Grace eyed the selection of canned goods Maria was presenting her with and sighed. "I miss my butcher," she muttered, then gave Maria a smile. "No offence. I'm happy we have a choice here, but ... fresh food is better."

Maria nodded. "I know. What I wouldn't give for a big juicy steak," she agreed. "But you're not gonna see me killing any cows to get it."

Grace chuckled lightly, but the smile faded quickly again and she sighed. "I'll just take what you can spare," she said. Being on the move as much as they were, her and Bobby, put a strain on her. She had been pretty much stationary most of her life, had moved very few times, and loved spending time at home. At present, she had no home. The thought of staying anywhere for any length of time was scary at best and she had realized that if Bobby hadn't forced her to leave Fort Pierre when he had, she would probably have been among the masses that had perished in this insanity.

But leaving Fort Pierre had been heartbreaking at best. How was Dean going to find them if they weren't there? How were they going to find him? She refused to take this kind of thinking one step further, but it lurked underneath, threatening to break out and overwhelm her with anguish. What if he was dead? What if the rumors they kept hearing about Sam were true?

She closed her eyes and steeled herself. No, of course they weren't true. She may not have known Sam that long, but she considered herself to be a good judge of character and nobody changed that much in that short a time. That was just not an option.

"Grace."

She pulled herself together and took a second before she turned around to face Bobby. Obviously he had found whatever he was after and it was time to pack it up and move on. When did she turn around, though, things took on a strange kind of surreal feeling. "Oh my god," she managed, then closed the distance and yanked her nephew into a tight embrace. A part of her had known this moment would come, that he wasn't dead, but there was that other part that had tried to prepare her for the eventuality. The optimistic part was making fun of the pessimistic part right now.

Dean had locked his arms around her so tightly that she almost couldn't breathe, but she didn't have the heart to let him know. It obviously took longer than either of them had anticipated and when she finally leaned back a little, she could see her own feelings mirrored in his eyes. "Hey Grace," he rasped and cleared his throat.

"There you are," she said and almost flinched at how insanely lame that sounded. Instead of admitting that she was too overwhelmed to think of something clever to say, she grinned. "Look at you. When's the last time you had a decent meal?" She was instantly in mommy-mode, something she wasn't particularly proud of, but considering how much time she had spent worried sick about him, she felt she was entitled to a few moments of this.

Dean smirked, but it was a tired, halfhearted attempt at his usual smirk and it worried her even more that he could not manage anything more sincere. "Damn, it's good to see you again," he finally said.

"Same here," she agreed and couldn't help herself from cupping a hand against his cheek. "Dammit, Dean, you scared the crap out of us. Why didn't you get back to Fort Pierre sooner?"

He arched an eyebrow, glanced briefly at Bobby who rolled his eyes in that 'don't -look-at-me-boy'-look he had, then returned his attention to her. "I didn't know how bad it was until ..."He stopped, shook his head. "I take it you've heard about ..."

Grace nodded. "Yeah, we've heard every damned rumor there is to hear about Sam. And I don't believe a lick of it. What are they on? Sam would never do that," she stated sternly. Some part of her was afraid Dean believed what he heard, but in general she didn't think that was possible.

"That's what I'm thinking," he agreed. "But ..." He trailed off, a dark look in his eyes.

"The nastiness of these rumors aside, Dean, there is a good thing about this," she said. "It means Sam's still out there. But with cell reception being as bad as it is right now and people disappearing left and right ... and you can't count on that he's still got his phone through all this ... there's no telling where he is. But wherever he is, Dean, I'm sure he's looking for you."

The darkness in his eyes was still very much present. "What if he isn't? What if ..."

"Don't go there, Dean. You know Sam better than any of us and you don't believe these rumors, do you?" She tried hard not to feed whatever doubts he harbored about his brother right now. Truth be told, she wasn't a pure one hundred percent sure that all of what they had heard were lies, but she would never let him know that.

He considered it, hesitated a moment too long for her liking, then shook his head slowly. "No, of course I don't," he assured her in a tone that wavered a little.

"Good, because you shouldn't," she said sternly. "So, let's hear it. Where have you been? Here?"

***

Close to Billings, Montana

For a week now, Sam had stuck close to Billings, Montana, but had generally avoided the city. Anything he needed he got from the outskirts of town and one night he had spent in a fringe bar, playing pool with all the ability he had picked up from his brother. Dean was the pool shark in the family, but he had always been a good teacher too and Sam liked the game. He managed to win a couple of games and thereby earned some money and even though it wasn't his preferred way of getting the cash, it was way better than stealing. Credit card scams probably didn't work right now, but that made fairly little difference anyway, since he had no credit cards and had no intention of applying for any either. For him, it was simply a matter of keeping his head down and staying out of the spotlight.

Of course, his newfound ability had a lot to do with him seeking solitude as well. That night in the bar had been the first time he had actually been among that many people since Regina and even though he had practiced subduing the thudding in his head, it had been a bit of trial anyway and shortly before midnight, he had called it quits to get away from the pounding that kept getting stronger all the time. What that specific ability was going to be good for was something he had yet to determine. Of course, it warned him when others were in the area, but it also made it pretty damned difficult for him to be around more than a few people for any longer periods of time. But the practice had helped and he was getting better at it all the time. Once he found the off-switch, he was back in business.

And that took him another two weeks. When the day finally came where he could stand being around many without wanting to reach for the aspirin, he dared to venture out again for one more night of pool.

It was late in the evening when it all went wrong. The bar hadn't been too crowded, but there had been enough patrons to make him a little uneasy; especially the guys that reminded him too much of hunters. Despite the fact that he felt he still had a few more games of pool in him that he could actually win, he decided to call it quits and get out before anything could happen.

He only realized that he had made his move too late when someone stepped in his way. The guy was short but wiry and Sam had no doubts that this guy was a killer. "I know you," the guy said, his stare scrutinizing.

Unsure of how to handle the situation, Sam sent a quick glance around and noticed that others were paying attention, but it was unlikely that any of them would be on his side in this. "What are you talking about?" he enquired and tried a smile, which he knew didn't come out right. "I've never seen you before."

But the wiry guy didn't move and his expression didn't change. "Nah, I'm sure I know you," he persisted. "You're Sam Winchester. You're responsible for all this crap."

Sam's heart dropped. That was really the last thing he needed right now, to be recognized. "Don't be ridiculous," he tried, hoping against hope that he could still sway the tide. To prove his point, he bodily pushed past the wiry guy and strode outside, intent on putting as much distance between himself and these yahoos as he could, but this time around his escape was not going to be so easy.

"Stop right there, freak!"

If there was one thing he didn't like being called, then that was it. All his life he had fought against that label, had wanted nothing more than to be normal, and hearing that word come out of a hunter's mouth was just not something that sat well with him. It made him angry; but also afraid. He turned halfway and raised both hands in a deprecating gesture. "Look, man, I'm not who you think I am, okay? So just lay off," he tried.

"Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, freak," the wiry guy snarled and reached for his weapon.

Sam saw no other alternative. He broke into a run and sprinted over to the Cherokee, dodging a bullet in his haste to get away. A second later he sped out of there, but no matter how rotten he drove, he couldn't shake the three cars following him. The trip took them into forested area and after a bit he decided that he couldn't shake them in the car, so he would have to try a different approach if he wanted to live to see another day. And he did want that.

Instead of continuing this insane chase, he tore the Cherokee into the forest and was out of the car before it had stopped completely. He raced into the thicket, hoping he could outrun them in the dense woodland, but realized all too soon that, in any shape or fashion, these guys were hunters. They were used to following prey and they were hot on his heels.

For the next two hours, he generally played tag with them, but couldn't seem to shake them. One of them was constantly on his tail and alerted the others. He dodged three bullets before the forth one clipped his left shoulder and sent him tumbling into a tree trunk. Out of breath and now with an added injury, he knew his chance to get away from them was lost. Instead of continuing this insane chase, he turned around and slumped back against the trunk while watching them approach him wearily.

There were five of them and they had him cornered. He was very much aware of that this was it, that if he didn't come up with an exceedingly clever way of talking his way out of this, he was toast. Mainly because there where five of them and they all had their weapons out and, stupidly, he was unarmed.

Still breathing hard, he raised his left hand while clamping his right onto his injured shoulder and tried to subdue the suddenly insane craving for his brother's presence. What he wouldn't give to have Dean charging in to save the day right now. But, he still didn't know for sure whether his brother was still alive and he had so far been unable to find any leads in that direction, no matter what his gut might tell him.

"Can we talk about this?" he tried.

The wiry guy sneered. "Time for talking's over, freak," he spat and raised his rifle, aiming it at Sam.

There it was again, that word. He just hated the sound of it and it just made him mad to be called that. At the same time, the fear of his impending death rose in him like a tidal wave too. Convinced that he would now never be able to find out if Dean was still around, he closed his eyes and tried to prepare himself for the inevitable. But it just made him so angry that they wouldn't leave him alone, that they wouldn't listen to him, that nobody believed him. Who were they to call him a freak? Most of them were not fit for human company and they pointed fingers at him?

He sneered, his eyes still closed, and suddenly became aware of that liquid fire feeling in his veins, that pounding that he had experienced once before. It sent a shiver of fear through him and the sensation receded almost instantly. But he had felt it and the last time he had felt the same way, he had burned down a cornfield and killed his brother. Or so he thought.

Slowly, he opened his eyes and frowned at the forest around him. The five hunters were gone. There was no sign of them. Carefully, he pushed away from the tree trunk and hissed at the pull from his shoulder. But his confusion over the sudden disappearance of those five men overruled his pain right now. "What the hell?" he muttered.

Then he caught sight of the rifle, that had previously been aimed at his head, lying on the ground a few feet from him. At the same time he also became aware of the smell that hung in the air; that of burnt flesh. For a long moment all he did was stand there and stare while the bitter truth of what had happened nearly overwhelmed him. He had unleashed that same power that had killed his brother, the selfsame power he had sworn he would never use again. Only this time it had been different, because none of the forest was burnt. But the ashes of his pursuers and their weapons on the ground was proof enough of what he'd done. "Oh shit," he muttered. He needed to get the hell away from this area, away from what he had done. And it was more imperative than ever to him to find out if Dean was alive. Only if he could prove to himself that he hadn't killed the one person who would never hunt him, would he ever be able to live with this in any way.

***

The hunters hideout
Texas

Dean had told Bobby and Grace just about everything that had happened from the moment he had returned to Fort Pierre and until he'd driven the Impala off the road. They sat at a table in the mess hall, equipped with coffee from Gloria and joined by Steve, who listened in quietly.

"So, the car is totaled?" Bobby asked and arched an eyebrow at him.

"No, she's fine," Dean countered and couldn't help a vague smile. Leave it to Bobby to divert attention away from the more immediate issue of his own injuries.

"And you got a concussion out of it?" Grace wasn't going to let that one go. "And pressed ribs?"

"I'm fine," he assured her and glanced at Gloria. "They took good care of me."

Grace glanced at the nurse as well and gave her an appreciative nod before returning her attention to Dean. "So ... why are you still here if you're fine?" she asked. "I would have thought ..." She cut off and pursed her lips lightly while never taking her eyes off him.

He wasn't entirely sure if he should take that as a reprimand that he wasn't out there looking for Sam or just a statement of the facts, but from what he knew of Grace and the way she saw the world, it was probably more the latter than the first.

"His brother won't be able to find him if he's constantly on the move," Steve inserted quietly.

"It's not that I don't want to be out there, looking for him. I just ..." Dean paused and sighed. "I don't know where to start. I have no idea where he is."

Grace reached across the table and took his hand. "I'm not reaming you for this, Dean. I'm just trying to get the facts straight. And staying in one place is probably the best option right now. But does anyone know you're here?"

"A lot of people know he's here," Steve said. "I'm just not entirely sure they're talking. People have gotten real careful about who they tell what these days. And, considering the rumors floating around out there, I would think that Sam is keeping a low profile." He glanced at Dean, his expression bland. "Unless the rumors are true, of course."

"They're not," Dean countered a little heatedly. "No way would Sam ever do that. No way!"

Grace shifted her attention to Steve. "I agree with Dean. Sam wouldn't do that," she said, then sent Bobby a sharp look. He merely arched an eyebrow at her, but said nothing.

"You think he's capable of that?" Dean asked while eying Bobby darkly.

"I don't know what Sam is capable of, Dean. He's raised a hunter, just like you. And he has his father's temper when he lets loose. So you tell me. Is Sam capable of what they accuse him of doing?" Bobby countered.

Dean hesitated, noted the somewhat concerned look Grace gave him, and then dropped his gaze to the table top. "No, he's not capable of killing people with his bare hands," he growled and looked up again. "He's my brother. I practically raised him. I know what he's capable of and that's not it."

Bobby nodded. "Wouldn't think so either," he agreed.

"That's always something," Steve said. "So ... are you two staying for a bit or ..."

Bobby shook his head lightly. "No, we can't stay. I promised Garrison we'd drop by with a few supplies. He and his group are holed up near Port Arthur," he said.

Dean blinked. "You're not staying?" he asked and instinctively tightened his grip on Grace's hand.

"We're on the move most of the time," Bobby said, then glanced at Grace. "But you could stay if you want to."

This caused a very familiar eye-roll from his aunt. "And what if you need a paramedic?" she asked and gave Bobby a look that made Dean wonder. "Your bedside manner stinks to high heaven, Singer," she added almost affectionately.

At that very moment, Dean realized that there was something more going on between his aunt and Bobby than them just being traveling companions. He glanced from one to the other, not entirely sure how to respond to that at first. But, of course, there were more immediate and pressing issues at hand right now and he pushed it aside to be dealt with later. "Are you sure that's such a good thing? I mean, it's dangerous out there."

Grace returned her attention to him and smiled. "Don't worry about us, sweety. We can deal," she said. "I'm more worried about you and Sam."

"I'm fine, Grace," he reassured her. "If you wanna worry about someone, worry about Sam. He's out there all alone." So far, he had somehow managed to keep that thought at bay, but now that he had said it out loud, it struck him and struck him hard. If the rumors were true, he had nothing to worry about. If not – and he was still inclined to believe the rumors were just so much rubbish – then Sam was hunted game by both sides and that made his stomach cramp up badly and upped his need to be out there, searching. But Steve was right. They couldn't both be out there. If he left here, Sam would never be able to find him.

"I am worried about him," Grace admitted. The look in her eyes told him that she knew how it affected him, as did the tightness of her grip on his hand. "But I can't help worrying about you too," she added quietly.

"I'll be fine," he repeated and the more he said it, the less he believed it. He wasn't fine, not by a long shot, but he wasn't going to tell her that. She didn't need to worry about him too. "I promise."

She nodded, but he knew she didn't believe it. "Okay," she said, gave his hand another tight squeeze and then let go before glancing at Bobby. "We should get going. There is no way in hell that I'm out on the streets after nightfall."

Bobby rose. "My thoughts exactly," he agreed and slipped a hand onto her back.

It was a brief touch, something others wouldn't even notice, but Dean did because Bobby in general wasn't the kind of guy who touched others. This indicated deeper feelings, something more than just mere acquaintance. For a second he considered calling them on it, then decided against it. They could talk about that when there was more time.

He saw them to the car, was hugged fiercely by Grace twice and she only got in the car after he promised her he'd be careful. To his immediate surprise, Bobby hugged him too. "You be careful," the older hunter warned.

"I'm safe here. You two are the ones at risk," Dean countered. "Don't you dare let anything happen to her," he added and nodded at the open car door.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Bobby promised. "You got a phone on you?"

"Yeah, but it only works about twenty percent of the time," he said.

Bobby pulled out his wallet, dug out a slip of paper and a pen and dotted down the number. "We'll try to call," he said. "If we can't get through, we should be back sometime soon. Can't make any promises in that direction, though. Garrison may ask us to take stuff somewhere else."

"Isn't there someone else who can do that too?" He would sleep better at night if he knew they at least were safe.

"Sure, but considering that the human population of this country has all but been decimated ... there isn't that much help to go around any more. People out there are way past suspicious of strangers. We need to help each other out any way we can," Bobby said. "With all the dead zones out there, it takes far longer to get around than ever before. And we have to conserve gas as well."

Dean nodded. "I get it. Just be careful and ... try to stay in touch."

"Will do. Same goes for you," the older hunter countered, briefly gave his shoulder a squeeze and then got in the car.

Dean remained where he was, standing at the top of the ramp, hands in his pockets, while he listened to the dwindling engine sound until it was gone. Then he closed his eyes and sighed lightly.

"Steve?" someone called from inside.

Desperate for something to distract his attention and curious as well, he turned and headed inside only to find Steve surrounded by half a dozen people. Steve was studying a piece of paper for a moment, then he glanced around at them all. "Right, we've got a sighting and a few omens to go with it. And it's going down tonight. Got some people holed up in a smallish town and apparently, the demons are gonna hit them tonight. We need to go there and get them out."

A big, massive guy by the name of Gary shifted a little nervously. "Where're we headed?"

"Yoakum," Steve said. "Previously had about six thousand living there. Now, there's next to none."

Dean frowned. "I thought they only went after towns with two thousand or less," he said.

Steve met his eyes for a moment. "They're stepping it up. Which is why we need to find a way to save as many as possible and maybe ... put an end to this somehow. Right now, though, these people in Yoakum are our priority," he said. "Are you coming?"

For a moment he considered it, then nodded once. It would be way better to be on the move and do something active about this disaster than sitting around here, waiting.

"Good. Get your gear together, bring whatever you deem necessary and let's move out. We meet back here in half an hour. I want this done before sunset," Steve said and they all took off in different directions to get ready.

***

Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming

Darkness had settled over the land, yet Sam didn't start a fire. Instead he just sat on a fallen trunk of a tree on the very outskirts of one of the camping sites that littered Yellowstone and stared into the increasing darkness. His left shoulder was aching and he was pretty sure he had some sort of infection going, but for the past many days since he'd yet again been shot and had subconsciously eradicated five hunters without even trying, he hadn't really bothered to keep the wound clean.

His reasoning at the moment wasn't up to par, he figured. But he still couldn't shake the in his opinion unerring logic that if he had killed those hunters without being aware of it, then there really was nothing that spoke in favor of Dean being alive. Of course, the hunters he had killed had been burned into piles of ashes. Nothing but their weapons had been left behind. Dean had been hurled across that cornfield.

He closed his eyes briefly and tried to still his rapidly beating heart. That dream he'd had at Grace's place, the realization that had hit him at the forest resort, none of that had been more than wishful thinking. The fact remained that he had killed his brother and he would either have to learn to live with that or die. Right now, dying had an appeal that was nearly a siren song in his head. But there was a part of him that still wanted to believe that Dean was still out there, maybe searching for him.

He snorted. "Yeah, especially if he's heard all the crap Ruby's been spreading about me," he muttered under his breath, then sent a scrutinizing look around the darkened park. "And after what I did to him, why shouldn't he believe it?"

After having killed those hunters, he had withdrawn to this place, to be away from people, and he had realized that the silence surrounding him was worse than the constant thudding of heartbeats in his head. Granted, he had learned to suppress it by now, but he could still 'sense' others around him, could tell there were people nearby even if he couldn't exactly sense their heartbeats when he concentrated on keeping them out.

But with the decrease in the population out there, it was getting easier to find places where he didn't have to hear the constant thudding in his head when his concentration slipped. With a tired sigh, he let his head drop and let his hold on that specific ability slip and after a moment, he started picking up sensations from the area around him. It was weak, almost too weak for him to pick up on, but when he focused on it, it grew in strength. What he felt was not a heartbeat, but an overwhelming sense of hunger. Not his hunger, though. There was something out there, roaming around, and whatever it was, it was hungry. An animal. A bear, maybe. Or a wolf. Or some other fair-sized predator.

He raised his head and squinted into the darkness, the cold shiver of fear rippling up his spine. Sure, he could unleash the powers of Hell and burn people right out of their boots, but that primal hunger got to him. It was like the creature he had sensed was consumed by nothing but hunger, could focus on nothing but hunger, and he knew what it would sense if it caught his scent. Aware that being out in the open with a wound on his arm, infected as it was, was not going to do him any favors, he decided to get the hell out of there while he still could.

As if to remind him of previous atrocities, the by now scared-over hole in his skin where the anti-possession sigil had once been, started aching too. So did the ghost of the bullet wound he'd gotten and the countless arrays of injuries the demons had bestowed on him. "Shit," he muttered, rose slowly and had to catch himself for a second because the world suddenly tilted sharply to the left. It took him a moment to realize that all these aches and pains and the sudden dizziness weren't his. The animal prowling for food out there was injured and dizzy with hunger.

He focused on severing the connection and all the aches disappeared along with the dizziness. For a moment, he just stood there and stared into the darkness. "Sorry," he then muttered and walked back over to the Cherokee. He had gone from being afraid to feeling damned sorry for the animal out there. Apparently, this demon crap wasn't doing the animals in the world any favors either.

Once inside the car, he just sat there and stared at the steering wheel while he tried to decide on what to do. Compelling as it may be right now, he couldn't convince himself to end it. At the same time he found it hard to see any reason in going on. The world was shot, people were more hostile toward each other than ever before. So where was the real incentive to keep going?

His gaze shifted to the dark camping site out there and the animal he had only sensed before was moving around out there, sniffing the ground. It was a big bear, a grizzly from what he could tell, and it wasn't using its left front leg. He watched it for a moment, then slid the key into the ignition and revved the engine. The bear took off, scared of the sounds the car made, and Sam slumped back in his seat. There was something tugging at him, something telling him he should head south.

With a sigh, he figured he might as well head south. There really wasn't anything for him here and maybe he could put enough distance between himself and what had happened for to actually matter.

***