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consumes thee in this den

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Forbear to trifle longer with thy grief,
Which, vulture-like, consumes thee in this den - Faust

I get one shot at the kid in the BDUs, but he jukes in the fog and is gone, even his footfalls swallowed up. The wet clammy stuff swirls around me and for a second I'm not sure I can find my way back. And then a cry comes out of the dark that curdles my blood, and I head in that direction as fast as I can move. A single syllable, a name torn bloody from a throat never meant to make a noise like that. 

I find them together, but so finally apart. On their knees, both of them, Sam's taller frame cradled and supported in Dean's arms, against his body, bowed under Sam's deadweight, back arched with effort, face tucked into the hair above the stilled pulse. Stopped in my tracks, it takes a minute to find the will to move, to find my voice, and I bend to touch Dean's shoulder, speak his name. He makes no sign he knows I'm here. I see the tremors that run through him, the ones from the noises he's clamping back, and the ones from muscles starting to shut down from cramp and cold and strain and wet ground.

"Let's get him up," I get out, sounding only a little rougher than usual. "Get you both indoors out of this wet."

His arms tighten, he tucks his face tighter into Sam's neck, and I know he's holding onto this moment, this instant, the last time and place he held his brother breathing. But that moment has already moved on, there's no holding onto it, even if he does kneel here in the dark alone. For as much as he'd tell you he's with Sam, Sam's gone. Dean's already alone.

"Dean," my hand falls a little heavy on his shoulder, clamps a little, demanding attention. "Let's get your brother up off the ground. Help me carry him to the car."

He hasn't looked at me yet, his eyes all on Sam, his hands going to gather the derelict limbs, his shoulder taking the weight as his arms circle Sam's shoulders. I take Sam's legs, and we walk the distance back to that damned car that's been their cradle, their ambulance, their playground as children, and is now Sam's hearse. We lay Sam along the back seat, his long legs folded down into the footwell behind the shotgun seat. Dean's arms cling, reluctant to break contact, but he stands back, one hand going out to stroke damp hair off the forehead. He cups Sam's cheek for a second or two, then steps back and eases the door shut and climbs behind the wheel. He makes no move to start the car, just sits while rain taps on the roof. 

I've ridden shotgun since Ash's call, but Dean still looks a little surprised when I speak. Mine's not the voice he's used to, coming from this seat. "We can take him home--back to my place, if you want."

He shakes his head. "No." His hand turns the key at last, and we back and turn, driving away from Cold Oak. Minutes later he adds, "Thanks though, Bobby."

I have no idea where he's going. I don't know if he knows, just out and away from Cold Oak to start, I guess. We pass a few farms, house windows still lit. I glance at my watch; it feels like small morning hours but it's not even midnight. The rain quits by the time we pass through a little town, and a larger one, and out of the corner of my eye I see the light from streetlights pass over Sam's face, and I hope like hell we stay unnoticed by any local law.


Dean turns onto a dirt farm road just past the outskirts of town, and the car eases down the rutted track to settle next to a dark house in a yard grown thigh-high in grass. There's a tire swing hanging by a single rope from a tree in the moonlight. He stops the car as close to the porch steps as he can, kills the engine and gets out.

The front door opens at a touch and he walks in like he's sure of his welcome, disappears inside. The sound of bootheels on hardwood fades, then approaches again, and he's off the porch and at the back door of the car, has it open and is easing Sam out before I know what's going on. Following Dean's lead, I grab Sam's legs, and we take him into the house, and lay him on a torn and grimy mattress in a bedroom off the kitchen. Moonlight through smudged and grimy windows gives light enough for the task, and when it's done I step away. Dean arranges Sam's hands comfortably, the way he's done when Sam's been sick or unconscious. He brushes the hair away from his face, and takes a step back. He just stands there, looking at his brother.

"Dean." He doesn't answer, so I try again. "Dean, we missed two meals today. You need to eat."

" 'm not hungry."

"I know. But I am."

He tosses the car keys in my direction, and I snatch them out of the air. The noise of them hitting the floor would be harsh and unwelcome here. "Okay," I agree. "Can I bring you anything? Coffee, maybe some soup?"

He shakes his head, eyes still on his brother's face. "No, I'm good."

And even with his back to me I see him flinch as he realizes what he's said.

"Okay," I tell him. "I'll be back." And I don't wait for the nod, as I walk out and leave him in the empty house, with the moonlight through the window falling across Sam's face.


He's still standing when I get back an hour later, leaning up against the frame of the doorway between the rooms. I'd found a pizza joint open late and had sat in the warmth and the light and eaten my fill, amid the eddying voices of late-night customers and the tink of silverware on china. It had been tempting to linger there, in the light, with the sounds of life all around me. But I couldn't leave John's boys alone, so I ordered to go, and headed back to the farmhouse. I set the box on the table and flip open the top, hoping the hours without food will help Dean register the smell, but he doesn't even turn. I take one of the sodas over to him and shove it against his chest. "Drink something, Dean. You'll dehydrate."

His eyes meet mine for the first time in hours, and resentment flares for a second before his hand closes around the sweating paper cup. I know he accepts it to stop me nagging, but habit's hard to break and he mouths the straw and sips, as his face shuts down again. I count it a victory. "There's another bedroom," he points with his chin. "Why don't you grab some shuteye."

"What about you?"

"I'll sit with Sam," he says, like he's visiting the sick. But his feet are planted in this room and so is his spirit. There'll be no moving him from his brother's side at least till morning. And if I'm going to be any use, I need to sleep as much as I needed food.

I nod, and risk a quick squeeze of his shoulder. "G'night," I tell him, knowing it will be a long time before Dean sees a good night again.

***

He's sitting at the table when I wake up in the morning. The food from the night before hasn't been touched, but one of the sodas is empty, the other's half down, even with the ice melted to water. His gaze is on his hands on the table; there's blood on the left one. He spares me a glance, but doesn't meet my eyes. "Hey, Bobby."

"Mornin', Dean." I sweep the stripped room with a quick look, but there aren't any closed cupboards that might be hiding a can of coffee, or a pot to perk it in. "I need to call Abner about towing my truck out here, and I'm not going to make it very far without coffee." A smile ghosts over his face and he nods. "Why don't you come with me," I start, and his gaze goes to the still form in the next room. I can feel the tie between them just as strong as when Sam was breathing. It's not healthy, and it needs to start breaking, but I'm fumbling for how to make that happen. "We'll grab some breakfast and then come on back here…" 

He shoves the keys at me across the table and shakes his head. "Nah. I'll stay here," is all he says, but this time his gaze doesn't leave Sam's face.

"Dean--"

"You go, Bobby. Get what you need to taken care of. I'll be okay here."

I pick up the keys. "Okay." I don't know what else to do. "I won't be gone too long. I'll bring you coffee."


Abner is in, which is a miracle in itself. He wants to give me crap about needing a tow, but I'm not in the mood to carry on that trash talk. For some reason I hesitate over telling him I've lost a friend. It's not like Abner knew the Winchesters so it doesn't make any difference to him. But it's still too new and raw for me to talk about. He says he'll pick up my truck sometime today and I give him directions to the farmhouse. A tow that far is going to cost a mint, but I don't want to leave the truck abandoned any longer than I have to. And it will be easier to move Sam--Sam's body--in the truck. Abner says it will most likely be late afternoon or even after dark before he'll get here with the truck, but at least it's being taken care of. I give him Dean's number in case he gets lost or has a problem finding the farm.

Even in a town this size there's a Denny's, and I order eggs and sausage and potatoes. I'm starving, and I feel ashamed for it, but it's like I have to eat to prove I'm still among the living. Even greasy diner food tastes good. I head for the bathroom and spend a little time washing up with hand soap and paper towels. I avoid meeting my own eyes in the mirror, and tell myself I feel marginally better than when I woke up this morning. I pay my tab and order a couple of large coffees to go, and palm a handful of sugar packets off a table. The car's gas gauge shows below a quarter, so I pull in at a station and tank up. I go inside and pick up some bottles of water, a couple of sodas, and a pack of shop rags when I pay, and aim the Chevy's nose back toward the farm.


Dean's right where I left him, his chair turned to face the bed where Sam's body lies. He gives me a weak half-smile, and takes the coffee I hand him. He ignores the sugar packets I throw on the table, and sips the coffee black. I've never known Dean to drink coffee without sugar in it, but evidently he doesn't even notice the absence. I set the other stuff on the table, pushing the water and pack of cloths toward him. "I thought you might want to clean up a little bit."

His hand rubs at the back of his neck, and then strokes down the stubble on his face. "Thanks, Bobby." He gathers the package of shop cloths, a bottle of water, and the car keys, and starts to go outside. He hesitates a little, and I just tell him, "I'll be right here, Dean." He nods and seems okay with that.

It's my first chance to spend some time alone with Sam.

I've mourned family and friends. I've helped bury and burn, and I helped Sam and his brother prepare their dad for his pyre. Nothing ever hurt quite so sharp as this does. Sam was just a kid, and it wasn't nearly time for him to have to go. I stand in the doorway looking at that face that had only just set into an adult firmness of jaw and brow, the shoulders, wider than even his dad's had been, and the big, clever hands, still, fingers curled like the sleeping child I'd watched from time to time. Memories of Sam, of the two brothers as kids running through my yard and my house, eating like prairie wolves, wrestling like puppies, yelling like the demons they sometimes resembled, at each other, at their dad--rarely at me--run through my head. I'll never see Sam at thirty, at forty. Never see him take the bar, maybe get married, have kids. No guarantee he'd ever have done those things anyway, but the loss of possibility is hard to accept. I hear the sound of the car's trunk lid closing, and move back to the table, scrubbing the wet from my face, not quite looking at Dean. 

He doesn't quite look at me, either. His eyes go first to Sam, and then he sets down a box and pulls a couple of thick candles from it, puts them on the table along with a box of matches, another bottle or two of water. There's more stuff, but he sets the box in a corner, out of the way. His hair is damp, and his hands are clean, so that's good. One step towards normal, towards taking care of himself. He darts a glance at me, a shadow grin. "Thanks, Bobby." And then he hooks one of the kitchen chairs, takes it in beside the bed and sits down, his back to me, bowed, his head down, elbows on knees and hands clasped. I feel like an intruder.

I gather up the empty soda cups, empty water bottles, make-work, something to do with my hands, and take it out to the car to find something to put the trash in. I stand around in the open, watching the breeze shift the tire swing on its rotten, fraying rope and ruffle the grass in the yard. Sun shines down just like every other day, and there's a hum of traffic from the road. Life is going on, whether we, whether Dean, acknowledge it or not. I don't know what to do next, but I have a really strong feeling that it's still too early to push. So I just stand and wait, and try hard not to think about much of anything.

There's a scuff at the door: Dean, holding out his cellphone. I take it from him and he disappears quick back into the house. Ab's on the phone, asking me to meet him some place easy to find. When I go back into the kitchen, Dean's chair is back at the table and he's leaning on the door frame again. He takes his phone back and hands me the car keys when I tell him about Abner.

"I feel bad leaving you--"

"I'll be all right," he says, not looking at me. "It's okay. You go on."

So I do. 

***

I leave in plenty of time to meet Abner; probably enough time to drive out to meet him in the next town, but I need to get out of the house for a while. I feel like I'm letting Dean down, but the truth is, I don't think Dean cares if I'm there or not. Breakfast was a while ago so with time to kill, I stop at a Chinese place for a late lunch. The food's not half bad. 

Ab had said on the phone he was afraid he couldn't find the farm. He probably just didn't want to try, but I told him I'd meet him in the gas station parking lot. That may have been a good thing, actually; I've been waiting a while, it's getting dark, and I don't know the area well enough to give him good landmarks to the turnoff. Headlights are coming on, and I see that big old draggin' wagon with my truck hooked on the back. Ab pulls in next to me, and I walk over to his open window. "Need to stretch?"

"Yeah." He climbs out of the cab, his face and posture reflecting the length and wear of his day; he's ready for it to be done, and head for home.

"Okay. I need to go pick something up while you're stretching." I head back to the car. "I'll meet you here in, twenty?"

Abner nods. "Sounds good."

I go back to the Chinese restaurant. Maybe Dean will be hungry enough by now to eat something. Maybe a selection of things will appeal--it's worth a shot, anyway. Abner's finishing up at the diesel pump when I get back to the station, and as soon as he hooks the nozzle back on the pump and climbs back in, we're rolling. I pull into the turnoff far enough for Ab to get all the way off the road and have some work room, and step out, motor still running, lights on. "I'm going to take the car on up to the house and walk back down here. I'm not sure that rig of yours will make it." Ab just nods, gets out and starts unhooking my truck.

There's enough moonlight that once my eyes adjust, I don't even need the flashlight I'd pulled out from under the driver's seat. Ab tells me he'll send the bill, I hand him enough cash to buy his dinner, we do a little dosey-doe with the trucks till he's headed out onto the road and I'm pointed toward the house. We wave, and he pulls out and is gone. I don't even bother with the headlights, the moonlight is good enough to guide me down the driveway to stop next to the car. There's a glow coming through the open front door. Dean's got candles lit.


The candles have been rolling around in the trunk, left over from some ritual or other. But they're a little better than moonlight through dirty windows; they give off an illusion of warmth and light, leaving kind shadows to cloak the disintegrating state of the rooms. There are a couple of them, and a bottle of Jack between them. It's open, but not much gone from it. I unpack the bag of takeout: hot and sour soup, General Tso's chicken, stir-fry noodle and vegetables, rice, even the complementary bamboo chopsticks. Dean doesn't spare the food a glance, nor a sniff. "Dean..."

"So," he flicks a hard-surfaced look up at me. "The truck all right?"

I concede. I'm a shitfaced coward and I'm not ready to prod him about this yet. "Yeah, it's fine. Ab found it right where we left it, nothing but a little more roadsplash on it."

He nods, like it means something. " 's good. Say, Bobby," he isn't looking my way now, studying his hands where they splay, fingers spread on the tabletop. "Why don't you head into town, now that you've got the truck? Find a decent place to sleep and get some rest."

It's not been a full 24 hours yet. His brother's not been gone a whole day, does Dean honestly think I'd go off and leave him alone, knowing what has to be got through, what needs to be done? Go and leave him to-- Well, if I'm honest, he'd probably prefer it. But the physical part of it is going to be difficult for the two of us; there's no way he can handle Sam's long-limbed body on his own with the reverence he'll want to give to that task.

"I'm fine here tonight, Dean. In fact, I was going to offer to sit up so you can get some sleep--"

"Nah." He kicks the chair back and stands, two steps to the doorway like he's pulled by a taut line, face toward Sam, back to me. " 'm fine. I appreciate it, I do, but you go ahead and stretch out, sleep if you can. You've been running all over today." 

Make-work, I think to myself. Just trying to stay busy, trying not to--to what, exactly? Intrude on Dean's grief? Disturb the shadows in that room? Soon. That will have to happen soon. But not tonight. Dean and Sam have sat up many nights, waiting on some ghost or haunt or creature to show up so they can deal with it. Tonight they keep their last overnight vigil together.

"Okay," I tell him. My hand goes out for the bottle of Jack. "You mind if I...?"

He turns to see what I'm asking, shakes his head. There're no glasses, so I raise the bottle. "To Sam," I say, and get it out without a quiver in my voice. I take the slug and welcome the burn all the way down.

His hand closes over mine and he takes the bottle, drinks. He nods, his eyes meet mine. "To m' brother."

***

He's at the table when I get up, chair up to the table like he's waiting for breakfast, and if I was going by appearance alone I'd think his hands were folded in prayer. All the hollows of his face are shadowed: his eyes, his cheeks, around his mouth. He needs a shave and a shower, and some clean clothes, but he doesn't seem to notice. The bottle's halfway down. His eyes flicker toward me and away without meeting my own. "Hey."

"Mornin', Dean." There doesn't seem to be a lot to say. "How're you doing this morning?"

"I'm fine, Bobby. How'd you sleep?"

"Not too bad," I lie. The mattress is worn, and springs poked me all night long. But at least I had slept. "Did you get any sleep at all?"

He doesn't answer. His eyes flicker towards the room where Sam lies, and back to his hands before him on the table. The silence stretches out thin, and it's more than I can stand. "I'm," I start, before I've decided what I'm going to do. "I'm going to run into town and get some coffee. Can I bring you back some breakfast? Eggs, maybe?"

He shakes his head. He doesn't look up, or move. It's like he's waiting for me to go.

"Okay. I'll, uh." I have no idea what I'll do. This place feels smaller than it looks, smaller every minute. My hand's on the doorknob. "I'll bring you coffee," I promise, waiting for a word, or a nod. None comes, so I just go.


The outside air is a relief. My truck is another. The engine roars to life and the highway beckons. Only as I reach it my vision suddenly blurs. I kill the motor and hang onto the wheel while grief washes over me. That poor damn kid, and I'm not even sure which brother I mean. John, dammit, you landed me with these boys, whether you meant to or not, and I don't know what to do. I don't know how to help Dean. I don't know if anyone or anything is going to be able to help Dean. It doesn't look like there's enough left of him, like part of him's missing. And I don't know how to fix that. 

I scrub my eyes and face with my hands and start the truck again. I can't fix it, I know that, even if it was my place to try. All I can do is be around and hope he can fix himself. All this, I tell myself, more than half-disbelieving, will be easier after coffee.


I pass up Denny's for a diner out on the other end of town, snagging a clean shirt and underwear from the duffel under the seat. I order, and while it's cooking I wash up and change in the men's room. Better, by a little, but I'll take it. The coffee helps even more, and the cheese omelette and bacon smell wonderful. Taste good, too. I put everything else out of my mind while I'm eating, taking just that long to back off and not think about any of it. And when I'm done and the plate's been cleared and my cup's refilled, I sit back and try to make some plans.

There's a roll of plastic sheeting in the truck bed, and a blanket in the cab. Whatever Dean wants to do, of course, but I think it'll be best to take Sam--take Sam's body--back to my place. I doubt he'll want to bury Sam at their mom's empty gravesite, but if he does that can be arranged from my place. And a pyre that might bring the notice of neighbors at the farm would go unremarked on my land. We could even use the same spot where we built John's pyre. I'm inventorying the cut timber I have available and mentally constructing a pyre when it hits me again: this is Sam I'm thinking about. Sammy, the baby, the youngest of the Winchesters. Suddenly it's really hard to breathe. But I flatten my palms on the tabletop and sit up a little straighter, and manage a shallow breath or two before things settle back to normal. I toss money for the tab and tip on the table, grab my rolled up clothes and leave.

The sun feels good. I'm not ready to go back just yet, not ready to face Dean's grief, to try and guide him, push him into taking the next step in dealing with Sam's death, even though I'm afraid I'm going to have to, because so far he's not making that step on his own. I take the truck through a carwash and then head out of town, just driving to clear my head. A while later, I turn around and head back. As I drive through town I realize I haven't gotten coffee for Dean. It's late, though, lunchtime. I pull into a fried chicken place and order a bucket to go.


He's standing in the bedroom doorway again, leaning against the frame as I enter. He spares me a glance, and I wave the chicken at him. "I brought you this."

"No thanks, I'm fine." It sounds like something he's reciting.

I set the bucket on the table and leave it. "Dean, you should eat something."

"I said, I'm fine." He turns, grabs the bottle, and swallows a mouthful of Jack. The level's gone down again, and the room smells of whiskey, whether it's from the open bottle, coming off of him, or both.

I've been trying to find a way to ease into this, and there just isn't one. "Dean, I hate to bring this up, I really do. But, isn't it time we bury Sam?"

He finally looks up at me, but there doesn't seem to be any spark, any life in those eyes. "No."

"Well, we could, maybe..." I begin, unsure how to word it gently, as he sits down at the table.

"What? Torch his corpse?" He has no trouble getting the words out, nor his response. "Not yet."

My hands on the table, I lean a little closer. "Listen. I want you to come with me."

The look he shoots me is full of defiance and banked rage. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Dean, please."

"Why don't you cut me some slack?" he grits out.

"I don't want you to be alone," I tell him, knowing he doesn't care. Maybe an appeal to his sense of duty. "You know, I could use your help." A sneer crosses his face for an instant, and I try to reach him in spite of it. "Something big is coming." This isn't working, so I escalate, "End of the world big."

"Well then, let it end!" And there's the rage. There's the dry-eyed, raw edge of control fraying right in front of me.

"You don't mean that."

He's on his feet again, anger fueling him, unable not to move. "You don't think so?" And he's in my space now, eyes boring into mine, whiskey breath in my face. "You don't think I've given enough? You don't think I've paid enough?" And god, I can't-- There's nothing I can say that's true. I can't answer him, and he knows it. "I'm done with it. All of it. And if you know what's good for you, you'll get the hell out of here."

I stand there, trying desperately to find words; he starts to turn away, and then whips back, "Go!" He pushes hard enough to stagger me. He put his hands on me in anger; he's never done that before. I can't believe he's done it now. But I realize he could have pushed harder, he could have punched rather than pushed, and probably wanted to. He looks at me, and all the rage fades from his face. Sorrow is all that's left, sorrow and regret. "I'm sorry," he says, unwilling to leave anger between us. "I'm sorry. Please, just go." 

There's nothing I can say. There's nothing else I can do. Helpless, I leave him with the knowledge that I haven't abandoned him. "You know where I'll be."


I don't even make it out to the road. I stop, needing to go back and try again, but I don't have anything new to say, and the way his face looked, he wouldn't hear me even if I did. The lane is clear when I reach the highway, and I floor the accelerator, leaving a cloud of dust behind me. I don't remember much of the drive home. I know I had to pull over more than once.

One summer John, Caleb, Joshua, and a couple of other hunters went off to Idaho to clear out a pack of werewolves that were terrorizing the countryside. The weres had moved into the area and begun preying on humans on isolated ranches and line shacks. Emboldened by the lack of resistance, they had started killing closer and closer to town. By the kills in a given length of time, it was apparent there were several individuals, and it was going to take more than one hunter to track and kill them. It wasn't a short-term kind of hunt, either, and John wasn't taking his boys into that kind of danger. Dean was thirteen or fourteen, making Sam nine or ten when he brought them out to my place to stay for a few weeks.

It wasn't the first time they'd stayed with me, but this was high summer, and there was no school to keep them busy during the day, no homework to occupy them in the evenings. Dean moped for a day or two, missing his dad and pissed off that John thought Dean was too young to take on the hunt. But it wasn't long before he was following me around the yard, asking questions about the truck I was working on at the time, looking out parts for me and watching as I reconstructed the motor. The questions he asked showed some real interest, and I put the wrench in his hand and let him do the work, under my watchful eye. The boy had aptitude, and when I let him know he was doing good work, he looked up at me with a blinding smile. He quickly ducked his head and concentrated on the job in hand, but it made me think about how guarded and alert Dean always seemed when John was around. I wondered if John ever got to see that smile.

After breakfast, Sam would hit the screen door running and didn't reappear till lunchtime. I was never sure what he did; I suspect he just explored, like any kid his age, happy knowing from day to day the woods and the fields and the creek would be there the next. He spent hot afternoons in the cool of the house, usually in the middle of a pile of my books. Once in a while he'd come, book in hand, asking me to explain and wanting to discuss the text. He'd listen, soaking up information, and ask questions smart enough to stump me as often as not. We'd look up answers together, Sam chattering about a theory or a possibility sparked by what he'd read, what we'd discussed, and the eagerness and intelligence shone out of him. Then he'd make some silly joke and grin up at me, sharing it. And I'd see where these two were brothers, where they let me in to their circle of trust.

Nights, after they'd sat out watching fireflies, or that week of the Perseid shower watching stars fall, they'd troop up the stairs, nodding, to brush their teeth and shower and climb into bed. I'd check on them before I turned in, to find them in their narrow beds, curled toward each other, sometimes both of them with a hand flung out toward each other, sometimes just Dean's toward Sammy.

Christ. I couldn't see. I managed to make it to a wide spot on the shoulder and pulled over. As traffic sped past, shaking the truck with the wind each vehicle created, I killed the motor and held onto the wheel. Images of grins and freckles and sunbleached hair, of knobby elbows and knees, of pants too short and bare feet grown too big for their shoes overwhelmed me. I don't know how long I sat there, feeling like I'd been scooped out, hollowed and shaking, but finally I was steady and clear enough to drive, and at the next break in traffic, I pulled back onto the road.

I tried not to dwell on images of Sam, white-faced and a couple of years underage, hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel as he skidded the Chevy into the ambulance bay. He'd called me, frantic but holding it together, for directions to the hospital nearest to their location. I could hear Dean talking and John groaning in the background as I gave Sam simple, clear directions, and promised I'd be there when they arrived. John was stretched across the back seat, claw marks wet and red across his abdomen and thigh, Dean in the shotgun seat, similar claw marks across his chest and arm, their clothes already sodden, both of them shocky. "I'd have come to you first, Bobby," Sam said as a swarm of people got John and Dean onto gurneys. "But with both of them--" I'd reassured him he'd done the right thing, and then let him go as he followed his dad and brother into the ER, stood by him as he spun a tale of hiking in the back country, John attacked by a cougar and Dean trying to beat it off his dad and getting savaged in turn.

Or John easing up my driveway in the dead of winter, two youngsters in the car burning up with fever and a virus no medical doctor could treat.

The aroma of coffee and bacon and Sam standing at my kitchen stove, grinning and making pancakes by the dozen while Dean, John, and I ate fast enough to keep up with his production, smiles and jibes and laughter flying among the syrup and coffee, a rare morning of content and peace between the three of them.

I know I pulled over more than once. I know that once I even turned around and headed back the way I'd come, back toward the farm, toward Dean and Sam, but I thought better of it, knew the outcome would be the same, knew my attempt would be futile. I pointed the truck toward home again, and bore down on the accelerator. 

***

There's a pile of mail in the box. I think for the hundredth time maybe I should take a PO box in town so my mailbox doesn't fill up when I'm unexpectedly away. But there are whole stretches of days when I'm not inclined to drive into town, so I won't do anything about it this time, either. The house is cold and dark. It suits my mood, but I flick on lights and raise the thermostat, and head toward the kitchen to find a can of beans and see if the bread's still good. Everywhere I look there are memories of Winchesters superimposed on my house, my things. I guess I'm just going to have to learn to live with those ghosts, even if John's and Sam's spirits have moved on.

Solitary supper over and the dishes done, I head up for a shower. It's the first one in days, and I linger, enjoying it, letting as much of the last few days wash away as possible. I stretch out in my own bed and push the memory of hard lumps and springs poking me as far away as I can, don't think about dark falling around the farmhouse, of shadows collecting in the corners of the rooms. I don't dream.

The sun's been up for a while when I wake, a little stiff and achy from all the tension of the last few days, and from yesterday's driving. Stuff takes a deeper toll than it did when I was younger, but coffee and breakfast help. It's time for me to get down to work. No matter how many hunters are dead or missing, whoever's left will still need all the information we can get to fight what's coming. I have to look for patterns, to try and make sense of all the fragments of news about demonic activity Dean and I learned while searching for Sam. It's like any other hunt, only the stakes are higher on this one. I'm still at it when there's a knock at my door.

I'm a practical man, and I think my judgment's pretty good. My imagination is okay, it has to be in this line of work--you have to be able to imagine something to believe in it. But I'd never have found myself in the hunting business if it hadn't been for one irrefutable fact after the other with no other explanation that led me into this world of occult happenings and supernatural beings. And I'm telling you this now, but I'll deny it if I'm ever asked about it: the first thing I feel when I answer the knock and see Sam Winchester standing on my doorstep is a giddy spike of joy. Quickly stomped on by the practical--Sam's dead, this can't be him, followed by an imagination two-step--zombie, golem, fetch. And then the simplest, most devastating conclusion of all: this is Sam. And Dean, who won't look me in the face, has done something awful to bring his brother back from the dead.

Sam flashes that endearing grin and thanks me for "patching him up" as he enters my house. And Dean slides in right behind him, mouth going like nothing more than usual is wrong and still not looking at me.

They want to know what I've learned, of course, and I show them what I have so far. I set Sam on it with an excuse about "younger eyes than mine," and Dean comes without protest when I tell him I need his help outside.


He doesn't look like he's got much protest in him, any more. He follows me, and I walk us out of sight and sound of the house before I round on him, demanding he tell me what he's done. He doesn't say, but his face confirms what I already knew, even though I hoped I was wrong. I ask him directly, and he still doesn't admit it, but when I want to know the bargain he made, how much he's traded away, his voice comes out rough, even though he's not apologizing for his stupidity. "One year."

And I don't know whether to pop him hard enough in the jaw to deck him or pull him into me and just hold on.

 

***