailed cold air outside and against his face. He nodded to Sam and went inside, gun cocked.

The wall of what must have been a corridor had caved in, leaning into one of the former classrooms: they had to climb over it, the wood so rotten that it splintered under their boots. It made a dull sound in the emptiness, and the voices coming from ahead stopped.

There wasn't any need to be stealthy anymore. Dean moved ahead, Sam so close behind he could feel the warmth of his body against his back, the rush of his calm breath across his neck. The corridor opened on a larger room that smelled strongly of gasoline. Dean saw the empty tank discarded in a corner. It hadn't been a bad idea. Still foolish, though, and now dangerous. The walls were dripping with it.

He looked around. Light and rain streamed inside from the far side of the room where a wall had crumbled inward and a tree had grown up in its space.

Matt had trapped Gary in a corner. His rifle lay on the ground, broken in half.

"Hey," Dean said as loud as he could. Matt turned and Dean saw he had a hand around Gary's throat. In the other, dangling loose from his fingers, a knife glinted dully.

Matt was even more impressive in the light. The tattoos covered a large part of his exposed skin, lines and symbols that stopped at his neck. Long dirty hair tied in a ponytail.

"Let him go."

Matt bent his head at Dean's order. He furrowed his brow in irritation then ground his arm against Gary's throat. Gary whined, low and voiceless. Jesus, he was going to crush Gary's windpipe against his arm and into the wall.

Dean could have taken the shot, then. A small pressure on the trigger and he'd blow Matt's head off, then hope it'd be enough to free the ghosts. He stole a glance at Sam who shook his head. Dean dared to take a step forward and Matt raised his knife in reply. He smiled around blackened teeth, and Dean froze, glanced at Gary. His face had gone deep red and he was slack in Matt's hold.

A fucking standoff. They needed a distraction.

Dean hadn't even finished the thought when he got his wish. The wall left of Matt exploded in planks and splinters and Orlando crashed through it. Dean dove to his right just in time to avoid the tumble of their bodies. He fell hard amidst tables and chairs. Something ripped at his stomach and he grunted, felt the burn within seconds.

"Dean!" Sam shouted, desperate enough to clear Dean's head. He raised his arm or tried to. Pushed at the rubble he'd fallen upon until he could see Sam again and Sam could see him. It had gotten so cold his breath was condensing in white puffs, and then the ghosts arrived, detached from the walls in tattered clothes like set props on a fucking TV show.

Orlando and Matt were plummeting on the ground, Matt dwarfed and hidden by Orlando's size, but it was Matt who shook Orlando off, discarded him like he weighed nothing. And Dean wondered what kind of magic the bastard had learned that made him so strong.

Matt stood straight, in the center of the room, suddenly immobile like a frozen frame. Above his shoulder Dean saw Eva, close to the opening of what must have been a window but was now a caved-in wall. She stood a step outside the room and even from where Dean was, he could see her face, that familiar mix of terrible rage and fragility.

"Eva," Matt called, the name pronounced softly like Matt was thirsty and starved and her name was fresh water and bread.

Eva stepped inside then and the shift in shadows revealed her hands and long fireplace matches in them.

"Come back with me," Matt said. "Please, Eva. I'll keep you safe."

He moved toward her and Dean aimed his gun, saw Sam doing the same but Sam was standing back against one of the walls and Dean felt a swell of pride, something he couldn't call relief but which was close enough. He met Sam's eyes, clear and hazel and calm, between them Matt, who'd taken center stage, like the friggin' freak he was, all tattooed and covered in crusted blood.

"I'm not coming with you," Eva said finally.

Dean tensed when he saw Matt raise his hand, but he only snapped his fingers, a sharp click and the ghosts stepped, glided – whatever the fuck ghosts did that made them move – up close to Matt. They formed a circle around him, but even through the translucent veil of their bodies Dean could see Eva, Sam on the other side.

Orlando made a pained sound, a long whine, a murmur, a name distinguishable, Sarah. One of the ghosts turned to look at him slowly. It turned itself stiffly as if it couldn't move from its spot, as if the ground had roots and was keeping it trapped. Dean couldn't see its face but he saw Orlando's and Dean knew mourning when he saw it.

"Orlando can come, too," Matt said, like it was a fucking' leisure trip he was inviting people to. "We'll be happy again. You can trust me, Eva. I saved you once. I saved you. I can do it again." He turned to the ghosts and Dean saw them shrinking from his touch.

"I'm not coming with you," Eva said, a scared little girl in her voice; then she broke. Dean saw it happening from his position on the floor, saw the moment she resolved and he wanted to tell her to stop, wait, but he couldn't move, caught amidst the rubble. He tried to stand, but he couldn't.

Matt moved again, the ghosts with him in a synchronized surge of twined limbs, captives of Matt's obsession, and everything became a whirl, too fast to make sense of. Dean focused on Sam's form, saw him step in front of Matt, shotgun lowered, arm outstretched.

"I thanked you once," Eva said and threw her lit matches to the gasoline-soaked wood.

Matt, rooted to the spot, kept staring at Eva, immobile even while Sam ripped away the mojo bag from his neck and threw it into the flames.

Dean saw his opening, aimed at Matt's head. Shot. A true center that made Matt stagger forward and stumble and fall on the ground with a thud that vibrated under Dean's boots.

Fire spread from the wood, sparked and hissed when it met water, but Gary had done a good job and fire won the battle. A curtain of flames rose fast, red and orange and close, so close, Dean could touch it. The heat was a shocking contrast to the frozen air.

Sam's hands on him were soft. Sam's eyes were wide and clear when he helped him to stand.

"Go," Sam shouted in his ear and Dean let Sam help him to stand and let Sam lead him outside and only turned to look back once, saw the ghosts fading away to mist and dissipating, and Matt's body in the middle of the room a moment before a burning beam fell on him.

-*-

Sam had stopped worrying about Orlando and Gary and the ghosts, about Eva, the moment he'd thrown the mojo bag into the fire. His eyes were only on Dean and the fire between them, and it was so hot until his hands closed around Dean's biceps and everything settled down easy and smooth.

He helped Dean outside, coughed up smoke when his lungs inhaled fresh air and there were people coming up to them, but he could only focus on Dean's weight against his forearm, the reassuring heaving of his chest as he, too, expelled smoke.

Someone asked him if he was all right and he said yes, recognized the 'serpent man' from the party the night before, and Dean was a solid weight beside him. Sam's hands were trembling.

They stayed there, he and Dean, kneeling in the mud and looking at the fire and when Dean sighed and looked at Sam and said, "It won't burn for long," Sam laughed and said, "I know."

-*-

But it was another storm that drowned the fire. Sam heard of it while he was helping some of the men from Mabel to pack, the news traveling from mouth to mouth like a relieved sigh. Sam smiled to Henry – the 'serpent man' – while he helped him lift a huge wooden crate onto Gary's pick-up.

And then they were done and it was dawn and Sam's hair smelled of wet smoke and sweat, but he didn't care. He looked at Dean from the window of the cookhouse and saw him walking toward the old school, but his steps were light, felt light and Sam turned around, found Dr. Kesbit staring at him at the other end of the room.

"I asked your brother if he needed tending," he said, "but he said you'd already taken a look at him."

"It was just a scratch," Sam said and it was, but Sam had left his hands linger on the wound as he'd dressed it and Dean hadn't shied away.

The Doctor nodded. "I came to ask for your help, actually. Miss Violetta needs to be brought downstairs and she asked if you would perhaps be willing to help her."

"Okay," Sam said, and followed him upstairs to Miss Violetta's room without another word.

Sam found Miss Violetta in the same spot he'd seen her the last time and he knew it was absurd, but it looked like she'd never moved since then. Only her face tracked the passing of time, the crinkles around her eyes deeper, the corners of her mouth strained. Sam knew mourning when he saw it.

She smiled. "Thank you for agreeing to help me," she said.

"How do you want to do this," Sam asked, suddenly at a loss for words and action. Had she had legs and arms, he would have known what to do, but carrying her, he realized, required a sort of intimacy that was making Sam nervous.

She raised an eyebrow. "Oh, Sam. You are truly cute, you know that?"

"Sorry, " said Sam, hoped he wasn't blushing. "Are you ready?" he asked and when she nodded, he bent to pick her up. She was doll-frail in his arms, and he walked carefully toward the stairs embarrassed by the bad smell coming off his shirt with Miss Violetta breathing so close to it.

"Did you consider my offer?" she asked when Sam stopped at the first ramp.

Sam hadn't. "No, no. Sorry."

"I understand." She nodded close to his neck. "I had to ask, though. You and your brother would have been a great addition to our community."

Sam didn't know what to say so he said nothing. He didn't want to stay, but they would have fit in, he and Dean, she was right.

Outside, she directed him to a black Dodge almost gray with dirt whose trunk was open. Closer, the small figure of Dr. Kesbit appeared and they both helped position Miss Violetta in the back seat.

Sam was ready to say goodbye, but she commanded his silence when he opened his mouth and he stared at her. Her eyes were alight when they looked into his.

"See?" she said very slowly, "I don't need my own legs to walk."

-*-

Smoke was curling lazily from the rubble of the old school, but it was dispersed by the rain. A fine drizzle again. Dean had had enough of Oregon's idea of spring, even though it served them: he didn't think the rangers had noticed the fire.

Dean toed at the smoking coals with the tip of his boots.

Someone walked behind him.

"We're ready to go," Gary said, voice still shot to hell because of the smoke he'd inhaled the night before. He stopped at Dean's side and stared at the ruins.

"I'm sorry," Dean said.

Gary shook his head. "No. No, Dean. You did good." Dean couldn't help the jump of his heart. Something close to joy. He'd saved these people.

"I owe you and your brother. Matt…. Matt was my mistake. I should have realized it earlier."

Two beams fell on each other, then settled. Dean thought of Matt. He must have been a possessive son of a bitch by nature. Covetous – of Eva, and the people they'd called 'family'. I gave him something and then I took it back, Gary had said. So Matt had taken what he thought was his. Dean would never know what kind of mistake Gary was talking about. He was sure there was a lot that he was missing, details he was all right not knowing. Matt and Gary and Orlando – Eva. All of them, tied together by loss and pain. Expectations that hadn't been met. He hoped Gary and his people would come to terms with their own.

They walked side by side toward a group of cars and pick-ups gathered at the edge of town. Dusty, muddied and old, holding together against all expectations.

The people had packed fast. He saw the kids in one of the cars, Robbie was the only one who smiled when he saw Dean. Dean hoped they'd sheltered him from the truth. Four years old was too young to understand loss.

He searched for Sam, found him bent almost in half as he talked with someone inside an old black Dodge.

He thrust his phone number into Gary's hand. "Call me if you need anything," he said. "There's another number in case I can't answer. Name's Bobby Singer. You can trust him with everything."

Gary took the slip of paper and put it in the front pocket of his jeans. He nodded and turned without saying anything else – there was nothing to say.

Everybody was settled and ready to go. Orlando, crammed into the passenger's seat of Gary's pick-up, looked even bigger, but his face was relaxed for the first time since Dean had known him.

They'd done good, at least for Orlando. They'd done good.

Sam walked beside him, stood close by his side, and Dean felt his warmth even through his jacket. The noise of the engines firing was deafening in the calm of dawn, and exhaust trailed from Gary's pick-up when he revved the gas.

Somehow, Dean was sure that that old pick-up would take Gary to whatever their destination was.

When the trailer passed by them the plastic curtain behind a window opened to Eva's white face. She wore dark lipstick that looked almost black, the frown absent from her brow like she'd finally figured something out. She didn't wave, just stared at them until the trailer's angle hid the window and her face from their sight.

"You never said what went on between you and Eva," Sam said, his casualness too forced to be sincere.

Dean shrugged. "Wasn't important."

The cars were making slow progress on the muddy road.

"You ready?" Sam asked after a while.

"Yeah." He followed Sam to the car, eased into the driver's seat. It wasn't much warmer inside, but it was dry enough for Dean to shiver at the change in temperature. He huddled into his jacket. The town, behind the windshield, showed no sign that something had happened there, that people had lived in some of the houses. Only the thin trails of smoke rising from the ashes testified that something had gone on, and that too would soon dissipate with the wind and the rain.

"Oregon sucks in spring," Dean said when Sam came inside.

Sam closed the door, smiled. "Yeah."

Dean caressed the wheel with his palms. The car smelled good, of leather and gun power and Sam.

"Hey, Sam," he called as he revved the engine.

Sam was staring at him, but Dean didn't turn, kept his eyes fixed outside.

"I never, you know. I never said thank you."

"What about?"

Dean waited a beat for Sam to realize what Dean was talking about.

"God... Dean, no," Sam said.

Dean raised his hand, palm up, fingers splayed. He surprised himself with how calm he sounded. "Sam, let me talk, okay?"

Dean risked a glance in his direction. Sam's lips were pressed together like he had to force the words back inside.

"It's not only about that. I'm… glad." Fuck. It came to him right there, that he was. He was glad to be alive and glad Sam had brought him back.

He nodded, to the road and Sam both. The wheel under his palms had gone reassuringly warm.

"I'm glad you brought me back," he said, more firmly this time, a statement of fact.

Sam's voice was scratchy when he spoke. He swallowed. "Me too," he said.

Good. They could go on from that, figure out the rest later.

Dean eased the Impala slowly into one of the muddied drives that led up toward the paved road.

Sun glinted off the rearview mirror, blinded him for a moment. Dean glanced up, saw light poking straight through two clouds.

Maybe it would stop raining by the time they hit the highway.

--