“Elmwood, Indiana.” Sam turned the laptop so that Dean could see the news story. He was pretty sure his expression said it all.
Dean took another bite of bacon and frowned. “And I’m supposed to remember some random hunt in some random town six years ago because why?”
Sam pursed his lips. “Seven. It’s been seven years. And yeah. Pretty sure you’d remember this one. UFOs. Faeries. Jiminy Cricket. Ring a bell?”
“Oh.” Dean blanched, then flushed. His eyes flicked away from Sam, then back, wide and green. “Oh no. You’re kidding me, right? We iced those motherfuckers.”
Sam grimaced. “Well, technically we didn’t kill them,” he said, annoyance prickling up the back of his neck. “We just sent them back to their world. Dimension. Realm. Whatever. But apparently, they’re back. People have been disappearing again. Not crop circles this time, just a stretch of highway going out of town. Cars left abandoned on the side of the road. Four in the last month. Like last time.”
“No sign of a struggle? Nothing...uh...natural?”
“Dude, do you seriously think this much coincidence could be something natural?” Sam huffed. He was as disgusted as Dean was by the thought of going back to the scene of one of his soulless cases. He’d rather never think about that period in his life ever again.
“Okay, so what happened? The banishing spell didn’t work and the – the fairies didn’t leave after all?” Dean was obviously having trouble even saying the “f” word.
“No, the spell worked,” Sam insisted. “I saw them disappear. But it’s possible that they’re back. I remember reading the lore at the time, and I’m pretty sure it said that once you open a door into Faerie, it permanently weakens the wall between our two worlds, so the possibility for something to come through again is always there. If someone in that town figured out how to do a summoning spell...”
“But we took Brennan’s book when we left town,” Dean protested. “Didn’t we?”
“I think so,” Sam agreed. But suddenly, he wasn’t so sure.
“Yeah, we must’ve burned it,” Dean said. “Right?”
Sam took a deep breath. “I honestly don’t remember. That would’ve been the logical thing to do, of course.”
“Right. And Robo-You was nothing if not logical. So.”
They were both silent for a moment. Sam remembered a lot of things about that case, but putting the book in the trunk of the car, burning it once they were out of town, wasn’t one of those things. He trusted that his soulless self would’ve done it, since that guy was so thorough about everything, so meticulous and precise.
But that case rattled Soulless more than he wanted to admit. It wasn’t...logical or predictable. Dean’s abduction had been particularly disturbing, since at the time it just didn’t make sense. Why had the creatures taken Dean in the first place? Was it an accident? Was it just because Dean was in the right place at the right time? Or was there something about Dean that attracted them? Besides the fact that he was a first-born son?
And now there was the problem of Dean’s having been to Faerie before.
“You know, maybe you should sit this one out,” Sam suggested. “Maybe I should go in alone this time.”
Dean’s eyes widened and he took a step back. “What? What are you talking about? Of course we’ll go together!”
“It’s just – “ Sam found it hard to look Dean in the eye. “You’ve been there before, man. If it really is a fairy thing again, those dudes had it in for you, remember? You, specifically. It might not be the safest thing for you to put yourself in their crosshairs again, is all I’m saying.”
Dean’s jaw clenched and Sam braced himself for his brother’s indignation. “You think I can’t handle a couple of fairies? Really?”
Sam flinched, but didn’t back down. “One of them beat the crap out of you in that jail cell...”
“Yeah, while you were being nearly beaten to death by a leprechaun half your size in a watch shop! I remember, Sam. I’d be willing to bet those little creeps have it in for you, too.”
“But you were abducted, Dean.” Sam pulled out the big guns. “You’ve been to Faerie. You’re marked. According to the lore, they always reclaim their own.”
“I am not going to get abducted again,” Dean protested, gruff and shrill at the same time.
But Sam caught his little shiver, the faraway look in his eyes before he shook it off and glared at Sam again.
“I’m not talking about abduction.” Sam sighed. “I’m talking about seduction. There’s a difference.”
“What the hell does that even mean?” Dean’s fists clenched, but Sam barreled on.
“I’m not so much worried about them dragging you back there as I am about you wanting to go there. The lore says, once you’ve been to Faerie, the desire to return can be incredibly strong. The few instances of people returning to our world from Faerie all describe how miserable they are here. They spend their lives trying to get back there, and when they fail they basically waste away and die. It’s like they left some vital part of themselves in that world and they can’t live without it.”
“Well, that’s not me.” Dean shook his head. “The vital part of me is right here in this world, thank you very much. I have no desire to go back there. None. Zero. Zilch.”
“You say that, but if they offered to take you back...”
“I’d say no, Sam, just like before. No question. There’s nothing for me there. How can you even think that?”
“I don’t know, Dean.” Sam was dubious. “Faerie is supposed to be a really beautiful place, where all your cares and worries go away and you can live the life you always wanted. It’s always described as...Well, it’s a lot like Heaven, actually.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not Heaven if you’re not there,” Dean muttered. “So no, thank you. I already told them that.”
“You did?” Sam was shocked. “You said that to them when they abducted you?”
“Maybe not in so many words...I told you about it at the time, Sam,” Dean said, visibly upset at the memories. “They wanted to drag me into the light and I pulled out everything I had and fought them. And I’d do it again. There’s no way they want me back. I am not going anywhere without my brother. Pretty sure I made that clear.”
“Huh.” Sam hadn’t considered the idea that their soul-bond might have something to do with the fact that the Faerie folk hadn’t been able to hold on to Dean. Maybe that bond would protect Dean, if he faced the lure of Faerie again.
“So whatever we’re up against in that town, we face it together, just like we always do. Capiche?” Dean could see he’d won, but he was going to force Sam to capitulate, just because he was the big brother.
Sam smiled. Dean didn’t even realize how easy he was for Sam to read, and Sam sure wasn’t about to tell him.
“Yeah, okay, but we stay together this time. No more wandering out into crop circles by yourself.”
“Like you even cared,” Dean scoffed, half under his breath.
But Sam heard. He couldn’t help the rush of guilt that caused his chest to hurt and his cheeks to flush with embarrassment. Any reminder of his behavior during that year-and-a-half that he spent on Earth without his soul was always painful.
Revisiting this case was going to be less than comfortable for both of them.
Elmwood had changed. Instead of the bustling, off-kilter UFO attraction it had been seven years ago, the place was quiet. Run-down. Many business had closed on the main street, and some of the windows were boarded up, giving off a sense of abandonment and failure that was frankly depressing.
When Sam and Dean checked in with the local sheriff, they discovered a sharp-tongued young woman had replaced the middle-aged man they knew a little too well.
“Sheriff Peterson had a heart-attack about five years ago,” the woman told them. “I’m Sheriff Scott. How can I help you boys?”
“These disappearances,” Sam said. “There seems to be a pattern. Something similar happened seven years ago, didn’t it?”
Sheriff Scott clenched her jaw, and for a moment Sam wasn’t sure she would answer. She glanced from one Winchester to the other, then at her deputy, who sat at his desk, studiously ignoring them but probably listening. When her eyes met his again, Sam could see she’d made up her mind.
“Let’s step into my office,” she suggested. “You boys want some coffee?”
“No, thank you. We’re good,” Dean answered as they followed the sheriff into her tiny office and took the chairs she offered.
Scott closed the door, then sat down behind the desk, facing them, folding her hands together on her desktop. Sam could read the worry in her eyes, imagined how challenging it had been for this young woman to fill the shoes of the older man they knew when they were here before. He could imagine she’d had to tread on a few toes to earn the respect she deserved, and it hadn’t been easy.
“The fact is, Sheriff Peterson’s heart-attack was brought on by the stress of those disappearances,” Scott said. “Those people were never found. No bodies, not even a trace. The entire community ganged up on him, demanding his resignation for incompetence. The media kept up the pressure, the crazies kept flocking to town, claiming UFO abductions. Eventually, he just cracked. After the circus died down, the town went into free-fall. The families of the abducted threatened lawsuits, but nothing ever came of it. Other families left out of fear or because their businesses were failing. It was like the whole town was cursed.”
Sam and Dean exchanged glances.
“Yeah, we noticed the place looks a little quiet,” Dean said.
“Quiet?” The sheriff scoffed. “Try dead. This place is basically a ghost town. The population is less than half of what it was five years ago. It gets any smaller, I’ll be out of a job.”
Sam nodded sympathetically. “And now, more disappearances.”
“Out on McClellan Road, about a mile out of town, just this side of Walnut Creek.” Scott took a deep breath, steeling herself. “There’s a grove of trees there, and folks like to stop and have a picnic during the day, other stuff at night. It’s never been a problem, really, till about a month ago. A couple stopped one evening to do their thing, and the next morning when they didn’t come home their folks called it in. All we found was the car and a blanket on the grass under the trees. No sign of struggle. They were just – gone.”
“Any chance somebody picked them up?” Dean asked. “Maybe gave them a ride somewhere?”
Scott shook her head. “This couple, they had family here. Jobs. Responsibilities. They wouldn’t just leave without letting anybody know.”
“And the other two people?”
“First was another couple, out-of-towners who were just passing through a couple of weeks ago. The woman survived. She said they saw a light in the trees and her husband got out of the car to investigate. Never came back.”
“And I don’t suppose this woman would have any reason to off her husband?”
“Not that we could figure out,” Scott said. “She’s still in town, if you want to interview her. She’s staying at the Red Lion Motel out on Route 8.”
“We’ll do that,” Sam said. “And how about the last victim?”
“Another traveler from out-of-town,” Scott said. “Insurance salesman, just passing through. About a week ago. Lou at the gas station says he stopped for gas about 7:30 in the evening. Next morning, a farmer from the next county was calling us to report an abandoned car on McClellan Road.”
“Let me guess,” Dean said. “Parked on the side of the road next to that same grove of trees.”
Scott nodded. “No sign of struggle, nothing to tell us why he stopped there, since he’d just fueled up in town. The guy’s from the Chicago area, lived alone. His co-workers and friends haven’t seen him, and we’ve got no other leads. We’re still hoping he decided to hitch a ride somewhere.”
Sam and Dean exchanged glances again, and Sam took a deep breath. They had to ask.
“Have you found anything in your investigations that might link these disappearances to the disappearances seven years ago?”
Scott looked at each of the Winchesters in turn before she answered. She had obviously considered it, as well as everything it might mean if she failed as badly as the former sheriff had done all those years ago.
“Nothing.” She shook her head. “Other than the first couple, they weren’t even from around here. And other than the light the third victim’s wife mentioned, there’s nothing to link these cases to the other disappearances.” Scott took a deep breath. “To be honest, I’m just glad it isn’t crop circles again. Maybe the UFO crazies will leave us alone this time.”
“So what are you thinking?” Sam asked when the brothers were back in the Impala.
“I think we should interview the families of the missing, then drive out to Walnut Creek to look around.”
“Dean...” Sam couldn’t help wishing they’d never come. He had a really bad feeling about this whole thing.
Dean could read Sam like a book. “We do the job, Sam,” he said gruffly. “Focus on the job.”
The family of the first missing couple were more than willing, even grateful, to talk to them.
“Finally, the FBI is getting involved,” one of the parents said. “It’s about time!”
Unfortunately, none of the missing couple’s parents had anything helpful to tell them.
The grieving widow of the third victim, Sandy Bennett, also had nothing. She was full of frustration with local law enforcement for not finding her husband, and she wasn’t going anywhere until they did. Other than that, her story sounded too familiar.
“We stopped by the bridge because it was so pretty there,” she said, shaky but determined. “The sun was setting, and we watched it for a few minutes until it got dark. Then we saw a light in the trees. At first we thought maybe it was a trick of the sun, the last rays hitting something reflective, you know? Eddie said he was going to check it out. He’d be right back. I said no, don’t go, but he laughed at me. Said he had to take a piss. I waited, watched as the light seemed to grow brighter, then it went out. All of a sudden I had a really bad feeling.”
She started crying softly, and Sam handed her a box of tissues, gently urging her to continue. He could feel Dean’s eyes on him, approving.
Sandy nodded, clearing her throat as she wiped her eyes. “I jumped out of the car and started yelling Eddie’s name. When he didn’t answer, I grabbed the flashlight out of the trunk and went into the trees to find him.” She paused again, wiping her eyes and swallowing thickly. “I already told the police. It’s all in the report.”
“I know this is difficult.” Sam handed her the glass of water that Dean had fetched from the kitchen. “We just need to hear it in your own words.”
Sandy took a deep breath, taking a sip of water before continuing. “After about an hour that felt like all night I called 911. Sheriff Scott said she’d come back in the morning, do a thorough search. I couldn’t believe it! I stayed right there all night, just in case he came back, you know? I didn’t want him to think I’d abandoned him.”
Sam and Dean exchanged glances. “And when he didn’t come back...”
“I booked myself into this motel,” Sandy said. “Sheriff Scott is sick of me because I call her every day. I did some investigating on my own, found out Eddie wasn’t the first disappearance, and now there’s been another one. What I don’t understand is, why hasn’t she called for back-up? Why is this the first time the feds have been here? That stretch of road should be closed until these people are found!”
Sandy sobbed out the last sentence, clenching her fists on her knees as if she wanted to hit something. Or someone.
“All right, Mrs. Bennett, we understand,” Dean said, full of bluff and reassurance. “We’ll take it from here. You can go home now.”
“I’m not an idiot, Agent Wyman,” Sandy said fiercely. “I know what the odds are of finding someone alive after they’ve been missing for two weeks. I’m not going anywhere until you find my husband, or figure out what happened to him.”
And Sam couldn’t find it in his heart to blame her.
“I hope she has deep pockets,” Dean commented when they were back in the car. “She may be waiting a while.”
“I kind of admire that,” Sam said. “She’s not giving up.” He grimaced, feeling a stab of guilt in his gut as soon as the words slipped out, and he glanced at Dean’s profile to see if he noticed.
“Well, she does have a point about Sheriff Scott,” Dean shrugged.
“You think Scott is in on it?” Sam hadn’t considered this.
“Well, if it is faeries, somebody had to summon them,” Dean pointed out.
“Yeah, but after the fiasco seven years ago, why would she do that? What does she get out of it?”
“I don’t know.” Dean shrugged. “Maybe she made a deal.”
“For what? To become the Most Failed Sheriff in Five Counties?” Sam shook his head. “I don’t know, man. I don’t see any signs of a deal here. At least not with Scott.”
Nevertheless, Sam made a call to Sheriff Scott as they drove out to Walnut Creek.
“Calling for back-up is pretty much standard procedure when you’ve got a pattern of missing persons,” Scott agreed. “Trouble is, we’re the laughing stock of every neighboring jurisdiction from here to Peoria. More unsolved missing persons cases per capita than Chicago. Nobody takes us seriously anymore. I’m just grateful the FBI’s here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sam said. “Well, thank you.” He rolled his eyes as he ended the call, glancing at his brother’s profile. Dean’s jaw was set, his knuckles white as he clutched the wheel. “I guess that rules out the sheriff.”
The grove of trees at Walnut Creek offered no clues. Sam could see the appeal of the place as a romantic roadside stop, though. There was a sizeable shoulder to the road just before the bridge where cars had obviously stopped for years so the occupants could make out as they watched the sunset over the creek.
Dean was out of the car within seconds after parking, throwing Sam a disgusted frown, as if he could read Sam’s thoughts. Sam followed without comment as his brother made his way down the steep slope to the trees, vaguely frustrated by the tension between them. He could understand how this case would make Dean profoundly uneasy. He wished he could go back in time and fix it, prevent Dean from being abducted in the first place. Dean obviously still blamed Sam on some level for not grieving his loss more, for not being more like Sandy Bennett.
Of course, at the time, Sam hadn’t had his soul and didn’t feel much of anything. But that didn’t help Sam feel better now. If anything, it made him feel worse.
“This is where the lights were coming from,” Dean said. They stood in the center of the grove, and Sam could see that the trees stood in an almost perfect circle around the little grassy clearing. The grass was depressed in places, as if someone had put a blanket down and lain on it.
That thought made Sam intensely uncomfortable. When he glanced up at Dean, he could tell that Dean was having the same thought, imagining lovers lying on a blanket on the grass. Both brothers flushed and looked away.
“Awkward,” Dean muttered under his breath.
Sam studiously kept his eyes on the ground, searching for clues as he knew Dean must be doing. Unfortunately, his brain was working overtime, filling his mind with inappropriate thoughts and memories of the last time they were here, almost as if the grove itself had the power to instill its guests with romantic inclinations. Almost as if it was trying to seduce them.
”I’m sorry, Dean, but I’m pretty sure I remember lusting after you since I was old enough to know what that meant.”
They were in the motel, shortly after Castiel performed his painful invasion of Sam’s chest to reveal that his soul was missing. Now that they both knew what was wrong with him, Sam could think of no reason for hiding his lifelong desire for Dean any longer. He had trusted his ensouled self to have better instincts, especially where Dean is concerned, so he’d kept it secret this long, but now it just made no sense to him.
Unfortunately, his revelation was causing Dean a lot of distress.
“Shut up!” Dean yelled. “Stop talking about it!”
“But I always thought you felt the same way,” Sam barreled on, unable to stop this line of thinking now that it had started. Besides, he was really horny. “You want me, too, so what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that we’re brothers, Sam,” Dean growled. “You lock that shit up, you hear me? You lock it up and you never, ever think about it.”
“Because it’s wrong, okay? It’s wrong and it’s gross and it – it makes us even sicker and more fucked-up than we already are.”
“Exactly.” Sam enthused. “We’re already fucked up in every possible way. So why do we have to pretend we don’t want to fuck each other? Isn’t that just – idiotic? I mean, when you think about it, all the times one of us hooks up with some random chick, we’re putting them in danger. Isn’t it safer and more practical if we just use each other when we want to have sex? Isn’t it easier?”
“No, Sam, it is not easier,” Dean shook his head. “And it’s not practical, either. And if you were really you, you would never even think about it.”
But Sam couldn’t stop thinking about it. Dean made him very, very horny, and if there was one thing he’d gotten used to over the past year-and-a-half since he came back from Hell, it was acting on his sexual impulses. He could remember himself before Hell, how restrained he was about sex, and all Sam could think was that his past self had been an idiot. Sex was good. It made Sam feel good. It made him feel, period, which not many things did, and sometimes it helped when they were on a job and needed the witness to cooperate.
Yet Sam respected Dean’s decision not to act on their mutual desire for each other, even if he didn’t understand it. Following his brother’s lead was the one thing that Sam was absolutely certain about. It was ingrained in him from before Hell, and it was something Sam held to afterwards, even without his soul. It felt right.
Nevertheless, after Dean was abducted and escaped, Sam brought it up again because Dean seemed so shaken up.
“We could have sex,” Sam offered when Dean came out of the shower, towel wrapped around his waist, skin flushed and damp. “It might help you relax.”
“What? No!” Dean rummaged in his duffle for fresh clothes, holding the towel in place with his other hand. “Ew! Do you not see how that is exactly NOT the thing to say right now? No, you don’t, do you? Because you’re you and you have zero instincts.”
After Sam got his soul back, he understood exactly why his timing had been so bad, and it made him flush with embarrassment. He wished his soulless self had known better, but of course he didn’t because he had no instinct, as Dean had said. And now that the cat was out of the bag, it took all of Sam’s energy to put it back where it belonged.
Ensouled Sam would never have sex with a partner when he couldn’t love them, would never use his brother that way. Ensouled Sam would always respect Dean’s need to pretend they weren’t hot for each other.
That was the way Dean wanted it, so that’s what Sam did.
“Well, I got bupkis,” Dean said after spending nearly twenty minutes combing the ground beneath the trees. “And I’m starving. I say we go back into town, find us some greasy diner food, and come back here after dark.”
Sam nodded, not daring to speak for fear of revealing too much about where his mind had been. Better to let Dean think he hadn’t been thinking about sex at all.
They were coming out of the diner that evening when Sam noticed a familiar figure across the street, locking up a storefront.
“Hey, Dean, isn’t that Marion? You know, the wacky trailer-park lady with the teeny-tiny tea cups?”
Dean squinted in the gloom. Her shop was the only one on the street that wasn’t closed and boarded up. In fact, it looked like it was prospering, with freshly painted signs and sparkly window decorations. The Winchesters watched the woman pocket her keys and walk away down the sidewalk toward the residential neighborhood behind the shop.
“How do you even remember her?” Dean shook his head.
“Well, she did get glitter all over your backside.” Sam snickered. “That’s not easy to forget.”
Dean scowled. “Shut up. Okay, you follow crazy-lady, I’ll go check out the tree circle.”
“It’s probably a faerie ring, Dean, so you’re not going out there without me,” Sam glowered, giving Dean a look he hoped Dean wouldn’t argue with.
Dean didn’t. He glanced at Sam and flinched, and Sam could see he’d won. “We’d cover more ground if we split up,” he muttered, but they were already headed after Marion on foot, shoulder-to-shoulder.
“Oh yeah, just like last time. Remember how well that turned out for us?”
“Seems to me it worked out fine for you,” Dean shrugged. “Hey, you should look her up while we’re here.”
“Look who up?” Sam was confused.
“Hippie chick. Remember her? The one you were having the hot time with while I was shooting my way out of fairy-land?”
“Sparrow,” Sam snapped, annoyed at the reminder. “Her name was Sparrow.”
“Of course it was.” Dean rolled his eyes.
Sam was ready with a sharp retort, boiling with indignation and shame, but they had already rounded the corner into a residential neighborhood, and Dean gestured for him to stop.
Marion was climbing the front steps of the most impressive home on the block, noticeably nicer than any of the other homes. Marion’s house looked freshly painted, flowerbeds bursting with colorful blooming flowers, lawn neatly tended and mowed. The white picket fence was sturdy, freshly painted, and climbing with vines that had little purple flowers growing on them.
“Is it just me, or does it look like Crazy-Lady’s moved up in the world?” Dean asked softly as they watched Marion let herself into the house and close the door behind her.
“Yeah.” Sam nodded. “There’s magic at work here.”
Dean frowned. “How do you know that?”
“It’s early March in Indiana,” Sam said. “She shouldn’t have a yard full of summer flowers yet.”
“Right.” Dean was impressed, then he smirked. “Nerd.”
Sam huffed out his annoyance. “Well, at least we know who our deal-maker is. We should talk to her.”
He started across the street but Dean stopped him. “Dude, wait. I think we need to gather more evidence first.”
“Evidence? What are you talking about?”
“We should stick to the plan, man,” Dean insisted. “The tree circle after dark, remember? Let’s get out there and see if we find anything. Then tomorrow we change into FBI agents and interview Crazy-Lady at her store.”
Sam hesitated. “Don’t you think she’ll recognize us? We were posing as newspaper reporters before.”
“So we were undercover,” Dean shrugged. “It’s not the first time. Besides, we need to check out her store, see if we can find that spell book. If it’s not there, then one of us needs to keep her busy tomorrow while the other one searches her house.”
Sam had to agree that Marion seemed to be their most likely suspect. “She just didn’t strike me as the kind of person who would make deals with faeries,” he said as they walked back to the car.
“Power and wealth can change a person,” Dean reminded him. “If she found that book, learned how to use it, it could change her life. She was living in a freakin’ trailer park, man. Bottom of the barrel. If she had a chance to change that, don’t you think she could be tempted?”
Sam shook his head as he folded himself into the Impala’s passenger seat. “She just seemed like such a harmless kook,” he said. “Not like somebody who would be willing to sacrifice people for a little prosperity.”
“People, man.” Dean shook his head. “You just never know with people. Monsters, I get. But people are complicated.”
Sam glanced at Dean’s profile as the car roared to life. He was grateful, not for the first time, that Dean was his moral compass. Sam didn’t do well without Dean’s steady influence.
Without Dean at his side, Sam was pretty sure he would’ve gone off the rails years ago. That alone was worth a lifetime of unrequited lust, wasn’t it?
By the time they got back to the elm grove it was already fully dark. They had wasted precious time following Marion, so it was well after sunset now, later than the times of the disappearances. Sam wasn’t sure they’d find anything, but as Dean eased the car onto the shoulder he leaned forward over the steering wheel, squinting into the gloom.
“Oh, no way,” he breathed, and Sam frowned in confusion. He stared in the direction of Dean’s gaze but saw only darkness.
Dean glanced at him, surprised. “Don’t you see him?”
“See who?” Sam stared hard, but all he could see was the shadow of the trees against absolute darkness.
“It’s that guy in the red beanie,” Dean said. “The one that I beat the crap out of in the jail cell. He’s staring straight at me, and he’s got –– Son of a bitch!”
“Dean, what – “ Sam was still squinting, straining to see something in the dark when the driverside door creaked open and Dean jumped out, pulling his gun as he ran down the bank toward the trees. “Dean! Wait!”
Everything happened fast. Sam had barely jumped out of the car to follow his brother when Dean reached the grove of trees and plunged inside, out of Sam’s sight.
“Dean!” Fighting sudden panic, Sam half-slid, half-ran down the steep slope. He barely made it to the trees before a flash of light momentarily blinded him.
“Dean!” Sam flung an arm up to shield his eyes, blinking and squinting against the glare, cringing at the sensation of ringing in his ears. The ringing gave way to a sound like tiny glass bells tinkling, creating music that Sam’s brain couldn’t quite process.
Then the light went out.
“Dean!” Sam crashed into the grove, eyes still partially blinded, ears ringing. “Oh no no no no. Dean!”
But Sam knew, before he’d even started looking, that Dean was gone.
“Dean!” Sam stood in the center of the circle, turning around, straining for any sound or glimmer of light, although he knew in his gut that the faeries wouldn’t come back. They had what they wanted.
“Come back!” Sam bellowed. “Take me, you bastards! Take me instead!”
He crashed frantically around the clearing, stumbling in the dark, falling to his knees more than once on the spongy grass before he finally gave up and returned to the car for a flashlight.
“Oh no. No no no no no.” It became a mantra, mostly to keep himself company, but also because denial was all he had left. To have fucked up so royally as to let Dean run right into disaster, when he’d sworn to himself and to Dean that he’d protect him...
This was Sam’s worst nightmare. Right here. This.
Nevertheless, he refused to break down, refused to cry no matter how much he felt like crying. His chest heaved with gasps that would not become full-fledged sobs, his hands shook as he forced the flashlight beam to cover each and every inch of the faerie circle.
He should have warned Dean. He should have explained how faerie circles worked. Maybe Dean would have been more cautious. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened.
After searching the clearing for over an hour and finding no sign of Dean or, in fact, any sign that anything had changed since the brothers had searched the clearing earlier in the day, Sam knew he needed to admit defeat. But he couldn’t. Not yet. Dean had come back before dawn last time; maybe luck would be on their side and he would do so again.
A sick feeling in Sam’s gut told him that was asking too much. Faerie had let Dean go once. They weren’t likely to make the same mistake twice.
It took all of Sam’s strength not to collapse. He wanted to stay in the circle all night, as Sandy Bennett had done when her husband had disappeared. He knew that was useless, knew Dean was as likely to return tonight as they were likely to find those missing people. Nevertheless, he couldn’t stand to leave, couldn’t bear the idea of going back to their lonely motel room without Dean. Sam couldn’t handle his own failure. Not just yet.
He considered calling Sheriff Scott to report another disappearance, but he couldn’t stand to do that, either. He and Dean had come here to help this town. Adding to their grief and sense of failure wouldn’t help anybody.
“Fuckin’ idiot,” Sam swore at his absent brother. “You had to do it, didn’t you? You had to try to kill that faerie, just because he beat you up last time. They lured you in with the promise of revenge, and you took the bait. Jerk!”
They should never have come. Sam should have insisted. This was all Sam’s fault.
Sam slipped to his knees on the spongy ground, wallowing in self-pity and self-hatred, chest heaving as he fought back tears. He knelt there for the better part of an hour before the voice in his head started to sound like Dean’s.
Shut up, Sam. Get it together, man! You know what to do. Treat this like any other case. Now come on. You can do this.
It didn’t matter whose fault it was.
Sam lifted his head, took a deep breath. He stared up at the star-lit sky, knowing God wasn’t listening, even if he did pray. Sam set his jaw, closed his eyes, and channeled every ounce of his single-focused, stubborn Winchester will-power.
As he felt the strength of his own determination flow through his veins, he opened his eyes and glared fiercely at the empty clearing.
Self-pity was for amateurs. Sam had a job to do.
It was near dawn when Sam climbed the bank to the road and folded himself into the driver’s seat of the Impala. He adjusted the bench for his long legs, forcing himself not to think about how happily he crammed himself into the passenger seat most of the time. He didn’t think about how wrong it felt to slip the spare key into the ignition.
Nevertheless, he waited another ten minutes. Dean had returned a little after 4:00 the last time, having spent the better part of an hour walking back to town. If that happened again, Sam didn’t want to leave him out here on his own.
At 4:07 Sam turned the key in the ignition, waited for the car to warm up before he turned her around and drove slowly back to town.