Small Town, Big Hell

(c)2008 gekizetsu
_______________

Salvation ‘verse, post - ‘Uninvited’. Sam is trying to do something for Dean; Dean is trying to do something for Sam; awkwardness ensues, followed by a threesome (because that’s how things get resolved in this family). Notes follow the story. For Maygra, who bunnied me with this in the first place and has been waiting plenty long enough to see it done.

It’s not for me to say
So I will just play dumb
They say love finds its own way
But not for everyone
The monsters, they are real
Your own lives, they will steal.
– Colin Hay, Small Town, Big Hell

-|-


Sam couldn’t get a straight answer out of him.


“I said, where do you wanna start looking for a couch? We need a damn couch.”


“I don’t care,” Dean said. “Just, not from a dumpster. Or an alley. Maybe Goodwill. Except, no, like, suspicious stains or smells or anything. People do stuff on couches that I don’t wanna know about.”


He was ready to list off things to avoid, but not to indicate what he wanted. It was like that with everything. They had to have furniture. Sam had done this before, and it had been so damn easy. Dean was making it impossible.


It was just odd.


They had three weeks until classes started. They were going to share an apartment because it seemed awful to even entertain the idea of being apart. It had come up, and they had both balked so hard that they didn’t even need to talk about it. They’d managed to find a small, decently priced, student-housing apartment that was roughly halfway between Stanford and San Jose State. It was perfect. So far. They just had to move in.


So, furniture.


“It’s not hard to find things?” Sam said. “In our budget? But, I could use some input, Dean.”


Sam had come to realize over time that when he was being driven nuts, everything he said began to lilt up at the ends as if he was always asking a question.


“Just do whatever,” Dean said yet again. It had become his mantra.


“I’ll get you a sleeping bag, and you can sleep on the floor, and we’ll get crates and make a table out of them,” Sam said.


“Okay, sounds good,” Dean said.


“Goddamnit, Dean, no. That’s the worst idea ever. Would you fuckin’ pay attention?”


Dean finally looked at him. Same old indulgent stare.


“You have to be part of this process,” Sam said. “Apartments don’t come all set like motel rooms. You have to have something to move into them. We don’t? Have? Anything.”


“Bobby gave us bookcases,” Dean said. “And a set of silverware. And Missouri sent us towels. And dad got us a desk.”


Sam tried to be patient, like he had been for weeks. It was as if Dean was trying to avoid the whole thing.


“Couch,” he said. “Beds. Yeah?”


Dean shrugged.


“Okay,” Sam said. “I’ll find a couch. And a bed. If you want a bed, you find one.”


“Yeah, whatever,” Dean said. “So, anyway. Something happened in Connecticut.”


Sam blinked at the sudden change in subject. “Something?”


“Couple of people found dead on the side of a road, near some big nature preserve,” Dean said. “Strangled, but no marks on their necks. Backs all slashed up. There’s an old abandoned settlement up there. Dudleytown. Supposed to be cursed. There used to be all kinds of stories from hikers saying they’d been chased by something in the woods, before the owners closed it all off.”


Sam waited.


“Thought maybe...we should go check it out,” Dean said.


“Connecticut is one hell of a drive from here,” Sam said. “And we don’t have much time to get everything put together before we start classes.”


Dean shrugged.


Sam looked at him for a moment.


Dean didn’t look back, just stood leaning against the wall like he was holding it up, forcing the idea of casual until it was a parody.


And suddenly Sam realized what was going on. Dean was out of his element; so, he was trying to veer back into his element. Sam hadn’t quite realized until that moment that something that had become perfectly ordinary to him might be scaring the hell out of his brother.


“Hasn’t been much around,” Dean said. “So, maybe...take one last run at something. Before we put it away for awhile.” He glanced up at Sam, finally meeting his eyes.


“Okay,” Sam said.


“Okay?”


“Yeah. Okay.”


“That’s it,” Dean said. “Not gonna come up with more reasons why we shouldn’t, or anything?”


Sam shook his head. “You think something might be going on up there, that’s enough for me. We’ll figure stuff out when we get back.”


Dean glanced at him and away quickly, but Sam caught the hint of something grateful and felt mildly ashamed, then annoyed because he really didn’t have anything to feel guilty over.


“So tell me about it,” Sam said.


Dean handed over a strip of newspaper that he unfolded from a pocket. “Jerry and Paige Landers, from Poughkeepsie, were on their way to visit friends in Hartford,” Dean said. “And they got off the beaten path.”


-|-


“Really?” John said. “Boys. Come on. That’s no better than Amityville.”


“Except people are showing up dead near there now,” Dean said.


“There’s nothing up there,” John said. “I know two hunters who’ve been up there, separately, and found nothing. I know it’s been quiet, but this is kind of grasping at straws.”


Coming from their dad, that was fairly significant, so they both raised their eyebrows in a way that was eerily identical.


John Winchester was not exactly partial to the idea of settling in anywhere, yet. He was still touch and go, there today and gone for several weeks at a time, but they saw him more than they had since they’d been small. That was a huge step. There were regular check-ins, and debates, and opinions that had nothing to do with hunting. They’d been living together, the three of them, since the death of the demon, and it wasn’t anything like it had been before Sam had left for school the first time. They had all changed, for the better. John was edging toward relating to his sons on a non-hunting level, grasping for common ground and finding it more often than not. He loved them as his, as an idea of family, as a protector and leader. But discovering he could like them, and know them as adults...that was amazing to them all. They genuinely liked each other.


Sam and John still fought like cats in a bag sometimes, but, much less often. It was such a normal thing for them to do that Dean no longer stressed out over it. He had begun to referee...at least, from a distance; his father and brother could and would wield a deadly aim with damn near anything, including their shoes.


John was going to keep the apartment for a little while, then decide what he wanted to do. He spent his days keeping the remaining hunters connected, whether they liked it or not, developing a network. He made it clear that it would be one of the only things that saved them, sooner or later, when demonkind made another play for the world. They didn’t give up so easily, at simply losing a leader. They would be back, in weeks or millennia.


A permanent place was as foreign an idea to him as it had seemed to Dean at first, and it was wearing on him. All he had to do from then on was agree to check in and not go rabbiting off without a word. The boys had made it plain that they would come and get him.


And you won’t like it, Dean had said. We’re twice the hunters we were. Hell, we may be the best there is.


Dean stood up to both of them, happily. They all stood up to each other without making it a federal case.


“Plus, the Warrens declared it a site of demonic activity,” John said. “Wouldn’t know demons if they were bit on the ass by a whole legion.”


Sam and Dean shared a carefully neutral glance. John had a problem with most supposed psychics and sensitives, and wasn’t shy about voicing it. Having known a few genuine articles, he tended to get very annoyed with the pretenders. Knowing far too much about demons, he was unforgiving when someone insisted there was a demonic presence and he knew damn well there wasn’t.


“Two people were found dead at an entrance road to this ‘nature preserve’,” Dean said. “Car was found abandoned the next morning. One body was found just inside the woods, strangled, and another was found halfway up a tree. No marks on them, except their backs. How the hell do you strangle somebody without leaving marks?”


John sighed. “Places like that don’t change,” he said. “There hasn’t been anything there, and no one living close enough to start anything or stir anything up. Sounds like maybe a mountain lion got ‘em, managed not to leave any tooth marks while it dragged them around by their throats.”


“It’s strange enough that it deserves a look,” Sam said. “If there’s nothing up there, we’ll know it for sure.”


Dean didn’t add Sam will know, the trees will tell him or I’ll know, if there’re any abandoned houses left to ask. 


John was ready to hear some things and not others. And both boys – men – had pushed him pretty far already, with what they were capable of and had needed to admit.


“What the hell are you telling me about it for, then?” he said. “You’re not going to listen to me.”


“You know more than anybody,” Dean said, leaning back in his chair in a show of casual near-insolence. “Wanted your opinion. Mostly we’re getting the cantankerous old bastard act, though, so, that’ll do, I guess.”


John looked at him steadily.


Dean looked back, leveling the same kind of stare on him that he usually reserved for Sam when Sam was, in his opinion, being a little bitch.


“Got a smarter mouth on you every day, boy,” John said.


Dean smirked. “Come by it honestly, don’t I?”


Sam’s face was a study in chagrin as he made a point of looking at the ceiling.


John grinned. “Fine. Go bore yourselves. Feel free to tell me all about how you found nothing, when you get back.”


Dean kept smirking. He knew when he’d won, and sometimes he was smart enough to let it be.


-|-


Packing the car and heading out was still a normal thing even if it had been happening less and less over the preceding months. It was automatic and quickly accomplished, necessary things tucked away out of sight and all due caution taken. No parting words from their father; they’d all been through too much to bank on the niceties. No goodbyes or be carefuls in case they never saw each other again. No point starting all that, when it was a truth that had been ingrained over a lifetime.


Dean grinned once they hit the freeway headed east, though, grinned like they were headed for goddamn Disneyland or something.


Sam felt a little of it, that it was the last part of an old life before a line was drawn, separating them from it. Everything would be new from then on. They would adapt to it like they always had, experts at adjusting and blending and making the most of things. Dean would become accustomed to a foreign land that Sam had already made his own. It was Dean who had made him capable of it in the first place. He remembered telling Dean that, in the middle of a field after running from a batch of hovering soul- lights.


I only have the luxury of being who and how I want to be because of you. So if you don’t like it, you only have yourself to blame.


He was shaken out of the memory by Dean.


“One of the people who found the couple said the guy wasn’t pinned to the tree or tied, or anything,” Dean said. “Just...stuck there.”


Sam squinted at him.“Where’d you get that?” he said. “That wasn’t in the paper, or online.”


“Talked to one of the local reporters,” Dean said.


“Let me guess: female,” Sam said.


Dean shrugged. “Sometimes they don’t even have to see me, to give it all up,” he said.


Sam snorted. “Nothing to cut him down from,” he said.


“Nope. No rope, no stake through the heart, nothing. Just pinned up there, somehow. They had to kind of peel him off the bark. Strangled, according to the medical examiner, but no marks on the skin.”


“So then how?” Sam said. “Darth Vader did it?”


“Man, that would be a cool power to have,” Dean said. “Able to shut people up without even moving. I wouldn’t wanna kill anybody, you know, just shut them up with the Force.”


Sam sighed a little.


“I said, not on the skin,” Dean said. “Underneath, yeah. Windpipe crushed, the whole thing. Just no marks on the surface. Figure that one out.”


Sam frowned and readjusted his feet under the dash. “And that’s how they both died.”


Dean hummed his affirmation.


“Nothing on or around the car?” Sam said. “How much did this person tell you, anyway?”


“Just that,” Dean said. “No fingerprints, no apparent robbery, just a couple of people who pulled over after dark a little too close to the woods.”


“So why now?” Sam said.


Dean shrugged. “Guess we’ll have to take a look and find out. Won’t have long, though. Place was already a popular spook spot. With a murder, now it’ll be idiot central.”


They reached a long stretch where the blacktop had been graded to prepare for resurfacing, the long parallel lines humming beneath them.


Sam remembered that when he’d been a kid, Dean had told him that it was just like a vinyl record, and cars with just the right tires could play the song that had been carved into the road. If he listened hard enough, he’d hear the song.


“What’s it playing, Sammy?” Dean said.


Sam smiled. “The Long And Winding Road,” he said.


“No, no,” Dean said. “Listen again.”


“The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round...” Sam sang.


“Dude, you suck,” Dean said.


“You can’t tell me it’s playing AC/DC,” Sam said.


“It’s Crazy Train,” Dean said. “Get it right.”


The pavement became smooth again.


-|-


Dean called a stop when they got within a few hours of the place, stopping in Arkport NY just off the 86 at a small motel masquerading as an inn with lots of windowboxes and a halfhearted try at some sort of Bavarian theme. Sam didn’t comment, just unloaded his stuff, glad for once that they were stopping early enough to read up and come up with more of a game plan.


Dean was not about to tell him why exactly he’d chosen Arkport, anyway.


Dudleytown, settlement of nearby Cornwall, had come into being in 1740 with a single log cabin built by Thomas Griffis. The Dudley brothers came soon after and claimed the place. There were plenty of Dudleys, actually, along with farmers and millers and blacksmiths, although the population never exceeded 100. It was an isolated, upland plain set at an elevation of about 1500 feet, in the shadow of three mountains. It was rotten for farming due to the chronic lack of sunlight and the rocky soil, but the settlers had kept at it anyway. It was good mainly for trees, of which there were plenty, and they had been razed to build homes or to make charcoal for the ironworks. Still, not enough sunlight got through to allow the place to thrive. Smallpox came through in 1774 and took its unfair share, then several bouts of yellow fever after that. Being isolated did not keep that from happening; the inhabitants still dealt extensively with nearby Cornwall and further out.


Once most of the trees were gone, they had built their homes of stone. What little farming they’d been able to do began to end when the erosion from lack of trees really set in and destroyed what little decent soil had existed. What was left of the trees after that died off in blight. Those born in the settlement began to leave, heading out to try and make a decent living elsewhere, pleading with their parents to join them. The homes began to fall in; the roads were reduced to overgrown gloom. The main road leading in, once a carriage path, had never been paved and was known as Dark Entry Forest Road, the only way in or out without tearing off into the forest itself.


“‘Dark Entry’?” Dean said. “Really. Sounds like one of those independent films that turns out to be soft porn.”


Sam blinked at him.


“Hey,” Dean said, “It’s probably not the lesbian porn you’re used to, though.”


Sam shook his head. “Don’t even talk to me,” he said.


They both immediately discounted the curse that was supposed to have been hanging over the place. At least, the one that was given. The original Dudleys had supposedly fled from the court of George II, or maybe even Henry the VIII further back, accused of treason, and cursed as a result. That was crap, though; nobody was cursed for things like that. They got their heads taken off. Simpler and more satisfying than a curse, any day. There was no traceable line from the English Dudleys to those that had tried to make their way in Connecticut in the 1700's.


“There was likely something already in the woods, long before these guys got there,” Sam said. “I mean, if there’s anything at all. They didn’t bring it with them, like the folks in Burkitsville with their transplanted apple trees. Somebody was hit by lightning while standing on their porch; a couple of families were killed by the local Native Americans during and after the French Indian War. Aside from the occasional kid disappearing in the woods, not much went on in the place until it was abandoned and someone came along to try and preserve what was left.” He traced his finger along a web page he was looking at. “In the 1920's, Dr. William Clark built a summer home there, and formed the Dark Entry Forest Association as a nature preserve. He left his wife alone there for several days. When he came home, ‘she was alleged to have gone mad. Sources said something from the forest attacked her and left her completely insane’.”


“But nobody was killed,” Dean said.


“No. At least, not in weird ways that were reported as being supernatural. People kept reporting weird, monstrous things in the forest. The DEF closed the place off to visitors and non-residents in 2002. Nothing much more than random reports from hikers saying they’d seen or heard things up there, were slapped by something they couldn’t see, were chased by a solid black mass, all the usual stuff. Claims that Satanists have been up there doing rituals.”


“What people think when they think ‘Satanists’...” Dean began.


“Don’t even exist,” Sam finished. “Yeah, yeah. Bunch of idiots up there killing animals for fun and drawing symbols, probably, like usual. Still, the little hardcore wannabes can occasionally do some damage if they try hard enough.”


“They’re the ones who usually get eaten for it, though,” Dean said. “Nobody’s gone missing up there. There’s just been something in the woods up until now, and now people are getting their windpipes crushed from the inside and pinned halfway up trees. That’s not just some creepy serial killer, doing his thing. That’s weird.”


“So maybe someone dug where they weren’t supposed to,” Sam said, spreading his hands. “There’s nothing up there but cellarholes and parts of old buildings, and people have been building homes higher up on Bald Mountain Road. If anyone’s been doing anything right where the settlement used to be, no one’s talking about it. Won’t know without going up there to look. And it’s all private property now, so we’ll have to be careful about it. The association has people tossed and fined for setting foot in the forest.”


Dean grinned. “Hurts me to trespass, Sam, you know that. Look, while we’re in the area, there’s something I gotta check out. Be gone a few hours, maybe. You keep digging around, or nap, or whatever.”


Sam cocked an eyebrow at him. “What’re you doing?”


“Just something I gotta check on. You know. We’re all the way out here and there was this one hot, hot babe a couple of years ago, that – “


Sam waved a hand at him and went back to looking at the laptop. “What is this, your farewell tour for banging everybody you might not see again?”


Dean grinned. “Oh, yeah.”


“Check in,” Sam said. “But not, like, in the middle of anything like you did that one time. That wasn’t even funny.”


“Was to me,” Dean said.


-|-


He sat in the car for a moment, more relieved than he dared admit. Sometimes, if Sam was distracted enough, he let Dean snow him, and hard.


Rochester was directly north on the 390, a little over an hour away. If he caught her at the right time, and she was still working at her father’s auction house, then he was still the luckiest bastard he knew. Luck owed them this one, anyway.


He remembered Sam saying I want something more than wandering around in the dark until something finally gets me, and so do you. We’ve paid our goddamn dues. Not long after, he had said I’m not gonna live my life worrying about it.


He was going to hold Sam to that.


-|-


It looked the same as he remembered. Tall, mildly imposing-looking old storefront, dark sign with gold lettering, security gates, bitch to break into.


He knew she wouldn’t have either his or Sam’s numbers; Sam had only called her the once, and they had switched their phones out since then - carriers, numbers, everything. He’d taken her number out of Sam’s phone before the old one could have the chip removed.


She answered, polite and a little formal, all why yes I’m terribly cultured and well bred, thank you. On her, it was just fucking adorable. Especially since she was a damn closet tomboy.


“What are you wearing?”


There was a pause. When she spoke again, there was a touch of sarcasm. “I doubt it comes in your size, sir. May I ask who’s calling?”


Dean grinned to himself. “Sweetheart, if you come outside right now, I’ll give you everything you could possibly want or need for the rest of your life.” He’d meant it to come out so cocky, but he slipped at the end, and had to roll his eyes at himself a little.


He took the resulting silence as curiosity and a little wariness.


“Come on,” he said, “...you know you want to come look. Just don’t bring your dad with you, if he’s around. He hates me enough to pitch the nearest priceless-whatever at me.”


He heard a clatter. Then the line went dead.


He looked at his phone for a moment. Too much? Jeez, he wasn’t that bad.


There was movement near the door; then her dark-haired head poked out and glanced around. He whistled, and she zeroed in on him.


“Heeeeey, baby!” he yelled. “How much?”


He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it sure as hell wasn’t what he got.


Sarah Blake came running out, heels clacking across the pavement, hair shining in the sun, wearing jeans and sweater and a wide grin. She barreled into him without so much as a word, hugging hard and laughing. “Dean,” she said. “Dean Winchester. There’s no one else who’s ever annoyed my father faster.”


He decided to take that as a compliment.


“Hey,” he said. “I missed you too?”


She pulled away with another laugh and patted him on the chest. “What the hell? You guys drop off the face of the earth and just show up to proposition me on the phone?”


You guys, as if, even if he wasn’t visible, Sam would be close by.


“Seems like you came out here to take me up on it,” Dean said. He suddenly wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. Pockets? Lean against the car casually? He hadn’t figured on feeling so unprepared once he got to her, once she was standing there all...perfect, and everything.


“Hard to resist,” she said. “Where’s Sam? Everything okay?”


“Yeah,” Dean said, glancing out along the street and watching the doorway across, waiting for Mr. Blake to come out and use the nearest weapon handy. Not like he was afraid of the old guy or anything, but fathers could be really weird about their daughters, especially if the wrong kind of guy was hanging around. “He’s good. Stuff is...uh, just, Sam is...school. School starts in about three weeks and we’re just...there was something in Connecticut that seemed like we should come take a look at it. Come out this way. You know?”


She quirked one brow in a way that told him he was coming across as badly as he figured he was.


“I was looking for an excuse to get back out here before we really settled down,” Dean said, making a concentrated effort to look straight at her again. “Sam’s going to Stanford to finish up where he left off, and then start law school. So, if you’re not married or anything, I think you and Sam should hurry up and start that whole googly-eye thing you were doing the last time we were here.”


She looked at him steadily, but he could tell she was trying not to laugh. “Dean,” she said.


“Yeah.”


“He has no idea you’re here, does he,” she said.


He scratched at the back of his neck, stalling a little. “Uh...it didn’t come up?”


She nodded. “So, he doesn’t even try and contact me for almost a year, and he doesn’t have anything to do with you being here – and I’m supposed to think he has any interest in me at all?”


Dean squirmed, and knew he was doing it. “He does,” he said. “He totally does. He’s just...look, you know. The whole ‘love me and get killed’ thing. He forgets that we’re...bigger than most things. And that you’re pretty badass. He wants to be happy, but he kind of needs help getting there.”


She looked at him a moment longer, then leaned up and kissed him, something he read as a little approving and affectionate and maybe kind of calling him an idiot, in a way. He was never sure how women managed to do stuff like that, put all kinds of messages into a kiss, but he’d always liked it.


“And he deserves you,” Dean said as she pulled away, even though it felt half like some kind of Hallmark sentiment coming out of his mouth and half just right. “You’re so...he deserves you.”


She tilted her head a little. “And I deserve him, right?”


“Can’t do any better,” Dean said immediately, looking at her from close when she didn’t lean completely away. “I mean, there is no better.”


“So is there actually something in Connecticut that needs solving? Because if you lied to him to get him out here, you could have made it a little closer.”


He grinned. “There might be something. You interested?”


“No little girls with razors,” she said. “I got the badge for that one already.”


“This is just a monster in some woods,” he said. “Old, old woods with an abandoned settlement. It’s probably crap, but it’s been so quiet and...safe. For a long while, now. Not much out there. So if there was going to be a time? To do...something. This is a good time.”


She smiled at him.


“If you’re not busy, or anything,” he said.


She kept smiling.


-|-


“This is vintage,” she said, holding up one of his BOC tapes. “Possibly antique.”


She had put a few things together and made a couple of calls that he didn’t hear, then had jumped into the car and settled in like it was all par for the course. It was so damn strange to have someone besides Sam in the passenger seat that it made him glance at her constantly.


“Good stuff, though,” he said.


“Oh, sure,” she said. “But you can upgrade to something a little easier for you to use, can’t you? MP3s.”


“Digital doesn’t sound the same,” he said. “Too...harsh. Sterile.”


“You’re an audiophile?” she said, rattling the tape box at him. “Really?”


“Driver picks the format,” he said ominously. “Shotgun shuts her...everything.”


She rolled her eyes but managed to do it in a classy way.


“Tell me about Sam,” she said. “Tell me what you guys have been up to and how Sam is really doing.”


He did. He told her about the last several hunts they’d been on since they’d seen her, about vampires and a gun that could kill anything; about their father, a deeply abbreviated version of the death of Azaz’el, about staying at Bobby’s to recover and figuring out how to start again. He didn’t gloss anything completely over, but he didn’t go into strict detail about the things that were still too much for him to deal with. He didn’t want to scare her or put anything on her that she didn’t necessarily want. Telling her the demon was dead was enough; his exact mode of demise was not something he was sure he could really discuss, again. He told her Sam was quieter, but still Sam, not unscathed but not irretrievably harmed. Sam was going back to school, Dean was going to school, they were going to take a run at real and common life, but they were hunters and would always be, even though there seemed to be less out there to chase.


“It’s never going to be easy, is it,” she said.


“No,” he said. “Wouldn’t be worth it otherwise. Right?”


She smiled. “I’ll bet I can list off more bands with colors in their names than you can,” she said.


After Dean insisted that Green Apple Quickstep was something she’d made up, Sarah told him they could look it up anytime he liked.


-|-


She was sitting on Sam’s bed when Sam walked in the room.


She had tossed her overnight bag on the vanity counter and asked to see what they had so far on Dudleytown. She’d been sitting crosslegged on Sam’s bed reading when he opened the door. He had the laptop case in one hand and some coffee-frappe-whatsis in the other, looking distracted and ready to either question Dean on where he’d been or start filling him in on what else he’d found. Instead he froze, and Dean watched his face carefully, catching the moment of confusion followed by a moment of an absolutely sparkly-teenage-girl brand of surprised happiness. He’d known he was right, that Sam still pined after this one, that Sam would be glad he –


Sam’s smile tightened. There was an awkward moment of silence. Sarah stood. Dean tried to figure out what the hell had gone wrong.


Sam looked at Dean, and very deliberately put the laptop case on the floor and the coffee on the little table by the window. “Can I see you outside for a moment?” he said.


“Better do it in here where I can see how it gets,” Sarah said.


“I’m glad to see you,” Sam told her. “So, I’m not mad at you. But I’m gonna...Dean, you dumb sonofabitch.”


Dean shrugged. “When were you gonna call her?” he said. “There’ll always be some excuse, Sam. What, you don’t like this one? I like her. I’ll take her, but it’s not my ass she’s hot for. Maybe she just hasn’t seen enough of it. It’s a pretty good ass.”


Sam had started the whole flaring-nostril, eyes-of-death thing, so Dean figured he didn’t have much to lose. He started to unbuckle his belt.


“I’m gonna kill you,” Sam said. His tone said he might actually mean it.


“You’re already doing it, with all this chivalrous do-gooder bullshit,” Dean said, dropping his hands. “Come on, let’s go. She’s gonna see you naked eventually, so, she might as well see the rest of you, too, all your big dark pouty crap.”


Sarah sat back down on the corner of the bed and crossed her legs at the knee like she might have a courtside seat to something. Her face was serious but not closed off.


“You don’t have the right to go screwing with any of this,” Sam said, with a flush of color just beginning across his cheekbones.


“Yeah I do,” Dean said. “Somebody’s got to. You’re too old for most of the coeds at Stanford now anyway, you dog. We can’t have a really hot, amazing friend come check out a legend with us? Maybe you guys will decide you don’t like each other much now, and then we’ll go where we go and she goes back to boring old Rochester and suffers a dusty, lonely existence without you.”


“Now I’m old and headed for spinsterhood,” Sarah muttered. “If Sam doesn’t hit you soon, I will.”


“Did you want to come, or did he talk you into it?” Sam asked Sarah.


“He stayed outside to hide from my dad,” she said. “Not hard to say yes, Sam.”


They stared at each other for a long moment, and Dean stared between them carefully. He was no longer quite sure what the hell was going on, but it didn’t seem completely bad. Sarah stood again and came closer when Sam’s shoulders seemed to lose a little of their rigidity.


“I’m willing to risk it,” she said. Dean knew she was talking about everything.


Sam sighed. He held a hand out to her. “C’mon.”


On their way out the door, Sam threw him a look that said very clearly that Dean had grief coming his way, later on. 6'4" of it.


Dean grinned and gave Sam a thumbs-up. When the door closed, he muttered, “You kids have a good time.”


Then he sat down at the laptop and drank Sam’s ridiculous, fancy iced-coffee thing. It wasn’t that bad, but he wasn’t going to start drinking that kind of crap or anything. It was just a shame to waste anything with coffee in it.


He plotted a few routes, checked arial photos of the old Dudleytown site and nearby Cornwall, marking off where there were still residential homes in and around Cornwall. They didn’t want to run into any righteous landowners brandishing weapons. People in the area were already pissed off about the attention the place had gotten, and like Sam had said earlier, not even hiking was allowed anywhere near the old site or in the surrounding woods. They’d have to be careful about how they came in and out. He wasn’t worried about the state patrol or the local cops. He was worried about looky-loos and people hoping to get proof of whatever might be up there. They didn’t want to be mistaken for anything in the dark. He wanted to go look at it in the daylight, but the Dark Entry Forest Association was, by all accounts, damn serious about keeping people away.


Who’d they think they were – Area 51?


He jotted a few notes and looked over what Sam had put together while Dean had been gone. First off, there really was no royal connection. They’d figured as much, but there was proof to go with it. The Dudleys that had founded the town weren’t actually related to some cursed English family. The curse angle had seemed pretty thin, anyway. There was plenty of sanctioned info, and plenty of overenthusiastic supposition, and some guy claiming to be directly descended from the original Dudleys with his own website. No one source of info seemed to really jibe with any other, but there was usually a small grain of truth inside every overblown account. It was after they started building homes made only from local stone that the town started to really decline.


He made a mark, there. There was something to that. Something more than the fact that it had been hard to live there to begin with, more than just the loss of the trees. The local rocks contained a lot of iron and other metals, so they weren’t dealing with the fae. Too much cold iron in the area, in the rocks. The settlers burned all the trees to make charcoal, which in turn let them get enough heat going to power smelters for iron. Once all the trees were gone (oak, white pine, chestnut), the rest of the scant soil eroded away and everything and everyone dwindled away. It was a chestnut blight in the early 1900's that finally put a cap on the whole thing.


Sam would know about the trees. He always did. Maybe the trees had kept something out of the area, warded it off. Maybe the land had been holding on to something and the trees were no longer there to keep it quiet. He made a note to ask Sam about that.


They’d start where the couple’s car was found. It was the obvious choice. Sit out of sight and see if anything came out to look at them. Not a common area to park, and no one over in Cornwall had said anything about something trying to grab them in their yards. They likely didn’t wander around in the woods all that much anyway, all 750 crazy-ass acres of it. They’d been interested in sealing the place off and letting it sit. So if there was anything up there, it was a very local and traditional secret, the best kind.


It would be good to put something to rest. One last big adventure before they hung it up as an overall way of life.


He felt a small pang of anxiety whenever he thought of it, and forced it down again. It wasn’t that big of a deal. Things had to change. It was natural. He could do this. It wasn’t like he was alone.


When Sam and Sarah came back in, Dean thought Sam looked somewhat mollified and maybe just a little smitten, if he used words like that, which he totally did not. Sarah looked content. She had the fingers of one hand woven through the belt loops of Sam’s jeans, so, things were fine.


Dean leaned back in his chair and smirked at them. “You know how to play pool?” he asked Sarah.


“Some,” Sarah said.


“You’re not official until you can kick my ass,” Dean said.


-|-


They ate dinner at a bar several blocks away. Dean drove. Sam sprawled in the back seat, happy to offer shotgun to Sarah.


Sam tended to be rational even when angered, and they’d had a good talk. She’d already laid out what she thought of the whole situation, of Sam’s worries, when they’d only known each other for a couple of days. She hadn’t bothered to repeat herself. She had not forgotten about him, nor had she held out for him, but she had, in some way, left the door open even though Sam had not tried to contact her. She had often wondered about him, where he was, if he was okay. But she was practical. She had dated sporadically, mostly contacts in her social circle, and had finally chastised herself when she realized she wasn’t all that interested in anybody that wasn’t Sam.


That last part had embarrassed him a little, when she’d told him. She could tell. Damn, he was charming. Not Dean-level charming, not trying to hide things with a smile, but something on a more private scale. Something dimpled and sparkling and boyishly hopeful.


She was not in love with him, yet, but the possibility was there and she was happy to have it.


He was not in love with her, yet, because he was afraid to be, but fear had never really stopped him in the long run.


“Sammy,” Dean said. “Oak trees.”


“Yeah?” Sam said.


“I can’t remember.”


“Protection, truth,” Sam said. “Oaks know everything. If you need something answered, you ask an oak tree, and the lore says it’ll answer you in a dream.”


“Chestnut,” Dean said.


“What is this, a quiz?” Sam said.


“Those are the trees that were mostly all cut down when the area started to go under,” Dean said. “So, you wanna just cough it up?”


“Honesty and justice,” Sam said. “When they’re cut close to the ground, they come back with several trunks and intertwine. So people started thinking they were maybe immortal. Until the blight killed them off.”


“Pine.”


“Life, immortality and rejuvenation,” Sam said.


“Nice to live in a place with all three, then,” Dean said. “Unless you cut them all down, and the rest get killed off.”


“You think maybe removing all the trees let something loose?” Sam said.


“He’s a smart boy,” Dean said to Sarah. “I keep him around for it.”


“And he can reach things you can’t,” Sarah said.


Sam laughed. Dean made a sound of affront and acted like he wasn’t going to talk to them anymore.


When they got out of the car and walked into the bar, Sam and Dean flanked Sarah on either side like bookends. Tall, gorgeous, amazing bookends, she thought. People were going to think they were either her brothers or her bodyguards, the way they were keeping an eye out.


Sarah and Dean ate hot wings and drank beer, and Sam took his chances with a club sandwich. Most bars had pretty good food, so it wasn’t much of a risk. They took a small table in the corner, and Sam and Dean caught Sarah up the rest of the way on the case.


“So you think maybe the mysterious something that may or may not have really driven everybody out of the town...may or may not have killed a couple on the side of the road?” she said.


“Maybe,” Dean said.


“If it was going to, seems like it should have before now,” Sam said. “It’s had plenty of other chances to be set off.”


“But the place has been sealed off for years,” Sarah said. “Meaning, no chances for anything to grab anybody, for a long time. A lot of the trees that grew back were killed off in a forest fire in the late nineties, right? Right after that, the place was closed off completely to anyone who didn’t live there. So maybe it’s been wandering a little further afield.”


“And it can’t be bothered to go into Cornwall and hassle people?” Sam said.


“Maybe we should go look and see what kind of trees those people have planted in their yards,” Dean said in a dark tone.


Sarah watched him for a moment. She’d never had much chance to really talk to him, the first time they’d met, and he seemed all bluster and annoying big brother on the surface, but something was going on with him and it caught her attention.


“I smell conspiracy,” she said.


Dean glanced up at her, green not quite meeting her blue-green. “That’s just Sam,” he said. “I don’t think he showered this morning.”


Sam made a face at Dean, then looked at Sarah. “What would they get out of locking the place down?” he said. “Nobody who’s trespassed up there over the years has gone missing, or been killed, or even seen anything. Why not fence it off, charge admission and give guided tours?”


“They had a bunch of ghost hunters up there declaring it all demonic,” Dean said with a smirk.


“It was the Warrens, and they declare everything demonic,” Sam said.


“Maybe they accidentally raised something, or something happened in the town that was kept quiet and they really don’t want it getting out,” Sarah said. “Maybe it woke up again because the trees were burned away.”


She saw Dean’s reaction from the corner of her eye, something a little impressed.


“There’s no evidence of a pattern of murders over the years in the area,” Sam said. “So it could have been someone just passing through that decided to kill a couple on the side of the road. If it was an entity or creature of some sort, why wait so long after the trees burned, to come out?”


Sarah shrugged. Dean shrugged.


“Come grab a stick,” Dean said to Sarah, rising.


“And you’re going to make all kinds of phallic jokes now, aren’t you,” Sarah said.


“Maybe you can make them, and I’ll laugh politely,” Dean said.


“I did too shower,” Sam said.


They both looked down at him. Sarah leaned over to kiss him, light but fond. “You smell great,” she said.


Dean shook his head and headed for the pool tables.


-|-


He stared at her across the green felt of the table and smiled. A real one that time, not the smirk she had already become accustomed to. Sam got a real smile more often than not, one that made her desperately jealous that she was an only child.


“Wanna play?” he said.


“Well, hurry up,” she said.


“Yeah, this,” he said, gesturing at the table and then digging in one pocket for quarters. “Something else, too, though. Just play along.”


“What’re you going to do?”


“Sam’s a possessive guy,” Dean said, the smile back but a little self deprecating.


“I’m not going to help you torture him,” she said.


“Sweetheart, you already are.”


Said without the smile, that time.


She looked at him carefully. “I’m beginning to wonder if you want this more than he does.”


Something flashed through his face, something she almost didn’t catch except that she was staring at him so carefully. Something sad and almost frightened. He looked down and away as he fed the table quarters and fished all the balls out from below. “C’mere, we gotta pick you the right cue.”


She stood dutifully while he measured her arm by having her hold it out so he could hold his own hands out like he was describing the big one that got away. Then he stood in front of the cue rack and made a big production out of handing her several of them, asking her to see how they felt. Then he stood her up against one end of the table, hovering close to one side.


“Right hand on the big end,” he said. “Since you’re right-handed.”


“How do you know?” she said.


“Because I watched you pick up every damn hot wing with the right,” he said. “I’m a freakin’ detective. Your right will control the cue. Ease up on it, you just wanna hold it, not grip it. Now hold it so the upper part of your arm is parallel with the floor, and the lower arm is perpendicular.” He angled her arm gently into place. “And then bet me how long it takes Sasquatch over there to barge in.”


“You’re like every terrible sibling I ever read about as a kid,” she said.


“I like you a little more all the time,” Dean said. “Now, you’ve got a choice on what you do with the other hand.” He put one hand on the table. “Listen close, now, I’ve screwed a lot of people out of a hell of a lot of money over the years, doing this. You can rest the cue between your thumb and forefinger like this – “ he rested the heel of his palm only on the table and showed her. “Or, you can close it up like this.” He made an OK sign with his thumb and forefinger. “Whatever makes you happy. Some people use little pre-made things to balance the cue, but they’re – “


“Little bitches who don’t know how to play pool?” she said.


Dean grinned. “I couldn’t have said it better myself. Now comes the fun part.” He moved behind her as she leaned over the table. “Line up the little toe of the foot that’s furthest back with the cue. And whatever you’re aiming it at.” He reached around and picked a ball at random, placing it in front of her cue. “Turn your heel in a little. Put the end of your cue about an inch behind the ball you want. Put the foot that’s closest to the table wherever it’s comfortable.” He ran one hand down her right side, pausing at her waist. “Now bend a little more forward.”


“Is he going to kill you?” she said.


“God, yes, but I’ll die happy,” Dean said. “Don’t lock your knees.”


“It’s not because he’s jealous,” she said.


“Right,” Dean said, leaning in to brace his own left hand against the table and shore up hers. “It’s that I’m putting the moves on you, out here, and if he cares at all? He won’t approve. You’re better than some girl I can meet in a bar, and he’ll come to save you.”


“So you’re trying to prove something,” she said.


“Proving is for weenies,” Dean said. “This is a demonstration.”


“You guys are a fucking scream,” she said.


He laughed aloud. She knew she’d caught him by surprise.


“I was gonna ask if you wanted to try breaking,” Dean said, “But, you already know how to break a set of balls, don’t you.”


Then Sam was there, giving Dean a little shove and crowding in on Sarah’s other side with a very serious look on his face.


I’ll show you how to do this,” Sam said.


Sarah grinned at them both, and felt a little like a kid at Christmas, that same feeling that made her want to make a little high-pitched noise of glee. She kept it to herself, along with the wink Dean tipped her before he backed off another step.


-|-


None of them were drunk when they went back to the motel. Dean had called ahead and reserved a separate room for Sarah while Sam was teaching her how to play pool.


-|-


“You sure you don’t wanna switch rooms?” Dean said. “She’s just a few down.”


“You already have so much pain coming your way,” Sam said, turning his back and trying to get comfortable in his own bed. “Don’t make it worse.”


Dean stared at the ceiling and grinned.


-|-


It was five and a half hours to Dudleytown from Arkport, and all in all, Sarah was a good roadtrip companion. She was as quiet as Sam, but it was a content quiet broken up with commentary on the passing countryside, mainly about places she’d been. Estate sales, camping trips, visiting a grandparent. She pulled a few stories out of them, about scarecrows and apples, cannibal families, murdered boys lurking in lakes. Tulpas. There were no tales about kids with powers, about demon armies, about war.


They told her about their father.


“He’ll like you,” Dean said. “You’re tough. You can probably kick his ass a little.”


That was high praise, and she knew it, without even resting eyes on one John Winchester.


She reached back often, to poke Sam in one knee, to offer him Pringles, to wiggle fingers at him in silent demand. He held her hand willingly, without hesitation, without a sense that he was only humoring her. He would not humor anyone.


They stopped more often than they would have if Dean and Sam had been on their own. They knew she wasn’t used to car trips that lasted so long, and they didn’t expect her to be them.


She put her feet up on the dashboard and sang along to Black Sabbath’s War Pigs. Dean caught Sam’s eye in the rearview mirror and shot him a look that clearly said isn’t she great?


Sam agreed, but he was still pissed at Dean, and his expression said so.


Just before the 17 trended south toward the state line, Dean pulled off the exit for the town of Wurtsboro Hills and asked Sam to look around.


“Chestnut, if you can find one,” he said.


“You gonna tell me what this is about?” Sam said.


“I have a hunch,” Dean said. He said it as if he was declaring war.


Sam slanted a look at Sarah, who was standing next to the car, arms folded. “He’s on the jazz,” she said.


Dean threw his head back and laughed. Sam frowned.


“The place didn’t get haunted until the trees were all gone,” Dean said. “Deal with it, huh? If I’m wrong, the worst we did was carry sticks around.”


Sam shook his head with a quirk to his mouth, but he began scouting around. Sarah paced in his footsteps, watching him examine saplings and rotting logs and brush his hands along the bark of larger trees as if they could feel it. He was reverent about it, glancing up into branches and skirting knobs of roots as they twisted out of the ground.


“You love them,” she said.


Sam glanced back at her, eyebrows telling her she was surprising him a little. “You could say that,” he said.


“Where did you learn to care so much about them?”


His face closed just a touch, something she would later learn to recognize and sidestep until she got around all the barriers.


“Just liked them since I was a kid, I guess,” he said. “Pretty interesting, most of them, how long they can live and how they’ve evolved. Lots of lore about them.”


He pointed out several species of ironwood and birch, showing her how he recognized them. He held up the blue-green leaves of a young ironwood, comparing them to the color of her eyes. “So,” he said, “You ever try a long-distance relationship? I heard that can be really hard.”


“Is this your grossly unromantic way of asking me to go steady?” she said.


He looked at her intently. “I can’t ask you to do anything that might turn out to be something you didn’t want.”


“I’m not going to move straight to the west coast or anything,” she said. “I’ve got a family business, here, friends and family and a life. So, what if we play it all by ear and see how it goes? I want to do that. I want to see what there is. With you and me.”


Sam nodded and smiled a little, ducking his head down.


“Maybe you’ll get done with school and try and figure out where you want to go,” she said. “Maybe I’ll reach a point long before then where seeing you every few months won’t be good enough. Too early to tell.”


“So the answer’s yes?” Sam said, still smiling.


Sarah used the side of one hiking boot to scuff leaves and dirt up over Sam’s shoes. “Duh.”


 It took them half an hour to run across a chestnut deadfall. There were a few green sprouting branches near the stump. The best part was the sapling curling up from beneath it. They each stripped a couple of green walking stick-sized branches from around the stump. Sam carefully wrapped the sapling and brought it along.


“Probably illegal,” Sarah said.


“So’s the size of his – “


“Shut up, Dean,” Sam growled.


Once they crossed the state line into Connecticut, the 7 took them up past North Kent and Calhoun Corners and into Cornwall. It was tiny and heavily forested, an ideal place to have a summer cabin. Homes were few and far between. School, golf course, minor town center with a few shops and a very halfhearted motel that didn’t expect actual tourists, just an occasional out of towner on their way through. It wasn’t depressed; the area obviously catered to those who wanted to be left alone and had just enough money to press the issue.


“The main entrance in there is at the end of Bald Mountain Road,” Sam said. “Dark Entry Forest Road.”


“Not even gonna try Dark Entry Forest Road,” Dean said. “Get nailed, just turning in. Screw that. It’s what everybody expects. Just find the spot where the couple turned off.”


“Valley Road runs south out of here for about two miles,” Sam said, rattling the map from the back seat. “It’s pretty open through there. Then we run straight into another forest entrance, and it’s a walking path into Dudleytown from there. No way we can take the car in. And we don’t want to leave it visible from Valley.”


“So what the hell were these people doing all the way down there?” Dean said. “There’s nothing down there. They take the wrong road, and get stuck?”


Sam shrugged. “Probably. Probably looked for a place to turn around, got to the end, and broke down or thought they saw something. Either way, they got out of the car right in front of the entrance to the forest.”


“Nobody has to pee that bad,” Sarah said. “They would have wanted to get back to civilization. They were in their fifties, if the article was right, so they weren’t thrillseekers. At least, not the typical kind. Something must have happened to them on the road.”


They all eyed the turnoff where Jewell Road became Valley Road, but went on without comment.


Valley Road branched off into Essex Hill Road to their left, and they swung right to stay on Valley. They passed open fields, farmland to their right, and a tributary of the Housatonic river. There was heavy forest to their left.


Six different homes became visible, all well spaced from each other and tucked back into ever-thicker trees. Dean slowed but didn’t stop, cruising past each home. At first, there was nothing notable about the landscaping. Dean met Sam’s eyes in the rearview, and Sam began scanning the yards closer.


“Every yard has three kinds of trees, all saplings,” Sam said. “Eastern hemlock, red maple, and American chestnut. No deviations.”


Dean smiled smugly to himself. “An exact combination. And it’s the only place we’re seeing the chestnuts.”


“So far, yeah,” Sam said. “Not seeing a lot of hemlock, either.”


“Do you suppose they know?” Sarah said.


“They might,” Sam said. “Or they might have simply realized that the homes with those exact trees get left alone.”


Just as they passed the turnoff for Everest Hill Road, there was a final home on the right, huge, with a circular drive. Valley ended maybe one hundred yards later. It forked into two; Castle Road to the left, Dudleytown Road to the right. Dean kept right, and the road remained paved for another half mile as it crawled uphill, then ended abruptly. Slowing further, they followed the narrow dirt road another half mile before it ended as well. There was a high metal gate and a hail of warning signs indicating that hiking, fishing, hunting, parking, dumping and trespassing were all illegal and that the area was highly monitored. Trespassers would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.


“And shot,” Dean added. “Survivors will be shot again.”


“Or fed to Dudley Do-wrong,” Sarah said.


They both looked at her.


“It’s what I named the monster,” she said.


Dean stopped but left the car running, and they all got out in the pale afternoon sunlight to look at the area where the Landers had met their ends. No blood, no budding memorial, just the residuals of crime scene tape and a few neon spray paint markers, likely showing the angle of the car’s tires and the placement of anything that looked unusual.


“Should be one of these trees, here,” Dean said, pointing to one of the massive pines standing silent guard near the gate. None of them had been marked that they could see.


“And she was found inside the woods,” Sarah said.


“Right,” Dean said. “Let’s find a way in before the Association descends on us.” He gave the word association enough stress to insinuate the capitalization and what he thought of it.


They backtracked and took Everest Hill, and Dean reset the trip meter. There were homes along the first half mile, and then it all trailed off into heavy forest on both sides. Just before another road intersected it a mile further on, there was another small gathering of older homes. Dean pulled a u-turn and headed back up Everest Hill, looking for an ideal spot to leave the car that wouldn’t leave them walking forever or running into locals.


They left the car just before they ran into the first set of homes again, in a turnoff for a picnic area that showed no recent activity. The car wasn’t visible from the road or to anyone who pulled off it to perform a casual check of the area. They took the chestnut walking sticks with them.


From there, they had two choices: cut through the woods across Castle Road to the west, roughly a quarter mile away, then walk onto Dudleytown Road and follow it south the rest of the way in. Or, head back north and west, find the Mohawk Trail, and hike about a mile and a half in.


They chose Castle Road. Mohawk Trail seemed to be the popular choice for tourists and rowdy teenagers.


Sarah tapped his shin with the edge of one of her hiking boots. He smiled.


It was a perfect late summer day, warm and slightly breezy. The motion of the leaves above made good cover for sneaking around in the woods. Due to the density of the canopy above, there wasn’t much in the way of brush to fight through.


Wild geranium, coltsfoot and Solomon’s plume grew along deer trails, winding through small groups of sumac and ironwood and birch. A massive but very dead tree loomed above, followed by several others, branches spiking out in all directions away from their dead cores as if shrieking for help.


Dean glanced at Sam.


“Hemlock,” Sam said. “Used to be. Dead through here, like the chestnuts. It’s bugs more than blight, though.”


Kinglets zipped above them, their three-note calls complaining about the intrusion. A couple of thrushes hung around the lower trees. Gnats buzzed in small clouds, succumbing to slapping hands when they got too close.


“Glad it’s a good day for a hike,” Dean said.


They had one scare crossing Castle Road when a car came down and turned around. There was something slightly embarrassing about hiding behind trees. It turned out to be a good move, because a CT State Patrol car headed south past their hiding point.


They waited several minutes. When Dean started to move from his tree, Sam waved him down. Another minute later, they heard a car coming back the other way. The patrol car headed north again.


When it was long gone, Dean said, “How the hell did you know?”


“Making sure the rubberneckers stay out,” Sam said. “Still kind of a crime scene. Road ends a mile or so south, so I knew he had to turn around and come back this way.”


“State Patrol, though,” Dean said. “He’s off his beat.”


“Everybody’ll be cooperating to keep the place clear,” Sarah said. “If it’s listed as a nature preserve, and they’ve already had trouble keeping everybody out, then it’ll be worse now. It might be private property, but murder ends the whole private part.”


“You said private part,” Dean said.


“I did,” Sarah said in a small, high-pitched voice.


Sam rolled his eyes and crossed the road ahead of them. He stayed close to Sarah once on the other side, though, making sure she stayed just ahead of him.


A mile on, there were rotting hemlocks and hints of the remainders of stone walls laid by human hands; they could hear running water but it wasn’t visible yet. There had not been a single chestnut.


They were quick and quiet and no one had to slow down for anyone else. Sarah fell into the pace they set, even though their legs were longer than hers.


“Listen,” Sam said, quick and hushed, coming to an abrupt stop when they reached a small open space between the trees.


Dean and Sarah froze on either side of him. Dean took a quick look around, searching for evidence of movement, of impending scolding from cops or landowners. They listened hard, and when Dean turned around, he discovered that the three of them were standing much closer than they had been, gathered into a defensive knot in the center of the clearing. He didn’t step away, though.


“What the hell are we listening for?” Dean said in a harsh whisper.


“Anything,” Sam said. “What happened to...everything?”


No leaves rustling, no gnats circling, no squirrels raising hell. The birds they’d been listening to since entering the woods were absent. There was a big wide nothing, oppressive as a weight across their shoulders. They automatically arranged themselves so that each was looking out in a different direction, guarding all sides.


Dean began to step away, then paused, then made the motion again, looking impatient.


“Would you just do it?” Sam said. “We’re fine right here.”


Sarah glanced between them, trying to decipher what was going on.


“No, we all go,” Dean said.


Sam exhaled a small, annoyed sigh, then linked his arm in Sarah’s. “Let’s find where it really starts,” he said softly, leaning his head in close to hers. “There must be a dividing line, or something.”


They backtracked a little at a time, pausing to listen. They made it back the way they’d come by about twenty yards when Sarah saw a gnat wobble in front of her eyes. A cloud of them swirled nearby, but nowhere further west from that point. Dean stood and waved a hand at the gnats, straddling the invisible ‘line’.


“Vortex?” Dean said.


Sam shook his head. “Don’t think so. There should be other phenomena associated with it than just a total lack of non-plant life in the area.”


“Ley line?” Dean said.


“Now you’re just guessing,” Sam said.

 

“This is it,” Sarah said. “This has to be the settlement boundary. Or...somebody’s boundary.”


“Maybe there’s a temperature change because of the way it’s shadowed by the hills,” Sam said. “And it gets too cool for the bugs, so the birds don’t bother coming in here, either.”


“Possible,” Dean said. “You wanna debunk this, though, you gotta do better than that.”


“Magnetic fluctuation because of the high concentration of iron ore in the rocks around here,” Sam said.


“I like that,” Dean said, eyebrows raised.


“That would mess up the birds,” Sarah said. “How about the squirrels and...well, whatever else lives up here? They wouldn’t care about the rocks.”


“The squirrels are all in closer to the houses where the food is ten times easier,” Dean offered. “Shit, it still shouldn’t be deadly silent.”


They looked at one another for a moment longer. No distant dogs barking, no pervading hum of life. Dean looked carefully at Sam, and Sam shrugged. “It’s like they’re all asleep,” he said, and Sarah was fairly sure he wasn’t talking about the animals or lack thereof, but she didn’t ask.


They gave it what felt like almost a full minute for anything to pipe up and make itself known, but there was nothing. It felt like being trapped in a bubble.


Dean broke it first, walking away from their small knot, headed further into the woods. They tried to keep the noise to a minimum, since it seemed like their movements must have been broadcast for miles. Nothing looked overtly different. Nothing raised the fine hair on their necks or arms. Nothing came pelting out of the brush to warn them away. There was just the long and unnatural silence, too much like the world holding a breath while it waited for the punchline. Worse, in so many ways, than being attacked.


The sound of running water finally returned. The source was still out of sight, but the evidence of a natural process was welcome. The trees began to open a little further, not into any kind of clearing, just a slow change into younger trees that had grown in after settlers had taken the originals. They were sparse and well spaced all the same, keeping to themselves. A crumbling stone wall stacked out of river rock wound along and between them, completely missing in spots and scattered wide from the source. Hikers, souvenir collectors, people hoping they were bringing a little of the weirdness back with them.


The first cellar hole came soon after, a half-foundation still hanging on. A single birch grew from the center, spindly and tall. Worn footpaths had taken the place of whatever dirt roads had traversed the hamlet, slowly being reclaimed like everything else now that outsiders were no longer allowed. The air tasted green and alive, with a hint of dampness, and still nothing called from the brush or the treetops. Nothing buzzed their heads. There was no feeling of being watched. Dean watched the ground for markings, checked each cellar hole and ruined foundation for anything odd. Sam checked the trees and the tumbled rocks, finding an occasional spray-painted epithet or cryptic acronym. Once, a rune, poorly rendered and useless in the context given. Seance or joke or attempted ritual, probably. There was a small area of charred stumps, leftovers from a fire years earlier, the remainders swallowed by the seasons that had come and gone since.


The center of the place was still suggested in what was left of the roads, the trees keeping a very slight distance even though they were obviously making progress inward. Sam reached out and slapped at the edge of one of Dean’s sleeves, already looking forward, pointing ahead.


There was a single tree in the center of things, towering up almost ninety feet, ancient and gnarled. Leaves hung dead and brown from every other branch, sparse but showing that there had been growth that year. It just hadn’t lasted. The tree had given it one last try, noble and tall.


And dead.


“Let me guess,” Dean said.


“It made it through spring,” Sam said, “Long enough to get all the leaves it could. Then it died. Maybe just a few weeks ago.”


“Last chestnut for miles,” Dean said. “In the forest, anyway.”


“This is so Terry Brooks,” Sam said.


“Don’t talk about past dates in front of the current one, Sam,” Dean said.


Terry Brooks, Dean,” Sam said with a barely restrained derision. “The Shannara series? The Word and the Void?”


Dean shook his head. “I didn’t read all your books, all the time. I was hanging out with real people. Girls. Not elves.”


“Then how did you know there are elves in his work?” Sam said.


“Because there are always elves in all those goddamn books,” Dean growled.


“There are elements in a couple of series he wrote, about guardianship,” Sam said, circling the tree. “Assigning a person or thing to hold a balance, or take care of something to make sure evil stays where it belongs.”


“The Ellcrys,” Sarah said. “Maybe...maybe it wasn’t one tree, though, maybe it was more like a combination of things. And the combination just doesn’t exist anymore.”


“The last part of the combination died off sometime this summer,” Sam said. “Now maybe it can get out. Or it could always get out, but it was just held back from doing anything to anybody.”


“One way to be sure,” Dean said.


“Don’t say ‘spend the night up here’,” Sarah said.


“Nah,” Dean said. “We’re gonna wait until dark and pull a stake-out near the woods. If anything’s really out here, it’ll come look at us because we’re too close in to its territory.” He looked at Sam.


Sam shrugged. “Good enough for me,” he said.


They left the way they’d come, double checking every cellar hole and dead tree, keeping silent until they’d crossed the strange invisible line that kept the rest of the world out.


It was a relief to hear the birds again. They didn’t even mind the damn gnats, after that.


-|-


When they got back to the motel, Sarah took the little chestnut sapling outside and poured holy water over the root ball Sam had been careful to keep intact.


-|-


“There could be any number of reasons why it would be here,” Sam said. “Whatever it is.”


Dinner at the same bar. It was quieter in there than it had been the night before.


“Humans were here long before settlers came from Europe. Somebody might have gotten out of hand, and had to be punished; maybe someone died badly on a hunt; maybe it’s not even human. Maybe it predates humans altogether. Until we see it, we won’t know. It could be energy-based, and not even sentient. It might be here to protect the woods, and was bound accidentally when the right trees grew in the right combination, or humans might have found a way to bind it here after running into it too many times.”


“He’s trying to say stuff like this is pretty common,” Dean said. “Can’t really do anything about it until we get a chance to take a run at it ourselves. I’m betting it’s nature-based and will go back to hiding if we put a balance back into place. Whatever that is. Which, of course, we’ll figure out, because we always do.” He smiled.


“How do you live with the uncertainty?” Sarah said. “How do you walk into these situations without knowing?”


“Because that’s how it’s always been,” Dean said. “It’s always been uncertain. It’s scarier to walk into something knowing it’ll always be the same, knowing exactly what to expect.”


Sam glanced at him, careful not to be caught doing it.


“Cops and firefighters live the same way,” Dean said. “You go in armed, in every way possible, and just see what weapon works best.”


“That sounds more like war,” Sarah said.


“Can’t argue with that,” Dean said.


“I don’t think you should come with us,” Sam said to Sarah.


Sarah raised one eyebrow. “Because...?”


“We have no idea what might happen,” Sam said. “I mean, we have to assume two people are dead because something is wrong up there. It might be no big deal, but it might turn out to be something we’re totally unprepared for, or something we couldn’t imagine.”


“We’ve already had this argument,” Sarah said. “We knew that painting was dangerous, and we all survived that.”


“Not all entities are equal,” Sam said, a wrinkle beginning to form between his brows.


“This is part of who you are,” Sarah said. “So it’s not something you can just exclude me from. Not if there’s going to be an us.”


“I gotta go...sharpen something,” Dean said, starting to rise.


Sarah slammed one hand down on the table, startling Sam and Dean into freezing. “I’m not fragile,” she said. “You can’t just put the girl off to one side and go off to do the big macho guy thing.”


“It’s got nothing to do with that,” Sam said, tilting his head a little and holding both hands out, palms down toward the table.


“It’s about how you have no damn hunting experience,” Dean said, leaning in over the table. “Not about how great your rack is. If we end up only focusing on keeping you safe, we can all get killed.”


Sarah folded her arms. She stared between them for a long moment. The boys stared back, each looking like maybe everything hung off that moment.


She sighed and quirked one corner of her mouth. “So I just pitched a small fit for no good reason, didn’t I.”


Dean stared at her for another moment, then slapped his own forehead. “It’s a girl who understands guy-logic,” he said. “I’ve seen it all. I need a beer.”


He walked away.


Sarah looked at Sam. “I’m sorry,” she said.


“Hey,” he said, “There’s no big standard operating procedure, here. I’m trying to assume there will be trouble so that when there is, it can’t catch me by surprise.”


“There has to be something I can do to help,” she said. “I want to be part of this. Not to prove anything. I think you get it.”


Sam nodded.


“How about if I promise to stay in the car?” she said.


-|-


“Great,” Dean said. “Now there’re two people I can’t bring myself to say ‘no’ to. Fuckin’ great.”


“Dean,” Sam said from the passenger seat, voice low and carrying a hint of rebuke as he jerked his head slightly at Sarah in the back.


“Yeah, Dean,” she said. “Quit fuckin’ swearing.”


Dean laughed. Sam was torn between amusement at those words coming out of such a pretty face, and annoyance at Dean’s behavior. The latter faded in light of the fact that he couldn’t remember Dean laughing so easily or so often since they were teenagers.


“You say no to me all the time,” Sam muttered, looking out into the dark again.


They were sitting in the car just off Castle Road, in the pitch black, waiting. They were damn near into the woods, and with tape over any reflective spots and the fact that the car was black anyway, anybody going by on the road below would have to already know they were there in order to see them. Salt and holy water and chestnut branches, silver rounds and a book of ancient druidic appeasement rituals sat in the back seat with Sarah. Sarah had an anti-possession symbol and the rune algiz drawn in holy water mixed with crushed sage down the length of her spine, something Sam had done with care. It won’t matter if they’re visible to us or not, he’d said. They’ll be visible to the right eyes.


“Only when you’re being completely unreasonable,” Dean said. “So, yeah, I guess it is all the time.”


Sam sighed a little.


They had gathered enough stones just before dark to make a ring of them that was ten feet in diameter, not far from the car. In the center was a swirl of stones in the shape of a triskel, the three arms representing earth, wind and fire, the whole setup a quick and basic nod to the druids. There was no telling if it would attract anything, or if there really was anything to attract. If it was nature based, it would come to look.


“Earth, Wind and Fire kind of sucked,” Dean said.


“Not a big funk fan,” Sarah said. “What a shock.”


They spoke occasionally, trading quiet comments and snark over the seats, then fell quiet around midnight. Sarah dozed off, and Dean reached over to give Sam a light backhand across one shoulder. He held up a plastic spoon that had been stuck between the seats from some past foray into fast food. “Lean over and stick this in her mouth,” he whispered. He flipped his phone open and prepared to capture the pending embarrassment for posterity.


“She’s not your little sister,” Sam whispered back.


“Yeah, ‘cause that’s you,” Dean said.


“Let her sleep for awhile,” Sam said, looking back out the windshield. “She’s not used to all this. And we’re not a gang, so quit trying to jump her in.”


“At least I’m not acting like she’s royalty or something,” Dean said. “Or like I’m waiting not to be good enough for her.”


“What’s that supposed to mean?”


“Quit trying to act and be and do the right thing all the time,” Dean said. “If you relax a little, she’ll make you be more yourself than you have been in a long time. She was really good for you the last time we saw her, and she will be again if you just shut up and let something happen for once in your life.”


“I know you think you know what you’re talking about,” Sam whispered, “But how about you shove it? You’re in no goddamn position to tell me about letting things happen right now.”


“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dean somehow managed to inject a growl into his whisper.


They spent far too much of their lives demanding to know what was meant, when they already knew.


“I’m not gonna do this with you right now,” Sam said, turning his attention back to the dark. “Just...save it for another time, Dean.”


Dean looked at the spoon still in his hand, then back at Sarah. “C’mon, just one picture, with the spoon.”


Sam tipped his head back against the seat in exasperation.


Dean rolled his eyes and dropped the spoon. “Fine.”


-|-


No one passed near the road on foot or otherwise. There were insect sounds that filtered in through Sam’s window, which was open by a couple of inches so they could hear anything coming. The air was warm and soft, carrying a hint of rich, dark earth and crushed leaves; the smell of impending rain.


They hadn’t spoken again, just shifted occasionally to get comfortable.


Somewhere around two, Sarah stirred, then stretched. “Are we there yet?”


Sam made a small, appreciative sound. “This is the latest trend in camping.”


“Yeah,” Dean said. “Sam’s going to pitch a tent any moment now.”


Sarah laughed, soft and girlish, not quite a giggle but damn close. It ended on a gasp and a sudden motion in the back when she slid fast across the seat away from the passenger side window. “Oh, my God!


Sam and Dean both reached for weapons, eyes already searching the dark, tense and still even before Sarah’s exclamation had finished hitting the air.


Sarah was pointing into the dark near the front corner of the car. “There’s something right there, right there,” she said in an excited whisper. “It was right up against the window.”


The bugs had all gone silent. The night air was heavy and close, world holding yet another breath.


“What’s it – “ Sam began to say, but then he watched a faint, black shadow-shape ripple away from the front of the car, deeper into the trees.


They watched, senses on high alert, waiting for anything to happen.


“Did you make anything out?” Dean whispered.


“It’s sort of transparent, with a dark outline,” Sarah whispered, the faintest tremble beginning at the edges. “Like...like a coated lens. And it doesn’t have a head, but it’s got long, long arms.”


They were all still for another long moment, looking so hard into the dark that it became impossible to see anything.


“How did you see it first?” Dean whispered. “How come you can see the damn thing better than we can?”


There was a beat of silence. Then Sarah said, “It’s the great rack.”


Dean made a tsk sound between his teeth. “Damn, I like you,” he whispered. Then he and Sam opened their doors at exactly the same time. They didn’t tell her to stay in the car, or to get down; they left her armed and stood with doors open to the night air, watching all sides, waiting for the prey to make a move. Dean closed his door, lifting up on it a little to ease the squeak of the hinges, catching it with a low click. He moved around the front of the car, shotgun held barrels up and full of rock salt.


Something shimmered far to their right, a darker black against the trees, nothing discernibly humanoid. It was elongated, but that was all they could see. The boys kept their weapons up but didn’t make any other aggressive motions. It was all about letting it make itself known. For all they knew, it wasn’t even the thing that had killed that couple, although that was a stretch. And they didn’t want to bring the local cops down on them by shooting at it if they didn’t have a really good chance of doing it damage.


Dean gestured at Sam without looking at him, pointing him to the left, then beginning to circle a little. Both of them heard the action slide on the shotgun they’d given Sarah, and knew she was staying put and ready to do something if she needed to.


The brush didn’t rattle; they didn’t see any other motion. Whatever had gone into the trees ahead of them hadn’t been corporeal enough to disturb anything, yet. There was still nothing to hear but their own breathing, low and steady as their steps. They paused to listen at the same time, angled slightly back toward the car, intent on not leaving Sarah unguarded. They both entered the trees a little, into deeper shadows. Sam paused roughly ten yards in, keeping the car in his peripheral vision, head tilted back slightly and breath held while he listened, eyes wide.


Dean glanced at him and moved further, knowing Sam meant to stay right where he was.


It was marginally cooler under the trees, helped along by the swirling of air between the trunks. Dean kept his shotgun in one hand and his Glock in the other, held down but ready, drawing the thing out by letting it lead him right in. He turned a full circle in place, watching for movement, knowing full well that if it was part of the forest, neither silver or salt was going to work.


Several minutes passed while he circled, sliding carefully along broad trunks, taking lungfuls of air that reeked of aging loam and gathering damp, brushing under leaves and needles. He tried to stay loose and alert at the same time, looking not for the creature but for whatever didn’t belong.


The lack of sound around him began to roar in his ears, making him wish for something, anything, to move. Not a single bird call, nothing buzzing around his ears trying to sample his particular vintage of plasma, nothing scuttling away from his feet. It was worse than screaming.


Then he took that thought back, because there suddenly was screaming.


Sarah let loose with a shriek that rivaled the one she’d belted out after that old lady’s head had fallen off in front of that damn ugly painting.


Dean came out of the woods at a dead run in time to watch something shift along the open passenger door, something dark and twisting, a charcoal smear in the air with a vaguely human outline that seemed impossibly elongated. Beyond it, Sarah was trying to push the driver’s side seat forward so that she could slide out the other door, but when he shouted for her to get down she did it without missing a beat.


He heard rock salt patter furiously against the Impala and didn’t even flinch. He’d repaired it before, and it wasn’t the first time he’d damaged it himself.


The shadow scattered, shredding away as if in a strong wind.


Dean reached the car and took Sarah’s hand to tug her up and out, tucking her behind him.


“Sam!”


He backed away from the car and backed Sarah with him, and Sam was nowhere in sight.


Sammy!


He felt Sarah flinch behind him and knew he was giving his fear away.


He reached in and pulled the chestnut branches and holy water from the back seat, and handed them to Sarah. He reached in around the steering wheel and flicked the headlights on, then he gestured Sarah in front of him and put several feet between them and the car as he stared hard into the trees, forcing his eyes up in case Sam was hanging in front of them somewhere.


His voice echoed back, splintered and ricocheted along the trees when he shouted for Sam again.


He kept a hand on Sarah’s back as they headed for the trees, because he couldn’t leave her behind and he couldn’t stay put and wait to see if Sam came back.


“I didn’t see – “ Sarah began.


“I know,” Dean said. “There was probably nothing to see.” He tucked the Glock away and took one of the chestnut branches, throwing faith into the mix once again and not minding. “He’s okay, we’ll find him.”


“Don’t patr –“


He whirled on her before she could finish the word, and she fell silent even though he didn’t speak. The look on her face said she got it, knew exactly how it was. She didn’t step away from him, and the worry in her face was only for Sam.


They stood and watched the trees for any movement, anything in the diffused light from the car.


Dean thought about Wendigos and how quickly the one in Colorado had dragged him and that other kid through the damn trees. This hadn’t done that to anyone else so far, and even though there were only two victims to go by, it was still enough evidence to lean on. It wouldn’t take Sam far; it would do whatever it needed to close by. That was good, except there was a hell of a lot of forest around and the minutes were ticking away.


He wrapped a hand around Sarah’s upper arm and gently tugged, and she came along without question. She really should have lost it by then, locking herself in the car and screaming about going home and maybe calling the cops on her cell. That was what regular people did. But there she was, no planted feet or panic, just bent on finding Sam and keeping a healthy respect for her own welfare.


Dean put two fingers in his mouth and whistled, the sound hard and sharp, breaking along the trees. “C’mon, you sonofabitch,” he yelled. “Let’s see what you’ve got. Two more, right here, you coward.”


The resulting silence was massive, crowding back in around them like a cocoon.


Through the middle of it came a branch snapping, off to their left.


Dean headed straight for it, careful not to lose contact with Sarah, shotgun pointed into the bushes. They were rapidly losing the light from the car, and the thinner it got, the more vague the details became, their night vision slow to recover.


They skirted a stand of birch and ducked back into the true shadows, rounding a massive old pine with gnarled skin that had begun to strip away.


Sarah’s voice was startled and tense when she said Sam’s name.


Sam stood just feet away, rigid, arms held stiffly at his sides. The grimace on his face was visible in the white flash of teeth.


“Sam,” Dean said, holding Sarah back. She had jumped forward when she’d first seen him, and as badly as Dean wanted to do the same, he was in no mood to get them all caught in whatever trap Sam was stuck in.


He held Sarah back with a hand and approached, propping the shotgun against the tree and reaching for Sam. Sam’s eyes darted to him, and Dean felt a surge of cold air as his fingers brushed against one of Sam’s clenched fists.


“C’mon, Sam,” Dean said. “Gotta give me a hint, here.” He gestured for Sarah to stand up close to the tree, then used both hands to check Sam over. His skin was far too cool and every muscle was rigid as he fought something, and Dean couldn’t tell what the hell it might be. There were no injuries he could see, but then he dragged one open hand down along Sam’s back and felt the tear in his jacket, felt the warm thick stickiness of blood at his lower back.


He tried to move Sam, first with the steady pressure of one hand, and failing that, tried to shove him with both. Sam didn’t budge. Could move his eyes, could still breathe, but was locked up in every other way. Demons could hold you down, tear you apart from the inside out with their wills, but they didn’t do this. It had stuck a guy halfway up a tree and pinned him there, left him there, got something from doing that. Left as a warning or an offering or some other means to an end, throat crushed without leaving marks on the skin.


He circled Sam, disturbing the air around him, looking for seams and breaks in the force that held him, tense and waiting for the first sign of choking. Sam was still breathing fine, but he was obviously under stress, and Dean didn’t want it to go on any longer than it had to. He felt nothing in the air, no hint of pressure or motion, no stinging along his skin that screamed of magic or malevolence.


He cursed and grabbed the shotgun from its spot leaning against the tree, and put two rounds of rock salt into the ground close to Sam’s feet.


Sam took in a loud gasp of breath as something gave a little, and Sarah did the same when she was yanked backward as if on a string. She dropped the holy water and the branches, letting out a yelp of shock as she met the forest floor. She tried to curl automatically into a ball, making herself harder to drag and less of a target, and Dean fired into the air directly above her. Salt crashed into the trunks and brush, silent air flooding back in to muffle them once the explosion faded. Dean pulled her back up and held on with his free hand, backing them toward Sam again until they were nearly touching him.


“Grab Sam,” Dean said. “Grab him and hold on.”


She did it without even asking why, wrapping her arms around his waist and tucking her face against his chest.


Dean grabbed one of the chestnut branches from the ground and flipped it once in one hand, then handed it out to Sarah. “Tuck it between you, and stab out away from yourself when I tell you. Got it?”


Yes,” she said, sliding the branch between herself and Sam but remaining pressed close to him.


Dean picked up one of the other branches and swung it up overhand, drawing it back as if he meant to put it right through Sam. Sam’s eyes widened but he wouldn’t have been able to duck had he wanted to when Dean stabbed at him and missed by very little, jamming the edge of the branch between his arm and ribs, all the way back until it slammed into the bark of the pine behind.


There wasn’t enough light to see exactly what was gathering against the branch Dean held, only that something was. An umbra of deeper shadow stretched along the length of the branch Dean held, drawing out by degrees, a dark ribbon fraying, spreading along the branch and pulling away in long, dark tendrils, roots searching for purchase.


Dean meant to say now to Sarah, but something already had him by the throat, pressure from the inside twisting further inward. He leaned over, choking, but didn’t let go of the branch. Sam got a hand free long enough to grip the branch Sarah held, but was unable to move it. Sarah reached for Dean and shoved the branch crosswise against the first, bringing them into contact.


The ribbon of black spilled down over the branches and hung suspended from them, trailing toward the ground. Dean took a harsh breath, finally, and Sam stumbled back against the pine. He grabbed both branches and twisted them together, making knots out of the still-living wood. Then he tossed it away. The branches tumbled and slid across years of leaf litter, then were still.


The three of them stood and breathed for a long moment, Dean coughing away the last of the tension in his throat and Sam trying to stretch his shoulders back out before wrapping his arms around Sarah.


Dean glanced up at him, and he nodded. I’m okay.


“Tried to pin me up,” Sam said. “Using blood as the anchor. It’s an agreement with the trees.”


Dean snorted, then straightened and dug around in his jacket pockets. Lighter fluid and matches. He doused the branches and set them alight.


The branches flamed but burned the fuel away quickly, still too damp to burn well. Something stretched along and away from them in all directions, like one of the smoke pellets sold for the Fourth of July, the ones that stretched out into long snakes of ash when lit. It spread along the ground like tree roots, not seeking or escaping, just gathering form as something more vital burned away. It expanded, beginning to take on the appearance of a large set of gnarled old roots dug up and cast aside, reaching desperately in time lapse for a chance to return to the earth. It slowed as the last of the flames sputtered out, smoking and twisting its way along for another moment before freezing in place, crackling as it hardened.


Dean walked over and kicked it, and it crumbled, nothing more than a mold of ash.


Sam sighed in relief.


“You okay?” Sarah said against his chest.


Sam nodded against the top of her head. “Yeah.”


“Back to the car so I can check you out,” Dean said. “Now.”


They made quick time back to the Impala, finding the headlights still on and the doors still open. Dean opened the trunk, then rucked Sam’s jacket and shirts halfway up. He handed his flashlight to Sarah.


“Hold the flashlight for me, willya?” he said. “Can you?”


Sarah gripped it in one hand, raised like a weapon. She kept glancing around, not quite willing to believe it was dead, yet. She glanced down into the beam of her light, though, and said, “Oh...oh my God, Sam.”


“It’s okay,” Sam said.


“You can’t see it,” Sarah said.


“Both of you zip it,” Dean said without impatience. He was already concentrating on how to fix it. There was a clawed gash in the small of Sam’s back, traversing the dip of spine just above hips, speaking to the kind of weight that had been behind it when it had happened. It wasn’t a grazing swipe. It dug all the way in along planes and curves, trying to get all of him, open him up. It trailed off on the left, zagging up, evidence of a follow-through, like Sam had been a practice golf swing. The edges were clean along the middle and ragged at the far edges, blood still flowing from the deepest parts of the slash.


Dean dragged a clear plastic milk jug toward him from the trunk, hefting it in one hand and twisting the top off with the other. “Lean over, Sam.”


Sam did so without question. Dean poured water over the wound, splashing blood into a pink sheet along Sam’s back, soaking shirt and jeans. Then he looked close in the light, waiting. “Clear,” he said, voice slightly hoarse. “Nothing to worry about but tetanus, maybe spook-rabies.”


Sam straightened with an effort. Dean dug a clean shirt out of his duffel and pressed it to the wound. “‘ll have to do until we get somewhere decent,” he said.


Sam nodded.


There was a whoop further down the road, the aborted sounding of a police car’s siren, probably because it was passing an intersection up on Essex or Great Hill. The gunshots and the shouting were finally getting a response.


“Get in the car,” Dean said.


With the lights off and mostly allowing the car to coast in gear, Dean was able to navigate out of the darkest of the forest roads without being detected.


At first Sam was intent on leaning back into the passenger seat to keep pressure on the wound, using the shirt and his jacket. Then he found he couldn’t quite resist putting one hand back between the seats in a silent plea, not even needing to since she was already there. Sarah held onto his hand with both her own, offering and needing the comfort, the connection. At some point Dean’s right hand ended up on Sam’s left knee.


-|-


Not a word was spoken on the way back.


-|-


She remembered the first time they’d hunted together, Sam and Dean so in tune with each other that at times she had almost gone unnoticed. But when she had been noticed, it was Sam who had focused on her and Dean who had circled them as if they were both his responsibility. Smirking at her on the surface and teasing Sam, but tense and watchful underneath. Sam, watching Dean for cues and sharing glances that she didn’t begin to try and decipher, ready to jump in front of her and take the brunt of anything.


Having been presented with graphic evidence of not just the supernatural but the malicious dead, she hadn’t found it difficult to catch on, and even accept. It was ridiculous to deny something when it had taken a run at all five senses. And then tried to kill her.

 

They seemed the same as she’d last seen them, keyed up after a hunt, not even bothering to cover for her; she was there with them, in so many ways. The thrill of chasing something in the dark, of being chased, of having no idea what might happen next; the horror of nearly losing Sam, of being reminded again that such a strong, swift and competent man could still be severed from the world in the blink of an eye by something that had seemed so intangible when she’d seen it.


She was hyper aware of them both, then, the linger of adrenaline and the kickstart of sleeping instincts sharpening her senses. Singing of blood under her own skin, under theirs, sharp tang of maleness under sweat and blood and long faded aftershave. They hovered close to one another, from car to door, she and Sam standing close and restless just outside while Dean got a room. He glanced over his shoulder constantly, never looking directly at them, keeping track but trying to stand his ground.


One room; no surprise. She would have ended up in one with them even had Dean tried to separate them. Shoes and jackets were tossed along the floor, and then without conscious thought or planning, she grabbed Sam, pulled him down and forward, breathing him in, needing a closer taste of everything. He had his hands in her hair, then along her face, framing it, skimming along her sides and holding on at the hips, sliding up and under her shirt. Cool, large hands, not rough but frantic. The world filled with him, became him, and that was okay.


A hand that was not Sam’s touched her hair, reverent, and when she forced her eyes open it was to see Dean doing the same to Sam, then pulling away, heading for the door.


Sam reached out the same time she did, grabbed handfuls of clothing, pulled Dean back in.


“Come on,” Dean said breathlessly. “You guys. Aw, you guys. Jesus.”


The last epithet had something attached to it, something that could have been more despair than exasperation.


Sarah’s mouth on his made it a moot point.


-|-


He tried not to kiss her back; he really did. But she was so warm and real and more than that, more than willing and sweet and female; she was invited, for everything, non-hunter non-family, had seen plenty of what made them a problem and a warning but had wanted in anyway, everything. She was everything he wanted Sam to have, good and real and possible. He wanted her like she was the single key to getting there, finally. Wanted her for Sam.


So he managed to keep his hands down, even though she didn’t. One hand on his chest, one behind to pull Sam in, keeping them all linked. He was just as caught up, knew what was happening and why it was ending up the way it was, but unable to put it together much past how good it was to still be alive and to have been through something that might easily have turned out otherwise; it was the only way he knew how to live, how to prove he was alive.


Other than touching whoever got close enough and would let him, that was.


It was Sam who helped Sarah get her shirt off and swept her hair off the back of her neck, open mouth pressed to the nape. It was Dean who helped Sam by undoing the button and zipper on his jeans and folding them down, an arm on either side of Sarah, pressing her between them. That way she didn’t see in better light that the waistband was dark with blood, didn’t have to watch Sam kick them away, didn’t see Dean reach around and press his own shirt to the wound on Sam’s back. Then he was peripheral again while Sarah kissed Sam like he was all there was; they seemed oblivious of him while he used shaking hands to hold the shirt in place, holding them together while Sam undid Sarah’s bra. It was a little lacy thing; not like she knew she was going to be showing it to anyone, but one of those little secret things that women did that maybe made them happy but made Dean deliriously happy.


Arms twined around necks and hands trailed along any available skin, greedy, hopeful. Both Sam and Sarah got Sarah out of her jeans, and Sam hooked his fingers into the silky side straps of panties that matched the bra.


It was Dean who made sure Sam didn’t do any damage to the wound when he backed into the nearest bed and folded down onto it with a ripple of muscle, face full of need, something that looked more painful to him than the tear in his back.


It was Sarah who stripped Sam’s boxers off, like she’d done it before but also like she was just done with the shy part, done with waiting, opening Sam like a damn present after some idiot had double-wrapped him.


She swung a leg over Sam and held him down, pressed in close. After all, no one wanted Sam to move more than he had to.


He didn’t put up much of a fight.


Dean placed himself right behind her when she sat up again, bracing her, watching over them, chest pressed against her back. And if he ran hands along Sam’s too-cool skin, it was because he was checking for fever, or so he told himself. Sam, gazing up at Sarah like she was everything he’d been waiting for, like he’d die if she didn’t touch him.


After that he did anything he could not to look at Sam’s face.


There was something striving to be gentle in the way they touched, still frantic but trying to keep it from being all there was, still moving faster than they ever would have otherwise, short of rough and sinking teeth straight into desperate, the possibility of death still circling along with the knowledge of what eyeblinks of time they made up in the greater scheme of things.


The surroundings and circumstances didn’t matter. The need to be this with each other mattered.


It was Dean who had a condom in his wallet, six actually, tucked into a fold of the leather for any number of possibilities. Tore the foil in his teeth and reached around, handed it to Sarah; all her decision, all her next move.


He could do this, be there for them, be what they needed. Maybe what he needed, too.


He felt his entire body tense when she took Sam’s dick in one firm hand, stroking, and he was looking at the ceiling when he felt her raise up and sink down, knowing from the startled breath Sam took and the answering exhalation from Sarah that told him all he needed to know. This was theirs; he was theirs.


Hand spread wide and pressed low on her abdomen, ring warmed even further by her skin, he held her steady as she rode, face pressed to her hair and into something light and floral mixed in with the terror and want, all that had gone before and skidded into the now. Fingertips pressed in firm and careful and found all of her, grazed along Sam’s length as his hips answered her downward thrusts, connected for long minutes in shudders of slick and gripping muscles, whisper-slides of skin and panting breath, all so quick and uneven and tinged with the red of eyes closed too hard. Sarah tipped her head back onto Dean’s shoulder even as she pressed her knees tighter against Sam’s sides, Sam’s hands on her hips, one heel digging into the small of Dean’s back. Dean tangled the fingers of his free hand into Sam’s, into Sarah’s, the three of them holding on wherever they could.


Sarah locked up under their hands, jerking with reaction when her first orgasm hit, and Dean pressed the heel of one hand into her pubic bone, grinding gently.


He was holding them together as he came apart.


-|-


Dean tossed a first aid kit onto one of the beds. Sarah headed for the bathroom, knowing Dean would need hot water and towels for whatever he was going to do.


Still, not another word spoken.


When she returned, wearing one of Sam’s shirts from his bag, Sam was facedown on the bed closest to the door, still naked, head resting on hands. His hair tumbled across his eyes, leaving her to guess at what he felt by the tightness of his mouth. She finally had a good look at the wound on his back, harsh in the overhead light, skin laid open down to muscle just above his hips and worse on the left where it took a sudden upsweep and trailed into a ragged puncture. It was still seeping from the deepest areas. Dean straddled Sam’s hips, feet pressed in against his thighs, bent over Sam’s back with open concentration. The first aid kit lay open to his right, meticulously organized.


He had put a t-shirt back on in addition to his jeans, either to put a distance to things or because he felt more collected that way, or because he was about to get to business.


Dean glanced up at her when she handed him a warm, damp towel, something grateful and knowing in his eyes. He pressed it gently against the wound, pressure and preparation, and Sam didn’t flinch.


Sarah sat on the edge of the bed, then scooted until her back was against the headboard and she could pat one thigh and offer it to Sam. Quirk of a smile, then Sam pulled her closer across the covers with one hand, causing a sharp thrill to spike low in her belly even before he rested one cheek against her leg and encircled it in his hands. She tangled her fingers in his hair and petted, soothing herself as well as distracting him.


Dean pulled the towel away and looked in close without touching, then pulled a bottle of alcohol from the kit and soaked a dry hand towel with it. He ran it over his own hands, pouring it over his fingers and into the towel a bit at a time, hissing at the contact with small cuts and scrapes, brow furrowed with concentration. Sam began to hum a little just under his breath, low and measured, but nothing she recognized. Dean probed at the edges, pressing and checking, and Sam tensed a little but there was no break in the humming. Dean tucked a towel in on each side of Sam, poked in the kit for a moment, came up with hydrogen peroxide, then uncapped it and poured it right into the wound. Sam made a soft grunting sound and bent one knee sharply, kicking Dean in the back with a heel.


“Oh, ya big baby,” Dean said softly but with scorn.


“It’s cold, you asshole,” Sam said.


“You know how this goes,” Dean said, fond and chastising and edged with something else, something that made Sarah’s stomach coil further with anticipation. Dean glanced up and winked at her as if he knew. He pressed the alcohol-soaked towel around the edges of the wound, watching the peroxide bubble and froth. Sam breathed slow and deep through his nose, and Sarah knew the alcohol had to sting. The towel that was soaked with only water was pressed in again, and then Dean went back to looking close into the wound before unwrapping a curved needle and surgical thread, threading the needle with practiced ease. He glanced at Sarah again, eyebrows raised as if asking her if she could deal, and she tipped her head at him a little and ruffled Sam’s hair. She could feel Sam smile against her leg.


She watched Dean press the edges of the wound together, beginning on the left, and then he put the first suture in so quickly and easily that she wasn’t sure he’d really done anything. He put a row of interrupted sutures in, even and neat so that the knots lay to one side or the other of the center line and never right above the wound. All done before, over and over. It said too much that they treated it so casually, as a common part of their lives.


He tied the last one off and trimmed the thread, wrapping the remainder and the needle in a patch of gauze. He leaned over again to look close at his work, hands spanning Sam’s hips, thumbs braced along the edges. He felt around in the kit again, coming up with a tube of antibiotic cream and smearing it carefully around the stitches. Then gauze and cloth tape, torn into needed shapes by sharp teeth.


It was when he pressed his lips to the center of Sam’s spine, quick and barely there in possible apology or affection or as a signature, that Sarah realized she didn’t want anything again anytime soon that didn’t include them one way or another.


She didn’t second guess herself when the urge to strip the shirt back off came along. She simply did it.


Dean’s eyebrows shot halfway up his forehead, hands paused in midair above Sam’s back. When she glanced down, Sam had turned his face to look up at her, and his expression was similar but less questioning.


She leaned over and kissed Sam, not quite enough and not close enough, not yet. She felt extra motion on the bed and didn’t glance up but knew Dean had started to move away. It was Sam who caught him by his shirt and held on, that time.


“You guys are killing me,” Dean whispered.

 

-|-


Sam was an incredible expanse of warm skin and muscle stretched along every inch of her at the front, and Dean was gentle callused hands along her back, trying unsuccessfully to keep some kind of distance even though it was far too late.


Drowsy kisses, slow and missing all the frantic desperation. Hands, all linked together, SamSarahDean.


-|-


Dean was up and gone before Sam and Sarah were awake, then back with a drink carrier and fresh baked something in white paper bags.


There was coffee and orange juice and muffins – blueberry, and something nutty with a cinnamon topping. Dean was all grin and smart remarks, standing at the foot of the bed with something sparkling in his eyes but something deeper behind, happy but longing. Then he was gone, not leaving a space but leaving room all the same, and they looked at each other with a solemn contentment.


“I kind of like you,” Sarah said.


Sam smiled.


-|-


“How did you learn?” Sarah said.


Dean knew what she was talking about immediately.


They were headed back to Dudleytown in full daylight, Sarah riding shotgun with the chestnut sapling in a paper bag in her lap. There were several more saplings in the back with Sam, chestnut and red maple and hickory, Sam leaning at an odd angle while he tried to ease the stiffness in his back.


“First time I put stitches in Sam, he was 13,” Dean said softly. “Hadn’t quite started to sprout yet. Put his elbow through a window while we were...uh, training.”


“Roughousing,” Sam said.


“Whatever. Didn’t want Dad to know. It was an empty house we were searching for...stuff.”


“Just a step above dumpster diving,” Sam said.


“Can find some cool stuff, sometimes. People leave the damndest things behind,” Dean said softly.


“The CB radio was the best,” Sam said. “We learned all the lingo.”


“Why don’t you tell her what your handle was, Sammy?” Dean said.


“Why don’t you save yourself by getting back to the story?” Sam said.


“Only six or so stitches, that time,” Dean said, rolling his eyes. “Just above the elbow. So his sleeves would hide it, anyway. And I had some practice on Dad.”


“You had to stitch your dad up?” Sarah said.


Dean wobbled his head back and forth a little. “First aid is a useful skill for a kid to know.”


Sarah kept staring at him expectantly.


“What,” Dean said.


“It’s good that he could trust you, to back him up,” Sarah said.


She watched him try and pass it off with a shrug of his eyebrows and a quirk of his mouth, but that same sparkle she’d seen earlier returned to his eyes. She glanced back at Sam, who was smiling at her so fondly that it made her heart ache. All of it was more intimate than what they’d spent the night doing. Sam came as part of a set, and while she didn’t fully grasp or understand the depth of it as more than an idea, yet, she was learning.


Sinking down onto Sam and taking him inside had been a relief, perfect fit and, if she was honest, power over his previous denials.


The sound Dean had breathed onto the back of her neck had felt helpless and open, sounded like permission, something so unlike him that it had to really be him. Obsequious.


She was still caught between them, in a way, and it was good.


“Think there’s anything else up there?” she said.


Dean and Sam looked at each other for a moment.


“Nah,” Dean said.


-|-


After a bout of stealthy wandering along the same path they’d taken the first time they’d been up there, they arrived back in Dudleytown without a hint of law enforcement. Sam and Dean each carried two saplings, hickory and red maple, and Sarah carried two, small chestnuts that looked healthy and strong. Sam and Dean each carried a bag of a mixture Sam had put together, sand and peat moss and transplant fertilizer soaked in holy water.


It was quick and easy to plant them in a wide circle around the big dead chestnut, creating a ring around it. Sam gave pointers on the best way to put them back in the ground, the same way he’d been particular about how to remove them from where they’d been growing. They weren’t in the dormancy of winter, and they were being moved by miles in a warm car, so they needed to stay damp and have their roots well covered. There was no point in getting them up there only to have them die of shock.


In the holes went the mixture; then, roots gently loosened, in went the saplings.


“I think it was a wood-wraith,” Dean said, patting a covering of leaf mulch around one of the chestnuts. “Never actually messed with one before, but heard of them. They tend to be particular to one forest or area. Really territorial, don’t like trespassers. They stay put because they’re just part of one place, but if that place changes...so do they. The trees that were keeping it, I don’t know, calm or happy or whatever, died off, or were all taken down, and people moved in. There were still just enough old chestnut and hemlock in there to keep it from doing more than driving people off, or driving ‘em nuts, but then all these years later the last chestnut for miles bought it a few weeks ago. And then there was nothing holding it back.”


Sam tossed a handful of loose stones at Dean. “Why didn’t you say something when we were up here the first time?”


“‘Cause you were so busy bitching about your elves or whatever, and being a big geek in front of the girl,” Dean said. “Didn’t wanna steal your thunder.”


“So the next people to stop too close to the woods after dark...” Sarah began.


“I think it just didn’t like noise,” Dean said. “Killed ‘em to get ‘em to shut up, once they started screaming.”


They were silent for a long minute, absorbing that.


“So the saplings in the yards,” Sarah said. “The people who live around here, they all know. How to ward it off, maybe what it might do. So they planted certain trees and then closed the whole area off.”


“Must have been hard, and taken awhile,” Sam said. “To admit they had something weird living up there. More likely that something happened that no one could ignore, long before that couple was killed.”


“So why are we going to all this trouble, if it’s dead?” Sarah said.


“I don’t think it is,” Dean said. “I don’t think something like that dies. It gets its energy from the place, and what grows there. Putting these here kind of gives the place a chance to restore the balance. If it comes back, it’ll be held here again. If there was more than one, it should solve that too.”


“It’s that we don’t know for sure,” Sam said. “So we should do whatever we can to try and tip things in our favor.” He finished tying one of the saplings to a stake, then sat back on his knees and winced. He glanced up at Dean. “How’d you know?”


“I guessed,” Dean said. “I couldn’t move you, so that meant something was holding you there, and whatever it was had to get interrupted. With what we know about the chestnuts, if I put a damn chestnut branch between it and you, it would at least notice. Maybe.”


Sam eyed him speculatively.


Dean waved a hand at him. “Shut up, it worked.”

 

Sam grinned.


Sarah looked between them, realizing Dean had immediately known what Sam was asking, both men on the same wavelength in a way that likely put identical twins to shame.


She would have to learn to speak the language.


-|-


Walking back to the car hand in hand with Sam was worth it all.


-|-


“I can catch a flight, you know,” she said.


Sam kept packing his duffel. “Sure,” he said.


“Or rent a car.”


“You can,” Sam said. “But you don’t want to.”


“Ladies get escorted home,” Dean said. “I don’t let just anybody ride in my car.”


Sarah looked at Sam. Sam rolled his eyes in a way that very clearly translated to see what I have to put up with?


“Now, tell me I get to pack your things,” Dean said to her.


Sam pitched a shoe at him.


-|-


It was strange, being three; it should have broken up the rhythm, but Sarah did not need to be entertained. It was as easy as any other set of miles and miles of road they had traveled, a little more inviting, a little warmer. There was something to be said for something new but familiar.


-|-


The Blake home was in Irondequoit, a suburb north of Rochester. Small upscale neighborhood with plenty of room between the homes, manicured lawns, Victorian construction.


Dean dropped Sam and Sarah off on the street just down from the drive that made a break in the brick privacy wall that encircled the house. He got out long enough to hug Sarah slightly clear of the ground before letting go, patting her hair a little in a way that managed not to come off as patronizing. He didn’t meet her eyes, though.


Sam and Sarah walked hand in hand down the drive, Sam with Sarah’s overnight bag dangling from his free hand.


“I never intended for it to turn out like this,” Sam said. “I’m sorry...you got caught up in all that. It wasn’t supposed to be anything big.”


“You mean, the monster, or the post-hunt orgy?” she said.


Sam ducked his head and blushed so hard that Sarah couldn’t quite keep from grinning.


“Sam,” she said.


“I was trying to be more settled, first,” Sam said. “Have something in front of me. And I figured you would be...I mean, how could you not be...”


“Madly in love with someone and planning a perfect life?” she said.


He shrugged a little. They paused several yards from the front door, still hand in hand. “Hard to believe that every guy for miles isn’t using every lame trick in the book to try and get your attention.”


“And that’s your way of saying...”


“You’re amazing,” Sam said, and he looked so earnest and worried at the same time that she could only stare. “Beautiful, and brilliant, and worth whatever I have to do to keep you safe and make this work. So, yeah. Let’s go steady. If you’re willing to put up with all the weirdness, and meeting in the middle at crazy times, and not ever knowing what’s going to happen? I want that. I want this.”


She leaned up and kissed him, grabbed his head in both hands and just breathed him in. He held her like she was precious, but not as if she would break. Fingertips along faces, mouths warm and slow, promises of so many kinds.


She whispered in his ear.


“Come meet my dad properly, this time. He said you’re the most polite person he’s ever tossed out of an auction.”


-|-


Daniel Blake insisted on calling him Samuel, and would go on doing so for the rest of his life.


-|-


Dean was waiting by the car just down the block, and watched Sam struggle not to look back as he came to join his brother.


-|-


“Don’t do it,” Dean said.


They were just outside Reno. It had been ridiculously easy to fall back into the routine – if it had ever been a routine – of traveling insane distances in little time and behaving as two halves of one whole.


Sam squinted at him. “Don’t do what?”


“Barge in there, and go off on dad about how wrong he was.”


Sam looked at him like he’d spouted nonsense. “He was wrong.”


Dean shrugged with his eyebrows. “Yeah, and so what? What good’s it gonna do to rub it in?”


Sam turned in the passenger seat a little to get a better bead on Dean, wincing a little as he stretched the stitches. “Are you protecting him?”


“I just don’t wanna hear a big yelling match over who was right about what,” Dean said. “That’s all. We’ll just tell him we found a wood-wraith up there, took care of it, end of story.”


“I don’t believe you sometimes,” Sam said. “You’ve been calling him on all his shit for months now, but not on thi–“


Sam paused. And blinked. Then he sat back and looked forward again.


“Huh,” he said.


“I don’t wanna hear it,” Dean said.


“I’m not gonna start something with Dad,” Sam said. “Okay? Sometimes, the guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and you have to accept that.”


“Shut up, Sam,” Dean growled.


“I’ll work on being better about Dad,” Sam went on, ignoring him. “Because I want us to be on good terms when he meets Sarah, too. I get it, okay?”


Dean sighed. “Don’t you feel like a nap?” he said.


“For a minute there I was afraid it was a revenant or something,” Sam said, leaning in.


Dean froze.


“And I was gonna just drop the whole thing and drag you both out,” Sam said. “I would have put your dumb ass under one arm and carried you away, if I had to. Because no way does anything get hold of you again in this lifetime.”


Dean was very careful about not responding.


Sam leaned away again, folding his hands across his lap and closing his eyes.


The words except me went unspoken but were loud all the same.


Dean glanced sidelong at him, then made sure to keep both hands on the wheel.


-|-


Dean looked around at the new apartment.


He’d been there before, obviously, when they’d signed the lease. But it had still been a distant idea, just one more place to see and be in. No more real or permanent than any other place.


He fixated on the couch.


Sam had found it at the Goodwill, brown and gold rough weave, ugly as hell but clean and pretty comfortable. TV’s were cheap and there was a 19' on an old end table in front of the couch. Theirs. Not somebody else’s they were borrowing, not some place they were crashing in for a day or two. Table and chairs in the dinette that was part of an L-shape with the kitchen, bookshelves against the wall between the kitchen doorway and the hallway. There was a fake ficus in a crummy basket holder by the single sliding glass door that led to a small balcony. From the second floor they could look down on the parking lot and see who was coming and going. Someone in the complex had left the ficus by the dumpster. Sam had brought it in as a joke.


He sat on the couch. It smelled faintly of Febreez. He didn’t mind it, even though the scent was just shy of girly. On the small beaten coffee table were his books for his first quarter classes.


He had already read them.


Sam had promised to help him with any papers he needed to write; he had barely bothered to write the required crap in high school, and even then had copied everything almost verbatim from encyclopedias because writing papers had been a waste of his time. He didn’t have practice at it. He could easily put the words together, but there was something else to it, a flow that he knew existed but didn’t quite understand.


Luckily, most of his course work would be hands on. Showing and doing, those were things he felt confident with, even if it was something new.


There would be people. Most younger than him, younger than Sam, likely, and he wasn’t sure how he was going to deal with that. He could smile anybody into submission, or into a frothing rage, so he didn’t care about handling strangers. He cared about being outnumbered. He was not one of them even if he tried to be, which he wouldn’t. They would be mostly speaking English but it would all still be a foreign language to him, sly and inside and current, immersed in a culture he had never really become part of. He had spent his life skirting the outsides and skimming off the top.


But he was not a hunter, either, anymore. Not by his definition.


Why do I have to take all this preliminary shit, why I can’t I just get to the good stuff? You know, stuff that shows me what I need to know so I can get on with this.


Because it doesn’t work that way, Dean. All the preliminary shit becomes part of the whole, the background, the base.


Sam always had an answer for something, the little shit.


None of it had happened quickly, but it was happening faster than he liked. He would have to get used to things the way they were. He could adapt to anything; he and Sam had been raised to do that. Still, it felt like being dropped in the middle of a jungle with a pack of matches and a sleeping bag.


Sleeping bag. Sam had not been kidding about making him find his own bed. He’d have to do that. A frame, that would be easy, he could find one cheap. He’d slept in so many motel rooms on such a variety of crapass mattresses that he wasn’t sure how the hell he was supposed to even know what he liked. Firm? Soft? It had to be new, though. But he didn’t want to go try them out. That was weird.


He was, maybe, possibly, just a little overwhelmed by things that other people did by rote.


He sighed and propped his feet on the coffee table.


Protection symbols taped above doors and windows, painted onto doorframes with nail polish of all things (easy to get off if they moved out), salt in front of the door at night; those were things he was comfortable with. He had done that before they even brought the furniture in. Sam had smudged the place with sage and cedar, clearing the space and making it theirs.


Dean didn’t feel anything, there. Apartments didn’t talk, not like houses. He didn’t know why that was, and didn’t really care. He was grateful.


It came down to that, finally: grateful. For many things.


Sarah was going to come out to see them in October. See Sam. Dean was going to make himself scarce, this time. Hang around with them briefly, yes, but the focus needed to be on them as a couple, and they didn’t need him for that.


Not a word, never a word about the night they ‘d beat the Dudleytown wood-wraith. Nothing needed to be said anyway.


He heard Sam coming up the stairs, knew it had to be Sam because Sam’s steps were the same anywhere to him, stairs or sand or pavement, long strides that were always headed an exact somewhere.


There was a rustle of paper bags and a squeak of hinges when the door opened, and there was Sam, tossing takeout onto the table and saying hey, finish telling me about the one course that does field work in the Cascades.


Yeah. Grateful.


-|- -|- -|-


-|- -|-  


-|-


_____________


Notes:

Supernatural is © eternity, Eric ‘Hotass’ Kripke. No infringement intended, no money made, don’t sue. Please send Jensen and Jared to show me the error of my ways. Photos are © 2002 Robert Winkler, when he was there to write an article on it. I am © 1971, the same year Starbucks opened; coincidence?

The area is zoned/licensed/whatever as a protected nature preserve, and no one is allowed on the property now except residents. The police are happy to fine anybody trying to get in. Not that anybody’s gonna flock there, now; WinCon:09 will not be held in Dudleytown. Every place that’s mentioned exists, as do all the little details in regards to the town’s history and DEF, Inc. that I could dig up, thanks to Wikis and the 10+ million ghost lore sites. Many thanks to mistojen for the firsthand account of what it’s like to wander into and around Dudleytown. \m/

The monster (Dudley Do-wrong) is supposedly captured here on video; he shows up at about 1:36, moving right to left. Hoax? Overexposure? Creepy wood-spirit? You decide.

btw: the change in POV during that scene happened on its own; it was Dean’s part of the story to tell, as is most of the adventure anyway. I’ll write it from the bed’s POV, next time.

 

Supernatural:Silver and salt       gekizetsu.net