The end is in sight ...
As Dean's eyes flickered open, he felt a warm hand resting across his forehead; shifting weakly, he blinked back tears as the bare light of the hospital room stung his eyes. He let out a long sigh; in no rush to wake up, he was relishing the comfort of the warm touch.
"Hey dude, I thought you were planning to sleep all day!"
The voice was Sam's, and so was the hand. Dean formulated a rapier-sharp rejoinder in his mind, but what actually came out of his mouth was, "mmmm … wha'?"
Sam's best soppy grin shone down on the watery-eyed, squinting figure in the bed.
"How you feelin' there bro'?"
Dean squirmed into a timid one-sided stretch, and yawned lavishly, knuckling his eyes as he tried to swat his brother's hand away in the process.
"Uhh … don' know yet," he whispered and frowned as Sam busily plumped the pillows beneath him.
"Quit fussin," he croaked irritably.
Sam smiled, "oh, hi there Grumpy; you must be feelin' better!"
Dean groaned, shifting again as he tried to scratch his back; "… time is it?"
"Time you woke up," smiled Sam, "it's almost lunchtime."
Dean yawned again, still squirming as his one good arm tried to chase the elusive itch across his twitching shoulder blades.
"Lunchtime?" Dean hesitated, "don' even remember havin' breakfast."
"No dude, you wouldn't," Sam responded with a laugh, "you've been asleep since early evening yesterday."
"Uh - wh-why?"
"The anaesthesia dude;" Sam replied, clumsily gathering up his crutches as he hobbled to his feet. "You woke up for a couple of hours after the surgery, entertained us all, then just went back to sleep." He stood up, clattering his chair across the room with one of the crutches; "oh crap!"
Dean's brows furrowed and an expression of concern crossed his face. "Oh!" He looked down at his bandaged chest and back up to Sam.
"Wha' you do to your leg?"
"Oh nothing much, dude;" although Sam gave a reassuring smile, he could see that Dean wasn't convinced. He shook his head; "look, I just bruised the hip a bit badly," he said in his most comforting tone; "gotta keep my weight off it for a while."
He withered underneath Dean's scrutinising gaze. Dean was mulling over his words, and Sam knew his brother would be deciding whether or not he thought he was getting the truth.
He didn't have long to decide when he found himself distracted by Sam pressing the call bell.
"Hey, what y'doin? I don' need nothing."
"The doc wanted to take a look at you as soon as you woke up," replied Sam.
Dean scowled. "Don' I get no friggin privacy?"
"Nope," Sam turned as he heard the door open, "not until you're better."
"Hey there," Doctor Morgan nodded amiably to Sam and walked over to his patient, "how are you feeling today, Dean?"
"Fine;" Dean responded economically.
Sam stepped across to the other side of the room to give his brother some privacy while the Doctor looked him over. He faced the wall and shook with silent laughter as he heard Doctor Morgan asking Dean all the questions he needed to ask …
"Can you feel this?"
"Give me a deep breath"
"Any pain from the wound?"
… and, for his trouble, received grunted one word answers.
Sam shook his head with a wry smile; Dean being an obnoxious patient equalled Dean feeling okay; unfortunately it didn't make life any easier for the poor, well-meaning man leaning over his over his unco-operative patient, trying to ignore the grouchy sighs and eye-rolls as he did his level best to assess Dean's condition. Sam held his breath, waiting for Dean to tell Doctor Morgan exactly where he could stick his thermometer, and was mightily relieved when it seemed that Dean had managed to hold his tongue.
Folding his stethoscope away, the doctor turned to Sam.
"Looking good," he smiled, "his lung function is as good as I could expect given the problems he's had and he doesn't appear to be in too much discomfort from the wound."
"That's great," Sam responded over a broad smile; "sounds like you're doing really well bro'!"
"Good" snorted Dean, "does that mean I can come out now?"
Sam turned to Morgan and gave a quiet chuckle, "that's always a good sign, doc, when he starts griping about getting out."
"Hey, quit talkin' about me like I ain't here;" the breathy voice drifted up irritably from the bed.
"I'm afraid you won't be able to go home for a couple of days yet, not until I'm completely happy with how your lungs are healing up." Morgan smiled apologetically, "but you're making such good progress, Dean; I'm sure it won't be long."
He opened the door, I'll send a nurse in to change your dressing and check the incision over," he smiled warmly at the two brothers as he left, closing the door behind him.
"Make sure she's hot …" Dean called after him.
Sam hobbled over to the bed and sat down on the chair vacated by Doctor Morgan.
"You're impossible;" he grinned, trying not to laugh as he handed Dean another carton of juice.
"No," Dean mumbled around the straw, "what's impossible is how 'm still stuck in this abbatoir;" he grunted sourly; "I mean, changing my dressing - you could do that."
"Dean, you've just had major reconstructive surgery on your shoulder you've got a suction tube stitched into your chest;" Sam sighed, "I can't deal with that sort of stuff; you're gonna have to suck it up at least until that's gone."
The brothers sat in silence, watching as a pretty young nurse worked confidently and with genuine concern, gently removing the bloodstained dressing across Dean's chest and shoulder. Sam felt himself sway, feeling slightly lightheaded as the horribly swollen black bruising around the site of the surgery, and the tightly sutured wound running the length of Dean's collarbone were revealed.
As she gently and carefully cleaned around the inflamed site of the drainage tube, Sam noted with amusement that Dean had turned slightly green at the sight of it; but he had to admit, his brother was doing an admirable job of keeping up his game 'I'm not gonna hurl while there's a hot chick in a nurse's uniform climbing all over me' face.
"How does that feel? I'm not hurting you am I?" The nurse asked kindly as she carefully taped another dressing over the gruesome disaster zone. Dean effected a broad and slightly demented smile; "nah, you're doin' fine;" he reassured cheerfully, aiming for carefree levity; the effect somewhat ruined by the clenched teeth and watering eyes.
Sam turned away; watching Dean's admirable attempts to preserve his fragile ego was far more painful than watching the nurse work.
After the nurse's visit, Sam attempted to make Dean comfortable again, and the brothers relaxed in a contented silence except for the sounds of Dean sucking up the remainder of his juice through the narrow straw.
Eventually Sam broke the peace; "how's your ass?"
He cringed as Dean choked on his orange juice.
"What the hell?" Dean spluttered, wiping droplets of orange off his chin; "what about my ass?"
"Well, how is it?" sam asked again, unsure of how else to rephrase the question.
Dean glared; "Sam, I don' ever want to hear you talkin' about my ass again," he snorted; "that just sounds so wrong …" He shuddered theatrically; "I just threw up a bit in my mouth."
Sam laughed, "well, you had no problem talking about your ass and all it's issues last night," he grinned, "I got chapter and verse of how much it hurt, where it hurt, why it hurt; you even offered me a look at one stage…"
Dean's eyes widened in horror. "You didn't…"
"No, you're okay dude," Sam replied, wrinking his nose in disgust, "I declined the offer, thanks."
Both men fell into a brief silence, before Sam spoke up again. "So does it still hurt or not?"
"No it does not!" Dean snapped, "it's fine, tip-top, in perfect heath. My ass does not need any attention of any sort - 'specially not from you." He snorted; "now can we please drop the subject?"
Sam shrugged; "consider it dropped."
Dean drained his juice and turned to drop the empty carton in the trashcan beside his bed. He stopped, looking across the nightstand and froze.
"Sam, d'y wanna tell me why there's a coconut on my table?"
"You wanted one," Sam replied with a shrug.
"What?" Dean looked utterly perplexed.
"Last night;" Sam continued, "You really, really wanted a coconut."
"Why?" Dean asked helplessly; "why on earth would I wan' a friggin' coconut?"
Sam was fighting not to laugh again, "Don't ask me;" he sniggered, "but man, you wanted a coconut real bad, so Bobby went out and got one for you; wasn't that kind of him?"
Dean stared at the round, hairy object. "What the hell am I supposed to do with a coconut?" he snorted.
"You could always make a Pina Colada?" Sam offered with a mischievous grin.
"How 'bout I just throw it at you instead?"
Dean slumped back into the mountain of pillows and huffed sulkily. "crap;" he looked across at his quietly chuckling brother with the patented 'Dean Winchester' narrowed stern eyes which were supposed to intimidate Sam but really just made him laugh; "Sam, I forbid you to ever allow me to go under a general anaesthetic again," he sighed, "I clearly can't be held responsible for my actions. Are there any more gut-wrenching humiliations you wanna tell me about?"
Sam shook his head, mute with suppressed laughter.
Dean stared and the coconut and sighed deeply; "you do realise Bobby's gonna use this against me for the rest of my life," he moaned.
"No he won't, he was just worried about you dude;" Sam responded with a wet-eyed grin, "we both were, he thought it might cheer you up."
A click heralded the opening of the door and Bobby walked through with coffees and donuts from the diner across the road.
He smiled broadly, "Hey Sam; Hi there Crusoe."
Dean glared at Sam; "won't use it against me huh?"
Unable to hold it together any longer, Sam dissolved into helpless sniggers, leaning sideways off the chair and knocking his crutches over. He made a grab for them, before they clattered all over the floor again.
Bobby leapt out of the way, splashing coffee down his shirt and rolled his eyes; "anyone ever told you you're lethal with those things?" he snapped, placing the coffees on the table and rummaging in his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe himself down.
Sam took a long sip of the coffee, relishing the rich, mellow taste after the bitter gutrot from the vending machine down the corridor; "where've you been Bobby?" he smiled warmly, "you missed Sleepin' Beauty here wakin' up."
Bobby grinned, "say, that would have been a sight for sore eyes!" He glanced across to the glaring figure in the bed; "what's he askin' for today - pineapples?"
"kiss my ass…" snorted Dean
"… why? It still sore, Tinkerbell?"
Bobby drained his coffee. "In actual fact, I've been out and about doin' a bit of digging around."
"I guessed," Sam smiled, gesturing towards the older man, "you still got your parks authority badge on."
Bobby smiled in return, "yeah well, I've been to see the farmer who owned your two horses," he looked up at Sam and across to Dean, still glowering from the comfort of his bed.
"Wanna hear a story?"
"Story?" The brothers spoke up in unison.
"You're not gonna wanna tuck me in afterwards are you?" Dean snorted, "cos' I was kinda hoping that little nurse would come back to do that."
Bobby looked down at the weak attempt at an obnoxious grin playing on Dean's pallid face and rolled his eyes. "Don't flatter yourself boy," he muttered with a smile.
Rummaging in the paper bag containing the donuts, he drew out a chocolate frosted one and passed it to Sam. "Wow, thanks Bobby;" Sam's eyes lit up and he took the donut, his face lifting into a smile of blissful delight as he disposed of half of it in one massive bite.
Bobby passed another donut to Dean who took it eagerly, filling his face without hesitation.
He paused, mid-chew, nose wrinkling in disdain and glared up towards Bobby's smiling face.
Sam let a muffled snort of laughter through his stuffed cheeks, spraying the back of Bobby's head with fragments of chewed donut.
"Funny, Bobby. Real funny;" Dean mumbled sulkily, through a well-packed mouthful. Both Sam and Bobby noted, however, that he was clearly not too offended to polish off the remainder of his treat with enthusiasm.
"Anyway, Bobby;" Sam licked his sticky fingers, and drained his coffee. "What were you saying about a story?"
Bobby screwed the paper bag up and tossed it over Dean's bed into the trashcan.
"Uh, story … yeah!" Bobby looked across to the bed, noticing Dean's head slowly nodding and his eyes softly drooping; "still with us, Princess?"
Dean's head snapped upwards with a snort; stifling a flinch and a yawn he turned to Bobby; "don' get rid o' me that easily …"
"I went down to see your farmer friend this morning;" Bobby began; "I decided to conduct my own little 'unofficial' Parks Authority investigation."
The brothers listened intently as Bobby continued,
"He was very helpful; turns out you guys did everyone farming that area a damn good turn getting rid of the 'rogue cougar' that's been taking the livestock."
Sam gave a mirthless smile; "rogue cougar, yeah, right!"
Bobby shrugged; "apparently the damn thing has been decimating local flocks; put two farmers out of business so far."
"Yeah, yeah;" Dean interrupted impatiently, "so we're the worlds greatest pest control." He shuffled down, wincing as he tried to get comfortable. "Get to the good bit; how did they know we were in trouble?"
"That horse that died," replied Bobby; "it was the first …"
"Hannibal;" interrupted Dean, "his name was Hannibal."
Bobby hesitated, smiling; "okay; well … Hannibal was the first animal our farmer friend had lost to the 'cougar', but the weird thing is he was sure Hannibal had died even before the Parks Authority turned up with the other horse on it's own in the horse trailer after you both got picked up and carted off to hospital."
Sam threw a glance at Dean and shrugged, "so, how …" he began and trailed off.
Dean picked up the question, "so how did they know? How did his wife know we were in trouble?"
Bobby nodded, "I was hoping to speak to her, but she just won't talk about what happened; too upset; she's denying it ever happened."
Sam shrugged "too upset? What, about Hannibal?"
Bobby gave Sam a strange look. "sort of …"
Dean's brow furrowed in confusion; "Bobby … c'mon; what're you sayin?"
Bobby sighed; "according to the farmer, she was in the kitchen preparing dinner. She just happened to glance up through the window out towards the paddock and she saw your hor … Hannibal. She said he was just standing in the paddock staring right back at her; not moving or nothing, but he looked dishevelled and bloody, all beaten up. She said he looked like he'd been in a fight."
He paused, and saw that he had the Winchesters' undivided attention.
"He was still wearing his saddle and bridle, but it was all scuffed and dirty and the reins were just dragging along the ground; and when she saw there was no rider, she figured ya must have got into trouble out there on the trail, so she went and called the Parks Authority to send someone out to try to find ya."
Sam and Dean swapped bemused glances.
"When she put the phone down, she went straight outside to tend to the horse, but she couldn't find him;" Bobby paused, "she said she searched all over the yard and when she walked over to the paddock where she had seen him …"
Two pairs of eyes stared at him, unblinking.
He rubbed a hand over his face and looked at the ground; "the paddock gate was padlocked, there were no prints in the sand … no sign anyone or anything had ever been there."
Dean stared up at Bobby, brow furrowed in an expression somewhere between confusion and regret; "so … so, are you saying …?"
"This was early evening two days ago," Bobby said quietly.
"Two days ago?" Sam murmured, "the evening? that would make it …"
"After Hannibal was killed." Dean cut in quietly, looking down at his lap.
For a moment no-one made a sound.
"Hannibal saved you bro'," Sam broke the silence, the disbelief clear in his barely whispered words.
Bobby spoke up; "the poor woman's completely traumatised. She can't explain it, especially after the Authority found Hannibal and saw that he was already dead and had been for a while." He shrugged, "she flatly refuses to talk about it."
Dean opened his mouth to speak but glanced helplessly up at Sam and closed it again when no words seemed adequate.
"She's got a lifetime of therapy to look forward to;" Bobby mumbled as he drained his now-cold coffee.
The three men settled into a preoccupied silence.
Sam sat beside his brother's bed and watched through the room's one small window as the sun slowly set over the distant buildings, bathing the room in a dim amber glow.
Dean had slipped into a light sleep, and shortly afterwards Bobby had excused himself, leaving the boys to themselves and heading back to his motel room.
Sitting quietly, Sam watched him sleep; his hand resting flat on the thick cotton sheets which he had pulled up over his sleeping brother's chest, and reflected numbly on what Bobby had told them.
He stared hazily into the darkening sky; tormented by thoughts of Hannibal and Indiana; of Dean hurting, bleeding, dying; of Dean's grey, sweat beaded face, contorted in pain, gaping desperately for breath that wouldn't come; of the grotesque heaving of Dean's chest, his yawning blue lips, a mist of scarlet foam staining the air.
Blinking away a terrible image of him sitting on that dusty trail cradling his brother's lifeless body, he took a long shuddering breath. Dean was safe; Dean was going to recover; and Sam had the two most unlikely allies to thank for that. Mouthing silent thanks, he knew that ultimately, those horses hadn't just saved Dean's life, they had saved his own too.
His life meant nothing without his brother.
He could feel himself trembling, terrified at how close this hunt had come to that dreadful, unthinkable conclusion; closing his eyes he took another deep breath to try to slow his pounding heart.
He sat in that manner for a few moments, relaxing under his closed eyelids, his long, deep breaths calming and soothing, chasing the terrible images away.
It was then he heard it.
He opened his eyes and looked across to see Dean's sleep muzzed green eyes staring up at him.
Sam's eyes travelled down and noticed with horror that as he had been lost in his unhappy thoughts, his outspread hand had strayed under the bedsheets and was absently tracing lazy, comforting circles across his brother's bare chest.
Snatching his hand back, he gasped. "Oh jeez … crap, sorry Dean;" he flushed crimson, "kinda got distracted for a bit there…"
"Yeah, well; now you've finished manhandlin' me, perhaps you can get me a drink!" Dean croaked, squirming upwards in an attempt to sit up straighter.
Sam poured Dean a drink from a jug of water on the nightstand and handed him the glass.
"Uh … good sleep bro?" he mumbled, still burning up with embarrassment.
Dean yawned, "Uh, yeah … 'til I got woke up by someone's 'wanderin' hands'!" He wiggled his fingers to reinforce the point.
"Told you Dean, I got distracted." Sam smiled sadly, "I was just thinking about what Bobby told us."
Dean downed his water in one long draught and wiped his mouth with the back of his forearm.
"Yeah, respect to my fat buddy;" he sighed around a sad smile, "there can't be many dudes who've had their asses skinned and saved by the same horse in the same week."
Sam smiled, desperate to refocus his embarrassment onto Dean; "how is your ass, by the way?"
Dean rolled his eyes; "I suppose I should be thankful I didn't wake up with you rubbing that!"
Sam presented Dean with a vending machine coffee and a candy bar, and lowered himself down into his usual chair beside the bed, propping his crutches against the wall only to watch in exasperated resignation as they slid down to the floor in a clattering heap.
Hate. Friggin'. Crutches.
He watched Dean grimace as he sipped the bitter liquid and smiled. He'd warned Dean, but his brother was adamant; a crap coffee's better than no coffee at all. And Sam had to admit, coffee didn't come much crappier than this.
They talked through the events of the past few days; Sam keeping a constant watch on Dean, noting how his train of thought was occasionally derailed by the weapons-grade medication still pumping through his battered system.
He smiled as he thought back to that blissful morning outside the tent, almost surreal in it's peacefulness and calm given the terrible events that followed it.
"It was kinda fun though, wasn't it?" His smile receded as Dean looked up at him as if he was raving mad.
"The camping, I mean;" he corrected abruptly, "I mean before it all went wrong".
Dean was obviously unconvinced so Sam tried again; "camping, with the horses, under the stars, just you an' me dude. It was kinda fun, like bein' kids again; don't you think?"
Dean's face suggested that he didn't think at all; "what, apart from the bug bites, the nettles, the sweaty sleeping bags, the dead things floating in the coffee and the weird animal noises all friggin' night?" He grunted with an unenthusiastic shrug. "Yeah, it was a blast …"
Sam's shoulders slumped; "well the burgers were nice cooked over an open fire …" he offered meekly.
"Yeah, I guess so," Dean replied, "thirty million ants can't be wrong;" he snorted as he took another tentative sip of the appalling coffee.
Sam smiled sadly, leaning against the mound of pillows supporting his brother and sighed; "well, I guess that's one thing we'll never have in common…"
The sun rose the following morning, illuminating two sleeping figures.
Leaning into each other, under a huffing whisper of soft snores, Dean's head nestled onto Sam's shoulder, his empty styrofoam cup scrunched loosely in his hand, a drain of cold coffee staining the white bedsheets. Slouched untidily in the padded chair beside the bed, Sam's long arms were folded limply across his chest.
And suddenly it didn't matter … under the stars; in a hospital; in a motel room; at the end of the world?
Against all the odds, Sam had his brother, safe and sound.
He didn't care where they were …
Two weeks later …
Nate Wallace was a wiry gnarled imp of a man. A jockey for the best part of his life, he struggled to scrape five foot three in his mud-caked boots and his weatherbeaten face, battered by a lifetime of balancing precariously on skittish half-ton creatures travelling at high speed, made him look far older than his 57 years.
Retiring at 39, with the intention of spending some quality time with his remaining teeth, he had branched into farming, but had always retained his strong links with the animals which, over many years, had earned him a handsome living.
He currently stood in his damp yard dwarfed by the two smiling goliaths either side of him; one sporting a sling and patches of freshly healed pink skin along his stubbled chin, the other fresh off crutches, walking cautiously with a pronounced limp.
Sam had explained at length the sad story of how Hannibal, spooked by the unfortunate buck, had bolted; decanting his inexperienced rider and then running headlong into the 'cougar'.
Wallace looked up to his visitors. "The Parks Authority said they found the cougar's body when they went back to take care of Hannibal's remains." He said, "biggest damn critter they'd ever seen – twice the size of any other cougar anyone's ever caught," he smiled; "they said you'd damn near blown it's head off, so there wasn't a lot they could tell except that it was one godawful ugly sonofabitch. Reckon it must have been riddled with mange or something; it didn't have a patch of fur left on it's body. Looks like you did the miserable bastard a favour."
"I know you did all of us a favour," he sighed, "the damn thing's been slaughtering livestock wholesale, this area's lost more livestock in the last year than I've known taken throughout my entire life." He slipped a hand under his cap and scratched his balding head; " it's put two good friends of mine out of business. Others have lost over half their flocks an' their livelihoods are jus' hangin' on by a thread."
The three men fell into a short silence.
"Jus' a shame we hadta lose a great ol' boy like Hannibal doin' it," Wallace reflected quietly.
"He was getting' on an' all, and I would have probably retired him soon, but he never deserved to end up like that."
"What would you have done with him?" asked Sam.
Wallace smiled, "well, my business head would have told me to offload him. Animal which ain't earnin' it's keep got no place on a farm." He turned to Sam with a wry smile, "but seein' as my wife, my two daughters, my son and my seven grandchildren would have probably never spoken to me again, I guess I would have kept him as some kinda gigantic pet and then stood by and watched as the fat bastard ate me out of business instead of the cougar!"
Both brothers laughed quietly at the thought of Hannibal and his bottomless appetite.
Dean cut in. "The, uh, guy from the Parks Authority told us about what your wife saw – or thought she saw."
Wallace shook his head, and took a sharp intake of breath.
"She refuses to talk about it; denies she ever saw anything. Says it was one of the other horses, and she just glanced at it quickly out of the corner of her eye." He looked up at Dean with a shrug.
"What do you think?" asked Dean softly.
Wallace scratched his head under his cap againand both brothers reflected how he looked like a shrunken, slightly shrivelled up Bobby when he did that.
"I dunno," he began, "Hannibal was the only dun in the stable; twice as wide as any other horse here. Pretty hard to mistake for anything else." He huffed in exasperation; "I'm telling' ya, that paddock was locked, no horse could get in there without human help, and when we went out and checked the paddock, it had only just been raked. No prints, horse or human. There weren't nothing had been in that paddock."
The Winchesters remained silent to allow Wallace to gather his thoughts. "If I didn't know better, I'd have said that was Hannibal's ghost come back to warn us that you were in trouble. 'Cept I don't believe in that sort of crap."
"Well, I guess we'll never explain it, "smiled Sam, "but whatever it was, I'm just glad your wife called the authority because that damn, uh, cougar took us by surprise, an' things were looking real bad for us."
"Was Hannibal insured?" Dean asked cautiously, wanting to be prepared in case a compensation claim was heading their way.
Wallace nodded, "he was, for what pittance that was worth, but here's the thing." He added, "the local papers and radio stations got calls, no idea who from, to say that two of my horses were used by the campers who killed the cougar. My horses are local heroes. I've been interviewed by the Daily Herald and on the radio, and a photographer came from the Herald last week; took some photos of Indiana for this week's issue."
He patted Dean on the back, "with the money I got from the interviews, I could ha' bought Hannibal five times over. I don't know who did that, but I sure wanna shake his hand."
The brothers glanced across to each other and a single thought passed between them.
The three men talked a little more until Wallace excused himself; "sorry guys, I gotta go; vet's on his way; I think I may have an outbreak of footrot".
Sam glanced down at Wallace's boots.
He laughed, "not me, my sheep …"
"Ah…" Sam flushed with slight embarrassment, hearing Dean sniggering behind him; but was distracted as he looked away from Wallace and noticed a familiar long, chestnut face staring back at him with knowing, chocolate-brown eyes.; "ok, um, could we go and see Indiana? Promise we won't get under your feet."
Wallace smiled, "take as long as you like guys."
The brothers said their goodbyes and made their way over to their friend who was undeniably pleased to see them. Looking over his stable door he tossed his head, snorting and whittering as he beckoned the two figures towards him.
"Hey, keep your hair on, big man, we're comin'!" Dean laughed, as he watched the horse's antics.
Smiling broadly, Sam said nothing, as he grasped the big chestnut head, leaning into it as he fussed and ruffled the horse's smooth face.
Dean joined in, rubbing long velvet ears as they twitched and swivelled, even laughing as a hot wet snort caught him square across the face.
"You're a hero, dude;" he smiled, "'course, we knew that long before the radio did."
Indiana tossed his head and kicked the bottom of the door; "see, he agrees," Dean grinned at Sam, slapping the muscular chestnut neck.
As he glanced over Sam's shoulder, something caught his eye; a whitewashed stable block at the end of the yard, and at one end of it was an empty stable. The sign on the wall beside it said, 'Hannibal'.
He gave Indiana a last pat and walked slowly over to the empty stable, picturing his fat buddy standing in the stall, peering over the door. He'd be making a fuss of Dean, but not because he wanted Dean's love, he'd be seeking out something edible. A sly mint secreted in a jacket pocket or something equally appetising.
Dean leaned on the dusty door, brushing a cobweb away of his face and stared into the dark space.
Dean jerked up at the sound of Sam's voice next to him, he'd been so lost in his thoughts, he hadn't even realised Sam had joined him.
Dean smiled, and rummaged in his pocket pulling out his hipflask.
With a minimum of fuss, he unscrewed the lid, and tipped it upside down, pouring a trickle of whiskey onto the dusty floor of Hannibal's stall. "Respect big dude; you saved my hide."
Taking a swig from the hipflask, he raised it in tribute over the stable door.
"Wish I could have done the same for you."
Dean handed the flask to Sam. "have a drink to my fat buddy's memory."
Sam took a long draught of the burning liquid and raised the flask.
"Big dude …" he announced, "hope you've found yourself some pretty little mare up in horsey heaven!"
The brothers' trip back toward the nearest town took them along a high deserted escarpment. Miles and miles of open grassy ridges, looming over the distant sprawls of the surrounding low-lying towns.
Sam turned to Dean as he pulled the Impala over onto a grass verge, and rolled to a halt. "You okay man?"
Dean turned to him with a smile, "yeah, I'm good, jus' wanna look at the view for a bit."
Sam frowned in concern. "You sure you're okay?
Dean pushed open the Impala's door, and climbed out, "dude, I'm fine - what I can't sit on a hill to watch a sunset now?"
Sam watched as the Impala's door shut in his face and blinked. Even after all these years, Dean never lost his capacity to surprise and confound his brother.
Sam had to hand it to Dean, as the brothers sat cross-legged on the grass beside the Impala sharing a giant bag of chips and a bottle of Coke, it was a stunning fiery sunset. He smiled as he grabbed a fistful of chips, and glanced beside him to see Dean leaning back against the Impala's front wheel, his eyes closed in peaceful reflection.
Suddenly he spoke.
Sam shrugged. "Yeah …"
"I've been thinking."
"steady on, dude."
Dean glared dangerously. "Listen smartass, I've got a coconut, an I'm not afraid to use it."
"Apparently my ass wasn't the one that was smartin' dude." Sam grinned evilly.
Dean leaned across and punched his grinning brother in the shoulder, then settled back against his baby again, making a point of draining the Coke. He looked up at the darkening twilight, the Sun's last tendrils of light slowly disappearing below the horizon and shading the distant sky in a dusky, tan glow. Same colour as Hannibal's coat, Dean reflected with a soft smile.
He gazed up into the blackness above his head, squinting at the tiny pinpricks of light which looked back down at him. Lulled by the chirruping of the crickets and the summer breeze; they were far enough away from civilisation to catch the scent of Honeysuckle and Dog Rose, not diesel fumes.
Taking a deep breath, he watched intently as a moth fluttered lazily across his field of vision.
"I get it;" he murmured softly, eyes following the little moth on it's meandering flight path, "I get what you see in this nature stuff."
Sam turned, "huh?"
"I get it." Dean smiled, picking up a chip; "it's quiet an' relaxing an' sorta pretty." He shrugged, "sometimes, like now, it smells nice, and the horses were cool, they were fun to be around." He cleared his throat; "yeah, I see why you like it."
Sam stared. "Wow … and you haven't even started on the beers yet!"
Dean snorted; "forget the smart comments, bitch; I'm having a friggin' apostrophe here!"
"It's epiphany, Dean"
"Yeah whatever; you pitch the tent while I brew the coffee."
Sam's face lifted into the broadest grin.
"You betcha bro'!"