A/N: I want to take one last beat to say thank you to my betas, Numpty, Beckydaspatz, and NongPradu. Working with them and getting to know them really made this whole experience worthwhile for me. I am so grateful to these incredible, incredible women.
A/N: I also want to thank every single person who ever took the time to read and/or comment on this story.
Chapter 21: So Long, It's Been Good To Know Yuh
February 21, 2007—Boise City, Oklahoma
Florabel entered Dean's room on stiff legs, carrying a steaming bowl on a tray. Setting it on the nightstand, she took a seat in the rocking chair next to the bed and watched him for a long moment. Lost in a deep sleep, Dean twitched an eyelid when Florabel smoothed his brow and brushed back a wayward lock of hair. The old woman did a small double-take and chuckled at memories.
And suddenly, Florabel Livingston was seven years old again. She smiled her naughty, naughty smile, and, lifting her hand, she ever so gently placed her finger against one of Dean's nostrils, blocking it. Without waking, Dean swatted her hand away, letting out a disgruntled woof. Florabel bit her old lip to keep from laughing. She cocked her head, plucking a small feather from his pillow, fluffed it, and then ran it along his jaw. Dean snorted with sleepy exasperation and scratched his chin with clumsy fingers.
"Quit it, Florabel." His lids never opened.
She whickered at him, unable to hold back. Dean opened his eyes at that, and Florabel noted his inability to mask the briefest moment of disappointment when he realized the child he expected to see wasn't there.
She deflated. "Not the version you was hopin' for?"
He feigned complete ignorance, raising a dissembling eyebrow. "Hmm?" Blinking, he eased a second pillow behind him and cleared his throat. "Where's Sam?"
Florabel didn't call him on it. She understood. "He's sleepin'." Leaning into the chair, she stretched her aching muscles. "Bobby's down the hall watchin' over Ellen. She has a mild concussion." She pushed Dean back as he began to rise. "But she's gonna be fine, Pally. Just let her git some rest. Everyone's gonna be fine. We're all bumped and bruised—a little stiff and sore—but we're all just fine." She reached for the bowl. "Here, now. I brought you some food. You're gonna have to start eatin'. You're naught but skin an' bones."
"It smells good. I'm starved." He sat up, interested. "What is it?"
"Why, it's jackrabbit broth, a'course." She lifted a spoonful to his lips with a deadpan shrug.
"You're shitting me."
Seeing his distress, she couldn't help but break character. She gave him a cheeky smile.
"Of course I'm shitting you." She laughed at him. "I ain't et a jackrabbit in close to seventy years." She lifted the spoon again, but he backed away with a dubious curl of his lip. "It's beef broth, silly. I raised the cattle myself. 100% grass fed, organic beef." She pressed the spoon to his lips. "Top of the line, Pally. Now open up."
"Fuck, that tastes good." After a few mouthfuls he stopped. "This is just so surreal."
"What is?" She offered him another spoonful, but he shook her off.
"Seeing you again. Like this. It's…it's different. I can see her in there, sometimes, I think, hidden deep in those blue eyes—but she's mixed in with—she's been changed by this whole lifetime of other things I wasn't a part of, and…" He trailed off. "I don't know how to describe it. It's just surreal."
Florabel huffed out a small chuckle. "You don't even know the half of it, Pally."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Mean?" She clicked her tongue. "It means I'm an old woman. I got me one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, with senility betwixt the two. An' here I am a-sittin' with the only man I ever really loved other than Papa, a man who hasn't aged a single day in seventy-two years, a man who probably still has dust from Black Sunday in cracks and folds that ain't respectable to talk about. I'm sitting here feeding him beef broth after he burned the bones of the monster who dogged my steps as a child and gave me nightmares for years. To top everything off, last night I said goodbye to my mama's ghost seven decades after she died. Oh yeah, it's more'n a little surreal."
"Geez, I don't remember you being so cranky." He winked at her.
"Douchenozzle." She tossed him a wicked grin.
He lay quiet for a moment, again searching for the child he said goodbye to just days ago. As before, he saw her most recognizably in those big blue eyes. "What happened to you, Bel?"
"Me? What do you mean?"
"That day…after everything happened. What happened after I left?"
"Oh…" She relaxed the bowl into her lap and sat quiet for a moment. "Old Jeb buried Slaid and then packed me up and walked me to the edge of town. Told me to go see the Sheriff. I never did see that sweet old man agin. Dunno whatever become of him. He was so shook up about everything. Didn't know which way was up, really. Not that I was much better off. Hell, I was probably worse. But still, I hope he got on all right. He was a goodly man. I ain't never forgot him in all these years." She glanced at Dean with sad eyes. "After that, I walked to the town. Don't remember too much about that time. I was in shock. They packed me off to an orphanage in Guymon. They couldn't git me to talk the whole time I was there. Almost put me in the state hospital, thinkin' they was no hope for me. Dunno what would 'a become of me if'n that had happened. But one day a few months after Mama died, Pauline and Jack Crawford come to visit me, and they brung me back to their farm. They was broken over the loss of Lizzy…"
"Lizzy!" Dean's eyes sprang open. "That reminds me, what was Slaid talking about?"
"Oh…oh, Dean. I thought Mama told you about her."
"Told me what?"
Florabel hung her head, sighing. "Lizzy was lost the night of the barn dance, right before the big storm. After we left that night, someone took her or she wandered off. Ain't no one ever found her nor no hint of her."
"Oh god, the storm…" Dean's eyes snapped shut. "Slaid summoned it. It wasn't a natural storm. It would've required a powerful sacrifice to summon that kind of power from the demon."
Florabel nodded. "I always wondered if he done it. Weren't no way to find out. But after last night, I guess we all know, now." She straightened herself in her chair, composing herself. "That poor, beautiful child. I pray Slaid didn't make her suffer…that he didn't…" She broke off, looking away.
"I'm sorry, Bel. I'm so sorry he did that to you." Dean grabbed her hand and held it tight. "I'd give anything to have protected you from that."
Florabel gripped his hand, swallowing her emotions. "He didn't break me. I wouldn't never let him break me. He took the people I loved most from me. I wouldn't let him take my spirit. I just hope he didn't touch Lizzy. I pray he didn't never touch her like that."
She released a tired, heavy-hearted sigh. "And poor Mama Pauline. She never recovered from losing her, not completely. But she was Mama's good friend, and she wouldn't leave me in that orphanage. She brung me back, and we bonded so tight because we'd both lost folks we loved. I didn't talk for the first little while, and the Crawfords, they didn't force me none—not like them folks at the orphanage done. But it didn't take long before I was talking up a storm agin. Gittin' to go to school done wonders, too. Mama Pauline walked me to school every morning and was waitin' outside to bring me home each afternoon. She became like a mama to me, an' I ain't never gonna be able to repay the debt of their kindness. Papa Jack worked extra hard so's he could pay the taxes on both farms, and on my eighteenth birthday, they turned the title over to me, never askin' for a dime. They was good people. Papa Jack died in '85, and Mama Pauline followed him the very next spring." Her smile shook. "They's with Lizzy, now."
She spooned the broth in the bowl absently. "They took real good care of me, Pally. They treated me like one of their own. Then 'round about ten years after I come to be with them, just before I left for college, Mama Pauline finally had another baby—a little boy they named James. He's Matt Crawford's papa, the one whose story in the newspaper brung you and Sam here in the first place. Funny ain't it?" She met his eye. "How we was all connected without ever knowin' it."
"And you never got married?" Guilt crushed Dean, believing that was another of his failures.
"No." She laughed. "Don't look at me that a-way." She continued to grin. "You cain't fix everything nor wave a magic wand and make life perfect. Life ain't like that. It just ain't. But I had a life, Pally. I had a life because you saved me—in ways you cain't even realize. I become a doctor because of you. I believed I could do it because you told me I could, and I believed in you. I'd 'a never known what it was like to have my heart broke and not git married if'n it hadn't been for you. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean…I mean I had a life, all the good and bad mixed together, just like it's supposed to be. All them experiences—having my beautiful baby girl, or gittin' the flu one Christmas, an' havin' folks pay me for doctorin' them with sacks of potatoes and spring lambs instead of the cash I needed to make mortgage, then goin' to Africa on my yearly vacation to treat babies with rickets, malaria, and AIDS—an' on an' on an' on—I had all that…done all that because a'you. That ain't a bad thing, and I ain't a-quibbling over not havin' a man at my side for the whole trip. I had a strange, wonderful life—imperfect, sometimes messy, but it weren't never boring. I want you to remember that, Pally. I'm okay with it all. So if'n you're ever in doubt about what I want and don't got, just remember me sayin' this." She wiped a tear from his cheek and he looked away, embarrassed and miserable. "We'll just blame that on the concussion." She caressed his arm. "I'm okay, Pally. I promise."
She smiled and rocked for a moment. "I always looked at the full moon and thought of you, Pally. Every single time I saw it." Dean sighed at that. "And it helped. It really did."
Florabel cleared her throat and sat up straight. "Now, here, you have some more broth. You're gonna hurt an old woman's feelings."
February 22-27, 2007—Boise City, Oklahoma
A couple of days after salting and burning Slaid's bones, Bobby and Ellen said their farewells to Florabel. Ellen was feeling better and was keen to get back to the Roadhouse. The last thing she wanted was to leave Ash in charge for too long. However, she made the boys promise they would stop there before going on to the next hunt.
Sam and Dean stayed on with Florabel for another week until Dean was fit enough to travel. Of course, he spent that entire week being an insufferable patient, and the better he got the more he refused to cooperate, typically mulish all the way.
Soon he was in the garage tooling around, giving both Buddy and Baby tune-ups and wax jobs. Though his vision was much better, he still suffered from headaches and debilitating vertigo at times, but he always shrugged off any help. Working on the cars gave him some independence as he always had something to grip. Florabel spent a fair amount of time out there visiting with him, and Sam could hear them laughing and talking until late at night.
Sam had a keen interest in the organic farm the old woman ran, so Florabel spent a whole day showing him around the place. She'd scaled back in the last few years, but she still spent every weekend in the spring and summer selling her goods at the local farmer's market.
When she wasn't visiting with the boys in the garage, Florabel spent a lot of time in the kitchen, Dean's insatiable appetite keeping her busy as she stuffed him with all manner of comfort foods. At Sam's suggestion, she and the younger hunter baked a couple of apple pies together, neither of which survived the next two days with Dean in the house.
Sam noticed Dean was transparently upbeat, almost manic, but Sam knew he was masking a deeper sadness and hurt. He especially saw it when Dean stole glances at Florabel when she wasn't looking. Sam tried to talk to him about it a couple of times, but Dean waspishly told him to fuck off and then went right back to being impossibly happy and charming. Sam didn't know if Florabel picked up on it and was playing along with him or if she really didn't see the blatant fakery.
Florabel appeared to enjoy her time spent with Dean. One evening she cajoled him into playing a game of marbles with her. The two of them tacked a yarn circle onto the carpet and hunkered down for a game. Trouble arose, however, when Florabel accused Dean of cheating.
"You're deliberately handicapping yourself, Pally. I cain't believe you! I'm a master marble player. You don't need to let me win! I'll kick your ass fair and square like I always done. Now play right!"
"'Bel…'Bel…" A rare, genuine smile lit Dean's face. "I'm playing exactly like I always played with you."
"That ain't so, Pally. I always beat—" She stopped and gaped at him. "You mean to tell me you let me win all them times?"
"Aw, come on now, Bel." He defended himself with a laugh. "You were seven years old. I wasn't gonna just break your spirit. Fact is, your game's actually improved." He gave her a friendly nudge.
"I simply cain't believe you, Pally." She looked at him as though he'd just told her there was no Santa Claus. "All right, then." Her jaw squared with determination before knuckling down and letting her shooter go. "We're playin' fair now. You play right, or y'ain't gittin' no more pies."
Dean narrowed his eyes. "Them's fightin' words."
In the end, they played two games, allowing Florabel time to rest in between, since sitting on the floor wasn't easy for her. Dean beat her soundly both times. Aghast, Florabel demanded a rematch the next time he visited.
And so the days went by, one after another, and though Dean still had some issues with balance, after a week of recuperation, he told Florabel they'd be leaving the next day. Sam watched the old woman put a brave spin on the news.
"I won't pitch a fit this time, Pally. But they's cell phones and better ways to git around these days. So you have to promise that you'll come back and pay me a visit when you can." Sam saw a shielded heartbreak in her eyes, and he knew she was working as hard as she could not to make a scene.
Dean played right along, pretending everything was fine, chucking her chin. "You know I will."
Sam doubted very much he'd keep that promise. He knew his brother too well. And it made him sick. Again, Sam took Dean aside and asked him to talk about what was going on in his head, and again Dean pretended to have no clue what he was talking about.
That afternoon the three of them paid their respects at Emma's grave. Florabel and Dean tidied all three plots belonging to the Livingstons, little Henry forever nestled between his parents. Florabel laid a small bouquet of flowers at each graveside.
"They was all taken far too young." She tickled her fingertips over her mother's stone, caressing the engraved name, there. "She was a wonderful mother. I only had eight short years with her, but I learned so much in that time about love and caring for others. She was the most hardworking, unselfish person I ever did know. She taught me grace." She looked at Dean who avoided her eye.
He bent and set his bouquet on Emma's stone, clearing his throat as though to say something, hesitating a moment as he steadied himself. Both Sam and Florabel waited expectantly. After an inner struggle, his shoulders drooped and he nodded with a quick sniff. Sticking his hands in his pockets, he turned and walked away. "I'll be in the car," he said with a casual glance over his shoulder.
Sam's cheeks flamed with anger, worry and frustration. He peered at Florabel who had turned back to the grave after watching Dean walk off. "I'm sorry. I don't' know why he's like that sometimes."
"It's all right," Florabel said. "I've had a lifetime to adjust. He only just lost her. It's all so raw and new and he's hurting. Everyone deserves a chance to mourn."
Sam sighed. "If only he would."
February 28, 2007—Boise City, Oklahoma
The next day Sam and Dean left. Sam didn't witness Dean's and Florabel's final goodbye. He sat in the Impala watching the farmhouse, determined to let them have a private moment. However, he'd only been waiting a couple of minutes when Dean appeared. His brother gave an easygoing wave to Florabel as she stood shaded by the screen door. If Dean could have jogged away, Sam knew he would have. As it was, however, he made his way carefully to the car and slipped into the passenger seat without a word of protest. Sam started the engine but shifted toward Dean before pulling away.
"Everything all right, man?"
Dean gave him a cockeyed, confused look. "Of course, Sammy." He camouflaged his feelings with a smug grin. "Now, let's book, dude. I wanna get to the Roadhouse before dark." Sam gaped at him, compassion, anger and disappointment mingling as his mouth worked soundlessly. Dean gave him an impatient shove. "Dude, if you're gonna fart, roll down the window and just do it all ready and let's go. Come on, chop-chop. Let's get the hell out of here. Time to put this freak-show of a hunt behind us."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Wow. You're unbelievable."
Florabel stared into the darkness. At some point while contemplating her wintered-over wheat field, sunset had turned to dusk and dusk to dark. She never noticed. She blinked and cleared her throat, coming from her thoughts and drawing her thin arms around herself. She felt cold.
After wandering aimlessly around the silent house, she picked up the phone and dialed a number. She studied the wheat field again, waiting for an answer and gasped in relief when she got one.
"Emeline. Thank god. It's Mama." She twisted the phone-cord in her fingers and swallowed. "No, everything's all right. I just—I just wanted to hear your voice, baby girl." Her own voice quavered despite her best effort. "No, no. Ain't nothin' wrong. It's just been a strange week." She paused a long moment then began to cry into the phone, trying to find solace and comfort in the soothing voice of her kin. "It's been a very hard week. But I'm fine. Really."
March 2, 2007—Harvelle's Roadhouse
Dean walked from the kitchen juggling three beers, a huge sandwich and half a bag of chips. Sam watched as his brother kept his destination locked in his sights and moved with slow, deliberate steps so as not to lose his balance.
Dean was mending, but he still wasn't near ready to hunt. The fact that he agreed to stay at the Roadhouse without grousing and bitching told Sam everything he needed to know. Of course Dean kept his artificial smile plastered on his face the whole time. He wasn't fooling anyone, though, least of all Sam. It worried and annoyed him to no end. Dean needed to deal with what happened. It was like losing their dad all over again, perhaps not on the same scale, but enough to cause Dean to adopt the same spurious façade. Sam could see how off balance his brother was, literally and figuratively.
He watched Dean move across the bar on wooden, jerky legs, eyes fixed on the table the whole way. Sam couldn't get over the drastic change in his brother in such a short time, going from the solid, well-built frame he'd known for so many years to the spindly legs and arms he saw now in just a matter of days—at least for Sam, anyway. Of course, Sam noted that Dean seemed hell bent on climbing the scale in record time. Once Dean set the plate on the table, he scraped the chair out and sat with an overt, casual huff.
Sam's stomach took a sour turn when he saw the heart-attack-on-a-plate and the gusto with which Dean consumed it, the elder Winchester pausing only to drink half a beer in one go.
"You have a glob of mayo on your chin," Sam said over the buzz of the tattoo gun in Ellen's hand. Sam stared at his brother, incredulous at the gastronomical debauchery taking place across the table. "Didn't you just have the leaning-tower-of-pizza a couple of hours ago?"
Dean took his finger and scooped the mayo from his chin and into his mouth, laughing at Sam's squeamish face. Grabbing his beer he glugged the rest, released a hearty belch and smacked his lips.
"What can I say? I got a lot'a catchin' up to do, Sammy." He patted his tummy. "I've been on the Dust Bowl diet for almost three months. 'Sides," he tugged his collar down and eyeballed his new tattoo, "my titty hurts."
"Big baby." Ellen teased him as she worked. Seeing Dean shove more of the sandwich into his mouth, she shook her head. "You take that food away from my work area, now."
She shooed him off before applying more ink to the outer flame-bursts around Sam's anti possession tattoo. Wiping the skin clean of the excess ink, she applied another dab of petroleum jelly to Sam's chest.
"Aw, geez, Ellen, c'mon m'hungry!" he said with his mouth crammed full. He moved one table away and resettled himself.
Bobby's head came up from the monitor where he and Ash sat poring over research across the room. "Is Woody Guthrie singin' the blues again?"
"Oh you're hysterical. Those names just never get old." Dean took another huge bite of sandwich.
"They really don't," Bobby agreed with a mischievous nod.
Sam winced as Ellen hit a tender spot. "Ow, careful, Ellen."
"Both of you are big babies." Ellen snorted without pausing or looking up.
"Seriously, though," Dean mused. "Tatts ain't nothin' once you've lived through the Dust Bowl." He examined the symbol over his heart. "Lemme tell you what—we are some Grade-A fuckin' pussies compared the people who lived through those times." He surveyed them in turn. "Hell, the lack of indoor plumbing alone was traumatizing." He shivered at the memory.
"Tell us about it, Petunia." Bobby snorted at him. "We all caught a whiff when you came back."
"Shut up," Dean said sheepishly. "That was medicine." He stuffed a handful of chips into his mouth. Sam, who'd been watching his brother, rolled his eyes with a huff. "What?" Dean said around a huge gob of food. "That's what it was. Did you know turpentine is still an ingredient in Vick's VapoRub? Look it up." Dean gave him a haughty nod. "Florabel told me that."
"That's not what I was talking about."
"You call that talking, Sammy? I call it being a buzz-kill." Dean pulled on his beer, but Sam rolled his eyes again. "What?" Dean said, getting irritated.
"I'm not getting into it here." Sam watched Ellen's deft fingers work the ink-gun.
"Well, good." Dean snatched his plate and rose, not bothering to mask his contempt. "Nice chatting with you."
As Dean passed by, Sam lost his patience. "You think you're fooling anyone, Dean?"
Dean stopped and turned too fast, losing his balance. He gripped the table, dropping the plate on the floor. The unfinished sandwich upended, scattering lettuce and smearing mayonnaise and mustard. Ellen jerked away from Sam and switched off the ink-gun. "Jesus Christ, Sammy, give it a damn rest, already. I said I was fine. What the hell is your problem?" Dean snapped.
"My problem? My problem?" Sam couldn't believe his ears. "I'm not the one with the problem, Dean, and I'd like to help you with yours. You're not really hiding whatever pain you're in, you know that? Everyone can see it, so why don't you just admit this whole thing got to you? Admit you miss them. Admit you loved them. Why is that so hard?"
Dean's eyes turned icy with anger. "Screw you." He fisted the remaining two beers and stumbled to the door, flinging it open and slamming it shut behind him. The others stared at Sam in shocked silence.
"Why does he have to be that way, Bobby?" He turned to the old hunter, scowling.
Bobby's eyes flitted from Sam to the door and back. "Probably because not everyone sits on their bed crying into a carton of Ben and Jerry's while listening to Alanis Morissette." Bobby bored holes in the young man. "Jesus boy. Y'need to get your hormone levels checked."
"Bobby, he needs to talk about it."
"He is talking about it. He's been talking about it this whole time. Can't you see that? He's hurting like hell and he's lettin' us all know in his own way. No need to try makin' him into something he ain't. He ain't like you." Bobby shook his head. "He's never been that way, and he's not ever gonna be. You gotta learn some folks need to talk things through, and some folks need to be left alone. The sooner you accept that the easier it's gonna be for the both of you."
Sam huffed out a puff of steam, bitchfacing the door. He sulked a moment, then his glare eased, empathy and guilt overtaking him.
"Shit." He went to get up.
"Not now, Sam." Ellen grabbed his arm and forced him back down. "Just let him be. There's makin' it worse and then there's makin' it worst. Let him be alone for now."
Bobby nodded. "And when he comes in actin' like nothing happened with a big ol' smile on his face—and that's exactly what he's gonna do—you just go right along with it this time. You follow his lead on this one and things will blow over quicker."
Dean leaned against the door, standing on quivering legs, blowing out frosty blue steam in the light of the full moon. He looked up and took a long drink from his bottle. Screw Sam. What did he know? Dean rolled his shoulders. Yeah, it had been a hard hunt, but that's just part of the job. He was okay. He was fine.
He stuck his hand in his pocket and a jolt went through him when he felt the small glass bead he'd been keeping there. Taking it out, he eyed the blue marble, studying its swirls and twists.
"I'm okay." He grasped the marble in his hand and held it to his heart. "I'm good."
"I'm fine." He twitched, feeling the threat of tears. Yes, he'd become attached. Yes he had some regrets, but what hunter doesn't have those? Florabel had grown up well. She'd lived an amazing life and had done great things. So what the hell was Sam's problem? He rubbed his eyes and refused to acknowledge the moisture on his fingers. He couldn't very well have stayed in 1935. It wasn't his time, wasn't his life. He was better off where he was.
"I'm fine." He put the blue marble back in his pocket. "I'm needed here." He thought of Sam, thought of the innocent lives depending on him. "What I've got ain't perfect. But it's as good as it's ever gonna get. This is fine. Sam needs me."
His legs refused to support him any longer, and he slid down the door and came to rest on his ass with a thump. Leaning against the door, he opened his third beer and took a long, lulling pull from it. He thought of Emma and her soft voice—so not his type, and yet everything he'd needed at the time. He thought of Florabel and her insatiable enthusiasm for life—remembered her warmth against his chest as he carried her up the stairs to put her to bed. He could still feel the slight weight of her head as it draped against his neck and shoulder, sleepy and trusting. Sure he missed her, missed her laugh, her feisty spirit, but he couldn't change it back. He wouldn't change it back even if he could.
"This is where I belong." He swatted another tear away before it had the chance to fall. "I'm fine." He had a job to do, and he was at peace with that. He was. He'd never be able to work a family into this life. It wouldn't be fair to them. Sam was all the family he needed, and even putting him at risk was more than he could bear. There was no need to be upset about how things turned out. All things considered, they'd turned out goddamned fine. He didn't mean to abandon Florabel, never wanted to cause her pain, but she'd come out of it well. She was strong. She was fine.
He lifted his tired eyes, staring at the full moon hanging loudly in the night sky. "I'm fine." He nodded to himself. "Everything is fine."