The hunters hideout
The following day

"Don't be ridiculous!" Gloria pointed sternly at the bed, giving him little to no option other than to obey her. But he wasn't inclined to do that.

"I need to get up and move," he growled. True, his head was killing him now that he was finally standing on his own two feet and his balance was shot, but that didn't mean he had time to lie around and moan about it.

"You need to lie down and recover," Gloria shot back. "Are you nuts? You have a concussion, you stubborn ass. And pressed ribs."

"Don't remind me," he growled and reached out for the support of a chair when it felt like the world was about to tilt sharply to the left. "Son of a bitch," he pressed out through clenched teeth. Sitting up was no problem, but standing had turned into a whole new type of ordeal and he didn't even want to consider walking right now.

Gloria grabbed his right arm to steady him and he mostly felt inclined to pull free. But his head was spinning so bad that he had no other option than to accept her help. "How do you survive on your own?" she demanded while helping him back to bed. "I'm surprised you've not been buried seven feet under years ago."

"Could you spare me the lecture until the world stops spinning?" he groaned. "Aw crap. This sucks."

"Yeah, and it's gonna keep on sucking until you realize what you're doing to yourself and give yourself time to heal." She pulled the covers back over him, then settled down on the edge of the bed. "Dean, for pity's sake. Why can't you just stay down until you're ready to get up?"

"I already told you," he grumbled into the crook of his arm, which he had draped over his face. "I have work to do."

"We all do," Gloria persisted. "That doesn't mean you shouldn't give yourself time to heal. What's it gonna take? Do I really need to use those restraints?"

He pulled his arm away from his face and gave her a glare for her trouble. "Don't even think about it, Gloria," he warned, blinked a few times and realized the spinning of the room had ceased. "Look, I need to find my brother. And the longer I lie around here and stare at the damned ceiling, the more unlikely it is that I'll find him. And I can't live with that."

Gloria's expression struck a silent terror into his heart. She looked sad and sorry all in one. She knew who he was and she knew who Sam was and she didn't know Sam like he did. She had no idea what a good kid he was. All she had were vicious rumors about a twenty-five year old menace said to kill women, children and old folk with his bare hands where ever he turned up. "Are you sure you want to find him? I mean ... all those rumors ..."

"Lies," he cut her off. "Nothing but vicious lies meant to make him look bad."

He knew what she was thinking. She thought he was in denial, believed he didn't want to see his brother for what he really was, but he knew better. With a nod, she rose again. "Okay, if you say so," she said, obviously intent on keeping him as docile as possible.

For a moment he considered trying to persuade her, but then decided against it. There was no point, really. She would believe what she wanted to believe and that was that.

"Winchester."

With a sigh, he opened his eyes and focused on Steve. He couldn't recall if the man had mentioned his last name or not. "Present and accounted for," he said and grunted with annoyance when his stomach lurched unpleasantly.

"I hope you're not giving Gloria any grief?" Steve asked, pulled a chair over and sat down on it. "She's the only nurse slash doctor we have and I really don't want her scared away."

Steve's tone was even, friendly, and Dean got the impression that he was joking even while his expression hardly changed. "I don't think she's that easy to scare away," Dean countered and glanced over at Gloria, who was fiddling around with some stuff at the far end of the room.

"You could be right about that," Steve agreed with the vaguest hint of a smile on his lips. "Have you had time to think about my offer?"

Even though he had and even though he more or less had decided to stick around for the time being, he still paused and considered it again. "For now, I'll stick around," he finally said. "Mainly because I can't even seem to stand on my own two feet without falling on my face."

Steve arched an eyebrow. "Well, that's as good a reason as any to stick around for a bit, I guess," he said. "Look, I realize that you have ... stuff you feel you need to do. But as I said, we can help you locate your brother a lot faster than you can find him on your own. I've had a talk with the others and most of them are willing to help out in any way they can. Which of course includes that none of them will shoot him if they come across him."

"Except if he attacks, right?" Dean asked and eyed the man darkly. "Thanks for the offer, but ... I'd rather go this on my own if you don't mind. I don't trust others not to take a shot at him just because of all the crap they've heard about him."

The other man nodded solemnly. "Your call, of course," he said. "For the time being, can we count on you to help us out if we need the help?"

Dean pushed himself up on his elbows, fully expecting the world to start tilting again, and was a tad surprised when it didn't. Then he squinted up at Steve. "Yeah, sure," he said. "If I can help, I will."

"Good to know. Now heed Gloria's advice, okay? You're no good to anyone if you can't even stand on your feet," Steve said and rose again. "If I hear anything about your brother's whereabouts, I'll let you know."

"Thanks." Dean eased back down on the bed, mindful of his sore ribs and the possibility of a renewal of the dizziness, and watched Steve leave what passed for the field hospital again.

From what Gloria had told him so far, this was the inside of an old bunker some nutjob had built during World War 2. It was underground and covered a total of two square miles. There were tons of rooms, storage spaces filled to the breaking point with canned goods to last a group of fifty several years and everything else necessary. The whole thing could be sealed off airtight and this group of hunters had done their bit to add to the sanctity of the place. That meant lots and lots of salt, iron, spells and sigils everywhere. There was even an area designated as a jail and, according to Gloria, it had been there when they have moved in. Whoever the builder was, he had obviously anticipated having to live underground for a good long while with everything this entailed.

"Are you gonna stay in bed now?"

Gloria's voice pulled him out of his reverie and he blinked up at her for a second. "Yeah," he grumbled. "For now. The moment I'm not dizzy any more, I'm off this bed though. Had enough of lying down."

She eyed him darkly, then sighed and nodded. "Fine. And the second you take a header into the concrete floor, you'll be back here in restraints," she countered a little aggressively.

Despite the pull this exerted on the healing gash on his brow, he frowned nonetheless. "What is it with you and restraints anyway?" he asked and carefully pushed himself up on his elbows again. "Were you a dominatrix in a former life or something?"

Gloria's expression was worth an award right then. It was obvious that she had no idea how to respond. "Are you having an allergic reaction to the painkillers?" she finally countered. "Get your mind out of the gutter," she added when he arched an eyebrow at her. "Jeez. Every-damned-where I turn," she muttered under her breath and stalked out of the field hospital.

Dean knew she wasn't really pissed off right now, but the situation had somehow begged for some hilarity. Even though he himself didn't really feel any urge to smile, there was nothing wrong with maybe pulling a smile from others.

Carefully, he sank back down on the bed and pressed both hands against his face. There was only one thing that would make him smile right now and that would be to find Sam and find out that none of what he'd heard about his brother was real.

***

Three days later

Sam hadn't been aware of the extent of the demon war until he reached St. John three days later. The town, which had previously been very much alive, was a ghost town. Nobody was left. All the houses were empty, some had burned down, but there were no bodies anywhere. He reached Grace's house, which was still standing and looked to be in good condition, but it was empty of life.

He jimmied the lock on the front door because he had lost the key along with everything else he owned when Ruby had dragged him away from his allegedly dead brother, and he spent the night in the downstairs bedroom. It was the closest place to a home he had ever really known apart from the apartment he had shared with Jess, and by the time darkness had settled over the dead township, he was on the verge of tears. Alone and hidden from prying eyes, he allowed himself to give in to the fear, the desolation, the sorrow. The fact that Grace wasn't here made his heart ache. He felt abandoned and oh-so-scared of what he would find at the end of this trek. But he needed to know for sure whether his sense that Dean might not be dead after all was right.

He focused so hard on his brother that he had something close to a vision about him when he finally fell asleep. Brief flashes of Dean somewhere upped his hope, but he had no idea how to find Dean. He could be anywhere.

When the new day began, he woke up with a start and had the distinct feeling that he needed to get going. Next stop would be South Dakota and Bobby's place. If Bobby was gone too, Sam didn't know what he would do. He just needed to find someone who knew where Dean was.

Ruby had pretty much kept him out of the loop and he had no idea what the lay of the land was in regards to himself. He had defended himself against the demons in the end, but had major hang-ups about his potential because of what he had believed it had done to Dean. And it burned him that he could have made an indent in the demon population all this time if only he had known what he suspected now.

He gathered what little he had picked up from Grace's place, got back in the old battered Ford pickup he had stolen, then stopped short and stared at the closed garage doors. With a bit of luck ... He got back out, jimmied the garage door open and just stood there and stared at the four-wheel drive sitting there. Wherever Grace was, someone had picked her up. He hoped it was Dean, suspected it was probably Bobby and thanked whatever deity was willing to hear him right now that the four-wheel drive was still there. He went back into the house and found the keys where Grace had kept them, then checked the gas tank, which was full, and then transferred his few belongings to the black powerhouse of a car. It could go faster and was a hell of a lot more secure than the pickup and it both smelled and felt a little like home.

***

Bobby's place
Fort Pierre, SD

There were two things that struck Sam when he got out of the Cherokee and looked around the junkyard for a second. Bobby's car was there, which filled him with a mixture of hope and fear. The house, however, looked deserted, and this tipped the scale in favor of the fear. A house got an air of abandonment after being empty of life for awhile and it wafted off the old house like an odor.

He tightened his grip on the top of the driver side door, closed his eyes and tried to feel the place. Was he alone or were there others around? In his humble opinion, this demonic crap he was carrying around had to be good for something and maybe he could learn to use it for things that would benefit him rather than hinder him. It was a new way of thinking for him, but he had started focusing on that after he'd been able to heal himself. Granted, the healing had been slow and had knocked him out for a few days, but he had still managed to use his abilities for something good, and that had to mean something.

Reaching out now, he felt nothing apart from the surging loneliness and the constant nagging guilt over what may or may not have happened to Dean. Whether that was because there was nothing to feel or that he just didn't have the ability to connect to others through this crap was beyond him. He figured he would have to try it out again at some point when he actually knew there were others in the vicinity, although he had yet to meet another living soul.

He focused on the house, then slammed the door of the Cherokee shut and walked slowly over to the steps leading up to the porch. He recalled the countless times over the years that he had set foot on this porch and knocked on that door and every time, without fault, Bobby had been there, welcoming, helpful, every bit the father his own dad had never been. He stopped in front of the door and stared at it for a moment, then raked the fingers of his left hand through his hair before knocking on the door. Nothing happened.

"Oh, come on. Be home," he muttered and knocked again, this time a little harder. And still there was no reply from within. A turn of the doorknob brought him nothing either. The door was locked. After a second, he sighed heavily and turned back to face the yard. Something told him that if Bobby was around, his arrival would not have gone unnoticed, but the absence of life in this part of South Dakota was very noticeable and whatever had happened to the people here, he feared the same had happened to Bobby and Grace.

The thought of having to go on, to move from deserted town to deserted town was something he couldn't stomach right now. He needed familiar surroundings, needed a place that felt vaguely like home. He was still recuperating from the brutal attack – perhaps not physically as much as mentally – and the fact that he had managed to kill a demon without the use of a weapon still rattled him.

He descended the steps back down to the yard and crossed over to the garage where he knew Bobby always kept a spare key. He didn't have any means of picking the lock right now, but knowing that Bobby had extras of everything inside, he just needed to get into the house and breaking down the door just didn't feel right to him. So he would have to look for a spare key. And maybe, just maybe, there would be an indication in the house of whether his brother was alive or not.

The garage was open and sent a ripple of homesickness through him when he stepped through the door. To others Bobby might seem chaotic, but Sam knew from years of experience that there was order in the chaos and that once you knew the system, it was quite easy to find things. Boxes piled on top of each other covered every surface, most of them unnamed, some so old they were coming apart. This was a place he had spent a few summers, in this musty old garage with the scent of oil and cleaning solutions hanging in the air. Dean had loved it here, had spent hours and hours fiddling around with old cars that didn't work.

Sam fixed his gaze on a car covered with a tarp near the back of the garage and was taken back in time mentally. He could almost hear the sound of metal on metal, could taste the metallic tang of lubricants in the air and hear his father's gruff voice, commending Deano on his ingenious way of fixing a fan belt. It was a bittersweet memory because it stood in stark contrast to all the crap dad had piled on Dean's shoulders over the years. There were a few times that Sam could remember where dad had actually been a dad, where he had taught them things that were not connected to hunting, where he had taken time out of his obsession to actually spend time with them. But the most prominent memories Sam had were all centered around dad's almost militant behavior, his gruff anger, and the way he had developed the habit of actually blaming Dean for a lot of stuff that Dean back then couldn't possibly have done anything about. Like when dad had come back from a hunt, injured and drunk, and had started yelling at Dean for not making sure there was enough food.

The memory stung, because Sam could still see Dean, hunkered down in front of dad while he cleaned the bleeding gash and the old man tore into him verbally like Dean had spent the money on junk instead of what he actually had done; mainly forgoing food himself so that Sam could eat because dad, as usual, had been late coming back from the hunt. And what Sam had hated him for at the time was that he hadn't fought back, that dad had done this to him and he hadn't stood up for himself. It had taken years for Sam to realize that Dean hadn't taken it to heart because he knew that dad hadn't meant it, that he had been tired and sad and drunk and in pain, which had made him say stuff like that because he had seen something so terrible, he had to vent to get over it. But on some level Sam couldn't help believing that Dean had taken it to heart, that he had internalized a guilt that wasn't his to carry.

"I should have been a damned psych-major," he muttered, dug out the box he knew should hold the spare key and found it there too. He sent another glance around the garage, then left it and the memories behind. As long as he didn't know for sure that Dean was still around, memories like that could be a killer and he didn't have the stamina to deal with them right now. He just wanted a decent bed and a shower and familiar surroundings.

***

Two weeks later
The hunter's hideout
Texas

It had taken Dean two damned weeks to get back on his feet without the headaches and the sore ribs and the pain in his neck now identified as Gloria the nurse. Gloria was okay, no doubt about that, but she was ten times the nag Sam had ever been and he missed his brother more than ever.

"You shouldn't be up. That's all I'm saying," Gloria insisted and leaned heavily on the kitchen counter separating the actual kitchen from what passed for a mess hall.

Dean glared at her for a second, then let his attention drift because glaring at her gave him nothing. He had never met anyone who was as impervious to glares as Gloria was. She seemed completely indifferent and he had noticed that she acted that way around everybody else too. And everybody else were a lot of people. The majority of them were hunters, some were family members of said hunters and three or four were regular citizens scared into seeking refuge among the people who could actually make a difference.

He had no idea at this point what Gloria's story was and, truth be told, he didn't really want to know. It wasn't so much that he didn't care. He just didn't have the strength to care.

It had taken him a bit of brain-wrecking, but he had come to the conclusion that it had been over two months since he'd last laid eyes on his brother and the mere thought that Sam had been gone that long made him fear for the future. If Sam was still alive – and at times, considering the rumors he had heard, he almost found himself hoping that he wasn't – then why hadn't he tried to contact him? Granted, cell-connection was sketchy at best, but Sam knew Dean almost as well as Dean knew Sam. Wouldn't he be out there, looking for Dean too? And why were these rumors going around? Who was starting them?

There were murmurs among the others. He hadn't really approached anyone and the only ones who presently talked to him were Gloria and Steve. The others just watched him and whispered behind his back. He had the feeling that the others were either afraid of him or unsure of what to make of him. And they all, without exception, knew who he was. And in extension they knew who Sam was, too, and he had to admit that it worried him a little bit.

"How's it going?"

Dean glanced up at Steve when the other man settled down at the bar-like kitchen counter next to him. The kitchen – or mess hall – was all concrete like the rest of this place. There wasn't much around here that could catch fire and there wasn't much comfort either. After he had finally managed to weasel his way out of the field hospital two days before, Steve had assigned him a room – of which there were plenty – and said room made him think of a prison cell. The rooms had all the necessities of course. A bunk, a closet, a table, a chair and a private, tiny bathroom. But the lighting was harsh when it was turned on and the room was pitch black with the lights off. There were no carpets and the whole place was chilly and a little bit damp most of the time.

"Okay," he replied and shrugged lightly. He had spent some time tinkering with the Impala, but had been forced to admit that the mechanics of the group had done a great job. There wasn't a scratch on her and everything that had needed fixing was fixed. He hadn't been able to find anything wrong with his car and had ended up leaving her be for the time being. He wasn't going anywhere any time soon unless he got a clue to Sam's whereabouts. So far, though, nobody had offered any information and everybody other than Steve and Gloria left him alone. "Any news?" he asked and fixed a baleful stare at the other man.

Steve folded his hands and eyed the kitchen counter for a moment, then looked up to meet Gloria's eyes. "You got some coffee?" he asked. She nodded and handed him a mug without a word. "Thanks," he muttered, sipped the hot beverage, then glanced at Dean. "No, I'm sorry. No news. Nothing but rumors floating around. A guy came in from Kansas, said he'd met this group of hunters who had seen your brother, but ... he said they were a bit vague on where."

Dean considered Steve for a moment, then glanced in the direction of the coffee pot. Gloria was good at reading others and she handed him a mug too without prompting. It wasn't the best coffee he'd had, but it beat a lot of the dishwater-pretending-to-be-coffee he'd been subjected to over the years. "I bet they weren't vague on what Sam has done, were they?" he growled.

"Not so much, no," Steve agreed.

It was evident at this point in time that even Steve, who seemed fairly open-minded about most things, didn't believe that Sam was innocent. All Dean could do was continue to vouch for his brother even though he had to admit that it was getting a tiny little bit harder every time he had to do it. "Yeah, well, they're full of crap," he said and sneered at the coffee. "Whatever they think he did, I'm sure there's a plausible explanation for it."

Steve nodded, but obviously didn't agree. "I'm sure there is," he said, ever the diplomat.

His calm demeanor and sternness in dealing with any out-of-order reactions were what kept the others together and calm. According to Gloria, most of the others were easy-going, salt-of-the-earth kind of people who would listen before they judged. But there were a few that liked to rock the boat and Dean had had the distinct displeasure of running afoul of one of them already. Moira MacAvoy was not his cup of tea. She was either a few years older or younger than him – it was hard to determine just by looking at her – and she was as corrosive as a drop of acid in the eye; in other words she was pretty and altogether repellent. And Moira had made it abundantly clear what she thought of Sam and the rumors floating around out there. Dean had felt a margin of relief that he hadn't been armed when she had started spouting all that crap, because he would have been compelled to put a slug in her head if he had carried a weapon. Fortunately, Gloria had told her to zip it and the woman obviously respected the nurse enough to heed her advice. At least for the time being.

"What's on the menu for tonight?" Steve asked, directing that question to Gloria and tripping Dean out of his thoughts.

"Do I look like a cook?" she countered. She was feisty and Dean felt a certain attraction to her. At times he had to wonder what type of woman really did attract him and Gloria was among those that he felt could become more than a casual acquaintance. He had decided that it was her profession more than her in general, though. He'd always had a thing for nurses for some odd reason.

Steve made a face. "Could you answer the question without getting in my face about it?" he asked calmly.

"I don't know. I'm the frigging nurse here. Now you want me to cook too?" She threw her hands theatrically into the air and huffed out a breath. "I have no idea what Barry has in mind for tonight. Probably an open-your-own-can kind of deal again."

Dean was under the impression that she was working hard on getting a smile out of everybody and he felt a little bad about letting her down. Truth be told, he didn't really think there was a hell of a lot to smile about right now. "I'm gonna ... withdraw," he said, grabbed his mug and got up.

Steve wasn't one to hold others back and he merely nodded, then eyed Gloria again. "Why do you always have to fly off the handle when I ask you a question?" he asked, his tone dry as the desert. Dean had already realized that Steve, although not the obvious comedian, had a very dry and biting sense of humor.

"Because you always assume that I know everything," Gloria countered and chuckled. "I'm not the oracle of Delphi, you know."

"And yet you look so much like her," Steve shot back just before the swinging doors leading out of the mess hall shut behind Dean.

All things considered, he felt out of place and had actually never felt more lonely than he did here. It was a given fact that he didn't really appreciate crowds consisting of hunters and this place had been built with the intention of stuffing fifty into this space together. There were about twenty-five right now and that was too much in Dean's opinion. And the thought of being locked up in this place, underground, never to see daylight again, sent a shudder through him. Not that it would happen with any likelihood, but the way the world was going these days, he wasn't going to disregard any paths the future could take.

Instead of heading to his room, which had been his immediate intention, he changed direction and crossed through the garage and out through the open doors into the night. At least he could leave whenever he wanted to, but there was safety in numbers even though he didn't exactly feel safe among these people. It was ridiculous, really. Steve was in charge and the guy seemed to have a pretty good grip on the others which should have put his mind at ease. The problem was that it didn't. Some people judged by extension and with the rumors flying around out there about what Sam supposedly was up to, some might consider him a liability too because he was Sam's brother. Moira certainly did. She didn't like him at all. It didn't really bother him that much that she felt such vehement dislike for him, but it did worry him in the context of what she might do if Sam should suddenly turn up.

"Nice night."

He stopped dead at the top of the ramp that led down to the garage and squinted into the darkness at the shadowy outline of another man. "I guess," he agreed cautiously. The garage behind him was dark and the sky above him was covered with a heavy layer of clouds, blocking out any meager light the moon or the stars might have shed. On that account, it was fairly dark out here.

"The name's Gardner," the man said. He didn't move from where he stood leaning against a young tree. "I figure you don't remember me."

Dean blinked. "Uh ... no, I can't say that I do. Have we met before?" He settled on the low wall that framed the ramp and balanced his coffee mug on one knee.

"If you count the night I hauled you out of your car, then we've met twice," Gardner said, his tone slightly bemused. "Then again, you were unconscious at that point and the first time we met ... hell, you can't have been more than five or six. Don't blame you if you don't remember me."

Something sparked in his mind and he frowned at the half-memory that was more like a sensation than an actual memory. "Henry Gardner," he said and eyed the shadow among shadows. "Dad told you to go to hell," he added and rubbed the back of his neck pensively.

Obviously, the memory was at least vaguely pleasant for Gardner, because he chuckled. "Yeah, I remember that. Had quite a mouth on him, your dad," he agreed. "Didn't want to listen to an old rat like me."

That meeting had been before they had met Bobby, as far as Dean remembered, even though the memories surrounding their run-in with Henry Gardner were sketchy at best.

"Heard he passed," Gardner said, his tone saying more than his words. "Sorry, kid."

"'Passed' isn't the right term," Dean muttered and shrugged, then rubbed the right side of his rib cage. He was still a little sore. "So, what's the deal with this place? What are you guys hoping to achieve by hiding here?"

Gardner pushed away from the tree and made his way over to the other side of the ramp and the matching wall framing it. He settled down on it, then lit up a cigarette. The flame of the lighter briefly illuminated his face and Dean amended his memory of the man. New scars covered his aging face. "Hiding isn't really what we're doing here," Gardner said, dragged on the cigarette and flicked the lighter off, plunging them back into near-complete darkness. The only visible light was the glowing tip of his cigarette. "It's more like a stronghold to ride out the coming storm. Not that I have much faith in that we can. If this is really Armageddon ... we're all fucked anyway. Makes you wonder why we bother fighting it, doesn't it?"

Dean sighed. What the hell was he expected to say to that? The only faith he had was that the world would end bloody and that he would stand between his brother and the rising tide until it killed him. His life-expectancy had already surpassed his prospects after all. "I intend to go down swinging."

"Good luck to ya, kid. I doubt you'll be able to, but hey. What do I know? Old rat like me?" Gardner chuckled again and Dean heard the shift of gravel against the concrete ramp when the other man rose again. "I'd best get inside. My nightvision's shitty enough as it is. Don't need to make it worse by falling on my damned face. Sleep tight when you get that far." With that, the older man left Dean behind.

He sat there for a long while after, listening to the night with his mind shifted to idle. He didn't want to think, didn't want to consider all the shitiness that comprised his life right now. There would be plenty of time for thinking in this place, after all. He didn't need to do it nonstop.

***