Actions

Work Header

Respite

Work Text:

To be honest, after the first day spent going door to door in the surrounding neighborhoods, they're both kind of looking for excuses to try some other method of tracking down Amara. Sam had a blister developing on his heel by about two o'clock and towards the end of the afternoon Dean's frustration was visibly ratcheting up a notch after each dead end.

They're attempting to recoup their forces over the Smiling Porker's ham salad delight, which tastes like it got dropped in the ocean at some point along its way to their table--though Dean's tucking in with happy enthusiasm. Sam's contemplating ordering a house salad to balance things out, though at a place like this it'll probably be just scraped-together sandwich toppings completely drowned in dressing.

"You know, there's no real reason to assuming she's still here," Dean says, licking some escaped delight off his thumb. "If we draw a line from Lizzie Borden's place to the bar where Amara hoovered the babysitter, it's pointing pretty much due north."

"Or she has a home base and we're just stuck waiting for a third incident so we can triangulate," Sam counters, purely out of a sense of duty. The blister on his heel doesn't rub as badly now that he's in his comfortably broken-in boots, but he's not looking forward to putting his 'federal agent' shoes back on tomorrow for the next round of canvassing.

"Well, if you're going to be logical about it." Dean eats the rest of his meal in subdued silence.

There's an abandoned local paper on the table next to theirs, so Sam snags it as a distraction while he's waiting for his sure-to-be-disappointing salad. It's all pretty staid stuff--a minor scandal over photographs of the county treasurer with a hooker at the local pay-by-the-hour motel, blow-by-blow summary of an American Legion baseball game, proposal to change waste management services two towns over, ads for various summer camps--the usual. But the week's police report has something of interest.

"Hey, check this out--" Sam says, folding the newspaper down so Dean can see it too. "Four bodies found at the state park an hour north from here, cause of death unknown."

"Doesn't really sound like Amara's style," Dean says, dubious, but he takes the paper and studies it more closely.

"It's in the right direction for your theory." Though Sam's making the argument more as a distraction than anything. Dean's right about it not being enough to lead them away from their current task.

"Hm." Dean shoves his plate aside and spreads the paper out, flicking idly through the rest of the pages, and stops on the next-to-last page. "Huh. Maybe there is something to it." His turn to fold the paper up and pass it back to Sam.

PLAGUE OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS AT WELLS STATE PARK, the headline reads.

"Huh," Sam says.

"Here's your salad," their overly-perky waitress says, sliding it onto the table in front of him. "Enjoy!" The lettuce isn't wilted, there's carrot shreds and bacon bits and croutons in addition to the usual cherry tomatoes, and just the right amount of balsamic dressing. His stomach gives a small gurgle of approval.

"That actually looks edible," Dean says, sounding as surprised as Sam feels. "Maybe it's an omen."

*

For the site of a biblical plague, the park seems peaceful enough, but Sam's been through Massachusetts this time of year often enough to know he should be staring up at a verdant canopy of green, not mostly-open sky. And in the relative quiet of the park, if he closes his eyes and listens carefully, he can hear the not-so-distant chewing of a hundred thousand hungry, hungry caterpillars.

"Disgusting, isn't it?" The park ranger (call me Ralph) sounds like he'd spit if not for the presence of Sam's notebook. Instead, he scuffs a boot through the fine black grit that's scattered all across the road that runs through the park. "I've had to warn people to put tarps up over their food and anything they want to keep clean."

"Oh--" Sam says, startled and a little grossed out, stooping to get a closer look at what he'd thought was some form of gravel or ash. "You mean--?" He glances back up at the nearly skeletal trees surrounding them, fighting the urge to shield his eyes this time.

"Yup." Ralph grinds his boot-heel a little harder against the pavement, clearly wishing it was the caterpillars themselves that he was turning to powder and not just their droppings.

"When did you realize this was, well, a 'plague' and not just the usual?" He'd been a bit dubious over the likelihood of Amara dabbling in entomology, but he's starting to wonder if there really might be something to it--there'd been an unsettling moment on their drive up when they crossed from lush summer forest into increasingly barren wasteland.

Ralph silently counts it out on his fingers. "Two and a half weeks, maybe three," he says after some silent calculations. "We always have some, but this year they just kept spreading and spreading."

Sam makes a note of that--it doesn't quite fit with their loose timeline of Amara's known movements, but it's not like they have a whole lot to work with. "Any idea of where it started, or why?"

"Not like we thought to put tracking collars on them," Ralph says, sardonic, and it was a stupid question but one Sam had to ask. "We got a fair bit of snow this winter, but maybe it just wasn't enough to kill off the usual number of them."

"Global warming strikes again," Sam comments, managing to get the tone just right so that Ralph gives him a tired smile.

"Yeah, sure." It's pretty obviously a dismissal, so after a few more innocuous questions Sam heads off deeper into the park, counting down the mostly empty campsites until he hears Dean's voice. The hot summer breeze carries the heavy smell of pine sap, but there's also an unpleasant grittiness to it that makes him feel like he should blow his nose. Might be just psychosomatic, but it's enough to have him wishing he'd thought to shove a bandanna in his pocket.

"Did you see our hear anything unusual that night?" Dean's asking as Sam rounds the corner to the next batch of sites. The girl he's talking to has a wheezy bulldog and looks normal enough, but so had Sydney the babysitter, and Sam has to force himself not to shout a warning when she leans in close to take Dean's fake business card.

He waits a minute until she leaves before joining Dean at the tape-off scene of the deaths. It's been a couple days since the bodies were found, and the caution tape has developed a distinctly tattered look, loose ends blowing and rattling in the breeze. Dean's frowning down at his notebook and doesn't look up until Sam says Hi.

"No luck?" Sam nods after the departing witness.

Shaking his head, Dean tucks the notebook back into his pocket. "Nobody at the surrounding campsites saw or heard anything, but half of them are empty anyway." There's not much at the campsite itself beyond the flapping caution tape--just a picnic table and a small charcoal grill cemented into the ground. "How about on your end?"

"Nothing there either," Sam says, checking for caterpillar debris before propping himself against the table. "I couldn't see you from the ranger station when you took the side trail, so no point asking them about a young unaccompanied girl wandering around. She could've slipped in and out a dozen times without being spotted. And from what the ranger said, the caterpillars are worse than they've ever had, but they usually have at least a few every year. So that's still up in the air."

"Great." Dean scrubs his hands over his face a couple times before yanking loose the tie on his FBI suit. "I already checked for EMF, just in case, and there's no point looking for sulfur, given how windy it is." Another gust blows more grit into Sam's eyes--no wonder most of the campsites are empty.

"Let's get out of here and figure out what our next step is," Sam says, and flees for the lakeside and open air.

*

The park's tiny beach is empty, so Sam parks himself on an somewhat arthritic wooden bench as he waits for Dean to catch up. The breeze coming off the lake is clean and cooler than it had been under the trees, and despite the hot summer sun the change comes as a welcome relief.

Dean's peeled out of his suit coat when he arrives, tie absent and collar unbuttoned. "Last time I let you pull rock-paper-scissors over who has to wear the fed threads," he gripes as he drops onto the bench beside Sam. It sways worryingly, but holds.

They sit in silence for a couple of minutes, Sam's shoulder getting sweaty from where Dean's is pressed up against it. At some point they're going to have to talk about what to do next, but it's peaceful here in a way that Sam hasn't experienced in a long while, and he finds himself watching a pair of kingfishers perform an elaborate ballet in search of lunch. After five minutes or so they depart, though with all the splashing Sam couldn't tell whether or not they'd actually caught anything, and his attention drifts to the houses on the shore opposite the beach.

The lake narrows where they are, enough that he could swim it fairly easily if he tried, though it would take a little while, and he can see what the people over there are doing, though not in great detail. An older man is busy loading fishing tackle into an old metal rowboat; a heavy-set woman is futilely trying to get a golden lab to join her in a two-person kayak; a pair of teenaged girls are laying themselves out to sunbathe. In a normal summer the trees would be full enough to hide the houses behind them, but with everything eaten away he can make out bits and pieces of old-fashioned clapboards and tall narrow windows, and it all feels very familiar somehow.

A shaggy-haired boy slouches down the bank to join the girls, leans down to claim a kiss from one of them, and Sam says "Oh," because he knows where they are.

"What?" Dean asks, lifting his arm from where he's been covering his eyes against the sun. "Did you come up with a lead? Because I got nothing."

"You want to hear something funny?" Sam says instead of answering, because as far as that goes, he's got nothing either.

"I could use a laugh," Dean says, "But your jokes are never funny, man. When I laugh it's just because I feel bad for you." A younger Sam might have kicked him in the ankle, but older Sam settles for frowning repressively at him.

"Funny 'weird coincidence', not funny 'haha'," he says, and nudges Dean with his elbow to get him to straighten up. "Across the lake, about two o'clock, is the house where I went with Jess one time for vacation with her family." That trip had been what got him thinking about proposing to her--normal parents, normal siblings, something he'd wanted so desperately at that age. He can't remember now why it all had seemed so important.

"Huh. That is weird." Dean sits unmoving for a moment before lifting his head just enough to look at Sam. "You want to--" he hesitates, and Sam can almost see him rewriting the sentence before he finishes, "Want to go get lunch? Maybe everything will make more sense once we're properly fed. I saw a BBQ place on our way into town--feel like some pulled pork?"

*

The lunch line at BJ’s Smokehouse runs from door to counter, wrapping around the condiment island along the way, leaving just enough room for Sam and Dean to squeeze in and close the door behind them. There's apparently no air conditioning at the moment, so the summer combination of heat and noise and body odor is thick enough to drown in. After about a minute and a half of glancing uneasily out the window to the parking lot Dean tugs Sam down to shout in his ear, “Go keep an eye on the car? I don't trust this bunch of lunatics.”

“Get me something that's a vegetable,” Sam bargains, like he’s the one doing Dean a favor, and escapes out into the parking lot—just in time to rescue the Impala from getting boxed in, so perhaps it wasn’t mere paranoia on Dean’s part.

He’s never minded this kind of waiting: Impala serving as seat or shelter, with a bit of shade and a steady stream of cars going by, and the promise of food and welcome company at the end of it. So he sprawls out across the Impala’s windshield like when he was young and the car the only home he’d ever known.

Of course, just as he’s got himself comfortable, his phone starts vibrating a subtle jig against his thigh, and the pockets on this pair of jeans are tight enough that it takes him nearly a minute of awkward fumbling and wriggling to get the thing out. While driving over from Fall River he’d set up Search-the-Web alerts on his phone for anything in the area that might point to more soul-sucking by Amara—but once he finally gets the phone out and unlocked, the only message is a text from Dean: a picture of an enormous platter of corn dogs with the accompanying question, Sure you want something green?

Yes, Sam sends back, and then adds (for peace of mind), No food coloring, because the memory of that one incident when he was eleven still turns his stomach.

He has his eyes closed against the summer sun’s glare when Dean’s piercing wolf-whistle jerks him upright and scrambling to make sure he still has his phone safely in hand. “Hey there, Sleeping Beauty,” Dean says. “Thought I asked you to guard the car, not use her for a bed.” He’s carrying a paper bag almost the size of his torso, with faint grease stains spreading across one side, wafting out a smell so delicious Sam’s tempted to just grab the thing from Dean so he can stick his head all the way inside and inhale.

The lot has emptied a little since Sam first came out, leaving Dean with enough room to give the Impala a full 360° inspection— “Since you were sleeping on the job, Sam. Last time I give you sentry duty—next time you can spend half an hour jammed between a biker who hasn’t taken a shower since 2005 and a mom with a screaming baby and five kids who keep hitting each other.”

“I really was just resting my eyes,” Sam protests, laughing. “I opened them whenever I heard a car engine, I promise.” He shimmies off the hood and shoehorns himself in the passenger side of the car in a motion worn smooth from a lifetime of practice.

Dean’s still grumbling to himself as he drops their lunch into the back seat. “You and I ever carried on like that, Dad would have tanned our hides right here in the parking lot.” Which had happened, exactly once, and the thought of it sobers Sam a little.

“I hope you’re not going to make us wait on the food until we get back to Fall River,” he says as Dean guides the car out of the lot and into the stream of traffic. “The smell will probably drive me mad long before we get there.”

“Nah,” Dean says, casting a casual arm across the back of the seat and slouching a little. “Figured we might as well enjoy the scenery a little before we get back on the highway.” He glances over at Sam, unease suddenly palpable. “Unless there's news from Detective Madsen—?”

Now it’s Sam’s turn to reassure: “Nothing except your text message. And dude, when I have ever said yes to corn dogs?”

Dean grins at him, tension gone like it had never existed. “When you were nine and ate seven in one sitting.”

“Yeah, and then I spent all night making best friends with the toilet bowl.” For an instant Sam’s mouth is filled with the remembered taste of those corn dogs coming back up, spoiling the smell of their waiting lunch and tangling his stomach into knots. “And don’t tell me yet again that it was probably the fried chicken that did it.”

“Okay, I won’t,” Dean agrees, amiable. They ride in comfortable silence for a couple more minutes, which is broken only by a muttered insult from Dean when someone runs a light on them during a left-hand turn. But Sam doesn’t bat an eye at it, or even turn away from studying the gypsy moth-blighted scenery out his window—Dean driving the Impala is still the safest thing he knows.

He’s so intent on the view that he doesn’t realize they’re not headed back to the state park until the car’s suddenly jolting down a deeply rutted gravel road, Dean swearing under his breath and cooing a little to the car at every bad bounce.

It’s a short road, though—just as Sam’s about to ask where the heck they are, they’re rolling to a stop in shaggy grass, boxed in by the lake on two sides and a steep hill on the other. Stairs lead up to a freshly-painted clapboard house, with a weather-beaten garage door set into the side of the hill below. There's a vague sense of deja vu about the whole thing, but Sam has other, more pressing concerns. “I'm pretty sure this is private property,” he says, but it’s a pro forma protest—he’s already halfway into the backseat, fishing out a couple of beers and the bag from the smokehouse.

“No signs,” Dean counters, stretching as he gets out of the car. He wanders over to the garage door and peers inside while Sam unpacks lunch across the Impala’s hood. “No car,” he reports a minute later. “Lots of cobwebs, though.” Which doesn’t necessarily mean anything other than the house’s occupants don’t usually park there, but it’s enough to allow Sam to focus on his food instead of keeping an eye out for someone coming to run them off. Food, and the gentle lap of the lake against the shore.

*

It really is an excellent pulled pork sandwich.

*

He's still licking the sauce from his fingers when Dean suddenly starts climbing the stairs up to the house.

"Dude--" Sam calls after him, hastily balling up his sandwich wrapper and tossing it in the back seat. "What are you doing? Just go pee in the bushes--it's not worth a B&E."

"Aren't you going to show me around?" Dean yells back over his shoulder, and that doesn't make any kind of sense, but Sam clambers up after him, because when Dean gets like this he usually needs someone to rein him in a little, and whoever owns this place probably doesn't deserve to have their underwear pawed through just because Sam's brother is a weirdo. "It's only been, what--thirteen, fourteen years? Can't have changed that much."

Thirteen years? What on earth--

And then Sam crests the hill and can see across the lake properly, to where he and Dean had sat only an hour or two earlier, and he staggers a bit coming off the last step, because this is Jess's family's house, and how could he have not realized it sooner? It should take more than new paint and caterpillar-destroyed trees to disorient him so badly.

"Dean--" he says, reprimand or plea, but Dean's already picked the lock and disappeared inside the kitchen door, screen slamming shut behind him, and Sam really doesn't have any choice but to follow him, though he's suddenly drowning in the long past. God, they'd been so young--Jess golden and giggling as she hauled luggage in with her sisters, their parents distributing items around the house with the well-oiled motions of long tradition, Sam awkward and out of place and yearning for something he couldn't put into words.

He hasn't thought of her in months, even then had mentioned her to Charlie only as a way to explain how desperately he needed Dean. And now it feels like every step he takes across the yard produces a dozen memories until the very air is full of her presence, sunlight shimmering off her hair. It's both relief and sorrow to escape into the stale coolness of the kitchen, where Dean has gone full psycho and is listening to the messages on the answering machine.

"What are you doing?" Sam asks, unsure of the scope of his own question.

"Checking whether we should expect anyone to show up and kick us out," Dean says, utterly matter-of-fact as he flips through the calendar next to the phone. --forgot to tell you that they changed the trash pick-up to Thursdays-- the answering machine adds. "Looks like Uncle Jeff and the kids were supposed to come but had to cancel." He holds up the pages for the current week, and the arrow running across all the days is indeed scribbled out. "And the next time anyone's scheduled is another two weeks from now." Septic tank is scheduled to be pumped the end of August, so no half-hour showers please--

"So, what, you're proposing we squat in the house belonging to my dead college girlfriend's family?"

Dean looks uncertain for the first time since they arrived. "We don't have to," he says, not meeting Sam's eyes, fiddling with the corner of the calendar page. "But what're the odds of us ever winding up here again? I figured--" he shrugs, darts a glance up at Sam. "Though I wouldn't mind a bathroom, if they have one. Or is peeing in the bushes really the only option?"

"Down the hallway, to the right, first doorway on the left," Sam sighs, and settles back against the counter after Dean's gone, trying to figure out why he's feeling so thrown for a loop. In the grand scheme of things, this is far from the strangest thing Dean's ever proposed. Maybe it's just that this is the first to involve pieces of Sam's own history.

Setting aside that aspect, though--how reasonable is Dean's suggestion? Certainly the location can't be beat--right at the epicenter of whatever's going on--and every indication points towards the house being empty for the few days they'd need it. If it was any other slightly-cobwebbed summer house Sam probably wouldn't think twice about squatting here. Or at least not very long.

He studies the surrounding kitchen, in the vague hope it'll contain something to convince him one way or another. Aside from a shiny new microwave, everything looks ... old. Worn. The mixing bowls on the counter have chipped edges, and the toaster very well could be a relic of the 1950s. There's a vase of shriveled roses on the windowsill behind the sink, at distinct odds with the fresh coat of paint on the exterior of the house, and a vague smell of dust. Everything suggests mostly-absent owners.

If he closes his eyes and and stretches his memory, he can catch glimpses of Jess making pancakes at the stove, of bumping elbows with her father while washing dishes after a meal of corn-on-the-cob, butter and salt thickly coating each plate.

When he opens them again, the kitchen is dark and quiet and empty.

"What's the verdict?" Dean asks, wiping his hands off on his jeans as he comes around the corner. "We shacking up here, or down the road at the 'Come On Inn'?" He says it lightly, like it doesn't matter, and it shouldn't, but it would, and Sam's spent his entire life since college learning not to run from his past. He's not going to quit here.

"Let's use the guest cottage," Sam says, because he's also learned to pick his battles, and if they stay here at the main house he'll just be distracted the entire time.

"Guest cottage? Sweet," Dean says, everything about him easing just a little.

"Wait until you see it," Sam warns. "We might need to pick up a feather duster or two when we run into town."

*

There is indeed a layer of dust over everything, the chest containing sheets and blankets smells very strongly of mothballs, the bed is definitely going to be too short, and Dean gets ambushed across the face with a large cobweb while they're setting up the futon out in the main room. Sam laughs and laughs despite Dean's sputtering threats of retribution, and it feels good. So that's already a point in favor of this place over some dreary, generic motel.

For some reason, the cottage contains a functional iron, so Dean removes the wrinkles from Sam's fed suit and then they're off of the local police station for details on the four mysterious deaths. The one downside to staying at the lake property is that cell reception is a bit dodgy and even Sam's trusty mobile hotspot struggles a bit to maintain a decent connection. It's not a real issue, though--if they come up empty at the station, Sam'll just settle in at the nearest coffee shop with wifi and hack into the records directly.

They do come up empty, sort of. "Well, that was a waste of ironing," Dean says, grumpy, swatting his way through the swarm of gnats hanging out in the shade from the station entrance's overhang. "You should've just called in, pretending to be a reporter. Then I could've finally changed out of this monkey suit."

"It's not so bad," Sam says, because they've been run out of town more than once when their disguises failed; 'all the relevant details were in the newspaper article but we'll call you when the toxicology report comes back' is practically a win in comparison. "Saves me an afternoon of bad coffee and Muzak." They settle into the car, but Dean doesn't put the key in the ignition, just sits and frowns out the windshield for a minute. "Where to next?" Sam finally asks. "I think we drove by the local library on the way over, if you want to check whether there's any historical precedent for this sort of caterpillar infestation."

Dean sighs. "Yeah, I guess so. Way my day's going it's probably going to be crawling with silverfish. If the next plague is one of centipedes, I say we abandon the town to its fate." Even with the windows down, the heavy afternoon sun has turned the car into an oven, and they both wrestle their jackets off and drop them into the back seat before Dean starts the car, sleeves rolled up to the elbow.

The pale smoothness of his forearm keeps catching Sam's eye--weeks later and he still can't quite believe that it's actually done, the Mark gone and Dean nothing more than his fundamental self. Dean's mostly lost his habit of touching where the Mark used to be, but every now and then Sam still gets the urge to. Not that he would risk Dean's ire or sending him into a tailspin of self-recrimination, but there's still that temptation to feel for himself and confirm its complete absence.

But he has a lifetime of learning when to keep his hands to himself, so he just stretches out as best he can in the confines of the front seat and keeps an eye out for the tiny Sprague Memorial Library.

It's so small that they actually miss it, and Dean has take a turn around the village green to get back to it. The library's parking lot contains room for exactly five cars and the building is sized to match, although it's attempting a sense of grandeur with a nice set of faux-marble columns across the front. Dean regards it dubiously. "Maybe you should go in by yourself," he says. "I'm not sure we'll both fit in there."

"Fine," Sam sighs, and peels himself out of the car. It's not much an exaggeration--whoever had built the place had decided to jam as many books as possible into what's essentially one largish room. The ceiling's high enough to keep it from feeling overly claustrophobic, and shelves climb almost all the way up the outside walls, top rows accessible only narrow ladders on rails. The interior of the room is filled with shelving units almost as tall as Sam, leaving him feeling a bit like Theseus hunting down the minotaur as he tries to find the librarian, who's absent from her desk at the middle of the maze. It stirs up vague memories of when they'd tracked down Metatron at that empty casino hotel--though he's hoping not to be greeted with a shotgun this time.

She's putting away an armload of books in the last corner that he tries--dinosaurs and mastodons are still popular, apparently, one of the few constants of childhood across the years. As are librarians in cardigans and beaded chains for their reading glasses, though under the cardigan she's wearing a t-shirt that says 'only slightly foxed' instead of the severe button-downs of his memories.

"I'm looking for some local histories," he tells her, after the usual pleasantries. "Especially anything related to agriculture or logging."

"Not sure we have much," she says, standing and dusting off her knees after she slides the last book into place. "But let me see what I can pull together."

Ten minutes later he's ensconced in the 'reading nook', one dilapidated armchair for him and the other taken up by the stack of books she'd assembled. Most are general histories of Massachusetts or New England, with a few biographies and three genuine local histories--though one is a staple-bound mimeograph. The general histories all have indices, which allows him to rule them out pretty quickly; the biographies are for revolutionary war heroes and mention farming only in passing, if at all; the mimeograph is basically tracing the genealogy of a single family, and the other two local histories are focused entirely on the founding of "Old Sturbridge Village", with not a whiff of possibly-supernatural caterpillars.

"No luck?" The librarian asks when Sam returns the books to her desk.

"I'm afraid not," Sam says. "Sorry to have wasted your time." He sighs, scrubs a hand through his hair. "I don't suppose there's a local historical society or something that might have agricultural records?"

She laughs. "Take a left and drive five minutes. You can't miss it."

There's a tiny cemetery next to the library, shaded by a pair of miraculously uneaten maples, with rows of colonial gravestones like narrow, crooked teeth. Dean's standing in the middle of it, staring down at one in particular. "What're you looking at?" Sam asks as he comes up to him. There's nothing of obvious interest about the gravestone in front of them--worn mostly white by centuries of New England winters, a bit of lichen in the bluntly carved lettering. Robert Stanley Putnam, 1779-1808.

"Same age I was, the first time I died," Dean says, and leaves for the car before Sam can come up with a response.

*

They take a left as instructed and five minutes later are presented with an enormous sign for OLD STURBRIDGE VILLAGE, and at least Sam now has a guess for why his question had gotten laughed at. "Looks like they close at four," Dean says. "That would give us only an hour." But he pulls into the enormous parking lot anyway, parks under a tree that's just big enough to shade part of the Impala's hood.

"Well, we can at least ask around at front desk," Sam says, climbing out of the car.
There's not much else to see from where they are--the village itself must be hidden behind the thick row of pine trees running around the edge of the parking lot.

Inside, there's a handful of slightly-sunburnt people milling around listlessly, and an old lady with a cane who's berating the girl manning the ticket desk. "...Maybe we can find something useful in the gift shop," Sam says. Dean rolls his eyes.

"Fine. Just don't bug me about getting an ant farm like when you had museum field trips as a kid."

But it turns out that the gift shop is actually half bookstore, and there's an enormous section on farming and botany, so when Dean makes noises about checking out the candy counter, Sam just waves a hand at him, already distracted with digging through indices for anything related to historical caterpillar swarms. It's actually kind of overwhelming, and unlike the little library he'd just left, there's no one to help him sort through it for potential relevancy--and not so much as a Kik-step stool for him to stack books on while he works his way through everything. The enormous tables in the bunker library have spoiled him.

He's so engrossed in his task that it's an actual shock when Dean taps him on the shoulder. "Hate to put your research bender on a time out, but they're starting to close up," he says. There's a bag of something obviously heavy hooked over one arm, and something's off about his coloring.

"Did you go on a bender yourself?" Sam asks, taking a photo of the book he was looking through so he'll remember where to start up again tomorrow. "Doesn't seem like the kind of place where they'd serve booze."

"No!" Dean says, affronted, then, "Well, not really. Sort of. They have a fudge bar."

"Okay," Sam says, completely baffled. "And...?"

"And forty-two flavors," Dean elaborates helpfully as they exit the building. "Normally they don't let you try more than a couple at a time, but I was chatting up Elise--she was manning the fudge bar today, though usually she runs the bookstore, where you were, but they're short-staffed right now because Stephanie is out on maternity leave--and by the end of it she told me I should try the last six just to make it a complete set. No one's ever done that before, so you're not allowed to make fun of me if I horf in the bushes on our way out to the car."

He doesn't, but when Sam holds his hand out for the keys, he hands them over without comment and sprawls out in the back seat with a groan.

"Your self-sacrifice was very noble," Sam says as he adjusts the rearview mirror, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing when he sees the miserable expression on Dean's face. "Did you learn anything useful in exchange?"

Dean straightens up a little behind him. "Yeah--I was talking to her about what the job's like, what kind of people work here, that kind of thing. Sounds like the reenactors are all supposed to know the history of whatever it is they're doing. So if you can't find anything in the books, we should go talk with the guys out in the fields or cutting wood. She said to ask for Paul--apparently he's even more of nerd than you are. If anyone can help us, he's the guy."

*

When they get back to Jess's family's place, Dean immediately strips down to his boxers and splashes out into the lake, claiming it'll help his digestion. Sam remembers the deep cool of the shade under all the pine trees, but with everything eaten away by the caterpillars this year, there's no real escape from the heat on land. Feels like there's a metaphor in there somewhere, but rather than track it down he just digs out a couple of ancient fans from the cottage closet and sets about trying to coax a decent internet connection from his hotspot so he can hunt through the local newspaper archives and county records.

Takes each page a minute to load, and the formatting's usually all janky when it finally does, but he's able to find enough info that by the time Dean comes back in, cheerful and sun-pinked and still dripping with water, he's feeling pretty sure the whole thing is just nature gone wild on its own.

"Remember that week we camped at the Prettyboy reservoir so Dad could teach you how to swim, Marine-style?"

He remembers the college students two sites down who would wolf-whistle a fourteen-year-old Dean when Dad wasn't around, but he also remembers the feeling of utter freedom when their dad had declared halfway through the week that he and Dean could be trusted to swim on their own wherever they wanted. "Yeah," he says. "How's the water here?"

"Great," Dean says. "You should come check it out," though he sounds like he expects Sam to refuse.

"Give me a minute to finish here, and I'll join you," Sam says, and after setting up his laptop to (slowly) download a couple of movies, he does. There's a public dock partway down the shore where Jess and her sisters had liked to sunbathe; he races Dean there and back again. Dean just barely beats him there, Sam still getting used to the feel of the water, having to remind himself of the most efficient angle for each stroke, how to time his breathing. He wins the return journey handily, though to himself he's willing to admit it might just be that Dean's tiring from being in the water for so long already. When Dean attempts that excuse, they wind up wrestling for it, which ends with Sam smearing mud into Dean's hair and getting his own back all scraped up when he rolls them into a submerged pile of rocks.

"All right, uncle," Dean finally gasps. "I'm starving."

Jess's family had sworn by the local Thai restaurant, and when Sam breaks back into the main house while Dean's trying to wash the muck out of his hair, there's a menu for it in the kitchen drawer, right where he remembers it being. It's too new to be the same one they'd ordered from twelve years earlier, but there's still a slight pang when he goes to call the order in.

*

Twenty minutes later he's shoulder-to-shoulder on the futon with Dean and the classic version of Dracula, mocking the top-notch security at Seward’s asylum, which allows Renfield to just wander around wherever he pleases. “Wish it’d been that easy when we were in the nuthouse,” Dean says, tucking noodles away in his cheek like one of the chipmunks hanging out in the cabin’s stone foundation. “Some of those nurses—” He grimaces at Sam, mouth finally stopped up.

“Yeah,” Sam agrees, telling himself that his stomach is churning from too much curry and not at the memory of old clawing rage. Mostly he’s able to forget his past anger, can bury those memories in the ash of dim regret. “Hey, swap cartons? I want some of the black bean sauce before you finish it.” He shouldn't have bowed to nostalgia and gotten Jess's old favorite order--it's hard to enjoy the flavor when his tongue feels like it's on fire.

Dean wrinkles his nose at the thought of sharing but makes the exchange without actual complaint. “Next time let’s try the Ran Pan Poo or whatever. This stuff’s spicier than I would've expected.”

“The Rad Nah? Sure,” Sam agrees, soothed by the sweetness of the Pad See Eaw and the press of Dean’s shoulder against his, the steady slap of the water on the shore below. “Hey, Fay Wray against Mina—who wins?”

“Looks or guts?” Dean asks, eyes glued to the screen, shoveling in the curried noodles at a distinctly slower pace. “Fay Wray screams more, but Mina’s a complete pushover.”

“In the book Mina’s the brains of the operation,” Sam says, and from there it turns into an argument over whether adaptations supersede their source material and Dean reminiscing about Jamie-the-bar-wench from that weird monster movie-themed shapeshifter case they’d done years earlier.

*

The bed is too small and the mattress too soft, but Sam's sleep that night comes easy and passes without dreams.

*

It's raining the next morning--not hard, but steady, and it's a welcome relief from the sun-blasted heat of the previous day. Dean's subdued, yesterday evening's pink having settled down a shade into the flat red of sunburn, though it's pale enough that the freckles are already starting to peek through. After collecting coffee and doughnuts from a Dunkin' Donuts wannabe (right down to the colors and type-face of the logo--"I'm astonished they haven't been sued for trademark infringement," Sam comments as they pull out of the drive-thru), they stop at a CVS for aloe vera, which Dean grudgingly allows Sam to smear onto his shoulders and back in the Old Sturbridge Village parking lot, though he insists on doing his face and neck himself, winding up with a smear of it still visible across the bridge of his nose.

The place seems quieter than before, the lobby empty aside from the two of them and a different ticket girl than the previous afternoon. And that doesn't change once they start wandering through the village proper. Every now and then a cluster of visitors will dash from one colonial-era building to the next, huddled under umbrellas and rain slickers, but otherwise there's an almost eerie post-apocalyptic feel to it--just the two of them surrounded by all these remnants of the distant past.

Eventually they track down a few guys marking off trees and branches with bright-colored strips of cloth. Paul's not part of the group, but they get instructions to a grove over on the other side of the property. Halfway across it starts to really rain again, washing off Dean's aloe and plastering down his hair in little spikes like a hedgehog. "Yeah, well, you look like one of those mop-dogs drowned and got stuck to your head," Dean says when Sam shares this observation.

They wait out the worst of it in the blacksmith's shop, where Dean starts talking to the blacksmith about cold iron and working with steel, and by the time things clear off a little he's back behind the 'employees only' partition getting a lecture about the difference between modern and colonial forges and Sam has to practically drag him out.

"I wonder if I could build a forge in one of the storage rooms," Dean says, mostly to himself, and then Sam has to go on his own little lecture about just how flammable 90% of the bunker's contents are. That easily passes the time until they finally track down Paul, who's halfway up a tree, completely drenched and also completely oblivious to that fact, if his cheery greeting to them is any indicator.

All it takes is a ten-minute conversation to confirm Sam's suspicions: there were at least two previously recorded incidents of similar caterpillar infestation, though both were mentioned in personal diaries only--the first early enough that there hadn't been any sort of news reporting service yet, the second overshadowed by the Civil War and then lost to an 1892 fire that destroyed the relevant portion of the local paper's archives.

They wind up eating lunch in the still mostly-empty lobby. "So this whole detour was pointless?" Dean asks around a mouthful of over-priced turkey sandwich. He doesn't seem upset about having wasted at least a day and a half of time they could've spent canvassing the neighborhood back at Fall River; he'd been so angry all the time during that last stretch with the Mark of Cain that his newly-recovered equanimity still surprises Sam sometimes.

"We still have those four dead bodies," Sam counters, picking unhappily through his chowder--it's so coated in rosemary that he can't taste anything else. "Cops said the tox report should be coming in tomorrow."

"How much you wanna bet it's just arsenic in the soup?"

"Nothing doing," Sam says, and stands up to go dump out his bowl and get a second sandwich like Dean's.

*

Waiting on someone else for information is always Sam's least favorite part of a hunt, even worse than those moments of desperate struggle that often come at the end. At least then he can do something. By the time the get back to the cottage the rain clouds have blown off, and Dean heads down to the water again. Sam says he'll follow but drifts out onto the boathouse-roof deck instead, watching as his brother splashes around in the water like he's a kid again instead of almost forty.

Same age I was, the first time I died, he'd said, back at the graveyard, and now that there's no hunt left to distract Sam, he can't stop turning that sentence over and over in his head. When Dean had died that first time for real--and every time after, but especially that first--it had been the ending of Sam's world. No matter how much whiskey he'd drunk, how many demons he'd killed, how loud he'd screamed at the uncaring sky, it had felt like trying to breathe without lungs, like trying to live with his heart carved out and his chest hanging open. It had been untenable, and he'd been driven to desperate schemes first to prevent it, and then to somehow undo the injury.

When Jess had died ... it had hurt at first, certainly. He can dimly remember the nightmares of fire, the times he'd turned his head and thought for a split second that some random woman walking down the sidewalk was actually her. The burning need to kill the monster who had killed her. And yet--Dean had been there, and so it had been survivable. Even now, surrounded by an entire lake and forest filled with reminders of his time with her, the most he feels is a vague nostalgia, the faintest echo of loss. He can remember the pain but he no longer feels it, only long-faded guilt over having unknowingly caused her death.

"Are you chicken or what?" Dean shouts up from the water. "Afraid I'll whoop your ass again?"

"You're getting forgetful in your old age," Sam shouts back, and puts aside the past in favor of proving his brotherly superiority yet again.

*

In the end Dean loses but manages to dunk Sam twice, so they call it a tie and spend the remainder of the afternoon fixing the stone steps leading down the hill to the lake. Jess's family had run up and down them with an easy confidence in their security; more than a decade of New England winters has given many of them a disconcerting wobble. So Sam and Dean carefully wedge them back into place, Dean sending Sam up and down to the water's edge in search of small stones that'll fit right, and getting sand to even everything out. By the time they finish, Sam's so hot and sticky that he plunges back into the lake without a single thought beyond getting cooled off.

When Dean joins him, there's no more roughhousing, just the two of them and the nearly-silent lake, the loudest noise the whir of a passing dragonfly.

"Y'know, I'm pretty sure there's a reservoir within an hour of the bunker," Dean says, almost wistful, as they're finally climbing out again. "We should go hang out there sometime."

"Sounds great," Sam says--who knows, miracles might happen.

They order in pizza for dinner, watching the old Godzilla movies back to back to back, and it feels like being twelve and sixteen again, or twenty-two and twenty-six, back before Heaven and Hell cracked open and told them they were Chosen. Thirty-two and thirty-six aren't so bad, though, not when Dean falls asleep on his pizza and winds up with sauce smeared across one side of his face. Sam still has this, despite everything.

*

He runs out for coffee the next morning while Dean's still asleep, leaves one still-steaming cup on the chair next to the futon where it probably won't get knocked over, takes the other out onto the surprisingly cool deck where he watches the sun slowly creep up over the tattered forest canopy. There's something comforting in knowing it's managed to survive past plagues of caterpillars; it'll survive this one too. Though whether it'll survive Amara is another question entirely.

The thing is, even with that doubt, even with the pit in his stomach that yawns open whenever he thinks about just what Amara might be when she fully manifests her powers, even with the guilt over the dead and soulless left in her wake--even with all that he can't regret removing the Mark of Cain from Dean. Charlie's dead, and that's going to sting for a while, but.

But.

Dean is inside, snoring, sunburned and still smelling faintly of lake mud. He is entirely himself again. Entirely Sam's big brother again. That's all Sam wanted, and at the end of the day that's the only thing that matters.

His phone chirps at him just as he finishes his coffee--the toxicology report arrived, and the answer, bafflingly, is botulism. Seems unlikely to him, but it's someone else's job now. Time for him to go wake up Dean, put on his fed threads and uncomfortable shoes, and drive back to Fall River to go do his own job: cleaning up the mess he made by letting Amara out of whatever hole she'd been in. They've dealt with archangels and demigods and horrors from the dawn of creation. They can do this too.

"Ready or not, here we come," he says, and goes back inside.