Red, Chapter 10/Between Murder and Breakdown

Lore: Folktales belong to the people, the words to me, the canon to the Krip.

'Ware: PG-13, Gen, heaps of cussing, gory as hell, featuring Deansicle and BigAngrySam. Based on Little Red Riding Hood, which was always about sex and violence, so there you go. COMPLETE. And my fanfic friends, many apologies; this has been up for a few days over at my lj. But the fanbot, she has not permitted me to upload any docs. So you had to wait longer than I'd like. Hope it's worth it.

Beta Love: Oh, I should gush, but really, you know it all already. They make the world go round. They devoted as much time to this as I did. Without them and their enthusiasm and ideas and research, Red would be a sanitized, happy children's tale. For Lemmypie and jmm0001, then, my collaborators and friends.

Once Upon a Time in Washington State, Dean ran into a very bad Wolf who took one look at young Dean and was consumed with desire. The Wolf followed Dean through the years until he finally ate him. Sam, never one to give up, cut the Wolf open, stuffed him full of rocks and is now hoping for the best. Dean, stuck in a supernatural Cadillac with only memories and an opinionated treeplanter named Ruby for company, decides to get his groove back. But then a big white light comes along and...we shall see what happens next.

Teeth and spit and hatred: that was how the Wolf woke up.

Prodded in the neck with the sharp point of Sam's machete, Lukas cracked his blue eyes open like eggs for a griddle, his lip curling over teeth too large and sharp for his mouth. His head jerked up, throwing a thread of moon-caught saliva, a mane of gray hair fanning from his neck, arms retracting into beef jerky sinew and then stretching into razor-tipped forelegs.

Behind him, well back, Tommy started swearing, not hysterically, but low and rhythmically, the explicit curses of organized religion. Raised in the church, Sam thought, not moving his blade in the slightest, no matter what happened next. This thing might not eat them, but it didn't mean that it wouldn't shred them into dogmeat.

The Wolf turned suddenly, lupine tail like a club, close-by rush of water not disguising the sound of stretched sinew and bone-snapping and a loose meaty glitch as the Wolf shook out its head, staggered out of the tarp's shadow into the moonlight, belly huge and distended, scraping the ground as it shuffled forward. Nothing human left. Sam stepped back with it, bumped into Tommy, who hadn't moved.

It was huge, the size of an Italian sports car.

"Dude, d'ya think waking it up was a good idea?" Tommy croaked.

Sam didn't really have an answer to that, all he had were folktales, so he turned his arm slightly and the long machete caught moonlight and the Wolf saw an edged weapon in the hand of someone who knew how the hell to use it.

Glint of lunar blue, and the Wolf stumbled, ungainly, perhaps realizing that something wasn't quite right.

"Not so good now, is it?" Sam whispered to it, then wondered why he was whispering. Come and get it, he thought, tightening his grip on the machete. "He's not there anymore, inside. He's gone, and you're never going to see him again." Sam hoped to god he was right about that.

The Wolf, still too far away for Sam to take a good clean swing, turned its head to the side. A swing wasn't what Sam had in mind, however, and he stayed where he was.

"Go on," Sam taunted, pleased to see it suffer. He'd never really felt that before; he'd wanted things dead, yes, but for the Wolf, Sam desired an end more elaborate and medieval than a quick beheading.

"Just...Sam, god, man..." Sam knew what Tommy was asking. Just kill the thing.

But that wasn't how the story went.

"Run," Sam commanded the beast, too low to be proper speech, not quiet enough to be a whisper. "Run as fast as you can."

And he took three fast steps forward, the machete coming up like justice and the Wolf bolted for the darkness of a rainforest at midnight.

Sam heard it crashing through the bushes, tearing itself through bramble and salal, through the thick undergrowth by the river. Just going, and going.

The point of his machete came down and rested against a river rock, and Sam turned to Tommy. Even by moonlight, he could tell that the planter was the same shade as wallpaper paste. Without a word, Sam bent to Lukas's things, ignoring the coils of abandoned gut, moving them out of the way with the blade, dreading what he might find hidden in the folds of fabric and flesh. Only cloth and some beaten camping gear, nothing out of the ordinary.

He didn't have time to collect, Sam thought. Just to devour.

Everything rocked for one moment, Sam not knowing where the hell Dean might be, everything twisting around too little to eat and not enough sleep and adrenaline leaving his body like tide from a beach. The landscape tilted and Sam jammed the machete into a wind-felled log to keep his balance. He took a long steadying breath, then straightened, not looking at Tommy.

"Come on." It wasn't too far back to the protest camp and they didn't have to be quiet this time. There would be cops there, though, and there was no need to attract the wrong kind of attention. "Let's wash the blood off. Then we find Ruby and Dean." Obligingly, Tommy tripped toward the river, not asking any questions.

A howl ripped the night, already distant. It was full of longing and need and it was the same sound from Sam's dream. Tommy stopped, and Sam bumped into him.

"You think it'll get far?" Tommy asked, meek.

Sam shook his head. "No, not far. It'll keep running until it dies." And of that, he was sure.

Seriously, Tommy thought, I should ease up on the psyllicibens, because they are just fucking with my head. A beer. Tommy needed a beer, which would ground him and maybe erase what the fuck had just happened. What couldn't have just fucking happened.

But there were still smears of blood on his rugby shirt, though Sam had insisted on washing both of them off in the coldest fucking glacial runoff before putting away that big honking knife. All that slimy crap on the blankets they'd left, knowing that some wild animal would take care of it, but Tommy didn't actually want to think about wild animals too fucking much, because that was just some scary shit, man.

What a fucking trip. And Sam, man, it so couldn't have gone down like Tommy thought it might have, because Sam was cool as a flarin' surfer bowling pure tubeage six feet offshore, man, was just stoked for it. Tommy'd never seen anything like it. Had probably not seen it, now that he thought about it, because if what he'd seen was true, then Sam was just like, magic or something, and Tommy knew that although he'd seen some weird stuff when he'd dropped acid or 'shrooms, this was kinda beyond most freaky trips.

Well, except maybe that time in an Olympia motel room when the bedside lamp had changed into a cat, rubbed itself against his face and spoken to him in his dad's voice about the advantages of finishing that physiotherapy degree he'd abandoned a few years back. This time, though? Man, he'd have to thank Lorenzo for finding this batch of 'shrooms, because they fucking rocked.

In fact, he was so amped that he practically ran to the camp. Or maybe that was because Sam was running and Sam could move pretty fucking quick when he put his mind to it, yeah, he was a good planter, give him a month and he'd be raking in the bucks with the rest of the highballers, but Sam didn't seem to have his head in the game. The planting game. Was more concerned about...well, maybe Tommy couldn't quite figure out what Sam was concerned about.

Lights were on at the camp, what, was it a party? Tommy was fairly sure that the protest crowd wasn't into partying the same way the planters were, because shit, wasn't it past midnight or something?

There was something going down, though – right, Ruby had disappeared. But shit, wasn't that Ruby right fucking there, still chained to the fucking tree, yelling like the world was coming to an end?

A crowd around her, and Tommy wasn't much into crowds, but Sam, still kinda damp from dunking himself in the river, pushed people away like they were bowling pins, what a fucking tall guy, guess he could get away with that kind of shit, even though one of the guys was probably a cop, judging from the belt and the ridicufuckinglous ranger hat. Tommy followed Sam, more or less because he'd been following Sam for a couple of hours now and Tommy liked repetitive routine if he liked anything.

The law-enforcement officer – no, shit he was with Parks – was walking away, though, shaking his head, saying something about stupid hippies and he ought to do a tox screen on the girl, seemed high on something.

As soon as Sam got near Ruby, she quieted down, and threw her arms around him, tight. Frantic. Shit, scared maybe, and Tommy'd never seen that from Ruby, not in all the time he'd known her.

"Where is he?" was the first thing Sam said to her, and that didn't make a whole lot of sense to Tommy. He looked over his shoulder. The TV vans were all dark, maybe the journalists had packed up for the night, maybe they'd been turned off by a protestor disappearing and reappearing like a bunny out a hole.

Ruby was sobbing now. That took Tommy's attention, mostly because Ruby wasn't exactly the sort of chick who just, you know, sobbed, and also because, damn, she was a nice girl, and he still sort of liked her. Despite the fact that she'd been all curious about not-shy Sam.

Sam was shushing her, stroking her hair, then shouted for someone to find the key for the kryptonite locks. Ruby didn't look like she wanted to be locked up anymore, looked like she was going to snap those chains herself if something wasn't done right away. Like a teeny tiny Incredible Hulk. So much for her experiment in direct action.

Her voice was clogged with tears, that mucus-y glottal way that little kids got when they were about to lose it big time. Tommy leaned against the tree, took the key from Astrid, who gave both Tommy and Sam a dirty look. Astrid had perfected dirty looks, had fucking stock in the Bank of Bitch. Behind her, he saw Lorenzo and Theresa. What the hell had he been meaning to tell Lorenzo? The 'shrooms, right.

"Tommy," Sam said sharply, looking at the key.

Tommy jumped, started to unlock the chains. Was close enough to hear what Ruby said, for all the sense it made.

"He was inside with me. And...and he had," she gestured to her side. "He was hurt, Sam, but okay for the longest time and then...jesus, I'm sorry, but he started to bleed again, and there was a flash of white light..."

She didn't even get a chance to finish before Sam turned, let her go like she had some kind of electric current running through her, like he'd stuck his tongue on a nine-volt battery. Sam's face was so white, Tommy was pretty sure he was going to hurl, and he stepped back, not wanting to get hit. Sam shook himself instead, Tommy actually saw him shake himself, nod once.

Then Sam grabbed Lorenzo by the shoulder, bent down to look the shorter man in the eye. "Give me the truck keys."

It wasn't any kind of request. He held out his big planter's hand, still dark with blood not quite scrubbed off and missing a couple of nails and Tommy felt an inexplicable surge of pride then, that Sam was one of them. He was some kind of warrior, had done something that Tommy knew was heroic, even if he didn't really remember all the details. Lorenzo silently passed him the keys to the company truck. Sam ran to the bridge, to where the truck was parked, not one more word to any of them.

This? This was shit.

This was the worst fucking cosmic joke imaginable. From one fucking fucked up situation to another and back again.

Dean didn't even bother looking this time. The pain was just this side of unbearable, and the only thing keeping him from curling up and rocking in agony was the fact that he had a fucking stake through his fucking side like a fucking kebab at Satan's own BBQ in hell.

God, he thought, looking at the clear sky, the stars, thinking about how he could at least see distance again.

Bored now, Winchester? Almost started laughing, but he knew it would hurt too much. I'll never wish for excitement again. Bring on boring. He closed his eyes, shutting out the wished-for view, because everything was spinning and he felt sick and chilled and knew neither was a good sign.

He heard owls, and the noise of branches rattling in the wind, which was picking up a little. He tried to concentrate on all these things, because concentrating on anything closer to home was just going to result in him losing it.

So he heard it when it came.

Not that it would have been able to disguise itself, he supposed, big as it was, but he heard it smashing around in the underbrush like it was blind or something, like it wanted to take out as much crap as possible as it moved forward.

As it came. To him. Of course, to him.

Dean didn't move his head and he had a bunch of good reasons for that. Any movement hurt so bad he couldn't stand it, like pulling your teeth with pliers, purposefully jabbing a screwdriver into your eye socket. Also, he'd probably bleed out in thirty seconds if he jostled that stake in any direction. Hell, he might be bleeding out right now for all he knew, might have hit something big like an artery or his kidney or liver or god alone knew what else. But mostly, he couldn't see much in the dark anyway, so what was the point.

Clarification: if he was being honest with himself, he didn't want to see. Dear god. Oh, god.

Soon he didn't have to turn his head, because the Wolf was there, was a dim huge outline that blocked out stars, breathing like it was the one with a stake through it. But, man, it was fucked up, even in the dark Dean could see that. It couldn't walk in a straight line, it just dragged itself, not even walking now, just dragging itself over the slash. It smelled of death, which was a smell Dean would recognize in his sleep.

It lay down close to Dean, its head near his head, started to whine, sounding all the world like a dog that had been tied up outside a coffee shop while its owner forgot about it over a long cappuccino. Dean swallowed, wouldn't look at it.

Talk to me, talk to me.

When the whining didn't work, it growled, deep in its throat and Dean closed his eyes. No way was he going inside again, he'd twist on the stake to avoid it, would rather fatally tear an artery than go back. But the Wolf couldn't take him in like before, and Dean knew it; this close he saw the laden belly and the thin thread of an autopsy, and he really didn't know what had happened, but it looked bad.

Sam, Dean thought, oh, Sammy. You righteous motherfucker. You got him.

With an effort Dean would have called heroic under other circumstances, the Wolf got to its feet, threw its head back and howled.

Everything in that sound was lonely and bereft, and Dean just didn't give a shit, he wanted it to stop. Despite every excuse he'd offered himself, he gritted his teeth and moved his head to keep track of the Wolf. It was shuffling around in the slash, hacking now, great gushes of blood spraying from its nose and mouth as it stumbled out of Dean's line of vision, somewhere behind him.

Fuck, Dean thought, hearing another howl started, but it died into a feeble groan. The Wolf fell over like a tree, the weight of it vibrating the ground like an earth tremor. The force of that fall was what did it, not anything else. It made the stake vibrate in Dean and although he was sure that was the Wolf's death throe, he also thought it might signal his end too, because the entire sky flashed white, and then red, and after that Dean really couldn't have said what color it went to.

As he jumped out the truck's cab, one foot sinking into ankle-deep mud, the ground torn and trampled by the treads of large machinery, Sam hoped to god he'd remembered the way, had stopped close enough to the clearing, had given clear instructions over the radio to Goodenuff Dave – just do it man, trust me, he's up there and he's hurt bad.

Hard to tell one tree from another at night, but the equipment looked right.

He had time to think that and then he heard the howl. He'd found the right place, because so had the Wolf – and why the hell hadn't he taken off that fucker's head when he'd had the chance?

This was the place, but Sam had done the right thing in following the folktale, even if he hadn't anticipated the Wolf would survive long enough to get back to the clearing. Sam broke into a run, scrambling up the slashed hillside, the sounds of thrashing and growling aiding his way-finding, the whole time repeating to himself that he'd kill it with his bare hands if he had to, and not thinking of his brother, because that gave him no strength right now.

The sounds suddenly stopped – choked – and Sam's breath caught in his chest at a fucking awkward angle but he didn't stop, couldn't stop, just kept on coming, long legs moving through slash like a combine harvester, knowing how to do it even at night, weeks of planting coming to his aid now. The clearing just ahead, and moonlight showed the stump from where he was now certain Dean had fallen, where they'd found the chainsaw, and he knew that Dean hadn't been there then, and was just as sure that he would be there now.

Dean was pale and ghost-like in the starlight, his face a bloodless white, and Sam came skidding to a stop, sliding on his knees like a major league base-runner, one hand hovering over Dean's chest, hardly knowing where to start. He wished he had a flashlight, and he was glad he didn't. Even in the moonlight he could see where the stake came out his brother's side.

One hand on his chest. Still breathing.

Where was the Wolf?

Dean groaned, maybe the pressure of Sam's hand on his chest too much, for all it was like a bird's, eyes open, meeting Sam's, and nothing was said. Sam saw right away that Dean couldn't move without enormous pain, was already in agony, his face that complete blank way it got when he was barely holding it together, eyes wide and dark.

Dean's attention flicked to the side, and again, back to Sam. Refusing to talk, but asking him something all the same. Telling him something.

Sam nodded, got to his feet, heart hitting his ribcage hard, fierce as a zoo animal making a break for it, and he took a few steps in the direction that Dean had been telling him to go.

Close against the dark ground, flattening a spray of fern, Sam found a large skeleton. The ribs rested on the ground, not held by any connective tissue, the archipelago of spine ending in an enormous skull, fanged saber-tooth sharp. A clutch of smooth river rocks clustered in the curve below the ribs, gathered almost protectively like a nest of petrified dinosaur eggs.

Sam swallowed, heard the thup-thup of propellers, very far away. From his pocket, he retrieved the flare he'd brought from the truck and he sent it up, watched it go, before turning back to where Dean lay. He crouched down, unafraid to rest one hand on Dean's head, the other lingering over his brother's chest, fingers lightly brushing the work shirt, the heavy belt, not knowing what to do, how to alleviate any of the incalculable hurts.

Except one, maybe.

"It's dead," Sam said, finding his voice. It needed to be said, to be heard.

A spasm shuddered through Dean, and he closed his eyes briefly. "Dean?" Sam whispered, couldn't raise his voice much above that. Felt stupid, and small.

"About fucking time," Dean muttered, eyes blinking open again, still huge. Not wandering now, but locked on Sam. "That thing. Inside a Cadillac, Sam. How the fuck did I get away?"

Sam shook his head, pushed hair out of his eyes. "What?"

"Just you know, after Seattle, long time before I could even look at a Cadillac, even heard the word, it gave me the creeps. You were so sick and we had no money. In that garage, and dad didn't come back and what the fuck was I going to do? What the hell did I have to sell? That fucking thing, what it took. From me."

Still trying to tell him, Sam realized, fighting what had a choke hold on his throat.

"You shouldn't talk, Dean," he managed, though it was all he ever really wanted from Dean, to talk, to say something that wasn't a joke or a putdown. "Save your strength."

Dean shook his head, a tiny movement. "Don't be a fucking baby."

That brought a defiant grin. "I'm not a baby, Dean."

No smile in return though, and Sam knew there were reasons for that, maybe ones he knew, but more likely ones that he'd never hear, and about which he couldn't begin to speculate.

"I know that." A line of headlights swept the hillside and Sam heard voices calling out. Dave was here. Before he answered, he bent to Dean, because he was still trying to talk. "I know that," Dean repeated.

Sam made little shushing noises, and Dean batted away his hand, a spasm of pain flashing across his face. "Fuck you, Sam. Stop with the shushing. Is Ruby..."

Sam nodded vigorously. "Yeah, she's fine, Dean. She's okay. Just kept going on about how you were there with her, and then not and how you had a big hole in you and that's how I knew-"

And Dean relaxed; Sam saw it, saw how his shoulders melted into the ground and the eyes stopped being quite as wild.

"Well, that's something." And he smiled.

About five paramedics clustered around him, trying to figure out what the fuck they were going to do. Dave and Brent hung by Sam's side, all the dirt and crap getting kicked up by the helicopter flashing around like shrapnel. If they weren't careful, someone was going to get a freakin' piece of wood right through them.

Oh, wait. No, that's me.

He tried to find Sam's eyes, but the kid just looked like such a fucking, hang on that wasn't right, they were women warriors, right?, no, more like of those ones from the Terminator. Kinda Germanic or something. Like he'd happily kill something. Not often that Dean was actually aware that he was scared of Sam, even though Sam scared him sideways, more or less continuously. Sam just being scared Dean, ever since he was a tiny baby, served notice that there were ways to fuck Dean up that had nothing to do with delivering bodily harm. Wolf wanted to get to me, shoulda gone after Sammy.

Too late.

Smiled at that. He'd been given morphine and now he couldn't shut up, was talking to the paramedics, for all they were listening to him. Was talking to Dave and to Brent. Telling them about the Cadillac and the Wolf and they probably thought he was out of his head and they were probably right.

Couldn't really feel his side anymore, was pretty much beyond feeling anything. Until they said two words, anyway: helicopter and chainsaw.

Okay, the helicopter shouldn't have come as a surprise, since it was making a hell of a racket above, but as one of the paramedics waved down the basket, Dean suddenly put two and two together – Dean plus basket equaled flying.

And chainsaw? Well, they weren't going to pull him off this stake like a cocktail weenie from a toothpick. Always leave the invasive object where it was unless you were at an ER with a surgeon for a best buddy. So the stake was coming with him, which meant a chainsaw would be involved.

Dave, after conferring with Sam and a paramedic, went to get his saw, Dean presumed, watching his back disappear in the dark, then was blocked out as Sam knelt down beside him.

"I hope he's got room in the back of his truck for me," Dean shouted into Sam's ear, not sure if Sam could hear him above the spinning blades.

Sam shook his head. "Dean-" he started, but Dean looked away to the basket again, heart thudding, barely able to look at the helicopter hovering above, just beyond the glare of floodlights sparking up the woods.

Dave was back, and his face was gray. In his hands was a small Husqvarna with a light bar, something for precision work. It looked like a toy compared to the ones they usually used. The paramedics moved away, all but one, the guy who will probably jump start my heart once I start bleeding like a stuck pig, Dean thought, breath not coming easily at the moment. The paramedic defied Dean's prediction by pulling out a syringe and plunging it into the IV they already had going. Oh, great, more drugs, okay, that sounds about right.

Sam didn't move from his side. He didn't have to say anything. Couldn't really, because between the helicopter and the sudden spark of chainsaw in Dave's hands, there wasn't opportunity.

Directed by the paramedic, Sam shielded Dean's eyes with one hand, his head bent against Dean's, neither of them able to look at what Goodenuff Dave was about to do with that saw. The paramedic had packed field dressings around the stake, stabilizing it as best as he could, but there was no disguising the fact that a hundred little blades spinning at a gazillion clicks per hour were about to whir through a stick that was resting against artery and organ. No way it didn't vibrate, no matter how careful Dave was.

The shock alone will probably kill me, Dean thought, then concentrated on Sam's warm breath, right by his nose.

All Sam could see was darkness below, the occasional flash of reflected moon signaling the passage of a lake or river, a ripple in the night, there and gone. That and his reflection, which he barely recognized.

The paramedics had already scrambled like fighter pilots once: Dean's blood pressure had dropped and machines had screamed like banshees on crack and Sam was too scoured clean to actually freak out. Right now things were quiet, though. Loud, because of where they were, but quiet with Dean.

Who looked too pale and too still, his eyes opened just a crack, glazed with morphine. Neither brother looked at the stake, jutting up incongruously, packed with gauze and tape and stuff that looked like it was last used to ship stereo equipment. Sam didn't even know where they were going. Some hospital, somewhere. He should think about insurance and blue cross and money, but none of that seemed important.

Sam crawled forward in the confined space, and the paramedic made room, checked some blinking lights, nodded once to Sam, who didn't give a shit whether that was permission or not.

"Hey," Dean whispered, paper soft, once Sam had his ear next to his mouth. "I'm not going up in one of those fucking things."

Sam nodded. "Yeah, I know. It's okay."

"Stop crying. Fuck, you and the waterworks, just stop it, okay?"

"Okay," Sam agreed, same way he'd agreed to the no-fly rule. "You need anything?"

But Dean just stared at Sam, eyes at half-mast, drifting in and out of focus.

Before, when he hadn't known if the Wolf was dead, Dean had refused to talk. Then, especially after the morphine had kicked in, he'd just kept talking, but now Sam saw that Dean couldn't talk, was past being able to do even that.

And Sam could. He could do this.

So when Dean shivered, Sam asked the paramedic for a blanket, because Dean was cold. When Dean's dry lips moved without sound, Sam wondered if the paramedic had ice chips, because Dean was thirsty. And when Dean looked as though he'd just figured out that maybe they were actually in a helicopter, Sam asked if it would it was possible to get some music in here, because Dean appreciated a few driving tunes. Something from a classic rock station would be fine, or someone's iPod, as long as the music didn't suck. Thanks very much.

Sam got all these things. He thought it was because he'd asked politely, but mostly it was because of the expression on his face, which was somewhere between murder and breakdown.

Things just stopped for a month.

Three surgeries were required in the end. Every doctor that came to speak to Sam used the word 'lucky' and sometimes 'goddamn lucky'. Sam just took those words and tucked them away, hoping it was the sort of currency he'd be able to spend elsewhere because Dean was a lot of things, but lucky wasn't usually one of them.

Hadn't been this time, or last time, or the first time. It had been bad luck all the way and Dean had been hit with it just the same as if he'd been standing in the middle of a freeway facing someone else's high-speed chase.

So, yeah, maybe lucky that stake hadn't hit anything major, lucky that Dean hadn't died on the helicopter because things had been touch and go, no one needed to tell Sam that more than once. But where was luck when their Dad had been in coma across state lines? Where was it when Dean had wandered into that Seattle diner and come face-to-face with something that would hunt him for years?

Sam didn't feel like being grateful, not when Dean was cut open on an operating table. Not when he had a bad reaction to one of the meds, not when he was too fucked up to make even the lamest jokes, just lay there with those dilated anime eyes. Not until Dean walked out of this hospital under his own steam would Sam be grateful. Hell, maybe not even then.

To no one's surprise, Dave's company paid a fair amount of the hospital bill, Dave and Sam going over what name to use and what numbers to write into the compensation claim and what paperwork it might be better just to lose altogether.

With Dean, Dave didn't talk about insurance, or what carcass had been left on the mountain, or how Dean hadn't been on the stake when his chainsaw was found, and how he had been found on the stake a day later. They talked about resource management and they talked about the fucking little spotted owls and about Dave's absolutely fucking gorgeous wife, and fishing with Uncle G in Puget Sound.

They talked about Lori almost daily, filling up all the long hours of recovery that were required. Sam listened as they remembered her and slowly forgave themselves for her death.

Sam usually sat in, and learned an awful lot about logging and salmon and Dave's wife, more than he needed or wanted to. He'd been there when Ruby had appeared at the door, pale as an apparition, steady calm eyes held just so, connecting the space between the brothers as though there was a new kind of bond to be made. Maybe there was, but Ruby hadn't come to acknowledge it; she'd come to say three things, to the both of them. Thank you. Sorry. And goodbye.

Thank you to Sam for getting them out, and for being there and for not giving up. To Dean for listening. For knowing how to say 'fuck you' in the best way possible, which was literally.

Sam didn't quite understand that, but it was followed too quickly by Ruby turning to him and saying 'I'm sorry' to be anything other than what it was. I'm sorry that things didn't work out, sorry this had to happen, sorry I was stuck in a bad situation with your brother and not you, because things might have worked out different.

And sorry to you Dean, for judging you too fast, but Dean was so used to that, Sam knew, that an apology was hardly necessary.

All that was left after that was goodbye and she did that quickly, just as you should. She said she was going with Tommy to the Walla Walla onion farm, hard labor for the rest of the summer, didn't feel much like getting back on the cut block and neither did Tommy.

Who was sitting in the car outside, too freaked out by Sam to come say his goodbyes himself. Which made Dean laugh so hard he hurt something.

The day before Dean was getting out, released early to Sam's care, Eileen came to see them.

They had fair warning: Dave, who had been at a loose end because no logging was being done, not until the protest issue was cleared up, had come in that morning with the newspaper, happy and relieved. The Granny had been removed from the tree; operations could re-commence starting next week. If there were owls, they would have to find some other place to nest.

The expression on Dave's face was complex, to say the least, much of it hidden beneath his big blond beard, smile wicked sharp and wistful at the same time. A soft knock at the door and Dave opened it, Sam still reading the newspaper, Dean contemplating a shitty hand of cards, a game spread on the rolling table between the bed and the chair that Dave had occupied.

Eileen stood straight and surprisingly tall in the doorway, flowery hat and purple drawstring pants, a large t-shirt with some slogan written on it in Greek. Dove, rainbow, peace symbol, frolicking unicorns, something along those lines. Sam looked up, recognized the word 'peace' and smiled. He wasn't going to return the needle, thought that it wasn't the sort of thing you could actually return, wasn't unlike a cup of sugar from a neighbor, or a spare razor from a dorm-mate. It was kinda yours once you'd used it.

"Hi boys," she said, meaning all of them. "Mr. Goodenauer, nice to see you looking so rested."

Dave stood by the door, his smile disguised and unreadable. "Afternoon, Eileen. Good to see you on the ground."

"Tired of looking up my petticoats?" she tested, settling into the chair bedside, rolling the table away as Dean threw down his bad hand. Sam set aside the newspaper.

Dave sighed. "I think I'll go get a coffee. Anybody else?" No takers, but he turned at the door, eyes narrowing, mouth ghosting to a smile. "Eileen...was it worth it? You were up there a long time, and what did it accomplish? We're still going back in there."

Eileen gave him a stare that would have made a demon cringe, all the while with a gentle smile on her face, blue eyes glinting in the sunshine. "I accomplished what I set out to do. It's always worth it. Enjoy the coffee." And Dave was duly dismissed.

When he was gone, she turned to Sam, who had perched on the side of Dean's bed. "You look pleased with yourself, Sam."

He shrugged. "I'm happy we get to leave tomorrow."

Dean moved one hand across his belly, where bandages had until recently covered a horrific wound. Protecting himself and Sam knew it.

Eileen nodded. "That's good news." She stared suddenly at Dean and Sam wished he was between them, for all that he trusted Eileen. "And you, Dean Winchester, did you accomplish anything?"

Straight question and Dean was too pale for it. For a moment, Sam considered frog marching the granny the hell out of the hospital. His mouth opened and Eileen's blue gaze was suddenly all on him.

"You don't need to protect him right now, Sam. It's just a question."

Dean laughed, flicked a warning that Sam recognized immediately: back off, Sammy, I can handle this myself. "Between us, we got the job done."

Eileen nodded. "Even better news, then." She patted his hand, the one that wasn't covering his side, and stood. "I have to get back to the farm. Raspberry season, have to get picking for the farmer's market. God alone knows what shape the place will be in."

Sam stood with her. "I'm sure the donkey looked after the place just fine."

"I sure he did," she agreed softly, staring at Sam for a long minute before she left.

Too bad it was too damned hot for his leather coat, which was a weird suit of armor, he decided, checking out the lunch options in the town square from the sauna otherwise known as the Impala in late June. Too hot with only roll-down air-conditioning, so hot Dean thought about taking off his thin t-shirt, except that his side was still pretty fucking ugly. Sammy was taking his sweet time picking up the new set of cards from the Mailbox Etc, the gold ones that were so fresh just a month ago used up on camping equipment and hospital bills and medications. Thank god Dean could still fill out a credit application with a winning mix of balls and humor.

Shit, even on paper, I'm charming. Smiled deeply at that, sinking into the seat, wishing that it wasn't quite as humid, the leather interior magma-hot and so slippery he imagined himself sliding into a pool of butter under the dash. He ran one hand over the upholstery as soon as he thought it, fingers lingering apologetically for a moment before falling to his side.

Starving. Sammy, I'm starving. I got a hole in me a mile wide, and flat out laughed at that, drawing a stare from a kid passing by on the sidewalk, pulling a big reluctant dog behind him. Shut up, kid. I'm not crazy. Difference between crazy and happy.

Sam stuck his head in the passenger side window, passed Dean an envelope. "Who are we this time?" he asked without much interest.

Ripping open the envelope, Dean slid the sunglasses down his nose, sat up so he was comfortable. Impossible, actually. No position remotely comfortable. "Uh, you can be Dave Gahan. I'm John Mayall."

Sam stared at him hard; what Sam knew about music was a vast sucking hole. Sam understood that Dean was totally jerking him around but didn't know how and that was precisely how Dean liked to keep it. I have a lot of in-jokes, Sammy. Relax.

Sam was about to come around the car, to drive, much to Dean's continuing irritation, but they were in Bremerton, just west of Seattle, destination unknown – as per fucking usual – and Dean was so hungry he was about to rip off Sam's arm and start gnawing on it. He flipped open his wallet, shoved his new card in, wondering how much more he had on his David Lindley gold card. He looked one more time at the crisp hundred dollar bill resting in his wallet like a kept token, a reminder, a souvenir. An albatross, a scarlet letter.

It had to go, and what better way than food, really, when all was said and done. A whole lot of fucking food.

So he pulled the chrome handle, eased himself out even as Sam gave him his whatthehelldean? expression: furrowed brow, dimples pulled in irritation, hands holding what looked to be two invisible coconuts. That's what Dean always imagined, anyway, and pity poor Sam if he never knew why that particular pose never failed to make Dean smirk.

"Jesus, Sam, I gotta get something to eat. C'mon, my treat. You can gorge yourself into a diabetic coma, I'm buying."

Like that mattered, Sam's new expression said, quite eloquently.

The diner wasn't anything fancy, small and slightly eccentric, but the smell was magic and Dean collapsed onto the bench seat, not wanting to show Sam how tired he got just walking here. Chocolate milkshake, maybe a steak sandwich, a little too early for a beer, probably, but it was the sort of place that had homemade pie. None of that strange nitrate-tasting apple either, but real stuff with cinnamon and pastry that flaked and ...

No wait, even better. Salmon burgers. God, he was dying for one. Never really lived up to his expectations, but even if it only came half way to nirvana, it was better than steak. A hundred dollars when both of them were hungry might just about cover it, especially if he left a really, really big tip.

Sam had yet another expression when he sat down across from Dean, and it was one that traditionally put Dean's back up. It was the youhavesomethingtotellme expression, bland composed face, ready and willing eyes. Jesus.

"Dean-" he started, and Dean stonewalled him. He was out of practice and did it badly, though. Just must have seemed like he'd discovered something stuck to the side of the salt shaker, was addled from injury. Not fully expressing how badly he wanted Sam to leave it alone.

So when Dean looked back at him, Sam was still expectant. "Dude, what do you want?"

"You're buying? What the hell does that mean, Dean?"

"Try the salmon burger," he advised. Oh yeah, that was a good tactic, just look at what Sam did with that. "I'm going to the can." Avoid, avoid, avoid. What a fucking pussy.

When he got back, Sam had menus. "They have salmon burgers," he said, like it was a surprise. It's Seattle, Sammy. Of course they have salmon burgers.

"Fine. I'll have three of them. Chocolate milk for you?" Big smile, Sam responding to it. Good.

"How does she do it?" Sam wondered aloud, setting aside his menu and looking across the room.

Dean didn't give him any attention; he was looking to see if he could get onion rings instead of fries. "Hmmm?"

"With one arm? How does she manage all those plates with one arm?" Sam continued and Dean had no idea what he was talking about.

Onion rings, perfect, an extra dollar. And claims of 'World's Best Salmon Burger, No Lie'. Huh, we'll see about that. A shadow fell across the table as the server stood near, and Dean put down the menu, a challenge in his eyes and on his lips because that was a pretty steep claim to put out there.

Died when he looked up, between one second and the next.

Their server had long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, a whole series of piercings along her brow and one in her bottom lip, her bare shoulder covered in one massive tattoo of an axe braided with roses. Converse on the feet, chains around one wrist. One wrist only; she'd thrown her pad on the table, right hand poised and ready to write because her left arm was gone, a stump ending at the elbow. A scar ran thin from right wrist to right elbow, tracing a rip that was at least a decade old. Older.

Most people would take one look at her and think: motorcycle accident. Not Dean, who knew better. A different kind of altercation that involved speed and violence and blood, but no machinery, no accident.

One long moment as their eyes met, neither ever thinking to meet on this side of the Great Divide.

As she sank to the bench seat beside Dean with a whisper of pleased shock, and Dean tapped the table with one finger, over and over like he didn't know whether to touch her or talk, Sam stared at the both of them, not understanding what had just filled the room like the scent of cut flowers.

With a thin smile to Sam, Dean leaned forward and said. "Sam, I don't think you remember Tanya."

And found that he could begin again, that it was allowed.


a/n: Lest any of you think that I succumbed to your plaintive wails about bringing Tanya back, it was planned from the beginning. Note my sister's Soap Opera Rule #1: No body, no death. Hope to catch up on my reading now.