PG-13. Feedback and constructive criticism welcomed at the email link at the bottom of the page.
Written for Jen, who won the story in K. Hanna Korossy's fic auction, summer '08.
And Miles To Go Before I Sleep
"He's kind of handsome."
The words rolled around in Dean's head for several moments before they made any sense. Unfortunately, they kept rolling even after he'd figured them out, slamming into his skull like bowling balls. He groaned.
"I think he's waking up."
It was a different voice. Dean didn't think he knew either one. He was starting to wonder just how much he'd had to drink the night before. Judging from the way his pulse was throbbing behind his eyes, a little too much. He tried to open his eyes, and then amended his assessment. A lot too much. Possibly epic amounts, since he couldn't remember the drinking at all.
"He'd better hurry.   He's coming, and he won't be any too pleased." It was the first voice, the one that sounded like a girl.
"Hey, mister." The second voice was deeper, more like a teenage boy's. "Can you get up? We need to get moving."
Dean made a second attempt to open his eyes. This one was marginally more successful. At the very least, he was able to make out a green blur that resolved itself into several blades of grass and a large oak leaf. Cautiously turning his head, he spotted two pairs of sturdy black leather shoes, one several sizes smaller than the other. He followed the shoes up to see two kids. The younger was a girl of about nine, dressed in a plain blue dress with her dark hair in twin braids down her back. The boy was three or four years older, wearing a button-down shirt, jeans, and a mop of hair that reminded Dean of Sam.
The thought sent a frisson of anxiety through Dean. He didn't know where Sam was, couldn't remember if Sam was supposed to be with him. He shoved himself up onto hands and knees, trying to ignore the protest from not just his head, but his ribs and left leg as well. That wasn't hangover pain, and it made him all the more worried about his brother.
"Hurry up, mister." The girl was practically bouncing, her eyes darting around the trees--trees? where the hell was he?--that surrounded them.
"Is there--" Dean pressed a hand to his ribs as he forced himself to straighten. "Another man. My brother, he's--"
It was hard to catch his breath. The trees behind the kids moved from too sharp to fuzzy and back again.
"There wasn't anyone else. Just you." The boy grabbed the girl's hand, pulling her closer. "Mister, there's a man in these woods that doesn't like anyone being here but him. We can hear him coming right now. We need to get out of here before there's trouble."
Dean just stared at them. It was too much information at once, like when Sam really reeked out on research and then just had to share. Only worse, because Dean's thoughts were already churning as much as his stomach.
The boy sighed. "Can you get up?"
That was simple enough--except when Dean moved his left leg to stand, jagged-edged knives sliced through his ankle. He fell back with a stifled yell. Black spots swam in front of his eyes as he breathed through his teeth, trying not to puke.
The boy had already started down the faint trail leading into the woods. "There's a branch on your left about two feet away that you can use for a walking stick. Hurry!"
The boy's urgency had Dean fumbling for the branch without question, the good little soldier. He made it to his feet on adrenaline and stayed there by sheer stubbornness, stumbling after the kids with as much speed as he could muster. It took almost all of his concentration to keep moving, but one part of his mind couldn't stop worrying at the most important question of all: where was Sam?
Sam was leaving the county records office. He glanced up at the sky, frowning at the lowering clouds. The scent of ozone hung in the air, hinting at the storm that had been threatening all day. He hoped it held off until he drove the forty miles back to Milts burg. Those winding forest roads wouldn't be any easier if they were wet.
He flipped out his phone to call Dean, rolling his eyes at the blast of Ozzy that preceded Dean's voice mail.
"Dude, you need to join the twenty-first century," he said by way of greeting. "I'm leaving Stanton now. Turns out back in the 1880's there was a Ted Dunlop who was basically wagon-jacked by a bunch of local kids who thought they were the next James gang. He was murdered. Seems like he's been trying to get his revenge ever since. I'll be back in about an hour and we can go scope out the cemetery."
Reaching his rental car, Sam shut his phone and got in. The familiar sounds of Nickelback filled the car. It was rare that he got to pick the music, and he intended to enjoy every minute of the drive back. He slowed a bit when he crossed Stanton Road. Ted Dunlop had died within a mile of the crossroads. All of the automobile accidents that had occurred without obvious cause, the accidents that had drawn Dean and him to Miltsburg, had happened in that one mile stretch. Over twenty deaths in the records Sam and Dean could find. The road itself didn't look all that deadly. Trees grew in a green and brown wall almost to the edge of the asphalt, but the highway stretched straight enough that Sam couldn't see the next curve. If there was a spot on this serpentine road that shouldn't have had accidents, it was this mile stretch.
Back in Miltsburg, Sam was surprised to find that the Impala wasn't parked outside their hotel room. Dean had planned to poke around town, finding out what he could from the locals and maybe checking out the sites of the accidents. Since Sam hadn't spotted the Impala on the highway from Stanton, he'd just assumed that Dean was already done with his information gathering and had gone back to the hotel. It was almost two o'clock, after all, and they'd intended to meet up at noon to compare notes.
Sam checked his phone, just in case there was a message on there that he hadn't noticed getting. There wasn't. Calling just got him Dean's voicemail again. Dean was probably just out of range--the hills and trees in this part of the country played hell on cellphone reception. With a mental shrug, Sam sat down on the bed with his laptop and got to work.
By ten after four, Sam was checking his phone every other minute. Dean being four hours late didn't worry him that much. A pretty girl or a classic car could provide a much longer distraction than that. But the fact that Dean hadn't checked in, hadn't answered any of Sam's increasingly frequent calls--that was not normal. One of the many lessons Dad had drilled into them was the importance of regular check-ins. Of course, he'd also taught them not to panic if someone missed a check-in. There was nothing predictable about their job, and sometimes it just wasn't possible to make a call.
Particularly, his traitorous mind added, if you were hurt. Or dead, but Sam wasn't going to think about that. Dean was the only family he had left. Whatever happened, whatever they might go through, Dean would be fine at the end. Sam refused to imagine any different outcome.
By four forty-five, Sam was on the road. He wasn't letting himself panic yet. No, this was more a mild concern, coupled with the practical reality that the overcast sky was bringing on twilight much earlier than usual, and thunder had been grumbling off and on all afternoon. If Sam didn't go looking now, it would be too dark for him to see much of anything.
But even the waning light didn't help when there was nothing to see. Jaw clenching tighter every minute, Sam drove the streets of Miltsburg, not that there were many, and finally turned toward the highway. He selected Dean's number one-handed, his eyes scanning the sides of the road. Ozzy and the first words of Dean's voicemail sounded in his ear for at least the fifteenth time that day. With a curse, he tossed the phone into the passenger seat and kept driving.
Thunder cracked across the sky like a rifle shot. Dean flinched. The movement threw him off the careful balance he'd established. Hot pain crawled up his leg. It was the burn of sprained muscles, not the agony of broken bone, but Dean was having trouble counting his blessings when his leg hurt like a bitch.
The kids were hurrying along in front of him fast enough that it was all he could do to keep them in sight through the trees. The little girl threw glances over her shoulder from time to time, smiling encouragingly even though her eyes were wide with fear. He forced himself to smile back each time no matter how much he was biting back a string of words that would have made the girl's eyes pop out. Bad enough he felt like he'd been beaten by a Peterbilt. Worse that he didn't know where his brother was or if that was even a problem. Then there was his phone, which he had grabbed for as soon as the fog in his head had cleared enough to remember that was an option. It was gone, along with everything he'd had in his pockets on the left side. Given the scrapes on the back of his left hand and the way his ribs and ankle felt on that side, he guessed that he'd fallen, probably losing his phone in the process. What really pissed him off was that he hadn't even looked around when he'd first woken up. He'd been too dizzy and disoriented, a feeling that hadn't cleared until his various aches and pains had overridden it.
He did still have his flask of holy water, his knife, and a few baggies of salt. Those stayed safely in the pockets sewn into the lining of his jacket. Finding them had been the one bright spot in the whole miserable experience, because Dean did remember who--or what--he and Sam were hunting. It had taken him a little while, but he'd finally put together the kids' "old man who didn't like anyone in the woods" with Old Man Dunlop. the ghost who was blamed for any number of fatal wrecks on the highway.
"Come on, mister, hurry up." The boy had stopped several feet up the trail. "I can hear him coming."
Dean couldn't hear anything except his own footsteps crackling the leaves and debris that coated the forest floor, but he was willing to take the boy's word for it. Better safe than stupid.
"There's a safe place up here." The girl beckoned encouragingly. "Just a little further."
Dean forced himself to move faster, teeth gritted against shards of pain cutting through him. He was almost close enough to reach out and touch the little girl when the attack came from behind.
It was a swirl of wind, leaves and dirt stinging his face. A hate-filled scream in his ear. A lash of something that at first just felt like wrongness against his back, followed by another and another. He staggered forward, only catching himself from falling by leaning on the walking stick. A moment later, fire cut across his back in the same pattern as the pressure from moments before. More whiplashes followed, so quick that Dean could barely breathe.
He could hear the children crying out in front of him, but as best he could tell, he was the focus of the attack. That suited him. He was better able to stand it than kids would be, and he had weapons to fight back. The trouble was getting them out of his jacket while trying to maintain his footing. The wind buffeted him on all sides, blowing so much debris in his face that he didn't dare open his eyes. Each lash against his back made him jerk in reflexive protest, and every movement aggravated his ribs. Dealing with any one of those problems would have been simple enough, but all of them at once was putting a crimp in his style.
Finally he felt the slickness of a sandwich bag holding a handful of salt. Fumbling it out one-handed, he caught one edge in his teeth and yanked the zip-lock open. He couldn't aim with his eyes shut. He just flung the bag upward, trusting to the wind and gravity to do the rest of the work.
There was a shriek, rage and pain in one. The air around him went dead as quickly as it had stirred up. So abruptly that it left him gasping, the attack was over.
Dean leaned against his stick as he tried to catch his breath. Anxious voices tugged at his attention, but it was a moment before he could make his mind process what they were saying.
"Are you okay, mister?" That was the girl.
"He'll come back. We have to keep moving." That was the boy, who was obviously planning to be a drill sergeant one day.
Dean held up a hand, and they both fell silent.
"First," he said breathlessly, "my name is Dean. My dad was "mister," but only if you p--um, made him angry. Second, give me a minute, okay?"
There was silence for several heartbeats.
"I'm Ruth," the girl said finally. "This is Thomas, my brother."
"Nice to meet you," Thomas said, oddly formal given the circumstances.
Dean bit back a grin. "Likewise."
A sudden gust of wind through the treetops--just wind, Dean was pretty sure--made Ruth jump. Dean took a deep breath and forced himself to straighten, the hot bands across his back protesting enough to make spots dance in front of his eyes. A few more deep breaths, and he was able to keep his voice at a normal pitch.
"Okay, I'm good. Let's go."
As they moved forward again, Dean forced himself to shove his discomfort aside and keep a better watch. Old Man Dunlop had nearly gotten past him once, but it wouldn't happen again.
Thunder crashed overhead. Sam flinched, then cursed when a bright spike of lightning stabbed across his vision. He could barely see as it was between the gloom of the forest and the darkened sky. He couldn't afford to lose what night vision he had.
He'd been up and down the highway three times already, going as slow as he dared while he looked for any sign that the Impala had run off the road. He kept calling Dean, too, but only got voicemail. There was a better than even chance that he would have strangled Ozzy if they'd met face to face right that moment. In spite of everything, he wasn't panicking yet. Panicking would allow for the thought that Dean was in trouble, and Sam didn't have any evidence to support that theory yet. It was just as possible that Dean was in some hole-in-the-wall beer joint, so deafened by the blaring country music and so enthralled by the waitresses' undoubtedly impressive endowments that he didn't hear his phone. Or he might have charmed one of the waitresses into taking him back to her place and shut off his phone so he wouldn't be disturbed. Granted, that was more the kind of thing Dean would do when they were between hunts, but it was still a possibility. There was no reason why Sam needed to assume that Dean had become a victim to the ghost they were trying to hunt. Or worse, something Sam didn't even know about and therefore couldn't even begin to start looking for. Or the Feds, or a Hunter with a grudge, or some backwoods Bender-like family wanting to reenact Deliverance.
The downside to having a vivid imagination, Sam had learned, was that it was always possible to think of something worse than the current situation. But not even the strongest imagination could conjure up his brother's actual location. For the first time ever, Sam wouldn't have minded having one of the visions that made him feel like his brain was turning inside out. Even if it showed him something threatening Dean, at least he'd have some idea what was going on.
With a sigh of frustration, Sam pulled over onto the shoulder of the road in preparation for making a U-turn. Maybe Dean was back at the motel, or maybe Sam would have more luck at the bars now that it was later in the day. As he made the turn to go back, he reached for his phone, fingers compulsively feeling out the right keys. Then the sweep of his headlights caught a metallic glint that didn't belong behind the underbrush on the far side of the road.
Heart beating, he tossed his phone aside and slammed on the gas. A moment later, he screeched to a stop on the opposite shoulder. He was already almost certain before he even stepped out of the car, but a quick duck into the underbrush confirmed his guess. Dean had hidden the Impala in the bushes, away from curious state troopers who might interrupt his investigation. Unfortunately, it was also hidden from frantic kid brothers, barring the stroke of luck that had Sam still sending a silent "thank you" out to the universe.
"Dean?" he called. When there was no answer, he raised his voice. "Dean!"
Still nothing. A surge of disappointment hit him, but he shook it off. He was already closer to finding his brother than he had been all day.
He gave the Impala a friendly pat as he walked past to check the front seat. Nothing there set off any alarms--the doors were locked, no key in the ignition, no blood or spilled salt or damp spots that might have come from holy water being thrown at an attacker. A cursory glance at the surrounding bushes showed no obvious signs of trouble. The area was too gloomy for Sam to be sure, though. He walked back to the trunk and opened it with his spare key. A warren of shovels, flashlights, and other tools of their trade spread across the false bottom that protected their weapons. Sam dug out a duffel bag and started loading it. First aid kit first, followed by an extra flashlight, batteries, salt, and bottles of Aquafina brand holy water. A box of rock-salt shells and the pistol-grip sawed-off shotgun went on top. He would have liked to take more weapons, but he needed one hand for the flashlight he was carrying and the other for the duffel.
Thunder rumbled, then cracked so loudly that Sam jumped. The slam of the trunk lid seemed dull in comparison. He shouldered the duffel and flicked on the flashlight, sweeping it in a slow arch across the bushes. It wasn't so dark that he really needed it yet, but the beam let him focus more intently on each section of undergrowth. The ground sloped downward, casting shadows that had Sam more than once seeing Dean's body sprawled broken and vulnerable, only to get closer and realize that it was a branch or just a patch of darker ground. His heart leaped every time, and every time he had to force himself back into the calm, analytical mindset that kept him alive during hunts.
Broken branches hanging from the bushes caught his attention. Moving closer, he played the flashlight across the area, looking for--there. A rectangle of black against the browns and greens of the foliage. Dean's phone. Ice slid down Sam's spine as he cradled the phone in his hand, "27 missed calls" staring back up at him with a bleak message he didn't want to acknowledge. Something had happened to Dean here. Whatever it was, it had caused Dean to leave his phone behind, which Dean would never do voluntarily--unless he was trying to leave Sam a message and somehow couldn't do it by more conventional means. The alternative was that Dean hadn't noticed, or hadn't been able to notice, that his phone had fallen out of his pocket. Neither idea made Sam happy.
He pocketed the phone and turned his his flashlight beam to the ground. He was no Daniel Boone, but his dad had made sure he and Dean both could do some basic tracking. Enough, at least, that when he saw a pair of footprints in the humus and leaves that covered the ground, he knew that they were the right size for Dean's feet, fairly recent, and showed signs that the walker was staggering or limping. But definitely walking under his own power, Sam told himself, and that was the key thing. From the narrow drag marks that ran along side the footprints, Sam guessed that Dean had picked up a walking stick--another sign that he might be hurt, but he was still able to think and function.
What felt like a hundred-pound weight slipped off Sam's back. He closed his eyes for just a second, gratitude and relief nearly overwhelming him, and then turned his attention back to business. He hadn't found Dean yet, but at least now he had a place to start looking.
The second attack came more quietly than the first. A cold wind blew. Dean thought it was the storm at first, until the bone-deep chill that screamed "ghost!" seeped under his clothes.
"We're here!" Thomas turned around, his expression of relief fading to one of fear. "Hurry! He's coming!"
Ruth screamed, her eyes fixed over Dean's shoulder. Thomas dragged her backward toward a pair of rounded stones that were each less than a foot high--possibly the safe place the kids had mentioned. Dean pushed himself forward as fast as he could go, forcing the pain of his injuries out of his mind.
A low whine rose up around him, followed by a whirlwind of leaves and dirt. Dean raised his arm to protect his eyes. leaning against the wind as he took another step. The whine soared to a shriek, the rage in it nearly palpable.
"You're almost here. Hurry!" Ruth called.
Dean tried. He came down wrong on his bad ankle and was already falling when he felt hands on his back, shoving him. The air burst out of his lungs as he hit the ground. The world went white, and then black, and then he was trying to get up again, to move toward the kids and get between them and the angry spirit. A blaze of pain landed across his back, driving him back down. As the second and third blow landed, he couldn't hold back a scream. It was matched by Ruth's cry, filled with terror. Something barreled past him. The cold intensified. The wind blew a hard gust and was gone so abruptly that Dean was left gasping.
He didn't know what had happened to the ghost, but he was willing to take the reprieve for the opportunity that it was. Staggering more or less upright, he crossed the last few yards past the stones before falling to his knees.
"Thomas! Thomas!" Ruth's voice broke over the words.
Dean dragged his head up to see what was wrong. His eyes blurred, but he could just make out Ruth bending over her brother's body, patting his cheek as if to wake him. Thomas lay curled in a fetal position just inside the circle. Dean couldn't see well enough to tell if he was breathing or hurt in any way. Dean wanted to get up and go to him, but the first movement he tried sent him spiraling into blackness.
Sam followed Dean's footsteps only a few yards before they merged with a game trail. That was a mixed blessing. The going was easier, so he could make better time. The ground, on the other hand, was somewhat clearer, which made it harder to find Dean's tracks. The oncoming gloom didn't help matters, or the cracks of thunder and lightning that periodically filled the sky. It wouldn't be long before he needed the flashlight just to find his way.
He felt reassured every time he saw another mark that Dean had made, each one an affirmation that his brother was alive. Then he came to an area that looked like it had been hit by a tornado, and he wasn't so reassured anymore. Trees and bushes were stripped of their leaves. On the ground, dirt was blown back from a center point in an almost perfect circle. At the center of the circle there lay an almost perfect hand-print, as if Dean had fallen and caught himself.
Heart beating faster, Sam broke into a jog. If he'd needed any proof that Old Man Dunlop was after Dean, the damage he'd just passed provided confirmation. Nothing mundane could cause that kind of localized destruction.
As if in answer to his thoughts, Sam heard a high-pitched, non-human shriek from up ahead, followed by clearly human screams. He took a second to exchange his flashlight for the shotgun even though he hated the wasted time. He knew, in a way that might have come from his freaky psychic powers or might just have come from being a brother and living the life he'd lived, that Dean was at the center of the commotion he was hearing. That Dean was in trouble, and Sam needed to get there fast and be ready for anything.
He ran, ignoring the branches that slapped his face, yanking the duffel free whenever it got caught. Too far in the distance, a white glow backlit the trees and then disappeared. The screaming stopped. Sam ran faster.
He burst into a small natural clearing that showed some of the same damage as he'd seen earlier. Thunder rumbled as his eyes went immediately to the far side, where he could see Dean's body past a pair of weathered rocks.
He didn't remember crossing the clearing, just kneeling beside his brother and feeling the steady rise and fall of breath.
"Dean. Come on, dude, wake up." Sam patted Dean's cheek, then ran his fingers up through Dean's hair, looking for injuries. "Dean?"
Dean groaned just as Sam's fingers found a small goose-egg. "Ow."
"Sammy? What--" Dean blinked, one arm going up to bat Sam's hand away. The other cradled his ribs. Sam added another injury to his mental list.
"You were out here looking for the ghost, remember? Looks like he found you." Sam opened the duffel and pulled out the first aid kit. "Where are you hurt?"
Dean frowned at him. For a moment, Sam was afraid that Dean hadn't understood, and then he realized that he was just looking at Dean's "you're such a mother hen, and I'm way too tough to need any help" face.
"Dean, come on. Old Man Dunlop could come back any time. Where are you hurt?"
"Ankle and ribs," Dean said grudgingly. "And I got a whack on my head, but I don't think it's too bad."
Sam refrained from pointing out that Dean wouldn't even if he had a hole in his head the size of the Impala's headlights. Instead, he pulled a few rolls of Ace bandages out of the kit.
"Left. Pretty sure it's just sprained."
Sam pulled back the leg of Dean's jeans and winced. His left ankle and calf had ballooned up nearly twice their normal size.
"I'm just going to wrap it above the shoe," Sam said. "There's no way that shoe is going back on if I take it off."
"Whatever." Dean lay back, his lips pressed tightly together as Sam worked. Then he sat up so abruptly that Sam dropped his foot. "Where are the--ow, damn it--kids?"
"Kids?" Sam looked around but didn't see anyone else in the clearing. "What kids?"
"Two of them, a boy and a girl. They're the ones who knew about this place. Said it was safe, the ghost couldn't get in here."
Sam glanced around again. The two rocks he'd stepped over to get to Dean were, on closer inspection, part of a circle of similar rocks, placed so uniformly that it had to have been done by human hands. Trees loomed all around, keeping the circle from being visible from the side of the clearing Sam had come in on.
"It looks like a protected place," Sam said. "Maybe even a place of worship. No telling who put it here, though--Native Americans, white settlers, slaves, freedmen--it's old enough that it could be anyone, and all of those groups had a presence in this area at one time or another. In fact--"
"Hey, geekboy," Dean interrupted. "We've got two kids and a ghost running around these woods, and that storm is going to hit any minute. How about we save the history lesson for later?"
Sam winced. "Sorry."
He quickly finished wrapping Dean's ankle, then pulled up his shirt and wrapped his ribs just firmly enough to give him some support. Walking through the woods would be agony otherwise. From Dean's quick breathing, it wasn't exactly a piece of cake just sitting up.
"You okay?" Sam asked as he was tying the bandage off. "You could wait here while I go look for the kids."
Dean started to shake his head, then stopped abruptly, his face going pale.
"No," he said in a tight voice. "They helped me. Probably saved my life. I'm not going to abandon them."
Sam could have pointed out that letting Sam take the brunt of the search didn't constitute abandonment, but he'd become something of an expert over the years on when he had a chance of talking Dean out of something and when he didn't. This was definitely one of the latter.
"Okay. Let's get you up and we'll start looking."
"Wait." Dean put a hand on his shoulder, smiling as he looked over Sam's shoulder. "It's okay. They're here."
But when Sam looked in the direction Dean was staring, he saw no one.
Thomas walked slowly back into the clearing, Ruth half-hiding behind him. They sat on side-by-side rocks, Thomas throwing an arm around Ruth's shoulders. She still looked shaken from the attacks, not that Dean could blame her. He was still a little jittery, waiting for the spirit to attack again. At least Sam had finally caught up with him. The two of them together could handle anything, even if Dean did still feel run over.
"Hey, guys, I was wondering where you got to," he said, keeping his voice gentle for Ruth's sake. No need to spook her more. "Thomas, are you okay?"
As Thomas nodded, Sam cleared his throat.
"Dean? Who are you talking to?"
Dean stared at him, wondering which one of them actually had the head injury.
"The kids. Right there." He pointed with the hand not cradling his ribs.
"There's no one there." Lightning lit up Sam's face, showing clearly in the growing darkness how worried he looked. "How hard did you hit your head?"
"Dude, they're right--" Dean turned back to them, his voice trailing off as he saw how Ruth just looked confused, but Thomas looked sad and infinitely older than his years. How the rain, finally falling in a light drizzle, seemed to hit the rocks but not the kids. "Thomas?"
Thomas hugged Ruth closer. "She doesn't understand, and I couldn't just leave her."
Ruth stomped her foot, encased in those curiously old-fashioned leather shoes. "I'm not a baby, Thomas! Understand what?"
Dean just nodded. He did understand, how a child's spirit might not be able to understand that life had been stolen from it, and how an older brother could never abandon the younger sibling he'd always taken care of.
"Did Old Man Dunlop--" he started, then trailed off, not sure how to finish the sentence with Ruth listening.
"Dean?" Sam's voice had risen with worry, his hand closing over Dean's rapidly dampening shoulder. "What the he--"
"Give me a minute, Sammy," Dean said, his soothing tone as much for Ruth's flinch as for Sam's concern. "I'll explain in a minute, okay?"
Sam sighed and brushed the dripping strands of his hair out of his face, then made a "carry on" gesture that had a clearly implied "this better be good" attached to it.
"We were traveling with our parents," Thomas said in answer to Dean's question. "He stopped us on the road."
"We've been looking for Ma and Pa for days," Ruth said. "But that bad man is always chasing us, and we never get to find them. Ma's going to be so worried."
Most of Dean's body hurt and his head was pounding like the wrong end of a three-day binge, but none of it compared to the ache in his chest as he forced a smile.
"We'll help you find them, sweetie. We'll help you get back home."
He looked at Sam, seeing the dawning comprehension in his brother's eyes. He shook his head minutely, knowing that Sam would understand that they couldn't talk about anything yet. Sam sighed.
"So, what's our plan?" Sam asked.
Rain drizzled down the back of Dean's neck, making him shiver. Spikes of pain pierced his ribs. Sam's hand tightened on his shoulder, but the shaking just got worse.
"Damn it, Dean, this is not the time to go into shock."
"'m not," Dean protested even though his teeth were chattering. "I'm j-just c-cold."
The rain was getting heavier and the wind stronger. Sam didn't seem bothered by them, but then he hadn't been hit by the ghostly equivalent of a Mac truck. Dean thought he was entitled to a little bit of manly shivering.
Sam turned on the flashlight and started rummaging in the duffel that lay beside him. There were times when Dean was grateful for his brother's Boy Scout tendencies. The moment when Sam pulled out a camping blanket and started to unfold it was definitely one of them. Although the way Sam tucked the blanket around him was maybe pushing things just a little.
"D-dude," Dean protested. Sam's expression, lit by the flashlight beam and a hundred glowing raindrops, didn't look like he was ready to put up with any arguments.
"Are you okay, Mister Dean?" Ruth asked.
Now that it was fully dark, the glow that surrounded the two kids was faint but obvious, showing their faces clearly. Ruth looked at Dean with a grave concern, but Thomas's attention was on the clearing outside the circle.
"I'm fine." Dean ignored Sam's confused look and pulled the blanket tighter around himself. He wasn't exactly warm, but at least his teeth weren't trying to rattle out of his head anymore. "So, what's our plan?"
"I just asked that." Sam's clammy hand pressed against his forehead. "You really are cold. What day is it?"
"Thursday, and it's the middle of spring and there's a cold rain falling, in case you didn't notice. Of course I'm cold." Dean swatted Sam's hand away. "I was just trying to see if you'd come up with anything while you were pretending to be Florence Nightingale."
Sam sighed loudly enough to be heard over the rain. "Can you make it back to the car? We can go back to the motel, get you patched up better, and then come out tomorrow and deal with Old Man Dunlop."
Dean could see the sense in that plan, but he could also see the two kids sitting on the rocks a short distance away. Sure, they'd been alone for a long time. They were still just kids. He couldn't leave them here without at least trying to help them.
Maybe Sam could read his face in the beam of the flashlight, or maybe he just knew how Dean's mind worked. Either way, he sighed again and said, "Or we could stay here. This circle protected you from his last attack, didn't it?"
Dean frowned. "No, I was outside of the circle. There was something else--"
He looked at Thomas, who had been in pretty bad shape right after the attack. Worse than Dean, by all appearances.
"I think Thomas protected us."
The expression on Thomas's face held an equal mixture of guilt and fear. Ruth looked at her brother wide-eyed, obviously waiting for his cue.
"What?" Sam asked, eyes darting between Dean and a point on the rocks that wasn't exactly where the kids were sitting.
"What happened, Thomas?" Dean leaned forward a bit and immediately regretted it. Damn ribs.
"I can hit him and he goes away for a while." Thomas shrugged. "I don't know how, but it hurts him somehow. It just makes me really tired."
"He always comes back, though," Ruth added. "But just wait till my Pa finds us. He'll shoot the bad man with his bear gun, and he'll never come back again."
Sam shifted, the flashlight sweeping around the circle. "What's going on, Dean?"
"In a minute." Dean chose his words carefully so that Ruth wouldn't catch on. "Thomas, when you get tired like that, do you see something strange? Like a light, maybe?"
Ruth shivered. "That's the bad man's place. He makes us want to go there, but we always run away. Ma and Pa always said to stay put if we got lost in the woods, and they'd come find us. We don't let the bad man fool us, do we, Thomas?"
Thomas shook his head, his eyes terribly old and sad. "No, Ruthie, we don't."
A crack of thunder caused them all jump. The abrupt movement made Dean's head throb with waves of white light. He had to close his eyes against the pain. Sam's arm came around his shoulders, steadying him.
"Dean, come on. You're in no shape--"
The wind picked up around the edges of the circle, whistling and rattling the trees. Dean would have thought it was the storm, except he couldn't feel it inside the circle. He opened his eyes in time to see Thomas stand up.
"He's back." Thomas pulled Ruth away from the rocks. "Get behind me, Ruthie."
Sam grabbed for the shotgun he'd laid on the ground next to Dean. "Stay here."
Sam stood, taking position in front of Dean just like Thomas had Ruth. Dean didn't like it--that was his place--but he could admit to the necessity. That didn't mean he wasn't going to try to help. Casting about behind him, he spotted the branch he'd used as a walking stick. It had rolled a few feet away, but not so far that he couldn't stretch and grab it if he ignored his ribs. Then he began the laborious process of standing while trying to keep track of everything around him.
The flashlight cast a beam across the ground where Sam had dropped it. Even without it, the circle seemed filled with the children's dim, ghostly light to Dean, but he could tell from Sam's darting eyes that he was seeing shadows and darkness. The epicenter of the violent wind was pretty obvious, though, and Sam raised his shotgun to point at it. He couldn't see what Dean saw: that the blast would go straight through the kids.
"Sam, no!" Dean yelled, forcing the words out around gasps of air as he pushed himself from his knees to his feet. "The kids!"
Sam lowered the shotgun, frustration clear on his face. Then he broke into a run, heading for the edge of the circle.
"Sam! Damn it." Dean had reached the same conclusion as Sam, but a minute too late to stop him: the only angle that Sam could shoot from that would be sure to miss the kids was from outside the circle. Dean hobbled after his brother, knowing he couldn't get there fast enough to stop him but determined to try. "Sam, wait!"
The second Sam crossed the rocks, a blast of wind hit him. He went sprawling back, losing the shotgun. Leaves and globs of mud pelted him. A misty figure began to form over him--the shape of a tall, thin man carrying a bullwhip.
Ruth screamed. Thomas took a step forward, halting as Ruth grabbed his arm.
"No!" she cried.
Dean staggered across the rocks and fell, his ankle finally giving out. Old Man Dunlop raised his whip as Sam rolled over, trying to protect his face from the flying debris.
"Leave him alone!" Dean struggled to stand again, but his muscles wouldn't cooperate. "Sam!"
Dunlop turned to look at him, face twisted in a mask of hatred. The whip flicked out, and Dean felt a stripe of fire blossom across his back. It knocked him forward onto his hands. As another blow fell and another, he hunched over, unable to do more than wait it out.
Then he felt a heavy weight on his back, long arms tightening protectively around him. He felt the flinch of Sam's body as the blows fell on his brother instead of him, and each one hurt more than what he had received.
It took effort to raise his head. He couldn't push himself up, not even to get Sam out of the line of fire. His muscles just rebelled, ribs aching so badly that he could barely breathe. Above him, Sam was shaking from the strain of withstanding the whip and not resting his full weight on Dean.
Then Thomas burst from the circle, shouting furiously. He barreled into Dunlop and knocked the old man back a step. The blows stopped as Thomas struggled with him. Both figures were growing lighter, more translucent, as a steady glow filled the air behind them.
"Thomas, no!" Ruth sobbed. "Thomas!"
Dean didn't have the strength or the weapons to help the boy. He felt Sam crawl off him, no doubt headed for the shotgun, but even if he got to it in time, he'd hurt Thomas with the shot as much as he'd hurt Dunlop. Dean could only think of one solution, and it was a desperate gamble.
"Ruthie." He made himself sound calm, like a big brother comforting a nightmare. "Look at the light, Ruthie. It's not the bad man's place. It's where your ma and pa are. They sent me and Sam to find you. They're waiting for you, see?"
It was a lie, but Dean wished it could be the truth. And maybe it was, because Ruth looked, and whatever she saw brought a beautiful smile to her face.
"Thomas! It's Ma and Pa!"
She ran toward her brother. As her little body connected with Thomas's and Dunlop's struggle, the light burst forward and consumed them all.
Dean closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he was somehow leaning against Sam, his brother's big arm wrapped around his shoulder.
"They're gone?" Sam asked quietly.
Dean nodded. He'd have to explain, but for now it was all he could do to keep his eyes open.
As if reading his mind, Sam asked, "You going to make it back to the car?"
Dean wanted to say no, but he had an image to maintain, so he forced a grin.
"I'm fine. As soon as we get back, you can buy me a beer for saving the day. Again."
Sam's eyebrows shot up. "How about I buy you a shower? You kind of reek, dude."
That was rich, coming from the guy who looked like he was auditioning for Bigfoot.
"Have you looked in the mirror lately?" Dean asked. "Or were you thinking that mud mask would improve your complexion?"
Sam's free hand went to his cheek, which was liberally coated in mud.
"Camouflage is the latest fashion," he replied, deadpan.
It hurt to laugh, but somehow it felt good at the same time.