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Miles from folk who pass

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The silent, lumbering shape of the coal pile outside the cottage is testing Dean's patience. Across the cramped space of the cottage Cain is leaning back in his bed, whittling away at a piece of wood. Sometimes he stops, turns the piece this way and that, contemplating it silently. Dean is going out of his God damn mind. Usually he doesn't mind the silence, but there's nothing to be done now. This pile is the last of the year, and then they'll have to get to work pulling them down, transporting the coal across the snow and ice to the railroad. He gets up to prepare some coffee, Cain watching him just as intently as he watches the carving.

”I was thinking I could go hunting, I won't be gone long,” Dean says, aware of the eyes on his back, as he shoves a lantern and an old beat-up book in his rucksack. Cain hums in agreement and starts working again. ”I'm just so tired of potatoes, man, anything but more potatoes!” He fiddles with the old, worn-down boots he has to wear with thick woollen socks every day now that the cold is starting to set in. The ground outside is covered in snow, but not so much that it makes passage difficult.

”That might be best,” Cain agrees after a beat of silence as Dean looks back at him, expecting something, some kind of response. This happens a lot, Dean muses, these times when it seems they're not quite speaking the same language. There is an honest desire to learn, with both of them, he thinks, but even after months of the intense, lonely work of burning, they still fumble and hesitate.

”Think you'll be fine without me, old man?” he shoots back as he pours the coffee into his old thermos and nestles it carefully between the lantern and the book. Cain scoffs in response and shoos him out of the cottage with an impatient hand.

Grinning to himself, Dean grabs his rifle and goes out into the snow-covered forest. He takes a turn around the pile, the need to check check check not wavering for an instant. Paths crisscross the little clearing they've made for themselves, and he sets out on one heading west. It leads to a meadow some ways off, a decent trek and a good place to sit down. It's not that he minds these quiet days, and he supposes he should be grateful after the long sleepless nights tending to the burning pile. A couple of nights ago they had been sleeping soundly, when the crash of the water barrell outside woke them up, and they ran out just in time to see the pile take flame. After hours of panicked, back-breaking work they had got it under control, and it seemed to be calm once again. Dean still feels the jittery, electric feeling under his skin, though, exacerbated by the lack of sleep and the truly ridiculous amounts of coffee he has been drinking. The forest is quiet around him now, though, the dark green spruces and ghostly pale birches surrounding him.

It takes a while, but eventually he reaches his destination. The meadow spreads out before him, the white a stark contrast to the dark treeline on the other side. A couple of deer are grazing at a brown patch of grass, and watch him with cautious interest as he clears a place to sit, leaning back against a broad tree and sighing in contentment. He sits there for a while, looking out at the quiet, open space. His nerves are settling, and he's glad he took the decision to get out from the looming shadow of that pile of dirt. He's always liked being able to stretch his legs, being able to move, something he did not have much opportunity for, living with his father. But those days are long gone, ever since John succumbed to drink and ended up wasting away at the hospital in town, miles away from the dark expanse of the forest. He shakes his head to clear it of the cobwebs of memories, stubbornly sticking to every corner of his mind, and takes out his book and the coffee. He pours a cup, just to clutch it in his ungloved hands and feel the warmth spread. He hates the cold, but he loves this. The quiet, the blankness of nature, and in his hand a warm point of contact with reality.

 *

Consciousness returns slowly, he blinks his eyes and flails an arm in the direction of Cain trying to shake him awake. Only, he's not in the cottage and the man shaking him isn't Cain and it's dark. Suddenly alert, he grabs his rifle from beside him and stumbles upright. As soon as his eyes adjust, he sees that the man has stepped away, hands raised in surrender. He's dressed in old-fashioned but cared-for clothes, clutching a large pelt of something under one arm.

”Hey now,” he says. ”Just trying to help.” The stranger is shorter than Dean, but broad and strong, potentially dangerous. Still, he lowers the rifle. ”Name's Benny, chief. I was out hunting and was getting back home when I saw you passed out in the snow and figured I'd come see if you were all right.”

”Yeah, thanks. I'm fine, must have fallen asleep. This isn't your land, is it?”

”Nah, as I said, just passing by.” Benny studies him for a short moment, before asking ”You one of them burners? With the old guy?”

Dean smiles at the comment. ”Don't let him hear you say that, but yes.” He looks around, the darkness is closing in as they are speaking, and unless he wants to be late for dinner he should get moving. ”Listen, I should be going, thanks for waking me.”

Benny smiles back and offers his hand to shake. It's warm, like his coffee cup which is now cooling in the snow. ”You take care now, y'hear?” and with that he gives a wave and starts moving back towards the opposite treeline. Dean watches him for a while, before he gathers his thing and with the guiding light of the lantern starts making his way back. As he's moving back into the forest proper, he looks back and where he expected to see Benny's shadowed form, a large dark shape seems to be moving among the trees.