Characters: Sam, Dean
Word Count: 3900
Summary: Sam angstily struggles to finish a job while dealing with continuing psychic events; Dean angstily struggles to finish the job while dealing with Sam. Dean POV.
Author's notes: You need to know the events of my earlier story, "The Woods Are Lonely, Dark and Deep," to follow this fic. Your life (okay, your reading experience) will be richer for reading all of the first story before going on, but if you want to get straight to the Dean angst here, you can get by with just reading this précis of "The Woods Are Lonely." Honestly, though, you should read the whole thing unspoiled. I'm not one to brag, but it's quite good.
Generic warning on all of my fics: A minority of my stories contain character death. For artistic reasons, I prefer not to disclose it in the headers. If you will not read a story unless you know whether one of the Winchester brothers dies, click here for the spoiler.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin
October 10, 2006
He began the countdown as soon as they started hiking up the river: thirty minutes to sundown, twenty-five minutes to sundown...Sam's breathing roughened as they trudged into the woods to skirt a stretch where the rushing waters had eroded the riverbank straight up to a rocky overhang. He knew they should slow down, but the sun would set in twenty minutes and she was afraid of the dark...
This was a search-and-rescue mission, not a hunt, but long-ingrained habit kept him scanning the trail they were following. Theirs weren't the first boots to tread the path that week, maybe not even that day.
"If she's been haunting the woods for this long, there must have been sightings," he remarked to his brother. "We should poke around for some local ghost stories. Might be able to figure out who she was."
"She's not haunting the woods, Dean," Sam answered, sounding distracted. "They're haunting her."
His gut wrenched. He shoved the feeling back down and followed the path into a patch of maples and oaks so dense that freshly-fallen leaves blanketed the forest floor in a patchwork of color. Sam's footsteps slowed behind him, then stopped.
"Sammy?" he asked, wheeling around to see his brother, head hung down, bracing himself against a tree. He tossed down his duffel bag and crossed the space between them in three strides. "Hey. Talk to me, man," he said, grabbing Sam's arms.
"She brought me here when we switched places," Sam responded in a constricted voice. "I think it's where she figured out she was lost for good."
Next to freakish psychic abilities, a Winchester's greatest curse was a vivid imagination. He crushed the picture that sprang to mind and turned Sam so his back was against the tree. "How can you tell?"
"The whole place is soaked with what she feels." Sam slumped against the oak's trunk. "Gets stronger the closer we get."
His jaw tightened as he read what was behind Sam's words. She was cold, she was scared, she was lost and alone, and with every step Sam was forcing himself further from the land of the living into that of the dead. Nothing in her world that could hurt him, his brother had said. Right. Nothing but a century of psychic fear.
"You have to tell me, Sammy," he said with frustration. "I can't know if you don't tell me."
"It's new to me too, dude. I didn't know it would get worse." Sam let out one of his humorless, defensive chuckles and looked away. "I'm no good if I can't even take a walk in the woods, Dean," he mumbled.
"We'll figure something out," he promised helplessly. God, give him fear, give him pain--anything but helplessness.
Sam tilted his head up just enough to hide his eyes. "Gimme a few seconds, okay? And..." He made the little hand-wave that meant 'Too loud, Dean.' "You're too edgy," he apologized.
He took his edgy self a couple steps backwards--because how the hell could he turn down sound he couldn't hear?--and scanned their surroundings. The rays of sunlight breaking through the canopy above them were fading fast.
"Dean," Sam murmured.
He turned back to see Sam tensed against the tree, anxious eyes fixed on something just past him. He followed Sam's gaze, but saw nothing more worrisome than the brilliant red berries of a jack-in-the-pulpit under a thicket.
"What?" he asked.
Sam jerked his head up, brows knit in confusion. He spread his hands blankly; Sam swallowed, pointed with his chin, and looked back downward.
"Hello, princess," Sam said softly.
Adrenaline jolted into his bloodstream. He searched along Sam's line of sight again, with no result.
"Hey, hey, sweetheart, it's okay." His brother took a careful step toward him, then another and another, making shushing and soothing noises. It was disturbing, like watching a bum in the park muttering at the ghosts in his head, and got even more so when Sam knelt down and cocked his head as if trying to peer around his legs. "You remember me, don't you?" Sam asked.
"Sam," he muttered.
Sam ignored him. "C'mon, let me see that pretty face," he coaxed, making his sensitive eyes and hiding his fear with a gentle, almost teasing smile. "Yeah, that's it--" He sat back on his heels, face crumpling with worry. "Honey, what's wrong?"
There wasn't the slightest shimmer in the air to show Sam's hide-and-seek playmate, no trace of ozone under the leaves' crisp, sweet scent, not so much as a beep from the EMF reader in his jacket pocket. And if the spirit they sought really was there, Sam knew fucking well what was wrong. A chill ran down his spine. Sam had said the visions were making cracks in his psyche...
He shook the thought off. He'd spoken to her, and she was no trick of his brother's strained mind.
He crouched down next to Sam in the bright leaf-litter. "What's she saying?" he demanded.
Sam winced and fired off an Insensitivity Alert glare. On a scale of one to ten, with one being smiling inappropriately and ten being asking the widow if the head ever surfaced, it was about a four--like ignoring someone who was standing right next to him.
He shut up and waited for Sam to pass on her words, but Sam shook his head. Maybe she couldn't speak across the veil, or maybe, he thought inanely, she was just shy around Sam.
"C'mon, beautiful, it's all right. What's got you so upset?" Sam asked, reaching out.
He watched as Sam's hand stopped in midair. His brother jerked, hissing out a quick breath like he'd been shocked, and then set his face in a smile and made a little trailing motion with his fingers. Stroking her cheek, he realized. Rage flashed through him when he saw how small she was, rage as hot as the hellfire where her father should be burning.
"Sam," he whispered as another shudder wracked his brother's frame.
The whites of Sam's fear-widened eyes flashed in the gloom as he glanced over. No, not fear--Sam was fucking terrified. Goddammit. He would have bet his life she wasn't malevolent. Maybe he'd bet Sam's.
He raised an eyebrow and tilted his head toward the bag with the shotguns they always carried, just in case. Sam made a minute but emphatic gesture signaling 'no danger' and looked back down, cooing more endearments. She wasn't doing it--she didn't know. She was just a lost, desperate child, too confused to understand that the fear poisoning her world was her own.
"You're not going to believe this," Sam murmured, "but I think she's just shy." Ashen skin stretched tight over his cheekbones, he let his shaking hand fall. "Something's scared her again, Dean. Talk to her."
Startled, he nodded soothingly at a speck of pollen around where Sam's hand had been. "Uh, it's okay, sweetheart," he said, searching his mind for what could be scarier than being abandoned to the dark by the man who should have done anything to keep her safe. The answer, when it came, nearly choked him.
"We just stopped to rest for a minute, honey," he told the pollen. "We're not going to leave without you."
"God," Sam gasped. "That was it."
He jerked his head around at the strain in Sam's voice. His brother was shaking all over and his skin looked clammy--Christ, he was one step away from going into shock. It ripped at his heart, but he had to get her away from Sam.
"Can you do something for me, angel?" he asked a leaf spiraling down in front of them. The words stuck like ash in his throat.
"She nodded," Sam panted, swaying on his knees.
"Can you be a brave girl for a little bit more, and go back to wait for us?" A quick sidelong glance at his brother's face told him exactly what she thought of that idea. "It won't be much longer," he hastened to add, with no clue what time felt like for her. Next to him, Sam made a superhuman effort to wipe everything but reassurance from his face, and stretched out both hands with the palms up.
"Come here, sweetheart." An instant later he suppressed a flinch--her palms touching his--and folded his hands protectively around empty space. "We'll be there before dark," he promised, tightening his clasp for a few heartbeats and then letting her go. "Just run on back. They won't stop you."
He watched his brother's eyes follow some invisible movement towards a shaded track opposite them. "Sam?" he prompted as Sam sat back, fisting his shaking hands.
Sam turned toward him, dropping the pretense of calm he'd clung to for her. "They never stop us going in," he croaked, and collapsed, hyperventilating.
"Sammy!" He lunged for the duffel bag and pulled out the blanket.
"Goddammit." Sam covered his face, alternately cursing and gagging back hoarse sobs. "Goddammit."
"It's not yours, Sammy," he soothed as he tucked the blanket around his brother's heaving shoulders. "You understand me? Whatever's in your head is hers, not yours."
"Mine now," Sam wheezed, wrapping his arms around himself. "Dean..."
"C'mon, man," he urged, looking uneasily at the darkening path she had taken. "It's okay."
"I can't..." Sam stuffed his fist against his mouth, and keened in fear.
Sam rocked back and forth, trapping his cries like he'd rather choke on them than let them out. He gripped Sam's shoulder, howling inwardly at a world that left an innocent child to wander lost forever and damned him to stand by impotently while his little brother fell apart.
"It's okay, Sam," he said, groping for calm. Someone in these woods had to stay calm. "There's nothing here anymore."
Sam shook his head, darting his eyes around the thick trunks surrounding them. In twenty-three years he'd seen Sam this scared just once--an hour ago, when the ghost of that six-year-old child was looking through his eyes.
Prompted by instinct, he reached out to cup Sam's cheek. He thought of cuddling a small boy who crawled into his bed after a nightmare, reassuring him when a thunderstorm left their shabby room in darkness, wiping away his tears when their father left them behind. If he was wrong about this Sam would never forgive him; if he was right, odds were fifty/fifty that he might.
"I won't let the trees get you, little brother," he vowed, low and soothing. "I swear, Sammy, they can't have you. I'll burn the whole forest down first."
Sam clamped an icy hand around his wrist, fear and shame warring in his expression--and nodded.
Relieved, he lowered his forehead to his brother's in a gesture of comfort they hadn't shared since Sam turned twelve. "We're getting out of here, Sam," he promised. "You, me, and her. I'm getting us all out."
After a few long moments, his brother cleared his throat. "Now I'm okay," he said.
"You sure?" he asked as Sam pulled back.
"Yeah. I, uh...heh." Face twisted into a study in humiliation, Sam faked a laugh. "So. That was new."
"Never a dull moment, Psychic Boy," he said lightly, trying to look Sam over without being obvious about it. Sam dodged his scrutiny by ducking his head so that his bangs shadowed his face. Not good. Sam stopped being told what to do the day he learned to say 'no,' but he remained trainable for a few more years, and sitting still to be checked out was a firmly established habit. Breaking the habit meant the shit was going to hit the fan as soon as Sam could stand up straight.
"Let's go," Sam said, shoving himself up and falling right back down.
He held up a staying hand when his brother tried to stand again; Sam glared as if defying him to mention the fall.
He sighed and did what he should have done the moment they stopped. "Close the door, Sam," he ordered.
Sam flashed him a tight little grin. "I already did."
"Oh," he said dumbly. Oh, shit.
"Yeah." Sam clambered to his feet and started forward. "C'mon. Daylight's burning."
He scooped up the bag and followed as Sam marched across the grove, if you could march and wobble at the same time. "If the door was closed, how'd you know she was there?" he demanded.
"Looked down, saw her holding your hand. She was as surprised as I was." Sam slashed at some yew branches barring the path like a scraggly gate. "Didn't even feel a cold spot, did you?"
He gaped. "No."
Not the faintest breeze or chill. Not a wisp of the miasma that had driven Sam into a full-blown meltdown, and this was a whole new level of not fucking good. Sam had a corner on premonitions, clairvoyance, empathy, and whatever the hell else, but not getting knocked on his ass by spirits too weak to score a blip on their sensors.
"That's why I thought it'd be safe for me to touch her. The first time, I mean." Sam released the bush when they'd both passed; the branches snapped back to stand sentry behind them. "You know what this means, don't you?"
"It means you don't give hug therapy to ghosts. Big deal," he declared. "Nothing's changed, Sam."
"Yeah." They had to go single file on the narrow trail; Sam wobble-stomped into the lead. "Right."
A seriously bad thought hit him. "Hey," he said, trotting along behind his brother. "Could you see what I was thinking?"
"You're not exactly a closed book, dude. I could guess," Sam bit out, before stumbling over a root.
"Whoa." He grabbed Sam's elbow. They shouldn't stop, but Sam breaking an ankle to prove a point would slow them down a hell of a lot more. "Sam, I know you're pissed..."
Sam tugged his arm free. "I'm not pissed, Dean," he said pissily. He stared off into the trees, then shook himself and blew out a breath. "Not at you," he clarified, letting his iron expression relax into a rueful smile. "You did what you had to do, man."
He hid his relief under his most annoying grin. "Worked, too, didn't it?" he asked, waggling his fingers. "Dean Winchester. It's the cure for what ails you."
Sam huffed, snickered, and set out at a slower pace. They worked their way through low branches and hanging vines, over treacherous rocks and gnarled roots, until they skidded down the embankment and out of the woods. The fading sunlight there showed what the shadows had hidden: Sam had weakened further as they pushed on.
"Hey," he said, stopping Sam with a hand on his chest, "can I find it from here?"
"Yeah." Anyone else would have missed the guilty relief that flickered across Sam's pinched face. He pointed upstream. "See that fallen tree? There's a cave in front of it. She's somewhere inside, but all she showed me was the entrance."
"She probably didn't go too far in." He squinted up the river, assessing how much time the short hike would take. "You, uh, need another hit before I go?" he asked, holding out his hand.
Sam let out a bitter, edgy chuckle. "Gotta learn to deal on my own, big brother." He shrugged out of the blanket still around his shoulders. "Go on. I can handle it."
He took the blanket that wouldn't warm her either, adjusted the bag on his shoulder, and halted at an unwelcome thought. Holding his hand, dodging behind his legs when Sam startled her...there was one thing left that could make this job worse.
"Do you think she understands?" he asked.
"What, that she's a ghost?" Sam responded bleakly. He was suddenly struck by how much his brother had aged since he left school. He wondered how much of it was the psychic attacks, and how much was the hunter's life itself.
"Dunno, but she understands you're going to take care of her. That'll be enough," Sam finished. "Go. It's almost dark."
The clean scent of the pristine water mingled with the earthy smells and evergreen aromas of the forest as he strode up the bank. The last of the fading sunlight dappled the stream and painted the pale bark of the beech trees; white cowbane flowers decorated the riverbank and brilliant red, orange, and yellow leaves crunched under his boots. Two weeks ago, this place would have been postcard-perfect. Even now, it was the sort of spot you'd go to bid a last farewell to summer, a place you could take a girl for a picnic without feeling hokey. It was harmless. It was pretty.
Sam's lips had been blue with cold.
He ducked under the lintel of the cave's archway just as the sun slipped from view. She didn't appear when he called out, and if ethereal little fingers wrapped around his inviting hand, he couldn't feel it. No instinct led him to the niche where she had huddled away from the cold, and the shiver that ran through him when his flashlight's beam fell across her skull was no more or less eerie than ever. He quickly tucked her remains into the blanket and left without looking back. Nothing in there that he could see.
It was almost as dark outside the cave as in; there was no artificial light for miles and clouds hid the moon. Three steps down the riverbed, he realized that the extra flashlight was still in the duffel. He jogged back as fast as the rocky terrain allowed, holding the little bundle awkwardly in one arm. No way in hell was he going to stick her into a bag reeking of lighter fluid and gritty with spilled salt.
"Sammy?" he called when he thought he'd reached the place where he'd left his brother.
"Here," came Sam's voice from the side.
He turned to see Sam sitting on a log that was green with lichen and topped with bitter nightshade. His wan, hollow-cheeked face was almost spectral in the flashlight's dim ray.
"Forgot to leave you this," he said, tossing Sam the light and keeping his distance.
"I'm not afraid of the dark." Sam popped the light into its lantern position, looked at the blanket, and swallowed. "Guess I'm not crazy, huh?"
"No one said you were, Sammy." He took one inquiring step forward, and waited.
"It's okay. I can't feel her." Sam beckoned him over with his chin. "Don't know what that means." Waving at his head, he added, "I've been trying to close some of the cracks, but it's a...work in progress."
"You mean, you can still feel the trees," he said. "Is it bad?"
Sam shrugged and fisted his hands to keep them from shaking. "I don't need another hit, if that's what you're asking."
"It wasn't." He set down the bag and, with Sam's silent permission, joined him on the log. "Sam, I get where you're coming from, but you don't have to play it like this. I'm not gonna start tucking you into bed with milk and cookies every time you"--he rummaged for a better description than 'flip out when bad shit gets into your brain'--"get hurt on the job."
Sam squinted at him with his own special brand of emo. "You will if I ask you too," he countered, and yeah, okay, that was true. "Anyway, that's not what this is about," Sam said, touching the blanket. "You shouldn't have to worry about her and me too."
He closed his eyes for a second under the weight he spent his days denying, then shook it off. "I can handle it, dude."
"I know." Sam bumped their shoulders together and stood up. "You didn't sense anything back there, right?"
"Zilch," he confirmed, also rising.
"Good. If you can't feel the trees, I don't think they can feel you." Sam picked up the bag and tossed him the flashlight. "You should lead."
You didn't have to be psychic to get creeped out as they climbed into the pitch-black forest--or when the flashlight dimmed. "The woods?" he asked, turning around.
Sam already had a shotgun out. "Hurry."
Palm itching for his own weapon, he added more steam. Sam stumbled along behind him, swearing when he tripped on a root or stone. The more the light waned the harder they pushed, so that they were both panting with exertion when he shoved past the yew at the end of the trail and crossed into the grove. The light faded to uselessness.
He tightened his hold on the bundle in the crook of his arm. "Gun, Sammy," he demanded.
Sam twisted free of the needles snagging on his jacket and hefted the shotgun. "Toss," he said.
He tossed. The gun passed the flashlight mid-arc in the air and landed, heavy and reassuring, in his hand. The light died the instant Sam's fingers closed around it.
"Goddammit!" Sam dropped the light and scrabbled in the bag for the other gun.
He swung his weapon around in a 180 and tried vainly to see the path they'd taken on their way in. They couldn't get lost if they stayed within earshot of the river, but blundering around off-trail in full dark might push Sam back over the edge. Or scare her into trying to make contact.
"Huh," Sam said from behind him.
"What?" He turned around just in time to get damn near blinded by white light.
"Sorry." Sam pointed the halogen beam of the spare flashlight downward, grinning sheepishly. "Must've been the batteries."
"You've got to be kidding me," he said in disbelief.
Sam shrugged, stowed both guns, and swept the light around. "Path's over there," he said, without moving toward it.
"You see something?" he asked.
"No. I was thinking, the door's still in my head." Sam grimaced and brushed with scratched hands at a few sticker-burrs clinging to his jacket; he looked like every bush and bramble between here and the river had snagged on his clothes. "Maybe me and her can switch again before we..." Before we bury her in an unmarked grave in an abandoned cemetery. "I'll try when we get there," he amended.
"You'll try to turn your head into an open house for ghosts in a freaking graveyard?" he demanded incredulously. "Forget it, Sam. I don't need to talk to her."
"It'll be okay." Sam peered out into the darkness, shook his head a little, and turned back to him. "I'm not doing it for you, Dean."
He should have argued harder. Instead he said, "All right," and headed across the grove.
Sam stopped him before he set foot on the outbound path. "I'll carry her from here."
"Huh?" he asked, oddly reluctant to relinquish his burden. "Why?"
Sam looked around the grove one last time, vicarious fear still on his face, and offered a lopsided grin. "Just in case."
He scanned the trees again himself, felt for a breeze or draft around him, and sensed nothing. He let Sam take the bundle anyway. They made the rest of their way back to the car in silence, Sam carrying her and the bag, and him lighting their way with the flashlight. Sam's eyes continually darted around them, but never landed on anything.
He kept his hand down at his side, just in case.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Continued in "Miles to Go."
Comments and feedback of all kinds are welcome. If you enjoyed, all my stories may be found here.