Along For The Ride

(c)2007-2008 gekizetsu

________________


Dean at nineteen has what he believes are very solid ideas about the world and the order of things, and it never occurs to him that almost ten years later he’ll feel different enough to negate all of it.

For lemmypie, who wanted a ‘throwaway hunt’ (one the boys have mentioned somewhere, but don’t go into detail on), Dean whumpage, and hitchhiking. I know the boys mentioned a farm once but I couldn’t find the original reference, so I’m riffing off memory. Title/story premise is from a song by Moonshine Willy (thanks, Lemmy!<3). Gen, 10,700 words, PG-13 for language and whumpage.


-|-


Dad is going to be pissed.


It wasn’t his last memory of what happened before the lights went out, but it was the one that really stuck out.


Getting shoved down a flight of stairs wasn’t like it looked on TV. It looked pretty stupid on TV, and Dean had always scoffed at the idea of people getting their necks broken doing it, because, jeez, stick a hand out and stop yourself, why don’t you. And then that whole routine Eddie Murphy had done in the 80's, when the guy had still been funny, about his aunt falling down the stairs. That had been hilarious. Jesus, God, help me lord, JesushelpmeI’m fallin’downthesteps, oh lord, JesusChristplease. My shoe! For months after they’d first heard it, all Dean’d had to do to get Sam to snicker had been to say my shoe! in a dramatic voice.


Tumbling down the stairs sucked. It was like the stairs weren’t happy unless you hit all of them, and cement steps down to a basement in some old buildings didn’t have railings to grab onto, so the best you could do was shatter all your nails trying to get a grip on crumbling cement walls. He felt one shoulder scream as it was pulled the wrong way. The stair edges bit into back, shoulders, ass, and finally the back of his head when he somersaulted without meaning to. Something crunched, but he wasn’t sure which part of him it was since it all hurt equally. He knew what breaking bones sounded like, his own and other people’s. They came in two lovely samples: the crack of a green tree branch, or the crunch of something being ground against something else.


Hitting dirt at the bottom had seemed to take forever. The world spun around him in a half-circle. The daylight above that he could see through what was left of the basement door smeared around in his vision like a living thing.


My shoe, he thought dimly.


Someone nearby was yelling. He meant to get up in a moment and go look, because it was probably important.


He moved his right hand – it was the only thing left that didn’t hurt – and felt around for his gun.


He felt blood trickle down his face and couldn’t move enough to spit out what was gathering in his mouth. It was getting dark around the edges of his vision.


I lost my grip on my gun.


Dad is going to be pissed.


-|-


When Dean awoke, he took stock. He was long since in the habit of doing that. His aches and pains were not the first things to get his attention even though they really wanted it.


He was in a motel room he didn’t recognize. Single bed. Drapes drawn, daylight outside, his duffle sitting on the floor near the door, zipped up as if everything was inside. His boots sat beside them, alone.


He turned his head carefully. It took some doing. Bottle of water on the nightstand, room temp; no condensation on the outside. Room key. Bottle of pain killers with a new label, bottle of Advil for the swelling, packets of crackers. TV remote. His own wallet. A slip of paper that looked like a receipt. He sat up slowly, by degrees, feeling his back spasm when he tried to move too quickly. His head was pounding, but not as hard as it probably could have. His left hand was bandaged and the wrist was wrapped, and he recognized the work as his father’s. The knuckles of his right hand were badly skinned, fingertips scraped raw, nails ragged and torn. He reached for the receipt and looked at the dates. He was still in Montana. The room was paid up for three days.


His own gun was under the pillow.


Things hadn’t been bad enough to leave him at a local emergency room; that was good. The thing they’d been chasing was still out there, though, or his dad wouldn’t have taken off before he was even conscious.


He bit that back. His dad would never do that. He must have been awake earlier, and just couldn’t remember it.


Still, he felt like he’d been dumped.


He doesn’t have time to sit around and play nurse with me when I’m perfectly fine. He’s gotta catch that damn thing before it takes off and we have to chase it through another state. I’m the one who screwed up; we’d have had the thing if not for me. What else is he supposed to do?


He sat and braced himself with his right hand against the bed, finally taking stock of his own details. Aforementioned pounding head, but no fuzzy vision or nausea: check. Wrenched shoulder, messed up wrist, fingers that were sprained if not broken: check. All on the left, so, he could still shoot if he needed to. No problem. Banged up knee, bruises on pretty much every possible impact point, check. He felt like a polished stone, as if all his points and angles had been scraped away. The science lab at one of the last high schools he’d attended had had a rock tumbler, and now he knew what it must have felt like in there.


He gingerly felt at his nose. Still there. One cheekbone felt tender, but all his features seemed to still be there. He ran his tongue along his teeth. His tongue was sore where he’d probably bitten it on the way down, and his lower lip felt like it was split just a little, but it was nothing more than anything he’d ever received in a decent bar fight. He could take a little beating; it was nothing. A day or so, and he’d be good as new.


He eyed the water and the pain killers, and took a secondary rundown. By the dates on the receipt, it was still the same day. Once he got on his feet, he’d know for sure what kind of condition he was in and how well he could travel.


They’d been tracking a draugr through Idaho and then Montana, trying to keep the thing from crushing people in their own damn houses. The thing was traveling between rural areas and killing entire households, consuming the people after crushing them and then demolishing the homes. It had barely hit the news because of how few homes were involved, but the prevailing theory was natural gas leaks. Dean had scoffed. Yeah, natural gas explosions caused blood to evaporate and people to be reduced to mush.


They’d been close enough to just barely miss the thing twice, and neither of them had been in a good mood. It was rare that they didn’t get the jump on something once they realized what it was. A lone hunter did things like that. A greenhorn did things like that. Winchesters didn’t, and never this pair of them. At nineteen, Dean was practically John’s shadow and showing hints of besting his own father at several things, when he wasn’t distracted. Nineteen year olds were famous for being easily distracted, but by John’s only half-disapproving vocal opinion, Dean had taken to behaving like a terrier on crack since becoming a legal adult; it caused as much trouble as it solved. He could get his head in the game like any good soldier, though, when he was needed, if it was just the two of them. And for the worst hunts, it was. If it was a matter of needing an extra pair of hands versus risking Dean’s penchant for dropping everything to guard Sam, then John left Sam behind. Dean chose Sam over a good shot at a target, over his own safety, over anyone and anything, and John wasn’t about to try and curb it. He simply removed the distraction.


Sam was at Pastor Jim’s finishing out the school year, something he’d been petitioning for anyway. The kid cared about getting more than just a decent education; he cared about learning everything he could, and it was damn near impossible to come up with a good argument against that; it would have been laughable to start talking about what his priorities should be. Put down that book and pick up a gun, son, things need to be killed.


Dean had stayed out of it, and that was rare.


Sam had been testing the waters and putting his foot down whenever he really wanted something, and now that the kid seemed to be an instant from breaking six feet in height, he had become fairly formidable. Dean wasn’t sure how he felt about looking Sam in the eye without leaning over a little. He knew he didn’t like having Sam out of his sight for more than a couple of weeks. They were talking at least three months this time, and Sam had been fine with it – almost relieved.


He’s growing up, his dad had said, as if that was some kind of automatic explanation for everything, and Dean had felt an irrational urge to yell at him to shut his damn mouth. Sam was always going to be the baby of the family, was always going to tag along, would always want to tag along. That was how things were and how they should be. They were part of one of the most honorable professions someone could ever take on, and there was no way anybody could or would want something different. Sure, it was hard, but the most important things always were. They were a family. 


Tracking the draugr to a farm outside of Foster had been the easy part, finally. They’d almost been there ahead of it, because John had made an educated guess about what direction it was heading. Getting everybody out of the damn house had been the problem. It wasn’t the first or last time they’d had to use the gas leak ploy, but it was the only time it had had a newspaper article to back it up. They’d been more convinced when something that looked like an albino Bigfoot that had been floating in a lake somewhere for at least a week came through the yard sucking on one of their chickens. The main idea had been to get the damn thing’s head off, burn the whole thing, and dump the ashes in running water. Regular weapons didn’t affect it; decapitation and then burning was the only way to get rid of it. Not a problem. Then it had rampaged through the house, pretty much avoiding decapitation. Dean had come close with a machete, but had failed to notice the open door to the basement.


Dean loved those old farmhouses, every ancient fucking death-nook and unsafe cranny. Was it too much to ask for carpeted stairs? Or railings? Yeah.


It wouldn’t take him long to catch up, not if he thought about what his dad had said about the creature and what he’d thought it would do.


The receipt and the dates on it were as good as an order, though. Stay put for three days, then head for Pastor Jim’s or Bobby’s, whichever was closer. That was the deal, and had been as long as he could remember. Sammy was at Jim’s, so that was where his father meant him to go.


He sighed, then winced. Bruised ribs. Check.


Showing up at Jim’s that beat up would get Sammy upset. He hated that big-eyed, worried look, the pale face and the shallow-voiced questions. Then the slightly more mature bullshit would start when Sammy remembered he was Sam now, and there’d be some kind of tirade about dad leaving Dean behind and how it wasn’t worth all the risk and why didn’t Dean take off and live his own life now that he was old enough?


Dean never said gotta watch out for you, not aloud. He never said dad needs me, not aloud, because it wasn’t really true, was it? Dad was way too good at all of it to need anybody, and Sammy...was growing up.


“Fuck,” he said aloud. Then he swung his legs out and carefully stretched his shoulders and back until he felt he could get up and move around without too much aggravation.


He got up and headed for the bathroom, glancing at himself in the mirror over the vanity sink. Black eye where the thing had hit him before using his face to push him off balance onto the stairs; cut across the bridge of his nose; purple-red oblong bruise along one cheekbone from smacking into something. Split lip. Scraped chin with two days of stubble. Hair sticking out in every conceivable direction. He looked like hell.


He groaned and went into the bathroom. The hair, he could do something about. And he could wear shades. With that taken care of, the rest wouldn’t be so bad in a day or so, wouldn’t get him that much attention. Young male with a few scrapes? Shit, one look at his smirk, and no one would be surprised he’d been kicked around. Long sleeves wouldn’t be that big of a deal since it was fall anyway. It wasn’t like it’d been when he’d still been in school. Now nobody cared if he looked like he’d been dragged behind a truck.


He was in only boxers, but it took him a good minute or so to strip out of them and unwrap his wrist while he ran the hot water. Nothing wanted to cooperate with him. He briefly debated filling the tub and just soaking in it, but it didn’t look like it had been scrubbed for quite some time and he didn’t want anybody else’s leftover creepy-crawlies checking him out while he tried to work out his aches. A shower would do.


The hot water on his back was better than sex. Whoever had invented a way to make it possible to have all the hot water anyone wanted was a fucking god.


He checked his ribs, and found the scrapes and bruises he’d suspected. He was a damn rainbow of bruises. No point trying to angle around in the mirror to see what his back looked like. He didn’t feel like twisting around to see, anyway. His wrist was swollen and immobile enough to make him suspect a break, maybe two. Moving it was out of the question. Nothing was poking out of the wrong place or anything, though, so if he was careful, he could probably get away with just wrapping it tight. His dad had looked at it and thought so, and that was good enough for him.


His dad also intended that he get his ass to Jim’s, though, and Jim would do as he saw fit if the wrist needed setting. Maybe that was the point, that the wrist could wait until he was at Jim’s.


The second-guessing made his gut knot up with anxiety. He was not accustomed to second-guessing his dad. He couldn’t call him and ask for clarification on something so damn simple.


He got out of the shower feeling a little better but still hobbling like someone four times his age. He managed to get his bag up on the bed and rummage through it for clean clothes. He dressed, then sat on the bed and carefully rewrapped his wrist. The smartest thing to do was to sit still for one more night and rest up a little, then decide where he was going.


There was that knot in his gut, again: he was entertaining the idea of doing something other than what he’d obviously been ordered to do.


He’d been the one to mess the whole thing up, though, and he had to try and make it right. Being left behind like he’d been was a kind of silent dismissal, and the disapproval inherent in it was harder to deal with than the thought of disobeying. Dad needed someone watching his back, on this one. That was still Dean’s job.


He shook out four Advil and two painkillers, ate the crackers, drank all the water, then looked through his wallet and flipped through the torn-up phone book under the nightstand. He decided to order a pizza. Pizza had enough food groups involved to be considered basic nutrition. Good healing food.


He flipped channels and tried not to die of boredom. By the time the pizza got there, he was feeling less like the bottom of someone’s shoe due to the meds, and food upped his ability to be human again by another notch. By the next morning, he’d be fine, like nothing had happened. He ate what he could and fell asleep watching some old episode of MASH.


-|-


The duffle was easier to carry when he hadn’t had his ass kicked. Backpacks were for pussies, though.


It wasn’t like he didn’t pack light. He always had. He didn’t need things, he only kept what he could carry, what he’d really need. It was Sam that kept hoarding books and shit, and begged Dean to use the extra room in his duffle for the damn things. Dean always made more room. He’d have carried Sam’s extra stuff and carried Sam too, if it needed doing.


He wasn’t whining, either. He was just stating fact. The fucking thing was harder to carry when his shoulders and back felt like the tail end of a ditch-digging competition. He had it looped over his right shoulder like always and was trying to walk along like it was no big deal, but man, he felt every step.


He’d found a couple of maps in a half-empty rack next to a bunch of postcards and keychains in the motel’s little office, and when he looked at where he and his dad had been in that last week or so in relation to where they’d cornered the damn thing at that farm, it looked like the hunt had been heading south anyway. His dad wouldn’t let it get all that far before he tried to run it to ground again, and it hadn’t given them any indication that it cared that it was being chased. It would come out to go about its business again and give them another shot.


He plotted out where the motel was from the farm in Foster, and it was about thirteen miles south. It was as if a big arrow was pointing him where he should go. The motel was just off route 313 in Hardin, so if he headed south on it and checked the towns in between for activity...


Hell, it was pretty simple.


So he was hitchhiking along the 313, southbound, doing everything he could to make it look like he was a pro at it and way too much to mess with. He’d turned one ride down – older guy, maybe his dad’s age, and the look in his eyes had told Dean all he needed to know. Dean knew he was something to look at; he wasn’t dumb enough to negate it. Women of all ages told him all the time, and guys propositioned him as often as women did. He used it when he needed to, to flirt, because it was useful, and sometimes it was just damn fun. But he also knew when to tone it down. And when some guy looked at him like he was a prime cut of steak while he was a little beat to hell, there was no way he was going to take the risk. He didn’t want to have to mix it up with anyone else until he had to, and he knew he’d just end up shoving his gun down that guy’s pants as a deterrent before they even hit the state line. 


Mostly he wanted to sit down as soon as he could and stop fucking walking along the goddamn fucking road all day, because his bones were bitching nonstop about having to move. He wanted coffee and a ride that wouldn’t result in him having to kill somebody on principal. He was almost ready to just accept the next ride that came along, even if it was a van full of clowns headed to clown college or wherever the hell those nutcases liked to go.


Okay. Maybe he wasn’t that desperate. But he was getting close.


He heard someone begin to slow behind him, some kind of midsize pickup engine from the sounds of it. He didn’t turn, just kept his thumb up and waited for them to catch up. He didn’t want to look all eager or anything. Also, turning his head made his neck feel like it might snap.


He dropped his hand when the truck came onto the shoulder a little as it slowed alongside. He glanced sideways, half-smirk already in place, one eyebrow rising above the top of his sunglasses (he’d practiced it all in the mirror, and the expression was pretty badass looking). It all fell apart when he looked into the cab. He never even felt his jaw drop.


There was a blond in there with jaw-length curly hair and a low-cut peasant blouse that kept him from really seeing her face for a moment. Large, dark eyes regarded him with open humor as she leaned over and rolled the passenger side window down. She was somewhere in her late twenties, maybe, all sedate makeup and eyes way too wise for twenty-something. The fingernails she rested on the open window were well kept, and the hand on the wheel didn’t look like it had a ring on it.


“Lost?” she said in an even contralto voice that carried a hint of teasing.


“Guess now I’m found,” he said, smirk back in place. He stayed where he was and raised his voice rather than approach the truck. Just because someone pulled over didn’t mean it was a done deal. “Heading south for a while?”


“Down to Casper,” she said. “I got time to go a little further, if you need it.”


“I might,” he said. “Not sure yet. You mind?”


“Are you a good boy?” she said, matching his smirk. Her tone said it didn’t matter if he was or not.


“I mind my manners,” Dean said evenly.


She gestured at him. “Come over here and let me look at you.”


He came up to the window, feeling the whole thing as the game it was. The weirdo guy who’d tried to pick him up earlier had said the same thing to him, but it wasn’t the same creepfest when it came from a hot older chick.


“Let me see your eyes.”


He raised his eyebrows, but complied by sliding the shades off.


She stared at him hard without blinking for a long moment, and Dean felt something click, some carefully ingrained instinct kicking to life. He didn’t feel the sting of warning that it usually came with, though, and not just because of how hot she was. She wasn’t looking at the marks on his face; she was looking right into his eyes like all that ‘windows to the soul’ bullshit was true.


Her expression melted to something with so much affection in it that he almost backed a step away out of confusion. She leaned back and waved him in. “Come on, let’s get you off your feet.”


“You okay with picking up some strange guy?” Dean said, unsure why he was pressing the point, hoping it didn’t sound like he was questioning her judgment.


“Nothing strange about you,” she said, staring straight ahead at the road with a small smile on her face. “We’re practically family already. C’mon, we’re burning daylight.”


It was a weird thing to say. It was only ten a.m. Still, he tossed his bag in the back and climbed in, trying to make it look easy.


“Daylight’s always burning,” she said, as if she knew it had been an odd thing to say.


She waited until he belted himself in, then pulled back onto the 313. “What’s your name?”


“Chris Turner,” he said automatically. The current credit card and driver’s license in his wallet said so.


“Ah,” she said without glancing at him. “What’s your real name?”


He glanced at her. It was rare that he felt like he had the lower hand, especially with a woman, even at his age. “Uh....”


“Seriously, you don’t look like a Chris,” she said, keeping her eyes on the road. “You think I’ll maybe stalk you, or what? You running from the cops?”


“No,” Dean said, making sure he kept the defensiveness out of it.


“On a mission, then,” she said, small smile back in place.


“Yeah,” he said. “You could say that.”


The inside of the truck was suspiciously devoid of food wrappers or discarded cups. That was strange. She hadn’t said anything about being on a road trip, so it wasn’t like it had to be that way, but people tended to throw stuff around their cars every now and then. It wasn’t a new truck – early nineties model Ford – but it was pretty clean. No chick stuff in it, either, like ribbons or angels or that kind of shit hanging from the rearview. No little stuffed animals on the dash.


“Tell me who you are, and I’ll offer you some coffee,” she said.


It was bribery he could respond to. “Dean.”


“Dean who?”


“Winchester.”


“Like the city in southern England,” she said.


Having expected to hear ‘like the rifle’, Dean just looked at her. Who the hell was she? Was she nuts, or just really quirky?


“Have some coffee,” she said.


When he glanced down at the cupholder near his left elbow, there were two styrofoam cups of coffee. They had not been there before. He’d have noticed them.


“Donuts by your feet, if you need a snack,” she said.


He looked. There was a white paper bag on the floor near his feet.


“So where’re you headed on your mission, Dean Winchester?”


He just stared at her again. There was nothing spooky about any of it, and that puzzled the hell out of him. “Just heading south,” he said. “I’ve got a feeling my dad is headed that way, and there’s something I need to help him with. I’m not exactly sure where he is, though.”


“Why don’t you just call him?” she said.


“He’s, uh...I’m supposed to be somewhere else, and if I let him know I’m coming...”


“Sometimes being a dutiful child means being obedient, and sometimes it means doing what’s best even if it’s perceived as rebellion,” she said.


“Yeah, exactly,” Dean said slowly. Somehow he felt a little warmer, a little less worried. He looked at the coffee again. “I just...it’s a two person job, and if he gets hurt...”


“You are a good boy,” she said. “You take your coffee black, right?”


He blinked but didn’t look at her again. He went for the coffee instead. It was hot, as if she’d pulled over and picked it up just before running across him. Why the hell did she have two coffees when she’d been alone?


“So...” she said. “There are only three towns between here and – “


“You were looking for someone to pick up,” Dean said. “What am I, project of the day? What, you put something in the coffee, pick up whoever’s hitching, roll them?”


She laughed. Even in his suspicious mindset, he could tell it was genuine. “Real survivalist,” she said. “Thinking like that keeps you alive.” She winked at him. “Kindness from someone you don’t recognize doesn’t always mean a trap. I was trying to tell you that there are only three towns between here and the next major highway - Crow, St. Xavier and Lodge Grass. After that, the only way to keep going south is to get on the 90 for awhile.”


He kept staring at her. He couldn’t help it.


“There’s nothing in the coffee, Dean Winchester,” she said.


“So what’s your name?” Dean said.


“Anna,” she said. “See? That wasn’t so hard. So how’d you get so beat up?”


“I had an argument with some stairs,” he said. “So why are you telling me about the towns?”


“Your dad might be in one of them,” Anna said. “We can drop in at each one, check around. I’m assuming you’d know how to tell if he was there?”


“Yeah,” Dean said. “You’d do that? Just because I’m looking for my dad?”


“Lot of people are looking for their dad,” she said. “Doesn’t have to be so hard. Hey, are you so clumsy that you can’t even walk a flight of steps?”


Dean found himself grinning. Here was some hot girl nice enough to take pity on his poor dumb ass, and it didn’t even really matter why she was doing it. She was just trying to help him, and she wasn’t some alien or lunatic or probably even a demon. It wasn’t such a bad week after all.


“I’m really graceful when something isn’t shoving my ass around,” Dean said.


“That sounded kind of girly,” Anna said. “Should I start calling you Grace?”


“Hey,” Dean said, popping the lid off his coffee. “I meant it in a Muhammad Ali way.” When he glanced at her, she was smiling. She really didn’t look crazy. Crazy people and junkies tended to have a look in their eyes, some kind of thousand-yard stare that was never focused in a good place. She seemed fine. He coughed into one fist and worked a Christo in there, and nothing happened. She sure as hell wasn’t normal, and he was still suspicious about the fact that she’d purposely picked up an extra coffee that wasn’t for herself, but he could do much worse while hitching.


“You don’t have to cart me around to different places,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve got somewhere else to be.”


“Always,” she said. “Still, a guy on a mission? I don’t get many of those. I’ve got a little time. You wanna just drive through the first town and glance around, or do you need to check in with someone?”


“Actually...” Dean paused. “Look, I’m just not used to someone being nice just to do it. You’ve gotta want something from me.”


“World’s like that,” she said.


He sipped his coffee and waited. She didn’t add to the statement, which confused him, but he looked at the bag of donuts longingly. The coffee was pretty decent. He could probably risk a pain pill and keep sharp anyway.


“I’m waiting,” Anna said.


“Huh?”


“I asked if you wanted to just drive through the first town.”


Dean felt himself blink in confusion again. “But then I asked you a question,” he said, feeling like an idiot.


“No, you made a statement,” she said.


Dean grinned. She was messing with him. That, he could deal with. “I don’t think he’ll actually be in town unless he needs to pick something up. He’ll be watching the farms that are way outside town for...suspicious activity.” 


She didn’t even glance at him. “The truck handles backroads pretty well. Lots of farms out here. Do you know how he picks which ones to watch?”


“Marry me,” Dean said.


Anna threw her head back and laughed. “Look what I found, an old-fashioned guy.”


“He’s looking for farms that show evidence of damage,” Dean said with a grin. “There’s been a lot of natural gas leaks lately on the more rural farms, and we’d like to warn folks and try and keep it from happening.”


“So he works for the gas company,” Anna said, laughter still in her voice.


“We’re more of an environmental agency,” Dean said.


Anna nodded. “I think I heard something about that a few towns back. Something about a few farms being demolished.”


“Cows produce a lot of methane,” Dean said, knowing he was pushing it but wanting to keep the discussion going. “Maybe somebody just lit a match at the wrong time.”


She snorted. “Sure. It’s nice of you and your dad to try and keep any more farms from being demolished. How come you can’t just send out a brochure asking farmers to check their lines?”


Dean sipped at his coffee again for a chance to stall. He could string bullshit together all day, but he didn’t really feel like it and he didn’t like the questions. “Most of ‘em aren’t in the phone book,” he said.


“You don’t think it’s natural gas,” Anna said.


Dean kept his voice even. What was the worst she could do – drop him off in the middle of nowhere? Big deal. “No. I don’t. And I don’t like it when people go for the easy answer because they don’t want to look close enough or believe what they see.”


“Why should you solve their problems, then?” Anna said.


“Because I can,” Dean said.


“That’s a good enough reason?”


“Yes.” It was that simple to him. He was resolute.


She glanced at him. “A lot of these old farms have stairs,” she said with an openly mocking tone.


Dean rolled his eyes. “Why you gotta kick me when I’m down?”


“I seriously doubt that you’re down, Dean Winchester,” she replied with a laugh.


Dean leaned over very carefully to pick up the bag of donuts. He liked those cake ones with the cinnamon and sugar on them, the real ones from supermarket bakeries or donut shops, not the shit in the boxes that sat on store shelves. These were real donuts, and several of them were the cinnamon kind. Slightly crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. She was the perfect woman for him. He had found his dream girl.


He offered her a donut by rattling the bag at her, and she stuck a hand in and picked out a cinnamon one without looking. “These are the best,” she said.


“Amen.”


He ate two and popped a pain pill with the rest of his coffee. He tried not to get sugar all over her truck. “Thank you,” he said.


“For what? Picking up an adorable, scruffy guy and feeding him donuts?”


“Yeah,” Dean said. “All that, except for the scruffy part.”


“Scruffy nerf-herder,” she said.


Dean laughed at the Star Wars reference.


“You’re welcome,” she said. “We’re a mile or so outside St. Xavier, and I see a barn out to the west, so, let’s see if there’s a side road here somewhere that gets us pretty close.”


Dean squinted out into the wide expanse of fields. There was a flash of white that was the right size and shape to be the roof of a barn.


There were a couple of well-rutted dirt roads with mailboxes at their ends declaring that there were named family farms at the other end somewhere. They chose one and Anna picked her way along, passing an occasional cow standing alongside the wire fence that bordered the road. They passed a silo, a couple of barns and some fairly large machinery. Dean didn’t know what any of it was; it all just looked like some sort of generic farm stuff to him, so he didn’t pay much attention. He was looking for signs of cop cars or mayhem. When a picturesque farm house came into sight with about a quarter mile left to go on the road, Anna stopped.


They gazed at it through the windshield. Dean looked for signs of movement. There was nothing but a midsized dog that was barking at them from the confines of the fenced yard. The house looked fine. The dog would not have been wasting its time with them if something had been chewing on its family.


Dean got out of the truck and tried not to wince as he did it. He’d been sitting just long enough to stiffen up again.


The dog got more excited at the sight of him, but didn’t act like it wanted a piece of him. The area was silent otherwise. There was a pickup truck and an older model sedan in the driveway up ahead, a couple of plastic windmill yard ornaments that flipped listlessly, and a white one story, ranch-style house. No one came out to look at them.


“Wanna ask them about their lines?” Anna said.


Dean was torn. He hadn’t expected to check the first farm and find his father, or to just walk right into the middle of a big struggle and jump in to save the day. It didn’t work that way, and he knew it. But now that he was there and looking at a possible target, he wasn’t sure what to do. Maybe there was a farm slightly further north that his dad was waiting at, maybe the thing was headed this way, maybe it was waiting until it got further away before it struck again. Maybe it had veered east. There were too many possibilities. His dad had chosen to head south after the thing, he knew that, and he had to have faith that his dad knew where the thing would go. He’d been right before, and he would be right again. But that left Dean wondering yet again if he’d done the right thing. He could wander around up and down the rural roads of Montana and Wyoming for days and have nothing to show for it. Anna would not be patient with him forever, he was already stretching his luck, and no way would anybody else be willing to haul him around from farm to farm. Or buy his story.


“I could,” he said finally. “I’m sorry. I figured...you know, maybe he’s already been here.”


“Wanna ask at the door, or move on?” she said.


Dean really hoped he didn’t look as lost as he felt. “Do you mind checking the next one?” he said.


“Nope. Hop back in.”


There was no hopping about it. He slid in like he was just biding his time. Ow, dammit, ow.


There was another farm a little further south at the end of another dirt road, a two-story that was attached to what looked like a small dairy operation. There were signs for fresh eggs, milk, and honey. More dogs, except this time they were running loose on the property and came within a few yards of the truck to stare at them without barking.


The house was intact. That was good.


Dean scratched carefully at the back of his neck.


“No explosions here yet,” Anna said.


“Yeah,” Dean said. “I’m glad. I mean, I don’t want anything to happen, I just...it’s hard to tell where something might.”


“Maybe not rural enough,” Anna said.


Maybe too many dogs, Dean thought. He didn’t recall the remains of any dogs at the first few sites, which didn’t mean anything. What was a farm without a dog? Still, there hadn’t been a dog at the last one while they tried to shoo the family out of the house. They’d recently lost their old family dog, and there were no kids around clamoring for a puppy.


“You don’t think your dad’s been here,” she said.


Dean shook his head a little.


The thing had come down from the north, and they didn’t know how far north except that his dad had believed the thing had been hibernating somewhere up in the cold. There was a prevailing theory that they holed up in glaciers or had been sealed in them at some point, and when a glacier broke up or melted enough over time, they woke and began wandering around looking for food. The warmer it got, the more active the thing got, and the more food it ate. They reeked about as bad as they looked, and Dean had smelled the thing long before he’d seen it, so it wasn’t like it could sneak up on anyone. It looked like a bloated, randomly hairy corpse with claws and smashed-in features and it shouldn’t have been so goddamn hard to catch up to. It wouldn’t be able to resist whatever food it came across, and it didn’t seem to have the ability to really plan, so it had to be stumbling around somewhere. It couldn’t have gotten much further south than Dean was right then, no matter how fast it ran.


“The last farm that had a problem was about thirteen miles north of Hardin,” Dean said. “Maybe I’m too far south, maybe the problem just doesn’t...won’t come down this far.”


His father had gone that far south for a reason, had left him in a motel that far south for a reason. He knew it. He knew it.


There was no way his father had miscalculated. The thing had a way of moving fast. They already knew that, and had accounted for it. But where the hell was it, and how the hell was he supposed to figure that out before it killed another family?


Well. That was part of the job.


Anna showed no sign of impatience. She was looking at the house with a placid expression. Sooner or later she was going to get tired of him and drop him somewhere anyway, so it might as well be sooner. He could hike to the next farm, and check for one with no dogs.


“Maybe just drop me here,” he said. “He’ll be this way sooner or later. Thanks for everything.”


She turned her head to look at him, one eyebrow raised. “You don’t think he’s here now or that he’s been here, but you’re sure he’ll come along? He doesn’t know where you are. And how far do you want to walk?”


“I can’t tell you any more than I have,” Dean said. “And you really don’t want to be in the middle of this. Trust me. So it’s better if I just get out of your hair now, and then you can go back to what you were doing.”


She pursed her lips delicately and kept looking at him. “C’mon, you’re looking for something specific, and you’ll know it when you find it. You don’t have to tell me that part. I can see it on your face that you don’t think he’ll be here.”


“I shouldn’t have involved you in this,” he said.


“I pretty much involved myself.”


She didn’t say anything else, just made that simple and calm statement. Dean was careful not to look at her. If he had to go on instinct (and he’d had to do that a lot in his life), then he’d say he was close but not close enough. All he could do was assume he was right about the dogs, that his dad was right about how far south the thing had moved, and keep going. For all he knew, his dad had already killed the thing and was headed back to the motel to get him.


He felt a small chill about the possibility of his dad getting there and finding no trace of him. And no word at Pastor Jim’s.


If he thought about it, though, his dad had also figured it would take him at least three days to wrap things up, because he had expected Dean to stay put for three days before heading to Jim’s.


His gut told him to head further south.


“One more,” he said. “Headed the direction you were already going. Then you can just drop me off.”


“Fair enough,” Anna said. “I know this route pretty well. The next several farms are pretty close to town, so I doubt they’re what you’re looking for. But there’s one way off the beaten track a few miles from here, between St. Xavier and Lodge Grass. It’s a good bet they’d have trouble with their...lines.”


The pause told him he hadn’t really been convincing enough. He had to work on that.


He nodded. It wasn’t enough to hope he was right. He had to be able to do these things on his own, to be the kind of hunter his father was, one day. It wasn’t okay to just be good enough.


Anna backed the truck down the dirt drive like she was accustomed to doing it. They barely even raised any dust. The dogs didn’t follow; they simply watched with an impassive interest.


They’d been back on the 313 for a couple of minutes when Anna said, “I’m sure he’s okay.”


Dean glanced at her.


“Your dad,” she said.


“Yeah,” he said. “He’s pretty tough. He’s gonna kill me for not foll...uh, taking his advice about meeting him later. But I just have a feeling he might need me on this one.”


“Then he probably does.”


Dean blew out a slow sigh. “So what do you do? As a job.”


“Same as you,” she said. “Help people who need helping.”


There was nothing evasive or snotty in the answer, so Dean took it for what it was. He really didn’t need to know anything else, so he didn’t press. It was too much to hope that she was a hunter, too. He’d been lucky all day and there was no sense in hoping for more.


They left the 313 for a bare, two-lane back road with no center line and headed southwest for a couple of miles or so. A wire fence ran along Dean’s side of the road, but there were no buildings in sight yet, no mailbox, no signs saying no trespassing or no hunting, or even just advertising eggs. They didn’t pass any other cars, just cornfields that had already been harvested and hay that had long since been baled. Typical countryside.


The road twisted to the west a little more, and as they completed the bend, the asphalt gave way to a packed dirt road that split off in two directions. Anna stayed to the right of the fork and slowed a little. Way up ahead, Dean could see a group of paddocks with weatherbeaten wooden fencing, a barn, a couple of pole buildings, and even further on was a tall, narrow house. Everything looked grouped closely together from that distance, but he knew it couldn’t be. He felt jumpy about it, for some reason that he couldn’t place. The land sloped gently behind the house, and there was a group of trees on the far side. He couldn’t tell how far back they went.


No dogs came down the road to look at them and raise the alarm.


When they got within a hundred yards of the house, Dean said, “Wait.”


Anna stopped the truck and turned it off without question. Dean unbuckled himself and opened the door, leaning out a little to listen. No dogs barking, no sound of machinery. He could only see a couple of windows from there, and nothing seemed to be moving past them. It didn’t mean anything.


It meant something when he heard a crackling sound and the western facing wall crumbled, though.


“Shit! It’s here.” Dean jumped out and went for his bag. “You have to get out of here. Thanks, for everything, okay? But go, just get out of here.”


Instead of questioning him, she said, “You can get there quicker if I drive you closer. Running all that way is just going to make you expend energy you can’t afford right now.”


Dean made a growling sound of frustration and hopped back in. “Okay, right. Go, go!”


When they were within twenty yards or so, it was easy to see the windows were all blown out and that whatever was in the house was having an easy time of finishing off the western wall. Someone was screaming in one of the upstairs rooms, just screaming their heads off. Dean hoped that wouldn’t become literal in the next couple of minutes.


“Okay,” he said, opening his door again. “Whatever happens, just don’t come any closer. If anything comes out of the house that doesn’t look...normal, just get out of here as fast as you can.”


Anna leaned over and grabbed the back of Dean’s neck before leaning in and kissing him soundly on the mouth. “Good luck,” she said.


Man, he wanted to make more of that, but there wasn’t time.


He went for his bag and let adrenaline get him moving again, ignoring all the aches that complained at him from way too many sources. He ran with the bag, digging out his gun as he went, knowing it was only going to be a deterrent until he found something sharp enough to go for the draugr’s head with. Hell, it was a farm, the place would have knives and machetes and all kinds of things for lopping off heads.


Gun found and safety off, Dean dropped his bag and kept running. There was a shop/garage just off the house, and he bet there was something with a good blade in there. He’d chainsaw the fucking thing if he had to.


He kicked the side door in and glanced around. Tools on the walls, on the far workbench, all over the damn place, but nothing sharp. Putty knives and box cutters, goddamnit. He wasn’t going to take the thing on with a box cutter. When he turned to check the wall behind, he just barely kept himself from laughing. A scythe was hanging to the right of the doorway, handle faded with age but showing no cracks, blade patched with rust spots but still holding an obvious edge.


He tugged it down with his right hand, knowing he couldn’t handle it with his left. He’d have to two-hand it to swing it, and it was going to hurt, but it was going to hurt the draugr a hell of a lot worse. He had the arm and shoulder strength to use the thing properly, even injured. He’d had it drilled into him that there was no sense in going for the wrong weapon, or using one he couldn’t handle unless he had no other choice. He knew his own limits, and knew he could deal with the scythe.


He ran for the house without looking back to see if Anna was still there.


Whoever was screaming in the house had been joined by two other voices. The boom of a shotgun concussed the air, buffered by the walls but still easily felt outside. He went for the front door, since it was opposite the wall that was being torn out. He wanted to come up behind the thing, and it was obviously distracted with the humans on the upper floor. If it kept tearing out the walls, then sooner or later the upper floor wouldn’t be upper anymore, and it could snack at its own pace.


The door was unlocked. When he opened it, he let it swing gently inward, and then took a quick look around to get his bearings.


The door opened onto a kitchen that wasn’t, anymore; table and chairs and cupboards were splintered all over, and even the countertops had been smashed in. The fridge lay on one side, door open, contents spilled in a mess of foodstuffs and condiments and glass. Jars and dishes lay smashed in every direction, and even the overhead wooden beams of the ceiling had been dented and splintered. The room beyond had once held furniture, but now it was a mess of wood and plastic and shredded fabric. Drywall powdered everything. Luckily, there was no blood. Yet.


The far wall was open. There was a wide, ragged edge to the opening, and a misshapen white form was shoving hard at one edge, using all its weight, bouncing off its hands. What was left of the wall was bending and cracking dangerously.


Another gunshot came from the wooden stairs to the right of the missing wall, and over the shock of the noise that made him flinch and blink, Dean saw the shots land.


The draugr made an angered run for the stairs, obviously not its first. It shook the railing but made no attempt to rip it out, or ascend the stairs.


Unbidden, a snippet of the Eddie Murphy skit he and Sam had loved so much ran through Dean’s mind as he stepped inside.


The bitch can’t walk a flight of steps, Gus. Goonie Goohoo.


He figured they’d all gone this way, the farms they hadn’t been able to save; it demolished the house and picked out the good parts, terrifying them all the way down. He hated that.


It didn’t hear him over the screaming and the gunshots, didn’t catch sight of him with the sunken little pig-eyes in its smashed-in face. I t looked like it might fall apart any moment, fish-belly whites and grays, short apelike legs set too far apart, skin bloated, head too large for its body. The smell of rot was overpowering even from Dean’s spot in the recently remodeled kitchen.


He waited until it turned its attention back to the wall to take another chunk out of it. Once it took the adjoining wall out and then started on the retaining walls near the center, the house would begin to lean no matter how well it was built. He got a two-handed grip on the handle and choked up, getting a feel for the scythe, ignoring the dangerous twinge in his wrist, thinking past the pain in his back and shoulder, focusing solely on the best place to hit it. It would likely take more than one blow to do it in the shape he was in, and that was fine so long as it didn’t take a good crack at him in between. It had thick shoulders, and the head seemed to sit right on them. If nothing else, he could split the damn head right in two and hack it off in parts.


Another section of wall crumbled, and the thing nearly tumbled out into the yard as it gave.


Dean took two more long strides, then put his entire weight behind the blade when he sunk it into the space between shoulder and head.


The blade sank deep and stuck in bone and gristle.


The thing turned so fast with a shriek that Dean couldn’t let go or keep control of the blade, and he ended up clinging to the scythe and being dragged around to the side.


It took a swipe at him and missed. A thick, whitish, pus-like substance oozed from the wound and splattered as the thing turned. There was more screaming from upstairs, and Dean really hoped no one decided to take any blind shots from the stairway. He planted his feet and tried to use the leverage to wrench the scythe free, but it held another second or so and the goddamn thing leaned down and around enough to get a grip on the right leg of his jeans.


Dean used his leverage on the blade to leap, bracing his left foot on the thing’s ass and pulling. Claws shredded his jeans and then lost their grip. The move made Dean want to scream between what it made his shoulder and wrist feel like, but if the thing got a grip on his leg, it would tear it right out of the socket. He braced both feet against the draugr and hauled against the blade, and when it sliced free, the thing screamed again and Dean tumbled straight to the floor.


He scrambled away in a rush, managing to keep his hold in the scythe’s handle. He held it in his left hand with the blade dragging on the floor and used his right to draw his gun, putting three bullets right between its eyes as it reached for him. It swiped it its eyes but didn’t fall, but Dean had known it was nothing more than a ploy to buy himself more time. He heard something outside but didn’t take the time to try and decipher it. He put his gun on the floor without taking his eyes off the draugr, unable to tuck it away without burning himself, and swung the scythe up in both hands again.


“I could really use a distraction right about now,” he shouted toward the stairs. “So, if anybody’d like to take a shot at this ugly sonofa –“


The shotgun answered him, and whoever it was up there that was doing the shooting, they were steady enough to nail the thing right in the face. Dean came in close and swung again, catching it close to where he’d hit it the first time, sinking the blade halfway into what had to be its neck. More white pus splattered, hitting Dean that time and nearly making him loosen his hold in sheer revulsion. It was like melted marshmallows, warm and sticky, but also about as puke-inducing as anything could get, since it smelled like rot.


The blade was caught deeper that time, but he was also facing the creature and its hands flailed to the handle and swung Dean right into the nearest wall. Dean hung on anyway, yelling at the top of his lungs when he could catch his breath. He tried to brace his feet again to get the blade free, and distraction came yet again in the form of the Unseen Farmer With Shotgun, who was finally partially visible from the elbows down as he came down a few stairs and let both barrels fly. Dean turned his face away, hoping the guy’s aim was still good. The last thing he needed was to be shot on top of everything else.


The draugr let go of the scythe’s handle and made a run for the stairs, spewing foaming rot everywhere, and there was a female-sounding scream from above. The hands and shotgun retreated, and the pounding of feet above let Dean know the family had retreated again. He planted his feet, trying to keep the thing from dragging him, trying not to scream from the abuse his already injured shoulder and wrist were taking. The blade started to come free, but felt like it was caught in tar. The draugr began slamming at the wall by the stairs, punching through drywall and tugging at the studs. It seemed bent on destruction and eating, and Dean wasn’t good for eating since he fought back, so it went back to trying to ruin the house like it was just a shell for the chewy treats upstairs.


Dean thought maybe a beer and a nap would be nice.


He hauled on the blade again, and the monster didn’t even pause, just kept punching at the wall and wrenching at the studs inside. The blade came loose with another splatter of crap, and Dean finally gagged, because, why did it have to bleed toxic waste? Why?


He backed away a step to get momentum, to find a way to raise the scythe again. These people couldn’t have had an axe handy? “C’mon, Harvey Wallbanger,” he whispered breathlessly. “Let’s finish this, huh?” He swung the scythe up again, meaning to aim right for one of the thing’s knees so he could take it down and then chop away at his own leisure.


His peripheral vision picked up a flash of motion to his right, through the open wall, but he couldn’t turn his head fast enough; his neck had stiffened up and it was all he could do to hold up the scythe. Then the draugr was being pinned into the wall it was trying to bring down, skewered right through the middle and stuck to the wall like a bug, marshmallow pus spraying everywhere. It threw its head back and shrieked, flailing away at the wall, shaking it.


John Winchester came to stand shoulder to shoulder with his older son, getting a better grip on the other end of the long-handled hay fork he’d just put through the draugr. “Go get it, Dean,” he said.


Dean choked up on the scythe again, then gave it everything he had when he brought it down on the thing’s head, splitting it in two. Another whack took most of the head off the shoulders. It slumped into the wall and down onto its knees, and John let go of the hay fork. When the draugr toppled sideways, most of the handle slipped back through, leaving a pool of white goo and a splatter of whatever passed for draugr-brains on the remains of the wall.


Dean rested the blade of the scythe on the floor and leaned on it a little.


“Hi dad,” he said.


“Son,” his father said with a nod.


Dean couldn’t read his father’s face, so he concentrated on staying upright. “You figured out where it was going to try next,” he said.


“No,” his father said. “Some girl waved me down off the 313.”


Dean stared at him. He hadn’t told her a thing, about the Impala or what his father looked like, or anything. “She still out there?”


John shrugged. “She didn’t follow me back here.”


The family came downstairs gun-first and were happy enough about not being dead and still having a house that they didn’t complain about the missing wall and the sudden dearth of furniture.The Nealys – Thomas, his wife Kim, and their daughter Shelby – were kind enough to put the shotgun down and offer to help with the burning. Thomas, Dean and John rolled the thing across what was left of the living room, through the conveniently open wall, then hauled it across the yard to a bare spot. Dean watched his dad and Thomas dig a good hole (he was exempt this once), fill it with gasoline, and light the draugr up.


He didn’t envy them the massive housecleaning they were going to have to do. He hoped regular stuff like Windex and Lysol would take care of draugr-innards.


Since the draugr hadn’t hit any walls containing plumbing, the Nealys were nice enough to let Dean shower off the grossness and get into the last batch of clean clothes in his bag. John helped Thomas and Kim tarp the open wall. How they explained the whole thing or got the repairs done would basically be their problem; John suggested they go with the tried and true ‘a bear got in the house’ tale.


Dean walked away from the house with his father and didn’t even try and speak.


John looked at him over the roof of the car. “There are fourteen farms far enough away from a major road to be good targets between here and Foster,” he said. “I’ve been to every damn one, and I would have passed this one by because I didn’t realize it was here.”


Dean nodded. “I found a guide,” he said. “Oh...and the draugr was afraid of dogs. So it was only eating families without them. Go figure.”


“I made it clear that you were to stay back,” John said, keeping a level stare on him.


Dean held it. “It was a two man job. Sir. I wasn’t that injured.”


He tried very hard not to hold on to the roof of the car to keep himself upright while he said it.


John stared at him for another long moment, then gestured for him to get into the car.


Dean got in carefully and then gratefully rested his head against the seat.


John looked over at him. “Tenacious little shit, aren’t you.”


Dean grinned. That was a loud and clear good job, kiddo, and all he could possibly want.


He kept an eye out for a dark colored Ford pickup as they pulled away, as they found the end of the drive, as they got back on the 313. All the way to Pastor Jim’s, he watched. He never caught sight of her.


He didn’t bother telling the whole story, only that he’d been lucky enough to be picked up by someone who knew the area well enough to know all the farms.


He never told Sam, but years later, Dean found himself occasionally checking traffic any time they were heading through Montana. He hoped there were other hitchers out there lucky enough to come across Anna when they needed her most.


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