Parker's field
Sarels, ND

Grace stopped the Plymouth next to the Impala and got out with Dean. He inspected his car for a moment, then stopped and sent a long look out over the burned field. She could only imagine what he had to be thinking right now.

For a long quiet moment neither of them moved. Then he glanced back at her. "Are you hellbent on bringing that car with you?" he asked and nodded at the Plymouth.

Grace made a face. "Not really, no. Why?"

"Because I don't really think we should drive in two cars, Grace. I don't want us to get separated," he said.

"And what happens if we hit one of those ... blocks?" she asked and eyed him closely. "If we take two cars and keep a certain distance, then we have the option of pulling the stalled car free or just going on in one. I think it's too dangerous to take only one car right now. Unless you plan on walking to South Dakota, of course." She reached into the pocket on the driver side door and retrieved a map. "I think it might be an idea to estimate on a map where those blocks are so we don't risk running into them again."

Dean stared at her for a moment, then grimaced and sent another look out over the field before he nodded. "Good plan," he agreed. "Let's do that. But I take point."

She couldn't help a vague smile from slipping over her lips. "You sound like a soldier," she said, half in jest.

"This is war, Grace. They've brought Hell to our front doors. We gotta do what we can to fight them off," he said, his tone deadly serious. "Let's move out. The sooner we make it to Bobby's, the better I'm gonna feel."

Grace got back into the Plymouth and waited for the rumble from the Impala's engine. It took a little longer than she had expected, but finally the black car came to life and moments later, Dean pulled out and headed East toward Minnesota. She sighed lightly, then picked up her cellphone and dialed his number, hoping against hope that the phones would work.

"Grace?" Dean responded almost at once. "You okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine. I just wanted to make sure we can stay in touch. Just in case. Where are you going? Bobby is in South Dakota. We should be heading South," she replied.

"Detour. Just wanna make sure we get around whatever is blocking the entrance to North Dakota. So we'll swing through Minnesota and try it that way," he replied.

She arched an eyebrow and couldn't help a brief smirk. "Good thinking. Lead the way," she said.

"Stay close," he admonished, then hung up again.

Grace sighed, turned on the radio and started scanning through all the channels in search of a radio station that might still be on the air. All she got was static, though. Eventually, she shifted over to the cd-player and wondered what Mack had in the back of this monster. She knew the guy had set up a cd-changer in the trunk, but had no idea if there were even any cds in it. A second later, the thumping base of some classic rock band vibrated through the car. She turned the volume down a little and drove on while keeping a close eye on the Impala in front of her.

***

Three and a half hours later
Warren, MN

Dean hadn't consciously thought about the implications of the towns being wiped out, but if he hadn't thought about it before, he did now. All the minor towns they had come through in North Dakota were empty. There was no sign of anyone, no bodies, no nothing. A few dogs trotted around and got into garbage, he saw a few stray cats as well and was pretty certain he'd seen a parrot sitting atop a lamppost in Langdon, ND. But no people. And it reminded him of several horror and sci-fi movies that had involved the extinction of the human race. He just hadn't thought he'd ever live to see the day that this actually happened.

Grace had suggested Warren, Minnesota as a stop-over because she knew someone in town, but when they rolled into Warren, Dean figured that whoever Grace had known here, that person wasn't likely to be around anymore.

He pulled over at a gas station on Main Street and the Plymouth pulled in right behind him and Grace got out only a second after he did.

"Doesn't look like anybody's home," he said and sent a look around what he could see of the deserted town.

Grace stuffed her hands into the pockets her jeans and looked around with a frown furrowing her brow. "What the hell is going on? Where is everybody? Every town we've passed through has looked dead, Dean."

He nodded and opted to fill the tank while he could. With this rate of depopulation, it wouldn't be long before nobody was left out there to deliver gas to gas stations like this. "Looks like whatever it is, it's going for smaller towns. Which makes me a bit anxious to get to Fort Pierre as fast as we can. Are you good to drive for a bit longer?"

Grace arched both brows and stared at him for a moment. "I'm not the one with a bump on the head. Are you?" she countered.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he said and knew instantly that she didn't believe him.

She regarded him solemnly for a second, then ducked into the car to retrieve something. She returned with a bottle of Tylenol and a bottle of water. "Here," she said and held both out to him.

He eyed the painkillers for a second, then took both and dry-swallowed two pills. "Thanks," he said. There was no sense in arguing with her. There was no way she would back off if he made a fuss and the worst-case scenario would put him in the passenger seat of his own car with her driving. He had the greatest faith in her, but he was having trouble enough letting Sam drive the Impala. He would just rather avoid having to make that decision altogether.

"Do you intend to take the whole stretch in one go? We'll be driving for close to fourteen hours all in all if we do, you know," she said while still eying him closely.

"Nah, I think we'll have to find some place to spend the night," he said. They had only covered the first four hours by now and still had a ways to go and he was pretty sure that if he had to drive for another ten hours straight, he'd be puking his guts out by the end of it and that really wouldn't do. He knew Grace well enough by now that she would confine him to a bed for a couple of days and he didn't want to risk that right now. He needed to get out there again as soon as possible. He needed to find Sam.

There was that small voice in the back of his head that kept insisting that Sam might not be out there to find any more, but he couldn't allow himself to believe that. He had the very distinct impression that his brother was still very much alive. Until someone proved him wrong, he was going to be out there, looking for him. The rest be damned.

***

Six hours later
Redwood Falls, MN

Another six hours on the road brought them in close proximity of bigger towns and there was still activity there. But the general feel was that the people living in the slightly bigger places were moving and Dean figured that people were heading toward the bigger towns like Minneapolis, which of course wouldn't help the feel of the ghost towns spreading out there. But at least it would mean that not all people had disappeared, but were merely pulling together in bigger numbers.

Redwood Falls wasn't particularly big, but it was obviously close enough to Minneapolis to not have been overrun yet and that was where they found a motel for the night. Even though the distance to Fort Pierre wasn't overtly long any more, he still couldn't face having to drive for another four hours. His head was hurting like hell and his vision was starting to blur around the edges.

They parked their respective cars next to each other and went to the office together to get rooms. The guy behind the counter looked up and inspected them suspiciously. "What'll it be?"

"One room, two beds," Grace said before Dean could say anything.

He glanced at her and frowned lightly, but kept any comment to himself.

The receptionist looked from Grace to Dean and back again, then arched an eyebrow and handed over a key. Grace signed and paid for it, then ushered Dean out the door. "We're not splitting up," she said firmly. "The way you look, I'm not leaving you alone."

He was too tired to argue and didn't really want to anyway. He would never have suggested it himself, but he'd always had issues with sleeping alone and even though she wasn't Sam, she was family and that made all the difference.

For the first time since he could remember, he was delegated to the bed furthest from the door, because Grace dumped her bag on the first bed. "Go lie down," she said and her tone tolerated no objection.

He sighed lightly. "Grace ... no offence, but ..."

The look she gave him made him shut up immediately. "I'm tired too, Dean. And I don't have a bump on my head. So would you please stop opposing me and go to bed already? You look about ready to drop."

"I'm hungry," he said, hoping to stall a little. Truth be told, he was more tired than hungry and wasn't even sure he would be able to eat if they did go out for dinner, but there was just some part of him that opposed being ordered around. He realized that her tone was probably a fairly good indication of how tired she was too, but he still couldn't stop himself.

The expression she pulled was classic Winchester and he almost flinched at how much she looked like dad right then. "Okay. I'm sure there's a pizza place somewhere in this town. I'll find out and we'll order one," she said and pointed at the far bed. "Lie down until it gets here," she added and this time the commando tone was very evident in her voice.

Rather than press his luck and maybe end up in an argument with her that he at present couldn't win, he opted to do as he was told and let himself drop down on the bed. He draped an arm over his face and realized just how much his damned head was hurting when the pain lessened under the sudden darkness.

He vaguely heard Grace on the phone, but his attention drifted out of focus and into sleep without further hesitation.

***

Grace eyed him for a second after his breathing had evened out, then dialed the number of the pizza place the receptionist had given her and ordered a pizza and some soft drinks to be delivered. Then she hung up and settled down on the edge of her bed. Dean had eyed her a few times with something akin to confusion and she assumed that it struck him as odd that she wasn't really responding to what was happening around her. What he didn't know, though, was that she had done all the responding she could have while she had spent a little over a month alone in a ghost town without being able to reach anyone.

The first call she had been able to make or receive had been the one from Bobby and she had been hard pressed to keep her emotions at bay when she had heard his voice. The thought that they were heading toward Fort Pierre now and that the going had so far been fairly smooth made it easier for her to keep it all inside, but she knew herself well enough to know that it had to come out at some point.

She glanced at her watch, sent another lingering look over at her sleeping nephew, then rose and walked into the bathroom, closed and locked the door behind her and settled down on the toilet. For a good five minutes she just sat there and stared ahead of herself until the tears started flowing. God, she hated being this weak, but the whole thing had uprooted her and basically left her to wither and die. That Sam and Dean had done all they could to get to her was something she believed in, but it hadn't changed the fact that she had spent over a month being scared out of her wits. And the fear wasn't subsiding. It was growing proportionally to the events taking place around her.

After another ten minutes, she finally regained control again and rose to splash some water on her face. Then she stared at her reflection in the mirror over the sink for a moment. "Keep it together, you wimp," she whispered to herself.

The knock on the door of the room brought her around. She left the bathroom behind and opened the door, ignored the curious look she got from the kid delivering the pizza, paid him extra for his trouble, and sent him on his way. She didn't care if it was obvious that she had been crying. She had never really cared about how others perceived her. Except for her husband, of course. And her baby boy.

She stopped short as if she'd hit an invisible brick wall, just stood there for a second and swayed lightly while his memory once again swept over her. Most of the time she was at peace with the absence of the man and the boy. Sometimes, like now, she felt shredded and incomplete without them. Then she opened her eyes again and focused on another lonely soul who needed her now and it eased her internal struggle and was balm on an open wound that had never really healed. He wasn't hers, but he was close enough. He was John's and that made all the difference.

Tomorrow they would reach Fort Pierre and she knew without the shadow of a doubt that this one would leave again to find his brother. But at least she wouldn't be alone. She would learn all she could from Bobby Singer, would learn how to protect herself and become what her nephews were. A hunter. She smirked joylessly at the thought, then put the pizza box down on the room's table and opened it. The scent of the food wafted out into the room and after a moment, Dean stirred.

He groaned under his breath, shifted a little, then pulled his arm away from his face and raised his head. He looked like death incarnate, pale, tired, dark spreading smudges under his eyes, but his gaze locked on the pizza and he sat up. It would take a lot to shut him down, she knew. A borderline concussion was nothing in the great scheme of things. He'd had worse. Or so he said.

He pushed off the bed and came over to join her, settled down on the chair across from her and reached for a slice of pizza, then froze. "Grace?"

She met his gaze across the table. "What?" she asked, well aware that he had probably latched onto how she looked.

"Are you okay?" It was almost a timid question, tentative at best. Showing concern for other people's state of mind didn't seem to be at the top of his list of favorite things to do.

"I'm fine," she said and smiled vaguely to prove it. "It's just all ... very overwhelming. But I'm fine."

He let his hand drop away, hesitated to grab something to eat. "Are you sure?"

"If Sam was in my shoes right now, how would you respond to him?" she asked.

Dean blinked, frowned lightly and his eyes skittered away from hers. "I'd probably mock him," he said, his voice suddenly a little hoarse.

"See, I normally don't break down and cry. I keep it all inside. But sometimes ... I just have to let it out. And there's nothing wrong with having a good cry as long as it doesn't get out of control and you end up afraid of your own shadow. Mocking others for their ability to show emotions isn't fair," she said sternly and watched him for his reaction.

His gaze snapped back to meet hers and his temporary discomfort at the situation had changed character to slight annoyance. "That's not what I do," he tried, then trailed off while his expression once again changed direction to realization. "What are you trying to do?" he asked.

"Get your mind off things," she replied and smiled vaguely. "Don't worry about me breaking down, Dean. I open the valve now and again and it takes the pressure of. I've done this all my life and it has always worked for me." She nodded at the pizza. "Let's eat and then hit the sack. I'm dead tired."

***

One week after D-day
Location unknown

Sam hit the floor with a bone-jarring thud and any attempt he made to get up again failed miserably. He was tired, hungry, parched and generally felt like crap, but that didn't seem to matter to Ruby. She ordered him around and when he refused to obey, she hurt him. It was as simple as that.

"You're pathetic, you know that?" she snarled and kicked his right thigh viscously.

He had been among them for a bit now, out here in the middle of nowhere, and for now Ruby had neglected to do anything other than protect his sorry hide from the others by keeping him locked up in this cabin. Food was sporadic, water equally, and on account of both hunger and thirst, his defenses were down and he felt like he was coming down with the worst flu ever. Not that Ruby gave a shit about how he felt. "Let me up," he snarled, trying to work up the anger he needed to activate his latent powers. He knew that he could use those powers, but he needed to get very angry to achieve that and he was really in no condition for blistering mad right now. Besides, the thought of what he could do with those powers made him think of Dean and it sent a rippling pang of sorrow through him and made him stop trying to work up the anger he would need to break her hold on him. He didn't want to use those powers, didn't want to ever cause anyone harm again.

"Let me up," Ruby sneered, mimicking him with obvious distaste. "You think that little tattoo is going to protect you?" She pulled her dagger, stepped over him and dropped down on his stomach, making him grunt. A failed escape attempt had left him hurting badly from her anger and the attack of the others. They had torn into him, but hadn't managed to really hurt him before Ruby had intervened. But it had cost him his jacket and his shirt. And one of them had realized he had the anti-possession tattoo on his shoulder. "I'm going to have enough trouble keeping the others away from you until you finally realize where you belong. Having a damned sigil stenciled on your shoulder isn't going to improve their opinion of you," she added, grabbed the front of his t-shirt and sliced through it.

"Get off me," he snapped and struggled against the demonic hold she had on him, but he couldn't even raise his arms. He was stuck to the floor.

She ignored him and pulled the now tattered remains of his t-shirt away from his left shoulder. She eyed the tattoo for a moment, obvious disgust in her eyes. "Pathetic," she hissed, then met his eyes. "This might sting a little," she added and brought the blade down on his skin.

"No," he gasped when the tip of the blade pierced his skin. "Stop it. What the hell are you doing?"

Ruby said nothing, but concentrated on carving a ring around the tattoo. That hurt, but what she did next nearly sent him through the roof. He tried to hold back on the pain, but couldn't when she used the razor edge of the blade to peel away that piece of skin that held the tattoo. And she didn't do it fast either. He clawed his fingers into the carpet beneath him and started screaming his damned head off when she was halfway through skinning his shoulder.

Once she was done, she rose and stepped back, then released her hold on him. With a groan, he curled up on himself and brought his right hand up to hover just over the circular hole, which was bleeding badly. "You bitch," he ground out.

"Oh, spare me the whiny attitude," Ruby growled, grabbed a box and tossed it to him. "You'd better patch that up before you bleed all over the place," she added and left the cabin. The door clicked shut and a second later, the deadbolt clicked into place.

He fumbled with the first aid kit for a moment before he managed to get it open and dug through it. Fortunately it was well stocked and he eventually managed to patch himself up before Ruby returned. He hadn't even managed to get off the floor yet when the door opened again.

Ruby sneered at him, closed the door behind her and threw a paper bag on the bed. "You look pale," she said, her tone anything but concerned.

"Yeah, well, that hurt," he growled, then glanced at the bag. "What's that?"

"Food," she said and settled down on the edge of the bed. "You have got to get your act together, Sam. Kindergarten is over. You're in school with the big boys now and they play rough."

He glared at her, angry and scared at the same time. He had been under the impression that she was starving him to keep him off balance. Now he wondered if that was actually the case or if she just didn't remember to feed him because she hardly ever ate herself. Despite the anger, he grabbed the bag and opened it. It wasn't exactly what he wanted to eat, but a burger was a hell of a lot better than nothing and he was pretty close to ravenous at this point. "What the hell do you want from me, Ruby?" he demanded between bites while he remained on the floor.

"I want you to shape up, to pull yourself together and get on with things. You need to practice your abilities, you need to get better," she pushed. She had left him alone for the first two days, but obviously expected him to be over his grief at this point, which just went to show how little of human reactions she still remembered.

"I'm not using this crap again," he growled, his voice breaking halfway through, and despite being hungry for more, he stopped eating, dropped the half-eaten burger back into the bag and set it aside. He was tired, didn't sleep much, and when he slept he was plagued by nightmares. When he was awake he was locked in this damned cabin, unable to go anywhere and do anything worth while. And she kept pushing him to use his abilities and he kept opposing her on that front.

"You can't give up on it just because you messed up once," she tried, making a conscious effort to not sound so damned pissed off all the time.

He glared up at her, then shifted backward until his back connected with the wall. "I killed my brother. You call that 'messing up'?" he snapped, on the verge of tears he would not allow himself to spill with her around. Sure, she was protecting him from the others, but he had no doubt she had her own nefarious plans for how he should use his abilities. "I killed him. I'm never using this shit again. Never!"

Ruby sighed deeply and shook her head. The internal dialogue she was having right now was quite obvious and Sam could guess at what she was thinking, but he didn't really care. He slumped back against the wall and wrapped his arms around himself, pulling the tattered remains of his t-shirt around him. It wasn't exactly warm here, he had no spare clothes and Ruby hadn't offered to get him anything else to wear.

Instead of paying attention to the demon, he let his attention drift and not for the first time felt like crying. He hadn't shed any tears over his brother's demise, but that was mainly because he was never alone long enough to give vent to his feelings and up until now, he had been scared of the others milling around outside. He was already considered weak and feeble by the majority of them, which gave Ruby a lot to do in keeping them away from him. Apparently, weakness attracted them like flies to dirt and he had no doubt they would tear him apart if Ruby stopped protecting him. He had to at least make a marginal effort to stay in her good graces until he could find a way to get out of here. Not that he really knew where to go.

Ruby just sat there on the bed, one leg folded over the other, while she bounced her foot impatiently and glared at him with derisive anger. He hadn't exactly been afraid of her before, but he wasn't too keen on her company at this point in time.

After some time she finally rose, shook her head and left the cabin again, slamming the door behind her and locking it. And the whole miserable thing just became too much for him. He pulled his knees up and just sat there while tears long overdue began rolling down his face. "I'm sorry, Dean," he whispered and buried his face against his knees.

***