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The Killing Moon

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***

1. Mr Brightside

He can hear the din of the dogs, hear them panting behind him, hear them gaining on him as he races through the night, chest exploding, heaving breath failing miserably when it comes to keeping up with his sprinting heart and screaming, starving, aching lungs. He hurdles fallen deadwood, zigs and zags around tree stumps, dives, rolls, leaps clear over the stream, falls, frantically scrambles to his feet, runs for his fuckin' life, feels the boiling heat of their breath scald right through his jeans to the skin of his legs as he suddenly remembers he's packing this time. Tears of relief, joy, prick his eyes as he feels the cold, hard weight of his Desert Eagle already in his hand, and he spins, crashes onto his ass and lets loose a hail of bullets.

And it stops.

And it's quiet.

And it's over.

And his brother catches up to him, panting, eyes watery in the moonlight, puts his arms around him, pulls him close, tells him it's okay, it's safe, he's safe, as he carefully peels his fingers off the gun one at a time.

"I know, Sammy…" he crows. "I got 'em, I got 'em this time. See?" He points at the bloodied, twisted bodies of the dogs and he laughs through his tears.

And Sam smiles at him, and his voice is halting. "I know Dean. You did it. They're gone, they'll never hurt you or scare you again. You're safe. You're safe now."

***

"Can't I leave you boys here by yourselves for one night without the shit hitting the fan?" Bobby grouses as he wraps the dog's body in the sacking and heaves it up into the back of his truck. "What the fuck was he doing out in the yard at two in the morning anyway? He knows I let the dogs out after dark."

Sam looks up from where he's working away at the second dog's collar, the buckle stiff with years of grime that hasn't been softened one iota by the mutt bleeding out all over it. "I forgot to lock the door," he mutters. "He was already outside when I woke up—fuck."

Bobby chuckles. "Broke a nail, princess?" He walks over, squats down beside Sam, has a go at the collar himself while he keeps needling. "I know he's been having bad dreams, boy, but you never said it was bad enough to be locking him in at night. I thought you were handling it."

And Sam thinks, ah, but Bobby, you sleep on the other side of the house, doesn't say it out loud though. He wipes his bloody hands on his jeans, just about suppresses a shudder at his crimson-rimmed fingernails. He'll never get used to that.

"I was handling it, Bobby," he defends. "Thought I was anyway." Thought he was, fuck. Knows he wasn't, isn't, knows his brother is hanging on to the edge of a sheer drop by his fingernails while the twin ghosts of Lee and Missy Bender hover right next to him, tickling him under the arms to make him let go so they can swoop down and catch him as he tumbles into the abyss. Sam stands, swallowing against a sudden wave of nausea at the image of his brother falling, staring accusingly into Sam's eyes as he drops, while Sam lunges, and misses, and screams his name.

"Fuck this." Bobby finally gives up on the buckle and rolls the animal onto the burlap, then bends down and hauls the rigid body over to the truck, Sam a step behind. They bend in unison to lift and drop it into the truck bed, where it lands with a dull thud. After a beat, Bobby pulls off his cap, and for an embarrassing moment Sam thinks it's some kind of mourning ritual. He's mortified, bows his head in respect, clasps his hands together.

"Boy, what the heck are you doing?" the older man says curiously, wiping his brow on his sleeve before pulls his cap on again. "Are you praying for my dogs?"

Caught out, Sam feels his cheeks burn like the fuckin' idjit he is. He backpedals frantically, bleats, "No, no sir. I was not…"

Bobby watches him suspiciously for a minute or two, raises an eyebrow. "Well…" He looks into the truck at the mutts, bites his lip suddenly. "That said, they were good dogs. Clinton… Lewinsky… you were good pups, good friends to me, kept me warm on long, lonely nights. I never had cause to worry knowing you were out here taking care of the place for me. You were like family to me, you two."

Bobby lifts a hand to his eyes and Sam scuffs his feet in the dirt, looks anywhere but at the old man, finally reaches out a hand and squeezes his heaving shoulder. "I'm so sorry Bobby," he mutters. "We'll pack our stuff, we'll be out before day's end. I promise. He didn't know what he was doing, Bobby, honest. He's all broken up about it himself." His voice doesn't miss a beat, even as his mind's eye can still see his brother grinning manically at him: Bobby knows it's cat-killers you need to watch out for, Sammy-boy…

And Bobby spins around, no tears in sight, clips the top of his head. "Fuckin' idjit," he sniggers. "Can't believe you fell for that one. How do you get by in the real world? Lucky you got your big brother looking out for you, kid."

The old man has the good grace to stop when he sees Sam's stricken expression, reaches out – up – to ruffle his hair. "They're dogs, Sam," he says gruffly. "Good guard dogs, yeah – but dogs." He turns, slams the tailgate into place. "I've seen enough in this world to know what really matters. And dogs will never, ever, come higher on my list than your brother. Or you. Got that?"

Sam nods, leans back against the truck beside him, feels Bobby's gaze still on him.

"Besides, you know what they say, boy," Bobby adds sagely. "It's cat-killers you need to watch out for."

Sam goggles, and the older man elaborates.

"It's cat-killers who grow up to be Son of S—" He stops abruptly. "Jeffrey Dahmer. That's what I was going to say." He sucks a tooth. "Doesn't mean we haven't got a problem though," he continues. "Near a month you been here, and he hasn't said a word about it. And now this."

Sam bats away the flies that are swarming around his blood-soaked jeans. "I'll bury the dogs, Bobby. Least I can do. Maybe even get him out here to help dig—"

"You digress, boy," Bobby cuts in. "He leaves the house to walk to the car, leaves the car to walk to the liquor store. The only time he isn't blitzed is the hour after he gets up, and that hooch he's buying, Jesus, it's fuckin' hemlock… how it is he stays upright is beyond me, because that stuff gives you the kind of hangover that should be in the Smithsonian under glass. And can you tell me when he last ate more than two or three mouthfuls of solid food at a sitting? Boy's thin as an honest fuckin' alibi."

Bobby pauses for a minute, looks up at the sky as if he's searching for answers, shakes his head in exasperation when the lightning bolt of divine wisdom doesn't zap him between the eyes. "We knew to expect fallout, but he's like Sid and Nancy. And this…" He gestures at the bodies in the truck. "This isn't right. Your brother isn't right, Sam. You know it, I know it. What I can't work out is whether he knows it."

With that, Bobby reaches into his vest pocket, fishes out a matchbook and a bottle of lighter fluid. "Now. You really want to risk a couple of angry spirit dogs with teeth like those haunting your brother?"

Sam shakes his head, and Bobby grins. "I didn't think so."

***

Dean rocks himself on the porch swing, nurses so hard at his bottle of hemlock that Sam finds himself idly wondering if his brother could suck an egg out of a chicken if he really tried.

Dean looks up, smirks, glances back out over the lot as Bobby's truck heads out under the sign, clouds of dust billowing up behind it. "He said it didn't he?"

Sam pointedly looks at the bottle and then at his wristwatch. "It's ten-thirty, Dean."

"Well fuck that," his brother drawls. "I'm on Greenwich fuckin' mean time before midday. And right now it's… it's…" He frowns.

"Five hours, Dean."

"I thank you, Samuel. It's three-thirty far as I'm concerned. Miller time." Dean takes another long draught, belches loudly before parking the bottle next to his boot, stretching out, shoving his fingers into his hip pockets. And Sam knows he's doing it to hide the fact that his hands are shaking.

"You've switched one drug for another," he says quietly.

Dean blinks up at him, thrown off-guard for a second, but then he catches the ball and runs with it. "Poor Sammy," he mocks. "He found out Major Tom's a junkie…" He smiles but it doesn't reach his eyes. "What can I say… guess I'm stuck with a valuable friend, but hey – I'm happy. Hope you're happy too." And suddenly his right leg is jiggling up and down, and Sam knows Dean saw his eyes flick towards it.

Dean bends his knee and rests his boot up on the edge of the seat, and his tone is all faked brightness as he continues. "He said it didn't he?"

"Said what, Dean?" Sam knows damn well what's coming next. He's getting served.

"It's cat-killers who grow up to be Son of Sam, kiddo," his brother sneers. "For dogs you get extra points." He laughs, low, cold, mean. "Son of fuckin' Sam. Fancy living life as the son of Sam. Good thing Jess never popped one out, huh? Good thing that demon got in there before you and she—"

He stops abruptly, has to really, because in a blur of motion Sam has whirled, grabbed him, hauled him up onto his feet and flung him hard against the siding, has his forearm rammed up under his throat. And Sam can literally see it leave his brother's eyes like a shadow lifting, the unsettling phantom of not-Dean, and he thinks it's high fucking time that ghost was laid to rest.

"Don't," Dean breathes, eyes wide with apprehension.

Sam stares at him for a long moment, sees no bile now, only anxiety and fear, and somewhere inside he feels a sneaking sense of relief that his brother isn't fighting back because he knows damn well how Dean can switch to blinding, white-hot violence in the blink of an eye. But his relief is tempered by the fact that his brother's apathy is sickeningly reminiscent of Gabriel Bender's. "Do you even know you're doing this?" he asks. "Are you aware?"

He steps back and Dean slides to the floor, sits there, disconsolate, doesn't meet his eyes.

"Aware of what?" Dean mutters. "Doing what?"

"Dean, Jesus," Sam grates out. "I'm trying not to push you on this, but you're spaced out one minute and twenty-eight days later the next. Your nightmares are terrifying me, so God only knows what they're doing to you. From what Bobby says, that whiskey you're drinking could blow South Dakota off the map if you set a match to it—"

"Don't," Dean cuts in sharply. "Just – don't. I can't. Do this. I can't do this with you, Sam. And I'm not doing it with you."

Sam gazes down at his brother, sees Dean's eyes nervously flicking over to his sneakers, up as far as his knees but no further. Sam sighs, slides down next to him, feels Dean tense up as usual when his shoulder hits against him, sees his fists clench, white-knuckled.

"This isn't you, Dean."

"I know."

"You aren't spiteful."

"I know."

"You're running away from it and you aren't getting better."

"I know."

"You have to talk about it, you have to let it out."

"I know."

And with that, Dean abruptly pushes up to his feet, walks over to the porch steps, scans the lot.

Not talking today then, Sam thinks. "Dean, please don't walk away from me," he presses. "This thing with Bobby's dogs, it—"

Dean's voice is edgy. "Did Bobby lock up the dogs before he left?"

Sam quirks his head, feels his eyebrows gallop up towards his hairline. "What?"

"The dogs. Are they out of the way?"

"Dean, you just…" Sam stops, exhales sharply. "It's extra points for dogs. You said that, you just said it, man…"

Dean stares down at him, and there's a sort of lost confusion in his eyes. "Sam, you're making no sense," he snaps. "You know the dogs make me nervous. Are they secured?"

And Sam feels weary, sad, scared, hears the echo of Bobby's voice in his head, your brother isn't right, Sam. "In a manner of speaking," he replies.

Dean frowns. "What does that mean? Don't jerk my chain, dude. I'm serious… Are they locked up?" His voice rises suddenly, rises on a note of all-too-familiar panic, and Sam stands too, moves over next to him.

"Yes, Dean. Don't worry, the dogs won't bother you again. I promise."

"I'm going for a walk then," Dean announces, and he glances back at Sam as he starts down the porch steps, before his attention is caught by a car coughing and spluttering its way up under the arch until it farts out a puff of black smoke and grinds to a halt some distance from the house.

The door opens and the driver clambers out.

"Chick, I got it," Dean says, back in the game all of a sudden.

Sam shakes his head, can't help smiling as his brother strolls towards the car, all loose-limbed, faded denim, glowing in the sunshine. Fuck, he thinks, sometimes even he feels it inside when his brother turns it up to eleven. "And zing went the strings of her heart," he murmurs out loud. He thinks, what the heck then, picks up his brother's abandoned bottle and takes a mouthful. And for a second he freezes, knows steam is blowing out his ears, his eyes are shooting out on stalks and his gray matter just melted and ran out his nostrils. He lurches to the porch railing and spits out the hooch, splutters and hacks messily, has to wipe his burning tongue on his sleeve.

Dean stops, glances back at him, and grins. "Pan-galactic fuckin' gargle blaster, kiddo," he calls out, cheerfully. "Your brain just got smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick."

He continues towards the car, and Sam trails along behind him, spitting, trying to tamp down his unease, and thinking his brother has a liver like the T-101.

But that the rest of him is cracked, shattered. Maybe broken beyond repair.

***

2. Leaving Normal

The chick is small, skinny, has piercing blue eyes in a freckled face, and dark hair that looks like it was dragged through a hedge backwards but probably took hours to tousle that artfully. She's wearing faded cut-offs and Converse sneakers, and her tank-top declares that she's slippery when wet, which gives Dean a warm feeling somewhere that hasn't felt any heat since… for a while.

Sam would say she wasn't his type.

But these days anything's my fuckin' type, he thinks, as long as it's female. Because, females. Girls. Women. Chicks. Birds. Dames. Molls. Broads. Skirts. Cupcakes. Bettys.

"What's a betty?"

Dean gapes, knows his jaw is dropping at the thought he might have said any of that out fuckin' loud.

"Nothing… I didn't say that," he squeaks, voice skating through the octaves like Mariah fuckin' Carey's, like it hasn't done since it broke when he hit puberty.

Sam is right behind him now, and Dean can sense his brother's stifled mirth so clearly he wonders for a minute if the bitch's shining has rubbed off on him when he wasn't looking. He clears his throat, switches on his Dean-Winchester-like-the-gun growl before he goes on. "Just thinking out loud, miss."

"There's something wrong with my car," the woman says primly, and Dean knows for sure he's gaping again.

"Th-thank God for that," he stutters. He knows he's lost it now, but he keeps riding on into the valley of death anyway. "Your accent… it's fuckin' awesome. Like Princess fuckin' Diana."

Sam's mirth isn't stifled at all now, Dean can hear his brother's choked laughter from just behind his left shoulder. But it's like a spell or something, he just can't stop.

"Say something else. Please?"

The woman raises a judgmental eyebrow, and her gaze is decidedly chilly. She isn't even all that cute really – too skinny. But the voice…

"What would you like me to say?"

"Anything. Fuckin' anything. The alphabet, the phonebook, doh a fuckin' deer. Anything."

Her eyes wander past him to his brother for a second, and Dean sees a smile just ghost her lips before she looks back at him.

"Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made; those are pearls that were his eyes… nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange."

And we have a winner. God bless you Kathleen Hudak, and all who sail in you.

The woman is looking at him with a gleam in her eye that's more challenge than come-get-me, a gleam that tells Dean she thinks he's some dumb hick who can just about find his ass with a map and a flashlight.

And he lets her have it. "Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell…"

Her eyes widen, and a proper smile curls her lips, one that has Dean thinking that maybe she is cute after all.

"Ding fuckin' dong." Dean nods his head decisively. "The Tempest. Man, I fuckin' love Shakespeare."

Sam coughs behind him. "I'll leave you to it," he croaks out. "My brother's pretty good with cars. He'll get you going in no time."

Oh yeah.

***

It doesn't work out quite like Dean thought it would.

Oh, she's up for it – has him pinned down on the hood of her car less than two minutes after he steers it around back into Bobby's auto shop, so fast his upstairs brain presses whatever button it is that tells him to whisper a precautionary Christo in her ear, and then his downstairs brain sets off firecrackers and breaks out a fridge-pack to celebrate the fact that her eyes don't turn black and she didn't seem to hear him, because fuck knows if she asks him what the hell he's muttering about he's got nothing.

She's all fingernails raking his back, practically ripping off his tee, purring over his scars because, man, do chicks dig scars, and Jesus, he thinks, please don't be a succubus. Her tongue is bionic, swirls around inside his mouth energetically, never mind that he must taste like some illegal backwoods still, and he wonders what might happen if she just licked a stripe right down his chest, his belly, and then unzipped his jeans and reached in to—

"God… harder…"

Oh… she's up for it.

And he's up for it too, finds his usual morning DTs don't remotely cramp his inner slut as he runs his hands up and down her back, gripping her ass, pulling her in close and grinding up against her. He murmurs say hello to my little friend in his best Pacino, whispers filthybadnobutsogood promises in her ear. He nips down so hard on her shoulder she yelps, sucks perfect purple circles along her neck, Dean Winchester was here, slides his hands inside her cut-offs to discover the delirious joy that is chicks who go commando and find, to his utter delight, that her tank-top wasn't lying, no sir.

Oh, he's up for it.

It's just that he isn't.

And it's not that he doesn't want to – Christ, he does. But it's like all those messages rocketing from his brain down to Little Dean are getting caught in a traffic bottleneck somewhere in his general groin region and all the blood that should be flowing south is getting diverted to the scenic route, meandering along coastal U.S. Route 1 north to Bar Harbor to catch the ferry to Nova fuckin' Scotia instead of zipping down I-95 at eighty miles per hour straight into fuckin' Logan and climbing to thirty thousand feet like it used to before…

Before.

Dean keeps at it even though he knows the dead isn't rising and appearing to many this time. And it slows down, gets comfortable, a tad boring, gets how he imagines it must be for old married couples: close, but no cigar.

"Well," the woman says finally, pulling back and wiping her lips. "You certainly had me going there for a while." She zips up her shorts, rescues her tank-top from where he threw it, pulls it on, scrunches up the scrap of shiny fabric that passes for a bra when you're that skinny and feeds it into her hip pocket.

"Sorry," Dean manages, and Jesus, it's the first time since he first dipped his wick at fifteen that he's ever said that to a chick in this situation.

"Oh, don't be," she says airily, and she reaches into her car and retrieves a pack of Camels. "It's not as if I was expecting anything, anyway. Which means that was an extremely enjoyable diversion even if it all, well, led nowhere really."

She lights up, takes a drag and puffs out an accomplished smoke circle, offers him the cigarette, examines him as he inhales the smoke and coughs with the tickle of still-sensitive airways.

"So. You married then? Pining for someone? Secretly gay?"

"Fuck no," Dean snaps. "No. None of the above."

"Are you still going to fix my car?"

He rolls his eyes, opens the driver's door and pops the hood, spots the problem straightaway. "Look, it's the—"

"God, enough," she cuts in, waving dismissively. "Not interested, don't care. The world is full of strapping young men who can get my engine up and running. Even if they can't get my engine up and running. If you get my drift."

She's a total stranger. Someone he'll never see again once he gets her car going and she pulls out of Bobby's yard onto the highway. You have to talk about it. You have to let it out.

Dean's head is suddenly bursting with the fact that Sam is right. He needs to talk, and he wishes to the very core of his being that he could talk to his brother, but he can't, just can't do it, can't go there willingly – bad enough that his dreams drag him there kicking and screaming. And he knows damn well his brother hears the dreams, sees the shadows under Sam's eyes that speak of his own sleepless nights, but still he just can't tell Sam how much he remembers, can't reveal that much of himself, can't let his kid brother see who chases him in his nightmares, can't let him see the awful despair of being damn well stuck with a valuable fuckin' friend once he gives into his exhaustion. And she's a total stranger, someone he'll never see again once he gets her car going and she pulls out of Bobby's yard onto the highway.

"I don't. I, uh, can't. I was. Uh. Was. Raped."

It's the first time he has said it. His voice trips on it, his throat suddenly dry, and he flinches inwardly at how ugly the word is, how hard and brutal it sounds, thinks how appropriate it is that someone somewhere picked that precise combination of letters, that they totally fit what they describe. It's a vicious word, a hurtful word, a barbed, poisonous word.

"So was I."

And she has his jaw dropping again but only for a split second, because he finds he's stumbling on without even really meaning to.

"My brother… he, uh, wants me to talk. To him. About it. But I can't. It's too, too…" He doesn't even know what word he's searching for and he trails off, shrugs, thinks he might even be blushing, wants the ground to swallow him.

She looks at him for a long moment. "It's hardest with the people you love," she says carefully. "Strangers don't see how it changes you. They take you as you are and don't miss the person you were. Family… you don't want them to see you ruined and broken, but you can't hide it from them because they knew you before. They see the differences. The cracks." She stops for a minute, studies him again. "But your brother… he's the one you need to talk to about it. Not me."

He knows she's right. But maybe there's one thing she can help him with.

"I can't… it doesn't, uh, work any more. But you. You seem to work just fine."

She smiles knowingly. "It'll start working again, believe me. This was recent for you, yes? It takes time. But one day you'll feel like I did – that the bastard who took that from you isn't going to stop you from taking it back."

Dean throws up his hands. "But how, how do you… take it back? How?"

"You choose to. It's your choice. You just aren't ready to make it yet, and I'm not the one."

He wonders if it really can be that easy, and it's as if she can read his mind.

"You'll know when it's time. And when it's the one."

He nods, still a tad doubtful. He wipes his oil-covered hands on a rag, reaches out. "Dean Winchester. Like the gun."

She smiles, shakes his hand with a firm grip. "Lucy Ross. I'm pleased to meet you, Dean-Winchester-like-the-gun."

He's still holding her hand. "That's a mighty strong grip you got there, Lucy," he blurts out.

She nods, smirks. "Yes it is. What a waste, huh?"

Dean has the engine running as sweetly as his own baby within twenty minutes, and then she's gone, in a cloud of dust. He watches her car until it disappears, and it's like she was never there. And then he schleps back to the house.

Sam watches him from the porch swing and there's a glint in his eye that's part amusement and part something else, like he's monitoring Dean, examining him. Dean tells himself he's imagining the scrutiny, but Sam watches him with that look for a long minute, assessing him.

"So."

Dean looks away, sits and plucks his second bottle of hooch from where he stuffed it for safekeeping, down between the cushion and the seat frame. "So what, Sammy?"

"Princess Diana fantasy. Care to share?"

Sam jabs him in the ribs with his elbow, and thank fuck that's all it is, his kid brother teasing him over a teenage crush. But something flashes in Dean's brain, a spark or something, and he presses the heel of his hand to his temple, fights the urge to rub his brow because he knows it worries his brother. He can hear snatches of what he said before cutting in and out inside his head, spat-out insults, wrong and hurtful, Sammy sharp-eye mad at him. It's fragmented, though, like he wasn't there for all of it, like… missing time. His head aches so fuckin' bad. He knows it's not right, but the little voice in there that's bleating tell Sam is drowned out by the sudden flood of gratitude for the fact that his brother isn't pushing, is cutting him the break he desperately wants even if it's a breakthrough he desperately needs.

"Nope. Private." He sees Sam smirking in his peripheral vision, and he returns the grin. "Oh come on. You'd have hit that if you had the chance. She was hot as hell."

"The chick?"

"Princess Diana. Total babe." Dean nods, because heck, someone might as well agree with him for once, pops the cap of the bottle with his ring. "The chick too."

"So. Did you…"

"Don't ask, don't tell, Sammy."

They sit there, not talking, slapping at skeeters, and Dean nurses his booze. And in his head he practices what he could say to his brother… he's in my dreams, every one… dream fuckin' lover or something… stuck in my head… dunno how to get him out… feel so fuckin' pathetic… can't bear you thinking that I am…

And finally the haze of alcohol gets so thick he can't see the woods stretching out in all directions.

***

He must have dozed off because he winces awake to a squirming bundle dropped right onto his jewels.

"This one's completely harmless, boy. Take my word for it," Bobby says from high up, as Dean lifts the wriggling pup by its scruff and looks up at the old man.

"Won't the other two eat it?" he ponders, and he sees Bobby glance over at Sam, thinks maybe something passes from his brother's eyes to the old man's.

"Re-homed 'em, son," Bobby says after a minute. "Thought it'd be easier for you with Rumsfeld here being smaller."

Dean is touched, genuinely touched. "Bobby, man… you didn't need to do that. They were good dogs, you didn't need to ditch them on my account." But he chokes slightly on the words, and a weight lifts from his shoulders: the weight of short dense fur, solid packed muscle, fangs that rip, shred, tear. He knows he gives a tiny gasp, even if he tries to disguise it by clearing his throat.

Bobby doesn't seem to notice. "That they were. But there are a lot of good dogs, boy. Not too many good kids though. So. Dogs moved house."

"I appreciate that Bobby, I do…"

"I know you do, Dean. I want you to feel safe here." Bobby looks over at Sam again. "Now if I can just borrow Sam here for a while, I got word of a hunt in Pennsylvania, angry spirit maybe. Reckon you can do some research for me, boy?"

Sam pushes up, has to lean down briefly to extricate the snarling pup's needle-sharp teeth from the cuff of his jeans. "Sure, Bobby, can do."

The door creaks shut behind them and Dean drifts off, gazing into the middle distance, miles away.

***

Sam follows Bobby into the house, heads for his laptop, sees the old man glance out the window as if he's checking that Dean is staying put.

"What the hell was that?" Bobby says then, and his voice crackles with worry. "He was racing round out there for God knows how long with my dogs up his ass before he emptied a full clip into them. And he has no memory of it?"

He's rattled like Sam hasn't seen him since Hibbing as he goes on. "Look Sam, I haven't been sticking my nose in this, I haven't said a damn word until this morning, being as you said this had to happen on Dean's terms. But it isn't getting sorted, and now I feel like you haven't been on the level with me, boy, because you never said anything about him not remembering these dreams."

Sam briefly wonders if he should think up some cover story, but he knows Bobby will see it for the crap it is, so he settles for the truth. And once he's figured that's the best tack, it all pours out. "I'm sorry Bobby. It's just that he's really freaking me out. This, what happened, it's – an escalation. Nightmares are one thing, but this was something way beyond that… he really thought it was Bender's dogs, he was right back in that moment, it was totally real to him. But he wasn't even really awake, it was like a, a fugue."

Sam realizes he has his hands up and pressed to his cheeks, his eyes huge and his mouth open in a Munchian O, and it's shock, is what it is, appalled shock, because even though he's just been sitting out there right next to the burnt-out shell of his brother, scoping him for signs of total breakdown, he hasn't really thought about what that means. "Fuck. Shit-fuck." he says. "Fuck. He sat there and made some crack about scoring points when you kill dogs, Bobby, and five minutes later it was like he'd forgotten, forgotten he said it, forgotten the dogs… no, not forgotten, more like – never knew in the first place." He has to stop for a minute, steady his breathing. "He isn't right. But I don't know what to do about it. So I guess I'm just, I don't know, in a holding pattern with him, waiting for him to land."

Bobby rubs his stubbled jaw hard. "Well, he isn't making his final approach so much as he is tailspinning," he grunts. "Look, Sam. I know you thought it was important for him to be able to live his life, be independent instead of having us baby him and watch him all the time. But—"

"Normal. I wanted him to feel normal," Sam mutters.

"I know. I know that, and I understand your reasoning, boy, I do," the old man says quickly. "But – and don't take this the wrong way, Sam – you're saying this was different, an escalation. And we know he's been driving into town by himself to buy liquor…"

Sam knows exactly what the old man is going to say, knows because he's been trying to stop himself from thinking it.

"So. Is it possible he's gotten hold of something a tad stronger than the booze, that might have kicked this off?"

Sam doesn't reply for a minute, shrugs. "I don't know, Bobby… he just isn't like that. I mean he tokes the odd joint, yeah, but he's never been a user, never. He's too much of a control freak. But… it has crossed my mind." It feels like a total betrayal of his brother and his forced addiction at the Benders' hands to even consider that possibility let alone 'fess up to Bobby that he has, and Sam thinks the older man must sense it, because he backtracks to slightly safer territory.

"The dreams… night terrors, flashbacks, whatever they are. Is he aware after them, does he make sense when he wakes up?"

"He gets up," Sam says, "and he prowls round the room, tries to get out, which is why I've been locking the door. But I don't know if he's even really awake. I just put him back to bed and in the morning it's like it never happened, he doesn't mention it."

"Are the dreams like what happened after we pulled him out of the river back in Hibbing?" Bobby asks. "I mean… does he think Bender's attacking him? He obviously thought Bender's dogs were chasing him."

Sam shakes his head, throws up his hands. "I think so… all the websites I've looked at say it's pretty common after – that. He's – distressed. In the dreams." He flips to his brother's tearstreaked face and desperate eyes, flips away just as fast because he knows he just can't dwell on them without smashing something in the room to pieces. "But Bobby, he's been saying all along he doesn't really remember it, so how can he be dreaming things he says he has no memory of? How does that work?"

The old man snorts. "Well, first off you're assuming he isn't lying to us about how little he remembers. You and I both know what he said in Hibbing. He knew. Or he seemed to."

Sam thinks of his brother's harrowing alleyway confession, shivers.

"But I guess he could have buried it since then," Bobby muses. "Repressed it as a self-defense mechanism because he just can't cope with it. So it's coming out the only way it can – in his dreams." He stops for a minute, continues more thoughtfully. "Dreams are pretty powerful mojo – some say it's the subconscious mind trying to break out into the conscious mind, others reckon they're a way of working through the bad stuff without having to shock the conscious mind with it… deal with the nasty shit in a safe place, if you like. Freud said nightmares help the brain learn to control the emotions you feel after distressing experiences."

Sam gazes up at him, is lost for words for about thirty seconds. He always suspected Bobby was a closet geek, but the old man never ceases to amaze him. "Bobby you're awesome," he says.

Bobby rolls his eyes, looks out the window again. "Question is, what the heck do we do with this? He isn't opening up to you, and this closing down means it's festering inside him. But. Pushing him to face up to it all too soon could be just as bad, the sort of shock he doesn't need."

"So that means leaving things as they are?" Sam says. "Leaving the nasty shit in the safe place?"

Bobby shrugs. "I guess. For now, anyway. But we're going to have to rethink normal when it comes to the weapons. That's starting to look like a bridge too far, boy. He mistook my dogs for Bender's, so who's to say he might not mistake one of us for that sonofabitch? I don't even want to think about him doing that within reach of shooters or sharp objects."

Dean hadn't aimed the gun at him last night, Sam recalls, had aimed right at the dogs even though Sam was in his line of fire. "I was out there with him chasing along behind the dogs, Bobby, and he seemed pretty careful when it came to not hitting me… and he knew it was me, he spoke to me."

Bobby sniffs. "Well. You were there with him when the pitbulls were chasing you. Could be you were in the dream and he thought you were the dream Sam when he spoke to you."

"I'm sure he wouldn't hurt us," Sam says quietly, though he doesn't know how convincing he sounds.

"You think?" Bobby says, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

"I will if you will."

Bobby huffs. "Yeah. Well Freud also believed dreams were a psychosis. Meaning a total personality one-eighty, and an upside-down sense of reality. And you know what Kant said."

"Um. No?"

"The lunatic is a wakeful dreamer. And I'd say your brother was definitely a wakeful dreamer, if not a goddamn lunatic, when he plugged my dogs full of lead."

***

3. Life, Abroad in the Land and Defiant

The thing that lives in the woods doesn't like sound, doesn't like movement, and so it doesn't like life because life is sound and movement. When it hears and sees life, it stalks it in ominous darkness and strikes, and it is swift of foot, dogged, tireless, all iron-hard muscle and sinew, and cruel, deadly, ferocious cunning.

It has evolved backwards into something long dead: its own ancestors, the prototype of its breed, half-men who ranged in packs, running down their living meat. It has done this to satisfy a primeval, savage hunger, to feed its voracious appetite. When it runs down the meat and closes in for the kill, it feels ecstasy because it can hear the warm blood shrieking in the meat's veins. But in the instant when it slashes and destroys, it feels something that it remembers is familiarity, because even though it has long since ceased to be human it knows it was once like its prey. And it listens to the sounds the prey makes, and it feels sadness even as eager hunger sharpens its ferocity and blood lust.

The thing that lives in the woods was alone for a long time until it found its kin, the other things in the woods whose blood didn't shriek, but called to its own. And so it stopped the hunt and it sat in the stillness and watched its kin and longed, yearned, to come out of the darkness. And then one night it came and they were gone and it was alone again, and it felt grief, howled its loneliness, and hunted.

But now… now it isn't alone any more.

***

Same old same old.

Sam startles awake at one-fifteen to punched-out curses and tight, unhappy cries that are all about fearhorrornopleaseno.

He stares at the ceiling. Every whimper is a clue, he knows, a clue about what happened, what was done to his brother. A long trail of clues that can lead him all the way to x-marks-the-spot, buried treasure: the answers he needs to solve Dean, heal him, point him through the door marked recovery.

So why does his gut twist so miserably for listening, for intruding, for spying on Dean when he's at his most vulnerable – when he's a victim? Would Dean even tell him what happened if he knew, if his own mind hadn't apparently sealed it up and deep-sixed it further down than the fucking Titanic? Sam doesn't honestly know. So just like every other time he lies there, torn between taking notes and blocking his ears so he can't hear his brother's muffled sounds of suffering, the tortured voiceover narrating his ordeal at Bender's hands. And he feels a sad, guilty sense of relief for the one and only good thing in all of this: a good thing for him and him alone – the fact his brother never calls for him, never whispers his name or cries out for his help, because these days when Dean dreams, he's Gabe Bender.

Be Dean again, he thinks. Please.

Dean sits bolt upright, gives a strangled gasp.

Sam's cue.

He sits up, swings his legs over the side of the bed almost in time to his brother silently doing exactly the same, watches as Dean shuffles to the bedroom door. A shaft of moonlight illuminates his progress, and Sam can count his brother's ribs front and back. They make him think of trailing a stick along them like little kids do with metal railings, of hearing the stick rattle across Dean's ribcage.

Sam gets up, walks tiredly over to stand beside his brother, and like he does every time they've acted this out he hopes, prays, for Dean to startle, whirl, send a fist slamming into his jaw, because then he'll know that this is Dean. And Sam would give pretty much all he has for that to happen, instead of standing here night after night watching Gabe tug with unhappy desperation at the doorknob, making timid sounds of frustration, not even really reacting as Sam places his big hand over his smaller one, gently turns him and guides him back to the bed.

He sits his brother down, lifts his feet up onto the mattress, sits next to him for a minute. "Go back to sleep, Gabe," he soothes as he pushes Dean down.

Gabe closes blank eyes and does as he's told.

And Sam thanks the Maker that he remembered to lock the door, because one thing he doesn't want to be doing in the morning is scraping up eviscerated puppy.

***

Sam hauls his carcass out of bed with the sun high in the sky, vacuums down two bowlfuls of Bobby's heart-healthy cholesterol-busting plywood flakes, heads out and finds Dean tinkering with the Impala, whistling, battered sneakers poking out from underneath. And just like he does every morning, Sam feels reprieved, lets out a breath he hasn't even been aware he's holding: the ever-present worry that the day will dawn without Dean ever making it back out of the nightmare and that he'll find himself staring at Lee Bender's brother. Gabe. Not-Dean. Who won't know him, who will stare back with anxious, suspicious eyes and ask who the heck he is, maybe even beg Sam not to hurt him. Just the thought of it churns Sam's stomach.

He sits on an upturned bucket, sheds his tee and turns his face up to the sun, and now that he knows all is right with his world until night falls, he can relax enough to feel the usual smug satisfaction about the fact that he toasts to a rich, dark brown even as his brother sizzles pinkish gold and then sprouts more freckles.

"I can feel you tanning out there, bitch," Dean grumbles suddenly, between clanking, tapping noises and lurid curses. Then it goes quiet for a few seconds, until, "Wrench. Green handle."

Sam spends a few minutes passing an assortment of tools under the chassis, before, "Beer. Cooler."

It's after midday at least, so he passes that under the car too, hears the bottle hiss open. The tapping and clanking starts up again then, and after a few minutes Sam can hear his brother humming, hear the humming graduate into quiet singing as he works. Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near, just like me, they long to be…

Sam sniggers. "Dude. You're singing a Carpenters song—"

"Jesusfuck."

There's an almighty crash from under the car and, "Get me fuckin' out, now!" and Sam grabs his brother's ankles and hauls him bodily out from under the Impala so fast he throws up a cloud of dust that has Dean spluttering and coughing.

"What? What?" Sam cries as he grabs his brother, pulls him up onto his ass and starts examining his head for dripping cuts while Dean bats out at him.

"The fuck? Off! Ow! Leg, m' fuckin' leg!" And Dean finally plants a hand squarely on Sam's chest and gives him a hard shove that lands him on his own butt in the dirt.

"Jesus! Watch the leg," Dean snaps, rubbing hard at his thigh.

Sam babbles a string of apologies but his brother has already moved on.

"Fuckin' Carpenters! I was singing a fuckin' Carpenters song!" Dean rages, and he's beside himself, leaps to his feet, viciously kicks the bucket Sam was sitting on before doubling over, gripping his leg tightly with both hands, eyes closed and chest heaving. "Christ. Leg. Hurts. I need a fuckin' drink. Wash my mouth out. Fuckin' Carpenters. Jesus… shit."

He leans over and roots another beer out of the cooler, upends and drains the bottle so rapidly trails of the booze leak out the corners of his mouth and trickle foamily down his chin and neck. He wipes his lips, stares at Sam. "Bobby's driving me crazy with his easy fuckin' listening," he says, and his eyes are wide with genuine alarm. "I can't get it out of my head. The Carpenters. Christ. Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass. And John fuckin' Denver. It's so many levels of wrong, it's…"

He paces up and down, limping slightly, finally pauses and runs an oily hand through sweat-spiked hair, before reaching down a hand and hauling Sam up onto his feet. "I can't do this any more," he says, utterly heartfelt.

"Burt Bacharach wrote that song, Dean," Sam says mildly. "He's one of the great songwriters. It's a classic."

"Oh, bite me. Fuckin' bite me, bitch."

Dean starts furiously flinging tools into the trunk, stops, thinks a minute. "A hunt. I need a hunt."

***

"The last thing he needs is a hunt!" Bobby cries, aghast, right up into Sam's face, and Sam almost expects him to follow it with the kind of sharp finger jabs to the shoulder his dad would use to emphasize the point. The old man isn't even bothering to hide his chagrin from Dean, who glowers at them from the couch. He leans in even closer, lowers his voice to a hiss. "His leg's still giving him jip. And hunts mean weapons."

Sam thinks of his brother loose with a gun, thinks specifically of the last time his brother was loose with a gun, says, "Dean. Bobby's right, Dean." He says it calmly, the kind of calm designed to take the sting out of what he knows his brother will see as the kind of betrayal worthy of a mob lynching complete with flaming torches and pitchforks.

Sure enough, Dean shoots the evil eye his way. "I'm fine, Bobby," he says, and he sounds reasonable, sensible even. But just for a second, because his veneer of calm suddenly cracks and his voice breaks. "I need to just, I dunno. Get on the road. Or something. Think about something that isn't… him. Lee Bender."

Bobby and Sam glance at each other, turn their heads back in unison to look at him.

"First time I heard you say that name since you got here, boy," Bobby says gently.

"Well. There it is," Dean mutters. "And I'm not having a heart attack, am I?"

He's giving them sidelong glances, shy almost. His eyes are bloodshot, bruised with shadows, his cheeks hollow, his jaw patched with sandy stubble, and something that might be desperation flits briefly across his face as he looks at them. And Sam suddenly thinks that his brother somehow seems both younger and older than he ever has, that he's not okay, that he's exhausted, that he's hurting physically and mentally, and that Bobby is right: a hunt is the last thing he needs. And maybe the thing he needs most.

"I need to do something," Dean says quietly. "Need to see that I can. Can still. Let me do this."

Bobby glances towards Sam, back at Dean, back at Sam again. And Sam nods slightly. The old man walks over, sits next to Dean on the couch, and when he speaks his voice isn't sharp and annoyed any more – it's hushed, tender, so much love in it that Sam feels for a second like he should look away, suddenly feels left out in the same way he so often felt left out of dad-and-Dean as he sees his brother huddle there with Bobby.

"Okay, Dean," Bobby says. "I'll find you a hunt, son. If that's what you need, that's what I'll do."

***

Puck wreaking havoc at a farm in Montana, Bobby barks at them the next morning.

Sam thinks he might never have seen his brother race for the Impala quite so enthusiastically and they drive at warp speed, Dean constantly switching between a frenzied, bouncing exuberance Sam finds frankly disturbing, laced with childish jokes about how puck rhymes with—yes Dean I heard you the first fifty times—and an exhausted pathos that renders the atmosphere in the car thick and depressing at times.

Nightmares, check

"Dean, you're dozing off, man. Maybe I should drive for a while?"

"M'okay. Not a problem. S'fine."

Sam shakes his head as his brother gives another ill-concealed yawn. He looks at his wristwatch. Almost three. Nightmare at oh-dark-thirty, up with the dawn, let's see… he does the math. His brother's been up for close on nine hours already, on top of another rough night. Stubborn bastard. He shakes his head, turns his eyes front again and no, Christ no, braces for impact.

"Dean… Dean. Jesus… right, steer right! No… No!"

They fishtail wildly, skid to a halt facing in the opposite direction as the rig screams past, missing them by inches, if that. They both sit there not breathing for whole minutes.

"Dean," Sam says, voice rock steady. "Pull off the road. You're sleeping. Right now."

Dean's eyes are huge, and when he finally remembers to breathe it's fast and shallow. He doesn't argue the toss with Sam, carefully u-turns them back in the right direction and steers the car onto the verge. He gets out silently, climbs in the back. Within a couple of minutes his head is lolling, eyes at half-mast. He sleeps. But he doesn't rest. Sam sits and watches him, watches his brother's pinched, tense expression, the frown, the tics and twitches, sees how his fists clench and relax, how his eyes constantly rove around under their lids, starts to hear tiny gasps become squeaks and then panicked whimpers. When Dean abruptly jerks awake, with a low, desperate cry, after a half-hour or so, it's almost a relief. When they get back on the road again, Sam drives.

Liquid diet, check

"You hungry? Want to pull over, get a burger or something? Dean?"

"Nah. M'good."

Dean fumbles in his pocket, gives Sam a sideways glance as he pulls out his flask and takes a decent-sized slug.

"Dean, for crying out loud," Sam snaps. "Can't you ease off? We're on a hunt, not sitting on our asses at Bobby's."

Dean shrugs, clearly unperturbed, gives that smile he always gives that red-flags a snippy little comeback chosen precisely for its capacity to wind Sammy up. "Guess it's those little green wh—"

"Don't David Bowie me, Dean," Sam cuts in. "You haven't eaten in hours, you're pouring that in on an empty stomach."

"It's a complete food, Sammy," Dean says loftily. "Like breast milk."

Even Sam knows he's doing his bitchface to that one.

And irritable, misunderstood conversation, check

"So. Bobby says the last time he cornered a puck on a farm there were talking pigs there."

"Not talking pigs per se, Dean. It sprinkled fairy dust all over the barn."

"Yeah, gotta love that fairy dust, dude. They should bottle it."

It's starting to rain, Sam thinks, morosely. Montana roads in the rain. Winding roads. In the rain. At night. Slippery winding wet Montana roads. Dark. Rain. Canadian weather. Craptastic.

"Makes me think of that kids' story with the talking farm animals. Remember how I—"

"Animal Farm isn't a kids' story, Dean," Sam snarks, because it's dark, and it's raining, and the roads are dangerous, and he's flooring imaginary brakes every few minutes because his brother beat him to the driver's seat after a piss-break a few miles back and is now re-enacting the car chase from Bullitt. "It depicts the destruction of a utopian world by a corrupt leadership. It satirizes Stalinism."

It's quiet for a minute and when he replies Dean isn't snarky at all.

"I wasn't talking about Animal Farm, Sam. I was talking about Charlotte's Web. I used to read it to you at bedtime."

Craptastic.

And the usual Winchester snafu played out in the dark with rain pouring fit to frighten Noah, check

Sam doesn't actually know if Dean is sober as they hare up the sort of steep hill that usually has an alien spaceship complete with Mulder-abducting tractor beam hovering over it, and he hopes to God his brother's leg isn't going to give out under him.

And hallelujah, he sees a tree instead of the UFO, grabs Dean's jacket and drags him towards its welcoming branches, springheel-jacks to grab one and swings his legs up before he turns around to heave his brother up behind him.

Too late. And he thinks, when is it ever not?

Dean takes off again, the herd of puck-maddened sheep hot on his heels, collectively frothing at the mouth and bleating a high-pitched screech that sounds like a cat sliding down a chalkboard. Sam frantically unfolds the notepaper with the banishing spell on it, curses himself for not learning it by heart, but heck, homicidal sheep?, as he fumbles for his flashlight and hollers the words out over the moaning wind even as the rain washes the ink off the paper, and he thinks the next time he does this he's having the damn thing laminated.

Dean leads the sheep in a wide circle, runs slower now right under Sam's perch, and Sam can see his brother is exhausted as he looks up, face pale, eyes wild. He mouths hurry up, keeps running, sheep still gaining, and all the while Sam's thinking, it's not working, why isn't it fucking working? But gradually, blessedly, the sheep slow down, the stragglers stopping abruptly to gaze placidly around them and start grazing. The spell seems to work its way up through the flock, and Sam peers into the night, to where Dean is now just a few feet ahead of the die-hards.

And suddenly he's gone. Vanished. Alien tractor beam? Sam wonders dazedly, and he even glances up at the sky looking for the mother ship.

And then he remembers, cliffcliffcliffcliff

He lets go of his flashlight and his branch, drops to the ground with ankle-wrenching impact, pelts over to where he saw his brother disappear. Dean's Maglite is lying forlornly on the grass and Sam has to shake it violently to rouse it to life, but there's nothing, just a sheer drop into black, and Sam is thinking, but it wasn't a vision, Dean falling and the Benders waiting for him, it fucking wasn't a vision. "Please don't let it have been a vision," he hears himself croak out loud. "There's no way it was a vision."

Then, from a few feet to the left, "Dude! A hand!"

And the relief, the sheer relief is like a stay of execution as the firing squad takes aim. Sam shines the Maglite over in the approximate direction of his brother's voice, sees Dean squinting in the flashlight's beam, reaches down and pulls him up.

They lie next to each other on the wet grass and Dean starts laughing, laughter that doesn't sound entirely sane. "Fuck!" he manages to snap out. He sits up, stares at the cliff edge, whistles, turns and flashes a psycho-killer grin at Sam. "Fuck," he says again. "Thought I was gonna be silenced by the lambs there, Sammy. What with you taking your own sweet time and all."

Sam lies there, stares up at the starlit sky, cranes his neck to look at his brother. "Call that running?" he smirks. "I've seen faster funerals."

Dean flops down beside him again, and lying on the grass like this, side by side, they're the same height.

"Go to hell, Sammy," his brother jibes, nudging his shoulder.

"After you, Dean," Sam snarks back. "After you."

***

"We need a fuckin' drink," Dean decides as they drive, and they peel into a bar in Bigfork.

Dean comes onto the chick behind the bar for a few minutes before he weaves back towards Sam with a tray of beers, plentiful shots and a spare bottle of Jack. He downs two shots before his butt even hits the seat, wipes his mouth, and leans forward, his face lit up with something that looks like elation.

"I have it on good authority that Dirk fuckin' Benedict drinks at this bar, dude."

"Dirk who?"

Dean gapes. "Dirk. Fuckin'. Benedict. The Faceman, asswad! The Faceman. You know… Hannibal Smith, Howling Mad, BA… the A-Team! The Faceman. He lives right here in Bigfork, fuckin' Montana!"

Christ, Sam thinks, it's like someone wound back the clock, and he sits there and soaks up his brother's brilliant eyes and cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof excitement that looks set to explode into euphoria, and he has missed this so damn much.

"She said to look out for a dude with a really big cigar."

And then Sam tries not to count each shot as Dean gulps them down, tries to ignore how his brother's eyes start to fog over, grow more and more faraway with every glass he slams back down on the table.

Dean gradually slows down to a crawl, grows quiet, fixes the booze with a dull, single-minded stare and pours each shot deliberately, slowly, with exaggerated care, because his hands are shaking and he's finding it difficult to grip the bottle, and the liquor is slopping all over the table. And his drinking becomes a sort of attrition as Sam watches it happen, watches his brother wear himself down. And God, he doesn't want to watch it but he just can't bring himself to step in, to drag his brother back to reality after lying out there with him on the wet grass, laughing like before. Just can't bring himself to say things like no, stop, too much, self-destructive, suicidal. Not when he knows why his brother loses himself in alcohol-induced oblivion each night, and he sometimes considers doing it himself.

Sam thinks about his brother watching over him in a succession of shabby motel rooms, tucked up next to him in bed, laboring over Charlotte's Web, hesitantly sounding out the words, following the print with a dedicated, careful finger, little Sammy enthralled, their dad not even in the same state and nobody there to read a story to Dean. And he watches over his brother until the bottle is empty and Dean isn't really there anymore, then pushes up to his feet, gently pulls him up, and Dean leans into him, docile and silent, as Sam leads him through the bar and out to the parking lot.

"Wait. Sham." Dean grinds to a sloppy halt on wobbly legs. "Shammy. Need t'. To. Puh-piss."

Sam rolls his eyes, guides his brother around the back of the bar to where it's not so well-lit, sees the guy leaning on the wall, hears him too, sees the kid on his knees in front of him, feels sick disgust as Dean lurches off to the left to hit the head. Only not to hit the head at all. In fact, to very stealthily produce his Desert Eagle from the waistband of his jeans, because hunts mean weapons, and to very stealthily step forward and touch the muzzle of the gun to the man's temple.

"Kid," he says, in silky tones laced with barely controlled fury, "get up."

The kid, fourteen if he's a day, shoots up like a jack-in-the-box, eyes huge, mouth open in mute alarm.

"De—" and Sam manages to floor the brakes for real this time and stop himself. "Gabe."

It's the first thing that springs to mind, although he knows this is definitely his brother, that Dean hasn't flipped in any way, shape or form – in fact, he's more Dean at this moment than he has been since they found him hustling the bikers in Hibbing. But as a name to throw the five-O off the scent after this all hits the fan, Gabe will do just fine.

Dean fishes a roll of bills out of his hip pocket, flicks it at the kid. "Go home," he snarls. The boy doesn't need persuading, he takes off at light speed.

"Gabe," Sam says again, and Jesus, Dean is moving around in front of the hapless john, is pressing the gun right between the man's eyes as he babbles a stream of panicked begging that Sam knows is falling on deaf ears. And he knows his brother is so drunk he couldn't hit the ground if he fell over, but even in the dark he can see Dean's eyes aren't dull with liquor now, they're sparking like live coals, sparking with something that's terrifying, something like wrath.

"Fuckin' pathetic," his brother whispers. "Nonce… preying on kids, little kids…"

The guy's babbling is getting louder now and Sam glances back around into the parking lot as he hears the door of the bar creak open and slam shut, can see people moving off towards their cars, thinks this is now officially out of control, leans across and hisses right in Dean's ear. "Get a grip, Dean, for God's sake. We need to leave. Now."

For a second it's like Dean didn't hear him and then he's a blur of movement as he brings the gun barrel crashing down on the man's head and the guy slumps against the wall and falls to the ground.

"Christ!" Sam yelps, throws himself down on his knees next to the prone body and frantically feels for a pulse. It's there, steady and strong, and Sam checks inside the guy's jacket pocket, finds his cell. One brief 911 call later and he's dragging Dean over to the car, his brother's moment of vicious, violent sobriety obviously over as he stumbles along beside him. He crams him into the passenger seat, and Dean flakes out within five minutes. And Sam decides he just isn't going to risk hanging around to find out if the bar has security cameras. He stops by the motel, bundles up their stuff and checks out, while Dean slumbers on.

After four hours straight on the road, Sam pulls the Impala over so he can take a nap, and it occurs to him that it's the longest his brother has slept without screaming himself awake since Hibbing.

***

4. See How Deep the Bullet Lies

She loves to hike in the woods despite what went down there in the spring, despite the dismembered bodies and chewed bones, despite what she read in the FBI files about mass murder and cannibalism. She finds the woods tranquil, finds peace in the solitude as she walks by the river, picks her way between the trees and stares up to where the topmost branches seem to lean in towards each other, reaching out, embracing, shutting out the day completely sometimes, so that when she gets back to the trailhead the sunlight is a surprise.

Today the still, dark green shadows are even quieter, so quiet that when she stops to listen she realizes that she can hear no birds sing, no insects buzz. And in the corner of her eye she sees a flash of movement, so fast it's like a pixelated heat haze, a flickering mirage in the desert. She raises her camera and snaps off a few shots. The bushes rustle and she's wary, on her guard, more alert than she has ever been before when she has hiked here.

But it isn't enough, and the thing is so swift she doesn't even see it pounce.

***

Dean comes round with a head full of hungry woodpeckers, reaches out to fumble desperately in the glovebox for his shades while trying not to move anything from the neck up. His eyes are gritty, his mouth tastes like something died in it, and the car – nope, it's him if he's honest – is noxious with the stink of stale liquor. He lowers his head minutely, so he can cradle his cheek in one shaking hand, wonders if he can surreptitiously ease out his hip flask for some of the hair of the dog that bit him without his brother noticing. He starts to risk it, hears Sam clear his throat, and feels the full weight of bitchface #six without even having to glance across at the driver's seat.

"It's nine-fifteen, Dean. That's early even for—"

"This conversation is so fuckin' over," Dean growls, though he knows damn well his brother isn't going to sit for that one, because Sammy's like a dog with a bone when he's after something.

And sure enough, "Not good enough Dean. I want to know exactly what that was last night. Exactly."

Dean slides his eyes over to the left, sees Sam's jaw is set, determined, as he watches the endless road. Dog with a fuckin' bone. Dog with a fuckin' bone and fresh batteries in his bullshit detector. "Chillax, Samantha," he mutters. "Clench any tighter and you'll be shitting diamonds."

And Sam pulls over to an awesomely fuckin' convenient rest stop, sits there for a minute, and progresses seamlessly from pitbull into Sammy his brother, puppy-dog eyes earnest under his girly bangs.

"Dean. I know you don't want to tell me because—"

"Because you know what it was, Sam." Hell, might as well try to disarm his brother with the truth for once. "You remember what I said. Before. So you know damn well what that was." And right on cue, his leg starts its little shimmy, so he bends it, jams his boot up on the dash, apologizes silently to his baby.

"But Dean. We don't fight that kind of monster."

Dean isn't going to argue, thinks it's pointless, and anyway he's already feeling a sick, numb horror from the fact that he almost crossed a line back in Bigfork, and from the fact that it had been so damn easy to almost cross that line, that the line had suddenly shrunk from something significant – what was moral, right and good – into nothing more than a simple mark in the dust that he could just scuff through with his boot, and forget his dad had ever drawn it there.

"I don't know what I am anymore," he finds himself whispering, without even intending to.

"Dean—"

"No, Sam. Let me. I just." He thanks God he has his shades on because he knows, just knows, how desolate his eyes are. "Don't know. What I am. Sometimes who I am. If you hadn't been there, I think I would have. I would have… you know it. And I—"

Now his brother cuts him off. "This, everything, it's, it's… all messed up, Dean. Messed up by Bender. Things buried coming back at you, at us. But this thing you do, this repression-denial thing you do, it isn't helping you. Isn't going to help you."

Dean is listening, he really is this time. What was it that girl Lucy said? It's hardest to talk to the ones that love you, but you have to talk to them, some emo crap like that. And the words are right there, a screaming cacophony of words tripping over themselves as they race from his brain to his vocal cords, and if he opens his mouth he knows they will tumble out all at once. But suddenly his raging headache and his roiling gut have run into each other and are doing the whole old friends reunion scene, high fives, slapping each other on the back, how you doin'?, and a beam of bright sunlight is joining in the party, hitting him right between his eyebrows and saying, hey guys, let's kick this jerkoff while he's down. He fumbles weakly at the door handle, because there's just no way in hell he's going to yak all over his baby, flops out onto his hands and knees and manages to crawl about four feet away before it all comes up.

He becomes vaguely aware of a comforting pressure on his back, a hand rubbing circles that gathers him up after a few minutes, produces a Kleenex and gently wipes the mess from his lips, helps him shift back onto his ass and leans him up against the shotgun seat, and he thinks he might be muttering something about the boiling sun, the burning light, pleasedosomethingpleasehelpme, muttering it in really desperate tones because he is desperate. And God, sudden longed-for shade as Sam gets up, pulls the shotgun door over slightly, wriggles out of his jacket and drapes it across the gap between the door and the roof of the car. And then he can hear him pop the trunk, rummage about, and oh, love you Sammy, just never tell you, as his brother lays something blessedly cool and wet across his forehead.

He must have retched really violently because his guts are screaming foul at him, and he rubs them into submission with a shaking hand. And the Sammy-love grows even more chick-like as his brother presses a bottle to his lips and he tries to gulp down the water.

"Sips, Dean, or it'll just come back up."

Dean feels his brother's shoulder press up against his, and it doesn't even make him anxious. And they sit for a few minutes and his head spins fractionally slower. One of them says something then, about not wanting to do this anymore and Dean is fuckin' amazed to discover that it's him.

"I don't want to. To do this. Anymore."

Sam doesn't answer for a minute but when he does it's a tad off-topic. "Dean. I need to ask you something and you aren't going to like it," he says in careful tones. "But I need you to tell me the truth."

"Sam…" Dean sighs out, because he's so damned exhausted. "It's true. Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's daddy. Deal with it."

His brother huffs, part unwilling amusement and part mild frustration.

"Okay. What? Free pass. Ask away."

"Are you taking anything?"

"What? Taking anything? Taking what?"

"Besides the liquor, Dean. Have you scored something?"

Dean hopes he sounds suitably indignant even though he can barely seem to raise his voice above a hoarse whisper. "No. No I have not scored something, Sam. And I don't know how you can ask me that. After."

His brother is hesitant, apologetic. "I don't want to have to ask you Dean, believe me. But the dreams. And what you did to Bobby's dogs…"

Dean raises a hand to his throbbing head now, rubs hard at his brow before easing off the shades, letting them fall, and regretting it straightaway because the sun has got his fuckin' hat on today, that's for sure. "Sam, you're losing me man…" And Jesus, if that isn't the truth. "Bobby's dogs? What are you talking about?"

Sam's face is intense, a mixture of concern and something that might be suspicion. "You got out of the house. During a nightmare. Or flashback. Or something. You shot Bobby's dogs."

"No. No I didn't…" Dean protests, but he trails off, because why would Sam lie to him about that? "Bobby found the dogs a new home," he offers after a brief pause. "He knew they bothered me."

"No," Sam says gently. "You were out in the yard and the dogs were loose. They chased you, and you shot them. I was there."

"I… don't remember," Dean says, but he doesn't deny it, suddenly thinks to himself, missing time. "I got out," he echoes, mechanically. "Out. Of the room. The door… it wasn't locked."

And it suddenly occurs to him that every time he's been up before his brother the door has been locked, and he's never thought to ask why, has just fetched the key from the nightstand next to Sam's bed, unlocked it and gone downstairs to mainline coffee because he's so fuckin' tired and his head aches all the damn time. "You've been locking the door," he murmurs. "Locking me in. That means I've been trying to get out. Don't. Can't remember that…" But all the time he's speaking, he somehow can't meet his brother's eyes, and there's this awful clamor in his brain that's telling him he does remember, hasn't tackled Sam about the locked door because he knew precisely where it would lead – to this moment, this conversation.

"Dean. It was way worse than the other dreams you've been having," Sam continues, diplomatic but gripping tight to that bone like he always does. "And Bobby… well, he asked me if I thought you might have scored something."

Dean does look at Sam then. "What did you say?"

His brother has no problem meeting his stare. "I told him I doubted it. But that I didn't know for sure."

Dean jokes, sort of, "Oh ye of little faith," motions for the bottle of water again. "Sips. I know." He wipes his mouth. "I haven't scored anything, Sam," he says wearily, and he sees his brother nod, knows that Sam won't doubt him now.

"Okay," Sam says. "But this, this drinking, this not talking. We have to move past this, Dean."

"I know."

Sam nods again and Dean knows his brother's going to leave it there for now. And so, unbelievably, he takes the next step himself. "You know that thing dad taught us to do?" he says. "That visualizing thing, imagine you're at a strip club, take yourself out of the snafu?"

Sam nods, and it's like something is dawning on his face, so Dean keeps going. "I think I did that. When Bender. When he – you know. I think I did that," he continues, haltingly. "So. When I said I didn't remember back then, it was sort of true. I wasn't lying, Sam, wasn't being deliberately obstructive, or whatever. I was – confused. Real confused. Maybe still am. Because. I don't really know. Don't know what I know. Or what I remember. I don't know if all the things I see in my head really happened."

Sam's face suddenly goes white and he puts his hand up to his mouth, swallows.

"Sam?" Dean prods. "What? What's up?"

And now his brother is having trouble meeting his gaze. "Dean. God. I told you about us checking… I hit you with that back in Hibbing and it was because I thought you were denying it. But maybe you didn't really know. Dean… I'm so sorry… I'm so sor—"

"Wait, Sam," Dean cuts in. "Don't do that, man. You don't have to do that. Listen, it's hard to explain… I did know on some level, I did deny it on some level. Just – not on another level. It's like I knew, but at the same time I didn't know. Or didn't want to know, or something." He blinks hard, rubs his brow, because it doesn't even really make sense to him. "I'm sorry, Sam… I don't know how to put it any better and it sounds like a bunch of bullcrap to me too."

Sam grabs for the bottle of water now, takes a long gut-settling draught himself, thinks for a minute. "So it's like you're disconnected from it, watching it happen to someone else?"

"Yeah, I guess," Dean says. "I see flashes of it. Just flashes, but I can't remember actually going through it… can't remember the reality of it." He exhales shakily. "Anyway. Even without the knowing for sure, it's hard to, uh, to find the words, Sam."

He wishes more than ever that he hadn't taken off the shades. He pulls the cool, damp cloth off his brow, offers it to his brother and Sam soaks it with the water, hands it back, and instead of folding it and placing it back where it was, he drapes it over his face. He knows he's hiding behind it.

"Is it easier if you don't have to look at me?" Sam says quietly.

"Yeah. It is." He feels his brother move closer, lean up against him even more, support him, I'm right here, not going anywhere as he goes on. "I know we talked about it in the alley in Hibbing. I know you hear the dreams, I know that you know. But it doesn't make talking about it any easier." He stops, has to swallow hard, can feel his brother's gaze even through the wet fabric. "You're my kid brother. And I know you said none of this changes anything for you but it's still really hard. Really hard to know that you know I must've begged for him to stop. And that whole visualizing thing… I don't think it helped. It just meant that I – lay there and took it. That I didn't fight."

He hears his brother's sharp intake of breath. "Please tell me you don't believe that? That you didn't fight? Jesus, Dean, you were a fucking mess when we found you. People don't get beat up on that way by not fighting back, they just don't. Bender, he was a big guy, he overpowered you. There wasn't anything you could have done, Dean… Christ, especially not after his dog ripped you to bits. And you were strung out…"

Dean pulls the cloth off his face, winces at the sunlight, reaches out a placating hand. "Okay, okay Sammy. Okay."

His brother is shaking with a sort of horror. "I never want to hear you say anything like that again, Dean," he's saying. "Never."

And it's a strange turnabout that here Dean is comforting Sam and saying things like, we can do this together, here for you, talk about it.

***

The office is dead as always on a Monday morning, and as Hudak pours her coffee she finds herself drifting back to the X-Files rerun she fell asleep to, something about cows being drained of blood, funny word for it – exsanguinated, that was it. Christ, her job would be a whole lot more interesting if there was an exsanguinated cow every now and then. The Winchesters spoiled her, she thinks ruefully. She pictures Sam earnestly wittering on about exsanguinated cows, while his brother pulls out a weapon of mass destruction and casually blows away everything in sight. Cat stuck in a tree? Shoot that mother down! There's your cat ma'am. Just there. And there. And some of it's over there too.

But, reality bites. No, strike that: in fact, her reality takes its teeth out at night and stows them in a glass on the nightstand. Her reality gums, is what it does, like a baby gnawing a crust of bread into unrecognizable mush. And she rubs her eyes, thinks crap, how much did I have last night?

Conrad sits and clips his nails, boots up on his desk.

"Quiet weekend?" she offers.

"Yeah. No. No, actually. Well. Yeah. Ish."

"Let me guess. Someone parked in a disabled spot without displaying a permit?"

Conrad sniggers. "Nope. Missing person. Hiker supposed to check in with his mom and missed the call."

"He over twenty-one?"

"Yeah. Told her to call back if he didn't check in by tomorrow."

It's standard operating procedure with adults, but Hudak feels a mild thrill of unease about it anyway. "Is Kelley back in today?" she asks.

"Nope. Tomorrow."

***

The next time Dean wakes up it's in the back of the Impala, and he has a vague memory of hurling again, and of Sam easing him up and laying him down. They're still parked up, same rest stop, he guesses. His stomach is knotted with hunger and he thinks how funny it is that each little breakthrough, as he knows Sam thinks of them and he's more inclined to think of them himself, even if he does fight them with every fiber of his being, boosts his appetite that little bit. He can remember feeling starved after the tantrum he threw in Hibbing, although it didn't last.

He could swear there is actual fur growing on his tongue. And that somehow, while he slept, his tongue grew way too big for his mouth. And it turns out the noise that woke him is his brother's phone, and he hears Sam's tones are urgent.

"Well, how serious? What happened to him? We're on our way."

"On our way where?" Dean husks out, and Jesus, he needs a drink. He hunkers down, whips out his flask and takes a good long suck, hoping Sam can't see him in the rearview mirror.

"Need you up front," Sam snaps, all business, starting her up. "Remember Bobby's angry spirit in Pennsylvania? It up and bit back. It's not serious, but he needs us there."

He slithers over the bench seat, thinks it was a fuckin' bad idea as his head spins anew.

And he consoles himself with the thought that he didn't exactly outright lie to his brother earlier on when he asked him if he'd scored something. He was just economical with the truth.

***

Bobby spouts a stream of crap at them that has Sam scratching his head for a few minutes as he tries to place the dialect. "I think it's Vietnamese," he concludes finally. "The Cantonese languages typically have more vowel sounds and plosive consonant endings, and—"

Dean looks at him with an expression like a farm boy at a Latin lesson. "Dude. Do I look like I care?" He starts easing Bobby's arms into his shirt. "Get his boots on. Time to di di mau."

Sam raises an eyebrow as he laces Bobby's boots.

"Platoon," his brother supplies. "Plosive my ass. Christ. No one needs that big of a brain."

Sam smirks. "I think I remember him doing this when we were kids and he got a bang on the head. Only maybe it was Japanese back then, because it definitely sounded agglutinative."

"Drop dead," his brother barks, doing up buttons every which way.

"Sorry, dude. I cannot self-terminate," Sam says, goes to the door and glances up and down the hallway before they lead the dazed old man towards the nearest emergency exit.

In the car Bobby seems to come out of it a bit. "I was happy there," he says balefully. "And unlike you two idjits I actually have medical insurance. Hence my chart read Robert Steven Singer and not Johnny fuckin' Cash, or Bruce fuckin' Springsteen."

Dean sniggers as he eases out of the parking lot. "Even I'm not stupid enough to use Springsteen."

The old man touches a hand to the bandage around his head, winces.

"You okay, Bobby?" Sam asks. "Feel up to telling us what happened?"

The old man rolls his eyes. "This hunt – way more going on than I thought." He pauses. "You boys sort out that puck?"

"Yup," Dean says. "It is no more, it has ceased to be, it has expired and gone on to meet its maker. It is an ex-puck."

Bobby considers him for a minute. "So. How'd it go down then?"

"Usual rabid sheep deal," Dean says, and though Sam glances across at his brother, Dean doesn't react. And since Sam can't quite figure out the right words for telling Bobby his brother got himself totally hammered and almost blew a civilian's head off without worrying the old man, he leaves it there.

***

"Yes ma'am, Officer Lewis said he spoke to you on Saturday about your son, and I realize you're—oh. You're not Mrs…"

Hudak rifles through files one-handed and clumsy, finds it, flicks it open. "Schweitzer. Mrs Schweitzer, out of Duluth? No? Mrs Costello. Okay, so you're calling about… daughter? Ohhh-kay. And you haven't heard from her in how long?"

She grabs a pen.

"A week? Yes that is a long time. And she's how old? Thirty-four. Yes, she definitely should know better. So she was planning to do some hiking? With a friend… girlfriend? Uh… no, I certainly didn't mean to imply that, Mrs Costello… sin against nature? Okay… Mrs Costello, can I just… oh, really? I see. Where are you calling from, Mrs Costello… Lowell. That's Massachusetts, right? Okay, I'm going to need to get some details from you and it's going to take a while, so why don't you give me a number and I'll call you right back so it doesn't go on your phone bill. Okay? Yes I have a pen. Go ahead…"

***

"So. Homicidal ghost miner possessing nutjob local kid," Dean says, as he channel surfs intently. "Do we know where the bones are?"

"Local law enforcement took the guy out ten years ago, buried him in the woods," Bobby replies. "But the body's missing."

"So this kid either has the remains or has something that belonged to the dude?"

Bobby eases himself down on one of the beds. "You could say that. Given he's been rampaging through town dressed as him and pick axing everything in sight." He studies Dean for a minute, smiles. "You won't find any porn on there, boy," he says mildly. "Catholic church across the highway runs this place."

Pissed doesn't even come close to describing his brother's expression, Sam thinks. "How did this kid get the jump on you, Bobby?" he says.

"Tracked him and a couple of his buddies to the mine and there was a cave-in. Kid's believed dead but he was alive and well when I caught up to him. Oy." Bobby closes his eyes, rubs his head.

His brother's there before Sam gets a word out. "You okay, Bobby?" he says. "You need anything? Water? Aspirin?"

"That'd be good kid," the old man says, weary all of a sudden.

Dean pokes through his duffel for the pills, while Sam flicks through Bobby's notes. Miner. Underground. The idea makes his skin crawl, makes him think of that awful moment when he found his brother strung up in the mine in Lost Creek, that instant when he thought Dean might be dead. And he thinks about the rawhead, about what happened in the woods in Hibbing, wonders how many lives his brother has left, before Dean drags him back to reality.

"We need to find him, burn the bones or whatever it is he has. Any idea where he might hide out, Bobby?"

"I think he'll stay local… had something going on with a girl here. But this kid… you boys need to be careful."

Dean snorts. "Don't worry about us, Bobby. He isn't getting one over on us now we know what he's up to. Anyhow, he's—"

"That's not exactly what I meant, son," Bobby says. "This kid, he's sick – I mean really sick. Spent the best part of ten years in psychiatric care. Makes him dangerous, even against you two. People can be the worst monsters…" He stops, throws a meaningful look at Dean. "But it isn't just that. It makes him not responsible, Dean. Kid's ill, not evil."

Dean walks to the window, stares out, calm. Reaches into his jacket for his flask, and Sam doesn't say anything, even though he sees Bobby's eyes flick to the clock on the nightstand.

"There's still consequences, Bobby," Dean says then, quietly. "It doesn't matter why people do things when you're at the receiving end. I'm not in the business of understanding the why. He needs to be stopped."

***

It all goes up the ass sideways and dry the second the kid starts monologuing, an eerie looped drone as he stares right at Dean, and it doesn't make much difference that not five minutes before his brother was peering in the window and sniping about evil-insane fuckin' cat eyes, too close together.

"Messin' with my head, quit messin' with my head… messin' with my head…"

That's all it takes – Dean freezes. There's no other explanation for it, Sam thinks wildly, as he sees his brother hesitate for just a fraction of a second, shake his head as if he's dizzy.

And even if the kid's ill-not-evil, he's lethal when he's fighting for his life – or whatever it is that might be in him is fighting. He drops Dean in the next heartbeat.

And then he hefts his pick ax and starts towards Sam.

***

5. Comfortably Numb

Sam's shoulder aches dully when he wakes and he can vaguely remember why: the agonizing pulling sensation and sharp pain as he was swung into a brick wall. The fact his arm is bound to his chest tells him it's been popped back in. He's lying on a soft surface too. Motel room. Bed. Safe.

They got out.

"Dean," he groans as he blinks in the dim light. "You there? Dude?"

"Take it easy, Sam." Bobby's face looms up. "You took one to the head, boy."

"Dean?" Sam says again, sees the image of his brother falling.

"He isn't here just now, boy," Bobby says. "He's…"

And it all fades out, and as Sam drifts off, he feels a wave of relief that his brother is safe.

When he rouses again it's pitch black and he can hear snoring. Turn over, he thinks blearily. Dean, turn over. And then it occurs to him that his brother doesn't snore, before it all recedes into the distance.

Third time's the charm. It's morning and Sam cracks his eyes to the sound of the shower and the smell of coffee, winces as he pushes up with his good arm. The cup is right there on the nightstand and he wedges it between his knees and pries the lid off, gulps it down, takes a bite of the doughnut his brother parked next to it, breathes deep through a slight wave of nausea but swallows it. He thinks he might almost feel human.

The bathroom door opens and it isn't Dean at all. It's Bobby, and Sam is surprised for a second, before it all comes back to him. Damn blows to the head, he thinks ruefully.

"You okay, boy? How's the noggin?" Bobby asks, crossing past Sam to snag his own coffee.

"Yeah, m' okay," Sam mumbles. "Head's clearing up anyway. You pop the shoulder back in?"

"Yeah. Anterior dislocation, so it wasn't too bad, but keep it strapped for today just in case."

Sam can feel the twinges, knows he must wince as Bobby shakes him out a couple of painkillers. "Thanks. So what happened?"

"Turns out the kid had Warden's gear in his car," Bobby reports. "Gloves, helmet, overalls. There they were, name labels stitched in them and everything. Set a match to them and he folded like a cheap suit. Good job the ax was his own – burning the metal would have been a real problem."

"So where is he?"

"The kid? I tied him up and called 911. Padded cell is my guess."

Bobby's giving Samm odd, brief little sideways glances, not really meeting his eyes. And suddenly Sam wonders where his brother is.

"Dean. Where is he?"

After releasing a long-suffering sign, Bobby admits, "I haven't got a clue, Sam."

For a second Sam doesn't react, doesn't know how to, and then he goggles stupidly up at the older man. "He isn't here?"

"Nope. Helped me load you in the truck and took off. That was last night and I haven't seen him since."

"But he was hurt…"

"That so?" Bobby says, suddenly curt. "He looked fine when he drove off like a bat out of hell."

"He was hurt," Sam insists. "Hanniger hit him, knocked him down. And before that – something was wrong with him… like he was dizzy, sick or something." He stares at Bobby for a second, sees the man is still resolutely avoiding his gaze. "Bobby. You know something. What's going on?"

And Bobby snorts, sits down, his voice harsh. "Dizzy? Your brother wasn't hurt, Sam. He was high." He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a plastic container, shakes it and Sam hears pills rattle. "Crank."

"Crank?"

"Uppers. Prescribed to one of those fuckin' Benders by you know who." Bobby gets up, paces about and abruptly, violently throws the bottle at the wall, and his tone is accusing now. "They fell out of his pocket while he was helping me get you in the truck. Seems you don't know your brother as well as you think, boy. No wonder he isn't getting any better. No wonder he isn't sleeping – he's wired from these damn things. And he isn't eating cause they're fuckin' appetite suppressants. Jesus."

It's all swimming around in Sam's head and he has to rest his face in his free hand. "That's… not possible," he murmurs. "We talked about it, in Montana, after the hunt. He wouldn't… he told me he hadn't scored anything. He told me, Bobby. He wasn't lying, he looked me right in the eye. He wasn't lying, Bobby."

Bobby's tone softens. "Well. He wasn't lying really was he? More like – splitting hairs. He didn't score them really… he stole them, from Bender's supply. Slippery little bastard's had them all along. Fuckin' devious. Did you think to ask him if he'd taken anything?"

Sam feels like the idjit Bobby must think he is. "No… I don't think so. Just if he'd scored something." He shakes his head. "But Bobby, he was hurt. Hanniger did hit him." And he was all over the place, Sam's mind screams. He wasn't right.

"He was fine, Sam," Bobby snaps. "Took off like the Pope leaving a cathouse through the back door, in fact." He sits down, sighs heavily. "It isn't down to you, Sam, we've both been working in the dark. I won't deny it, I am mighty pissed at your brother. But. You and I both know what he's capable of. And it don't help that there's enough ordnance in the trunk of his car to do some serious damage if he flies over the cuckoo's nest while he's awol. Now you're up we need to track him down, stat. Any ideas?"

Sam nods his head, regrets it straightaway but still manages a thin smile. "I lojacked the Impala after Hibbing. It'll activate once I hack into the NCIC database."

Bobby laughs out loud at that. "Smart move, kid. Well. Laptop's there. I guess I'll get us some proper vittals and we'll head out soon as you've pinned him down."

***

At midday, Conrad finally gets his brain in gear enough to mention that Kelley Szuba said she was going camping in the woods that weekend.

Hudak gets an image in her mind of the deputy's fresh-faced enthusiasm for fishing, kayyaking, hiking, glances over at Szuba's desk to the photographs pinned to her corkboard: exquisite close ups of butterflies, flowers, chipmunks and other ratty little forest-dwellers snacking on daytrippers' discarded bagels. I love hiking the woods, Kathleen she'd trilled. Maybe we should do it together some time? Hopeful and oh-so-young face: rookie seeing the prospect of some team bonding with the only other female in the department. Christ, even familiarizing herself with recent investigations – namely the Bender fiasco – hadn't dented the younger woman's obsession with the call of nature.

And something isn't right about this, Hudak thinks, as she pulls out Szuba's personnel file, makes the call.

"Hello? Am I speaking with Kelley Szuba's father? Sir, I'm a colleague of Kelley's…"

***

All is fuckin' well with the world, messin'-with-my-head-that's-whatcha-get-quit-messin'-with-my-head

"Quit it!" Dean slurs irritably, or maybe even yells, he doesn't know and doesn't care. "Quit messin' with my head, Lee. Fucktard."

Sudden sense of urgency: so much to do, so little time.

He calls his dad.

"S'message for John fuckin' Winchester. Hey dad. Just returning your call. Oh wait! No I'm not. Cause you didn't call did you? Anyhoo, it's me. Dean. Your son. Remember me, huh? Well, fuck you muchly, dad. Fuck you."

His head aches. Did he hit it? And Jesus, he's tired. Fading into sleep, maybe, eyelids heavy. Call Sammy.

Voicemail.

"Hey. Sammy. Dunno where I am. Forgot. No! Uh… yeah. Don't remember. Sorry. Don't think I can drive. Come get me, huh? Bar. Called… uh… the, the… I forgot. Somethin' Tusk. Or somethin'. Tusk. Like Lindsey Buckingham's dick, dude… Y' know… Fleetwood Mac album. Fuckin' Stevie Nicks… hot, man. Hot rock chick. Anyhoo. Come get me. Sam? You there? Sam? Call me back. Sammy?"

Nap. That'll hit the spot.

Bottle of Jack, sleepy-tired, heavy rumble of bass and drums from the jukebox… the Stones? Nuh… not so much a heavy rumble as much as it is the strident yeah, Sammy, I know what strident means, tones of Celine. Fuckin'. Demon. Her heart will go off if he has any say, Dean thinks as he heel-toes carefully towards the source of the fuckin' racket.

"Yikes. Missin' link dude standin' at the jukebox. Fuck. Did I say that out loud?"

Dude's really big. Wide too. "Shoot. You're as wide as you're tall, jerkoff," Dean informs him, and he throws in that little half-wink-half-nod-half-smile thing he sometimes does to be all friendly, like. "Now. I appreciate the missus there might be partial to this emo crap. But I'm not."

The dude and his buddies are forming a defensive line in front of the jukebox, looking Dean up and down. Just some drunk, he hears one of them say.

Dean squints. "Oh. Not the missus? Not even female? Oy. Whoah! Now I get it. I knew my gaydar was trying to tell me something, I just couldn't figure out what it was. Until now."

He can see Sam in his head, pogo-ing up and down in frustration, yammering something about his total inability to keep it buttoned when he's outnumbered, about how it's like some kind of Tourette's or something, Dean! He takes a gulp of whiskey from his bottle, because there was no way he was leaving it behind him when he left his booth, and he pictures his brother's hair flopping about as he bounces on the spot, snorts out a burst of laughter mid-swallow that takes him so much by surprise the booze squirts out of his nose.

"Kid," Missing Link sneers. "You look awful lonesome, all by yourself."

Dean stares hard at them, points and laboriously adds them up. "One. Two. Three. Four…" And he stops, smiles, jovial, goodnatured, reaching smoothly to his back for his gun. "Oh I'm not all by myself… in fact, I got a whole clipload of buddies here in my Desert Eagle large-bore, gas-operated semi-automatic pistol. And they're all feeling real lucky. How about you guys? Do you feel lucky?"

Missing Link gives him one of those little half-wink-half-nod-half-smile things. And Dean hears a noise behind him, the depressingly familiar cracking noise of a pump action shotgun cycling, risks a glance over his shoulder. Hot damn. Never take your eye off the barkeep. Number fifteen in the little-known commandments eleven through twenty, yup, the ones Moses left up on the mountain because he only had one pair of hands and couldn't manage tablets three and four, and his shepherd's crook.

"That's a big gun," the barkeep growls. "But this is a bigger one. Which means you gotta ask yourself one question, punk…"

Dean isn't feeling lucky, he's feeling totally fucked. But: what the hell. He turns back to Missing Link and his buddies and now he's really studying them it turns out they're larger than life by about a hundred pounds each, and they're all wearing their foreheads pulled low over their eyes.

Regrets. He's had a few. But, then again…

"So," he smirks, his voice steady. "You gonna teach me a lesson, boys?"

***

Bobby's had time to think about it by the time they've been on the road for an hour, and he's none too happy about Dean's vacation plans. "Punxsutawney. What the fuck is he doing driving out to Punxsutawney?"

Sam rolls his eyes. "Groundhog Day."

"Say what?"

"Groundhog Day. Movie. You seen it?"

"Yeah, and?"

"Whenever we're in Pennsylvania and Dean's really drunk, he hatches this plan to drive out there and see how well the groundhog can handle the Impala. Only before now he's either passed out or sobered up before he actually set off."

"Uh-huh."

After a minute or two of quiet, Bobby gives him a sideways glance. "You about ready to spill it?"

Sam feels a stab of guilt, because he has a feeling he knows exactly what Bobby is talking about. "Spill what?" he stonewalls, just in case he's misread the old man.

No such luck.

"Whatever hit the fan in Montana," Bobby continues. "Boy, I may have been born at night but it wasn't last night. Something happened, because your brother was spouting all sorts of damage control crap when you picked me up from the hospital."

He's even more peeved when Sam tells him what went down with the john. "Christ!" he barks. "FYI, Sam – chasing after Hanniger with your brother in tow knowing damn well he almost just blew a civilian's head off not the shining moment in your decision-making career. What the hell were you thinking, boy? Were you even thinking at all?"

Sam's got nothing. Because no: he wasn't thinking at all. Because he was too busy thinking. But there's no possible explanation that will satisfy Bobby, he knows, so he does exactly what he's always telling his brother to do at times like this, and buttons it.

There's a tense silence for a few minutes but when Bobby breaks it, his tone is more conciliatory. "You checked your messages?"

Such a basic thing to do, but no, Sam hasn't. And sure enough… "Dammit. I missed one from him." He listens to his brother's ramblings, muffled for a second as Dean asks someone a question before he comes back on the line. He scowls. "He's loaded, totally. Look out for a bar called Tusk something. Or something Tusk."

"Like Lindsey Buckingham's dick?" Bobby sniggers.

Sam rolls his eyes again. Jesus, Bobby and his brother are so in tune sometimes it's terrifying. And in a sudden jolt of insight it occurs to him that Dean isn't going to grow up to be his dad at all. He's going to grow up to be Bobby, and he doesn't mind that one little bit. But thankfully the old man doesn't pass any comment about the hotness of Stevie Nicks, because Sam can damn well do without that image seared on his brain. And anyway, wasn't it Mick Fleetwood's dick?

His phone rings not five minutes after they hit town and he fumbles wildly for it, almost drops it. "Dean? Dean? Where—who is this? Where's my brother? He's—fuck. We're on, uh… Prescotville. Can you give me directions?" He covers the phone. "Next left, then a right," he snaps. "Look for a big Citgo sign – bar's there. The Blue Tusk. He's down, they can't wake him…"

Bobby floors it, and a couple of minutes later they're screeching into the parking lot. Sam can see the Impala at an angle, straddling two parking slots, with the windows wound down partway. Jesus, he thinks, his brother was obviously already drunk when he got here.

He's out of the cab before Bobby brakes fully, staring around the lot.

A big guy looms up out of the shadows, has Dean's phone in his hand. "You Sam?"

Sam's mind is racing, thinking awful possibilities, thinking Christ, please don't let this be what it looks like, please don't let it be his brother getting himself beaten to a pulp and maybe worse because he's hustled the wrong guy. Please don't let this be the bar in Hibbing without Sam and Bobby there to bail him out, and Jesus, please don't let it be the bar in Bigfork, with his brother too drunk to stay upright as he tries to defend some underage joyboy's honor.

He doesn't waste time with introductions. "Where's my brother?" he grates out.

The guy motions over to the corner of the lot, behind a parked truck, and he has to jog to keep up with Sam. "We put him in the recovery position," he offers, as Sam pushes past two or three other equally large men standing guard over what looks like a pile of denim jackets, and sinks down to his knees beside Dean.

"He was shivering too, so we covered him up," the guy adds. "With our jackets. Don't have a blanket. Sorry."

Dean seems to be totally out of it, eyes half-open but unseeing. Sam can't even tell if he's conscious or not, as he leans down close. "Dean?" he nudges. "Dean?"

Dean's eye and cheekbone sport a livid bruise, his nose is streaming blood, and his lip is split. Sam looks back at the semicircle of men, sees Bobby hovering next to them, slightly behind, shooting concerned glances down at Dean even as he stays on his toes, ever observant for trouble. "Who hit him?" he bites out.

"I did," the big guy who first approached him says. "Listen kid," he continues calmly. "Your brother was pissed as vinegar and spoilin' for a fight. Pulled a fuckin' cannon on us. We came out back to settle it like men without gettin' the cops involved. I'm assuming he don't have a permit for this?" He reaches into his waistband at the back, slowly pulls out the Desert Eagle, holds it out to Bobby between thumb and forefinger.

Sam takes a deep breath. "So he was hammered and you hit him. Is that what you're saying?"

"Pretty much. Only your brother hit me first." The man rubs his jaw, which Sam can now see is growing a pretty big bruise itself. "Got a heck of a right," he says admiringly.

"How long has he been like this?"

"About fifteen, twenty minutes. He gave as good as he got, no matter he could barely stand. Then he seemed to get real confused, said he felt sick and just fell down, right there where he's layin'. Said no cops, no ambulance, just kept sayin' your name. And then he just drifted off. His cell has you as his emergency contact, so here we all are. Budda bing."

Just as Sam is thinking that only his brother would get himself beat up by the good samaritan, Bobby steps in, takes control. "Thanks," the old man says simply. "Boy's in some trouble, we can do without the cops. We'll take it from here."

The guy nods, hands over Dean's phone. "Maybe you need to talk to him about his drinkin'," he says suddenly. "He's been at it most of the day according to the barkeep… yesterday too. He's a pretty boy. If he was drunk enough he could get into it with the wrong type. Get himself seriously hurt. If you know what I mean."

Oh, we know what you mean, Sam thinks.

The man and his friends claim their jackets and disappear off into the darkness, and Bobby kneels down beside Sam.

"Doesn't look like he's hurled," the old man decides. "Dammit. If he's been hitting it all day on an empty gut, it could be fuckin' lethal." He leans down, recoils. "Uh… he reeks of liquor." He hollers in Dean's ear. "Dean! Up and at it!"

"Jesus, Bobby, his pulse is really weak," Sam breathes, two fingers on his brother's neck.

Bobby rolls Dean's limp body onto his back, places his cheek over Dean's lips. "He's barely breathing." He thrusts his hand down under Dean's tee. "He's freezing. Hypothermic."

"But it's summer…"

"It's a symptom of alcohol poisoning. Fuck." Bobby looks up at Sam, and his expression is bleak. "Your brother isn't sleeping this one off, boy. Call 911. Now."

***

A harassed nurse calls for the relatives of Richard Carpenter as Sam stares into space. Two hours. It's been two hours since they tore into the parking lot behind a screaming, flashing ambulance. That means it's an emergency, he keeps thinking, dully.

"Anyone here for Richard Carpenter?"

Bobby nudges him back to full awareness. "Richard Carpenter. That's Dean." He sees Sam's expression, gives a weak smile. "You think I haven't heard him complaining about the music?" he says quietly. "You needed new insurance cards and it was too good to pass up. I saved John Denver for next time." He gets up. "I'm his father," he announces authoritatively.

The woman waves them through double doors along to the treatment room Dean's gurney was wheeled into when they got there. "He's in here for now," she says. "He'll be moved to observation in a couple of hours. Doctor will be right in."

Dean is whitefaced, bruised, looks small and fragile on the gurney, as he has on countless hospital gurneys in the past. Vulnerable. Breakable. Damaged. He's piled with blankets and there's a nasal cannula feeding him oxygen. Sam takes all that in as his knees buckle and Bobby grabs him around the waist.

"Got you kid. Let's sit you down." Bobby steers Sam over to the chair, lowers him onto it as a thirtysomething woman walks in.

"Mr Carpenter. I'm Doctor DeVol and I've been taking care of your son," she says. Sam stares up and his heart must be written all over his face, because she smiles. "Your brother?" He nods dumbly. "He's out of the woods," she says.

Christ, if only you knew, Sam thinks, somewhere beyond the relief.

The woman picks up Dean's chart, puts on a pair of glasses, scans through it. "Okay."

"Ma'am," says Bobby, stands at full attention.

"Based on what you told us about not being sure when your son might have eaten and that he might have ingested drugs, we pumped his stomach to clear any food he might aspirate through vomiting, and any meds he might have taken," she says. "In fact, his stomach was empty. We've got him on a drip to boost his fluids and blood sugar, which was very low." She looks over the top of her glasses at Bobby. "That would be a combination of his liver prioritizing the alcohol, and the fact he hadn't had any solid food in some time. He looks a good fifteen to twenty pounds short of what he should weigh. I assume this isn't a one-off and he's been on a liquid diet for some time?"

"Yeah," Bobby agrees ruefully. "He hasn't been eating much. We're trying but he isn't buying."

DeVol nods. "I see. Well. His BAC – that's his blood alcohol content – was high…" She looks at the chart again, frowns. "Very high, actually. Point eight to ten is considered legally drunk, Mr Carpenter, and your son was point thirty four." Eyes up again. "That's approaching surgical anesthesia. It's a good job you found him when you did. He's a lucky boy."

It resounds in Sam's head. Dean's a lucky boy, a lucky boy, a lucky boy. He sinks his face into his hands. Drink, drugs. How utterly mundane to think his brother might have gone out courtesy of drink and drugs. Jesus. And Dean would have laughed, quipped about goin' out like a fuckin' rock star, like fuckin' Bon Scott! Only he wouldn't have been there to joke about it.

"Your son looks like he's taken some knocks, Mr Carpenter," the doctor is saying now. "I haven't seen scars like that, well, ever. I have to say."

"He was in the forces," Sam interjects, the lie tripping off his tongue smoothly, like it has to any number of doctors in the past. "Special ops. It's classified."

DeVol seems to buy it, a little too thoroughly in fact. "Well. There's a VA hospital in Altoona. I'll start the ball rolling to get him transferred there."

Sam's eyes grow huge. He looks at Bobby, and Bobby looks at him. "When will that happen?" he yelps.

"Later today I would think. I'll make enquiries." She finishes writing on Dean's chart, looks up. "Mr Carpenter. Are you getting any help dealing with your son's alcoholism?"

Bobby sputters, stops and starts again. "Doctor, I can assure you that my son isn't an alcoholic," he says tightly.

She nods slowly. "Okay. I want to make some things clear to you. Young men drink heavily – it's a given. But the majority of them don't drink the quantities required to end up in your son's condition. Binge drinking to this extent can be fatal and your son was brought in here on the verge of an alcohol-induced coma. He was down to…" She glances at the chart. "Seven to eight breaths a minute when he arrived. And hypothermic. Both risk factors for cardiac arrest. His blood sugar was so low he was seizing. A BAC this high can depress the gag reflex, so if he passed out with food in his stomach and vomited he could aspirate it and choke to death. And last but not least, alcohol poisoning can lead to irreversible brain damage."

Bobby has backed away from her slightly with each hammer blow. Sam can see his shoulders slump, and the old man pulls off his cap, rubs his eyes.

The woman sighs and her tone is sympathetic, understanding. "Mr Carpenter, I can imagine this is hard for you, something you don't want to acknowledge. But if you think your son doesn't have a problem then you aren't seeing clearly. And that means you're missing what's right in front of you."

"I don't think you—"

"Often when we think we're helping our loved ones, we're just making it easier for them," she presses on. "Enabling them. I can't force you on this, but it might help you to get some advice. If he's drinking because of post-traumatic stress disorder and he isn't getting psychiatric counseling, perhaps you should look into that with the Department of Veterans Affairs. And there are medications that can prevent Richard from drinking by making him sick if he does consume alcohol. It's something to think about."

Bobby's standing by Sam now, drops his hand on Sam's shoulder and squeezes it. "Thank you doctor," he says haltingly. "We will think about it."

The woman smiles, nods, hooks the chart back on the end of the gurney. "Good luck. He's young… it's a waste."

After she leaves, neither of them says anything for a few minutes.

"My brother isn't an alcoholic, Bobby," Sam mumbles into the silence. "This is a reaction. A temporary reaction. He can get past it, I know he can. He isn't a drunk."

"I know boy," Bobby says. "But even if this is some sort of short-term psychological thing, he's in danger of becoming physically dependent on it, if he isn't already. We've both seen his hands shaking first thing. Christ, I can't believe what an idjit I've been. Should've cleared out the booze, hidden the damn car keys from him."

And Bobby likely would have, Sam thinks – if it hadn't been for him insisting they watch from afar. "What are we going to do?" he breathes.

Bobby walks slowly to the gurney, sits on the edge and grasps Dean's limp hand. "I don't know, kid," he says. "Short of driving him to a dry county and shackling him to the motel bed, I honestly don't know. But we can't stay here. As soon as they find out he isn't enrolled for VA benefits, they'll start fishing."

"I should've kept my mouth shut," Sam says miserably.

"No, not your fault Sam," the old man says. "Just bad luck to be this close to a VA medical center." He looks over, sees Sam's downcast expression. "Snap out of it, boy," he says. "I was just about to say the same thing myself. It's the obvious explanation for the way he's marked up."

He leans over Dean, touches his hand to his face, shakes his head. "Idjit kid," he murmurs.

They both startle when Bobby's phone trills. "Damn. Forgot to switch it off," he says, as he roots it out, and he raises his eyebrows. "Kathleen Hudak," he says. "Kathleen? Yeah, it's Bobby… I'm good, how are you? You've been calling Dean? No he's, uh, indisposed at the moment."

He listens intently for a moment, cuts in. "Slow down, Kathleen… how many hikers? And one of your deputies… you found her camera? Pictures of what… describe it to me." He looks right at Sam then, his eyes widening.

"What is it?" Sam hisses and Bobby clacks his fingers and thumb together in mid-air, woman-won't-stop-rabbiting-on.

"No. Under no circumstances," he barks then. "Keep it to yourself and do not go back to where you found the camera, because if this is what I think it is you will not make it back out of those woods alive. Sit tight. We'll be there day after tomorrow, latest. Not too sure about that, Kathleen, he isn't really himself. No, not fully, uh… it's a long story. Listen, I'm in the ER, I can't really use the phone here. No, not me, I'm fine. It's Dean. No, not serious, don't panic. I have to go, I'll call you back. Call you back…"

He snaps the phone closed, looks right at Sam and shakes his head. "We've got a big problem, kid."

***

6. Never Look Back, Walk Tall Act Fine

Sam sits next to his brother's gurney and reads an old chewed up copy of the Reader's Digest that has one of those real-life accounts of some dumb farmer out in the heartland, and Christ, it's always Iowa, deciding it would be a really great idea to climb into his combine harvester to unjam the mechanism without switching it off first, and who then has to crawl five miles to the nearest town carrying his own severed leg in his mouth.

He suddenly thinks what a great story that could be for the next time he has to explain his brother's battered, marked hide, even tests it out. "Scars, yeah. Sucked into his combine harvester. Forgot to switch it off first, leaned in, and bam." And, you would totally do that, Dean, he thinks. You'd stand there and look at all those whirring parts and wonder what would happen if you stuck your hand in there, just a little bit, just to see

"You're thinking out loud, dude," his brother rasps. "I so would not do that. What kind of fuckin' idiot you think I am?"

Dean shifts on the gurney, groans, and don't fucking tempt me, Sam thinks, because now the gut-cramping fear has worn off he's feeling a dull rage, the kind of anger that isn't going to end well if he gets into it with his brother now. And if he's honest, he feels worn out too, utterly depleted by his brother's sheer lack of care for himself. He takes in Dean's pallor, shadowed eyes still glazed from sleep, cuts, bruises, and wonders how the hell he can save him from anything when he maybe doesn't want to be saved.

"Where am I?" Dean croaks. "Christ." He swallows thickly, floats a hand to his neck. "Hurts. Did I detour to Heinz Field and deep throat the Steelers or something?"

"Don't joke about that," Sam spits, icy but he can't help it. "Not that."

He wonders if Dean even knows what he's said, if he knows how it's like cold, hard steel lancing through Sam's heart, because of what his brother was forced to do, just a kid with a mouth to feed. Sam's mouth, which means that when all's said and done, his brother did that for him. "You've had ten years to come to terms with that. I haven't. So don't ever joke about that."

Dean chews his split lip, winces, eyes Sam with something like caution. "I'm sorry," he says, gravel-voiced. "I didn't think."

Sam snorts. "Of course not. Why change the habit of a lifetime?" And then, because of his dull rage, "Your throat hurts because they had to stick a tube down it to pump your stomach, Dean. After your lost weekend. Care to guess how much blood was in your alcohol?" He knows his tone is scathing, sees his brother flinch slightly.

"Uh… no." Dean at least has the decency to sound subdued as he pushes up onto his elbows, winces again, reaches up and gingerly touches his cheekbone. "Christ. M'face. Nose. Tell me it isn't broken, Sam. Sam?"

Sam waits that extra few minutes, draws a sly satisfaction from the fact that Dean's eyes take on an expression of alarm that's laughable under the circumstances. Priorities ass-over-tip, as usual. "Don't worry Dean, you're still the pretty one," he says dryly. "Though I doubt the same could be said for your liver." He sees Dean relax, can't resist another dig. "But you are yellow."

"What? What the fuck?" his brother croaks. "Yellow? Why the fuck am I yellow? Is that a joke?"

"Nope, you're jaundiced. Liver gave out," Sam says, managing to inject just enough pained sympathy to make it convincing. "You're on the transplant list… probably take six months or so to find a match, so Bobby and me are heading back home while you wait it out here. They said I could donate a portion of my liver that would grow to fit you, but it's pretty complicated surgery so I passed." He whistles. "You should see yourself. Skin, whites of your eyes, even your teeth. Buttercup yellow."

Dean is gaping at him, eyes huge, mouth open, expression crestfallen. He slowly looks down at his hands and forearms, studies them. The usual tan-lite, with a smattering of freckles. He looks up, and now he's nodding slightly, lips just curling in a slow, amused smile. "Douche."

"I had you, Dean. By the balls. Admit it."

Dean flops back on the bed with a sigh. He doesn't admit it.

"The next time you throw a bender like that, Dean, you will turn yellow," Sam adds, and could kick himself as the b-word leaves his mouth.

"A bender, you say?" Dean murmurs thoughtfully.

He rubs his brow, and Sam kicks himself even harder. "I'm sorry," he says, and finds himself automatically parroting his brother's own words. "I didn't think."

He can see the irony isn't lost on Dean – his brother lets out a low snort of amusement. "Dean," Sam goes on, thinking he might as well strike while his brother just might be feeling guilty enough about his one-man keg party to open up like he did after Bigfork. "What, why… why are we here?"

Dean stares at him, seems to be evaluating him, Sam can see his brother's thought process, see something dark flit across Dean's eyes before he drags the corners of his mouth up into a pale shadow of the shit-eating grin Sam has long associated with avoidance.

"We're here, Sammy, because God saw that it was good," Dean husks, nodding wisely and regretting it if the hand that creeps up to his neck again is anything to go by.

"Genesis?" Sam says. "You're quoting the old testament at me, Dean?"

Dean shrugs. "Old testament. Big book of Jewish fairy tales. Prog rock band. Whatever takes your fancy, dude."

Sam's anger ramps back up swiftly. "Cut the crap, Dean," he snaps. "You know what I mean. Bobby said you just cut and ran. And I saw you. You froze. Why? What the hell was that? What the fuck drove you to drink so damn much you were circling the drain when we found you? Why are we here?"

He's struck a nerve, he thinks, because his brother suddenly starts drumming his fingertips on the mattress either side of himself.

"I didn't fr—"

"Yes you did, Dean. I saw you," Sam jumps in, and he sees his brother's jaw tighten. "You froze and it almost got you killed – almost got me killed too, because it totally threw me. Be honest with me, Dean, because I have had it to here. I swear I have."

He waits, sees his brother's jaw is still set, nothing forthcoming. "Dammit, Dean," he barks. "Tell me what that was, because you're compromising your safety and mine with this." He knows he's effectively browbeating his brother now, and it works because Dean blurts it out.

"What he said, that kid. He said something to me, something that…" Dean stops just as abruptly, shakes his head slightly.

Jesus, Sam thinks, it's like trying to drag a pardon out of the Governor of Texas. "Dean. Come on, man, I need more. What? What did he say?"

"Something he… Bender. Used to say. Before. Before he… turned. That I was messing with his head."

Dean's voice is so hushed it's barely audible, but Sam hears him loud and clear, sees him screw his eyes shut, and he wonders if the image in Dean's head is as vivid as the one in his: Bender flipping his dazed brother over onto his belly, fumbling with his pants, that's what you get for messin' with my head…

"It just. I didn't expect it," Dean says, still low. "Just. Took me by surprise is all. And I…" He trails off.

"Needed a drink." Sam supplies, resigned.

His brother shrugs again, looks away despondently.

"Dean. I know there must be things that, I don't know, act as triggers, I guess," Sam says. "I've read up on it. The after-effects. But getting hammered isn't the solution."

Dean looks back, smiles wanly. "You've read up on it," he echoes. "Well, what a fuckin' relief."

"Dean, I—"

"No. Just, no," Dean bites out, his voice ragged, his hand coming up to rub at his throat. "Okay? For many reasons, Sam, but mainly because I'm fine. I got drunk is all, and got in a fight. That's my coping mechanism, always has been. This is me working through it, Sam, and it doesn't always involve roadside confessions and hugs. We talked, yeah. I feel better for it and I've moved on. And all I want is to be able to have a drink without my own personal fuckin' temperance society dogging my every shot. 'Cause I sure as hell don't remember taking the pledge."

Dean pauses, clears his throat, steadies his breathing. "Now. Who the fuck am I anyway?"

And the moment is over, Sam realizes, as Dean fast forwards to the basics of waking up in hospital with faked health insurance. He keeps his voice resolutely neutral. "Richard Carpenter," he says, and he feels his deflated satisfaction from earlier balloon again when his brother throws up in his mouth.

"Richard Carpenter," Dean hisses, and he fists his hands.

Sam leans in close, smiles. "You got it. Payback's a bitch, Dick. And guess what? We've only just begun."

Dean stares back at him, scowls, and then he brightens a tad. "Richard Carpenter," he drawls, like he's trying it on for size. "Well Sammy, you know what that means…" He lets it hang for a second. "You're the Karen of the family."

Damn. Servage. So Sam belts it right back with a perfect forehand to the back of the court, acing the chalk line.

"Funny that, since you're the one who's starving himself to death."

***

She hates it when a plan falls apart.

The suit is waiting for her in the office when she gets back from grabbing a quick doughnut break, stands up as she moves to walk past him.

"Officer Hudak? Yes?"

Tall, built, good-looking. Has G-man written all over him.

"Yeah, what do you need?" she answers tersely.

"Agent Seeley Booth, FBI," the man says, waving his ID. "I'm here following up a couple of missing person reports you've had recently… hikers lost out in the woods. Uh…" He opens his file, starts glancing through it, so Hudak saves him the trouble.

"Wesley Schweitzer and Mara Costello. And I thought the FBI only got involved with missing persons if it was children."

"Yep, those hikers," Booth confirms. "And officer Kelley Szuba, from this department. And yes, we don't have a dedicated missing persons unit. But we get involved in cases like this as needed."

Hudak doesn't think fast enough not to double-take at that one. "To my knowledge, Kelley Szuba hasn't officially been reported missing," she says. "And I'm not aware that you are needed here, agent Boot."

He winces minutely. "Booth. It's Booth," he says patiently. "And the fact your colleague's tent and camping gear were found in the woods and she hasn't turned up would seem to suggest the worst." He pauses before going on, since she's made her irritation so abundantly clear. "Look. I'm not trying to step on your toes here. Her dad's an ex-fed and he's pulling some strings up in DC. Now, my follow-up indicates there was a spate of hiker disappearances in the woods here earlier this year, and sporadic disappearances before that going back a decade."

Well, no point in denying that. "That's correct," Hudak concedes. "This is timber wolf country, agent Booth. Hiking the woods is risky. We found remains that had been…" Jesus, how to describe them?

"We know, we had them transferred to DC day before yesterday, to the Jeffersonian. The squints there say the remains had been, uh…" The agent grimaces as he looks at his file, and Hudak has to work to stop her mouth forming a sly grin at the fact he seems he's having the same difficulty.

"From what I saw, they were well-chewed," she says evenly, pouring herself a mug of coffee. "Not much meat left on them at all, just stripped bones really, with some of the ligaments intact."

He grimaces again. Score one for Kathleen.

"Well-chewed by something that left teeth marks that weren't from wolves," Booth continues then. "This your desk?" He pulls a chair across, sits down. "They can do all sorts of things with forensics these days," he muses, pulls some photographs out of his file. "These teeth marks." He lays the photographs out on her desk, taps one of them with his pen. "They're from something else."

"Bear?"

"Not a bear."

"Wild boar?"

"Nope." He raises an eyebrow. "Not native to this state, officer. As I'm sure you know."

He's done his homework, she'll give him that. "There isn't anything else out there big enough to kill a person," she offers. "As I'm sure you know, agent Booth."

He gives her a long look, seems to be considering whether or not to spit out what's on his mind. "The earlier sporadic disappearances I mentioned," he starts, leans forward slightly and stares her right in the eye. "They included your brother. And you were involved in apprehending one Joseph P. Bender for those crimes. In fact, you shot him while making the arrest. In the face. Point blank."

Hudak nods, wishes her throat hadn't suddenly dried up. "Yes. He was trying to escape. And I shot him in self-defense, as should be clear from your files, agent Booth. Bender and his sons assaulted me. I was debriefed by a couple of agents from your Duluth field office and cleared of any wrongdoing."

Booth seems genuinely discomfited, or maybe he just fakes it really well. "Officer Hudak, I don't mean to give you the impression you're under any suspicion with regards to that, and I'm sorry if I have."

"Really? Okay." She leaves it there.

He clears his throat. "So. The Benders. Case file says the body of Jared Bender also was found at the Bender property, beaten to death with an ax… fingerprints on the weapon not matched in the FBI database, but found pretty much all over the house when it was dusted. UNSUB is still at large." He looks up. "Your report says you left both Bender brothers alive and secured while you went to call for back up and that you were attacked and knocked out while doing so. Lee Bender, the older brother, has not been seen since then. Which is right about the time these disappearances started up in the spring, and the remains of Kendall and Carson Lang were found in the woods, by yourself. And of course, the whereabouts of the other hikers is still unknown."

Hudak nods, cool, calm, collected on the outside, but her mind is frantically backtracking, trying to visualize what she wrote, because she's suddenly finding out it's damned true that lies trap you, that they're so utterly forgettable, that it's so easy to paint yourself into a corner when you haven't been entirely on the level. And then, just for a second and totally out of the blue, she wonders why Booth hasn't mentioned the kid. And she remembers what Swenson said: about how he hadn't even known there was a kid sister, and despite everything that happened she feels a horrified sadness at the fact that no one even knew of the girl's existence, and the kid never really had a chance.

Booth taps his pen on the desk again, brings her back to reality.

"We conducted searches for Bender, but we never tracked him down," she says. "Your colleagues in Duluth didn't show up until the remains were found. So we were searching with very limited manpower. By the time we got any help with it, we assumed Bender had either moved on or died out there." She thinks that maybe there are some advantages to being thought of as stupid hicks by the feds, that maybe this particular fed won't labor the point too excessively if he thinks the piss-poor Bender search was just a snafu perpetrated by a bunch of yokels who wouldn't know a serial killer if he introduced himself as Mr Bundy and asked to borrow a hammer.

"Okay," Booth picks up. "Well, as you know, various remains found at the Bender property suggest there was, uh, cannibalism going on there. The bones we have at the Jeffersonian… as well as the, uh, not-wolf-not-bear-not-boar teeth marks, they also have human teeth marks on them, officer. And I'm really sorry if this is difficult for you. With your brother and everything. I know his car was found at the Bender place."

Hudak trains her features into a rigid mask and stares into space. "It was a long time ago."

"We think Bender's still out there," Booth is saying now, from somewhere far away. "We think he killed his brother and the Langs, the other hikers too, probably. And that he's responsible for these latest disappearances."

He's not the bad guy, Hudak knows. But she can't help flipping back to what Bobby Singer said on the phone about not getting back out of the woods alive. Booth is a young guy, early thirties or so by all appearances. She knows this is leading inexorably towards a team of feds, Booth probably included, going in there and maybe never being seen again. She has Kelley Szuba's digital camera in her desk drawer, spied it in the undergrowth fifteen minutes before she and Conrad stumbled across Szuba's deserted campsite, still doesn't know why she picked it up and pocketed it without saying anything when Conrad's back was turned. Some sixth sense perhaps.

It's like Booth reads her mind because he suddenly glances over at Szuba's desk, sees her nameplate, sees the photographs pinned on her corkboard, and his face comes alive. "Your colleague, Kelley Szuba. Her dad says she hiked the woods all the time. She take those pictures there?"

She can see the calculating look in his eyes, can see him adding it all up, and she suddenly thinks maybe that's what makes the difference between being stuck here in Frigid, Minnesota, and being a G-Man working out of DC – the ability to jump from nameplate to pictures to a camera that might possibly have photographs on it if Szuba had it with her in the woods, photographs of whatever is responsible for her vanishing off the face of the earth. If they can find the camera at the campsite. And looking for it means a team of feds, Booth probably included, going in there and maybe never being seen again.

Christ. Because the thing Kelley Szuba photographed a split-second before she dropped her camera isn't a wolf, or a bear, or a boar. It isn't anything thus far found in nature.

And handing over the camera means a team of feds, Booth probably included, going in there and maybe never being seen again.

Booth is unfolding a map now, laying it across Hudak's desk. "Your colleague, officer Beck… he pinpointed Kelley Szuba's campsite as being about two klicks in from the trailhead, in a north-easterly direction."

Klick, Hudak notes. Ex-military.

"Officer Hudak?"

He would have to speak to Conrad first.

"Sounds about right," she says.

Fuck.

***

The doctor they spoke to isn't too happy at Dean checking out AMA, but is considerate enough to take Sam to one side as his brother wobbles about getting dressed.

"Word of warning," she says. "No painkillers of any kind when he's drinking or hungover – the combination could cause a gastrointestinal bleed or liver failure, both if he's really unlucky." She glances over at Dean. "You never know," she continues, not unsympathetically. "Perhaps the inevitable head after the night before might give him pause to think about what he's doing. Sometimes it can be that simple."

And that's pretty much it: Dean is officially released back into the wild, and not remotely impressed at being relegated to the back seat of Bobby's truck. "Those guys jacked my weed," he grouses, rifling through his pockets as they pull into the motel parking lot.

Bobby snorts loudly. "If you scored some weed and they took it, they were doing you a favor," he snaps as they exit the cab. "Just like they were doing you a favor when they didn't beat the living shit out of you and didn't call the cops when you were laying in the dirt. With your weed. And your gun. And your fingerprints. And your rap sheet."

Dean scowls, strides ahead, shoulders slumped, and Sam ranges up alongside Bobby. "Are we going to tell him Hudak called?" he asks, quiet so his brother can't hear. It's the first chance he's had to mention it, the first time he's even thought about it since Dean came round.

"Don't see how we can avoid it," Bobby says, slowing to a crawl. "She said she'd left a couple of messages on his cell, so unless you can get hold of it and erase them he'll find out himself anyway."

They both shoot a quick look over to where Dean is leaning on the motel room door, hands in his pockets, gazing down at his boots, miles away.

"I'm in two minds about it," Bobby continues. "I can go and deal with this thing myself, but I think we both know he isn't going to like being left out of the equation. He owes her. Thing is, taking him along could make him or break him. Could be just what he needs to clear this out of his system once and for all… being back there, being face to face with it in the woods where it all went down. But he's a mess. Will he cope?"

Sam thinks about the puck hunt, his brother's sheer energy, his zest. "He was totally different on the hunt in Montana, and when we were tracking Hanniger, despite what happened afterwards," he ventures. "It's like he came alive."

"So you vote to take him?"

Sam sighs. "Jesus. I don't know. But he can't stay where he is. This limbo he's in… he has to get out of it, Bobby, one way or the other."

Bobby nods slowly. "Okay. We'll talk to him. You never know, he might not even want to go. But I can tell you one thing kid – if he does go, it's on my terms. And that means no booze. I'm talking prohibition, Sam, and I need to know you'll back me up if it gets nasty with your brother."

Sam thinks about what Dean said, about his coping mechanism, knows it's a pile of steaming horseshit just like he knew it was when the words left his brother's lips. He nods. "One hundred percent, Bobby. He'd do it for me even if I fought him every step of the way."

Dean's waving over at them now, shuffling about. "What are you two chinwagging about?" he hollers throatily. "I need some caffeine. Hurry it up."

Sam roots out the room key, turns to make his way towards his brother, and Bobby reaches out to snag his arm. And then he reaches into his pocket, surreptitiously pulls out a baggie, shakes it.

"Is that the uppers?" Sam whispers, and his heart sinks, because he's totally forgotten that conversation is on the cards too.

"No, son, actually it isn't, although I will no doubt be tackling that with your brother once he misses them," Bobby says, his eyes darkening. He opens the bag, holds it out to Sam.

He peers in. "What is that?" he murmurs. "Is that peyote? Jesus, has he—"

"It isn't peyote, kid," Bobby says, glances in at the contents himself. "Though now you mention it, it does look like peyote." He shoves the baggie back in his pocket. "Remember what the doc back there said about stuff they give to alcoholics that can make them sick if they drink any liquor?"

"Yeah… Antabuse," Sam says, even as he feels his gut twitch at the way Bobby so casually drops the accusation of alcoholism into the conversation. "I had a friend at college who took it for his drinking." He's mystified now, furrows his brow. "That's not Antabuse."

"Nope. Coprinopsis atramentaria," Bobby says. "Ink cap mushrooms. Edible and totally safe. Unless consumed with alcohol, in which case they make you sick as a sick thing. Those of us in the know call it tippler's bane. Found a convenient patch of them growing under the hedge just over there."

Sam gapes. "Jesus, Bobby. Are you sure it's safe? And do you think it's really necessary?"

Bobby puts the baggie back in his vest pocket. "It isn't pleasant, but it hasn't killed anyone yet. And believe me, I'm hoping it ain't gonna be necessary. But if it is, I will have no problem with sneaking him some of these. So, Sam…" And he repeats what he said before, slowly, carefully, meaningfully. "I need to know you'll back me up if it gets nasty with your brother."

***

Dean is expecting some sort of blow up now they're back at the motel, though he doesn't know whose prospective rage bothers him most. He weighs it up in his mind: Sam's toxic-teen sulk, pained tolerance and agonized glances of sheer hurt, compared to Bobby's grizzly bear with its paw caught in a gin trap.

But – nothing. Sam boots up Bobby's laptop, starts tapping away as Bobby starts packing his duffel. Dean sits and watches them, senses it's a forced calm, the lull before the storm.

"Problem?" Bobby inquires blandly.

As neutral as Bobby's tone is, it startles Dean in the quiet. "No sir," he cracks out sharply, in his best US Marines Private Winchester reporting for latrine duty, sir-yes-sir, and jiggles his leg.

"Only you look worried," the old man says. "Like the prodigal son having just rung the doorbell. Something you need to talk about, kid?"

Kid. That's a good sign.

"I just. I. Need a drink." Dean slithers the words out, muffled, like maybe it'll make a difference, gets up and reaches towards the table for his car keys.

"Sit your ass back on that chair," Bobby says, still amiable. "Right now."

"But I need a—"

"Son, you need a drink like Custer needed more fuckin' injuns!" Bobby barks, the easy tone gone, the decibel level skyrocketing, the words dipped in poison and zipping at Dean so fast and hard and unexpected it's like they came from a blowpipe.

Sam is sitting just beyond Bobby, hunched over, and Dean sees him straighten up, sees his shoulders square and go rigid, and Christ, even the back of his brother's head is pissed off with him.

He sits back down stiffly, chews his split lip because his whole body is trembling slightly now and his mouth is dry, and he really, really, needs a drink, needs that shot of confidence, that comforting warmth, the lassitude that starts in his belly and blooms out to his toes and the tips of his fingers somewhere around the third or fourth shot, that spaced-out high that sends the knot of anxiety that exists permanently smack-bang between his eyes miles away, out to the Nome, Alaska of his brain.

He sits in nervous silence for a couple of minutes. "So," he husks out feebly, once he's reasonably sure Bobby isn't about to take a swing at him. "What am I looking at here, guys? The Betty Ford clinic?"

Nothing.

"Sam?"

Still no reaction, and Jesus, Dean feels about as popular as a pork chop at a fuckin' synagogue, feels nauseous even. "Guys?" he says again, uncertainly, and he can feel his throat constricting painfully, his chest clenching, feel this wave of raw, hopeless misery start to engulf him. "I'm not a drunk," he mutters. "I'm just letting off steam. Is all. Working things out. In my head."

Bobby still doesn't say anything, looks hard at Dean for a long minute, his expression unreadable. And then he smiles the smile of a man who sure as heck isn't smiling on the inside. "Got a call from Kathleen Hudak," he says.

All at once those stretched-out moments, the strained silence, the tension that was so palpable Dean felt its shadow on his face, lift. "Yeah?" he mutters, schooling his voice into what he hopes is nonchalance.

"Seems like there might be something still in the woods up there and—"

Dean pushes up from the chair, almost unaware he's moving in his sheer panic. "He's dead. You said he was dead," he cries, and he knows his voice is cracking with anxiety. "Dammit, Sam, you said—"

And Sam is right there, hands on Dean's shoulders. "Dean. Lee Bender is dead. Dead. I killed him myself. This is something else. Something else."

Dean is gripping Sam's forearms, can feel sweat beading a trail between his shoulders and down his spine. Sam pushes him steadily back down into the chair, and suddenly he feels exhausted, wiped. "Lee Bender is dead," he repeats, almost to himself. "Dead. You killed him. Killed him dead. Jesus. I really… I need a drink."

Sam is sitting on the bed now, speaking in reassuring tones. "Dean," he's saying. "You don't have to go. Bobby reckons he can handle it. We can sit this one out, dude."

And Christ but it's tempting, so tempting. But his vocal cords just won't cooperate. "I'm going," Dean says. "I owe her. I promised I'd be there if she ever needed help." He looks up at Sam, and from Sam over to Bobby, and he can see something in the old man's eyes, and yeah, so it might be pity but mostly it's sympathy, which he can just about tolerate if needs be.

"I know you're both worried about me," he forces out. "I know you think I'm struggling with this, and maybe I am. Sometimes. But mostly I'm fine. It's getting easier. Better. And I think this'll be good for me. Face up to it. Lay some old ghosts."

Bobby nods slowly. "Okay. Well. I told her we'd be there by tomorrow so we'll get on the road. But Dean…"

Bobby waits for Dean to look up before he goes on.

"The drinking ends. Now. Because I don't want to be relying on you for back up out there if you're loaded, and I don't want your brother put in danger by it again either." The old man's voice fractures a little as he continues. "And God knows, boy, I don't want you getting hurt or worse because you're smashed or your hands are shaking so bad you can't handle a gun."

Dean nods, feels heat flush his face because he knows damn well he put his brother at risk in Bigfork, in Valentine Bluffs and now in Punxsutawney.

And he thinks that maybe if he holds onto that thought, focuses on that responsibility he's borne for twenty years, then maybe the little green wheels won't follow him to Hibbing.

***

7. It's Just a Shot Away

He'd be lying if he said he'd never thought about bumping into Hudak again, perhaps even bumping into her again, and again, and again, and again, in quick, sweat-drenched succession, with bare skin factoring in there somewhere, in the back of his dream car, twenty-foot long… Sometimes in his whisky-sodden haze Dean has thought about what he might say, in that low rumble chicks die for.

"You changed your hair," he blurts out. Which is totally not what he said in his whisky-sodden haze.

"I did?" she says, runs her hand through it: shorter, choppier. "I did." She smiles. "I'm sorry, I realize I should have checked with you first, Dean, but it was spur of the moment. Bobby, Sam…"

She leans in, gives the older man and his brother brief hugs and Dean finds himself wondering where the fuck his hug is, and reading all sorts of profound meaning into the fact he didn't get one. "Good to see you all," she says, a tad distracted. "Timely too."

"Trouble?" Bobby says, cutting to the chase straightaway.

"Right here in River City. G-Man, and some hotshot forensic pathologist out of DC. They had Conrad take them into the woods to the campsite—"

Bobby frowns in irritation, sucks in. "Jesus. I thought I said—"

"No point, Bobby," Hudak continues, smoothly. "This case is under FBI jurisdiction now, and I can't stop them going in to search without either telling all or taking them hostage. But. They didn't find the camera because I already have it, and there's only one fed here. He won't have enough backup and supplies for a proper search until Monday."

"Gives us a four-day headstart if we head out first thing, Bobby," Sam says.

"Will that be enough time?"

"With my crack team to lend a hand?" Bobby huffs. "We'll have to hope so. You got the camera?"

Hudak roots in her pocket, hands it over, and Bobby clicks it on, squints at the screen, Sam peering over his shoulder. "Looks pretty definite to me."

Hudak shakes her head. "This is just way beyond me at the moment. How can something like that have been out there all this time, just picking people off? How is it no one's seen it?"

Dean shrugs. "They hibernate for months or years at a time, wake up, and bam, feeding frenzy. By the time anyone notices anything, damn thing's tucked up in bed again. Pattern of disappearances mainly spring and summer?"

"As it happens, yeah," Hudak confirms. "So the feeding frenzy is this thing putting meat on its bones for the winter?"

Dean nods. "Not much out there to hunt once it gets colder." His gaze suddenly drifts off past her. "Who's that?" he says, motioning over to a tall, dark-haired young woman standing in front of the Impala, hands on hips.

"Pathologist I was talking about," Hudak says. "She's quite a character."

"I'll bet she is," Dean murmurs, and he rocks on his heels for a minute before strolling over towards the woman.

***

Sam watches as his brother ranges up beside the woman, and within thirty seconds she's engaged in animated conversation with him.

Hudak waits until he's out of earshot. "So," she says. "He doing okay? Looks awful skinny."

Sam shrugs. "He's… not. Not really. Later, yeah? There are some things you need to know if he's coming on this hunt with us. But – later?"

She gives him a hard stare. "Right… sorry, Sam, that's – not what I was hoping you'd say."

Sam hears her voice fracture just slightly, so slight it's almost indiscernible. It's fleeting though, because Dean is suddenly spinning on his heel and heading back towards them, walking fast, head down. "This," Hudak says through a grin, "is going to be priceless. Woman's a space cadet. Savor the moment."

Dean pulls up in front of them, tries not to catch their eyes, blurts out, "Nothing," before any of them even speaks.

"Are you blushing boy?" Bobby enquires. "She blind you with science?"

When Dean looks up, his face is stained pink.

"Dean?" Sam prods.

"She asked me for a – donation," his brother hisses, looks down at his boots and scuffs them in the dirt.

"A donation for what?" Sam says, mystified.

Dean looks up, eyes hurling daggers at Sam, leans in close. "For. Her. Eggs."

"A donation for her eggs?" Bobby repeats. "Eggs? What the hell does that mean?"

Dean is puce by now, and as it sinks in, Sam feels laughter bubble up, throws his head back to release it, the first proper laugh he's laughed in weeks and God he needs it. "Sperm!" he cackles. "She asked you for your sperm!"

Hudak smiles beside them. "She's broody," she confides, jabs Dean in the ribs. "You should be flattered. She said the donor needed to be a perfect physical specimen."

The woman is watching them, and she waves and calls over. "Let me know when you've decided!"

The red tinge sprints up to the tips of Dean's ears, Sam notices. "Wow, Dean, even your ears are blushing," he can't help saying. "That's, like, category five embarrassment, dude."

"Shut the f—"

"Dean," the woman is calling now. "Is it? Dean? What are you doing for dinner?"

"Something else," Dean hollers back. He shuffles around so his back is turned to her, and he suddenly has this dazed, hurt expression on his face, Sam thinks, like he's been kicked.

"Dude, lighten up," he says, bops his brother on the shoulder. "You love this. Admit it. It's the kind of thing you never stop bragging about usually, and—"

Suddenly Hudak interrupts, her voice sharp. "Hey, Sam. No more, huh?"

Puzzled, Sam give her a searching look, raising his eyebrows. "What? What did I say?" he asks, looks from her to Dean to Bobby, who looks just as baffled as Sam feels.

"I'm glad you think it's so fuckin' funny, Sam," Dean says softly. "Nothing like being the comic relief after all." He glances over towards the Impala, sees the woman is nowhere in sight. "I'll wait in the car," he mutters, and he stalks over to it, gets in and slams the door.

Sam sighs. "This is what I mean," he tells Hudak, sees Bobby nodding beside him. "He's all over the place, he's drinking like it's going out of fashion. He's like Jekyll and Hyde. What the hell was that even about?"

Hudak gives him a pointed look and Sam knows she's worked it out before him, feels like he's operating totally in the dark. "What the hell was that about?" he says again.

"I thought you'd crammed all there is to know about this, Sam," she says. "You think about it. It'll… come to you. Meantime, I think maybe I'll just go have a word with him." She turns, walks over to the car.

"I hate being the last to know," Sam grumbles, knows he sounds damn childish but Jesus if he isn't a tad pissed off at the fact female intuition has worked this out long before he has, despite the fact he's closer to his brother than anyone on the planet.

Bobby sighs. "I think I just got it," he says, ruefully.

"What? What is it? Bobby?"

"Oy." Bobby just shakes his head, points to a diner across the street. "Caffeine." He starts walking, pauses and looks back over his shoulder. "Think about it, kid," he says. "Like she said. It'll come to you.

Sam stares after him, racks his brain.

And finally he gets it.

And he suddenly remembers the girl, back at Bobby's. Don't ask, don't tell… No wonder his brother had been so damn circumspect about it, when his usual MO was tell all, in 3-D smell-o-vision.

Crap.

***

Hudak taps on the side window and Dean jumps slightly as she opens the door, says, "Mind if I join you?"

He flaps his hand vaguely. "Would it make a difference if I did?"

"No." She smiles as she gets in and pulls the door over. "So…"

Dean raises his eyebrows. "So back."

She shifts in the seat and stares out front. "Your brother isn't a mind reader, Dean."

He laughs at that. "Thank God." He wonders briefly if Sam told her anything about his shining, his visions, wonders for split second if, shit, his brother can read minds and just hasn't told him, mentally talks himself out of that one speedy quick because it's just too fuckin' awful to contemplate and, besides, it's damned obvious Sam doesn't have a clue about what's going on inside his head, because if he did… he shudders.

"What I mean is that it's a tad unfair to expect him to edit himself as he goes along just in case he causes offense."

Dean nods this time. "I know exactly what you mean, Kathleen. Fact, didn't we already have this conversation? You think I should be baring my heart and soul to him."

"Well. That isn't quite how I'd put it. But basically, yeah. He needs to know. Don't you think?"

Dean throws her a sideways glance, eyes narrowed. "Not everything. He doesn't need to know everything. And since you seemed to work it out, I'd rather he didn't know that."

She considers. "Okay. I guess the whole male pride thing isn't something I have much insight into. Of course, I tend towards the theory that you have way more to offer than that anyway."

Well, heck. Dean stretches, shuffles his butt closer, snakes his arm out along the back of the bench seat. "Here we are, Kathleen," he says. "The floor is yours. Why don't you tell me just what I have to offer?"

He looks at her, and she looks at him. She smiles and he smiles back, sort of. And it's suddenly comfortable between them.

"Sam says you're drinking pretty heavily."

He shrugs. "Yeah, as it happens. I am. I drink to forget." His tone is light but Dean knows she can damn well see past it, so he drops it in short order. "I get these… bad dreams. Flashbacks, I guess. Don't even remember when I wake up. What I said, what I did." Something occurs to him and he pulls a face. "You still got that dog?"

"Yeah…" Hudak says with a frown. "Why?"

"Can you board it with a friend tonight?"

She stares at him for a minute and, thank fuck, doesn't labor the point. "Shouldn't be a problem."

He relaxes a tad, looks back out front again. "That the fed?"

Hudak looks across to where Booth is talking to the woman pathologist, their heads close up, intimate. "Yeah. He's pretty straight up, I think. Gave me quite a shock though. Turned up out of the blue and God, I had a hard time remembering what was in my report." She pauses. "He thinks Bender's still out there."

Dean slams his hand down on his leg, holds it the fuck still. "Well," he says tightly. "We know better, huh?"

He can see her gaze travel down to his hand. "You're not in any trouble with the feds?" he deflects. "Over what happened? Shooting old man Bender and all? Tracking Bender by yourself?"

She shakes her head. "Nah. He's sharp enough to see the holes, but he thinks we're all dumb culchies out here anyway, so I don't think he'll make a mountain out of it. And the FBI only noticed this case in the first place because Szuba's dad is an ex-fed."

It's a relief, and Dean sighs it out, feels the tension in his neck and shoulders relax slightly. "That's good."

She smiles. "It is. Listen, I thought we'd—"

"I'm losing control of it," he says suddenly, and fuck, where did that come from? "The drinking. I'm drinking on hunts. I nearly shot a john in Montana, some guy in an alley behind a bar working it off in some kid. And I froze on another job, nearly got me killed, Sam too."

Hudak eyes him, calm appraisal that he knows is adding up the split lip and the discoloration along his cheekbone and around his eye: right hook plus left jab equals bar fight. "I left three or four messages on your cell," she says. "Never heard back. Then when I called Bobby he said you were in the ER."

Dean touches his hand to his lip. "Yeah." And then does it almost by rote: rubs his brow, back, forth.

"Hey," she says, reaches out and grasps his hand, pulls it down and doesn't let go. He grips on tight.

"I hit it real hard," he mutters. "I mean, real hard. Like, get into a fight with four guys built like brick shithouses hard. Like, end up in the ER getting my stomach pumped hard." He squeezes her hand so tightly now he's sure it must be hurting her, but she doesn't flinch. "Like, maybe wrap my car round a tree hard, or blow my own fuckin' head off hard."

Her face is impassive, voice too. "Very first thing that goes when you start drinking is your sense of judgment," she says. "Which means that if you feel that way it's because you're drunk, Dean. Not because you're suicidal."

"Yeah. Right."

"Do Sam and Bobby know this?"

"No. Yeah. No. Maybe. I don't know." Dean shrugs, helpless.

"You're sober now, aren't you?" Hudak says then. "Would you take out a gun and blow your head off now? Would you consider doing that to that to him right now, sitting here sober?" She motions over to Sam, strolling back towards the car with a couple of Styrofoam coffee cups.

And it's so simple in that moment. "No," Dean answers, his voice ragged. "I could never do that to him." He wonders if she can hear the not while I'm sober that floats there at the end of his sentence, unspoken.

Hudak stares at him intently. "Well maybe that means you're hanging in there for him and not for yourself, but it's something to be going along with."

Sam's closer now, and she twists round, winds down the window, calls out. "Sam? Give us a second, huh?" She turns back. "Listen Dean, I know you aren't stupid. And above and beyond the reasons why you're drinking, you know it has to stop. Like I said. Judgment, out the window – and so you get in your car when you're seeing double, or you eat your gun. If that happens, who do you think is going to find you? Or get hauled in to the morgue to ID you?"

He looks past her, sees his wookiee of a baby brother staring off into the middle distance, brow furrowed, nose wrinkled, hair exploding every which way in the breeze. "Christ," he murmurs, and he's having to force the words through a throat that's closing up with tears all of a sudden, has to reach up, scrub at his eyes. "I'm so, so fuckin' proud of him… I did that, you know, Kathleen? I raised him. I did that."

"And you could never leave him, Dean. No?"

"Jesus, no." He shakes his head vehemently. "No."

"Then the drinking stops," she says softly. "Because the drinking turns you into somebody who could leave him. Will leave him, maybe."

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Dean mutters, "I know. I know you're right. And I'm trying. But my head… it's killing me, and I feel like I'm climbing the walls. My heart, it's racing, hands shaking like a ninety-year-old man's. I haven't slept in a day and a half. Just one shot, just one, just to… So I can rest. If I could just have one… I know Bobby doesn't trust me to keep off it, and I don't blame him. I feel fuckin' desperate sometimes."

Hudak leans in then, and Dean wonders if it might be his hug and he can't help it, he raises one hand to fend her off. "Don't. Please," he says. "I mean it. I have to – stop. Calm down, not up. Because if you do that, if you're kind to me, I'm losing it, right here and now. And if I do that, if I really let go, I'll start screaming, and I think I might never stop."

She leans back in the seat. "Okay."

Dean catches his breath, steadies himself, glances out at his brother. "Can you tell him to ride with Bobby?"

She nods, moves to get out.

"But get my coffee," he calls out after her.

He sinks his head down onto his chest, brings his hands up and rubs hard at his cheeks. I need a fuckin' drink, he thinks.

But it seems his usual poison is off the menu.

***

Sam watches Dean ram their dad's journal down into his pack, chews the inside of his cheek for a few minutes as he tries to figure out a way of saying what he needs to without his brother going ballistic. He glances over at Bobby, sees the old man jerk his head meaningfully at Dean, mouth get on with it.

He comes to the conclusion that there really isn't any diplomatic way to say it, so he reaches into his own pack, pulls them out, dangles and jangles them at arm's length, prepares himself for the full force of his brother's withdrawal jitters.

Dean stops, stares at him. "Kinky," he murmurs. "Why now, Sammy, after all these years?"

Sam thanks God his brother's mood is swinging up and not down, for now at least, even if Dean's hands are constantly flexing and fisting, strumming out his agitation, the stress of his enforced sobriety, on the air. "It's a precaution," he says awkwardly.

Dean gives him a blank look. "Your point?"

"The dreams, Dean," Sam says quietly. "The nightmares. Tents don't have locks. I'm not risking you getting away from us and disappearing into the woods again if you have a flashback. Not with that thing out there."

Dean sighs, doesn't argue. "I can't believe this," he mutters. Then he smirks. "What if I need my hand for something?"

Sam works it out a heck of a lot faster this time, screws up his face in mock disgust, hears Bobby sniggering while he tucks spare flares into his own pack. "I so didn't need that image, dude. But whatever. You're right-handed. We can put it on your left wrist."

"You're right-handed too, Sammy boy," his brother says, and he winks slyly. "Just think, two healthy young guys like us… come sunup we won't see the trees for the wood, kiddo. Means we'll need to be keeping our hands to ourselves."

After what happened earlier Sam knows damn well Dean's fronting, but he goes along with it, hopes the illusion might boost his brother's fragile self-esteem. "God, Dean, no more. Save it for the shower. Anyway. Kathleen had a spare set of handcuffs so she—"

"Spare set of handcuffs, you say?" Dean leers, stares into the middle distance, smiles and nods at whatever picture he's seeing in his mind.

Sam grins. "Way out of your league, dude. By a country mile."

"Yeah. Totally," his brother concedes. He sucks in his bottom lip, winces as it cracks. "Hey," he says suddenly. "Uh. In the woods… do you think. Will we…"

Sam watches him for a minute, notes the sudden shadow in his eyes. "You don't have to go," he says, almost eagerly, because he's damn well hoping his brother might have second thoughts.

"No. It's fine. It's just. I was wondering," Dean says, pauses again. And then he fires it out really quickly, in joined-up speaking. "Whatarewegoingtoeatthere?"

It takes Sam a second to decipher the babble. "What… are… we…" His brain gets ahead, and he thinks on it. "I'm not sure I understand?" he says. "What you mean, Dean. I mean."

Dean snorts. "Sam-I-am, you can, man. When you've finished your cat-in-the-hat impression." And he's smiling, but there are lines of tension around his mouth. "It's –camping."

Sam's really lost now. "Yeah. Dean, we've slept out in woods, up trees, in caves, down holes. What's the problem with the food?"

"Well. It's slop," Dean elaborates. "From cans. Slop. That you can't, you can't… you don't know. What it is." He trails off to a mutter. "You don't know what it is. That you're eating. That's what I mean."

And clang goes the anvil in Sam's head. Again.

Bobby's watching them both from his spot on the couch. "Well," the old man ventures. "We'll be traveling on foot, so we won't be able to carry much in the way of canned food as well as the weapons. So I guess that means the land will have to provide. Of course it all depends on how long it takes to find this thing. If we even do."

Dean considers that, nods slowly. "Yeah," he eases out. "And I mean, it isn't as if it's journey to the center of the earth is it?" He looks to Bobby for reassurance. "We can bail out for a decent meal, go back in afterwards. Yeah?"

Bobby nods back. "Yeah, son. I'd have thunk." He stands up slowly, stretches and makes his way over to the door. "We should get an early night," he says. "We'll be leaving at first light."

"Hey, Bobby," Dean says, tone impassive. "Ask Kathleen if she has a room we can lock, huh?"

He finishes shoving things into his pack, taps his fingers on his thighs for a few minutes.

"Do you. Are you," Sam starts.

"What? Come on Sam, bring it home."

"Thinking. About having a drink."

Dean barks out a harsh laugh. "Nope, Sam, I am not thinking about having a drink. I'm thinking about having many drinks. Too many to count."

He taps for a minute more, seems to have a lightbulb moment, and roots through the duffel. He pulls out his gun cleaning kit, sits cross-legged and starts meticulously field stripping his Colt, setting the parts down on the floor in front of him. He picks up the barrel and passes the bore brush down it, seems totally absorbed in what he's doing, and Sam watches, tries to ignore the tremor in his brother's busy hands, finds it hypnotic as he always has, the careful, practiced fingers caressing the steel.

"I'm not sure about the cuffs, Sam," Dean says suddenly, his voice devoid of any emotion. "I'm not sure I can have you lying up next to me out there. Close up like that. You're. You're a big guy."

He doesn't look up, keeps passing the cloth patches down the barrel, tapping out his tension on the floor with his right boot now that his fingers are occupied.

And Sam finds he doesn't really have an answer.

***

Bobby buttonholes Hudak in the kitchen. "Two things," he says, urgently, not giving her a chance to react. "Dean needs locking in tonight. Bad dreams, he wanders. If he gets out of the house it could turn nasty."

She produces a key by some sleight of hand. "My room has a lock," she says. "Sam already mentioned the dreams when he asked for the handcuffs. You said two things?"

Bobby takes the key, pockets it. "Yup. What are we going to eat out there? Because it absolutely cannot be slop from a can."

Hudak doesn't bat an eyelid. "We can fish. There are wild ducks, rabbits. Wild rice, even. The food will look like… well, that. Not slop. And I have a boxful of power bars. And now I need to ask you something. About Dean's drinking."

Bobby blows out a deep breath, walks back over to the door and closes it. "This is some serious shit," he admits, ahead of her question because he knows damn well what it'll be anyway. "When you called and I said we were in the ER it was because we'd found him collapsed. Jesus."

He drops heavily into a chair, rubs his jaw. "Thing is, Sam's been real keen to let Dean manage his own recovery, so to speak. But this is a fuckin' emotional minefield for the kid. For both of them. Sam, Christ, he's doing his best… but I don't know if it's working. I really don't know. Dean, he always did deal by getting loaded and getting in fights. But this, well. I don't know if it's him dealing or – not."

Hudak doesn't say anything and when Bobby looks up she's biting her lip. He studies her for a minute. "In the car," he says. "I saw you talking to him. He tell you any of this?"

She nods, still bites her lip.

"Guess you got the magic touch," he grouses. "Taken him all month to even be able to say Bender's name to me." In a strange way, he feels jealous. This kid he's known and loved as his own since he was knee high can't talk to him about this, can't let him put his arms around him and soothe him through the nightmares. And Christ, it hurts.

"He said something to me," Hudak says, crossing to sit opposite. "I think he said it in confidence. But I need to tell you, I think. You have to watch him. When he's drinking. He said – I got the impression – that he might do something stupid."

Bobby puts tow and two together immediately, and he can almost feel the blood drain from his face, even feels lightheaded from its loss.

"Not because he wants to," Hudak adds, hurriedly. "Because he's drunk. He thinks about it when he's drunk."

"Well thank God he only thinks about it then," he responds witheringly. "What a huge relief that is."

She frowns. "I'm just saying. He said he's going to stop anyway. Drinking, I mean."

Bobby yawns hugely, suddenly, because he's been awake for hours. And because he's tired of worrying about Dean. "I damn well told him he was going to stop," he says. "Nearly got him and his brother killed. Jesus. At the hospital the doctor was telling us he's an alcoholic. That just isn't him, Kathleen, I just can't conceive of him… giving up like that. Giving into it. He's stronger than that. Bet—"

"Don't say that," she says suddenly. "Better. Don't say that, Bobby. He isn't giving in, this isn't weakness… don't say you expect him to do better, like he's failing in some way. None of us will ever really understand what he's been through. Don't say he could be handling it better." She sounds damned annoyed as she leans forward and bangs her hand down on the table. "Christ – he's still here isn't he? He's walking around, talking, smiling, doing his best. Hunting. He's able to put on some semblance of normal. I don't see how he could be any stronger or be doing any better."

She flops back in her seat, her tirade over though she still looks tense and pissed off.

Bobby keeps his tone conciliatory. "I hear what you're saying. It isn't the right word to use. But Kathleen, I got to think about this in practical terms. In practical terms of him passing out and choking on his own puke, or getting worked over by some other version of Bender when he's too drunk to fight back, or flipping out with a fuckin' cannon in his hand and harming someone. Or himself." He has to stop for a moment to put the images his words conjure out of his mind.

"If he's that bad off, do you think it was wise to even bring him?" Hudal prods, her tone snippy. "If he's been drinking that heavily, he's going to be in withdrawal… he already is. He told me he hasn't slept, that he has the shakes, headaches."

"We're hoping this might help him," Bobby says, though he isn't sure how convinced he sounds. "Help him lay the ghost, confront his demons. Give him a sense of purpose. Distract him from the booze."

Hudak shakes her head. "I don't know if it's that simple, Bobby. He said he's desperate. If he were in detox they'd be giving him tranquilizers to help him through this."

Scowling, Bobby says, "There's no way. Not after what happened with Bender and the drugs. He can handle it, Kathleen. He's going to have to."

***

Dean's head still aches and the shake in his hands is rattling all the way up to his elbows. He feels hot, drenched in sweat, and his skin crawls with the feeling that he's being watched. He remembers that feeling from before, remembers how he – Gabe? – palmed his eyes and hid from whatever the hell was out there. And it doesn't help that the woods get so fuckin' oppressive as the undergrowth and trees get thicker. It had been tail-end of winter last time, the forest not so thick and verdant. This is like one of those old black-and-white Tarzan movies where the natives range ahead slashing a path through the brush with machetes as big as preschoolers, and big furry things with teeth and fangs jump out and grab them, and he thinks to himself, lions, and tigers and bears, oh my, as his brother ranges up next to him.

"You okay?" Sam enquires, reaching up with his hand wrapped in the hem of his tee to wipe sweat from his brow.

"Yeah," Dean says distantly. "Well. It's pretty creepy. Makes me think of Snow White and how she ran through the woods, and all those eyes were out in there in the darkness watching her."

"Snow White?" Sam stares at him, contemplative. "Are you sure you're okay, Dean?"

"Fucktard. You loved that movie."

They tramp on for a few yards.

"The eyes all turned out to be cute little woodland dwellers, Dean," Sam says. "Remember? Squirrels. Deer. Rabbits."

"Giant man-eating rabbits knowing our luck," Dean mutters. He reaches for his canteen, takes a gulp of water. "I'm just. You know. It's familiar."

It occurs to him that he hasn't really ever talked to Sam about the woods as an entity, and about all those weeks, about what they did, the three Benders. "It's – familiar. This." He sweeps his hand around. "Like coming home. But – unreal too. Like a dreamscape. You know, I woke up here and it was like a kind of birth, I guess. Reborn, as Gabe Bender. There was no Dean. There was nothing else for me except for little flashes, glimpses of before. Like before was the dream."

"Flashes of what?" Sam pushes carefully, as Bobby and Hudak walk up behind them.

"The car," Dean says. "Hunting. I could see hunts in my head, and you and dad were there but it was like you were shadows. All blurry. Couldn't see your faces, just knew I knew you. Somehow. Lee… he twisted that all up. Made me see them, see him. Instead of seeing you." He realizes he's shaking, that his voice sounds choked.

"Dean," Bobby says, putting his hand on his shoulder.

"Don't even know if he did it on purpose," Dean mutters. "Sometimes I think he was just as confused and messed up as me. Made me think I was his brother, and I think he really believed it too. It felt all wrong. But right too." His chest is tight, he's finding it hard to catch his breath. "I knew I had a brother. Inside me, in my heart, I just, I knew. And for a while, he was it. My brother. Family. Felt like family. For a while."

He looks up at Sam, sees his brother – his real brother, who would never hurt him – is pale, eyes shiny, sad. He shrugs helplessly. "They felt like family," he says again, and he can barely hear himself. "They took care of me. Only… not really." And Christ, he just can't, he can't do this. "I'm sorry… I don't. Don't think I can. I—"

"Dean," Hudak says suddenly, clearly, firmly. "Tell me again about this wendigo. Bobby's playing this pretty close to his chest. I need to know exactly what we're dealing with here."

Dean is sure the gratitude must be written all over his face as Bobby drapes an arm around his silent brother's shoulder and leads him ahead.

"Uh, wendigos," he husks, clears his throat, steadies his voice as they walk along behind. "They're a sort of woods spirit, if you like…"

"Spirit?" Hudak broaches. "Like, walk through walls? I thought these things were, you know, solid?"

"Corporeal!" Dean calls out impulsively, loud enough for his brother to hear, and Sam glance back and flashes a white-toothed grin.

"The Algonquian tribes – the Chippewa, the Cree – used to say it was a gigantic spirit, so thin it could only be seen sideways on," Dean continues, warming to the topic now. "It was transformed into a spirit by magic into a spirit of the lonely places, with a heart of ice. An evil spirit that devours mankind."

Hudak shudders. "A cannibal."

"Come on down, Kathleen Hudak," Dean sing-songs, and it's like a switch flips inside him, and suddenly he can feel the sharp thrill electrify his nerve endings, the tension gnaw at his gut, the hairs rise on the back of his neck. It's visceral. It's the hunt. "The indians said it was never satisfied," he breathes. "It was ferocious. Ruthless. Bloodthirsty. Because no matter how much it fed it could never be full, and it always starved and craved…"

Hudak glances over at him, seems enthralled, and he knows his eyes are blazing incandescent with his own ferocity, and ruthlessness, and thirst for blood, and craving to hunt that mother down and end it. "Its eyes," he says, and he stares, unblinking, right into hers, "its eyes glowed yellow and red out of its skull, and its teeth were jagged needles, and it had no lips because it was so hungry it chewed them off… its bones showed through its skin, and it ran so fast it burned off its own feet, and still it ran on stumps until new feet formed—"

"Most likely they were woodsmen and trappers cut off by snow and ice and forced to eat each other when game ran out," Bobby throws back over his shoulder, his voice matter-of-fact. "Don't scare the woman with the Stephen King version, son."

Dean sniggers, sidestepping nimbly around Hudak so she's forced to stop in her tracks. "Seeing the wendigo was like a portent, a death omen," he continues. "A signal to watch out because it was on the hunt for human flesh…" He widens his eyes in emphasis, sees her eyes mimic his. "It doesn't kill you," he breathes, his voice a low rasp. "It takes you, and it hangs you up in its lair and keeps you alive, and then it eats you piece by piece, a bite at a time… and the thing it craves most is the soft skin and flesh of a woman. So be afraid, Kathleen… be very afraid…"

"Jerk," she snaps.

He starts to reply automatically. "Bi—"

"Dean!" Sam yelps, in the fuckin' nick of, and Dean nods at his brother, winks.

He can handle this.

All of it.

He can do this.

But Christ, he needs a drink.

***

8. The Petrified Forest

Sam finds himself watching Dean like a hawk as they get further and further in. He doesn't know whether he's on the alert for a total emotional collapse or a mach-4 meltdown, but his brother strides easily through the undergrowth, eyes front, mind on the job, not talking much at all bar the odd, cautionary watch your step, dude. Still Sam watches and waits. Which is probably why he's taken totally unawares by the fact that it isn't Dean who flips at all.

It's him.

Bobby sees it first, halts abruptly. "Would you look at that…" he says, in an odd tone that's astonishment liberally sprinkled with sadness.

It's a tree he's stopped to stare at, and for a minute Sam thinks, well, it's not as if there's any damn shortage is there? But Hudak is staring too, and Dean, and as Sam ranges up behind them he can see his brother turn away from it suddenly, see that he's sucking on his bottom lip, looks shell-shocked, that he glances away and back again with a sort of unwilling fascination.

Being as he's a head taller, Sam gets it level with his eyes: three sets of initials carefully carved into the bark: LB GB MB. And it's what it signifies that has his initial sharp intake of breath start whirling out of control to hurricane-force: it's the fact that it's commemorating something that never really was, something that was a vicious and cruel illusion spun from sick minds and used to corrupt the things Dean held closest to his heart, to terrorize his insensible brother into complete submission.

"That's just. That's just. Fucking. Bastard. How… how could…"

Sam knows he's starting to let go of the last vestiges of control, and someone's grabbing his arm, and it's Dean, and his brother is talking to him but the words are lost in a tumult of noise in Sam's head: building wrath. Dean's eyes are calm and there's so much understanding shining out of them, but Sam wants to scream at him, don't try to fucking understand that bastard, and he does.

"Don't try to fucking understand that bastard and what he did, Dean. There is no fucking understanding. He wasn't confused and messed up! He knew exactly what he was doing." Sam is yelling right into Dean's face and his brother recoils, only minutely, but Sam sees it and it only fuels his rage. "Christ. See what he did? You're a fucking drunk, a pathetic nervous wreck who's terrified of his own brother. Fuck."

Dean falls back a step or two, and Sam sees worry start niggling at his brother's features, sees his eyes start flicking nervously over to Bobby, who's coming up beside him, putting a hand on his shoulder, starting to ease Dean behind him, protect him from Sam's onslaught.

Sam keeps shouting, can't stop himself. "You never even really got out of here, did you, not really… there's a piece of you still here… still here with that bastard, with his claws stuck in, pulling you back all the time. Fight it! Fight him. Jesus…"

The initials in the tree trunk are still taunting Sam and he storms towards it, Hudak sidestepping adroitly so he doesn't knock her over, and he's pounding at the bark, scraping at it, screaming out noises he knows aren't even proper words now, just animalistic sounds of fury. He digs in with his nails, feels them split and tear, thinks he needs a fucking knife to do this properly, to git her done, and like magic there's one right in front of him, as if he said scalpel, nurse. He grabs it, slashes and rips at the bark until the letters are obliterated, before burying the blade savagely, finally, hilt-deep in the scarred wood, slamming it in with both hands as he bellows out a sort of primal scream.

And suddenly it stops, the crescendo. Sam feels his cheeks wet, his chest heaving, his shoulder aching, his fingertips throbbing, his nerve endings screaming. "He shouldn't have done that," he hears himself mumble though gritted teeth. "Not his to do."

He hears his brother right beside him, because of course it was Dean's hand with the knife, and Dean's voice is sandpaper-hoarse but so, so gentle, the voice of endless lullabies, and nursery rhymes, and bedtime stories, and hospital vigils, and drunk-dialed voicemails he never returned.

"He didn't carve it on there, Sam. I did."

***

They camp in a clearing conveniently close to the river, and the silence, the awkwardness is, well, awkward, Bobby thinks. After ten or so minutes of watching Dean and Sam fannying about trying to put up the tents while Hudak sits on a rock and chews her lip, he's had enough.

"Food," he barks. "It's about time we eat. Kathleen, any ideas? Keeping in mind that if you offer me another power bar, I'm liable to start shooting."

Hudak open-shuts her mouth at him for a moment before rooting in her pack for a small tin. "Fish. Stream's just through there… assuming it's safe to split up?"

"Should be, since it's daylight," Bobby confirms gruffly. He slants his eyes over at Dean, who seems miles away, going though the motions with mechanical, steady movements as he taps in tent pegs, studiously ignoring the glances Sam's throwing at him.

Hudak flaps her hand at him, goggle-eyed. "Are they okay?" she mutters surreptitiously.

Bobby rolls his eyes. "Damned if I know," he hisses. But: enough. "Dean!" he snaps. "Guard duty while Kathleen fishes."

***

Hudak baits her line, casts it into the stream, sits in tranquil stillness and teases the fish while Dean sits guard a few feet behind her, glancing back into the woods every so often, wary, alert.

He sees her watching him and then looking beyond him, back into the trees, and smiles thinly. "They don't usually hunt in the day," he reassures, but his eyes are still sharp, quick, observant, his calm still the surface calm of a coiled spring.

"Sam okay?" she ventures.

"He will be. Working it out is all."

Hudak is cautious. "He's got a lot to work through too."

"I can handle Sam."

"It's just that I think he—"

"I'm thinking too, Kathleen," Dean pulls her up. "All the time. I know he blames himself."

"Oh," she says, and she can't help the note of surprise. "Actually I thought he blamed me."

Dean pricks up his ears at that. "Why would he blame you?"

"Well, I did leave you to walk," she replies. "He threw that one at me when I was trying to twist his arm to take you to the hospital. Back then."

Chuckling, Dean retorts, "Yeah, there is that." He seems genuinely amused as he plays with the Bowie Sam used to savage the tree, but she can see his hands are shaking, and his tone goes somber. "No, it's… Sam took his eye off the ball. That's how they grabbed him in the first place. They grabbed him, they grabbed me. That's how he sees it."

Hudak decides she’ll fish metaphorically too. "Is that how you see it?"

Dean shrugs. "If you build it, they will come," he says dismissively. "He was by himself because I was hitting the head and he didn't wait for me. We were in the bar because I wanted a drink. We were in town because of Sam's research… how far back shall I go?"

A few minutes pass by in silence broken only by the rustling of the trees and distant birdsong. "If he blames himself is that why you don't talk to him about it?" Hudak asks him then. "You don't want him feeling worse, surely?"

Dean's face says it all: bleak, shadowed. "There are so many variables in this it isn't even worth thinking about, Kathleen," he says softly.

"But if you—"

"Look," he snaps, irritated now. "Don't. I can't do this with you, not on the hunt. It's one thing to do it in a parked car, but out here I'm trying to keep my head above it, and if I don't I'll be a liability."

Hudak watches the water again, then steals another glance at him. "Your hands are shaking."

"That's right."

"You need a drink."

"That's right."

"Did you bring any liquor with you?"

His voice is cold, hard. "Bobby's watching me like a hawk. And I'm not doing this with you either. Not the time or the place."

After a minute or two, Hudak realizes he never answered the question. Sly bastard, she thinks.

***

Bobby knows all he has to do is wait. If it were Dean it'd be different, and he shakes his head ruefully to himself as he ponders how the boy keeps his pain inside, pushes it down, crams it into the smallest space, handcuffs it to the wall, bricks it up there till it dies slowly from lack of attention while the kid ignores its – his – cries for help, till just the skeleton of what's bothering him remains. It doesn't salve his hurt though, Bobby muses, because while the flesh might have rotted off it, the bones remain, and while they take up less space they're hard and unyielding.

Sam is a different story, and Bobby wonders if it's all tied into the kid's sheer thirst for knowledge. Dean is singleminded, wants to know whatever specific thing he needs to know in order to do what needs to be done; he absorbs it all quietly, and nothing else matters. Sam wants to know anything and everything that's out there to be learned, all of the collateral information, the baggage that comes with that one initial fact he set out to investigate, and he always has… Why is the sky blue, Uncle Bobby? How does the telephone work? Why do dogs pant? How do birds fly? Why do bees buzz? How do submarines stay under the water? What's in toothpaste? How do planes stay up? Where does electricity come from? Why don't I have a mom? How does exorcism work? Where does my dad go for weeks on end? How do I kill this? Why is my brother so sad? How do I tell him I'm leaving?

Bobby knows he started out life simple, uncomplicated. He doesn't ponder too much about what set him on his current path, thinks that maybe he's bricked it up like Dean does. But he knows why he's still alive and in one piece, and he thinks on that often: on the mute boy whose silent grief and sheer need gave him a reason to pull himself back from the brink, and the baby who effectively taught Bobby all he knows because as he grew into a curious toddler, preschooler, tween and honking great sasquatch, Sam could never know enough and Bobby had to hit the books big time to answer the questions Dean couldn't.

Not that Bobby had answers for all of them. I don't know how you tell him you're leaving, Sam. And don't ask me to be a part of it.

So, just like he's been expecting for the last hour, Sam eventually broaches, "Bobby. Why do you think Dean carved their initials on that tree?"

Bobby is careful. "Guess it comes back to what your brother said about family, Sam. He thought they were it. And he had a brother, knew it in his subconscious."

Sam chews his lip.

"It bothers you," Bobby observes. "You feel jealous, like he switched horses mid-race or something. It's okay to feel that way, Sam. This didn't just happen to your brother. It happened to you too. And me. Not in the same way. But we're caught up in the fallout too."

Sam meets his gaze. "Do you think he would have shot me, back then when we found him? Before Kathleen winged him?"

"Looked that way at the time, boy," Bobby says ruefully.

"But I don't understand why he'd feel that loyalty to Bender," Sam mutters. "After what Bender did. Was doing. I don't understand why he'd stay."

Bobby considers it some more, because truth is he's ruminated over that very question more than once. "Don't forget Sam, he was doped up the wazoo," he says. "Other than that, well – Stockholm syndrome, I guess. Bender obviously didn't start out by raping your brother. Seems he was kind to him, shielded him from the brat at first. So I guess Dean did what babies do – form an emotional attachment to the nearest powerful adult to enable their own survival."

Sam grimaces. "Even to the extent that he stayed with them after Bender – hurt him."

"Your brother's a deeply loyal man, Sam," Bobby concedes. "Comes down to family. They were his family, and it all begins and ends with family for Dean. You know that. And it all got mixed up into Gabe. And Lee was Gabe's brother, not you."

"But I'm his family…"

"Dean's family," Bobby interjects, "Not Gabe's family, boy." He can see the doubt in Sam's eyes. "Kid, maybe you need to move on from this too," he says. "Seems to me as if you're pushing your brother to move on but you aren't moving with him. You need to try to separate Gabe and whatever he did or didn't do, from Dean."

Sam nods slowly. "I know if he'd been Dean and not Gabe he would have fought more—"

"Sam," Bobby cuts in, voice sharper. "Your brother fought. We saw how hard he fought. Don't ever talk yourself into thinking he didn't fight."

"I know. I know…" Sam throws ups his hands, helpless. "It's just. I just can't get it straight in my head. Why he stayed when Bender was hurting him like that."

Bobby sighs. "That's something I can't explain for you, Sam. Something you're going to have to approach with your brother. Diplomatically."

***

Dean is clucking his tongue off the roof of his mouth, and over the next ten minutes it graduates into a Timberlakean human boombox as he gets up and starts pacing up and down, wearing out a trench in the soil right behind Hudak.

"This is taking too long," he says abruptly.

"That's part of it, Dean," she tells him. "Luring them in. Lulling them into a false sense of security, see the shiny feathery thing, swim up closer to take a look, and maybe taste and—"

"This is taking too long."

"There's a Zen to it," she tries. "As we fish, we attain enlightenment through meditation, self-contemplation and intuition."

She almost jumps out of her skin when all of a sudden he's right down next to her, on his butt, hugging his knees, eyeballing her.

"You really believe that dreck?" he chides.

"Yeah, I do," Hudak admits. "It's the gentle stillness of solitude and soul-reflection."

Dean seems to be considering it, seems interested. "You – reflect – often?"

"I guess," she confirms. "You should try it."

He laughs, hollow, and his voice is whisper-thin when he replies. "I don't think reflection is going to enlighten me, Kathleen. I know all there is to know about me and it doesn't bear reflection, believe me. I don't look too closely at my soul if I can help it."

He gazes out over the water, and his eyes are shuttered. He seems lost and lonely in that moment, vulnerable despite the bravado, and after a moment of quiet, Hudak clears her throat. "A mantra," she offers.

Dean snaps to attention. "Where? Can we eat it?" And a brief bewildered glance. "Don't we need sea for those things?"

Smiling, Hudak says, "Not a manta ray. A mantra. Something you say to create a spiritual transformation within yourself. You need one."

"Huh?"

"I am a manifestation of divine consciousness," she pulls out of nowhere. "Something like that."

Blank-faced. "And I say again. Huh?"

"You know. Like in yoga. Ohm…"

Sudden gleam in his eye. "You do yoga?"

"Yeah," Hudak nods. "A class at the local Y."

"So," he says, and his tone is lighter, teasing or mocking, though she can't tell which. "You bendy enough to do that thing Madonna does, where you hook your right leg up around the back of your neck?"

Hudak decides she'll play it straight. "Yeah, believe it or not. I know I don't look it, but—"

"Can you show me that?" he cuts in. "Like, now?"

She studies him for a moment. "Well, I'd have to…"

The gleam in his eye sparkles even crazier now, danger, Kathleen, and she rolls her eyes. "Cut it out, Dean."

He grins widely, stretches out his legs, leans back, gazes at her in a way that's disturbing because it's so damned inviting.

"It's good if you have low self-esteem," she adds faintly.

"I'll bet," he says enthusiastically. "Fact, it'd do my self-esteem a world of good if you'd just—"

"A mantra. Idiot. I use the same one all the time."

His expression drifts back to the huh he wore earlier. "You have low self-esteem?"

"Well…" she eases out. "Yeah. I guess."

"I don't understand that," he says, and his tone is incredulous. "I mean. Look at you."

Hudak snorts as she pauses for a moment's reflection."Yeah, look at me. Wrong side of thirty-five, one failed marriage, no kids, and I live up the ass of nowhere. With my dog. And the most exciting thing that ever happened to me was helping haul a dying man through these woods."

Dean makes a noise somewhere between a grunt and a squeak. "Christ. That's. Well. Crap. That's… I don't believe that. That you think that."

She shrugs at him. "Well, them's the facts, Dean."

"Bullshit," he snaps. "You aren't leaving this conversation without thinking you're fuckin' awesome, Kathleen. I mean it. Like – Ripley. Or Thelma and Louise. Agent Scully. Sarah fuckin' Connor. Hell, yeah." He blows out in emphasis. "I mean. You shot me. What a fuckin' turn-on. Hell, yeah."

She waits a beat while his eyes shine. "I'm the best me I can possibly be," she says then.

"What? Whassat?"

"My mantra," she clarifies. "I'm the best me I can possibly be."

Dean considers it, his eyebrows drawing in and a line forming between them. "And is that working for you?"

There's a second where she thinks no, it damn well isn't and maybe it never really did. She puts it out of her head, chuckles. "Probably not as well as Sarah-fucking-Connor-hell-yeah is going to."

Dean grins, his face lighting up to sunny. "Alright. Now you're cooking with gas."

They sit a few more minutes, peaceful.

"This is taking too long," Dean says.

Hudak sighs. "Patience, grasshopper."

"Maybe there aren't any fish in there," he suggests. "Ever think of that?"

She waves a hand over into the distance. "These streams lead off Pelican Lake. Plenty of crappies in here. They're just taking their time."

Amusement bubbles up in his tone. "Crappies?"

Hudak knows what's coming. "Anyway, it's not about the fish, Dean," she reminds him primly. "It's about the fish-ing."

"Crappies?"

She hears the click behind her, ducks instinctively as Dean fires a couple of rounds into the water. Concussed fish rise lazily to the surface and float belly up.

She looks up, sees him blowing out a puff of air across the top of the gun barrel. "I'm making it about the fish, Kathleen," he says, and smirks. "Blowing the crap out of the crappies."

She huffs. "What about the noise? Won't it know we're here now?"

He snorts derisively. "It already knows we're here."

***

The sun is sinking lower in the sky, the woods growing quieter and subdued, and it roams noiselessly along the forest trails, a passing shadow constantly in motion among the trees.

It is ever-alert, its ears twitching at every sound, its eyes flitting to every movement, its nostrils quivering at every message carried on the air. And it senses something that fills it with a strange unrest, makes it ache with longing, and so it searches for the source, irresistibly drawn towards its scent, its call. It creeps closer and closer, watching for the signs, eager, and craving, and delighted. It hears the beating of his heart, and its own heart pounds with joy, and it hears the blood pumping in his veins, and it shivers with the thrill of anticipation.

***

Hudak pauses halfway out of the tent, raises a skeptical eyebrow as Dean uses a stick to inscribe intricate swirling patterns in the soft dirt that borders the clearing. He's on a down-cycle, it seems, less twitchy and aggressive than earlier, but still restless, tapping the fingers of his left hand on the ground as he sketches.

"Are you sure those work?" she ventures.

He glances up. "They're Anasazi symbols. The Ancient Ones. The Lenni-Lenape – that's Delaware tribes to you – went to war with any wendigo that entered their territory, and they would draw these symbols in a circular pattern as protection against it. They fought them all the way up here to Minnesota."

She raises an eybrow. "I've heard of the Anasazi. They were on the X-Files. They flew off to another planet or something."

He smiles fondly, and for a split second all the tension leaves him and his shoulders visibly relax, dropping a couple of inches. "I loved that show," he says. "They even got it right a lot of the time. That Scully. Fuckin' awesome thirtysomething woman." He winks, draws some more, senses that she's still not convinced. "Still not buying it, huh?"

Hudak walks over, looks down at the scrawl, critical. "It could be anything. Does it have powers? Or something? I mean, if the thing turned up and misread it, could it get through? Can they even read? Bobby said they used to be woodsmen and trappers. Well what if this one was dyslexic when it was a woodsman or a trapper? Or what if it never learned to read in the first place when it was a woodsman or a trapper?"

Bobby looks up from where he's expertly gutting the fish, sniggers.

Dean starts to say something, stops, ponders like it only just occurred to him. "Well. Uh. Actually, I don't know. Bobby?"

The old man shrugs. "Anyone's guess as to how intelligent these things are, what they retain from before. But they sure as hell remember how to hunt. And they're damn good mimics… they copy voices they've heard, lure their victims out into the woods that way."

Hudak shivers. "Jesus. That's creepy."

"Yes it is," Dean says emphatically. "And it means you stay inside the symbols after dark, no matter what happens, no matter what you hear. Even if you hear your friend. It isn't her. Got that?"

She nods, starts glancing off into the trees, wraps her arms around herself. "I feel like something's watching us."

Dean tracks her gaze, out into the gathering dusk. "There's always something watching," he says. "But these things, they usually hunt in the dark. And there'll be signs it's out there." He starts drawing in the dirt again. "Relax. We know how to kill it. And anyway, they didn't fly to another planet. They migrated south and became the Hopi."

She must blank at him, because he shakes his head. "The Anasazi," he says, and he sits back on his haunches, admires his work.

"What if a raccoon or something walks through that and disturbs it?" she pushes. "It could change the meaning, change it from go away to come on in, help yourself. Couldn't that happen?"

Exasperated now. "Kathleen, you think too much."

Sam calls over from her left. "Anyway, that's what this is for." He's shaking a can of spray paint, starts decorating the trees that circle them with the same symbols. "Insurance."

Hudak frowns. "I'm not sure that's allowed."

"Well, we used to always use sidewalk chalk for this kind of thing," Dean says. "But one time it rained, washed away the sigils, and Jeez, it wasn't pretty. Fuckin' leprechaun gave Sammy the whammy. Remember that, kiddo?"

Sam makes a vaguely agreeable and definitely regretful noise from the other side of the clearing.

"He was talking in limericks for days. Top-o-the-mornin-to-you-bejasus, and all that. Good week and a half before he could sleep without needing a toadstool on his pillow." He calls over to his brother again. "Isn't that right, Sammy?"

His tone is light, but something tells Hudak his flippancy is forced, and Sam's answering grin is weak.

She squats down beside Dean. "You need to talk to him," she says, urgently. "He seems off. After what happened. You know, with the tree."

He leans down hard on his stick and it snaps, nearly sending him face first into the dirt. "Jesus, woman. Give it a rest," he hisses, glances uneasily from her to Bobby. "I told you, I can't do this now."

She stands, lifting him up with her by virtue of the fact she has her hand fisted in the back of his shirt collar. "I need a bathroom break," she announces. "Dean's coming with. Make sure I don't get grabbed, huh Dean?"

Bobby is piling up rocks either side of the fire, laying the fish, now threaded on sticks, a few inches above the flames to cook. "Careful," he says. "Should be safe since it's still light and this isn't a dead zone, but stay frosty."

She leads the way into the trees, Dean at her heels. "Dead zone," she echoes Bobby. "What's that?"

"Where it hunts. Nothing alive, no birds or anything, no sounds, everything still, like the forest is dead," he says. "Its aura scares all living things away or something." His voice is sharp, and when she pulls up and turns around she can see his eyes are lasering out his annoyance right at her.

"Look, Kathleen, I can understand your concern but this is me and my brother, this is between us and we're dealing with it, so—"

"You're not dealing with it," she cuts in. "You're avoiding it. It'll cause problems… you heard what he said. He thinks you're a drunk, a pathet—"

She stops abruptly as he leans right in. "Kathleen, so help me," he snarls. "I am warning you, I am not in the mood for your nagging." His voice drips acid. "Do not make me any more pissed off than I am at this moment in time, because you will live to regret it."

Hudak reels back a step because it's so totally unexpected, his switch into something that just isn't him any more. She suddenly thinks of what Sam called him all those weeks ago: not-Dean, and she feels a chill run up her spine as it hits her that this, this, standing just inches from her with a knife in his boot and a gun shoved down the back of his jeans, is the arsonist, the grave robber, the vicious thug, the psychopath, the serial killer she read about in his FBI file after they left Hibbing and dismissed because she thought she knew better, because of the easy manner, the dazzling smile, the pretty face. This is Dean Winchester, who doesn't look too closely at his soul if he can help it.

And he's desperate for a drink.

And he knows she knows.

He leans in even closer. "Scared, Kathleen?" he breathes, just inches from her face. "You should be. Now back the fuck off. When the time comes, I'll deal with my brother. " But in the very next second he suddenly cocks his head, listens. "I don't hear anything," he murmurs.

Hudak backs away another step.

And then she's moving, grabbed, pulled back into the woods, so surprised she can barely draw breath to yell out her shock and she's hauled, hefted, tossed, bobbing upside down, bushes and branches slapping at her face, while she hollers and belts with her fists, with all she has, at the thing that has her. The ground is rocketing past her, the speed dizzying, it ran so fast it burned off its own feet and still it ran, and her head is spinning, her gut is roiling, her vision is graying.

Somewhere in the distance she can hear a voice crying her name but it's getting more and more distant, and it-devours-it-devours-it-devours.

***

9. Whistle and I'll Come to You

All they can see from the camp is the crazed turmoil of bushes and trees shaking, but Sam can hear his brother shouting and that's enough. He leaps to his feet, is tackled and brought crashing down by Bobby, and has such a sense of déjà vu it makes his head swim.

"Oh no you don't," Bobby growls into his face. "You stay inside the circle, boy. Your brother can handle it."

Sam struggles wildly, tries to buck Bobby off, yells for his brother. He's tossing Bobby about like the old man's a ship on stormy seas, vaguely hears him shout, "I ain't losin' both of you, kid."

And then he sees a rock hard fist flying down and knows no more.

***

Running through these woods is getting fuckin' old, Dean thinks as he sprints after the thing he barely glimpsed as it grabbed Hudak and lifted her up as easily as if it were swinging a toddler onto its shoulders. And he knows there isn't a hope in hell of catching the thing, that it's too far ahead, and that he's been running for a couple of miles and Sam and Bobby are too far behind to be any use, assuming they're stupid enough to follow, but he runs so fast his leg burns and still he runs, heaving in painful breaths.

He hears the dogs, no, no fuckin' dogs, keep it together, pathetic fuckin' drunk, thinks that maybe if he hadn't been wallowing in his own self-pity he'd have known the feeling of being watched meant exactly that, and if he hadn't been terrorizing the woman the way Lee had terrorized him, scared yet, Gabe?, maybe he'd have seen something, some clue, maybe he'd have noticed the dead zone, the petrified stillness, if he hadn't been up in her face giving it that. He hollers her name at the top of his lungs, shouts at the damn thing to come back here right now, fucker, as if it ever would, but he can't hear the noise any more and it's so far ahead he knows he'll never catch it and he'll never find her on time, and he—

—trips over something lying in the dirt, slams down in a belly flop that knocks what little air is left in his lungs right out, and jagged pain shoots through his ribcage. He pushes up on his hands and hears frenzied clicking, shakes his head to get some sense back in there and realizes it's Hudak he tripped over.

Her teeth are chattering, and she picks herself up and wobbles over to collapse down on her butt beside a tree as Dean pushes up to his hands and knees, and then he sees her look past him, sees her eyes widen in horror. He doesn't look back at what he knows is right there, he crabs his way over to the woman, wraps his arms around her, tries to hide her from it, pressing her into the bark, so close now he can feel her breath on his left cheek and hear her teeth even louder as her jaws clack out her fear like morse code. He can feel every hair stand on end, feel his skin crawl, knows it's as close to him as he is to Hudak, and on his right cheek he can feel stinking, searing, brimstone breath.

He doesn't look at it, but he can see that Hudak is doing just that, gazing at primeval, monstrous death as it reaches out, wrapping long fingers around her arm and tugging, almost gentle, trying to ease her out from behind him. Dean holds her even tighter, won't let it have her, and she can't tear her eyes away from it; he can see that she's fascinated, repelled and horrified all at the same time, because it's looming up in his peripheral vision and he can see that it's studying, examining, analyzing. It's intelligent, and now it's cocking its head to consider Dean, squinting as its eyes bore into his, and he winces, squeezes them shut.

The thing growls, starts to pull harder at her arm, starts to fucking insist, and Dean thinks she might be muttering at him not to let it take her. He feels her tremors, feels the panicked flutter of her eyelashes on her skin, feels her fear and loathing. He slides his hand up her body, and he's sorry, so, so sorry, because Bobby and Sam are never going to get there on time.

"Kathleen, ssshhhhh," he soothes in the barest whisper, as he tenderly presses cold steel up under her chin, because it doesn't kill you, it keeps you alive, and then it eats you piece by piece, a bite at a time.

He will never let that happen.

"It's fine," he breathes, while its eyes burn into his cheek. "It'll be fine…"

He shifts his face just fractionally, so his forehead is pressed against hers and her eyes are even closer than before, locked on his. She creeps a hand up, folds her fingers around his wrist, and her grip is rock steady.

"It's okay," Dean murmurs again, and she closes her eyes.

"Kin…"

Because it is intelligent, and it can speak. Not just mimic.

Hudak blinks her eyes wide open again, her vision tracking to Dean's right, where the thing is nestling its head on his shoulder.

Its breath is moist on the hinge of his jaw, and Dean feels his stomach do a slow barrel roll as it flicks out a wet, fleshy tongue to touch his cheek, trail along it, taste. He's only waiting for it to lay his spine open to the bone, but it isn't doing that at all. Instead, it's tracing the tip of a claw along his jawbone, it's turning his head, and it's staring, Christ, longingly into his eyes as it speaks again, a low, drawn-out, mournful and unearthly whisper-rasp that he thinks sounds almost like him.

"Kin…"

And it whirls and is gone so fast he barely sees it move.

They sit, and Dean clings to her, and his can hear his breath puff out in tiny, whistling gasps. And Hudak carefully eases his hand, the gun, down from under her chin, maneuvers his arm over to the right.

Dean cries out harshly, involuntarily, drops the weapon and scuttles away from her on his butt, frantically scrubbing the thing's slimed-on mark off his cheek as his guts cramp energetically and he retches into the dirt, gut-wrenching dry heaves.

After he's finished he reaches a hand up, rubs his belly, spits lumps before he can speak. "I'm sorry," he husks out. "I'm sorry I scared you before. DTs…"

Hudak's voice is dry and faint. "Dean. Don't be so fucking ridiculous."

He smiles, sort of, but he can feel himself shaking as she stares at him, whitefaced.

"We're alive," she chokes out, in sheer disbelief. "We're alive. But what the fuck was that?"

"Wendigo," he says, and he spits again.

"That's not what I meant," she says. "What the fuck was that?"

He flops back onto his butt, shrugs, helpless. "Adoption?"

She shakes her head. "It knew you, Dean. It knew you."

***

"That's not possible," Dean protests, but they can't hear him over their excited back-and-forth babble.

"Kin? It said kin?"

"Yeah. It was studying him, creepy as hell, like it had him under a microscope or something…"

"And you say it licked him?"

"Yeah, stuck out its tongue, Christ it was black, dripping with this slime, and it was like it tasted him or something…"

"And it said kin?"

"When it licked him, was it like it was marking him or something? Like territorial pissing?"

"Yeah, and its eyes, they were like, on fire, all red, glowing, and it stared at him like it was staring right into his soul…"

"Kin? Why would it say kin?"

"Well, you tell me, I mean, you know more about this than I do…"

"Did it sniff him, breathe in his scent?"

It's garbled, Dean can't keep track of it, and it's getting muffled because he's pressing his palms up to his ears.

"Kin… that don't make a lick of sense…"

"Unless! Unless!"

"Well, what?"

"They turn into monsters because of the cannibalism, don't they? And the Benders fed him human flesh, so maybe…"

And Dean thinks, don't you see me, don't you know I can hear you, hear everything, don't you know what you're saying, what it's doing to me? He bolts, sprints for his pack, hears his brother call his name.

"Dean, what, what's up, you okay?"

And now he is, now that he's feverishly unscrewing the cap, feeling the hot burn of it blister its way down his throat and—

"Oh no you don't, boy."

Bobby snatches the bottle, hurls it against a tree, where it smashes into pieces, the booze trickling down.

Dean finds he's aghast, can't believe it. "What the fuck? Why would you—"

"Because you aren't getting hammered this time, kid," Bobby barks, and his voice is firm, brooking no damn argument. "I told you. It stops. I am not interested in finding you choked to death on your own vomit."

"But—"

"But nothing," Bobby cuts him off. "I don't care if the damn thing proposed marriage and wants a fuckin' Peewee league's worth of kids with you. There will be no drinking on this hunt. No more drinking, period."

Dean bounces up onto his feet without even thinking, is full sure he might even be baring his teeth as scorching, bitter fury bubbles up like lava, fit to blow the top of his head off. "Why should I—"

"Because the words left my fuckin' mouth, Dean," Bobby roars then. "That's why. And because I'm sick of seeing this play out every single night, you drinking yourself into a coma, taking damn crank on top of it—"

Dean howls out some noise he knows can't even be described as words because it's incoherent, unintelligible, and he slams into Bobby, feels him sway with the force but somehow find his balance. The rock-hard impact of the old man's knuckles on his jaw is so much more than the sheer force of the blow that sends him sprawling in the dirt, because in twenty years Bobby has never laid a finger on him in anger.

He spits blood, stares up, and Bobby's expression is appalled, stunned, shattered disbelief.

"Dean, son—"

And Dean erupts, spewing flame and ash. "Yeah, you beat it out of me!" he hollers, as he pushes up, starts towards Bobby again, sees him hold out his arms, palms up in a gesture of surrender. "Whup me good, stick it to me like that sonofabitch did, teach me a fuckin' lesson—"

"You've had worse fuckin' ideas lately!" Bobby shouts back.

The minute the words leave the old man's mouth Dean can see Bobby realize what he's said and regret it but he can't stop himself, and it scathes out of him, a torrent of rage. "You got no idea. I'm stuck in this, you're on the outside looking in, you got no fuckin' clue, old man." He stabs a finger at his brother. "Neither does he. I'm stuck in it, Lee fuckin' Bender, the extended dance mix, every time I close my fuckin' eyes, and I can't sleep, I need some sleep, but old Lee, he's the gift that keeps on giving…"

He can hear his voice falter and trip over itself, gone breathless and hoarse, "Just please let me, let me fuckin' go, give me the red pill this time and let me out, out, let me be." He stops a foot away, fists his hands over his eyes. "You're not my dad," he chokes out. "You're not my dad." He can feel his knees buckle, knows he's starting the slow, hopeless slide down, and Bobby reaches out and catches him and hugs him close and tight in the warm circle of his arms, and he's safe and maybe soon it'll be over. "I want it to be over," he mutters, scrubbing his eyes hard with the heels of his hands. "Bobby. Bobby. Dad."

The old man hugs him close. "I got you, son. I got you," he croons. "Bobby's here, I got you…"

***

Sam is frozen in place as Bobby jerks his head, motions towards the fire, Dean still slumped in his arms. "We need to get him lying down, he's lost his legs," he says softly.

Sam shakes himself back into motion, starts towards his brother, eases an arm under Dean as Bobby starts to walk him over to the fire and Hudak throws down a bedroll.

And that's when it floats in: the voice, the voice of something dead and rotting, and in the same instant, Sam feels Dean suddenly tense under his hand. Sam flinches, can't believe it. He knows damn well he killed him, sank the knife in, twisted it, felt the crunch. And then it dawns on him.

They mimic human voices.

"Fuck," he breathes. "That thing is using Bender's voice."

And from what Sam remembers, it's damned note-perfect as it grinds out of the monster, Gabe what the fuck you doin' boy, Gabe get it done boy, hey Gabe don't make me mad at you boy, you scared yet Gabe, teach you a fuckin' lesson, that feel good purty boy, you like it when ole Lee does that…

Dean is still for a few seconds and then he explodes in a frenzy of flying fists and feet, and choked-out distress. An accidental backhander sends Sam flying, and Bobby, still gripping Dean tight, collapses down on to his butt, Dean struggling on top.

"Knock him out!" Bobby yells. "Do something, I can't hold on, knock him the fuck out, now!"

Dean is wriggling free, about to rabbit, and Hudak throws herself across his legs, but just as Sam's leaning over, fist pulled back, his brother saves him the trouble and slumps into a dead faint, head lolling on Bobby's thigh.

And it's quiet again.

Except for Lee Bender's voice.

***

Why are sounds louder at night, Hudak wonders, and she thinks that maybe it's because she's alone in the tent. It damn well isn't her imagination, she knows, because the sounds pierce through the blanket she has clutched to her ears as if the thing is standing right next to her speaking through a megaphone.

She muses that it must be because there's less ambient noise at night, so the cricket chorus has no competition and when some intruder wanders too close and the chirping stops, the lightest tread of paw and fall of hoof can be clearly heard. And it has always been a comfort and she has lain here in the woods too many times to count, feeling a connection with nature, feeling like she's a part of something bigger than her life.

Sounds are louder at night.

Especially these sounds.

Fuck connecting with nature. "Christ," she mutters. "Stop. Please stop. Stop. Stop. Stop."

Sounds are louder at night.

Lee please stop-stop-stop-stop

Her tears soak the blanket.

***

Sam stares down at his dad's journal, studies the crazy stick man who walks like an Egyptian across the center of the page, shivers as Hudak's account of how the thing marked its territory on his brother resounds in his head. He's on a learning curve, fast finding out a lot more than he wanted to know about wendigos and way more than his dad wrote down in the urgent, crammed-in blocked print that spills off the pages.

The canvas walls of the tent aren't enough to block out the noise and he's had an awful sick flutter in his gut for the last three hours as it transpires that his dad was wrong. Wendigos don't just mimic voices. It turns out that wendigos can mimic desperate cries, muffled whimpers, agonized gasps, frantic struggling, the thud of fists on flesh, strained grunts of effort, hoarse groans of release and even shell-shocked silence before it starts up again, all performed in glorious surround-sound.

It's dialogue now, not the one-sided conversation from Dean's – Gabe's – dreams. It's the missing half of the equation, with all the extra sound effects; it fills in the gaps, and Sam thinks how unbelievably stupid he was to have longed to know, to have thought for even one minute that it might help him understand what happened, help Dean, when there is no comprehending it. There is only confusion, horror and despair, broken occasionally by imitation-Missy's voice floating in, high-pitched protests, and isn't it just the pip that the brat who tried to drag his brother to Hell with her had tried to protect him from her own brother's attacks.

And fuck, the worse thing of all: Sam-help-Sam-help-Sam-help-Sam-Sam-Sam, a dull, hopeless monotone muttered out at full volume in his brother's voice, because in the midst of all that misery and terror Gabe had somehow been Dean, and had called for him. Not for the fucking dog. For him. Because Sam knows exactly what it sounds like when his brother calls for him in his suffering, and some small part of him has always wanted to know if it happened in these woods. Now he knows for sure, and so help him, he wants to file a retraction. Because the truth hurts, hurts so damn much he wants to weep from it.

Bobby sticks his head through the tent flap, face drawn, glances immediately at Dean, who's still dead to the world. To all intents and purposes he's sleeping like baby, features smooth and relaxed, free of all tension in a way they haven't been since he was lying half-dead at the Bender farm.

"He showing any signs of coming round?" the old man whispers.

Sam shakes his head, whispers back. "Is this normal sleep, you think? He seems so peaceful…" He wants to think that some benefit might come from his brother's collapse, that he might wake up renewed somehow, as if a few hours of sleep can equip him with the defenses he's going to need to withstand the constant looped playback of Bender's assaults.

Bobby shrugs, helpless. "I don't know, kid. Jesus, I hope it is and that he stays out of it till the damn thing's gone."

"Do you think it will go?" Sam says, suddenly appalled at the thought this might possibly go on twenty four-seven. "It's just… it seems like it's doing it for a reason. Not to lure him out – if it wanted him it would have taken him earlier, don't you think?"

Bobby considers. "These things are sadistic, Sam. They use the mimicry to deliberately taunt, to terrify, to drive their victims insane precisely so they'll lose it and race out there into the woods, right where they can grab them. But, God knows, I have no clue why it didn't do that when it had him right under its nose."

Sam chews the inside of his cheek, thinks. "Do you think it could be trying to communicate with him?"

The old man sighs deeply. "I haven't got a clue, boy. Must've missed the National Geographic special on wendigos. But why would it want to communicate? Makes no sense." He pulls off his cap, swipes his sleeve across his brow. "I'm just hoping the thing'll get tired and piss off, to be honest, so we can regroup and get your brother out of here come daylight. I don't give a damn if it's trying to reach out and touch someone."

He pulls his cap back on, tugs it down. "Listen Sam," he says then, voice steady. "Dean absolutely cannot hear this. If he starts coming round, you need to put him back out again. If that's a problem for you, then you call me the minute he moves or makes a sound. I will not have him listening to this, even if I have to knock him into next week to make sure he doesn't."

Sam nods, even if the thought of it makes him feel even sicker. "But Bobby," he hisses as the man backs out. "At some point he's… I mean – we can't keep knocking him out. At some point, he's going to hear it."

Bobby stares back and his eyes are defeated. "I know. But not tonight, Sam. Not tonight."

***

Hudak has been trying to sleep, ends up pulling her bedroll out of her tent and outside, right up next to the fire's comforting glow, Bobby a reassuring presence close by.

The old man leans over, throws a handful of twigs on the fire and it crackles in glee, sending sparks up into the trees. He's making as much noise as he can, pottering, rustling, snapping the kindling as he tries to drown out some of the worst of it.

She pulls rolled up wads of tissue paper out of her ears, looks out into the woods "I wish I'd brought my earplugs," she mutters. "This is… it's… it's private. Should be private. He seems like Dean guards his privacy. Christ. How the hell is he going to cope with this, that we know. Instead of just know."

And right on cue, another loop starts up, a three-hander this time, teach you a lesson Gabe, no Lee please don't Lee no, Sam-Sam-Sam-Sam, leave him be Lee you're hurtin' him, teach you a lesson Gabe, Sam please help Sam-Sam-Sam…

Bobby can take no more, jumps to his feet. "Shut the fuck up," he shouts out into the trees, and a split second later his voice floats into the camp from outside as the thing executes a perverse backatcha and tells him to shut the fuck up himself. "Christ," he mutters, sitting down heavily. "Thing has a sense of humor. That's all we need."

Sam pokes his head out of the tent, squinting in the dark. "Bobby? Bobby?" he hisses. "Are you—" He stops as he sees the old man still close by. "Jesus. Don't do that. I thought you'd gone out there after it."

Bobby grimaces. "Sorry, kid," He looks from Sam to Hudak. "That was monumentally fuckin' stupid," he concedes ruefully. "It has my voice now, could use it against us."

Hudak considers for a minute. "So no heckling the wendigo, I guess."

It's singing now, a soaring cover version of Dean's acid trip from the Benders' camp so many weeks before, and they all look at each other, three sets of eyes locking simultaneously.

"It was there all along," Sam breathes. "It was stalking them. Watching them." He shakes his head, backs into the tent again.

"It's watching him now," Hudak says uneasily. "Watching all of us. I can feel it looking right at us." She shudders, turns onto her side, pushes up onto her elbow. "What Dean said about this thing, Bobby… how much of that was true? I mean, I know he was dicking me around some."

"That he was," Bobby allows. "Like I said, Stephen King version, but essentially it was all true far as we know. Though I don't go with the woods spirit theory."

"But it has – superpowers? Can it do all those things he said it could? Run that fast? Is it always hungry?" Hudak bites her lip as she recalls the thing squatting down behind Dean, the way it grinned at her, its fangs dripping, the way it studied Dean, the way it absorbed itself in him its eyes roaming over his face almost hungrily. "Christ, Bobby. I think I must be having some sort of delayed shock reaction or something. I think I was so fascinated by this thing and what it was doing, I didn't even register what I was really looking at."

Bobby snorts. "Don't get too fascinated, Kathleen. It craves flesh, just like Dean said… it's insatiable, and it'll go to any lengths to get it. It's the perfect predator – speed, endurance, infrared fuckin' vision, for Christ's sake. I've heard tell its ears are so keen it can hear the beating of its victim's heart, hear the blood pumping in their veins. Lore is they can uproot trees, call up ice storms, tornadoes even."

He falls silent for a minute, stares at the flames, and they both notice at the same time that the night is quiet.

"Do you think it's—"

But it hasn't.

Please Lee please stop don't please, Sam-Sam-Sam-Sam…

"Christ," Bobby breathes. "Thing can throw its voice like Shari fuckin' Lewis. Well, fuck off, Lamb Chop. Fuck right off."

His voice is a strangled mix of rage, hurt and grief, and for the first time it suddenly occurs to Hudak that while she's been sitting here with her gut curling in sympathy for Sam having to listen to his brother's rape, Bobby has been effectively listening to his son's. "Bobby," she starts. "I know this must—"

"No. Don't." A muscle jumps in his cheek. "I'm handling it. I am. Just the sitting here, waiting for sunup, it's – time wasted."

She swallows. "Will it go when the sun comes up?"

He shrugs. "It should. They're creatures of the dark, the sun burns their eyes, burns their skin. Like vampires."

"You're saying vampires are real?" she pokes softly.

It's weak at best, but Bobby smiles. "Best time to track the thing is the day, but we'll need to get Dean back to town first. Sam and me can deal with it."

Hudak glances away from the fire into the inky blackness of the woods. "Where does it go in the day?"

"They like it underground," Bobby says. "It'll be holed up in the mines, most likely. We'll track it down, don't worry."

Hudak knows she's gaping. "The Mesabi iron range? That's over a hundred miles long, Bobby, and three miles wide – how can you possibly hope to find this thing? It'll be like searching for a needle in a haystack."

"Yup, but most of it's open pit," he says. "Not too many deep mines, but they're all in this area. It's where I was hunting this thing when I saw Dean after Bender snatched him."

Hudak wonders for a minute if it was Bender who killed the other hikers at all. "This thing, if it's been out here all along I guess it could have killed those hikers before. And not Bender."

"It's possible," Bobby says after a second or two. "But your G-man buddies found wendigo and human teethmarks on those bones."

She sighs. "I was just sort of hoping. That maybe if this thing killed them then maybe he didn't… they didn't… feed him that." She shudders, glances up to where the moonlight is bathing the night in a ghostly reddish glow. "Red moon," she says. "It's like it's an omen or something."

"Hunters call it the killing moon," Bobby remarks. "Red lightwaves pass easier through the atmosphere. Makes the moon look red sometimes. Blue don't pass as easy, gets scattered. That's what makes the sky blue." He throws more twigs on the fire. "Could be a problem for us. Wendigo lore says the thing goes back to sleep in the time of the killing moon… could be months or years before it wakes up again."

Hudak sits up, pulls the blanket tighter around her shoulders. "You know, Dean held onto me, Bobby, and it wanted me, pulled at me, and he wouldn't let go," she murmurs. "Its claws… it could have cut him in half with a single swipe, and its fangs, Jesus. It could have sunk them right through his skull with no effort whatsoever. But it didn't." Her throat is dry, voice thick with sheer horror. "Christ, this thing snuggled up next to him like it just found its baby. I'm not exaggerating. It was happy to see him. I'm not imagining it, Bobby. It knew him."

She lets it hang there as Bobby stares at her.

"I know what you're thinking," he says finally. "But there is no way it's Bender. No. Way. He was dead, we both checked him. These things don't come from dead people far as I know. Something else is going on here. Maybe it's like Sam said, and it was out there watching and can sense that Dean – partook of the flesh, so to speak. Or it saw him do it."

Hudak snorts as she considers it. "So if we could just find one of these dead hikers and snack off them it would be like immunization or something. That's a comforting thought. Or maybe we could each sacrifice a finger. Or maybe just you and Sam could. Sam eats yours, we share Sam's. Would a sliver of flesh do, you think? Or just blood? We could—"

"You think too much, Kathleen."

She rolls her eyes, concedes, and right on cue, it starts the next verse.

Don't hurt me Lee please no, get over here boy, leave him be, no-no-no…

And then it's quiet, and the abruptly choked-off despair hits Hudak square in the chest and hurts like she imagines a bullet would, because it's so clear what the silence implies.

"Coffee's ready," Bobby says softly, hooks the pot off the flames and pours the contents into a couple of tin mugs. "We might as well be wide awake." He passes her cup over, and his hand is shaking.

"Sounds seem so much louder at night," she says bleakly.

"It's cooler," Bobby says. "Cool air bends sounds back down towards the land, right into your ears. Daytime's warmer so the sound goes up over your head, over your ears." He sees the look she throws him. "Sam asked a heck of a lot of questions when he was a kid."

She warms her hands on the cup, sips. "Bobby. If this thing was – well, if it had you. If you had a choice. And you had a gun. Would you… so it wouldn't… would you…"

"Blow my own head off to avoid getting eaten piece by piece?" he says, his voice almost placid. "In a heartbeat."

"Would you kill one of us?" Hudak presses. "For the same reason? If it had us? Would, uh, would Dean do it, you think? Kill one of us so that thing wouldn't—"

"Why are you asking me that, Kathleen?" he cuts in, his eyes narrowing suddenly. "Did something happen out there to make you ask me that?"

Hudak takes a sip of her coffee, and she can still feel the press of cold metal against the underside of her chin. "No reason," she says. "Nothing happened."

She thinks maybe he knows she's lying.

***

10. Running Up That Hill

Sam jerks awake, sees dim daylight creeping in through the tent flap, hears the low buzz of voices from outside. For a minute he's disoriented, then it floods back.

Something has him pinned down, a heavy weight across his chest, and he cranes his neck to see his brother's right arm flung out across him. Dean is lying on his side, face buried in Sam's shoulder, sweat-damp hair tickling Sam's chin, and for a second Sam's heart skips at the thought his brother turned to him in his sleep, trusted he'd be safe.

Sam shifts, moves to lift Dean's arm off him, feels the pull of something on his wrist and remembers he shackled his brother to him when exhaustion finally deadened his ears to the creature's taunts. He fishes in his pocket for the key to the handcuffs, unlocks them, gently eases them off Dean's wrist.

He leaves his brother's outflung arm where it is, rests his hand lightly on Dean's, lies back, stares up at the canvas. Listens.

Five minutes pass.

Ten.

Nothing.

"Please tell me I imagined all that," Dean mutters, straight into Sam's right ear, and so unexpected that Sam yelps.

"Okay in there?" Bobby immediately shouts from outside, concern obvious. "He up?"

"Yeah," Sam calls back. "Is, uh… has it…?"

"Quiet out here for an hour or so now," the old man says diplomatically as he sticks his head in through the tent flap. He looks straight at Dean, who's rolling onto his back, blinking frowsily, bringing up his arm to shield his eyes from the shaft of light.

"Son. Got some caffeine on the go."

"Yeah, yeah…" Dean grouses. "In a minute."

Bobby disappears, and after a beat Sam rolls over onto his side, watches as Dean stares up much like he had. He sees Dean's eyes flick over.

"Just one joke about Daniel Jackson and his fuckin' Unas, and I will stab you in the brain, more than once," Dean clips out. "I'm O'Neill. You're Jackson."

Sam smiles. "I was thinking more along the lines of Lassie. Man's best friend. Maybe it's the whole tongue thing."

Dean shudders. "Christ. I can't believe that thing licked me. Where the fuck has it had that tongue? I mean, Jesus. Lassie licked its own balls."

Take it down to the lowest common denominator: always has been that way with Dean. "Lassie was a girl," Sam points out.

"Another reason why the mutt deserved a fuckin' Oscar," Dean parries. "It was just playing at being a girl. Dog was a dog, dude. Lassie was Laddie." He shakes his head. "Christ, did Stanford teach you nothing?"

"Lassie's balls just never came up in pre-law, Dean," Sam replies.

Dean falls quiet for a minute but the atmosphere is suddenly thick, claustrophobic, and Sam can see his brother playing the tip of his tongue over the lip Bobby opened up again. He clears his throat. "What did it say?"

It throws Sam off guard, because he thought Dean wasn't going to mention it, thought he was going to have to steer his brother gently around to that conversation. "Say?" he squeaks.

"You know what I'm talking about, Sam," Dean says, and his tone is a weird combination of weary, indifferent and bored out of his mind. "I can remember what happened, remember what I heard—"

"Voices," Sam says, too fast and he knows it, and he curses inwardly. "Just. What you heard. Just Bender's voice, saying what you heard."

Dean turns his head to look at Sam properly for the first time. "I think you're lying," he accuses mildly. "I think I know why."

Sam doesn't know what to do, wants to keep meeting his brother's gaze, but he falters, looks away, fumbles his words awkwardly. "Dean. I. You need to. I need to. I want you to know I—"

"You'll be here for me, Sam," Dean picks up, gentle now. "I know you are, man. I know you all are."

And Christ, if Dean doesn't reach out, grip Sam's hand and hold onto it like he's hanging onto a lifeline. And Sam thinks maybe the last time Dean did that without bullets, bites, slash wounds or stitches in the equation, he was still wearing his pants three-cornered.

"And yet," Dean says, and his face goes shadowed. "You're mad at me. Have been for a while, now." He pauses a beat, exhales long and slow. "I'm not as stupid as I look, Sam. And it isn't the drinking, though that's part of it, I know. You're mad at me about what happened with Bender."

Sam knows his mouth flaps open and shut for at least thirty seconds. And finally he gives in, blurts it out. "I can't believe you carved those initials on that tree. I can't believe you forgot me. You fucking forgot me." Even as the words leave his mouth he hates himself, because he knows now that it isn't really true, and that he can thank the friendly neighborhood wendigo for that reveal.

Dean thinks for a minute, quirks his eyebrows. "I did. Forget you I mean. In a way. And it cuts you up inside that a tap to the head could knock it all out of there."

He doesn't sound annoyed, he sounds philosophical in fact, in a way Sam isn't used to hearing him sound. "You didn't forget me, Dean," he mutters. "Ignore me, I was just running off at the mouth. I know you didn't forget me."

Dean snorts. "Yeah. Because of dog-Sam."

"No. Because that thing, when it – it – well. It, uh, replayed some… conversations." Sam is tripping over his own tongue in his efforts not to spook Dean, but ends up just coming out with it anyway. "You called for me. I mean it did. In your voice. You called for my help. When Bender was – you called my name. I know what that sounds like. You weren't calling the dog."

Dean 's features stay neutral, calm almost. "Well, I have no memory of calling for you, Sam," he answers, utterly dispassionate. "There it is. If Dean came out in Gabe while that bastard was pinning me down, I sure as hell don't remember it. But. I said I forgot you in a way. And in another way I didn't really forget you at all. I can tell you that when I was taking myself off to the safe place, it wasn't a strip club. It was me and you, kids playing tag in Bobby's lot."

Sam feels tears prick the back of his eyes, clears his throat.

"I never saw your face," Dean continues softly. "Just… always trying to catch you."

"You always caught me, Dean," Sam mumbles. "You were always faster."

Dean shakes his head. "Not this time, Sam. You raced ahead of me, and I tried so hard but I was always trailing behind. I never caught you…"

It's like his brother is back in the moment, Sam thinks, his voice is wistful, almost dreamy, and his hand comes up, fingers outstretched, reaching for something that isn't there, closing on thin air. "But I tried. I tried so damn hard… and I knew if I could just reach out far enough to grab you, turn you round, I'd…"

Dean's voice trails away, and Sam prompts for more. "You'd what?"

"I don't know," Dean admits. He flaps his hand, lets it fall back onto his chest. "Find the answer. Even though I didn't really know what the question was." He sighs, puts his hand up to his lip suddenly. "This is never going to get better," he grouses. "It's going to scar. How can someone his age hit so hard? It's fuckin' wrong. Just wrong."

Sam sits up, crosses his legs, stares expectantly down at Dean, sees his brother's eyes follow him.

"Christ," Dean groans. "We aren't finished, are we? And fuckin' puppy dog eyes. Douche."

"The initials," Sam says.

"Like I said before, Sam, I was confused." Dean reaches up, scratches at his stubble as he considers it all. "The guy was my brother – at the time. And before he went Gacy on me he was alright. Pretty good company in fact, if a tad dim." He twists his lips into a wry grin. "Can you believe I was the smart brother in that family? He kept Carrie off my back. We'd seen all the same movies, he was a hunter, I was a hunter. We bonded. Good times." His voice suddenly breaks, going harsh. "I sure as hell didn't carve it on there when he was getting his jollies from me, if that's what you're thinking."

Sam ignores the way his brother pales, closes his eyes hard for a minute, takes a deep breath in. It's a sudden display of openness, of sheer vulnerability, maybe even weakness, and Sam wonders if Dean is even aware of it. Or maybe his brother knows exactly what he's doing, and hopes it'll throw him off. He doesn't let it. "You want to know why I'm mad," he says softly, and Dean suddenly looks wary, reluctant, as if he's worked it out or maybe knew all along. "It's not because you forgot me. Or maybe it's partly that, I don't know. It's in the mix, and I'm not proud of it, because I know you couldn't help that, I do. Blow to the head, drugs—"

"You're mad at me because I stayed," Dean cuts in, abruptly. "For all those weeks, even after I was up and at it and my leg wasn't too bad. You're mad because I didn't try to kill the bastard, or get away when I maybe could have. You're mad because I didn't leave him even though he was – doing that."

And Sam throws up his hands, because yes, that's it, so totally it's as if his brother read his mind.

Dean's eyes are bleak, his voice controlled. "You have to see, it was…" He chews hard at his lip and Sam winces as he sees fresh blood glisten. "Lee was Gabe's brother, Sam. And he was doing that, and it made Gabe want to die. Gabe lay down at night and prayed to die in his sleep, and Gabe looked at his Bowie every fuckin' hour. Gabe took it out in the dark, and looked at it and held it to his wrist. And he thought about it." Dean is staring straight ahead, but now he turns and gazes at Sam. "Don't you get it? That was me. Gabe was me. And Lee, Lee was – I couldn't leave him." He huffs. "He was my brother. Do you understand that it isn't just that I thought that. It's who he was. My brother."

He sucks in a deep breath, rubs his brow. "I knew my head was wrong, messed up, that something wasn't right. But I knew I had a brother too, and I knew he was everything. So. Like I said, I didn't really forget you, Sam – I projected you onto Lee. And when he did that to me, it, it – was so…" Dean's voice is ragged, and he swallows hard. "I didn't know what to do. I was… overwhelmed. I knew it was wrong for him to do that, wrong for me to just take it. But still. I didn't take that Bowie and ram it straight into his chest while he slept. And I never left him. Because in some part of my head, he was you."

Sam has been quiet, listening, shaking inside because of what it means, and it makes him feel a sickly wave of nausea.

"You asked for it, dude," Dean says softly after a minute, because maybe he knows what it means too and maybe that's why he's never told Sam this before.

"But that… that means… that I could do that to you and you wouldn't defend yourself," Sam says, aghast. "That's what you're saying. That I'm unaccountable, that I don't have to bear any responsibility for anything I ever do to you… I could do that, do what he did, or pull out a gun right now, shoot you – and you'd just let me."

"You already did that," Dean says archly, reaching up to tap his chest, and Sam flips to Rockford and his brother flying back with the force of both barrels at point blank range.

"You wouldn't defend yourself from me no matter what I did," Sam plows on, and now he knows his voice is weak, shaky. "You'd just take it. I could do anything, I could be possessed by anything, hurt you. And you wouldn't fight me. That's – that's sick. It's wrong."

"No, Sammy," Dean corrects simply. "That's love,"

"But I wouldn't let you—"

"I know. And I'm good with that, Sam. Honestly, I am."

And he is, Sam can see, his eyes, his tone: direct, on the level. Dean's good with mattering less, and it leaves a hollow feeling in Sam's gut.

"Now we have a fugly to hunt." Dean sits up, winces and presses a hand to his ribs. "Cracked one tripping over Kathleen," he replies in response to Sam's look, and crawls out of the tent.

***

Dean pours himself a cup of coffee, huddles next to Hudak, who's barely awake and doesn't refer to the previous night, thank God. "Sleep well?" he asks.

She throws him a filthy look. "Noisy neighbors," she snaps. "They par-tayed till dawn." She gazes into the trees. "Bobby says they head back to the lair in daylight. Like vampires."

Dean cackles and she points an assessing look at him. "No, I'm not losing it, Kathleen," he reassures her. "Just – vampires. Pile of steaming horseshit, everyone knows they aren't real." He blows on his coffee, sips, sucks in a hiss as the hot liquid sears his split lip. "Bobby's jerking your chain."

Hudak doesn't rise to the bait. "Are you?" she says. "Not losing it? Okay, I mean… are you okay?"

She's staring right at him and her eyes are screaming we need to talk. And fuck, Dean so doesn't need to talk about that. Even so, "No, I'm not okay," he concedes. "But I'm trying to see the bright side." And he is, he really is. They all know what happened to him, know it wasn't pretty – hell, they saw his broken body for themselves. "You know, in a weird way, this takes the pressure off," he acknowledges. "Sam and Bobby, they wanted the missing pieces of the puzzle, wanted to know what happened. Now they do, they got the director's fuckin' cut, in fact. And I didn't have to lay myself bare to give it to them."

Bobby comes up behind him, nudges him with his boot. "Not this way, Dean. We didn't want to find out this way."

Dean looks up, shrugs. "Maybe it was the only way," he says, and he rearranges his features into one of his patented shit-eating grins, so shit-eating it even deflects from the memory of hollering at the old man, and the sickly crunch of Bobby's fist on his face. "Hell, maybe even I might find out something if I listen hard enough."

Bobby sits down opposite him, and Dean sees the look that passes between Hudak and the old man.

Hudak looks over to where Sam is starting to collapse the tent. "I'll just go and… do something," she says randomly. "Over there. Tents. Pack them up."

She tips out the dregs of her coffee and slinks away, and Dean shakes his head as he looks back over at the old man. "Smooth. Real smooth."

"I learned how to ditch chicks from you, son," Bobby snaps.

So it's serious. Well, he'll get his two cents in first then. "That wasn't fair," Dean says. "Last night, what I said. It isn't your fault you don't know. Well. Didn't know. Seems like you know all there is to know now. And the drinking, well—"

"I'm not mad at you, boy," Bobby says, his tone more even now. "You got reason to be drinking, God knows. I'm madder at me for sitting back and letting it go this far when I should've known better, should've – reached out or something."

Dean grimaces. "I haven't made that very easy. For you or for Sam."

"Beside the point. With what you've been going through and all." Bobby blows out, shaking his head. "I saw your dad do the exact same thing years ago, lose himself in the bottle."

Dean looks down at his boots, doesn't want the reminder of John's alcohol-sodden breath and his slurred-out grief and anger when he'd downed too many.

"I don't want that for you, son," Bobby goes on. "I don't want to see you broken down like that." He clears his throat. "It's you and me, Dean. Always has been. You know what I'm talking about, and Christ knows, I'm not outliving another son. That's why it ends. It is so over, boy. And you better not have any more booze hidden."

Bobby stares right at Dean now, raises both eyebrows in a question.

"No more," Dean mutters, and even while Bobby's words have his heart clenching, his tongue dries up at the thought of no liquor, no escape, no peace. "That was it. And I had the bottle, but honest… I haven't had any since Punxsutawney. I've been trying."

The old man nods. "Good. But just so as we're clear, Dean, I will slip you a mickey that will have you puking your balls up if you cross me on this. And I will make you walk back into town on your own two feet carrying all the packs while you hurl."

Dean folds his hands under his armpits to hide the tremor. "I hear you. Loud and clear."

"You're no use to anyone drunk, Dean," Bobby says after a minute. "You'll get yourself killed. Or your brother. And you're no use high, either."

The words are a reminder of what Bobby yelled at him the night before, and Dean swallows. "Bobby, the drugs… the uppers." He stops as the old man's face goes hard. "I did take them from Bender's bag. But I didn't even know what they were. And I haven't taken any of them." He looks steadily into the old man's eyes, steadily because he's damn well telling the truth. "I don't really know why I took them. Insurance maybe. Linus blanket. She gave them to me. It was the only peace I got. When she gave me the pills I could forget I was him for a while. So maybe I thought I might want to, I don't know…"

"Forget you were you?" Bobby guesses.

Dean nods. "Something like that. But I never took any, Bobby. I haven't asked you for them, have I? I haven't been looking for them, haven't been twitching for them, have I? Because I never missed them. I only remembered the damn things when you threw it at me last night."

Bobby gives him a long, measured stare. "Okay, Dean. I believe you."

Sam is hovering nearby, looks a tad anxious at the sight of them huddled, heads close in conversation. Bobby waves the coffee can at him. "Come on, kid, we won't bite."

Sam folds his long frame in half, perches on a rock next to Dean. "So we clear up and head back to town then?" he says. "Bobby, you don't think there's any risk of this thing following us do you? Only I—"

"No," Dean says, and he makes sure it's implacable.

"No? But Dean, this thing, what it did – what it said. It was there all along. Kathleen says it knew you. I don't want you here listening to that, I don't—"

"No," Dean snaps. "We stay. We track this thing and kill it. That's why we came. We have the flares, we have the silver bullets. And can we stop with it knows me? It didn't know me. Doesn't know me."

Bobby isn't really saying much, even seems like he expected this. "Your brother's right, Dean," he says reasonably. "The way this thing was with you. That's just wrong, by a country mile. If it recognizes your scent from before, it could be stalking you. And if it's stalking you, we need to get you out of here."

"But I—"

"Kid, it's full clear from what we heard last night that the thing was watching you, watching all three of you." Bobby cocks his head. "That just isn't its MO, boy. There is something off about that, and you can't deny it. Why would it spy? Why would it watch? As opposed to chowing down, which is its sole reason for living?"

Dean gulps, swallows down bile, the slop seismograph in his stomach scribbling like crazy as his guts quake. "Uh. Maybe… what… what Sam said. About the food. Uh…" He slams a hand up to his mouth and his head swims. He closes his eyes, opens them to the gentle tap of something on his chin: a canteen of water right there in front of him, Hudak, leaning in, concerned. "M'okay," he claims as he clutches it and sips gratefully, and he damn well imagines it's Jack he's drinking. No law against fantasy liquor.

"So it would be like smoking the peace pipe in all those old westerns?" Hudak says, parking herself next to Bobby. "You become part of the tribe because you ate it?"

Dean shudders. "Yeah. Guess that makes me a wendeano."

"But how would it know that's what you were eating?" she asks. "Are they psychic or something?"

Bobby shrugs. "They can sniff out a man miles away," he says. "Could be as simple as that."

"Cooked," Dean croaks. "It was cooked. Whatever it was. Wouldn't they be used to raw? We didn't eat it, uh, raw." And the air is suddenly painfully thin, and the needle shoots off the scale, ten point five, and the gastric equivalent of the earthquake that ate Los Angeles sends the water spewing up into the grass between his boots. Dean spits, wipes his mouth, leans into his brother suddenly, relishes the solid warmth and wonders just when it was Sam got so big.

"I guess it would have been raw," Bobby says, wrinkling his nose, eyes warm with sympathy. "Before it was cooked."

Sam drapes an arm across his shoulders. "I think we're done with the food," he announces. "I think we should get him out of these woods. Dean?"

Dean sucks his lip in, tries to ignore the way his leg wants to tap dance up and down, the way his hands shake so much he has to fold his thumbs inside his fists and hang onto them to control the jitters. "No," he insists, and he bricks up his inner panic. "We stay. This thing is holding onto a piece of me and I want it the fuck back. I have to do this. It's a way for me to exorcise that sonofabitch."

No one replies for a minute and then Hudak suddenly speaks up, hesitant. "Actually I was thinking…"

Dean looks at her, Bobby and Sam too.

"Well… if it is stalking him, then doesn't that make him the perfect bait?"

And Sam looks at Bobby and he can tell from the old man's expression they both think it makes a ghastly sort of sense.

***

There's a thrill to be had from tracking, the buzz that comes from out-thinking the monster of the week, being more cunning, possessing more sheer animal instinct than the savage, the primitive, sometimes the demonic. Sam never was as good at it as Dean is though, and he's content to be led, keeping an eye on their six as they journey.

Dean notices bruised leaves, cracked branches, flattened out patches of grass. He can see the thing's passage through the trees almost as clear as if it's skipping ahead of them, leaving a trail of peanut M&Ms, and Sam can hear his brother's voice now, intense as he talks to Hudak even while his eyes dart in every direction.

"The earth's like the page of a book, Kathleen," Dean says, and Sam can't help but be teleported back in time, fifteen years or so, jogging to keep up with his brother's longer legs – back then at least – as they trailed along behind their dad. And Sam wants to think they were tracking rabbit or deer, doesn't like thinking about what they really hunted, kids out killing things that crawled from the darkest, unholiest places, with eager teeth and hungry bellies.

"Tracking is like reading the earth," Dean is saying. "You start with a single letter – a dent on the ground, disturbed leaves, a flower petal knocked down. And you build up to reading the words written on the soil, the grass, the undergrowth. The meaning is hidden from us, but when we know how to find those single letters, we find the track." He glances over his shoulder at Sam, smiles, and it's like a bolt of understanding zips between them. Dean is thinking the exact same thing as he was. And he knew Sam was thinking it.

"And what's the track, Sam?"

Sam smiles, albeit weakly, because he suddenly flips to what Hudak said about Dean being the bait and he doesn't know where this is all going, doesn't know just what his brother is prepared to do to slay this particular personal demon. "The track is the memory of what walked here, and what it did, and where it went," he supplies. "The track is the meaning."

Dean turns back, talks on. "A good tracker sees the smallest signs of a presence, or something passing through. There's a Zen to it, Kathleen." He pauses, smirks, and Sam sees Hudak roll her eyes at Dean before he goes on. "As we track, we gain enlightenment through meditation, self-contemplation and intuition." He looks back at Sam again and his face splits in a brilliant smile. "Private joke, Sam."

Bobby looks back at them from up ahead. "One of the reasons the wendigo is such a good hunter is that it was a trapper most likely," he says. "When it was human it was always on the alert, always watching for signs of what passed through the woods, so it would know where to set its traps."

Sam shivers, thinks of Lost Creek, of Roy reaching out just at the right moment to stop his brother stepping into a bear trap that might have taken his foot off, would definitely have cut through flesh and muscle, pulverized the bone. His gut tightens slightly at the awful possibilities. "Kathleen, gintraps," he broaches. "We had a close call with one on a hunt a few months back. What are the laws here?"

Hudak falls back to walk beside him. "I honestly don't know if this is a bear permit area, but this isn't bear hunting season."

"What about wolves?" Sam persists.

"It's illegal to trap or kill wolves here, Sam, they're protected."

"What about traps from past seasons? Or really old ones? There must've been a heck of a lot of fur trappers working up here last century."

"Hunters have to set and tend traps according to pretty strict regulations these days, but they don't all plot out their trap lines as accurately as they should," Hudak says. "As far as traps from back in the day, I don't know if the area was ever cleared…" She seems distracted, stops suddenly, squats, fumbles with her bootlace, looks up. "Is he alright?" she says urgently, motioning towards Dean, ranging ahead now.

"That was random," Sam says, reaching down to heave her up and glancing around them. "We shouldn't fall too far behind. Just in case. They like the dark best but we tracked one in Colorado that picked Dean off in daylight, and it was early for this thing to be out yesterday."

Hudak walks ahead, keeps talking. "I guess if it has his scent it's – excited?" She scowls at Sam's grimace. "I don't mean like that. It made sense in my head. What I mean is, it's unsettled enough for its usual pattern to be interrupted."

"Makes sense," Sam concedes. "In among a lot of stuff that doesn't."

"You know, I never would have said anything about him being bait for this thing if I'd known he was going to be this enthusiastic," Hudak says, speeding up beside Sam as Dean waves them on from up ahead. "He's making jokes about being the Jurassic Park goat."

Sam smiles, sort of. "And Fay Wray."

"Any more ideas as to why it didn't hurt him? Yesterday or back then, when it was watching them?"

"Got to be the food thing," Sam tells her. "I just don't see any other reason. Jesus, it's weird though… it's just not what these things do. It may have said kin, but the way the lore tells it there's no humanity in them, no mercy. They're like the Terminator."

She spits it out, sudden, blunt. "Could it be Bender?"

"I just don't see how," Sam says.

But in his head a little voice is reminding him that they never burned the body.

***

Dean glances back to where his brother is pulling Hudak back up onto her feet, waves, hollers, "Keep up!" He trots to catch up with Bobby.

"Dean."

Don't wanna, don't wanna, la-la-la-la, puttin' my fingers in my ears… "I'll be fine," Dean insists. "It's just a voice. I know he's dead. I'll be fine."

"Son." Gentle. "It's not just his voice, son."

"I can handle it."

"Dean. Son." Gentle again, and Bobby is so damn good, isn't even missing a step, is still scanning the trees, the ground, is still one hundred percent focused as they walk. "It's – the soundtrack. It's – everything that went on. Everything. The beatings, the… everything. From the sound of him pulling his fuckin' zipper down onwards. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"Bobby." Dean is suddenly breathless, tight-chested, vision tunneling. "Please. Please don't do this."

They walk on a few yards.

"I can handle it," Dean says again.

Bobby's response speaks of his own agony. "I don't think I can, son."

***

Hudak matches Sam's stride as they walk. "I'm having trouble believing he's thrown all of this off quite so easily after last night."

"It's what he does," Sam says. He watches Dean's back as he walks beside Bobby, can see his brother's shoulders are tense, see he's cocking his head, glancing around, staring for long moments into the woods, turning back to Bobby, looking back into the trees, craning his head to see. Sam turns in a circle as he walks, staring into the trees behind them, looking up too, keeps flipping to that scene in Aliens when the creatures are coming at them from above.

"What happened with the wendigo in Colorado?" Hudak asks.

Sam scowls. "It knocked him about pretty good before we torched it. It was holed up in a mine. So. Perfect symmetry, really."

Bobby's bending over up ahead, and now Dean is trotting back towards them, holding something in his hand.

"Wallet," he says, hands it to Hudak. "It's your friend's. Her badge is in there."

Hudak flips through it. "I'd sort of forgotten her," she breathes, pulls out a driver's license, stares at the photo. "Forgotten what she looked like."

"I'm sorry," Dean says awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot. He's clenching his hands, chewing his lip, eyes darting every which way, too concerned really, Sam thinks.

"You're twitching, dude," he says. "Y'okay?"

His brother looks at him oddly, distantly. "Why would I not be?" he snaps. "And we need to keep moving. We're getting closer to the mines, thing could pop out any minute."

He walks a few steps ahead, turns back suddenly. "Just – that feeling. Of being watched. Creepy as fuck. Keep seeing things that aren't there."

Sam listens, can hear birds sing, insects buzz. "It's not a dead zone," he says, and Dean makes a face before striding back up behind Bobby.

"How about you?" Hudak says, once Dean's out of earshot. "Are you throwing this off? The tree… that was pretty extreme, Sam. You say he holds things in. Maybe you are too? Have you talked to anyone? I mean, really talked?"

Sam shrugs. "Not really. Well. To Dean. When he woke up."

"And how did that go?"

"I don't really know."

Up ahead Dean has slowed, is looking into the trees, and Sam can see that he's reaching up, rubbing his brow. "Dean," he calls. "You okay?"

His brother waves his other hand, keeps going.

Hudak stumbles beside Samm and he grabs her arm steadies her. "We shouldn't fall too far behind," he warns.

"He thinks you feel guilty," she says.

"I do feel guilty."

"He doesn't blame you."

"I know. It isn't in him to blame me."

"Then maybe you—"

The noise when it comes is earsplitting. Sam has no memory of asking his Uncle Bobby if trees really scream when they fall down in the forest but now he has his answer: an ugly, ripping, grinding screech as it topples in slow motion ahead of them, the same slow motion that Sam is running in as he sees his brother and Bobby look up, frozen, sees it crash down on them. Sam is yelling, screaming their names, clambering over massive limbs, bulky foliage, Hudak hot on his heels, and she's hollering at him.

"It's here! It must be! Bobby said they could uproot trees! Fuck!"

Sam doesn't care. He's boiling hot, sweating, rips off his pack and his shirt, dives into the leaves, wriggles through branches, shouts. He's frantic, desperate, can feel his fingers tearing open again as he digs, flails and rips his way to his brother, he's sobbing, calling, screaming, and he can't find him, he's buried…

"Sam! Sam!" Hudak is grabbing his arm, pulling hard, shouting in his face. "Over there! Look!"

He twists his head around wildly, sees about twenty yards away, wandering, aimless, glancing around him, rubbing his brow, scratching his head, squinting up at the sun. Dazed and confused.

"Dean!" Sam doesn't even know how he got there so fast, doesn't remember clambering over the branches, doesn't remember running. "Jesus. Thank God." He grabs his brother's bicep, swings him round and into a hug, feels him fight the embrace, no chick-flick fuckin' moments, dude, only that's not what Dean is saying at all.

"Fuck! Who the fuck…"

Sam lets go and Dean stumbles back and his face is so much astonishment, irritation, and his eyes are so much blank

"What the fuck is your problem, Mister?" he snaps.

***

11. Time Out of Mind

Gabe works alongside the big guy, pulling back branches, snapping them, reaching in, feeling about. He eyes the hot lady as she does the same a few feet over, thinks she seems friendly enough, but Big Guy has a weird vibe coming off him even if Gabe feels safe with him. It's like hostility but not, and Gabe's so fuckin' sick of trying to work out what's coming next, when the next explosion is coming, just what the fuck it is he's done to mess with Lee's head, that he just doesn't want to think about pissing anyone else off if he can help it.

Even so, "I don't think your buddy's under here, dude," he broaches cautiously.

Big Guy ignores him, keeps working, and all the while he has this funny look on his face like devastation all mixed up with disbelief, suspicion and what-the-fuckery face-palmery type stuff.

"He's not here, Sam," Hot Lady agrees after a moment or two, and Gabe glances over at her again, smiles to himself as he sees her tee riding up just so, and an ever increasing strip of tanned skin. There's a dark patch of sweat on the fabric between her shoulder blades there, and if it just slips up higher, yep lady, just reach over there, bit further, yes, no, fuck, caught out. She pulls down her tee, narrowing her eyes at Gabe, and he shrugs.

"That thing was here, Sam," she says then. "This tree didn't just fall. You heard it, it was ripped up at the roots."

Gabe glances down to the opposite end of the trunk, points. "Mister. Look. Roots." It's as if he never spoke, the guy blanks him. "Hey, Sam," he tries.

Big Guy's head snaps round, and now his face is all lit up with something new.

"Look, Mister," Gabe repeats. "Roots. Thing ripped it up."

Big Guy's face falls. "What thing? What thing ripped it up?"

"Fuck if I know," Gabe replies. "She said it, not me."

"So you didn't see anything?"

Gabe looks at Big Guy, calculates. There's still this weird vibe coming off him, violent maybe, and Christ, Gabe can do without that. He rubs his back, the bruise where Lee stomped him good. Feels better now. "Well," he says slowly. "I saw the tree. Obviously." He chuckles, knows it comes out nervous, uneasy. "Else I'd be under the damn thing."

Hot Lady stands up. "He's right," she says wearily. "Bobby isn't under here, Sam. That thing grabbed him, maybe pushed Dean out of the way. It's the only explanation."

And Gabe gets this odd, sick feeling in his gut, his head, something's throbbing in there, isn't right. It just slips out of him. "You lost your Dean too? That's careless, buddy. Real careless." He doesn't mean it to sound so abrasive, so spiteful, but he knows that it does.

Big Guy must think so too because he shoots bolt upright, and Jesus he's as tall as Lee, fuckin' sasquatch as he stares down at Gabe, his eyes bleak.

"Sam, consult," Hot Lady barks.

"Don't mind me," Gabe retorts as Big Guy stalks towards her. "I'll just sit a spell, I guess." And he sits, tries to remember where he was going through the ache and noise in his head.

***

Sam hasn't even wanted to think about it, has forced it to the back of his mind even as they searched, but Hudak is characteristically upfront.

"Do you think Bobby's still alive?"

He crumples down on to the ground, scrubs at his sweat-damp hair hard with his fingers, thinks absentmindedly that he'd feel a whole lot cooler if he buzzed it like Dean's. "They store food and they eat it in order," he says.

"It'll eat the others first then."

"Probably." He eyes her, uncomfortable. "I'm sorry. About your friend."

She nods slowly and her voice is tight, controlled. "So we have time." She gestures over to where his brother is sitting, staring into space. "What do you think this is? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Or do you think he hit his head or something?"

"I don't know. Maybe… though he's alert." Sam reaches for his pack, unhooks his canteen, drinks long and deep.

"Has anything like this happened before?" Hudak prods. "It's just so – complete. So convincing. He really believes it. What about the dreams, the flashbacks… is this what happens when he has those?"

"Yeah," Sam admits, pushing his sweat-lanky hair out of his eyes. "Sort of, I guess. He had a pretty bad one couple weeks back, got out, shot Bobby's dogs. Thought it was the pitbulls. But he was Dean. He wasn't Gabe."

"Has he been Gabe in any of the other flashbacks?"

"Yeah, but they're like waking nightmares really," Sam tells her. "He isn't really conscious. I just put him back to bed and he's fine in the morning."

"How could you tell he was Gabe those other times?" she presses. "If he wasn't conscious, I mean?"

Sam's mind flits back to Dean padding over to the bedroom door at Bobby's and twisting the doorknob, and the anxiety that seeps off him every time it happens. "He's – timid, I guess. Beaten down."

Hudak taps her fingers on her thighs. "Time being a factor," she says, "is it feasible to take him back to town and then come back out here to find Bobby?"

Sam shakes his head. "That'll add a couple of days to this. I don't want to leave Bobby with that thing any longer than necessary."

"Then how do we handle him?" Hudak sighs, chews at her bottom lip. "Do we humor him, wait until he snaps out of it? Or push him to remember who he really is?"

"I don't know…" Sam trails off, watches Dean for a few minutes. His brother is sitting staring into space, motionless, quiet, and God help him but Sam thinks of the possibilities, even though the night before should have been warning enough that some of the things his brother endured are too painful, too raw to ever confront. He thinks of the opportunities, even though the night before should have been warning enough that some of the things his brother endured are too secret, too private to ever confess. Dean's silence is like a fuse between them that sparks suddenly into life, and Sam opens his mouth, and God help him but it's the curiosity, the jealousy, the possessiveness, curling in his gut like some insidious snake, that speaks. "I think we should wait and see if he snaps out of it himself," he says softly.

Hudak doesn't seem to think it's unreasonable, simply nods, squeezes his arm, pushes up onto her feet and picks up her pack. "Hey," she calls over to Dean. "With us."

***

As Gabe jogs up to them, Big Guy's hand suddenly floats up to his mouth.

"Bobby had the map," he says hoarsely. He dips his head down onto his knees, takes deep breaths. "We need the map to find the mines," he says, voice muffled. "Jesus."

Hot Lady makes a frustrated sound. "Well, he said they were in this area," she says. "We just need to keep walking, try different directions, keep looking, we're bound to—"

"Uh. Ma'am. I know where there's a mine." Gabe just throws it in there, doesn't really think about what it could mean for him, but Big Guy's head snaps up.

"You know where there's a mine?" he demands. "Is it a deep pit mine?"

"Deep pit?" Gabe fishes. "Hole-in-the-ground type, you mean?"

"Yes it is," Hot Lady interjects. "Is it near here? Where did you see it? Have you been there?"

"Not so much." Gabe shrugs. "I just passed by it. My brother showed it to me."

Big Guy snorts, pinches the bridge of his nose.

Hot Lady ignores him. "Could you find it again?"

"I guess I could, it's…" Gabe stops, hunches his shoulders defensively, starts shifting from foot to foot, because honest, he has wasted enough time here. "Look, ma'am, I'm sorry about your friend, but this isn't my problem and I really need to get moving myself."

"Forget it," she says. "We could use another set of hands. I think you know damn well what's out there and that you know these woods better than us. And don't ever call me ma'am. I'm not eighty."

Gabe bristles. "Look, lady, where the hell do you get off—"

"Gabriel Bender," she snaps, harsh, businesslike. Fuckin' scorching hot if he's honest. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights?"

Gabe knows his jaw drops. "You're a cop?" So what can we do for you, Officer Washington? He blinks hard, shakes his head, voices, fuck, going crazy just like Lee says. "You're arresting me? You're fuckin' arresting me?"

"Arrest-ed, Gabe," she clarifies tartly. "It's done. You're in my custody, and I will cuff you if I have to."

Gabe doesn't know what to do with that, backs away a step or two before looking at Big Guy, who seems as taken aback as he is. "Arresting me for what?" he challenges. "And where's your badge?"

Hot Lady reaches into her jacket, flips open her wallet and there it is. "I'll think of something," she says. "And if you run, I will shoot you in the leg."

"Shoot me?" And Gabe gets this weird flash of – what? Like an echo in his head, you shot me, noise, shouting, confusion, and he reaches up, rubs his shoulder. "Wait a minute. How come you know me, know my name?" he says, and fuck, his head aches and it's so busy, so loud in there.

But she's walking away, Big Guy beside her, and she doesn't actually seem to be carrying out her threat, almost like she maybe thinks she doesn't have to, like Gabe will just follow them anyway. Like he is, in fact, and once he's alongside her he pats her arm, pats for attention like some kid. "Wait," he says, feeling tight in the chest, sick in the gut. "I can't stay here. I need to leave, that's what I'm doing. Leaving."

Big Guy stops, looks at him oddly.

"There must be a town nearby if you're here," Gabe continues, despite the examination. "Is there a town? I can't be here no more, lady, I can't, he's looking for me and I—"

And suddenly Big Guy cuts in and is right there, up close, staring into his eyes. "You're running… are you? Leaving? Trying to get away from Lee?"

Gabe is even more confused by that, looks from one face to the other. "How do you know this?" he says. "What is this?"

Big Guy's face softens and his eyes are suddenly so warm, so kind, and Gabe feels his throat start closing up because kindness, fuckin' kindness… Jesus. What is that? When did he last see that look, feel cared for in the way this dude's eyes seem to be telling him he is? "You don't know me," he croaks helplessly.

Hot Lady coughs, looks at him, at Big Guy. Sam.

"Look," she says, gentle, and so much more fuckin' kindness. "We can't do this now. We have to move."

Sam stares at Gabe for a long moment, looks to the woman, nods, looks back to Gabe. "Gabe," he says, and he says it funny, like he's forcing it out. "Help us find the mine. And we'll help you. You'll be safe with us. Lee isn't here. He's gone."

"But he isn't—"

"He is, Gabe. He's gone. He won't hurt you again." Hot Lady is already walking, and Sam turns to follow her.

Gabe trails along behind. "I don't understand," he says.

"You will."

"Lee, he—"

"He's gone. I wouldn't lie to you about that, Gabe. He's gone."

For some odd reason he can't fathom, Gabe trusts Big Guy. Sam. But the dude is wrong by a country fuckin' mile. "Lee isn't gone," he whispers. "He's just layin' low."

Sam doesn't hear him.

***

"Did you… bring food?"

"Uh."

"Food… Did you… bring food?"

"Nuh."

"Wake up… Do you… have food?"

Needling him, in his ear, the barest whisper. Bobby cracks his eyes, sees shadows, dim light coming in from above. His head is spinning, his guts turning handsprings. And there's a face right there, mad eyes, dark circles, black blood dried on, hair wild, foul breath, cracked lips.

"I know you," he breathes.

"Food… you have food?"

Wallet… badge. "Kelley," Bobby remembers. "You're Kelley."

She leans in closer, pats weakly at him. "Food…"

Bobby thinks through the fog, fumbles in his pocket. Power bar.

He has to take it back because she can't unwrap it, too weak. He breaks pieces off it, feeds them into her mouth. He sees a canteen, a pile of them, reaches over to snag one. Old, water brackish. He holds it to her lips and maybe some of it goes in. He glances around at tattered backpacks, things strewn about, bones, larger shapes. Something strung up over there, and the air is hung with the sickly-sweet miasma of putrefaction.

It dawns on him. "Fuckin' pantry," he murmurs. His eyes fall on a dark shape lying in the shadows. Dean.

Bobby isn't hurt – at least he thinks he isn't. He starts to push up, thinks better of it when he sees sparks. He crawls over instead. Up close the clothing is wrong, surely, what the fuck was he wearing, can't remember, please don't let it be him. He rolls the body over, recoils at partially exposed jawbones, teeth, eyeballs, all crawling with maggots. "Fuck."

Too far gone, and Bobby eases a shaking hand into the jacket, pulls out a wallet, and holds it up to a shaft of light. Wesley Schweitzer. His eyes fall on more shapes, five in all, and he crawls to each in turn, and not him. The relief, the fucking relief. He can die happy.

He crawls back over to the prone woman, puts more crumbs in her mouth and she smiles.

When he wakes up again, she's staring at nothing and he closes her eyes and shuffles away to find another spot.

***

In so many ways it's Dean walking ahead of them, looking for signs, tracks.

"Are you tracking or are you taking us to the mine?" Sam snaps, childishly he knows. "If you're tracking, what are you tracking?"

Dean shrugs. Dean. Because the whole Gabe thing sickens Sam, it sickens him how fast he's fallen into thinking Gabe, saying Gabe.

"Something passed this way," his brother says simply. "Its track is there, on the grass. Flatter there, see? Maybe what took your pal."

"What do you know about the thing that took him?" Sam demands.

His brother turns to him with a look of such exasperation that Sam just knows a bitchface comment is coming, even starts to smile in anticipation.

"Look," Dean snaps. "Mister, I didn't see anything take your friend. I didn't see your friend period. Please drop it. You're confusing me. I haven't done anything wrong. And you're keeping me here against my will."

Hudak steps in, diplomatic. "Where did you learn to track like this, Gabe?" she says, shoots Sam a warning glare.

Dean's face suddenly brightens. "My pa showed me. And there's a Zen to it."

"A Zen?" she responds.

"Yeah, it's—

"Your pa?" Sam spits it out. "Christ!"

"—when you look at your soul or something…" Dean trails off, doesn't really react much bar a flicker of the eyes, but Sam can see his brother's body is suddenly rigid with pent-up something that he hopes isn't fear. Dean squints then. "Do I – know you?"

"You tell me," Sam says, and he ignores Hudak gurning mightily at him from behind Dean's shoulder.

"You're familiar," Dean says. "Feels like I know you. But my head isn't right, so…"

So much potential there, Sam thinks, so much potential to find out just what was said, done, to so totally convince Dean, fool him so completely into forgetting. And Jesus, if he isn't somehow compelled to do it, even though he knows damn well the wendigo chorus should have taught him his lesson by now. "Who told you your head wasn't right?"

"My brother. He's…" Dean rolls his eyes, shudders theatrically. "He isn't right in the head either. I don't think he is anyway. He's. Uh… he's sure got a temper on him." He laughs weakly, briefly, chews his lip, so Dean-like it's like a knife in Sam's chest. "I hear voices," he says, and frowns. "Sometimes see things." His voice is flat, the labored humor gone. "It's getting dark."

"What do you see?"

Dean stares at him, shifty, eyes darting from his face to beyond him in the trees. "My brother," he says, hesitantly. "It's like I catch sight of him and then when I look properly he isn't there… it's like he hid or something. Ducked out of sight. I feel like he's watching me. It makes me jumpy." He looks past Sam again, nervous, and it's almost like he's looking out for something, Sam thinks, he even cranes his head. "I really want to get on my way," he blurts out then. "He catches up with me, he'll be real pissed…"

It suddenly hits Sam that in some weird way this is him and Dean with their positions reversed, that it's effectively a facsimile of so many conversations over so many years, years of being comforted, reassured, guided, sometimes ordered, only he's the oldest in this conversation and Gabe Bender is a frightened, fucked up, abused, trapped kid. "Tell me some more about your brother," he says, and then Hudak is right there, leading him away.

"Do you think this is wise?" she hisses.

"I have no idea," Sam says. "But he can't stay like this, h—"

"You've changed your tune," she retorts. "Look, we have no idea what's going on here, what's caused this, but if it's PTSD or some kind of breakdown pushing him could make it worse."

Sam glances over at Dean, sees him staring at them, wide eyed and anxious.

"When I said that before I was—"

"Sam," Hudak says. "I sympathize, believe me. But don't forget, we need him like this until he finds the mine. Gabe knows where it is – Dean doesn't. I know it doesn't make sense, but if he snaps out of this delusion he might not remember where to go. And anyway, we have a more immediate problem."

"Which is?"

"Like he said. It's getting dark. We need to set up camp, do all of that crazy symbol stuff, yes? And I'm hungry." She glances over at his brother, drifting again now, cocking his head, gazing into the woods. "Sam, if that thing comes back, how do you think he's going to react now he's Gabe?"

And that hasn't even occurred to Samm. "Crap. Crap. I don't—"

"Hey, Mister," Dean calls out, and when Sam snaps his head around again, his brother has walked off the trail, is pointing into the trees.

"The mine's over there."

***

Hudak stands next to Sam as he stares at the battered wooden exterior, and she reaches out to tug on the chain and padlock holding the doors firmly closed.

"What do you make of that?"

He kicks uselessly at the wood. "Has to be using another way in. Has to be." Because Jesus, he doesn't even want to think what it might mean for Bobby if this isn't the right mine.

Hudak calls over to Dean, who's flopped out on the ground. "Gabe. Is there another entrance to this mine?"

He frowns. "Don't think so. Sorry."

She looks at her wristwatch and then up at the sky. "Can you pick that?" she says, gesturing at the padlock. "Maybe we could go in from this end, grab Bobby while this thing is out hunting?"

"What if it doesn't go?" Sam says. "If it has Dean's scent and knows he's here, it might hang around the house instead."

"Yeah… that would spoil the party." She ponders, jerks her head over at his brother. "There's always the Jurassic Park goat."

Sam goggles at her, almost lunges into her space so that she backs up against the doors. "Are you cracked?" he yelps. "Are you seriously suggesting we stake him out here by himself and—"

"No!" she snaps. "That's not what I'm suggesting. But this thing seems to have a crush on your brother and maybe, just maybe, it'll come for him. So what I'm saying is that we don't go looking for it – now we've found the mine, we set up camp here and wait for it to come to us."

Sam stops, thinks. "Yeah… it's a good plan," he says slowly. He glances around them, frowns. "But it's too open… we need a ring of trees for the symbols, just drawing them in the dirt might not be enough." He stares beyond her, at the wooden doors. "Wait a damn minute," he breathes, reaches out to touch the chain. "Jesus. It's perfect."

She follows his gaze. "You want to camp in there?"

"It's perfect," Sam tells her. "I can paint the sigils on the doors. We can set up just inside and if it turns up, it'll have to double back and come at us from the tunnel end… we can just pick it off."

She nods. "Makes sense. Even though I can't believe I'm even using that word in this conversation. But." She looks over at Dean. "What about him?"

"What? About him?"

"He said Lee told him to keep away, so I'm thinking he isn't going to be up on the idea of sleeping in there."

Sam sighs. "I guess we're about to find out."

Dean is lying with his hands clasped under his head, eyes closed, and Sam walks over, looks down at him. He cracks an eye, smiles up. "I like this place."

Sam squats down. "I thought Lee said it was a bad place."

Dean breathes in out, relaxed, easy. "That he did. But I like it."

"Why do you like it here?"

"My head. It's empty here. Quiet. Like it all just switched off. The voices."

Sam has to swallow hard. "Whose voice do you hear, Gabe?"

"My brother's, mostly."

Christ, Sam thinks, which brother?, and suddenly he isn't sure if he wants to know the answer to that question. "Is that a good thing?"

"Fuck, no!" Dean declares. "Lee, he's… He confuses me. One minute happy, next he's – not. He's got a real bad temper." He gives the same nervous laugh as before, looks up at Sam as if he isn't really sure what Sam will do, like maybe he's expecting a blow.

"And you hear him in your head?" Sam asks.

"All the time, Mister. All the damn time. Maybe it's some freak psychic thing."

Christ. It's like his brother is on the cusp between Gabe and Dean, so near and yet so far. "This bad temper," Sam ventures cautiously. "Does he hurt you?"

Dean sits up and suddenly his eyes are wary, his jaw set. "Look. For the first time in a long time, my head is clear," he says quietly. "It's peaceful in here. I don't wanna talk about Lee fuckin' Bender."

But Sam presses it. "If he hurts you, why do you stay?"

"I'm not staying," Dean snaps, clearly irritated. "I'm trying to leave. You're keeping me here. And when my brother catches me, he'll beat the living shit out of me. So why don't you just let me enjoy the peace while I can, huh?"

Sam doesn't. "Why don't you fight?"

"It would be worse then," Dean mutters. "That's why I'm leaving."

Sam feels sick. But he seizes the moment. "We can hide you," he says.

***

After nine hundred and ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, Bobby takes measurements. Fifteen by twelve. Doesn't lead to any kind of mine shaft. No tunnel. Must have been a cave-in at some point, blocked it off.

It's crowded. He hauls the bodies over to the other side, squints up through the dimness to where the light is coming in. Mine entrance of some sort, set in the ground, and for a minute or two he debates piling up the bodies, wonders if it would get him high up enough to push his way through.

His stomach growls and he counts all twelve steps to the corner where he slides down the wall, bites off a corner of what's left of the power bar, wonders if he'd have given any of it to the woman if he'd known there was nothing he could do for her.

One thousand bottles of beer on the wall…

***

"My dog's called Sam," Dean says, around a mouthful of power bar. He chews thoroughly, nods, and then stares into space for a few seconds, eyes blank, until he jolts back into himself. "S'good. My sister don't cook too well. Slop mostly. Tastes off. Give mine to the dog most of the time." He yawns hugely, reaches up to rub one eye with the heel of his hand.

Hudak is sitting next to Sam, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee. She's staring at Dean, and she seems entranced as he drifts in and out of the conversation. Moonlight seeps in through the wooden doors and it's quiet in there, still. For now, Sam can't help thinking, and he's straining to hear beyond the doors, torn between morbid fascination with what the thing might reveal if it shows up and with this alternate-universe version of his brother.

"It's got to be PTSD… or maybe he hit his head or something," Hudak murmurs out of the corner of her mouth. "He's spacing out every few minutes. Look at him, he's miles away, it's like petit mal… and then he snaps back."

And it's true, Sam has been thinking it himself for the past hour as he scrawled sigils in the dirt in a circle around the mine entrance and spray painted them on the wooden doors while his brother sat there, totally oblivious one minute and watching him like a hawk the next.

"You think? It's not some rip in the space-time continuum?" he mutters. "He hasn't said his head hurts."

Hudak chews her lip for a minute. "How's your head, Gabe?" she asks.

"Peaceful," Dean reports, apparently happily.

"It's not bothering you where you hit it, then?"

He frowns. "I didn't hit it. It's fine. What makes you think I hit it?"

"Well," Sam cuts in. "A tree did fall on you."

Dean shakes his head, swats the air dismissively. "It was miles away. Didn't touch me."

Fair enough.

"I did hurt it a while back though," Dean continues after a beat. "Wolf attack." He huffs out ruefully. "Was pretty bad, tore up my leg some. Lucky my brother found me, killed the fucker, and—" He stops abruptly. "Is that what you're gonna arrest me for?" he says to Hudak. "Killing wolves? Only you said that was illegal."

Sam winces at the sudden dig in his ribs and he meets her gaze as her eyes widen slightly in emphasis, because she said that before this happened, said it to Dean, not Gabe. Just like the Zen private joke, whatever the hell that was. Dean is in there, hiding. But why?

"Don't sweat it, Gabe," Hudak says with a smile.

Dean's teeth flash in the dim light and he relaxes again, leaning back against the door only to straighten and scowl at the chain Sam wound through a couple of holes in the lumber to keep the door closed. He shifts to the left, peers out through a crack in the boards, and frowns. "Killing moon."

"Where did—" Sam is cut off by Hudak reading his mind, speaking in chorus with him, and she gives him another meaningful glance as she continues instead.

"Where did you hear about the killing moon, Gabe? What does it mean?"

Dean studies her for a second, looks to Sam and back again. "I don't know," he says offhandedly, starts tapping his hands on his thighs. "Just picked it up along the road somewhere, I guess." He's beating out a steady two-note rhythm, emphasizing the beat every so often, and he catches Sam's eye after a minute or two and raises an eyebrow.

"Jaws theme," Sam says.

Dean stops abruptly, gapes, starts tapping again a tad faster.

"Star Wars."

Dean smirks, triumphant.

"Episode five. The Empire Strikes Back."

Dean's mouth drops open. "How the fuck did you guess that? They have the same music." He narrows his eyes, suspicious. "Are you shining at me?"

Sam feels a wave of something that might be joy, hell, is joy, relief, gratitude. "Dean," he breathes, and he starts to move over to his brother's side.

Dean stares back, flinty eyed, hostile. "What about him? I told you. I never saw your friends."

***

The thing unfolds itself, emerges, plunges into the trees and runs.

And then it stops, listens to the sleepy murmur of the woods, reads signs, sounds, sniffs in great lungfuls, every nerve ending straining and tense as it searches for the one who calls.

***

Shafts of moonlight filter in through the wooden door and Sam cranes to see if his brother is awake. Dean is slumped in the corner formed by the doorframe and the dirt wall, and Sam wishes for once that he snored so they could keep track of how aware he might be.

Hudak is leaning up against Sam, dozing, drooling all over his shoulder in fact, and he shifts his butt carefully on the rock floor, wishes he'd had the foresight to fold a bedroll up and sit on it. He reaches for the pack, snags it, pulls it gently towards him.

Hudak stirs, sits up abruptly. "What? What?"

"Nothing," he whispers. "Go back to sleep."

Instead she yawns again, stretches, flicks on her flashlight to peer at her watch. "Twelve hours. Do you think he's okay? Do you think it would have—"

"No. Too soon."

"Jesus," she sighs. "Sitting here feels so useless."

"We're getting him back," Sam mutters. "He's going to be fine."

They sit in the stillness for a few minutes.

"So," Hudak says. "He didn't hit his head."

Sam doesn't want to do this and there's a reason why. So he really has no idea why the next words out of his mouth are, "I think I caused this."

He can see Hudak turn to look at him in the dark. "How?" And then, quickly. "Is he asleep?"

"Yes. So keep it down. I think it's because of something I told him this morning."

"Which was?"

"That he was to blame for it. Because he never tried to escape from them." He bites his lip, waits for – shock, distaste, disgust.

"Did you use those exact words?" she inquires.

"Well. No. I said I couldn't understand why he never left."

"Well that's something at least." Her tone is withering now, and Sam knows he deserves it.

He leans forward on his knees, watches his brother as he speaks. "When I spoke to him it just ended up with me blaming him for not doing more to get away. And Christ, I know it's crap. I know he fought, I saw the bruises. And the rest of it… and I know that bastard fucking overwhelmed him. But the initials. Fuck. Happy fucking families. It just…" He pinches the bridge of his nose, blinks hard. "I can't understand that. To think he might have bonded with that bastard. It makes me sick. That he stayed."

"You need to stop focusing on the initials, Sam," Hudak says bluntly. "You're investing a whole lot of meaning there that you shouldn't. This wasn't Lee and Dean sitting in a tree."

Sam glances back to see her shaking her head, and for a minute he finds himself wondering if she's thinking of her brother, maybe wondering what he might have endured at the Benders' hands.

"The moment Bender stopped taking his meds, Dean was in a situation of genuine threat and terror," she continues, shuffling forward, clasping her hands across her own knees and resting her chin there. "He would have been even if he hadn't been hurt as badly as he was. And it's a basic response to be compliant. To try to avoid making it worse for yourself. They tell women to do that if they're attacked."

"It's just. I just don't… Christ. Dean can kill with one bare hand and not break a sweat," Sam whispers. "I've seen him do it. And so I just can't wrap my mind around him letting Bender do that to him."

"Dean can kill with one hand and not break a sweat," Hudak picks up, "but Gabe can't. What he did was irrational to you, sitting here now, not hurt, not in the situation Dean was in. He was overwhelmed. Like you said."

"It's irrational, period," Sam insists, and he can hear his voice break. "Why didn't he leave? He didn't have to go through that. When we found him he could walk. He could have left."

Hudak is silent for a long moment. "Look," she says then. "It is irrational that he stayed, even I think so. But he wasn't himself. Literally." She huffs. "Look, blaming the victim is a basic response. Blaming him is how you rationalize it, but you have to try to see the reasons why he did it at that time, Sam – instead of seeing it through the prism of Dean as he was before this all happened."

"He told me it was because he projected me onto Bender," Sam tells her. "That he couldn't kill him, couldn't leave because he transferred what he felt for me to Bender."

"Well, that's believable, quite frankly." Hudak shakes her head. "You two seem to be unusually codependent, in a pretty dysfunctional way, to be honest. But Sam, I think you're just going to tie yourself in knots if you focus on that without considering—"

Dean whimpers in his sleep, jerks slightly and they both freeze, listen, until his breathing evens out again, steady, deep.

"Without considering other factors," Hudak whispers. "I mean, that must be part of it if he says it is – but it does sound like Bender was kind to him at first, and maybe that gave him some hope that he would survive. And then when Bender turned, maybe that hope for survival got all twisted up with terror about what Bender might do. So don't you think it's natural that he would try to please Bender? Try to feel positive about him? That he might bond with him, for want of a better word, as a mental and physical survival strategy?"

Sam nods dumbly, feels even more of an asshat.

"He couldn't alienate Bender," she goes on, "because what do you think would have happened if he had fought harder? Bender might have beaten him to death." She leans back against the wall. "Anyhoo. All that aside, how does this tie into the fact he seems to have had some sort of dissociative breakdown?"

"I think it's partly this business with the wendigo and the sound effects, the shock of it," Sam says. "But. He said he was leaving. He's running from Lee, and it can't be a coincidence that he's doing this now, after what I said."

Hudak nods, considers. "You know, he could have done this before," she says. "We don't know for a fact that he never tried to leave. And maybe Bender chased him down. He could be reliving it, and if he is it might help him given that Bender isn't going to catch him this time…" She glances at him, a measured look. "It might help you too. He's trying to leave, trying to do what you wanted him to do."

He rubs at his jaw. "Yeah. I wonder if—"

Hey Gabe get over here purty boy…

It's quiet, distant, but it's there, and Sam reaches for his flashlight and the flaregun, rises silently to his feet. "Keep him here," he hisses to Hudak. "If he's here, it'll stay out there." Maybe, he hopes to God and all the angels.

"Wait, Sam, that wasn't the plan," Hudak whispers urgently, her alarm palpable even in the dark. "What happened to waiting here and picking it off?"

"This is a better plan," he says. "I can get Bobby without that thing in the equation if it's out there sniffing around Dean."

"But what if it gets in here? What if—"

"It won't come though the sigils," Sam says. "Kathleen. If I thought there was any danger I wouldn't leave him here. Or you. Now I'm getting Bobby. Okay?"

Sam points the flashlight beam down the tunnel, starts walking.

"He'll wake up!" Hudak hisses behind him. "What'll I do! We never discussed this! Sam!"

He keeps walking.

***

12. Tenacious Dean

Sam is swallowed up by the darkness almost immediately, and Christ, but what a sucker she is, Hudak thinks, because she should have known the swine would be just as sly and underhand as his brother given the chance. "Dammit Janet," she murmurs under her breath as the pinprick flare of his flashlight dwindles to nothing more than a firefly sparking in the distance. "How the fuck am I supposed to keep him here?"

Get over here boy, take it like a man, no Sam help Sam-Sam-Sam…

Hudak paces, casts quick glances in Dean's direction as the thing keeps up its commentary outside. "Change the fucking record," she breathes, daring to peek through one of the cracks in the door. "You're starting to seriously piss me off."

Dean shifts restlessly, and she holds her breath for the few seconds it takes him to settle, runs through her options. He wakes, panics, and takes off down the tunnel. He either gets lost or hurt in there, or the thing realizes he's on the move and heads back to the other end of the mine, where it gets two meals for the price of one. Can they catch a scent through the earth, through rock? she wonders. "Christ, Bobby, where are you when I need you?" she mutters.

Or he wakes, panics, and cuts loose through the doors straight into the thing's welcoming arms, and becomes part of the tribe.

Either way, they're fucked.

Except… she reaches to her belt loop, unhooks the cuffs. "I'm so sorry about this, Dean," she murmurs, as she gently clicks the cuff into place around his wrist, locks him to the chain holding the doors closed. "If there was any other way, believe me…"

She's right there next to the door, feels her skin crawl, turns, stares through a knothole right into glowing red. She jerks back reflexively, tumbles hard onto her ass, yelps, "How the fuck did you get so close?"

A clawed finger pokes through the hole, starts to sizzle and steam, and she hears the thing's unholy shriek of rage and pain recede into the distance as it leaps back, repelled by the sigils Sam spray-painted on the wood. "Oh, thank fuck," Hudak breathes out. "Thank you, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and all the saints, I swear to God I'll start going to church again, I will."

In the background of her nauseating mix of relief and fear, she can hear clinking, forgets for a minute what it is.

Gabe, boy, get your butt over here, do what you're fuckin' told boy or I'll whup you good, stick it to you, teach you a fuckin' lesson, boy…

"Christ. No… No… Lee… it's Lee…"

Hudak had forgotten Dean was there and she twists to find that he's looming over her, intimidating, because she forgot how damned tall he is with Sam close by. He's staring at the doors, eyes wide, his whole body giving off a vibe of sheer dread like she's never sensed before and hopes never to again, worse than when that fucking creature was spooning with him. She doesn't want to think that means Bender was even more of an abomination, that Dean spent all those weeks being terrorized by something even more frightening than the monstrosity crouched outside the mine serenading him. Or does he even remember the thing? Did the memory of its embrace leave when Dean left?

Dean bolts abruptly, towards the tunnel, and in the next second he's jerked back so violently she hears his shoulder crack. He loses his balance and crashes against the door. "What? What the fuck!" he cries, bewildered, and Hudak thinks he might not even be aware of her in his panic.

He lurches back upright, distraught, spins and braces his boot on the door, pulls with all his might on the chain. Hudak doesn't even think, reacts purely on instinct. She slams into him, fucking terrified herself and desperate too, because she's read all about superhuman displays of strength under duress and if the padlock gives and the doors open it's over, and she sends him reeling back into the corner where he'd been sleeping earlier.

She's right up in Dean's face and his eyes are wide but blind, unseeing, or maybe seeing too much. She grips his face, forces him to look at her, see her. "Lee's right out there, Gabe," she says harshly, deliberately, sounding each word as clearly as she can. "If you pull that door open, he'll get in here. He'll hurt you, Gabe, hurt you bad just like he did before."

Hey purty boy, how's about we just try that one more time, you hold the fuck still…

Dean's teeth are chattering and his eyes are brimming, but he still moves so fast Hudak barely sees the blur of his head streaking the few inches it takes for him to execute a well-timed, perfectly aimed, and highly accurate headbutt, his skull ramming into her cheekbone. The impact drops her to her knees as he tugs on the chain again, starts wrapping it around his hand, prepares to heave in earnest.

Disoriented, her vision tunneling, Hudak reaches up to touch her face and pulls her hand away bloody. "Jesus," she spits out, "you bastard…" She looks up and sees him bracing again, sees them bracing again, the Dean Winchester twins, and she hollers at him.

"Do you want Lee in here, Gabe? Do you want him in here hurting you, making you do things you don't want to do?"

Dean is shaking so hard now he might even be seizing but suddenly he's not pulling, he's maybe listening.

"Answer me," Hudak barks. "Gabe!"

"No…" Dean's voice is barely there, but he doesn't falter, or stammer, just squeezes it out on a breath, the barest whisper.

So that Lee can't hear him, maybe? Hudak guesses, and she uses the lull to her best advantage. "Then sit down," she says, ice-cold. "Sit. Right. There. Slide down that wall and don't move. Do it now. Because that chain you're cuffed to is the only thing keeping the doors closed, keeping Lee out of here. Do you understand me?"

She's still not even sure Dean is seeing her but he must hear, because he slides slowly down the wall to crouch, no, cower, next to the door. Hudak stands, reels, backs away a step, presses her hand to her mouth as her gut lurches, and her head spins, and her cheek throbs. The door rocks as something large and heavy crashes into it, and Dean cries out in distress, makes himself impossibly tiny in the corner.

"You fuck!" Hudak screams then, whirling and getting as close up to the wood as she dares. "Fuck!"

You-fuck-you-fuck-you-fuck-you-fuck-you-fuck-you-fuck…

She falls to her knees again, dizzy and lightheaded, feels tears spring, blocks her ears and sees Dean is doing the same, rocking as the thing performs a medley of its greatest hits.

"Dean," Hudak mutters, crawling up beside him. "Gabe."

"Please. Let me go. Let me go," he's whispering. "I'm leaving. Please let me go."

"You have to stay here," she says, patting delicately at her eye and wincing, fuck, that hurts, as lightning bolts of pain dance along her eye socket. "I'm so sorry, please know that I'm so sorry, Gabe…"

Dean starts rubbing hard at his brow, furious hard, so hard he might draw blood, and Hudak takes his hands, grips them tight between hers. "Gabe, he isn't getting in here. You made it, he can't get in, I won't let him get in here, I promise, but you have to stay here for Sam…"

Dean looks at her and mutters, dazed, confused, barely discernible, and she leans close to listen.

"I'm the best me I can possibly be, I'm the best me I can possibly be, I'm the best me I can possibly be, I'm the best me… possibly be… best me…" And he's staring at her, a question in his eyes, something dawning there. "I'm leaving… I left. I tried, I did… Kathleen…?"

Dean.

"Dean. Dean. Christ, it's good to see you…" Hudak is laughing and crying at the same time. "It's not him. It's not Lee. It's the wendigo. It isn't getting in here, Sam painted the sigils on the door…" She rests her brow on his and he holds onto her hand as tightly as he did in the Impala, Jesus, two, three days ago, is that all it was? "Stay with me," she says. "Stay with me, please Dean, don't go back there."

Dean is still rocking, still shaking so hard she can hear his teeth rattle. "Best me… possibly be…"

Gabe boy, get over here, take it like a man Gabe, mess with my head that's what you get…

The thing's words trail off into sound effects, suggestive and savage, and Dean is hyperventilating, Hudak can see his lips getting darker in the moonlight. "Dean," she barks. "To me. Look to me. Dean. Dean Winchester, that's you, tough guy… come on, deep breaths. Dean fucking Winchester, hell yeah… Dean fucking Winchester, hell yeah… come on!"

"Dean…"

"Yes! Come on!" She pulls him in tight, holds him this time, protects him this time. "Dean fucking Winchester, hell yeah," she murmurs.

***

Sam can almost hear the silence as he picks his way down the shaft, playing the flashlight out ahead of him, breathing in thick, sooty, peaty air.

He wonders how long it is since another man walked here, how many hikers the thing might have dragged here, wonders if he's likely to keel over at any moment, overcome by invisible toxic gases, fire damp, that's what it's called and Jesus, sometimes it explodes, or maybe it could flood, or there could be a cave-in. He asks himself why he ever thought it was a good idea for a guy pushing six-five to even try this as he cracks his skull on the roof, was everyone a fucking munchkin back in the day?, thinks what an idjit he was to think the tunnel was going to lead to the Indiana Jones kind of mine that has cathedral ceilings and electric lights and railcars he could hitch a ride in.

He thinks of Bobby and pushes on. "Please be okay, Bobby," he mutters out loud. "Dean will kill me if you're not okay." He thinks it might even be true, knows his brother loves the old man with a fervor he conceals expertly, and that Bobby returns the affection with an equal and slightly less well-disguised zeal.

Christ. Dean. What the fuck has he done? What has he set in motion? Hudak's words are rattling about Sam's brain, intermixed with Dean's… No, Sam – that's love. But Sam doesn't want to think love is what his brother was about when he was with Bender, even if it was a profoundly confused, drugged, head injury-fueled love. Doesn't want to think love was even in the same damn county, doesn't want to think Dean ever looked at that bastard and superimposed Sam on top of him.

But most of all he doesn't want the responsibility of a love that might potentially let him hurt Dean in that way, let him abuse, attack, ruin, destroy. He thinks about Dean tapping his chest, thinks about Rockford again. Thinks about the fact his brother handed him the gun, invited him to empty the clip into his face. And he did, and it doesn't matter that it wasn't loaded. Fuck it doesn't matter, because he didn't even fight the urge, didn't even blink at the shattered expression in Dean's eyes as he pulled the trigger, kept pulling it, fully expected to see his brother's face explode in blood and bone and brains, and didn't give a shit about it. If Dean hadn't ejected the clip, and how the fuck did he know to do that? he would have died there, at Sam's hand. Dean had thought Sam would fight it, that he could fight it. But if he really thought that, why did he eject the clip?

Dean would have fought it, Sam thinks – maybe to the extent of turning the gun on himself had their positions been reversed. But that's not love, he thinks, and he realizes that he's saying it, realizes that even without him knowing it, he has come to a halt up against the dynamite-hewn walls of the mine shaft and is sagging against the rock, that tears are meandering down his face. "That's not love… is it?" he mutters, and he wonders if he can shoulder this warped, sick devotion of Dean's, conditioned into him by their dad. Is it even real? Is his brother just well trained?

"I don't want your life," Sam mutters. "I'm not worth that." And he isn't, because he walked away. Walked away from Dean, when Dean would have died for him, still would. Because Dean loves to the exclusion of all else, to the exclusion of himself, and it makes Sam think he can never die, must never die, because he knows as surely as day follows night that if that happens Dean will prevent it, never let Sam go; or that he'll follow Sam. And Sam knows suddenly that Dean deserves so much more than that. It's as if a lightning bolt hits Sam, and after all these years, after more hunts gone wrong than he can count, even after what happened with the rawhead and the knowledge that this was it, that his brother's heart was slowly grinding to a halt, this second, this instant, is the first time he has ever loved Dean as Dean loves him.

"Dad, you fucking bastard," he whispers. "Couldn't you have just left us alone, left us with Bobby… look what you did to him. Look what you did to us." And he thinks how much he wants to leave again, turn his back, walk away, back to Stanford, anywhere.

Anywhere but a future where he will have to watch his brother die for him.

***

Hudak shifts her leg and squeaks at the angry tingle as her veins fill up again. She's as surreptitious as she can be, can hear the thing shuffling about outside as it issues dire threats in between whining and howling out its irritation, and she thanks Christ she remembered to pack spare flashlight batteries because there just is no way she's going to sit and listen to it in the dark.

She thinks Dean might be asleep, buried down there in her grip, ears well and truly muffled by her left breast and her arm. It deserves a fucking eyeroll, she thinks, so she rolls away even though the shards of pain make her hiss, because this isn't quite how she pictured having Dean Winchester clutched tight to her left breast. Not that she ever has.

The thing jabbers on and she concludes that maybe it's losing its power to shock. It's becoming background noise and she finds she can drift off. Or maybe it's just her exhaustion. "Or maybe it's my black eye and my fractured cheekbone, you fucking psychopath," she murmurs in Dean's general direction as he slumbers on. Or maybe it really is that she's getting used to it, deadened to the horror. And maybe that's good, or maybe it says something about her, that she can tune out that level of pain and suffering.

Kathleen, you think too much.

She wriggles around to get comfortable, finally stretches out her leg, groans in satisfaction as the cramping eases.

"Stop fidgeting," Dean croaks out of nowhere. "And don't let go. It's… comfortable here."

"Oh please," Hudak says witheringly. "Don't tell me you're comfortable crushed up against my breasts. How could that possibly be?"

He shifts. Burrows.

"Dean. You're snuggling."

"The fuck I am."

"Never pegged you for a snuggler."

The thing must have its gaping maw right up against the door again and she feels Dean jump and tense up as it lets loose another tirade.

Lee no don't please, Gabe take it like a man you fuckin' waste of skin, don't Lee, please…

"Talk to me," Dean says then, frantic, but he doesn't look up. "Say anything, just please talk to me, I can't, I just, I can't—"

"I spy with my little eye something beg—"

"Seriously?" he yelps, and he surfaces, eyes squinting at the flashlight beam as it falls across his face, skin shiny with perspiration, and please God, Hudak thinks, please God don't let her have thought that Dean Winchester glows.

"You put me on the spot," she defends. "I'm having to think on my feet here. I don't see you coming up with any ideas."

Dean is staring at her and frowning. "What the fuck happened to your face?" he marvels, and her eyes can't help flicking to his own bruise-cut-dried-blood combo, high on his brow, the bookend to hers.

"Branch swung back as we were hiking," she lies smoothly. "Lucky it missed my eye, huh?"

Dean looks puzzled for a second, looks like he's trying to work something out. "We should clean it up," he says. "Cut looks pretty deep."

Hudak manages a tight smile. "Bobby had the first aid kit."

"Bobby had—had?" He wriggles more upright. "Had?" He glances around uneasily. "What is this place? Where's Bobby? Where's Sam?"

Effectively pinned into the corner by his bulk, Hudak sighs. "You don't remember."

"What? Remember what?" He's leaning right in on her, pressing her back, and he jerks irritably at his arm. "And why the fuck am I cuffed to the door?"

"The wendigo tipped a tree over on you and Bobby, grabbed him," Hudak rushes out. "We think it has him here – it's the nearest mine. Sam's gone in to look for him."

The reply is terse. "Then uncuff me so I can go after him, come on…"

Hudak pushes him back, but he doesn't shift far. "Dean. Listen. Sam needs you here to keep that thing here," she snaps, jerking her head towards the door. "Jurassic Park goat, remember? We think it has another way in, and if you head into the tunnel it could double back and come at Sam and Bobby from the other end."

She can see Dean knows it makes sense, but he doesn't like it. "Fuck." He chews his lip. "How long since he left?"

Hudak squints at her wristwatch in the moonlight. "Forty-five minutes, maybe an hour."

Dean bristles. "He should be back by now."

"Maybe the tunnel branches into two," she suggests.

Unmoved, Dean says, "We should go look for him."

"He needs you here," Hudak tells him firmly. "He was crystal clear on that. He's a big boy, he knows what he's doing."

His voice gone hard, Dean demands, "Uncuff me."

Hudak shakes her head. "Not a chance, Dean."

"I can kill it," he insists.

Hudak can't help a disconsolate glance over at their meager supplies. "Sam took the flaregun."

Jerking at the cuffs again, Dean growls, "We have silver bullets."

She sighs. "Look. Dean. It's dark out there, and this thing is jumping about all over the place. You'll never get a clear shot to the heart."

After a beat, Dean's tone goes even colder. "I maybe could. If we open the doors."

"No way," Hudak snaps. "Maybe doesn't cut it, Dean. I like the doors and the sigils just fine where they are, at least until Sam gets back."

"And Bobby," Dean says, softer now, and something flits across his eyes, worry, fear, hope, and he looks down for a second.

Outside the thing launches into another verse.

"Six degrees of OJ Simpson," Dean says suddenly.

Caught on her back foot, Hudak can't parry that one. "Huh?"

"Get to OJ in six steps or less, Kathleen."

"Jesus, that's—"

"Scared, Kathleen?" Dean glances back up and leers at her.

"The moon landings were faked," she says.

"No they weren't," he snorts. "That's a myth, they—"

"They even made a movie about it."

"Yeah, Capricorn One, but it—"

"Starring OJ Simpson."

Hey Gabe get your ass over here boy, what the fuck you doin'—

They holler in unison, "Shut the fuck up."

And it does, abruptly, and a puzzled silence seeps in.

"Maybe it can't mimic two voices at once?" Hudak wonders.

Dean considers it for a second. "That's so fuckin' ludicrous it might actually be true," he says. "And I can't believe you beat me at Six Degrees of OJ Simpson. I invented that game."

Hudak is suddenly claustrophobic, shoves against him. "Yeah, well. You're stressed. Can you get off now? Personal space and all?"

"Uh." Dean clears his throat. "No, actually. Not right now. I… need a minute."

He shifts uncomfortably, looks away, and glances down, back up, down again, and Hudak follows his eyes, blurts it out high-pitched.

"Oh. Oh. Okay. Well. Take your time." She stumbles straight into the silver lining without care or thought. "It's working again, then."

"I guess," Dean replies drily. "Maybe it's the whole breast thing. Especially since you used the handcuffs. Or it could just be that I'm scared stiff."

***

Honking great bugs the size of skateboards. Skittering, too, and Sam hates the word skitter, it's what rats do, and honking great bugs, and he knows that if he listens hard enough he'll hear them skitter, hear their – claws? Heels? Honking great bugs that sound like they're wearing teeny-tiny Manolos like the ones Jessica had, clickety-clicking across the rocks. And Sam works it out, six legs, that's three pairs at, what, five hundred bucks plus tax a pair, that's well over three thousand dollars on shoes, for Christ's sake. Four thousand if you're a spider. "Serves you damned right for having so many fucking feet," he snaps.

God, he's losing it, and he suddenly wonders who he'd be if he wasn't himself. A different version of poor, lost Gabe Bender? "I'll be… Chad," he mutters to himself as he peers ahead into the pitch black, praying his flashlight battery doesn't give out because if it does he's stuck here, in the dark, with things skittering all around him. "Chad's studying to be a sewer diver in Mexico city…" His voice trails off as his flashlight picks out a shape further ahead that might be a boot. Is a boot, in fact.

Yahtzee. Must be close.

"Bobby," Sam calls in a low voice, wincing as he does because he almost expects the thing to tap him on the shoulder and ask him what the hell he's doing trespassing on its property and didn't he see the fucking sign saying it's private, so piss off before it calls the Five-O or sets the dog on him.

There are fallen rocks ahead, and Sam clambers over them, ducking down even further as he does. "Bobby," he calls again cautiously.

There's an opening at the top of the pile, and Sam sends smaller rocks tumbling, shines his flashlight through into the rest of the shaft behind the roughly six-foot wide blockage. He can see that the rockfall has sectioned off part of the tunnel, forming a separate chamber in the shaft, and there are dark shapes scattered over near the far wall. Body-shaped. Bobby-shaped?

"Bobby!" he tries again, but there's nothing. Unconscious? Sam isn't even thinking about the alternative, just isn't going there, isn't going to trudge back through this dank, dripping pit of despair and tell his brother that, nosirree bub.

He pulls desperately at the rocks, starts yomping across the top of them, flashlight gripped between his teeth, until he executes a less-than-perfect dismount, spilling down into what resembles a bricked-off mausoleum rich with the musty stench of the long dead. He darts his eyes everywhere at once, listens, watches for any sign of movement, breathes in shallow pants, his gorge rising, things fluttering about inside his stomach, until he's used to the smell.

He crawls towards the first shape then, heaves it over, only not so much, because it's nothing more than bones rattling inside tattered rags, just like all the others are as he crawls from one to the next. He hunts through pockets with shaking hands, and there's nothing to say who they were because these people died here, were consumed here, long before credit cards, and photo IDs, and till receipts that might give him a clue as to the date it killed them, maybe even before the drivers' license was invented. They mock Sam with empty sightless sockets staring out of sad, gray, cracked skulls and he kicks disconsolately at smashed bones, chewed ribs and no Bobby.

***

At what he supposes might be oh-dark-thirty or so, because here time has no meaning, and heck, he thinks, there's no way he didn't get that line anywhere but an Outer Limits rerun, Bobby has a eureka moment. It jerks him out of a light doze into a silence that's so hushed, so stifled, he reckons he could hear a rat piss on cotton if a rat happened to be nearby pissing on cotton.

He's cold, lightheaded, hungry. He sips some more of the water, gags because Christ, it's fuckin' lumpy, chewy, and he can taste the typhoid on his lips. He shakes his head, gathers his senses, retraces his steps to the eureka moment, analyzes it carefully, comes to a conclusion.

Well, fuckety-fuck, he thinks, because this hunt just damn well jumped the shark as far as he's concerned.

There's a reason this mine shaft is fifteen by twelve feet.

It isn't a mine shaft.

***

The thing wears Dean down steadily, and it's like almost-second-base never happened, like OJ never even entered the conversation, like he never rallied and thought for a little while that he'd beaten it, beaten the sick disgust of hearing his own cowardice and submission lathered, rinsed and repeated, over and over and over and then once more with feeling; an endlessly looping, brutal, pitiless, remorseless onslaught, assaults played out in minute detail from Bender's first summons to Gabe's final, shellshocked silence.

He knows Hudak is shooting worried glances in his direction, thinks she looks as browbeaten as he knows he must, and she isn't even trying to talk over the thing now, just sits, dumb, downcast, dull-eyed with tiredness and maybe even embarrassment.

"I'm sorry," he mutters, his guts curling in misery and mortification. "That you have to hear this."

Hudak huffs out in something that might be annoyance but turns out it isn't. "You're a piece of work Dean, you really are. They threw away the mold after they cast you." She crawls over to sit next to him again. "The sad thing is that I think you really are sorry. That you're sitting here thinking about me and not yourself."

She wedges up next to him and it's warm, comforting, so much so that he can't, just can't. "Uncuff me," he says weakly. "Please. I need to find my brother. He should be back by now."

"You said something," Hudak diverts. "Before you came back. Right after you came back too."

Dean is backfooted, flounders for a minute, frowns. "You said that before. That I came back. But I wasn't gone."

Hudak taps her fingers on her leg and now Dean i learning how to read her he knows that's code for Hudak's pondering, might be nervous.

"You're pondering," he says acidly. "Nervously."

She nods agreeably. "Yeah. About that…" She taps some more. "Do you remember anything about how we got here, how we found the mine?"

"No… just walking with Bobby, feeling like… something was there. In the trees. Watching. That's it until I woke up here…" Dean stares at her, suspicious now. "Is there something you're not telling me?"

The tapping grows even more frantic, William fuckin' Tell Overture frantic, in fact.

"Kathleen," he growls. "What are you not telling me here?"

She shrugs. "You have been gone, sort of. You've been Gabe. Were Gabe. Since about nine thirty this morning right up until you switched back."

Dean doesn't challenge her, doesn't tell her it's crap even though he wants to, because he knows she isn't feeding him a line. So he doesn't say anything.

"Do you remember any of it?" She waits for him to answer, continues when he doesn't, and her voice is gentle. "Do you remember what might have set it off?"

He shakes his head, wordless.

"Sam thought it might be what he said. About how you should have left."

"It doesn't always lead back to Sam," Dean snaps then. "I'm capable of fucking up all by myself. And that didn't come out right."

At least Hudak isn't tapping any more. "I think it's important," she says slowly, like she's slotting pieces together for him as she speaks. "That it happened for a reason. You said – Gabe said – that he was leaving, Dean. He was making a break for it."

There is a second where Dean trawls his memory, hunts for that moment where he might have had the cojones to do it, but there is nothing, only the recall of his own fear. "Gabe was a gutless fuckin' coward," he retorts. "Gabe rolled over and took it, let that bastard… let him…"

"No, no, no," Hudak soothes him, crabbing around to sit in front of him. "Gabe did what he had to do Dean, to survive. So Lee wouldn't kill him. He didn't have a choice."

In his mind's eye Dean sees his real brother's bewilderment, but the surety he felt when he answered Sam's question is gone. "He could have left."

"Dean, Dean. You're not listening to me." Hudak hurries out the words. "Gabe did leave. We found him, me and Sam. Gabe left. Gabe survived and he left as soon as he could walk. He got away, do you see? Do you see that?"

Dean doesn't know if he's seeing or not. But he knows his vision is blurring, knows his voice is choking, knows his lips are trembling, knows his hands are fisting, knows his muscles are tensing, knows his head is aching, knows his heart is racing, knows his mask is shattering.

And maybe Hudak knows it too, maybe right now he's with someone who knows him better at this moment than anyone ever has or ever will again, and she's whispering, her breath tickling warm on his skin, then cool on his tears, and now he's listening to her, now there's no one else there but her, and her voice is loud and true in his head even though she's barely murmuring, hushed, soothing tones.

"Dean, you did what you had to do to survive, idiot boy… you survived, and you left, you got away, don't you see…"

And it's like a wave of something overwhelming, something dizzying, and shining, bright colors and flashing lights, Christ, like a trip, and it's a huge fuckin' mistake but it makes perfect sense here and now because it's the right time and the right one, and it's featherlight kisses and he swallows her words, he's fisting her hair, great handfuls of it, can't get enough of her, "Kathleen… Please. Kathleen…"

Gabe get the fuck over here, boy, spread 'em, messin' with my head see what you get…

But this is louder, and it drowns out Dean's shame, his humiliation, his devastation and desolation and guilt, this noise is louder, the noise of want, and need, and good, and right.

It's sighing and breathing out slow and then fast, it's yes, like that, right there, again, more, don't stop, don't listen to it, it's muffled sounds that aren't proper words at all. It's choked-out desire and pleasure, it's gentle then rough, it's soft then hard, it's tender then brutal, it's smooth then friction, it's tongues and teeth and fingers on skin, it's damp, moist, then wet, then heat and sliding and clutching and fluttering and climbing, climbing and then letting go and falling, and it's sappy, chick flick things Dean knows damn well he'll probably deny saying tomorrow, but he'll smile while he denies it; it's I care, I adore, and fuck, yes, God, yes, in that moment of release it's anything and everything and something that might even be I love.

***

Getting out isn't as easy as getting in, Sam finds, the uphill trajectory much steeper on this side of the tunnel collapse. He tries bouncing himself off a pile of skulls by way of a foot up, but they crumble like dried-out plaster under his sneakers, and all the time he's thinking that Bobby isn't there, thinking about the time they wasted looking for this hole in the ground, and it's the wrong hole in the ground, and fuck, irony can be pretty ironic at times.

Sam wonders grimly if the shock of not seeing him approach with Bobby in tow will scare his brother back into himself just like the shock of seeing the wendigo grab the old man scared him back into Gabe. And in the back of his mind he can't help thinking that isn't right, isn't really as logical a jump as it should be, because Gabe didn't know anything about the wendigo, did he? Surely Gabe would have to have seen the thing before to be jolted back into Dean?

"Christ, for a simple salt and burn," he grouses, as he hauls himself up and over. "Thick fucking plots, tangled webs, this whole mess is like a mad woman's knitting. Who needs it?" It's not fucking fair, he thinks. "I should be at college," he mutters, because he might as well keep himself company on this hunt. "At fucking college. Living any life but this one."

But that feeling… that he's missing something, has missed something, something so elementary…

About three-quarters of the way across the pile of rocks, Sam comes face to face with the wasp-and-the-jelly-jar conundrum.

"Wasp. Jelly jar," he murmurs. "Wasp crawls through wasp-sized hole punched into lid of jar from the outside. But. Law of physics or some crap like that mean hole is too small when trying to crawl through it from opposite direction. Wasp is trapped."

He sighs, sinks his head into his hands. "Sam crawls across rocks perfectly shaped and positioned to let him slither from A to B. But not from B to A… as Confucius fucking say!" And he hollers it out in frustration because of course, of course, and why did he even think it might be a remote possibility that he wouldn't somehow get fucked over in here?

But heck, it could be worse. At least he knows the wendigo won't be heading back here any time soon. He rests his head on his forearms and waits for Dean. Or Gabe.

And still he just can't shake the feeling that he's missing something, a connection. A clue.

***

Hudak squints blearily at her wristwatch. Five-fifteen.

She's warm because she's covered up with a couple of blankets. She most definitely isn't warm because Dean Winchester is pressed up next to her.

She pushes up onto her elbows, looks over at the door, the chain, the handcuffs hanging empty and mocking her shinily.

"Slippery sonofabitch," she breathes out.

***

13. Forest Grump

Turmoil is such a fuckin' sublime word, Dean thinks as he schleps his way along the tunnel, not really paying much attention to anything apart from not tripping over and knocking himself out cold again because of the fuckin' turmoil, thoughts bouncing, colliding, rebounding off each other, whizzing, zooming around in his head, as his mind desperately tries to dodge them like the Millennium Falcon steering through the asteroid field. It hangs a right to avoid crashing into the fact that Bobby might be no, so not going there, veers left so it doesn't sideswipe the too fuckin' awful to contemplate buzzing, whispering, chattering, aching sensation in his head that's been dogging him since he set foot in the woods again, but not here in this mine for some reason. It brakes sharply so it doesn't smash head-on into the gigantic fuckin' error in judgment he just committed with someone who barely knows him yet has given so much in return for backchat, a bad attitude, and a quickie he's pretty sure she'll—

"Fuck!" he cries, as bright light sizzles his eyes so intensely it hurts. "Jesus! Sam! Point it down!"

"Dean… Dean? Is that you?"

Sam's voice sounds far away, muffled, and the flashlight beam scoots away and up, to strobe erratically across the roof of the tunnel.

"Who the hell else would it be?" Dean grouses back at him, and then he recalls what Hudak told him back up at the mine entrance. "No, don't answer that."

He plays his own flashlight around ahead of him, sees armor-plated things with eleventy-billion legs skedaddle out of the glow it casts, finally shines the beam on what looks like a wall of rocks. "Please tell me you're not under that cave-in," he barks in sudden panic, bending, craning his neck to see what he hopes won't be his brother's body partly covered by boulders he has no hope of shifting.

"No… up. Up here, I'm on top of it. There's a gap… I climbed over, got stuck coming back…"

Dean steps back, stares up. He's almost afraid to call the words up, even though he already knows the answer. "Is Bobby in there with you?"

There's a brief silence that speaks volumes, then, "No. He isn't."

It's faint, reluctant, subdued, and for a second Dean feels his heart hitch and flip-flop in a way that's all-too-familiar. He doubles over, a hand pressed hard on his chest, just like he did so many times on the taxicab ride the night he checked himself out of hospital so he could be with his brother when he died, and didn't think he'd make the motel without the brutal, tight sensation squeezing the life out of him. He sucks in dank, moldy air until the rushing sound in his ears fades and the stabbing phantom pain dead center of his sternum eases off.

"Dean?"

"Yeah. 'M coming," Dean manages, and he starts pushing up, slithering back as loose rocks tumble, thinking exhaustedly that some of those little metal spikes mountaineers strap to their boots would be damned useful. He shouts as much up to his brother, finally peers in to see Sam's face is a picture of relief mixed with huh?

"Tampons?" he's asking, puzzled. "What the hell are you talking about, Dean?"

"Tampons," Dean clarifies. "Those little metal spikes on your boots that help you climb."

"Crampons," Sam says through a world-weary grimace.

"I'm not surprised, dude," Dean replies, wincing himself as he sees how tightly his brother is caught. "How long you been stuck?"

"No, not cramps… I mean… God." Sam drops his head down onto his forearm. "It doesn't matter. Please just get me out of here."

Trying to get his brother out of there is a welcome distraction, even if Dean's heaving doesn't seem to be having any effect. "You're goin' on a fuckin' diet," he snipes as he wriggles in as far as he can and starts scrabbling at the pile, pushing the smaller rocks aside, pulling his gun out from the small of his back to hammer at the stubborn ones with the butt. He pauses for a minute, to study the weapon closely. "Dude, shine the flashlight just there."

Lit up, Sam's face is patched with grime and grazed, his eyes shadowed. "Please tell me you haven't just been bashing away with that thing without checking the safety," he breathes.

Dean is doing precisely that now, and he meets his brother's eyes unrepentantly. "Safety's dangerous Sam. Highly dangerous. Having the safety on can get you killed." He slams the butt against the rocks again.

"You're going to shoot yourself in the ass one of these days, Dean," Sam mutters, sinking his face back down again. "But I guess there are worse things than a bullet to the brain."

Dean snorts, pulls. "I think you moved."

He gets a pessimistic grunt for his trouble. "Don't think so."

Even when Dean hauls so hard he can't hold onto his groan of effort, it's like he has a rock the size of a house on tow. "Christ," he huffs out. "Can you help? Push with your feet or something?"

"Don't you think I'm trying?" Sam snaps. "My feet are dangling in thin air, Dean."

Dean doesn't really want to think of how the hell his brother got so big when he wasn't looking, but still he mutters, "Fuckin' sasquatch."

"Well, if you'd put some back into it," Sam counters.

"You outweigh me by twenty fuckin' pounds at least." Dean hauls at him again. "Jesus, you need to—"

"Dean," Sam cuts in suddenly quiet. "It's something to see you. It really is."

It's out of the blue, and Sam's eyes are naked with relief, and Dean can't let the moment last. "You're fat," he accuses. "You know that?"

Seems like his brother wants to move them past the chick-flick lapse too, because, "Yeah," Sam agrees blandly. "These four-foot wide shoulders and Schwarzenegger pecs sure can be a problem at times. Not that you'd know anything about that."

"Bitch," Dean tells him.

"Jerk."

Dean thinks he'll give it one last try before taking a timeout to think up plan B. "Christ," he says as he pulls again. "We got flares and silver bullets galore, and we forget to pack the fuckin' lube."

"Maybe if I just—ow! No, wait, Dean, don't…"

Sam comes loose and shoots out of the gap like a greased hog, sending Dean tumbling down flat on his back, and then Sam's on him, draped all over him, smothering him, panting in his ear and Christ it's too much. Dean pushes, shoves, heaves, starts beating at his brother's back, his shoulders, wriggling wildly and all the time he knows he's safe, that it's Sam, but all the same he just can't, can't breathe. He's caught, pinned down, trapped, and someone's shouting, maybe even screaming, and suddenly he's free and he's on his butt, knees pulled up, his back pressed hard up against the wall, a hand out in front of him, a blocking tactic, a plea for fuckin' mercy, like it ever worked before.

And it is just Sam, pushing onto his hands and knees before planting himself on his ass and regarding Dean from four or five feet away.

Dean floats back down from dizzying heights of terror, closes his eyes, starts to breathe deeper, blow out through pursed lips, murmur the same phrase over and over.

"Dean fucking Winchester, hell yeah?" his brother says softly, shifting closer, carefully, bit by bit, until he's next to him leaning up against the wall himself.

"Mantra," Dean confirms thinly. "Kathleen's idea."

There's a moment of silence before Sam speaks again, his tone gone cautious. "Did Kathleen tell you that you've been in some sort of fugue state, and—"

"Yes," Dean says sharply. "And no, I can't remember any of it. So now we've cleared that up I guess we go back for the stuff and then come back, press on past this to—"

"There isn't any more of it, Dean," Sam says, scratching his head. "The shaft ends right there behind the cave in, about ten or twelve yards further on."

Dean swallows thickly past the no of it. "But that means—"

"Yeah. It does."

But the no is still there, on the back of Dean's tongue, and he shoves it down, along with the wave of nausea that's swelling behind it. There's a way around this, a solution, there must be. He pushes up. "Come on. Bobby marked the other mines on the map."

"Yeah," Sam answers, and now his voice is as dead as his eyes were in the flashlight's glow. "The map he had in his pack when that thing grabbed him. We only found this one because you remembered where it was. You passed by it. Back then."

Dean is standing but suddenly the world is rocking, and maybe he's even careering from side to side, from wall to wall, like those cheesy side effects in Star Trek when they just wobbled the camera. He's just expecting the ground to smack him in the face when his brother folds a hand around his bicep and supports him all the way to his ass. Once Dean is seated, Sam squats and bends his knees for him like he's a poseable GI Joe doll, that's action fuckin' figure to you, dude, before he fishes a bottle of water out of his pack.

Dean snatches at it, drinks long and deep. "I feel really ill," he admits, and his voice catches in his throat.

"I know," Sam says, flopping down onto his own butt and shuffling to sit beside Dean. "I know."

"Christ," Dean hears himself croak through his disbelief, through the image of the old man in his mind's eye. "Bobby."

"I know."

They sit there, neither one of them saying anything.

"How it was done," Sam breaks the quiet after a few moments. And then, after a brief pause, "How, why, when and where it happened." He chuckles softly. "I think I must've driven Bobby about crazy with the why, why. One day he caught me reading a bunch of old newspapers he had lining his drawers… Jesus, when was that? Maybe I was ten, about that anyway, reading all this old stuff about the fall of the Berlin Wall and Bobby's clothes scattered all over the place. And a couple of weeks later these big boxes came in the mail and it was… Jesus." Sam's voice breaks. "Readers Digest Book Club. How It Was Done. How, Why, When and Where it Happened. I don't think I spoke or ate or slept for a month, just reading them."

They sit there in dead, heavy silence for another few minutes, leaning on each other, and Dean finds he is lost in memories of drifting from town to town, sleeping in the car, and John Winchester not really there, miles away, lost in his grief. "I don't even know how dad knew Bobby," he says hoarsely into the stillness, and he catches his brother glancing at him in his peripheral vision. "Through the grapevine maybe," he goes on. "We just pitched up there. And dad, he never said much afterwards. So I never said much either. Never said a damn thing in fact. It was fuckin' pointless, because no one answered me any more. Maybe I even forgot how to talk."

Dean slants his eyes left, sees that Sam is hanging on every word, because he has never told his brother this. He manages a weak grin. "And Bobby kept his distance at first, but then he started following me round the lot, making sure I was safe while dad slept it off. And one day he turned up with all these boxes. Clothes, toys. Fuckin' toys." Dean knows his voice has gone awestruck, because he remembers how he ran grubby fingers over the gaudy plastic and metal, remembers how he sank to his haunches and feasted his eyes on it all. "Jesus, I forgot what those even were… all mine burned with the house. He had toy cars and stuff. Little soldier guys. They were his kid's, I guess. And he set it all up there on the porch, and he painted racetracks on there for me. And we played wacky fuckin' races, and I had a reason to talk again. Someone to talk to, who listened and talked back. And so I wasn't the invisible boy any more." He stares into the darkness, doesn't weep and his voice doesn't break or even waver. "We're talking about him like he's dead, but he's alive."

Sam exhales long and slow. "Then we should get moving. So we can find him."

***

Bobby jerks awake to find a can on his lap. A can of Spaghettios, to be precise, and he thinks that if he was going to hallucinate something surely he could have managed Bo Derek. But the cramping hunger tearing at his gut is assuaged somewhat by the feel of the can, the knowledge it contains food that he can daub his fingers in and raise up to his mouth and taste and…

"What the fuck?"

Because it's real, it has a gaping hole in the top and it's food, Christ it's food, and he crams handfuls of it into his mouth, swallows it down without even chewing.

He's partway through it when he sees the two red glowing lights in the corner, and shit, he almost cries.

He manges to suck his scream back down and stares. He can just about pick out its edges in the light glimmering through from somewhere above him. It's curled up over there among the bodies, watching him. "Fatten me up, huh?" he murmurs. "More meat on the bones, more to get your teeth into. Clever little fucker. Don't mean I have to eat it though."

But he does, and the full feeling in his belly is some comfort amid his despair and the awful knowledge that his number is up this time.

The thing watches him all the while, snuggled on its bed of broken, battered bodies, even hugs one of them close like a fuckin' teddy bear, until Bobby is so exhausted he gives in and drifts off imagining the creature pushing a shopping cart around the local WallyWorld, checking use-by dates, choosing fat-free options, and offering the cashier a handful of coupons at the checkout.

***

Hudak has loosened the chain slightly and pushed open the doors, and weak sunlight is streaming into the mine entrance through a foot-wide gap. She's sitting with her legs crossed, face up to the light, eyes closed, and as Sam draws closer he can see that her cheekbone is swollen, a livid bruise already bordering a graze just under her eye.

She opens her one good eye as they approach, and her face falls. "No Bobby?"

"No," Sam says, flopping gracelessly down onto his butt next to her. "And what the hell happened to your face?"

Hudak's eyes dart up to where Dean is standing next to Samm, and Sam follows her gaze, sees his brother's expression flit from surprised to puzzled and then finish up somewhere colder, before he looks down at his boots and starts toeing the dirt as Sam puts two and two together.

After an awkward moment, Sam clears his throat. "I'm sorry. I should've told you to keep your distance when he's waking up. He's socked me a couple of times coming round."

Hudak shrugs. "He didn't know. And under the circumstances, I didn't think it was worth making him feel any worse than he does." She stares up at Dean, a meaningful look. "Dean. Not your fault."

Dean looks away, his expression one of abject misery. "I don't hit women," he replies.

"It was an accident," Hudak clarifies. "It wasn't even you, really. It was, well, Gabe, I guess. He didn't much like being chained to the door with that thing right up outside. He thought it was Bender."

Dean frowns at the change of subject, steps around Sam to peer through the gap between the doors. "Speaking of which. Has it come back at all?"

"Haven't heard it since I woke," Hudak reports carefully. "That was five-fifteen. What time did you leave?"

Dean pauses before he responds to the question, and there is something in his caginess, and the fact he and Hudak seem to be walking on eggshells around each other, that Sam thinks might be significant. He considers it, whether it might be the fact his brother just belted her right in the kisser or might be something else, as he roots a power bar out of his pack.

"About five," Dean says finally, with a quick glance at her, and his tone is level but Sam thinks the way he swivels his head back to stare through the gap between the doors is too fast.

"I think we're in the clear first half of the day when the sun's high," Dean adds. "But afternoons mean staying frosty where the canopy's thick and it's darker."

"No Bobby," Hudak broaches again.

Her tone is the same forced calm as before, and maybe that's it, Sam thinks. Bobby, and he knows the woman grew close to the old man the last time they were in these woods together. "No," he tells her. "The shaft isn't all that deep, guess they must've mined it out and abandoned it. I got stuck behind a cave-in… looks like the thing was using it at one point, there were old bodies in behind the blockage."

Hudak's eyebrows go up. "Any ID?"

Sam swallows down his mouthful, shaking his head. "No, I mean real old, decades old."

She gives him an odd look. "Someone might still be looking for them."

Her voice is a combination of sharp and sad, and it suddenly hits Sam that she's talking about herself and the fact that she'll never stop looking. He remembers her saying it as if it were yesterday, remembers that her brother's car was parked out at the Bender place, that those monsters hunted Riley out here, killed him or maybe drove him straight into the gaping mouth of the beast they're here to put down. "Honestly Kathleen, I don't think so," he says. "I checked for ID, all of the bodies. They're real old, crumbling bones, could even be turn of the century."

Dean squats down next to Sam, leans over to pull at his bedroll, and starts folding it. "Maybe they're this thing's trapper buddies from back in the day."

"Would a cave-in make this thing move house?" Hudak asks. "I wouldn't have thought a pile of rocks would make that big of a difference, wouldn't it just knock through?"

Sam ponders for a moment, concludes that she has a point. "You're right. These things are pretty territorial, far as we know. I don't see how a cave-in would drive it out of here." He's still musing when his brother gives him a jab in the ribs.

"Come on. We're burning daylight. If the bodies are that old, it means the thing overslept. It'll be even hungrier than usual."

When Sam tilts his head to look, he sees that Dean has that savage, fluorescent glow in his eyes that he gets on the hunt, that he gets when he's lusting for the kill, when nothing matters except pinning that piece of crud down and slicing and dicing until he's treading water in a river of blood and still hacking away. And those brilliant eyes are blazing holes in him and his brother is handing him his Desert Eagle, butt first.

"Knock me out."

Sam's jaw flaps uselessly for a few seconds. "What do you mean by that?" he finally manages, briefly shooting right up into a crazed falsetto somewhere in there.

"You said I found this place, Sam," his brother answers steadily. "You lied. I've never been here in my life. You both said I flipped back to Gabe. Gabe found the mine and he might know where the others are."

Sam's speechless at his brother's twisted logic. "And you think that if I club you senseless you'll wake up Gabe?"

"It's worth a try," his brother challenges.

After gaping for a few seconds, Sam shakes his head damned decisively. "Bullshit, Dean, it isn't worth a try at all."

"You didn't hit your head the last time anyway," Hudak chips in tensely. "Something else set it off. And Gabe said this was the only mine he'd seen."

Sam can see the explosion coming, can see the rage almost dancing along his brother's skin, can feel a static in the air that makes him think that if he reaches out to touch Dean, he'll get one of those crepe-soled-shoes-on-nylon-carpet electric shocks that'll have the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck standing up. He's just starting to reach out a hand to repel the attack when Dean's reserve cracks and he swipes a hand across his brow.

"Well what then?" he says hoarsely. "What the fuck else can we do? Help me out here, because I don't know."

When Hudak speaks, cool, calm and authoritative, Sam knows he sags in pathetic gratitude.

"As far as I see it we have two options," she offers. "We trek back into town for another map, and that's going to add a couple or three days to this. Or we take pot luck and keep looking without the map."

Sam finds his voice again. "It could take days to find another mine."

Hudak throws up her hands. "Yeah, it could. But this mine must be on a seam, or why bother digging it out? Bobby said all the deep pit mines were in the ballpark, so if we work two or three miles away from here in every direction and then double back to cover it all again, well… We could do it today at least, and then think about the other option if we have to. But heck, maybe we'll get lucky."

Dean snorts despondently. "It'll be the first fuckin' time."

"Oh I don't know Dean," Hudak returns flatly. "Seems like you got real lucky right here a couple of hours ago."

Sam sees his brother's head snap up, eyes huge and a furious blush shooting up to his hairline, and he wonders about it for a split second before Hudak continues.

"I mean," she says, her lips curling in a tight smile. "You could still be Gabe, huh?"

***

Maybe about twenty minutes after they start walking Sam notices it: Dean rubbing at his brow, his features draining of color, a pinched, anxious look around his eyes as he glances this way and that. It isn't that Dean's on his guard, watchful, it's that he's twitching, and it's far too close to what he was doing before he flipped for Sam to feel comfortable about it.

"Dean, what is it?" he says, not remotely expecting his brother to share, and so not altogether surprised when Dean just waves a dismissive hand at him and keeps walking. He's a few feet over to the right of his brother, sees Hudak break off scanning the woods to her left and give Dean the once-over in response to Sam's words, and she raises her eyebrows at Sam. He falls back a few feet out of Dean's line of sight, mouths, I have no clue.

"Stop talking about me like I'm not here," Dean says gruffly from ahead of them. "I'm fine. It's just a headache. Keep walking."

Rumbled, Sam retorts, "But you're twitching just like you did before—"

"I'm not twitching," Dean barks. "I'm staying frosty, like you should be."

"Do you feel like you're being watched?" Sam persists. "That's what you said before. Dude, if you feel like you're being watched you need to clue us in… you might be able to sense this thing better than us—"

"Fuck! I have not bonded with this thing!" Dean yelps, rounding on Sam. "Give it a rest or so help me I'll—" And abruptly he stops, presses the heel of his hand to his temple and reels, and if he hadn't been standing right up in Sam's space, Sam thinks his knees would have buckled.

Grabbing a handful of Dean's jacket, Sam lowers him to the ground much as he did in the mine, and as he does so it occurs to him that his brother must be starving. "Jesus, Dean, when did you last eat…" he chides, motioning to Hudak, who roots through her pack, pulls out a cellophane-wrapped chunk of beef jerky, and tosses it over.

Sam rips it open, waves it under Dean's nose. There's little response and he thinks he might even have to wedge it in between Dean's lips, but then his brother grudgingly takes it, snatches it in fact, in a burst of temper that's so juvenile Sam smiles as Dean bites off a large mouthful and starts chewing lethargically.

"Your head," Sam queries. "Does it feel okay?" He peers closely at his brother, reaches out and cards Dean's hair back from an inch-long cut along his hairline. "Where did that come from? Did you fall and hit your head in the mine?"

"He got that headbutting me," Hudak calls over. She has moved off a few feet, is standing guard, and Sam thanks God someone has the presence of mind to stay focused on the job because his brother is becoming a distraction who's going to get them all killed.

He pushes up, moves over to stand next to her. "He isn't right," he says, low so Dean can't hear him. "I can't put my finger on it, but his mind isn't on this and that just isn't him, especially with Bobby at stake."

"Well, isn't it the whole Bobby thing that's distracting him?" Hudak suggests. "They're very close…"

"I'm fine," Dean growls from behind them. "My head's just fuzzy. Noise, buzzing."

That's a red flag, and Sam turns around, steps back to kneel in front of Dean again. "Voices?" he says slowly. "Do you hear voices? A voice? Dean?" He stops because his brother is glaring up at him now, his eyes narrowed. "That's it, isn't it?" Sam realizes, aghast, feeling an awful growing sadness. "It's not just Gabe who hears him. You're hearing his voice in your head too… it's like the dreams. God, Dean, has it been like this all along? Why didn't you tell me?"

Dean forces down his beef jerky, swallows hard. "Tell you? Tell you what? That I hear that bastard even when I'm awake? That I'm losing my fuckin' mind, that I'm so cracked in the head I'm even seeing him now?" He shakes his head and his eyes are shaded with despair and hurt. "Tell me how I find the words, Sam. Tell me how I find the words to tell you I'm done with this. I want it over. I want peace, I want to rest, even if it means taking my gun and—"

This is coming out of left field, and Sam can't, won't hear it. He slams his hand over his brother's mouth, hisses, "Don't you fucking dare, Dean. That's too much information, you selfish prick. I don't want to hear that from you ever again. I am not burying you. Ever."

Dean reaches up to grip Sam's wrist, pulls his hand away, and his voice is chilly, controlled. "I can hear him right now. You keep saying you want to know… so do you want to know what he's saying right the fuck now, what sweet nothings he's whispering in my ear?"

A shadow falls over them, and Hudak's voice is almost as wintry as Dean's. "I hate to interrupt you, boys, but don't we have something better to do?" She's already hefting her pack, starts walking, glancing back at them. "Maybe instead of your hissy fit you should both be working out why Gabe said his head was clear as a bell at the mine. I'd have thought if anyone was going to imagine Lee Bender out of nowhere, it'd be Gabe."

Sam chews his lip for a minute, finally rises, stares down at his brother. And after a long moment Dean sighs, holds a hand up.

"It's true," he says quietly, as Sam pulls him to his feet. "My head was clear at the mine."

"But it's not clear now," Sam ventures.

"Nope. Hasn't really been since we got here. To the woods I mean."

Sam huffs. "Jesus, Dean. You should have told me."

"I think I'm going crazy," Dean replies, his voice faint.

"Do you really hear him now? Was that a lie?" Sam's hoping, knows his voice is alive with it.

His brother is stony-faced. "Yeah, Sammy, I hear him right now." And he shoulders his pack and walks off after Hudak.

***

That the thing didn't even bother taking his Bowie is the real irony, Bobby huffs to himself, like it knows damn well he can do no damage to it without a silver blade. He holds it up in front of him, tilts the blade back and forth in a thin sliver of light, and he remembers what Hudak asked him and wonders if he has the guts. A vertical cut to each wrist and he can just drift off from this mess like he's going to sleep.

He's leaning on a wooden support beam, soft rotting wood. He muses that the sharper the blade is the easier it'll be, less painful to make the cuts. He sighs, turns around, starts picking away at the wood with the blade. Give me a b, give me an o

He guesses that when the time comes and the blade is blunt he'll just have to hack at his wrists. "Won't be any worse than being eaten piece by piece," he mumbles under his breath as he carves.

***

Dean knows he's twitching just as much as Sam says he is, and he's trying to deal, trying to ignore the voice as it waxes and wanes, as it shouts from over there, then whispers right in his ear. He knows he's rubbing his brow, knows he's clapped one hand over his ear, now the other, knows the thud he hears is his gun hitting the ground as he sinks to his knees.

He knows Hudak and Sam are both there talking at him but the whispering drowns them out, and he knows he's imagining it, that it's some mental collapse set off by the wendigo and Christ, how fuckin' idiotic he was to think that coming back here would help. But she was in trouble and he promised. And he knows, knows that the shadowy figure he can suddenly see ducking in and out of the trees isn't real, isn't there, is nothing more than a figment of his addled, damaged mind, because his brother killed the bastard, told him so, and he even asks again, "Sammy, tell me again how you killed him, you killed him didn't you? You said you killed him…"

Sam stares earnestly out from under his hair, nods. "I killed him Dean, I swear to God. He's dead."

Dean knows Sam wouldn't lie, wouldn't keep secrets from him, would he? He can hear Hudak from a distance, something about how this is so over, and they're carting him back to Hibbing now, and he grinds out, "No we need to find Bobby. We're close, so close, I know we are."

And suddenly he hears Hudak's voice change, get all choked and high pitched, and then she's shouting at Sam, shaking him and pointing. It all sounds so far away, like they're under water or something, and Sam is shouting back and he's fuckin' horrified, and he's pulling Dean up, hauling him along.

And that's the moment clarity comes screaming back in a crescendo of yelling and Dean knows that he really is seeing Lee Bender standing over in the trees. Because Sam and Hudak see him too.

He pushes violently at Sam, whirls and runs, because he's leaving, he's getting away just like he was supposed to. He crashes into the trees, hears the noise of his brother, Lee? Sam? crashing after him, and he wonders in a split second of rationality if he did this before and maybe Lee caught him and beat the memory out of him.

***

Sam has a moment of appalled stillness, eyes darting between his brother disappearing between the trees and Lee Bender staring at them from a hundred yards further on, flickering in and out of phase because we didn't burn the fucking body, and then he spins and races after Dean, with Hudak hot on his heels. And Dean is so damn fast, always has been unless he's hurt, and Sam has always suspected his brother's slightly bowed legs give him an advantage when it comes to pelting along at warp fucking speed, which is pretty much what he's doing now in his panic.

Dean sprints across a clearing and then, thank fuck, stops dead just past the tree line, snapping to a halt and crumpling so suddenly Sam spares a second to think it looks as if he ran face-first into an invisible forcefield and ricocheted off it flat onto his back.

The impact must have knocked him out, because Dean is dead to the world when Sam skids down onto his knees next to him. "Dean! Dean!" Sam pats lightly at his brother's cheek, looks up and all around him. He's still shellshocked by the sheer revulsion of seeing Bender staring back at them, and all the pieces are falling into place now, why Dean has been so edgy, why his face has been so drawn and his eyes so haunted.

He glances at Hudak as she drops to her knees opposite him. "He must've been seeing Lee all along. Fuck. Why didn't he say something." Hudak is scanning the trees, white-faced, and Sam snaps at her. "Come on. We need to get him back to the mine."

Her bewilderment shows through her fear when she looks back at Sam. "The mine?"

"It's the iron," Sam bites out. "Spirits don't like it, it's a pure element, repels them. That's why he couldn't hear Bender when we were there."

He reaches under his brother's shoulders, pushes up onto his feet, pulls Dean up, but he's heavy all of a sudden, won't move. Sam pulls harder, and Dean lets out a weak, strangled cry that makes no sense because he's unconscious.

And then Hudak is hollering at Sam to stop, shaking him, pointing frantically towards the undergrowth, at Dean's feet.

At the rusted metal teeth of the gin trap where they're gripping Dean's lower leg.

***

14. Little House in the Big Woods

Sam drops his brother back down onto the dirt, crabs down to his ankle, pulls at the jaws of the trap, and they don't budge even slightly. He can hear Dean moaning and he has to twist to the side and spit bile. "Fuck! What do I do?" he hollers at Hudak, who's alternating between staring at Dean's leg with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, and swiveling her head wildly to cover the woods. "Kathleen!"

Sam heaves mightily at the rusted metal again, feels it give, but he knows he can't hold on, knows the appalling, gut-clenching horror of Dean's unconscious shudder as the jaws sink back in. "No!" he yells, mixed rage and pain, and all at once he hears Hudak cry out in dismay, feels his skin crawl, turns to find himself face to face with the monster who destroyed his brother.

Bender is as fleshy and gimlet eyed as Sam remembers him, and even if he's spectral in the next second Sam is flying through thin air, crashing down onto his shoulder, that shoulder, and fuck, way to find out Bender is corporeal when he wants to be.

"Uhhh," Sam coughs out, and he rolls over onto his side, pulls his knees up and hugs himself as he tries to breathe through the ache. He can hear Hudak yelling, see her down on her back in the dirt as Bender looms over his brother, and he has to swallow hard because he can see care, twisted, black affection gleaming in Bender's eyes as he cocks his head, can see his lips forming words, purty boy.

Sam pushes up on a groan he can't hold in, wriggles out of his pack, rips the flap open and pulls out his sawed-off. He shouts at Hudak to duck as he lets Bender have both barrels of salt, and the apparition flickers and disappears. Sam scrabbles back over to Dean, shoves the gun at Hudak with a terse, "Here," roots in the pack for the box of shells and drops them in her lap. "Salt rounds. Reload it. He'll be back."

Hudak's eyes are wide, but the panic is gone. "Salt rounds?"

"Pure, like iron. They'll buy us some time."

"How can it do that?" she grates, icily resolute as she cracks the gun. "How can it touch us?"

"It can make itself solid to touch us, but we can't touch it," Sam mutters, as he presses gently on Dean's leg. "Kathleen, how the hell do I get this off him?" He tries pulling at the trap again, about jumps out of his skin as Hudak sucks in sharply, blasts the gun over his shoulder, and maybe there's something to be said for temporary deafness in at least one ear if it'll shield him from the full impact of getting this thing off his brother's leg, because Dean is already moaning.

Hudak cracks the gun again, ejects the spent shells. "You don't," she snaps, as she loads up two more, all the time glancing around them. "You leave it on him."

Sam goggles at her. "Leave it on?"

"For now," she confirms. "They're designed to hold the leg, not sever it. He should still have some circulation. See if you can unclip the chain or dig out the anchor pin, and we can take him as is—Christ! Look out!"

She blasts again, and Sam ducks to cover his brother, sees Hudak get knocked aside, and then he's lifted himself and hurled into a tree. His head hammers on the trunk with depressing force, and cartoon bluebirds flutter about in front of his eyes, chirping a merry tune. He can see a fuzzy image of Bender straddling his brother, leaning down, before hands are gripping his shirt at the neck, shaking him.

"Snap out of it," Hudak is yelling in his face. "I can't find the gun!"

Sam knows he's blinking stupidly at her, even wonders for a second who the hell she is before she releases him and he slumps back against his tree, and he's damned happy to just rest there for a minute even though she's barking, fuck, at him, and then she's gone. Sam vaguely tracks her crawling on all fours over to where the crazy big ghost is leaning down, picking Dean up and embracing him, and somewhere in his mind Sam is with the program sufficiently to realize that it's wrong on so many fucking levels. He wishes he had the strength and the inclination to get over there and do something about it but he's just too tired. "Later," he hears himself mumble. "Rest first."

He can see Hudak, yeah, that's who she is, crouched down at his brother's feet behind the crazy big ghost, and she's doing God knows what, picking at something, pulling, bouncing back up onto her toes, swinging? And suddenly Sam isn't watching her idly any more, in fact he's feeling more alert, feels it all coming back, understands why the tableau he sees playing out in front of him is so fucking out of line, get away from my brother you sick bastard, as Hudak shouts in triumph and swings the chain through the air, the pin at the end of it obliterating Bender's spirit in a phased-out flash.

"Chew on that, fucker," Hudak grates out, and then she darts back to Sam, chain trailing from where she has it wrapped around her wrist. She drops to her knees, slaps at Sam's cheek, and hollers in his face again. "Are you back? Are you back? Come on!"

Sam blinks hard, shakes his head. "Back," he grunts. "I'm back. Jesus."

He pushes up as Hudak nods at him, leans briefly on the tree as a wave of dizziness has him reeling, then lumbers gracelessly along behind Hudak over to where his brother still lies prone, shifting restlessly now and making snuffling noises, kneels down again opposite her. "Chew on that, fucker?" he gapes.

"I remembered what you said about the mine," Hudak says, and she smiles thinly, brandishes the chain. "It's iron. I couldn't see the gun anywhere."

Sam nods, finds that he can still pull a smile from somewhere too, despite the horror. "Dean was right. You are Ripley."

Then she's gone from his line of sight again and he hears the zip of the chain cutting through the air and the pin thumping the ground. She races to the edge of the tree line, starts scanning the undergrowth, spies what she seeks, reaches down and waves the gun at Sam as she jogs back.

"The mine," Sam says as he pulls Dean up onto his shoulder, and Hudak helps support the weight of his brother and the trap as Sam rises to his feet, groaning with the effort, closing his ears to the hurt sounds Dean is still making as the trap pulls at his flesh.

Hudak nods, hefts up Sam's pack and reloads efficiently as he staggers back into the trees. He hears the blat of the gun from a few feet behind before she's alongside him, trotting backwards, eyes everywhere.

"We're low on ammo, Sam," she says curtly, and ain't it the truth, because they just didn't come prepared for this eventuality and—

"Kathleen! On your two o'clock!"

She spins, fires, cracks the gun to reload it, and then she's tapping Sam's arm, pointing. "Over there – look."

It's a small wooden cabin, almost hidden by the trees, and Hudak skirts around Sam. "Come on," she orders, looking back briefly. "If that's in use as a hunter's cabin, it'll have medical supplies."

She starts moving off towards the cabin and Sam calls after her. "We can't protect him there, we need to get him to the mine so—"

"Salt," she snaps, glancing back. "There should be salt there. They use it to preserve the meat. It's worth a try."

Sam lurches after her, follows her up two or three steps onto the porch, flops his brother down onto the wooden boards as she hits at the padlock with the butt of the gun. "I'll pick it."

Hudak turns, her eyes widen, and Sam drops to his knees, simultaneously fumbling in his pocket for his lock picks as she swings the chain along to the familiar crackling-popping burn as Bender materializes and is forced away again. Sam loses his balance, almost falls flat on his face as the door swings open, turns as Hudak hurdles his brother and races inside, disappearing into the gloom as Sam grabs Dean's arms and drags him through the doorway.

He can hear Hudak rustling, crashing about somewhere, hear the impact of things clattering to the floor, hear her exclaim in relief, and then she backs out through what must be the pantry door ass first, hauling a burlap sack. "Coarse salt," she barks over her shoulder.

Sam is already fishing out his Bowie, cutting through the rope tie. He reaches in almost instinctively to grab a handful, twists and throws it smack-bang into Bender's face as the spirit smiles lasciviously at him from a foot away. "We need to salt the doors and windows, the fireplace and fire pit too," he says, turning back, and Hudak nods. "Open the shutters and salt the sills," he adds breathlessly. "And we need to time it right or we'll just trap him in here with us."

Hudak vanishes into the pantry again, comes out with a metal jug and scoops up salt. She heads for the windows and Sam pulls the bag over to the other side of the room, mimics what she's doing.

He spies another door leading off the main cabin, kicks it open to see a bedroom, window swinging open. He slams it shut and repeats the drill, hears Hudak yelp, glances back to see her fling another handful of salt at Bender. "Now!" he shouts. "If you've finished the windows, salt the doorway now he's out of phase!"

Nodding, Hudak disappears from view, and in the next instant the static charge is gone from the atmosphere and it's peaceful even, apart from Sam's own heaving breath. Hudak hoves back into view again and they spend a full minute just staring at each other, taking it down, breathing it out. And Sam suddenly remembers his brother's mantra, and he snorts out a deranged sounding guffaw. "Kathleen fucking Hudak, hell yeah," he declares.

Hudak smiles, salutes with her chain-wrapped hand. "I prefer Sarah fucking Connor myself." Her legs buckle then, and she sits where she falls, the adrenaline rush fading just like Sam's is. "We'll camp here for the night," she says, and then snickers herself at the sheer redundancy of her words.

She leans back on her hands, tips her head back, eyes closed, heaves out a sigh before looking up. And then she frowns, tilts her head, and Sam sees her eyes grow large. "I don't believe this," she murmurs, and it's almost like she's forgotten he's there for a second, she's totally absorbed in what she's looking at and her eyes are tracking from right to left. "Is there no escape from these people?"

"What?" Sam prods, and he can feel his heart sinking as he says the words.

She gestures up. "Take a look."

Sam walks back into the main room, turns and looks up at the worn, rough-hewn beam she's staring at, at the myriad carvings, sets of initials, CB, SB, PB, OB, TB, RB, NB, a whole range of Bs, faded and dirt encrusted. And he knows in his gut that the initials commemorate every Bender who ever lived and set foot in the woods, maybe four or five generations, and over at the right hand side he sees them.

JB, LB, MB.

"Swenson was right," Hudak breathes. "It's the cabin. The Bender cabin."

She shoots upright suddenly, heads back into the pantry, reappears a moment later hauling a large plastic box. "If this is what it looks like…" She pulls off the lid, reaches in. "First aid kit," she says triumphantly, holding up a small bottle. "Morphine. Prescribed by the good doctor." She fishes about in the container, whistles. "This is pretty well-stocked, and there's another one in there too. For that we should be grateful, I guess."

It shakes Sam out of his trance. Dean.

He strides past Hudak to where he dumped his brother's limp body, and Dean is still out of it, face peaceful in repose. "Can you get the leg? We need him over near the window, in the light."

Hudak nods, makes her way over, squats and reaches gingerly for the iron jaws. She rises as Sam does and they shuffle the few feet to the window and lower Dean back down. Shivering, Hudak glances out through the grease-stained glass.

"Are you sure it can't get in here? And what the heck is it anyway?"

"Vengeful spirit," Sam confirms.

She offers a wry grimace. "You don't say."

Sam gives her the Cliffs Notes version. "They can't let go, can't move on. They stay to avenge some wrong that's been done to them." He pauses, takes note of the way her eyes flit to the door and the flex of her throat as she swallows. "And yes, I'm totally sure it can't get in here." He's firm because he knows he's right, and thanks God he can be certain of that one small blessing. "It won't cross the salt – it can't. But when we get this trap off, we'll need to look for some flashlights, lamps, candles, whatever, because I'll need to close the shutters once I paint the sigils on them, and it'll be dark in here then."

Hudak scowls. "Christ. I'd forgotten that damned thing was out there too."

"We're going to need to think about it," Sam says, "and lay down some protection out there." There's a noise then, a whimper, and Sam pauses to touch his brother's brow, try to soothe his restlessness. It works for now, but Dean's eyes are shifting erratically under their lids and he's gulping out quiet almost-sobs.

"Can Bender get to him?" Hudak says suddenly. "Like he was doing before? I mean, get into his head, even if he can't get in here?"

Sam scratches his chin, and fuck, he doesn't want to think that might be possible. "Honestly, I don't know for sure. I don't think so. I don't think any part of him can cross the salt." Dean shivers under his hand. "We have to figure some way of getting him out of here without Bender or that thing grabbing any of us," he says. "But we need to get this trap off first, patch Dean up. Check the bedroom for sheets, towels, anything clean we can use for the bleeding."

He looks up, and Hudak is staring at him, an odd expression on her face. He tents his brows at her, and she bites her lip.

"Sam… what about Bobby?" she says, and her tone is shot through with apology and regret.

Sam swallows, because his throat is suddenly collapsing in on itself. "Dean comes first. We get him back into town, out of Bender's reach. I can come back for Bobby."

"Can Bender get to him in Hibbing?"

Sam shakes his head. "No, he's tied to where he died. If we can get Dean out of the woods, he'll be safe from Bender."

"What about us? You?" Hudak says slowly. "Will you be safe from Bender? You killed him, Sam… if he's out for revenge, doesn't that mean you're in the firing line too?"

It hadn't occurred to him and now it does, it sends a slow curl of dread up Sam's spine. "I guess we'll find out. I think I can handle it if he does try anything… but that thing's out there too, Kathleen." He looks at her meaningfully. "I know it's a lot to ask. But there's no one else."

She meets his gaze. "I'll have your back, Sam, you can count on it. But this killing moon… Bobby told me that means this thing could be about to go into hibernation. If it goes to ground, won't it be harder to find and kill?"

He's blunt, no point in skirting around it. "Yeah, insofar as we won't really have anything to track. But if we come back with a map of the mines and we find the lair, at least it'll be sleepy when we close in."

He doesn't tell her wendigos rarely doze off on an empty stomach.

***

The cabin must have a well, because a few cranks of the ancient hand pump bolted to the wooden sink has the faucet vomiting out a goodish spurt of water. Sam soaps up his hands thoroughly and pulls out a clean tee from his pack to dry them with, as Hudak emerges from the bedroom with a folded sheet.

"It seems clean," she says, kneeling next to Dean and unfolding the fabric before pushing it under the leg as best she can.

Blood is already oozing sluggishly through Dean's jeans and it seeps lazily into the sheet, an ever-increasing red velvet patch on the cotton. Hudak starts poking through the box of medical supplies next to her, produces a bottle of antiseptic, a large tub she waves at Sam. "Topical antibiotic." And then her voice is suddenly small, worried. "Do you think he'll stay out for this? I don't want to hurt him."

Sam furrows his brow. "Well. Neither do I. But it can't stay on."

Hudak is staring down at his brother and for a second Sam gets a feeling, like she knows something he doesn't. "Kathleen?" he prompts.

Her head jerks up. "Sorry. I was just wondering…" And she blurts out the very thing Sam has been thinking. "Do you think he'll wake up Dean?"

Sam pushes his own worry back down, doesn't answer her. "We need to move on this," he says gently. "We need to get it done before he comes round. I'm amazed he hasn't already."

"Yeah… yeah, you're right." She starts peering into the box again, picks up a rolled bandage, reaches for the same bottle she had earlier. "What about the morphine? Could we give him some of that?"

Sam scrunches his nose, thinks on it. "Are there sterile needles in there?"

She roots about, produces one and waves it.

"Worse things have happened to him," Sam says, and he knows how it sounds and that Hudak is well aware of it anyway, having seen his brother's incredible journey carved into his skin back at the Bender farm.

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" she murmurs.

Sam shrugs, throws up his hands. "I don't know. But he's tough." He blows out a deep, cleansing breath. "We'll try it without the morphine first… it makes him pretty loopy. Now how do I release this?"

He figures Hudak is the kind of person who just needs something to do, and his tactic seems to be working because she shuffles forward on her knees.

"Okay," she breathes out. "It looks pretty ancient, but assuming it's the same basic design…" She leans down, studies it. "It's pretty rusted. And dirty. Is he up to date with his shots?"

Sam gawks at her. "His shots?"

"Yeah… specifically, tetanus."

"I have no idea," Sam says uselessly.

Hudak scowls. "Well that means we're going to need to get right in there and clean this baby out but good. And that's going to hurt like a mother."

Sam nods. "Okay." He chews his lip for a second, makes a decision. "He's been through enough. We'll give him the shot." He unbuttons his brother's jeans, maneuvers them partway down and off his hips, and rolls him on his side. "Antiseptic?" He pulls Dean's shorts down a few inches, sloshes the fluid over his hip area, rubs some onto his hands for good measure, leans over to take the bottle and syringe. Hudak watches him doubtfully as he draws it up, flicks the top, and squirts out a fine spray.

"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" she asks.

Sam curls his lip in a half smile. "Believe me, this is like second nature to us now." He lines his hand up along his brother's thigh, fingers spread, stabs the needle down into the muscle between his index and middle fingers in one smooth move, and depresses the plunger. "Should hit him pretty quickly."

Hudak nods, examines the trap again while Sam gets his brother decent, and suddenly Dean gives a low cry, scrapes the floor with his hand, and they both stare at him and hold their breath until he quiets.

"Okay," Hudak says then, low and urgent. "You're going to have to do the donkey work, Sam, you're stronger and this thing is rusted solid. I'll get the leg out. Right there, see?" She points. "His foot is on the pan. Those bent parts are the springs, there to the left and right of the pan. You following me?"

Sam nods, and she goes on.

"It's the springs that are the key to releasing this, not the jaws, so we'll need to bend his leg because you're going to need to put your full weight on them…"

Sam fists and flexes his hands, carefully bends his brother's leg at the knee before positioning his hands.

"Good," Hudak mutters. "Now, you're going to have to press on those springs, hard as you can, to compress them. That's going to relieve the pressure on the jaws and I should be able to separate them and lift out his leg." She huffs out. "Okay. Are we go for launch here?"

Sam nods wordlessly and Hudak takes a deep breath.

"On three. One, two, three…"

Sam pushes down with all his might, grunts with the effort, and fuck, it's hard, because he's forcing the springs though maybe a half-century's worth of rust and solidified grime. He doesn't look up, hears Hudak growling out her own effort as she simultaneously tries to wrench the jaws open, and then there's a choked-out noise and Dean is thrashing, kicking out with his free leg, slamming his hands on the floor.

He pushes his head and shoulders up only for his head to crack loudly back down. "Fuck! Don't! Stop! Sam… Jesus, stop, please… please…"

Dean's fists hammer the wooden floorboards in a frantic drum solo and even as Sam feels his gut turn handsprings, the sheer relief, the giddiness that it's his brother, it's Dean, has him breathing out a heartfelt, "Oh thank God…"

"The jaws are jammed with rust," Hudak snaps. "But I felt them give. We need to go again, Sam."

"My hearing's fine, Kathleen," Dean croaks. "I'm keeping the trap. They're all the fuckin' rage in New York. God. Motherfuckin'. Hurts…"

Sam pinches the bridge of his nose. "It has to come off, Dean. You know it. I shot you some morphine. If we can just get the damn thing off the pain will ease up."

"Who the fuck says so?" Dean's voice is high and desperate now, and he closes his eyes, lets out a low, grating moan. "Think you're House fuckin' MD or something."

"Kathleen knows how to—"

"And Doctor Quim, medicine woman," Dean spits out balefully.

"Uh. Dude…" Sam glances from Dean's pale, exhausted features to Hudak's equally tense expression. "It's, uh. You mean Doctor Quinn."

"No, Sammy," Dean snarls. "I mean Doctor fuckin' Quim."

It's always something of a surprise just how vile his brother is when he's hurting or sick, Sam thinks, then realizes he must have said it out loud when Dean glares accusingly up at him. "Well you are," he defends, and shrugs.

"Sam," Hudak cuts in urgently. "Come on, we need to do this."

"Sam, no… you're done, don't—no, you fuck, you bastard—"

Dean's voice rises through the octaves in panic as he babbles out a string of pleas that end in garbled, jumbled-up nonsense as Sam presses down on the springs again, using the heels of his hands this time. And Hudak finally cracks the rust, forces the jaws of the trap apart and down with a sickly squealing sound, lifts the leg up and out as blood begins pumping more vigorously from the wounds.

"Hands up and away, but slow and easy," she orders, and Sam does as he's damn well told, winces as he finally lifts his fingers clear, crawls up to his brother's head and lifts it onto his lap, as Dean covers his face with his arm and gasps through the pain.

"It's off, Dean, it's gone," Sam soothes, and his brother flails his other hand in the air, finds Sam's, grips it tight for a few minutes until he gives a quiet sigh and goes limp again.

Hudak wraps a towel haphazardly around Dean's bloodsoaked jeans, looks up and around, stands and crosses to the fireplace. She comes back with a poker and snaps the trap, the jaws closing impotently on thin air. She waves the poker at Sam. "I'm pretty sure this is iron," she says suddenly. "Could be useful for fighting off Bender when we're trekking back to Hibbing."

Sam knows, with a hollow sense of dread, that it's false bravado as he watches the red blot on the towel grow steadily bigger.

They're stuck here until Dean can walk again.

***

"The leg is a mess," Hudak decides ruefully, as she studies the deep puncture wounds that circumnavigate the skin just above his ankle. "But you know something, it could have been worse… Well. In some ways."

Sam is laying out gauze and bandages. "How could it be any worse?" he offers, despondent. "We're stuck here with him. I can't carry him all the way back to town and he isn't going to be walking on that for at least a week."

He sounds defeated, and Hudak knows why, feels that sense of loss blossom in her chest again. Christ, she thinks. Riley. And her dad never knowing what happened, always thinking his son would just show up one day, pull in on the driveway. Bobby's creased face smiling out from under his cap. And now this, because the trap is filthy, seized up with muck, dried blood, animal matter, and it sprinkled a trail of tiny metal fragments in its wake that mean infection is almost a given.

"The rust… it kept the jaws from fully closing, I think," she sidetracks, and she doesn't let herself think about what went down in the mineshaft, that moment of connection. "We could be looking at snapped bone, severed arteries, but as far as I can make out it's only skin and muscle damage." She pauses a beat, continues carefully. "That said, the wounds are pretty deep… and filthy, full of rust particles, and that's not good, we need to get those out."

She eyes Sam as she dribbles antiseptic over the tips of a pair of plastic forceps. "I find myself wondering why they needed all this," she muses as she leans down, studies the oozing wounds. "There's another boxload of drugs in that pantry, heavy duty stuff… ketamine, barbs, warfarin, more opiates…" She pauses, pokes the tips of the forceps delicately into a puncture. "I think maybe they brought people out here to hunt." She grimaces as she eases them back out, gripping a glistening blackish flake of rusted-off metal. "I'm going to pick out what I can, but some of it's just so small and stuck so deep, I'll have to try to irrigate it out." She sighs. "There aren't any antibiotics that I can see among the meds… just the cream. Which means we really need to get him to a hospital." She looks up suddenly as she remembers the last time they had this conversation. "Can I assume that's an option with this snafu, since this isn't a gunshot wound?"

"We didn't have any choice last time," Sam says irritably. "You know why. But yes, we have health insurance." He looks up at the crocodile of carved initials for a moment, shudders. "Typical," he spits. "All they have is stuff to knock out the poor saps they killed."

His vision tracks to a well-stocked set of bookshelves in one corner and he stands as Hudak laboriously picks out fleck after fleck of filth, crosses to study the neatly arranged spines. After studying them for a couple of minutes, he whistles. "Pa was pretty well read," he observes. "Gray's Anatomy. Well, yeah, that's a must-have when you cut people up in your leisure time… some politics. Orwell, Joyce, Faulkner, Steinbeck… huh. Stephen King." He shakes his head, rolls his eyes.

"Don't knock the master of horror," Hudak says as she works.

Sam squats, pulls out some old leather-bound volumes from the bottom shelf, flicks through one. "Journals…" he murmurs. "The writing's pretty faded."

He scans the page for a moment before he looks up and frowns over at the window. The light is fading outside, and he glances at her wristwatch. "It's coming up on four," he says. "We need to do the sigils. Can you leave off that for a couple of minutes, just long enough to do the door and the porch? We'll lay salt lines too."

Assuming Bender keeps away, Hudak thinks ruefully, and Sam must have come to the same conclusion because he nods in the direction of the iron poker, where she left it on the tabletop.

"Bring that," he says grimly. "We should save the rest of the shells for an emergency."

It's ludicrous under the circumstances, but, "Yeah," Hudak says dryly, laying the forceps down and pushing up onto her feet. "You never know when one might come up."

***

It's like a weird ballet, Sam thinks, as he ducks and twists, it's like Jerome Robbins or someone choreographed the whole thing, or maybe like something out of Zorro, as Hudak parries, lunges, strikes, swings the poker right through Bender's middle. The spirit seems even more vengeful than before, its features contorted with rage as it pops up here, there and everywhere while they work the perimeter.

But somewhere beyond the fear, there's a twisted pleasure in it, in getting one over on the sonofabitch, in being able to trail a line of salt along the edge of the porch and force it back out onto the dirt where it belongs. Sam crows at it, "See that fucking dirt, you monster? You'll be there soon," even though he knows the odds of ever finding the campsite where Bender's bones languish are long at best.

It's revenge is what it is, it's matching every curse, every fist, every boot, every assault, it's snarling out, you mess with my brother you mess with me, you fucking waste of skin, and no one, but no one, gets one over on Sam Winchester. And it's filling some yawning black chasm in Sam that he doesn't ever want to acknowledge is even there, it's scalding hot words that blister: it's fury, it's rage, it's wrath.

It's exhilaration.

It's power.

***

Dean smiles woozily at Hudak, wonders just when and where it was he had that yard of Jack because he's coasting, flying high, high, like a bird in the sky, I'm an eagle, and Christ it was a heck of a party if he's singing Abba and doing the blond and the redhead at the same fuckin' time.

Hudak has his jeans rolled up not down, shame, his boots off, and she's methodically cleaning the… the what? All Dean can remember is a bolt of lightning that hit him from the ground up, and he thinks maybe he blacked out so fast he didn't even have time to draw enough breath to squeak, let alone scream.

"What happened to me?" he whispers dreamily, lifts his hand up and wiggles his fingers in front of his eyes. "Flashbackkkkkkk…"

Hudak stops, looks at him, frowns, and her voice wafts in and out.

"Yeah, he's always like this when he's had morphine," a second voice says.

Dean squints over in that direction, sees his brother sitting at the table spooning up something slop? from a bowl, a book open in front of him. "Hey Sammy," he husks, from a throat that feels like someone dug it up and laid down shell while he slept. "Jeez, you get bigger every day. Every fuckin' day, man. What the hell they been feeding you, huh? Not fuckin' fair, you ask me. I'm the big brother… fuckin' short bus, me… you prick."

"He starts out pretty childish," his brother's voice drifts in.

"I feel a song coming on!" Dean croaks, because he feels fuckin' joyous all of a sudden.

"And sometimes he's totally emo and sings."

"Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day… I got a wonderful feeling…" Dean trails off as he sees Hudak's expression, which might possibly be one of horror. "Okla-fuckin'-homa, Kathleen," he announces. "Rodgers and Hammerstein. Fuckin' A."

"Yeah, it's always something from an MGM musical," Sam interjects. "Don't ask me why. But at least he didn't pick West Side Story this time. He has a real problem with the high notes."

Dean pushes up on his elbows. "The fuck?" he says, head spinning. "S'a pile of crap, dude. Crap. With a capital cra." He flops back down, knows his face is split in a satisfied grin. "Hey, Kathleen…"

"Hmm?"

"What are you doing to my leg?"

"Cleaning it. You stepped in a bear trap."

Dean leers at her. "Howzabout maybe… sucking out the poison? Sounds like a real good idea to me."

There's no reaction. In fact maybe she didn't hear him, so Dean snaps his fingers. "Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs Robinson?"

"Then he starts hitting on everything in sight."

Sammy-boy, distracted, absorbed in the book he's flicking through as he eats.

"Male, female, animal, vegetable, mineral… he's even hit on me before now."

Dean cranes his neck, sees Hudak is still peering at his leg, scowling and dabbing. "You like me because I'm a scoundrel," he mumbles. "There haven't been enough scoundrels in your life."

She does look at him then, eyebrows raised. "Han Solo?"

Dean nods his head sagely. "Yeah, who'd have—Jesus, stop, stop… fuck, hurts… please…" The pain screams back, dragging the hard edges of sobriety along in its wake, morphine wearing off and no liquor. "D-d-drink," Dean stutters past the flames burning his lower leg to a crisp. "N-n-need a fuckin' d-d-drink… please…"

A figure looms up and drops down next to him: Sam, book and food forgotten, gripping Dean's hand again, and at that moment Dean thinks his brother might have the kindest eyes he's ever seen, warm and sincere. "Love yuh, Sammy," he slurs. "Just never tell yuh…" And now Sam's eyes are all shiny too. "Drink," Dean prompts, but Sam shakes his head.

"No can do, man. Not on top of the morphine."

And it hurts now, so damn much, as Hudak pokes, wipes, sloshes, pokes again, and Dean knows tears are leaking out the corners of his eyes and he can feel them soak a trail into his hair. "Hurtssss…" he breathes.

"I know," Sam mutters. "I know. But it's too soon for a shot. Come on, breathe through it, you've done it before. Breathe."

A change of topic might help, so, "Tell me you saw him," Dean fishes. "Tell me I'm not crazy." The pain is still electric though, and he wonders if he might drown in it. "Please. Sam, make it stop. Make her stop."

"We have to clean it out, Dean, or it'll get infected," Sam whispers. "And I saw him. We both saw him, you aren't crazy. Dean… God. Why didn't you say something?"

"Thought I was—fuck. Thought I was s-seeing things," Dean stammers. "Wendigo maybe pushed me over the edge or something… didn't think… spirit. Sam, Christ… please. Stop. Her."

"It's done," Hudak cuts in. "As done as it can be. Just dressing it now. Almost through."

And the fiery burn finally, blessedly, eases off to a ferocious sting as Hudak smoothes a cool substance into his skin, flutters gauze down, pats it on. And Dean closes his eyes and lets himself float, be taken care of, thinks at the back of his mind that at least it isn't his gasoline foot, because a month of his brother driving would finish what that thing and Bender started sure as shooting.

***

Sam wrestles the mattress out through the doorway, drags it over in front of the fireplace, disappears back into the bedroom and emerges again with a blanket. He heaves his brother onto the makeshift bed, covers him, considers his lax, pale features for a few seconds. "We should really get some food into him."

Hudak is sitting at the table, nods as she reaches for one of the battered journals. "What are these anyway?"

"Captain's log, basically," Sam replies as he heads for the pantry. "Journals kept by one of them back in the day. The one I was looking at was dated 1853…"

"Wow," she breathes, using a finger to trace the spidery, faded, ink-spotted handwriting slanting across the page. "Minnesota wasn't even a state back then."

There are numerous cans on the pantry shelves, labels faded, best-by dates barely legible, but even if the food he ate earlier is sitting heavy in Sam's stomach, he hasn't keeled over. Yet, he thinks morosely as he backs out of the cramped space. "Can opener?"

Hudak jerks her head towards the sink. "Drainer." And then, "Sam, how much of this did you read?" she adds.

Her voice is oddly tense, enough so that it trips Sam's radar. "Not that much. And not that journal actually, the red one. Why?"

After clearing her throat she says, "Listen to this. It's an entry marked January of 1859…" She takes a deep breath, starts reading. "The snow has not stopped falling for a week now and the drifts are taller than a man. I followed the rope out to the trap and all that remained was a leg, chewed off at the knuckle… I will not…" She stops, squints. "Eat. Eat. Today. I have put Lewis on the porch with hard-packed snow around him to keep the wolves away, but the hunger is gnawing fierce, and I feel I may be forced to do it."

Sam is already setting the can down on the drainer, and he moves to sit opposite Hudak, rifles curiously through the books himself. "What date does that journal end?"

She flips to the back. "End of the year. Is there one for every year?"

Sam dives on one of them. "This one's 1860…" He skims, through it, flicks to the back, eyes widening as it a germ of suspicion starts to sprout. "1861," he says urgently. "Can you see it anywhere?"

Hudak picks it out of the pile, hands it over before standing and making her way over to the bookshelves. She gathers up the remaining volumes and deposits them on the table. "These go back earlier," she says, starts rooting through them.

"May God forgive me," Sam reads out loud. "But the craving for the meat is powerful now and I cannot deny what I need…" It hits him like a sledgehammer then, and it all makes perfect sense. "Jesus. I know what this is… all the time we were focusing on why the wendigo didn't kill Dean when we should have been focusing on why it didn't kill them… Lee and Missy. It's one of them. It's a Bender."

There's a grinding noise then, and Hudak is pushing her chair back and standing very suddenly, staring down at the journal open in her hand. She walks over to stop under the carved beam, points up. "Sam. You see how the JB, LB, MB are over there, to the right? It has to be them… Jared, Lee, Missy, yes? So what if it's in order?"

"You mean chronological order?" Sam suggests, rising to make his way over and examine the initials more closely himself.

"Yeah… and the left side is the earliest, CB… only I don't think that's a C, Sam. Look at it." Hudak holds the book out. "And now look at this, it's the first journal, 1847." She points. "He wrote his name in it. See?"

Sam looks, and now it all has meaning, now all the dominoes have fallen, and he glances up at the beam again, back at the page, at the scrawl in the nameplate. "Kin," he breathes. "It meant the same."

Beside him Hudak nods slowly. "That isn't a C, it's a G… this thing is Gabe. It's Gabe Bender…"

***

The Killing Moon (continued)