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The Flock

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The Flock

 

 

"Keep pressure on it," Dean snaps, adjusting his grip on the wheel to lean across the front seat and reposition the rag Sam has balled up against the gash on his thigh. Dean tore it from one of his old t-shirts, a three-inch strip of gray gradually darkening with blood. Dean pushes too hard; Sam gasps and shoves his hand away, clutching the soaked cloth in both hands. His fingers are tacky with blood, nose filled with the iron tang of it.

"I got it," he insists, annoyed but grateful as the pain recedes to an ache. It throbs as the Impala tears down the road, across a desolate stretch of Kansas.

They're still a couple hours from Lebanon. Dean has been favoring back roads over highways, crisscrossing the trail back from Bismarck to the bunker. There's no music on the stereo. They drive to a soundtrack of the engine, to the slide of Dean's jacket against the seat, to the occasional grunts Sam can't contain when the car rolls over a rough patch.

"Hang in there, Sammy," Dean offers, and Baby strains under the additional force on her accelerator. "We're gonna get you patched up."

"I forgot how much I hate Vetalas," Sam mutters. "Wouldn't be so bad if it'd stop bleeding."

"Frigging subspecies," Dean says, like he's the one who researched the thing instead of Sam. "Venom messes with your platelets."

Sam sighs. "I wish Cas could still fly."

"Yeah, well," Dean grunts. "He can't."

He checks the rear view mirror, the back seat, out of habit. He keeps his face neutral, but Sam watches his jaw work, his knuckles strain white, then relax.

A minute later, Dean shoots him a grin. "Soon as we get back, we'll stitch you up good."

Sam knows that, like he knows he'll be fine, that within two hours he'll be on the couch with a beer and painkillers and Dean suturing the gash in his leg. They'll marathon TV and fall asleep like that, wake up pissed-off and stiff. But it makes Dean feel better to talk out the plan, so Sam drops his forehead to the window, a spot of cool that gradually warms to his skin. When he sits back upright, it's left a smudge on the glass. He buffs it away with his sleeve.

"What, did I miss a spot?" Dean asks, taking his eyes off of the road momentarily to scowl at the window.

"You're kidding me, right?" Sam asks flatly, causing Dean to make a face and look back out the windshield. "I don't think the car was this clean when it was brand new."

"Well," Dean replies, with a roll of his shoulders that tells Sam he's trying to make light of the situation. "She needed it."

"How're you feeling?" Sam asks.

"I'm fine," Dean answers too easily. "I'm great. My ass is sore from sitting too long."

"Yeah," Sam agrees, inching forward to relieve the pressure on his lower back. It helps somewhat. He twists right and left, hoping it will crack. It does, and he winces, slumps back.

"You want me to pull over?" Dean offers.

Sam's muscles are growing stiffer the longer he sits, but if they stop to stretch, that's even longer before he gets stitched up. Dean wanted to do it before they left, but Sam insisted they get the hell out of there, put some distance between them and the Dakotas in case that wasn't a rogue like they thought.

The injury's nothing he hasn't dealt with before, but Dean's suggestion is sounding better by the mile. The road's surface has deteriorated in the last few minutes to gravel that makes the car rattle and jerk.

His mind wanders to the bunker. What kind of food do they have in the fridge? He went shopping not too long before they hit the road, but since he hadn't known how long they'd be gone, he only bought enough for a couple days. Maybe there's a jar of pasta sauce, otherwise Dean will have to make a food run, which means a stomach full of grease and dragging ass in the morning. Course, a double bacon cheeseburger sounds pretty good right about now, considering the alternative is whatever condiment packets they've got stashed in the glovebox.

The engine sputters. Baby lurches but coughs protestingly back to a purr. Dean pats her dash twice in encouragement, glares at the wheel when she sputters a second time and rolls to a stop.

"Dude, what the hell," Dean mutters and turns the key.

Nothing.

"If you ran out of gas, I'm going to kill you," Sam informs him.

"She's not outta gas," Dean snaps, face reddening in frustration. He tries the key again.

"Engine could be flooded," Sam notes, pointing to Dean's foot, still wedged on the accelerator.

"You think I don't know that? Where's the nearest station?"

Sam winces but lifts his hips enough to dig in his pocket for his phone. He opens the browser, but there's no internet connection. He dials Dean's phone and gets dead air.

"I got nothing," he says.

"You're kidding." Dean gives Sam a tired, strained look. "You could get a wifi signal in Hell."

Sam shrugs. "We might be between towers, or maybe it's a temporary outage."

"Well, this is just peachy," Dean grits out and smacks the edge of the wheel. "We're in the middle of absofreakinglutely nowhere, you're bleeding, we got no phones, and my car won't start."

"Maybe there's a house?" Sam suggests, looking out the window like that might cause one to materialize.

"I ain't seen a damned thing for miles," Dean says, rubbing a hand over his face. He sighs into his palm. "Frigging fantastic."

"No, look!" Sam jabs a finger toward eleven o'clock, where a two-story structure stands out against a yellowed field. He didn't notice it before, probably because of its distance from the road. It's small, easily blocked by his thumb if he holds it up. Dean squints at it.

"That's just an old barn," he dismisses with a shake of his head.

"Or maybe it's a house," Sam counters. "It's worth looking. What other choice do we have?"

Dean thinks about that for a few seconds, clearly in disagreement about trudging out toward the building, but it's that or sit here and hope someone will drive past that they can flag down. The car will get cold pretty fast without the engine idling. If the house is abandoned, they'll start a fire to stay warm, crash there for the night. At least there won't be another motel bill. The sun will set soon, but they've probably got another forty-five minutes of daylight. Each one is critical if Dean's gonna stitch him up tonight.

Dean must be thinking the same, because he silently climbs out of the car and goes rummaging around the trunk for a while, comes back bearing the bag of first-aid supplies and a half-drunk bottle of Jack. He spreads a couple towels on the seat—who knows what motel Dean lifted them from—and points a finger at Sam's leg.

"Pants," he orders. "Off."

Dean takes a swig from the bottle. The whiskey sloshes against the glass, warm amber brown. That color will always make him think of Dean. Sam struggles to get his pants off, hissing when the fabric sticks to the drying blood. He lifts his hips enough to force them off his thighs, ease his leg partway onto the spread of towels. The bite mark runs from inside his knee across the front of his thigh: a lopsided grin.

"Should really do this outside," Dean says between his teeth before pouring whiskey straight onto the cut, dabbing at it with the edge of the towel. It stings but it helps.

"Clean bite," Dean pronounces, examining it with that comical expression he always bears when he's in doctor mode: pursed mouth and a deep scowl.

Sam clenches his teeth and tries to clean his hands. He's grateful they stayed in the car. The wind is picking up; the car rocks with it. It would've made outdoor first aid difficult. He fits his teeth together and focuses on keeping his heart rate level as Dean threads a needle, tears the thread with his teeth. There's a whiff of lighter fluid, the pause while Dean waits for the needle to cool, before the familiar pinch and pull sensation.

It's enough to turn his stomach. He sucks in a long, careful breath through his mouth and wills himself not to be sick. The nausea builds in his gut and sweeps up until it's a pressure in his head. He holds out a hand, murmurs, "Hang on—" but Dean keeps at it, muttering, "Couple more, Sammy. Almost done."

He continues talking while he works. It helps to focus on his voice.

"How many times you think I've stitched you up since you were a kid? This one's gonna heal nice. Bleeding's slowed. Damned vemon's wearing off..." and so on, until he pulls the last stitch taut, ties it off, snips the thread. "All done," he declares and holds the bottle to Sam's lips. Sam shakes his head to refuse it. The glass rim bumps his lip, teasing it open. The smoky odor of the whiskey makes his stomach churn.

"One sip," Dean instructs. "It'll calm you down."

"I'm fine," Sam insists and for once Dean listens, takes the bottle away. Sam draws in a long, clean breath. His eyes are closed. He doesn't remember closing them. They flutter open to reveal a neat line of dark-blue stitches across his thigh. Dean could've been a surgeon with hands that steady. The needle and thread lie next to his leg.

He brushes a fingertip over the stitches, over the unnatural bump and rise of his skin, the foreign texture of string. He's never gotten used to that sensation, but it's better when he can see Dean's handiwork instead of exploring blindly with his hands.

Dean is looking out the window, right arm propped up on the steering wheel, hand curled in a loose fist. Sam supposes this hasn't gotten any easier for Dean either. There's a detachment in the moment—he's stitched Dean up enough times to know—but there's the knowledge, after, that every hiss and sharp breath and wince came from the needle he worked with his own fingers.

"Looks good," he says. "Thanks."

"Get your pants back on," Dean orders.

Sam waits for the accompanying sarcasm but it doesn't come, conspicuous like the silent radio. It's unsettling, but everything has been unsettling lately. Any weapon in Dean's hand summons momentary panic, the crack of splintering wood as he chops through a door.

Sam often catches himself staring at Dean's forearm: watching, waiting. Mostly waiting. The Mark is still a problem, Cas said. Sam can only wonder how big: bigger than black eyes and his brother telling him that he's a burden? That hurt, still hurts, even though he knows Dean didn't mean it. He resents the way dad raised them, but Sam knows Dean doesn't resent him.

He zips his fly, fingers the ripped fabric over his left knee. Maybe he'll sew them when they get inside, just a quick whip stitch to keep the tear from getting worse until he can patch them properly. He should wash them first, but it's a good way to kill time.

"You up for a hike?" Dean asks and shoves the door open before Sam can answer, stalks to the trunk. He comes back with a Beretta in his hands and tosses the shotgun to Sam. He waits for him to get out, then locks the car.

They start across the field. It's slow going. Sam can't bend his knee well and shuffles after Dean, who stomps forward without a glance behind him.

The field is thigh high, the faded straw color of late fall, just beginning to brown at the tips. The grass bends and snaps under his boots. It smells earthy, damp and sweet. His boots grow heavy as they walk, layered with slick mud that shows on the toe of each foot, and they're not even halfway across the field. His thigh aches from the additional weight on his stitches, and he slows up. He shifts most of his weight to his right foot to alleviate the pressure. It helps to a degree, but they throb. He should've checked the glove box for pain killers before they left the car.

Dean is a good thirty feet ahead of him when he turns to look over his shoulder and notices that Sam is no longer following him.

"Something wrong?"

There's a tenderness in the whip crack of Dean's words. Sam thinks he's one of very few people who knows it's there, can distill it from the gruff tone.

"Just making sure they aren't tearing," he calls back. He gives himself another few seconds by shielding his eyes from the sun with a cupped hand, taking in the structure they're headed toward.

Dean's wrong. It's not a barn. It must've been a house once, two stories tall, with a fireplace. There's a red brick chimney visible on the roof. The uppermost siding is still in place, clapboard brown. It's fallen away with age, leaving the lower two-thirds of the house exposed, battered white by storms. The windows are broken and missing. There's a gaping entrance where a door should be. Sam can see straight through a window on the far wall.

There isn't anything menacing about the building, but the sight of it fills Sam with dread. His eyes dart from window to window, expecting something to manifest.

"Dude, are we gonna stand out here all night, or are you coming?" Dean grouses.

His patience is thin. He's probably hungry. The growl in Sam's stomach reminds him that he is too—they haven't eaten since breakfast, and pancakes never hold him for long. It strikes him that his stomach is the only sound he's registered in minutes. There haven't been any other cars, no airplanes, no wind. Even the birds are quiet.

They disturb a flock pecking the ground near the house's foundation. The birds shriek as they take flight, the sudden squawking sending a chill through him. Dean's chin snaps up momentarily at the flutter of wings, but his face quickly falls slack. Gun poised over his shoulder James Bond style, he ducks inside.

The birds mass overhead. They shift together in a fractured black cloud before settling on the roof. Sam stands rooted in place until they settle and the last wing tucks away; the surrounding area falls quiet.

"Hitchcock. Inside, now," Dean's silhouette orders from the doorway and disappears again. Sam bites his lower lip, worries it between his teeth, and hesitates before following Dean into the house.

A hundred doll-black eyes follow Sam's movements across the threshold.

+

Dean flicks open his lighter and holds it to the pyramid of scrap wood, paper, and dried leaves he assembled in the fireplace. The edges of the paper catch first, burn orange and curl as they blacken and shrivel. The wood smokes and snaps as the underside begins to glow. Dean rubs his hands together in the weak heat it puts off. The flue must be blocked; the smoke pours thick into the room but easily billows out the open window. The wood, fallen pieces that once made up the walls, begins to splinter and glow red in the crevices. He unconsciously moves to cover his forearm with a palm, feels the Mark's burn under his skin, concealed by his jacket.

He cranes his head to check on Sam, who is wasting thread stitching the hole in his pants back together. They should've stopped a couple hours ago, gotten some decent food in Sam's stomach. Dean's body hasn't felt right since he got the demon out of his system, but he could go for a burger, steaming pile of fries, big damn slice of cherry pie. He pokes around the duffel bag he hauled along and comes up with a pack of crackers, spicy jerky, and a partially melted Snickers bar.

"Here," he says, tossing the jerky and Snickers to Sam, who sets down the needle and tears the jerky packet open eagerly, bites the end off with his teeth. Dean wants to ask for a bite, but Sam's been bleeding. He needs the protein. The crackers will have to do until morning. They leave Dean's mouth dry.

"Cas claims you can't eat more'n six of these in a minute without water," he says once he manages to swallow. He scrutinizes the clear wrapper. It curls and melts when he throws it into the fire.

"He's really taken to the internet," Sam says without taking his eyes off the needle, a lump of jerky tucked in his cheek. He looks like a freaking hamster. "Actually, we tried that at Stanford, with the crackers. I got to five. Jess actually managed to chew up six but couldn't swallow it."

"Huh," Dean comments. He wipes the crumbs off on his pants and pulls out his phone. It's got a full charge but still no service. "Biggest network, my ass," he mutters.

He could try praying, but Cas is half a country away, assuming Cas can even hear him anymore. It's not like he's gonna haul his ass back to Kansas and scour every back road for the Impala because they're having car trouble. Dean isn't even sure what county they're in. No. They'll wait a few hours, get some rest, and he'll take care of everything at first light.

"Alright," he announces. "We'll stay here overnight. First thing in the morning, I'll head up the road, see if I can find someone or get a signal."

"Okay," Sam agrees, covering his mouth to conceal a yawn. It isn't warm in here, but the roof is keeping most of the rain out. If they huddle close to the fire, it's better than the car. More leg room, if nothing else.

"I'm gonna see if I can find more shit to burn," Dean says, rocking back on his heels and pushing upright. "Stay here."

Sam's answering expression is peevish, but he doesn't argue, just continues to sew.

Dean gingerly steps into the adjoining room, afraid the floor might give way. He conducted a quick sweep when he first got inside, just to make sure they weren't walking into a vamp nest or a ghoul's front hall. It's just an old house, beaten down by time. No hot spots, nothing registering on the crazy scale. Whoever occupied it left a long time ago. Most earmarks of a human resident are gone, but there's a clam shell on the window sill, an old phonebook on the floor next to a broken windowpane. Dean picks it up with care, sure not to touch the glass shards strewn over the cover. He shakes them off. They tumble to the carpet of leaves and animal waste covering the floorboards.

The phonebook's pages are dry. It will burn. He carries it and a couple broken pieces of wood he pried up, adds them to the fire, irritated to find that Sam isn't in the room any longer. Didn't Dean just tell him to keep his ass put? He's probably taking a piss or decided to help find firewood, but Dean calls his name anyway. The fire lets off ambers when he tosses the phone book on top of it, stirs it with the edge of a board before adding it too.

"Sammy?"

He keeps still, listening for Sam's response, but hears only the house groan under the strain of wind, the ruffle of feathers. That sound will always make him shiver, nevermind the protection on his ribs. He clears his throat and shouts Sam's name again, focusing on the black rectangle where the front door should be. The rain is coming down in sheets. Firelight reflects off of the raindrops, glinting like a curtain between this room and the outside. Sam doesn't walk through it.

"Sam, don't make me drag your ass in this house. Answer me," Dean yells.

Sam knows better than this. Dean stands in the doorway and squints into the dark. Baby's parked out there, about a quarter mile away, but he can't see her. There's nobody else around.

A gust of wind shifts the rain, soaking his hair and shirt and the front of his thighs.

"Son of a—" he mutters and steps backward, into Sam, who yelps and cries, "Needle?"

He glares at Dean from the floor, sucking his thumb into his mouth.

"Where the hell were you?" Dean snaps. "Don't you ever wander off like that."

"What're you talking about?" Sam asks, bewildered.

"I'm outta this room for maybe a minute and you're gone when I get back?"

"Dean," Sam says, shaking his head and sticking the needle into a cork. "I haven't moved since we got in here."

"I'm not in the mood for pranks, so just save it."

Sam gives him a funny look, cautious, like he's afraid of giving away too much, but Dean can't miss the way his eyes flit to Dean's arm, even though Sam tries to eclipse it with a cough.

"I'm not seeing things," Dean insists.

"I didn't say anything!" Sam defends, though he doesn't look Dean in the eye.

Dean doesn't want to call Sam a liar, but he knows what he saw. But, shit. Maybe he's just tired and his mind is playing tricks on him. It wouldn't be the first time. He needs his four hours of shut-eye, then he'll hike up the road, find out where he can get a tow, get Sammy home. He was itching to get back into their routine, but maybe more downtime is what they need: another afternoon sitting by a lake with a cooler of beer. One was a start, but Sam could use a few weeks—hell, a few months—catching up on sleep. He still carries the exhaustion from the trials, even though he does his damndest to hide it.

"Guess this spot's as good as any," Sam says. He lies back and props his head on the duffel bag, folds his hands on his stomach and yawns. "Night," he says with his eyes closed.

"Night," Dean replies.

Despite his exhaustion, Dean's mind won't settle, noting every creak and indication of movement, the scurry of rodent feet in the ceiling overhead; the plop, plop, plop of a leaking roof, snap of the fire. Page by page, it consumes the phone book. The heat it puts off is negligible; it's good for light and ambiance, but Dean's hands and face are cold. He'll be shivering by morning. Maybe he should've hiked up the road in the dark; they could be on their way by now if he'd found someone. This place gives him the creeps.

Could he have been sleepwalking earlier? Maybe it's the Vetala's venom; he got exposed to it when he was stitching up Sammy. That could make him woozy. Or could he...is it possible he blinked over to the door? Can he still do that? His soul is restored, Cas said so, but maybe this is an after-effect of the cure. It's not like they've got filing cabinets full of depositions from former demons. Dean's got no idea what to expect.

He sweeps up a handful of leaves and throws them on top, watches them ignite: the bright, instantaneous burn and flash of yellow light; the inevitable consumption. The room is dark again. He repeats it, each handful momentarily illuminating the space, burning out rapidly and totally.

He adjusts his position, bends his left arm and rests it behind his head, so his head is cradled in the crook of his wrist. He shuts his eyes.

+

Sam opens his mouth to clear the cottony, stale feeling. He moves his tongue over the roof of it and his teeth, until his mouth waters. His neck and back are stiff; his whole body is cold. It stinks where he is, cloying and foul like mildew. Thunder rolls overhead, huge and deafening, Old Testament level. He pats his pockets until he locates his phone, holds it in front of his face and checks it with one eye. No service. He restarts it and waits to see if it will connect.

The phone scans for the network but comes up empty. No phone service, no data, not a wifi signal to borrow. With a frown and sigh, he switches off the phone and sits upright, rolling his head side to side to ease the tightness in his neck, bringing a hand up to rub it.

There's a cleared-off area of floor next to the fire, marking the spot where Dean's been sleeping. The fire is almost out, down to a reddish-dark glow. It's only four a.m., but maybe Dean took off already for help. It's not like him to leave without saying something—at the very least, he'd leave a note, a text, trace something in the dirt, but there's nothing Sam can make out.

He calls out once to be sure, but the patter of rain drowns out his voice. If something's happened to Dean, he might not be able to hear him. He yawns into his palm and switches on his flashlight, begins a check of the first floor. It requires concentration to step over the weak of broken areas. Sam tests them with a toe first, nudging to check if each section will hold his weight. His foot punches through four times, but Dean's not on the first floor. There's a staircase at the far side of the room, but Dean said it's collapsed, and there's no noise overhead.

He must be outside. He's gotta be soaked through, but what other choice do they have? Sam squints into the rain but can't detect any movement, shines his light into it. It looks like a starfield from one of those space movies Dean pretends not to like. The ground outside the doorway is sodden and turned to mud. There aren't any footprints, nothing that even resembles a footprint. Dean either left a couple hours ago or he didn't come this way. Why would he have gone out the back? Maybe he saw a light in the distance and is heading toward it.

Sam writes a text, "Where are you?" before he remembers that there is no signal, but maybe there's enough to get a text through. He sends it, crossing his fingers that Dean has wandered into a service area.

There's nothing Sam can do but wait, no point heading out into the dark after him. If they were in a motel, he'd go back to sleep, but this house disturbs him. The wind sweeps through front to back, like a groan. The house is breathing; Sam is planted in its lungs.

He stirs the fire, sits, draws his right knee up to his chest. He leaves his left extended, the swelling making it uncomfortable to bend for any length of time, and rests his head against the wall. A sudden noise, like someone moving, makes him jump, but closer inspection reveals it's just the wood settling in the fireplace, fitting itself into new, tighter positions as it's consumed. As a precaution, he keeps a hand ready on his knife handle.

He could easily sleep like this—it's an ability honed by a lifetime on the road—but exhaustion tugs at his eyelids. He lets them close. His breathing evens out, deep and calm, even though what he breathes in smells like age, like decay: smoke and rot and an old, old house.

Sam only sleeps for a few minutes, but it's enough. His eyes flutter open when footsteps announce Dean's return, knuckles bearing his weight, twisting into the grit as he pushes himself to his feet.

"Dean—"

But the room is empty, just Sam and what remains of the fire. Dean isn't in either doorway and doesn't answer.

Maybe he's hearing things. He gets out the EMF detector, powers it on. A walk around the room's perimeter, then the one adjoining, turns up nothing. He ends next to the fireplace with no readings, just the echo of his own movements. He must've dreamt the footsteps.

The night air blows in wet and cold. Sam rubs his arms and pokes the fire, coughs from the smoke.

+

Dean is going to kick Sam's ass as soon as he finds him. They've got a rule about going off on your own: don't, or freaking tell someone where the hell you're headed. He didn't take the duffel bag, just up and went...somewhere while Dean was asleep. At least he's got something in his stomach. Dean's feast of stale crackers didn't do shit, but Sam needed the food more.

Dean could throttle him for wandering off again—maybe Sam's injuries are more severe than they thought. Dean can't remember him hitting his head or getting blasted by anything, but it could explain why he's acting like a damned amateur. He shouts himself hoarse into the storm.

He wasn't going to leave until the sun came up. Flashlight battery might have another six hours, and hypothermia's a bitch, but he's got no choice. Dean zips his jacket to the throat, flips up his collar to better protect his neck from the storm. Sammy's done a lot of stupid shit over the years, but this is right up there.

A groan stops him from setting a foot in the mud.

"Sam?" he shouts and whirls around, expecting to find Sam limping toward him.

He's not there, but Dean can hear him. There's one voice he'll never question, that he recognized even when his veins pumped demon blood, and it's his brother's. Sammy's hurt, badly from the sound of it; could he have fallen through the floor? Dean feels like a fucking asshole for being mad at him.

He calls out assurances so Sam knows he's coming, attempts to source the moaning, but it seems to move. It's close to the fireplace and then several feet away, by the open door. Dropping to his knees, Dean maps the warped subfloor with his hands, sweeps his arm through the leaf litter to move it aside. There aren't any holes large enough for Sam to fall through. The location of his voice continues to move erratically.

"Sammy!" he shouts. "C'mon, answer me."

Sam continues to groan but doesn't form words. The floor creaks overhead. Is it possible that Sam made it up that staircase? Why the hell would he go up there? He must've seen something, heard something, and been concerned enough to make the climb.

Why didn't he come and get Dean?

Maybe there wasn't time.

With one hand gripping what's left of the wooden handrail, Dean tentatively puts half of his weight on the first step. The handrail rocks and bows outward. He shifts his weight onto the wall instead, wedging his shoulder against it for support. He holds his breath as he lifts a foot, plants it on the next step, the one after that. The bullnose snaps. His ankle twists as he stumbles forward, sprawled across several steps.

He takes a minute to recover and catch his breath, cursing at himself for losing his footing. The stairs reek of mildew and cat piss. He crawls up the remainder, careful not to drop the flashlight. There's a gap where the final step should be. Most of it has rotted away. The spindles hold when he grabs the base of the landing's railing. Relieved, Dean pulls himself onto the landing, straining until his hips are firm against the damp, splintered floor. It catches on his shirt, ripping it. The wood cuts into his stomach, but he stays flat until he's positive the floor won't collapse. He crawls the few feet to the wall and stands.

Sam deserves an award for getting his huge body up this staircase without it collapsing, and with his knee banged up. His moans are getting louder.

"Sam?"

Dean keeps his back to the far wall and creeps past the banister, toward the first room. The door is shut. There's movement beyond it, a flap and ruffle. He kicks it open and stands back, but nothing flies out.

The room is surprisingly empty: water-stained walls, a broken window, dark feathers on the floor. It looks like someone splattered white paint on the floors and window sill—bird shit? The smell is heavy and nauseating, acidic. It settles in his nose as he breathes, burns his eyes. They water. He coughs into the crook of his elbow, backing out of the room, careful to keep one hand on the doorjamb to steady himself.

Chunks of the wood break loose and crumble in his hand. Sam isn't groaning any longer. From somewhere below, a low, muffled drumming rattles the foundation. Maybe it's a pipe come loose and knocking about, or the building settling.

Dean inches toward the next door, sucking in a prayer between his teeth. The drumming continues like a heartbeat.

+

Sam wakes up naturally and yawns against the back of his hand. His head aches. The swelling around the stitches is getting worse. The cut throbs in time with the veins in his temples. Outside, rain continues to fall, a steady downpour that's almost enough to lull him back to sleep, but he forces himself awake. Dean's still gone, and Sam is waiting for him to get back.

There's still no phone service when he powers it on. The text he tried to send is still in his outbox. Nothing has arrived from Dean or Jody or Cas.

Sighing, Sam stows his phone and studies his hands. He can see them better. Although the storm pounds overhead, the sun is beginning to come up, painting the sky dark gray. The fire has gone cold. He stirs the remaining charred paper flakes and the skeletal remains of a plank, long and twisted nails gone ashen from the flames. They're matte and mottled white.

There's a thump overhead. He freezes, hoping to hear it again—

Yeah, there it is. Somebody's walking around upstairs.

The footsteps are heavy like boots. Dean's footsteps. Why would Dean be upstairs? He said the staircase was broken, that they couldn't make it up if they wanted to, unless Dean lied to keep Sam in one place. Sam massages a slow circle into his temples. Dean worries too much about everyone except himself.

There's got to be something here that lured him up there. He could've at least woken Sam up, so they could've argued about whether or not Sam was going with him. What if the thing gets past Dean and charges downstairs while Sam's asleep, did Dean think of that? There's no such thing as a foolproof hunt; nothing about their lives is easy.

There's only the one set of footsteps. Dean's alone or with something incorporeal. He shuffles this way and that, in a consistent pattern Sam recognizes as pacing. Each step loosens decades of dirt and dust that tumble from the ceiling, a fine sprinkling that Sam bats from his hair. Dean is pacing in a room upstairs, but why? If he's by himself, did something happen with the Mark?

Sam calls up to him from the base of the stairs.

"Dean, what the hell," he mutters when Dean doesn't answer.

He was lying about the stairs. They're sound. Old, sure, but they look sturdy. They creak underfoot as Sam ascends them. He keeps a hand on the railing and one on the wall, just in case, but the steps hold. The second-floor landing is wood, dirty but in one piece. It bows a little, has a worrying spring when he walks. The thought of limping back across the field, dragging a broken leg, makes him extra cautious. He makes it safely to the first door on his left, puts an ear up against it before easing it open.

It's just an old bedroom, sparsely decorated. Doesn't look like anyone's stepped foot in here for half a century. The bed linens are stained and filthy, but the plaid pattern is identifiable. Over the bed is a shelf, and on the shelf is a still life of moldy books. Oddly, the room doesn't have a window. He puzzles over that detail, certain that he made out at least one or two when they first approached the house. It definitely wouldn't pass modern-day fire code, but the house is old. The only rooms he's ever stayed in without windows are Bobby's safe room and his room in the bunker. It has a shelf like this one, and a bed in a similar position—this could be his room, given another fifty years and a total failure of the bunker's air system.

He shuts the door. He isn't sure why he bothers, but it feels right to close it.

In the next bedroom sits an old man, hunched over his legs on the edge of a well-worn bed.

"Oh!" Sam exclaims, embarrassed. The place is a dump, but someone is obviously living here. He might be squatting or he might own the land, but this room is actively lived in, gauging by the tracks through the grime that covers every visible inch of the floor. A dusty bottle of Jack lies tipped over on the nightstand. The bedspread is threadbare, but dry and rumpled. The man probably just woke up.

"Sorry, sir, I didn't—" Sam offers, only the man doesn't appear to hear him. He's lean, wiry, with a shock of gray hair. His face is hidden, angled down toward his chest, like he's praying.

Sam should leave the room, haul ass downstairs and wait for Dean, but he can't stop himself from staring. The man's hands are threaded together, dropped between his knees. Words spill out in an indecipherable rumble. He sighs, rubbing his left shoulder, letting his hand rest there as he lifts his chin toward the ceiling.

Sam does a double take.

It's Dean. It can't be Dean, but it's him. He looks exactly the way he did the night he gambled his life, worn out like the bed he's sitting on, cold and hardened by age. He sniffs and shuffles over to the dresser, pulls out a long-sleeved shirt and puts it on over the undershirt he probably slept in.

"Dean?" Sam asks, confused, but Dean doesn't acknowledge him. He buttons his shirt with a blank expression, takes a handgun from the shelf over his bed, fits it into the holster on his hip. Is he still hunting? He's got to be pushing seventy, but over the bed are weapons, a parade of vials, string of rosary beads.

Is it possible that Sam time traveled? Could this house be some kind of portal into the future? Or is this an illusion? Is that why Dean can't see him, because Dean's not here?

And where is he? The first room, the other one, is that his? Yeah, it's—

It's his room in the bunker.

So...he's home. Is he home? Is that possible? Cas blasted them into the past before. And even though Dean doesn't talk about it much, Sam knows Zachariah sent Dean into the future a few years back, showed him things Dean's never talked about, just vaguely references when he's drunk. He once blanched when Sam tried on a white jacket at a thrift store.

Sam used to pester him about it, hope that his persistence would crack Dean and make him spill a few details. But Dean kept it buried, just like he's kept everything else since they were kids and Dean got it into his head that he had to be Sam's shield, take the brunt of everything that comes their way.

Sam understands the importance that hunting plays in Dean's life: it's his identity, but Sam has always wished something more for him. Dean's never explicitly said it, but Sam knows what he wants: a family of his own, someone who loves him. He tries so hard to pretend that this life doesn't bother him, that it's his choice, not an obligation. Sam thought Dean needed a few years to get hunting out of his system, realize he could trust other hunters to take up their work, that he doesn't have to shoulder it all himself. Maybe neither of them will have the apple-pie life their parents once had, but there has to be something better than this. Anything but this.

Sam stares, dumbfounded, at the image of Dean that moves past him through the door.

No, Dean moves through him. Dean walks through him, like Sam's not even there, like he's a ghost. Funny, he doesn't remember dying. He can trace the events of the past few weeks, isn't suffering from time loss. No. This has got to be a hallucination, long-term effect of the venom, maybe. It has to be. He must be dreaming. He's asleep downstairs, and this whole scene is in his head.

But it doesn't feel like a dream. The wall begins to pulse against his hand. Dean limps across the narrow hallway, into a dingy and cramped bathroom, and doesn't bother to close the door behind him.


art by quickreaver

+

When Dean reaches the place where the door should be, there's no door. It was there, he saw it, just like he saw the empty front room. But the door is gone, a stretch of plaster in its place.

The smell of burning wood reaches his nostrils. It must be coming from the fireplace downstairs. He sniffs. It's sweet, like burning leaves, but thicker and stronger than the smoke that hovered in the front room. Underfoot, the floor is thrumming.

Ribbons of smoke curl from somewhere unseen. Tendrils wind into his nose, down his throat, to coil in his lungs. The hallway clouds with it. His eyes sting and water, leaking tears down his face.

Through the wall, Sam coughs, and Dean is momentarily transposed with him: he can't breathe, his skin burns, his heart is frantic with the terror of no escape. He inhales lungfuls of smoke, the stench of burning hair. Sammy's trapped on the other side of the wall, and the room is on fire.

Goddamn house must be cursed.

Chants fly from his mouth, incantations, rites. Latin and fragments of Enochian he pieced together from Cas. He tries to counter whatever magic infuses the space with a long string of them—something's gotta work. He pats down the wall for the coolest spot, prepared to break through, but the words don't have any effect. The house is still burning.

"I'm coming, Sammy, hang on!" he shouts and heaves his weight into the wall.

It doesn't give. This place is built like a brick shithouse. He shoves and shoves, rams his shoulder into the plaster over and over and over, until he feels it dislocate, but the wall doesn't budge. He's barely managed to dent it. He keeps trying through the pain, fueled by Sam's coughing.

The smoke is quickly replaced by fire: great yellow tongues that lap at the dilapidated walls. Fire oozes out like blood, like the blood of this house, and spreads in every direction. Dean scrapples at the too-hot wall, pounds it with his fists, peels away loose chunks with his fingers even though they burn, even though the fire is advancing.

Sam coughs again; it comes out as a baby's mewl. Dean is four years old, and the nursery is on fire.

Take your brother outside as fast as you can. Don't look back.

He calls Sam's name again, begins to punch, focusing his energy on one spot the height of his chest. He punches until his knuckles leave a bloody imprint with every blow. He calls Sam's name, but Sam doesn't answer.

Now, Dean, go!

A touch on his shoulder startles him. He whips around to see Cas watching him, head tilted in query. His narrowed eyes reflect the flames, as if he burns with it, composed of hellfire instead of grace. Dean's terror retreats at the sight of him.

"Cas!" he gasps, coughing through the smoke. There's no time to ask how he knew that they were here, how he found them. Cas still has mojo. He can get through the wall, get Sam to safety. Dean falls to his knees in relief. Cas sinks to the floor with him, so Dean points to the place a door should be. "It's Sam. He's trapped."

But Cas shakes his head, a slow and infuriating movement, and brushes his fingers along Dean's jaw, to his throat. He doesn't touch the wall. He doesn't try to reach Sam. Cas draws the smoke out of Dean's lungs and casts it away. Dean can breathe again, but the house is still burning.

"Cas," he repeats. "Please."

Behind him, Dean discerns a shape materialize in the smoke. Hannah rests a hand on Cas's shoulder. Castiel rises and takes a step back, away from Dean.

"Cas," Dean begs. "What's wrong with you? Get him out of there!"

Cas merely looks down on him, as cold and detached as he had been in the crypt. There's no humanity in his eyes. Dean glares at Hannah.

"What the hell are you doing to him?" he demands.

Hannah gives no response, no indication she even heard him. Sam's coughs are growing more labored. He's suffocating, but Cas doesn't move. Doesn't react. Hannah doesn't remove her hand. Dean is incredulous. Cas would never leave Sam like this, would never let Sam die if there were something he could do—

But Cas has left him. Would leave him. Would leave Dean. Just weeks ago, he left Dean in the bunker, freshly human, for a nameless female in his car.

You're just a man. I'm an angel.

"Cas, you dick," Dean spits out, fighting down a wave of nausea. "You fucking asshole, help him!"

He doesn't answer, and Dean is forced to close his eyes against the thickening smoke. It's blinding him. He ducks his face into his jacket for a breath, inhales the stench of his own fear.

There is no beat of wings or the rustle of Cas's coat when he departs, but Dean knows he's gone, feels the emptiness. He won't look in that direction and chokes back the urge to cry.

Something cracks and falls, pitching Sam's wail to one of anguish. Dean pounds and pounds the bloodstained wall, screaming his name, but the wall doesn't give. He can't break through.

Sam is going to die.

The heat is exquisite, searing all along his forehead, the crown of his head, shoulders, knees where they connect with the wall. It burns like Hell. The ceiling rains down fire as it breaks apart and begins to collapse.

Sam is going to die, and Dean can't get to him.

Dean should get up and run, should save himself—but he won't. He won't. He'll get Sam out of this house or they'll die together. The hallway is engulfed in flames, wall searing when he strikes it. His hair and clothes are sweat-soaked, lungs revolting against the smoke that winds its way back inside.

The flames are approaching the staircase, leaping up both sides of the hall like a gauntlet. He might survive if he goes now, but he stays crouched at the base of the wall, and flattens his palms against it. Sam has gone quiet. They'll be entombed in this house together, but it's a good funeral. A hunter's funeral.

Is Heaven still shut? Is their family here with them? They should be with Sam, at least—mom, dad, Bobby, Ellen, Jess. They're cradling Sam, on the other side of the wall. Dean imagines holding Sam against his chest, face tucked into his neck, and shuts his eyes.

"I'm here, Sammy," he promises. "I got you."

There are things he wishes he had done: track down Lisa, find out how Ben is doing in school, see when Charlie's coming to visit next. He should've cleared out a couple drawers for Cas, bought him a suit that fits. Should've let Sammy put up that Christmas tree he was threatening, cooked a big breakfast for the three of them, taken incriminating photos of Sam in reindeer antlers.

Sam doesn't deserve this. He deserved a life, with a wife and kids, couple dogs and a station wagon. Dean regrets ever forcing him back into hunting, wishes he'd never driven to Stanford, that Sam had made that Monday interview.

Fire stings the back of his neck—it's so hot, it burns cold. He shivers and instinctively brings a hand up, brushing through it, expecting blood.

It's clear.

Rain? The roof has caved in, and the rain comes down in sheets, extinguishing the fire. Almost immediately, it goes out, like someone flipped a switch. Dean coughs and chokes in air, tilts his chin up so the rain washes over his face, clearing his eyes.

A shuffling calls his attention back to the wall, the struggle of fingers through a hole he hadn't noticed in the plaster.

"Sam!" Dean cries, wrapping their fingers together and squeezing to reassure him, reassure himself. Sam's fingers are warm and pink. He's miraculously alive.

"Dean?"

"Jesus, Sammy. You alright?"

"I'm fine," Sam promises and squeezes. "I just—where did the door go?"

Dean chokes on laughter. The rain continues until it drowns the last flame, leaving the blackened hallway to smolder. Steam rises from the darkest spots where the wood burned hottest, but the fire is out. Dean pounds his chest with a fist and wheezes. Wind sweeps through the hallway, casting the ashes aside.

"Think there's an ax around here?" Sam asks.

"Yeah," Dean says, coughing. "Just give me a minute."

He rests his head against the wall. Gradually, the smoke settles.

A figure stands at the top of the stairs. Dean jolts at the sight of it, but sets his jaw to steady himself. The thing is humanoid but not human: corviform, with dark plumage covering its upper torso, rounded like a woman's. Its face appears carved from rock: ancient, ageless. It watches him intently through wide-set, beady eyes. They're demon black, but this is no demon.

It moves toward him; not quite a step, yet not in flight—almost gliding. In the low light, its feathers shimmer blue and green and violet. It gives off an odd scent: sharp and acrid, like the empty room. He holds his breath and grips Sam's hand tighter, hoping it won't notice him, that it'll take Dean if it's going to take one of them. He drops the other hand to his knife, prepared to charge it, but the knife is gone. He knows he didn't forget it, and shakes as the thing grows nearer, stops moving an arm's length from his feet.

"Why are you here?" it asks without speaking, without sound, yet Dean understands it, hears it somehow.

"Car broke down," he says, voice hoarse from smoke.

The creature's expression doesn't change, but Dean knows it's considering his words, deciding what to make of them. Telepathic species are scarce and ominous. He's never been at ease in his own head; granting someone unlimited access makes him feel stripped bare. He struggles to keep his mind clear, but his memories flit past like pages in a book, a violation that he can only endure. He's got no way to block it.

He relives the whole of his life in just seconds. The sensation leaves him gasping. The creature blinks, and the wall disappears. It doesn't fall away; it's just gone, as if it never stood in the first place.

"Dean!" Sam exclaims, gripping Dean's hand before pulling him into a hug on the wet, ruined floor. "You were—I thought you were—"

"I couldn't get to you," Dean interrupts, tucking his chin into Sam's shoulder. He smells like cheap hotel soap. "The fire—"

"What fire?" Sam asks, which makes Dean laugh at first. Leave it to a Winchester to make light of a dire situation, but Sam pulls back, bracing himself with a hand curled around Dean's bicep. He's frowning. He repeats, "Dean, what fire?"

"The—" Dean begins, motioning all around them. The smoke, the burned walls, the crumbling ceiling: they're gone. Everything is just as it appeared when Dean first climbed the stairs, before the first curl of smoke. The creature is gone too. Dean stares at the place where it appeared.

"What did you see?" Sam asks, forcing Dean's attention back.

"What did you see?" Dean redirects, getting to his feet and pulling Sam upright. He checks his clothes. They're free of burn marks and soot, though his hands still bleed from striking a wall that isn't there.

Sam takes a breath before replying, putting on a troubled expression. "Uh, you," he mumbles. "About thirty years from now."

"Huh?"

"You were in this room," Sam continues, floating his eyes to the far wall, like there's something significant there. It's bare. The room is empty, just peeling walls and bird shit. "I don't know, it's like I got a glimpse into the future for a minute."

"How'd I look?" Dean quips.

Sam huffs and turns his face away. "Sad," he answers after a beat. "Lonely."

"You weren't there?"

Sam shakes his head and focuses on Dean's hands.

"What happened?" Sam asks, turning them over.

Dean hardly feels the pain. It's mostly pressure, a distant throbbing. He flexes his fingers, cups his hands together gently together. He ought to tell Sam about the fire, about the screaming, about the blank look in Cas's eyes when he stepped away. How Dean was prepared to die, wanted to die, knowing Sam had died alone with Dean unable to stop it. He should tell Sam all of that.

What he says instead is, "Thought the house was on fire."

Sam lifts an eyebrow.

Dean shrugs and adds, glib: "Was trying to get your ass out."

He sniffs and notes the color of the sky through the broken window, a deep blue-gray, growing lighter at the horizon. He nods toward it.

"I better get walking, see if I can find us some help."

Sam frowns, bewildered.

"What?" Dean asks.

"There wasn't a window there earlier," Sam says definitively.

Dean hides his shiver by rubbing both hands over his face. "Let's get the hell out of here," he says.

"Yeah," Sam agrees, eyes flitting to the window, and edges toward the stairs. "I'd rather wait in the car."

+

Dean helps Sam limp down the staircase. He seems surprised by the condition of it, checking each step before they put weight on it, by shaking the railing. When they reach the bottom, he turns around and stares up, like he can't believe what he's seeing.

"What is it?" Sam asks.

"Nothing," Dean says.

He leaves Sam braced against the fireplace and quickly gathers their belongings. Dean's knife is lying on top of the duffel bag. He tucks it away with gritted teeth and doesn't comment. He wraps his right hand with a strip of cloth, hastily fastens it in place with a couple pieces of medical tape.

Whatever he experienced affected him deeply—it's obvious from the pinched look on his face—but he'll never confide in Sam, will carry it like he carries the bag he heaves over his shoulder. It's not worth asking Dean to hand it over. He won't do that, either.

"C'mon," Dean mutters. They head for the doorway.

Dean goes to put a foot outside and seemingly walks into an invisible barrier. "The hell?" he swears. He rubs his forehead, then extends a hand in front of him until it runs into—something.

Sam sticks his hand out and tests it for himself. The barrier is solid. He brushes his fingers across it. It's the same temperature as the ambient air, thick like a sheet of plexiglass. The longer his hand remains in contact, it begins to push into the substance. He jerks it back and inspects his fingers. There's nothing strange about their appearance, nothing to indicate that they've touched anything.

He reaches out again, and again his hand connects with the obstruction. He concentrates, holds still as his fingers glide incrementally forward. He never loses sight of his hand, but he feels pressure on all sides of it, like it's pushing through water.

"Any ideas?" he asks.

"Not a damn thing," Dean says.

"Let's try the other side," Sam suggests, but the same barrier blocks the rear exit. It blocks the windows. The entire house is encased.

"Shit," Dean curses. "Shit." He pinches the bridge of his nose, rakes a hand back through his hair, shouts, "Alright, you got us where you want us. What the hell do you want?"

Sam is startled by the almost instantaneous sound: hundreds of wing beats, from all sides of the house. Through the gaping windows and doors, he watches the birds rise up from the ground, from the early morning fog that hangs over the grass. They assemble and rise, swarming as a single organism that writhes black against the sunrise.

It's just birds, but something about them is unsettling. Primal. Sam takes a step back from the doorway, grabbing Dean by the coat and pulling him back a safe distance. The flock grows dense, almost solid, pressing together until there is no light between individuals, no way to distinguish from one bird to the next.

"Are you seeing this?" Dean murmurs.

"Yeah," Sam says, breathless, afraid to blink.

The mass of birds sinks lower, skimming the top of the grass. It sets down with a foot, a second, and begins to walk toward the house. The shape is raven black but humanoid, becoming more and more defined as it approaches. Its extremities cease writhing, cease their independent movement. From a mass of feathers, a face emerges. It's more avian than human, with eyes on either side of its head like a bird's, an aquiline nose, dark feathers where hair should be. Its sharp lips protrude in the facsimile of a beak. Sam gapes, but the look on Dean's face isn't surprise.

"Is this what you saw?" Sam asks quickly, but the creature is already just outside the barrier. It steps forward and walks through it, as though it doesn't exist. Sam shivers, chills spreading outward from his chest. He swallows hard, keeps his fingers curled tightly into Dean's jacket, to keep him from advancing. The floor begins to pound.


art by quickreaver

"What do you want?" Sam asks. He keeps his voice level and nonthreatening, a neutral question. Maybe it just wants them to leave.

"I have been undisturbed for many years," it answers, in a voice that is otherworldly. Sam can't make out its lips moving, but it's speaking to him, to them both. Dean's eyes are narrowed in concentration and he has locked his jaw, steeling himself.

"Undisturbed," Sam repeats. "You mean this house?"

"I am this house," it says. Leaves lift and dance at its feet. "I am the house and the land and the air."

"I'm sorry, what?" Dean cuts in. "What's that supposed to mean?"

The creature shudders. Its arms and legs momentarily break apart in a frenzy of wings, then settle.

"I am the beginning," it says, "and the end."

"So, what, you're saying you're God?" Dean asks.

"I brought fire."

"You're Prometheus," Sam guesses, ignoring the look Dean gives him, the inevitable eye roll.

"I have many names."

"Why are you holding us hostage?" Dean demands.

The creature cranes its head toward Dean. "What you experience is your own doing."

"You say we're not letting ourselves go?" Sam asks.

The creature stretches, feathers rippling from its neck down its torso, down each arm. They end in slender fingers that are hooked like talons, covered in gray, nubby skin.

"I have slept for a millennia. You woke me with your screams."

"You stopped the fire," Dean says.

The creature nods sagely. "You believed it to exist, so it existed, so you would have died."

"Wait," Dean continues. "You mean all of that—the fire, the angel—none of it was real?"

"You think little of yourself," it declares.

"Listen, birdbrain—"

It stumbles, dissolving into a chaos of wings. Dean shoves Sam back a step, throws an arm in front of him. The birds break apart and flutter erratically, then reconstitute. The creature blinks, as though dazed.

"You are a foolish species. Given the gift of creation, you manifest fear."

"Fear," Sam says. He swallows and points overhead. "So what I saw..."

"Is what you wished to see."

"No way," Dean snaps.

A tremor thunders throughout the house, shattering the remains of the window behind Sam. He startles at the ringing of breaking glass. It crunches underfoot.

"I lost faith in your kind long ago," the creature says. Its tone has changed. It sounds almost regretful. Wind sweeps through the house, heavy with the scent of rain. The creature fixes its gaze upon Dean. "Others would have fled."

Sam looks at Dean sideways, confused. Dean is breathing hard, and wets his lips nervously before replying.

"Yeah, well," he says. "That ain't me."

The drumming stutters, and the house shakes, raining decades of filth. Across the room, the staircase groans and collapses.

"You have given your life for him," the creature says, looking first at Sam and then to Dean, as though trying to understand.

"He's my brother," Dean vows, straightening. His sincerity makes Sam's heart clench.

The creature lets out a mournful, two-note whistle. It echoes in the room.

"I am tired," it says and twitches. Feathers fall from its arms and legs, leaving bare patches of gray skin. "I will not be able to control myself much longer."

"Uh," Sam says uneasily as the house shakes again. He gropes the wall to support himself. "Okay."

"Leave," it instructs, "before I sleep again."

"You don't have to tell us twice," Dean says, shoving past the creature toward the front door. The barrier, whatever it was, is gone. His boots squish in the mud when he leaps to the ground. "Sammy," he bellows. "C'mon."

But Sam remains rooted in place, staring into the creature's black eyes. It tracks down his face, to his leg, and extends a feathered hand. It brushes just above his knee, over the stitches, and the pain stops.

"Sam!" Dean shouts again.

"Leave," the creature repeats through a convulsion. It sheds more feathers that settle on top of the leaves.

"Thank you," Sam says and hurries after Dean, the sound of rustling and cawing behind him. Dean offers a hand to help Sam down from the doorway.

"Your leg?" he asks, clearly baffled when Sam extends his knee easily, without pain.

"I'm good," Sam assures him, and they start running toward the road.

Dean follows the trail they forged through the grass last night. The ground quakes, splitting open as Sam begins to sprint, chasing after him. The mud makes it difficult. Behind him, the birdsong escalates to a chorus of shrieks and explodes from the house. The birds flock in his wake, wings brushing his neck, ghosting over his hair. He stumbles, covering his head with his arms as they swarm above him but don't touch down.

He lies still, flat on his belly until they shift, then drags himself through the dew-slick grass. His jeans are soaked, but the grass conceals him. He crawls until he's certain the birds are a good distance behind him, then runs until the front of his thighs burn and doesn't look back.

Dean has already reached the road. He's standing a few feet from the shoulder with his phone out, and greets Sam with a scowl.

"You forget how to walk?" he quips, eyeing Sam's muddy knees.

"You don't feel that?" Sam asks, stumbling from another tremor. He reaches for Dean's hand.

"Feel what?" Dean asks. When their palms connect, the ground stops shaking. The birds fall silent. In his pocket, Sam's cell chimes with new messages.

Dean wipes his hand on his jeans and returns his attention to his phone. With a grin, he flashes a picture of Cas.

"Idiot's eating his weight in cheeseburgers," he reports, rubbing the back of his neck. Sam remembers what he said about a fire, an angel.

"Did you see him?" he asks, brushing the mud from his knees. "In the house, did you see Cas?"

"Your text just came through," Dean announces, ignoring Sam's question. He pockets his phone and thrusts a thumb over his shoulder. "Car works, by the way. Guess it was that thing's voodoo."

"Huh," Sam says.

"Wanna know the weirdest part? It's still yesterday." Dean laughs incredulously. "Figures we'd run into an aging god with incontinence issues."

Sam stares at him but doesn't say anything in response.

"We getting out of here or what?" Dean asks, gripping his keys. He walks the few remaining feet out of the field. Sam follows.

The car starts with a strong rumble. Dean settles back into the familiar curve of her seat, but Sam is anxious. He traces the line of unbroken skin through his jeans. The tear he repaired last night is gone, the fabric whole. Despite the mud, they're in better condition than when he'd found them in a thrift shop. He looks back at the house, at the flock of birds that surrounds it, swooping in a graceful, lazy figure-eight above the rooftop.

"Ouroboros," he murmurs and digs in the glove compartment for a pen.

"To infinity," Dean adds. Sam frowns at him as he sketches the shape onto the back of a diner receipt.

"Toy Story? Really?"

"C'mon, everyone loves Pixar," Dean chastises and flicks on the stereo.

Baby rambles down the road toward Lebanon. Physical Graffiti blares at an uncomfortable volume, louder than usual, but Sam doesn't tell Dean to turn it down. He grips the armrest and hopes, prays, that the future he envisioned for Dean won't come true, that whatever Dean saw won't haunt him. He tears open the candy bar and offers half, but Dean shakes his head. He hangs an arm out the window and belts the lyrics to Ten Years Gone.

The rear-view mirror reflects an empty field.

 

 

 


art by quickreaver