At least this time he hadn’t had to dig himself out of a grave...but there was an unpleasant feeling of déjà vu at finding himself once more in the dark, surrounded by trees that hadn’t been there a moment ago…
No red eyes lurking in the perimeter of his vision, though, which was a definite improvement.
Still, he moved cautiously, not really believing he’d escaped until there was a sudden shift in the low-hanging clouds and brilliant moonlight pierced the branches. Dean’s knees went weak and he sagged against the closest trunk.
There’d been no moon in Purgatory. He was really out.
He collapsed into the dirt of the forest floor, his back to the tree, and for the first time in a very, very long time Dean allowed himself to fall into a real sleep.
Food, drink, and transportation were the priorities when the sun woke Dean, but before he started moving he simply stood, listening to the trills and chirps of a perfectly normal woodland. He’d given up hope of ever seeing the sun again, and he savored its radiance and warmth before his stomach rumbled.
He’d gotten used to the chronic hunger pangs, but now, with the possibility of satiating them, they were annoyingly insistent about being addressed.
With no horizon to give him any clue as to where he was, Dean simply started walking east, toward the sun. The fresh green of the undergrowth seemed spring-like, which meant he’d either been gone a very short time—or a whole year. Stripping handfuls of leaves off the lower branches, he sucked the dew to moisten his mouth. Not nearly enough to kill his thirst, but it was a damn sight better than the sludge he’d been reduced to slurping…
The trees abruptly ended at a two-lane road with a farmer’s field on the other side. Follow the road, or cut through the field in search of a house?
The decision was made for him by the rumble of a battered pickup coming around a curve. Dean stepped into the road to flag it down. The chatter of a half-dozen laborers piled in it stopped as the driver pulled over.
"Um, I need a ride...and some water, uh, agua?" He made a gesture of drinking.
Dean couldn't follow the rapid conversation in Spanish, but the hand-wave motioning him to the back of the truck was clear. He clambered over the tailgate, and one of the younger men passed him a bottle of water. Dean gulped it down, it was better than a shot of Johnny Walker Blue right now.
The teen who’d handed him the water asked Dean in English where he was headed.
“Anywhere…I don’t know the area,” he hedged. “I kinda had a run of bad luck…”
By the end of the ride, Dean was part of the day laborers’ construction crew. At the end of the day, with seventy dollars in his pocket, he had the driver leave him at the first motel they passed on the way back.
A cheap room had never seemed more luxurious—running water, an actual mattress, towels, even if well-worn—it was overwhelming. Dean didn’t know whether to fall on the bed or hop in the shower first. He settled on the shower, grimacing at the gaunt, bearded face he saw in the mirror. First thing tomorrow he would get a razor. And a haircut. He looked like Sam with hair catching on the collar of his shirt.
It was suddenly harder to enjoy the rush of water getting him clean. Dean knew where he was now, the outskirts of Lewisburg, Tennessee…but Sam could be anywhere. And there wasn’t a Bobby to keep tabs on his brother now.
Staying alive had been his goal for so long, and he’d been so focused on just being out of Purgatory for a whole day that he hadn’t given a thought to the future. Suddenly Dean wanted to collapse with the realization that he was still alone…in a less actively unfriendly environment, but there was no place for him to rest, no one for him to contact…He pushed those thoughts back down, returning to survival mode. Food would be next.
Putting his filthy clothes back on was disgusting, but he didn’t have any options. He knew everyone in the next-door diner was staring at him, and the waitress was barely civil, but he didn’t care for the sheer heaven of a hot, greasy cheeseburger, fries, and pie. He was able to push all other concerns to the side while he concentrated on each bite.
He picked up a local paper on his way out…It had been a year. That was going to make finding Sam that much harder, dammit.
They’d boosted so many cars those last months chasing Dick Roman that it took less than a minute for Dean to have a ride in the morning. He’d decided to head to Rufus’ cabin in Montana. Maybe he’d get lucky, find Sam there…he didn’t really believe that, though. That wasn’t the way Winchester luck ran.
Money was going to be a problem, he didn’t have enough left from his day’s work to use as a stake in a poker or pool game. He noted with annoyance that the piece-of-crap Toyota he’d borrowed was almost out of gas. He didn’t want to use the last of his cash on a fill-up…
The tow truck parked in a Biggerson’s lot gave him an idea, and he circled around to pull in alongside it. Forty-five minutes later he spied his opportunity, and he pulled the tow truck ahead of a Lexus pulled on the shoulder of I40. The suited driver paused from his cellphone conversation to accuse Dean of taking long enough; Dean ignored him and quickly hitched the Lexus up, then gestured the man to the cab of the truck, where Dean had to listen to the jerk ream out a lower clerk in the pecking order for scheduling some meeting or other at an inconvenient time.
Finally the man closed his phone, only to start complaining at Dean about the lousy service from the roadside assistance company.
By this time Dean was thoroughly annoyed and not concerned with playing along.
“Not from Triple A. Saw you stranded, figured to get some business on my own.”
“What the hell?” As the businessman started to dial his cell, Dean simply reached over and flipped it out his window.
“You’re still getting towed to the next town, ‘s’no big deal. You just gotta pay cash instead a using your credit card.” Dean waited while the man sputtered. “I can just drop you off here if that’s a problem,” and he started to pull over.
“I’ll pay you!” the man squawked, “And then I’m going to get your license revoked and have you thrown in jail!”
“Jail ain’t got nothing on where I’ve been, just get your wallet out, the exit’s in two miles. Two hundred,” Dean added.
When the businessman froze with the money in his hand, obviously unable to actually hand it over, Dean simply reached over and pulled it from the man’s fingers. He stopped the tow truck at the bottom of the exit ramp. “Service station’s not far, you can walk. I’ll leave your car right here.”
At the incredulous look he got, Dean shook his head. “Did you think I was just gonna drive right up so you could call the cops? Do I look that stupid? Now get moving and be glad I think your car isn’t worth the trouble of stealing it.”
Dean ditched the truck twenty minutes later, and with a new ride, a battered Ford Taurus station wagon, headed back to the highway.
By the time he’d reached the cabin, he thought he’d steeled himself for disappointment. But there must have been a little hope hiding in a corner of his mind, judging by how his body sagged at the sight of the dusty, deserted living room.
“Aw, Sammy, where are you?” The words out of his mouth, Dean was seized with an icy dread. He’d just assumed…He’d asked Cass, during one of the angel’s infrequent fly-bys—“because it’s too dangerous for us to stay together, Dean”—if Sam had been blown to Purgatory too, and Cass had cocked his head with that ‘not here’ look in his eyes, and after a moment pronounced that Sam was not present.
Dean had never considered then, any other scenario than Sam being left behind in the Sucracorp building…and that Sam would have gotten himself and Kevin out and safe and then focused that gigantor brain on getting Dean back.
Which, hey, Dean knew from all their searching for Purgatory in the past, would have been one impossible job. Which is why he felt no guilt for the compromises he’d made to get himself out.
But now the enormity of trying to find his brother after a year in a world where all their contacts had been wiped away hit him like the proverbial ton of bricks and Dean blindly collapsed in the nearest chair.
It was dark when his bladder and his stomach woke him up, equally demanding attention. He took care of the easy problem first, then checked the refrigerator and cabinets. The half-carton of milk and the small amount remaining in an orange juice bottle were at least a year beyond salvageable; and he didn’t need to open the lunch meat to know how rank it would smell. The handful of frozen dinners and the frozen pizza, though, should be edible even if old, Dean figured, and after determining the gas oven still worked, he put the pizza in to heat.
There was a six-pack of beer in the pantry; warm beer was better than nothing. “Coulda left a bottle of Jack,” he muttered, mostly to break the silence.
If he’d brought one lesson back from Purgatory, it was to focus on the moment when there was something other than running, so Dean deliberately concentrated on chewing and swallowing every bite of the mediocre pizza. Only when it was gone did he allow himself to think on what next.
He began with a thorough search of the cabin, looking for any trace of Sam or anything that might help Dean locate him. The best he came up with were some newspapers from ten months ago and a couple of old cellphones. So someone had been here after Dean’d been chucked into Purgatory—someone who’d cleaned up but also intended to return, else why leave stuff in the fridge. Dean knew his brother would have left the place clean, but that was a very slender thread to tie hope to…and the newspaper-reader hadn’t come back after all, which pretty much unraveled that thread anyway.
Dean plugged the cellphones in to charge, grabbed one of the beers he had put in the fridge to chill, and, before he laid down on the couch, put fresh salt lines around.
He’d been alone in Purgatory but too busy staying alive to feel it. Now, though, back where he should have belonged, there was no one…no one to whom it mattered that Dean was back among the living. Right now he missed Bobby more than when Bobby’d first died…Not having him for home base disoriented Dean more than he expected.
He had to believe Sam was out there somewhere, but it was an awfully big country when he didn’t have a starting point for a year’s cold search…Well, there were still monsters here, he was positive they all hadn’t disappeared while he’d been…out of town. So he’d just have to reintroduce himself to the monster community. There was still space in Purgatory.
Breakfasting on handfuls of stale cereal out of the box, Dean was scrolling down the contact lists in the recharged phone the next morning when a name jumped out at him.
He wanted to jump into the craptastic Ford and head out immediately, but took the time to shower and pack some supplies. He found an old duffel to fill with containers of holy water and rock salt, and was more than a little relieved to find a pistol and a couple silver knives had been left in the weapons closet. And a couple of his old shirts, a jacket, and a pair of jeans in a drawer.
Dean turned back at the front door to grab a piece of paper.
Sam—Got back around May 20. Heading to Sioux Falls to see Sheriff Mills. Using cell 708-555-6092.
It was a long twenty hours across Montana and North Dakota with nothing to distract him from the repetitive whirlpool of his thoughts—Would Jody even still be there? And why would he think she’d know where Sam was? And what shape would Sam be in after a year on his own? There was no question in Dean’s mind that Sam would have tried to find him…but he dreaded hearing that Sam had gone off on another obsessive quest.
What if Sam had given up, written Dean off as lost forever.
Like he’d accepted, eventually, that Sam wouldn’t be coming back from the cage.
Would that be so bad? What would he do if it turned out that Sam had gotten out of hunting?
He nearly turned the car around then, actually pulled over before he could talk himself down. If Sam was out, well, that was good.
With or without his brother, Dean was a hunter.
A damn good one.
And if Sam wasn’t one anymore, Dean would be okay with that.
Sioux Falls hadn’t changed, and Dean had to decide whether to look for Sheriff Mills at the station or at her house. Or keep driving…No, he’d give it one shot. If she was still here, at least one person would know Dean Winchester was still kicking.
The mailbox still said ‘Mills.’ Dean parked and waited. At seven-forty a car pulled into the driveway. As a uniformed Jody headed up her front stairs, Dean forced himself to call after her.
He was surprised that she whirled around with her gun out.
“Who…You can’t be…Dean?”
Hands out, unthreatening, Dean walked halfway up the driveway.
“Uh, yeah, it’s me. Really.” He waited, but she just kept staring at him. “You know the drill? I’ll just wait here, you can get the holy water…” He stopped as she cautiously approached him.
A foot away, she stopped. “What did Bobby pour on Rufus Turner’s grave?”
“Johnny Walker Blue…”
The Sheriff’s gun lowered. “Where the hell have you been for the last year?!”
“I…uh!” Dean didn’t have the breath to say more as five-feet of khaki collided with his chest.
“Oh my god!” For a frozen moment Dean didn’t know what to do, then instinctively he hugged Jody back.
“Oh god, oh god!” There were tears on Jody’s cheeks. “Sam! Does he know? Have you seen him?”
Dean’s throat was unexpectedly tight in response to Jody’s reaction.
Someone remembered him.
She was tugging him up the stairs as he answered. “I don’t know where Sam is.”
“I’ve got to call him!” Jody had her phone out immediately, but Dean put his hand over it before she could dial.
“Jody, I don’t know if that’s a good idea…”
She looked at Dean with disbelief. “What do you mean?”
They were in her house now. “Just…Do you know what’s Sam’s been doing? I don’t want to just crash back in on him…”
“Sam thinks you’re dead. We all thought you were dead. You and Cass just vanished when Dick Roman exploded! Sam went crazy trying to figure out what happened to you…You were just gone! He couldn’t find out from anyone…anything…He finally decided…hoped…you were at peace…And he stopped hunting, settled down. I’ve got to let him know!”
“No, Jody, if he’s out, then I don’t want to drag him back in.”
“Dean Winchester, you are an idiot.” Jody pulled her hand free and started dialing.
“Wait, just tell me where he is, I’ll go…”
“Hi Sam, it’s Jody. Your brother just showed up at my front door…No, I didn’t…No, I’m sure it’s him…Because he’s being an idiot and didn’t want me to call you. Yes, I’ll keep him here…Okay, I’ll holy-water-and-salt him, and then I’ll handcuff him to the radiator if I have to. Right. Eight hours, then.” She ended the call and glared. “Dean Winchester, don’t you even think about leaving. You’re going to sit down and drink your holy water and then I’m making you something to eat and you’re going to tell me where the hell you’ve been for the last twelve months making your brother…and me…crazy.”
One meal of mac-and-cheese, two beers, and a long story later, Jody was yawning. Sam wouldn’t get there for another four hours. “Don’t even think about it,” she snapped at the end of it. “I wasn’t kidding when I told Sam I’d handcuff you if I have to.”
Dean raised his hands in surrender. “You can go to bed, I won’t leave.”
“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” she replied. “Not that I don’t trust you, but I’m not taking any chances.”
“Tell me what Sam’s been up to, then.”
She yawned again. “He was totally lost for a while. Blamed himself for not moving fast enough to grab you…or go with you. Either one. I know he tried a lot of different things to find you…Between the two of us, we went through every one of Bobby’s books. But he didn’t know where you were.” Her face softened. “It was really hard for Sam to stop, to give up…He was pretty bereft. It was a good thing that he met someone right then, she helped him keep going.”
“Sam has a girl?”
“Had. For a while. Amelia. Helped him get stable, start moving forward. It’s what you have to do…” Her voice trailed off. Dean knew what she was remembering.
He waited a few moments, then, “If he’s settled now, well, I don’t want to mess his life up. I know I’m going to keep hunting…it’s what I do, what I am now. I pulled Sam back once before, but he’s done enough.” He stood. “I need to go.”
Jody was up in an instant, right in his face. “Don’t. You. Dare. Sam needs to see you. Whether he ends up back hunting with you or going home, you do not get to deny him the chance to know you’re all right. Not after all he went through!”
Dean didn’t say anything, just sat back down. After a bit he dozed off.
The concentrated rumble that woke him was a sound he’d recognize anywhere; the intensity of his visceral reaction to it stunned him and allowed Jody to get to the door first.
He was just on his feet as she opened it and the man in the doorway brushed past her.
Hands seized his shoulders. Hazel eyes bored intensely into his own. And something in Dean unclenched as, on their own, his lips split into a grin.
“It’s me, Sammy.”
Two sets of arms wrapped around each other.
And Dean was home.