The hunter's hideout
Texas

It took a week before he was back on his feet. Pressed ribs were nothing new to him and even though it hurt, he had never been laid up long because of something like that. A concussion – as bad as this one was – added insult to injury, but still shouldn't have kept him down for a week. The flu and the pneumonia, however, took their toll on him like nobody's business. He went from being aware and ready to get up to feverish and delirious in the span of a few hours and spent the next four days slipping in and out of consciousness while trying to cough up a lung while he was aware enough to remember it.

On the fifth day the fever broke. On the sixth, he woke up feeling more spent than ever before and yet remarkably better than he had in a while. On the seventh day, he was sitting up, his feet planted squarely on the floor, one arm wrapped around his sore chest, when Gloria turned up at eight.

"What the hell are you doing?" were the first words out of her mouth.

He sneered and wanted to get up to show her just how together he was, but his spent body didn't want to play ball just yet. "Feeling better," he rasped and sent an almost saying look toward the empty pitcher sitting on the nightstand next to the bed. He was thirsty and had intended to get up so he could deal with the problem at hand himself. The part where he pushed off the bed and got to his damned feet, though, was the part he couldn't manage just yet.

"Yeah, I can see that," Gloria said and shook her head. "And what the hell makes you think that you're even remotely strong enough to get out of bed just yet?"

"I've been here what? A week?" he countered aggressively, to which she nodded. "Yeah, well, that's as long as I'm gonna stay, Gloria. I already told you. I've got work to do."

"And I already told you that you're not getting out of that bed before I say so. Do not make me get those restraints," she warned.

He gave her a look that had made big men quiver in their boots, but obviously it did nothing for her because her expression didn't change. "Don't push me, lady," he countered when his trademark look didn't do the deed.

Gloria hunkered down in front of him and placed her hands on his knees. "Since threats against your freedom obviously don't make a dent in that stubborn mule facade of yours, I'll try to appeal to your better judgement ... if you have one," she said, her tone even yet tight. "You've been very sick. You still have the after-effects of that concussion and you're far from over the pneumonia. I did not just waste a week's supply of antibiotics on you to let you waltz out there where you're most likely going to drive your damned car into another ditch or tree or whatever and end up being skinned alive by some fucked-up demon. Even if there were no demons out there, I still wouldn't let you leave. You need time to recuperate and whatever you feel you've got to do, it can wait."

"No, it can't," he pressed out through clenched teeth.

"Yes, it can, Dean," she persisted. He couldn't recall having told her his name at any point and his evident surprise that she knew it drew a tight grimace from her. "I know who you are. Everybody here does. And everybody here knows what you're looking for too."

If she had slapped him across the face with a wet fish, he couldn't have been more surprised.

"Everybody knows about you, Dean. Your father was a legend in our circles. And everybody out there who's even remotely connected to the world of hunters knows about your brother," she continued seriously. "Sam Winchester has created his own legacy in recent months – and none of it is good," she added, her tone more subdued, but her gaze never wavering. "I realize you've been looking for him for a while. A couple of days more or less isn't going to change anything."

The need to get up and get moving fought for balance with the need to find out what she thought she knew. In the end, he had to admit that she was probably right. And chances were he wouldn't find Sam any time soon anyway. So a day more or less really wouldn't make that much of a difference. "What have you heard?" he asked.

"Get back to bed and I'll tell you," she promised and got up.

For a moment he just sat there and stared at the spot where she had crouched a second ago, then he sighed and did as she said. The fact that he wouldn't be able to get off the damned bed without help right now effectively stranded him here until he could muster that strength.

Before Gloria could start talking, though, the sound of footsteps approaching made her turn her attention toward the doorway.

"Is he awake?"

Dean shifted his attention from Gloria to the newcomer and frowned lightly. The guy looked familiar, but he figured the man might have turned up during his less lucid moments in the past days.

"As you can see," Gloria said.

The man was tall, on the spindly side with dark-brown hair that reached to his shoulders. He was gaunt, had a perpetual expression of concern etched into his pale features and an unrelenting, unwavering stare. But there was something immediately trustworthy about him. Despite the obvious concern, the man was calm, balanced. "I'm Steve," he introduced himself, not offering his hand, and eyed Dean closely when he came to a stop near the foot end of the bed. "How are you feeling?"

Dean considered the man for a moment and tried to estimate his age. If pressed, Dean would guess that Steve was around forty, but it was hard to determine. "Like I've been hit by a house," he confessed.

Steve was dressed in black, jeans, t-shirt, shirt. Hunters came in all shades and sizes, from all walks of life, and Steve was no exception, but there seemed to be some unwritten law about clothing when it came to hunters and multiple layers were part of the uniform. In a sense the man looked delicate, but the way he held himself and the lilt of his voice spoke of a strength few men had. "Well, if you're like most of us, you've been living in your car, which would probably make that a fair statement," he said in response to Dean's words. There wasn't even a vague indication of a smile there, even though Dean got the impression that Steve was halfway kidding.

"Where is my car?" Dean asked, ignoring that statement in favor of hopefully good news.

"In the garage," Steve said and inclined his head toward the door he had just stepped through. "We've got two mechanics on the team. They fixed the dents. She's as good as new."

The thought alone that someone other than himself had fiddled with the Impala made him tense up, but all things considered he figured he should be grateful. He'd have to check the car over, of course, make sure nothing had been done to her that was out of bounds, but he found it in him to nod in acknowledgment. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Steve said, grabbed a chair and sat down facing Dean. "Uhm ... got a few questions," he added.

"Like what?" Dean eyed him closely, searching for any amount of hostility and realized there was none. It wasn't really common. Most hunters reacted on instinct when they met newcomers and if he had a reputation out there and was connected to whatever was being said about Sam, he was actually surprised they hadn't shot him yet.

"You're searching for your brother?" Steve asked. Dean nodded once. It wasn't really any of Steve's concern, but they had helped him out and had yet to go ballistic on his ass, which had to count for something. "Have you heard any of the ... rumors about him?"

Dean didn't really know how to respond. He didn't know where this was heading and felt downright naked without any weapons within reach. Not that Steve appeared threatening, but Dean had learned the hard way not to trust others even when they did seem friendly. "Some," he admitted a little standoffishly. "None of which are true," he added, his tone steely.

"And you know that for a fact?" Steve asked.

"He's my baby brother. There's nothing I don't know about him. And what I've heard about him is crap. Sam's not a killer. I don't care what anybody says," he pressed out.

Steve watched him closely, then nodded. "There are people here who know others that have witnessed these ... atrocities he's being accused of first hand," Steve said.

"Hearsay," Dean cut him off angrily and struggled to sit up. "Look, I appreciate the help and all, but I'm not gonna sit around here and listen to crap about my brother."

Steve's reaction was to stop him from getting up by rising and grabbing his shoulders. "Calm down. I'm trying to get the facts here and nobody seems to have witnessed anything first hand. No one I've met, anyway," he said, then released Dean again and sat back down. "My problem is that we need all the help we can get to clean up this mess. We're making a dent, but it's a very small one, and your reputation precedes you. It would make us stronger if you stayed and helped out. In return, we can help you find your brother. We have a fairly extensive network and a lot of good people who will stop to ask questions before pulling the trigger."

Dean stopped moving and just stared at Steve. This was a new approach, one he didn't have much confidence in. But Steve seemed a standup sort of guy and the idea was tempting. "I don't know," he muttered and sat up completely, mainly because his present position of having reared halfway up was putting too much strain on his aching chest.

"Think about it for a bit. We've got all the equipment you may need here, enough food and a place to sleep. You can consider this a base of operations, a place to come back to. If you prefer, you can keep looking for your brother alone. But there's a bigger chance we'll find him together before someone else does. And I don't think I need to tell you that some of the other hunters out there aren't very forgiving," Steve suggested, his expression as serious as his tone. "I can promise you that none of the people here will be opposed to helping out. If you're sure your brother isn't responsible for these atrocities, most of them will follow your lead."

It was hard to decide and the fact alone that he considered it a hard choice made it easier. Truth be told, he didn't want to go on alone, didn't have the fortitude or the drive to continue this quest without some sort of support. And Steve was offering that. "What do you expect me to do in return?" The answer to that question would make or break this thing, he figured. If Steve expected him to be around and put his search for Sam on the back burner to help these people out, then he would respectfully decline and be on his way as soon as he could.

"Whatever you can offer. Any help is better than no help. I'm not asking you to forget about finding your brother and help us clean up this mess full time. I'm just asking for whatever time you can spare." Steve glanced up at Gloria, who had remained close by, then rose and looked back down at Dean. "Just consider it, okay? Take the time you need and let me know when you've come to a decision. We're better off the more we are. And, like it or not, so are you."

Dean eyed him for a moment, then nodded curtly. "I'll think about it," he agreed, then frowned lightly. "While you're here," he added. "Do you know Bobby Singer?"

Steve thought about it for a moment. "I know very few people by their full names. A lot of people passing through here prefer to be anonymous."

Dean nodded and sighed lightly. "Right, it was worth a shot," he muttered.

"Sorry," Steve said and he most certainly sounded like he meant it too. "Gloria knows where to find me if you need anything," he added, nodded once to Gloria and left the field hospital again.

Only when Steve's footsteps had faded into the distance did Dean lie down again. He had a lot to think about right now and right now, the advantages of staying among these people – provided the others were as forthcoming as Steve was – would outweigh the drawbacks of being on the road on his own. First and foremost, these guys might actually know where a car could go without running into one of these no-juice-zones. Come to think of it, they might actually know what the hell was causing those zones. And if they could help him locate Sam and he could feel even vaguely certain the others wouldn't shoot to kill if they spotted his brother, that would be beneficial as well.

With a groan, he draped an arm over his face and tried to determine the outcome if he gave in to this and stayed. And why was he so damned inclined to stay anyway? Was this merely fueled by his reluctance to be on his own? Was it because he was so damned tired, he wanted to scream? Or was it because there was safety in numbers? He would have to make up his mind and soon. Right now, though, he decided he wanted to sleep some more.

***

Pinehearst Cabins
Dollar Settlement, Michigan

Taking the first step was always difficult and even though Sam had never been one to shun responsibility, he had - for most of his life - been sheltered by a highly aggressive older brother who took any wrongdoing against his baby brother as a personal insult and lashed out accordingly. So taking a step toward actively opposing his oppressors was something he had to put some effort into. And, subconsciously, he started out slow by letting Ruby know just exactly how much she wasn't getting to him anymore. It took him a week to get over the brutal attack and the fact that he was able to heal himself this rapidly was both a thrill and a scare. Based on all he knew and all he had ever learned, this made him a freak and he had to work hard to suppress the disgust and the fear of what Dean might make of this.

"You're going to have to prove yourself at some point."

Sam looked up from where he was sitting on the edge of his bed and frowned lightly at Ruby, who stood just inside the door. She kept her distance now, didn't get too close to him, but she was still as corrosive as ever. Even so he had seen the concern in her, had noted her distancing herself from him. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he demanded.

Ruby sneered. "I'm really beginning to think I'm betting on the wrong horse here," she snapped. "Are you really this stupid or are you just pretending?"

He made a face and returned to staring at the floor between his feet. It was getting easier to ignore her now that he didn't actively fear what she would do to him if he did. "I've got nothing to prove to you or any of your freaky friends," he growled.

The second her fingers closed around his chin he knew she was getting nasty again. It hadn't happened a lot over the last week, not like before. But she was mostly governed by her temper and so threw caution to the wind at regular intervals. She yanked him to his feet and then slammed him back against the wall. "I've spent way too much time already fending them off every time they went for you. You've got all this potential and you just squander it? You know what? Fuck you, Sam. I don't need this shit. Not from you."

Yup, she was pissed. Yet again. He grabbed her wrist and wrenched her hand away from his chin, then pushed her back harshly. "Get off me, bitch," he snarled.

Her anger changed instantly to overbearingness. "You're getting stronger. That's always something," she said, then lashed out and slapped him hard across the face; hard enough to drive him back against the wall. "And what did I tell you? Stop calling me bitch."

"What the hell do you want from me? I'm not going to start killing people left and right just because you say so. What the hell do you think I am? Just because some stupid, dumb-assed demon thought I should be some kind of leader? I have no interest in leading your fucked-up excuse for an army, Ruby. So why don't you just leave me the hell alone?" He rubbed pensively at his stinging cheek and pushed away from the wall again.

"I don't want a damned leader. I can lead them myself," she snarled. "And you know that I'm the only one who can help you get your brother back," she added, angry now. "You'd better watch it. If I decide you're not worth the effort, the others are gonna tear you to shreds. And this time I'm gonna let them. You'll end up in the lowest regions of Hell so fast it'll make your head spin. You can hang out with your dimwit brother then. Nice family reunion."

"Shut up, you bitch," he snapped. "You've been dangling Dean's salvation in front of me ever since I met you and so far you haven't done squat. You didn't save him from going to Hell and you haven't done anything to get him out of there either. You're just another lying bitch demon and that's all you are."

She propped her hands on her hips and glared at him. "Oh, is that right?" she snapped back. "And you know how to get your brother out of Hell on your own, do you?"

The fight went out of him right there and then. He slumped back against the wall, feeling the by now familiar lump rise in his throat. He swallowed hard and stared angrily at the floor right in front of her feet. "No, I don't," he admitted, then looked up again to meet her eyes. "But you've done nothing to help either. Why the hell should I listen to you?"

"Because, you stupid, spineless, dumb-assed dick, you'd be dead a million times over by now if it hadn't been for me. I've saved your worthless hide more times than I care to remember and all because you won't acknowledge who you really are. I am wasting my time with you, aren't I?" she hissed.

He just stood there and stared at her for a moment, then he snorted. Ideas he'd had before shot through his head again with so much clarity, they were almost painful. "You can't do it, can you? You couldn't stop Dean from going to Hell and you can't save him now. This is all just a big ploy to get me to do whatever the hell it is you want me to do."

"Of course I can do it," she disagreed, but there was an undercurrent in her voice that convinced him otherwise.

"THEN DO IT!" he roared and pushed away from the wall to take one angry step towards her. His sudden anger drove her back a step and she seemed caught between concern and glee right now. He licked his lips and took a step back again. Like every time when his anger became this tangible, he could feel it slithering through his veins like a damned vipers nest and it always made him back down at once. "Just fucking do it. Stop stalling," he said more calmly.

She glared at him for a moment, then turned her back on him and folded her arms over her chest. "Not the way you're behaving. You do as I say and we'll see," she said, for all intents and purposes sounding like a mother scolding her child.

He drew in a deep breath and held it for a moment while fighting to stay calm. But what did he really have to stay calm for? She was pushing his buttons, stringing him along just like Dean had said, and he had reached the end of the line. He couldn't keep calm while being around her and her hell-buddies. He felt his control slipping a little more each day and figured he would have to find a different way to get his brother back. There had to be another way. With that decision made, he stopped pretending and let any pretense fly that he should believe her. "No," he said.

"What?" She turned back to face him. "You want your brother to burn in Hell for the rest of eternity?" For some reason it seemed to stun her and that gave away more than she had wanted him to see.

"You don't know how to get him out of Hell," he said and smiled grimly. "You lying bitch," he added and shook his head. "I should have listened to Dean. I should have shot you the first time I saw you."

Ruby's expression would have been laughable if the situation hadn't been so dire. "You're not serious?"

"The hell I am," he confirmed and took a step closer to her. He just stood there for a moment and stared down at her. "Come to think of it ... you've been lying to me from the get-go. And you're the one who told me that Dean was dead. So, chances are ... he isn't." It was a hard truth to come by, to accept. Had he really spent half a year in her corrosive company while Dean was still be out there, alive and fighting the rising tide on his own?

"Don't be ridiculous. You killed him. That little stunt of yours blasted everything within a mile's radius, including your dimwit brother."

Before she could even think of doing anything to counter it, Sam covered the distance between them, grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked her head back. Almost carefully, he brushed his fingertips over her cheek. "If there's one thing Dean has never been, you bitch, then it's a dimwit. The only idiot in this family is me because I believed you. Because I wasn't smart enough to see through your ruse. Well, playtime's over. I'm leaving. The only way you can stop me is by killing me."

"Don't tempt me," she snarled and yanked her head forward to no avail. His fingers were locked in her hair. "Let go of me."

"Why the hell should I? I should break your damned neck for this, but that wouldn't do much good, would it?" he said, released his hold on her and shoved her away. "Just stay the hell away from me. Or kill me. Whatever you wanna do. But I'm leaving." Glancing around the cabin, he considered what little belongings he had, then shrugged and stepped up to the door.

"They'll rip you apart," Ruby warned.

"They can always try," he countered without looking back, pulled the door open and stepped out of the cabin.

The twenty-odd followers Ruby had gathered in this remote place were all milling around outside the other cabins and all of them stopped when he stepped out of the cabin alone. They obviously knew something was going on, but he didn't really care any more. He needed to get away from here, needed to try and track down his brother if he was still alive. He wasn't sure. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. A lot had been wishful thinking lately.

One of the guys stepped in his way. "Where do you think you're going?" he snarled.

Sam considered him for a moment. All these people, the original owners of these bodies, were gone. He had no doubts about that. There was nothing to save here. He sneered at the guy and considered the best way to make an example. They hadn't touched him since the attack a week ago, but Ruby was right about her part in that. She had threatened them off a million times with that knife of hers. Well, he wasn't going to stand still and wait for them to tear into him again. With the newfound hope that maybe, just maybe, Dean wasn't in Hell, he could much more easily release his precarious hold on the foreign energy streaming through him and if he was to find Dean, he would have to damned well fight his way out of here.

"Away from here," he said coldly.

The demon grinned. "Oh, I don't think so. Ruby's given up on you, hasn't she? About damned time too, I'd say," he sneered.

Sam couldn't help the cynical little smile that slipped over his lips. "Fuck you," he said quietly and lashed out. He had no idea what he was capable of, didn't know how far he would be able to go, and was a little stunned himself when he suddenly held the guy's heart in his hand. The removal of the heart should – technically – have meant that the demon essence was merely out of a home, but the actual outcome was much the same as with Ruby's knife or the colt. The guy's body lit up like a firecracker, then collapsed and what remained of the demon essence oozed out of the body and disintegrated in sparks.

At first stumped and then disgusted, Sam dropped the heart, swallowed hard and raised his hand to eye it with growing distaste. Then he became aware of all the others staring at him and he knew he would have to suck it up and be strong to get out of this one alive. He wiped his hand on the seat of his jeans, then turned around to face the others. "Who's next?" he growled.

They all, without question, took a step back. Ruby, however, stepped forward, applauding him. "It's about time," she said with a smirk. "Only one thing, smarty-pants." She glanced down at the body on the ground. "You're supposed to kill them, not us."

Sam stared at her for a second, then lashed out and grabbed her by the throat. "You forget one thing, Ruby," he pressed out through clenched teeth. "I'm not one of you." Without hesitation, he relieved her of her knife and pushed her back. "Stay the fuck away from me. All of you. Now you know what I can do. So don't push me."

He backed up one step and glanced around at all of them, then turned and strode away. It took everything he had in him to not glance back or start running, but somehow he managed. He knew he was on the run from three different factions right now, which would make his life very perilous. What he needed to do was find someone who could tell him whether Dean was alive or not and the only ones he could think of right now were Bobby and Grace.

***