A/N: Hello to all, and Merry Christmas. Hope you are all having a great winter. Sorry for the long wait, but I did promise one more chapter. Please forgive the crappy ending. I was trying to just get it out there, so you all would know that I didn't forget about you. Unfortunately, it is now official: I am not going to be finishing this. It's totally AU now, and while some of you have expressed interest in reading it despite the obvious deviance from canon, I'm sorry to say that my enthusiasm for this story has died. Of course I still love Supernatural and the Winchester boys, but college has beaten the imagination out of me at the present. I encourage anyone who would like to continue this story to do so—you have my permission and my blessing. If not, that's cool too.

Anyway, this note is getting far too long. Forgive me for backing out on you all. I hope you enjoy this last chapter. //bows// Thank you!

III The Morning's Regrets

The next morning, Dean awoke feeling as if he hadn't slept at all. He was stiff and sore all over; he'd fallen asleep in the chair while keeping vigil over Sam. Groaning from a combination of discomfort and disappointment--he'd been having a fantastic dream, in which he and Sam had stayed the hell away from New Jersey--he glanced at the digital clock on the night stand. The display read 7:08 in harsh,

unforgiving red digits. Dean rubbed his eyes; he'd missed sunrise by a couple of hours, but that was okay. It was still an early enough start to get to Illinois by nightfall.

Moving like a drunk recovering from a hangover, he stumbled into the cramped, closet-like space that served as a bathroom. There was no time for a shower, unfortunately. Not that Dean had a strong inclination to use the hotel's washroom fascilities--anything with that much mildew growing in it was likely to be more useful in a grade school science fair. Instead he twisted the cold water tap as far as it would go and, bending over the sink, washed his face thoroughly in the tepid stream until he felt his eyes finally unglue. Still dripping, he went in search of a clean towel, and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the hazy mirror hanging over the basin.

The face that stared back at him was disconcerting and not at all awe-inspiring. To put it lightly, he looked like death warmed over. Dean grimaced at the analogy, but the fact remained the same--he had definitely looked better. A few nights of little or no sleep had really done a number on him, paling his skin, darkening circles under his eyes, and drawing faint frown lines across his forehead. He was also, he discovered after running a hand across his chin, quite scruffy--he hadn't shaved in a week or so. This was not the face of the suave, dashing Dean Winchester, expert demon hunter and charming ladies' man.

This was Jordan Robles, a wanted man, prime suspect in the murder of sixteen year old Arena Hasting. This was the face of a man on the run from the law, the face of a man who was constantly glancing over his shoulder and listening for the wailing of sirens in the distance.

It was not a persona Dean enjoyed being associated with. He growled and smothered his face with the towel, blocking out the reflection.

God, how he wished he could just turn back time, just for one moment. He wished for quite a lot of things, actually. He wished he hadn't been so hot headed; perhaps there could have been a way to subdue Arena, perhaps her death could have been avoided. He wished he hadn't picked up the shotgun loaded with real bullets; rock salt certainly hurt like a bitch, but it wasn't lethal. He wished he'd listened to Sam in the first place when he'd cautioned them against visiting Shawnee Park. He wished...he wished he'd never involved Sam to begin with. Never mind Shawnee, he wished he'd never contacted Sam at college with the message that their father had gone missing. It was a mistake on his part. No, not a mistake. It was more than that.

He'd been selfish.

Dean knew he wasn't normal, and he knew that his path did not lead down the road to a wife, three kids and white picket fence. Hunting evil was what he was good at, what he lived for, and what he believed in. It was what his father believed in. Sam was his brother; it was supposed to be what he believed in too. A family affair.

But Sam didn't want that kind of life. He'd made that perfectly clear when he'd left for college. Dean had resented the rejection at first. He'd been bitter. Mostly he felt abandoned. He and Sam had always been together. They'd been a team as kids, working as protégés under their father, learning the ropes about ghost hunting. Then Sam realized that other kids his age were going fishing, or camping, or on vacations to Disney Land. Slowly they'd drifted apart. Sam finally left for good to attend school; Dean stayed behind to help their father.

When John Winchester disappeared, Dean actually got exited. The hunt was the perfect excuse to join up with Sam again. To be a team again. Sam had been reluctant, but Dean had persisted. He'd dragged his brother away from the normal life he so desired, and thrust him headlong into danger that Sam was totally unprepared to deal with. If he had just left Sam at college, maybe none of this would have happened.

Yet...had he been able to go back in time, Dean would have made the same choices and acted on the same impulses. Because part of him still wished Sam was like him, and that he enjoyed the life that their father had set out for them. Part of him wished that they could continue doing what they were doing; roaming the country side in search of their wayward father, hunting and destroying evil as they found it.

The night at the barn changed some things, though. The near tragedy forced Dean to reexamine his beliefs. Perhaps it had been wrong of him to involve Sam in the search for their dad. Maybe this life was one he was intended to live on his own. Again Dean thought of the prospect of leaving Sammy behind once they reached Kansas. He could bow out gracefully, and let Sam choose his own destiny, instead of trying to force one on him.

Somehow, the thought of killing demons and exorcising ghosts didn't seem so exciting if it meant he had to do it alone. But if he was alone, the only one who could be hurt was himself.

"Dean..."

Dean froze, pulling his face out of the towel--and his mind out of his depressing thoughts--with some effort and listening hard. The sound had been almost inaudible; he might have imagined it.

"Dean...!"

It wasn't his imagination. Someone was calling his name.

Shit. "Sammy," he muttered, and tore open the bathroom door.

The predawn light filtering in through the curtained windows illuminated the room in shades of gray, halfway between twilight and true darkness. Still, Dean could clearly see Sam tossing under the covers, struggling with an unseen force. He closed the distance between the bathroom and the bed with three long strides, dread clogging his throat. He didn't know if he could deal with another of Sam's horrifying nightmares so soon after last night; the memories were still fresh in his mind.

"Sammy," he breathed, leaning over the bed apprehensively. Sam's expression twisted between fear and pain; the damp cloth Dean had placed over his brow had slid off as a result of his restless stirring. Dean brushed his fingers against the side of Sam's neck and was not the least bit surprised to find the heat of fever there. Sam groaned at the touch, and flinched away.

"Sammy," Dean called again, getting more nervous by the second. "Come on, wake up." He reached out to shake him by the shoulder, and received a shock as Sam's eyes flew open and a ragged cry erupted from his mouth.

"DEAN!" In a repeat motion of last night, Sam instinctively tried to bolt into a sitting position, but Dean was ready for him. Using as little force as possible, he caught Sam's shoulders and held him still; he was afraid that too much motion too soon would damage the fragile stitches that Dean had put in his right side.

What he wasn't prepared for, though, was for Sam to fight his hold; he twisted and writhed, his breath coming in shuddering gasps that could not be mistaken for anything else except stark fear. Sam was once again terrified out of his mind.

Brown eyes focused on Dean's face, but it was evident Sam wasn't really seeing him. His expression was so filled with horror that Dean had half a mind to wonder if he had sprouted horns and a tail within the last few minutes. Sam didn't even recognize him. "No, let me go! Let go! Dean! Dean, help me!"

Jesus, Sammy, not again. "Sam! Sam, listen to me!" Dean barked in his most commanding, convincing voice. "You were dreaming, Sam. Snap out of it!"

Sam blinked, and the motion brought a glimmer of recognition to his eyes; the awareness spread until Dead was fairly sure that Sam had a grip on reality again. He still looked spooked, though, even worse than the previous night. Hesitantly, Dean withdrew until he was sitting perched on the edge of the mattress, yet still close enough to restrain Sam if he had to.

"You with me now?" He asked, watching carefully for signs of a relapse. Despite the intensity of the fear, Sam seemed to be recovering quickly. Last night it had taken much more convincing to get him to come around. Dean took this as a good sign.

Sam sucked in a shuddering breath, and in a timid voice, he said, "D-Dean?"

Dean nodded. "Yeah, Sammy?"

"I'm going to be sick," he groaned, and Dean just barely had time to procure a trash can from the bathroom before the first wave of nausea hit the younger Winchester and he retched, vomiting what little substance was to be found in his stomach.

So much for a good sign, Dean thought grimly. Had it been anyone but Sammy, the sight of someone being sick would have been too much for him to handle. As it happened, he'd been witness to Sam puking his guts out on more than one occasion, and was sadly accustomed to it. He held the waste bin in position until the retching became dry-heaves, which after a time finally calmed to unsteady gulps of air. Dean helped his brother slump back into the cushions, then stepped outside to dispose of the mess contained in the trash can. When he returned, he found that Sam had drifted off again, but he placed the bin next to the bed anyway, just in case.

Dean then sat on the edge of the mattress, feeling suddenly the ache of exhaustion in his muscles and the pain of a tension headache thrumming through his skull. He massaged his temples with enough force to make dark spots bloom under his eyelids, but the effort did not lessen the throbbing, nor did it help him to think any clearer. His head was wrapped in a fog, bogged down by everything that had gone wrong over the past twenty four hours, espeically this recent development.

Sam was sick. The cause of it was anyone's guess, but it could have been from any number of things, only few of which Dean knew how to treat extensively. It could be nothing serious; a reaction to the doubtless horrific things Sam saw in his nightmares. Or it could be something much more troublesome, such as an infection, or worse, a side-effect of the thing's attack--a poison, or a venom, or some sort of curse...If that was the case, Dean would be helpless to stop it.

He'd never felt so useless in all his life.

Outside, the sun was rising higher over the horizon, turning the skyline a spectacular shade of red that was streaked through with the navy blue of night. Dean stared blindly at the sunrise through a gap in the curtains, completely unaware of nature's beauty. In fact, far from inspiring him, it stirred his growing anxiety; his hands compulsively clenched and unclenched the bedsheets; his toe tapped impatiently; his eyes darted between the window and the clock. They should have been on the road hours ago; Illinois was still twelve hours away. The hours were ticking away faster than seconds.

He glanced at Sam. His brother was sleeping deeply, but he was still too pale, and his skin too warm. Moving him around and depriving him of the rest he so sorely needed was assuredly not the best idea, but Dean was out of options. They'd spent too much time in Clearfield already. All he wanted to do now was drive as hard and fast as he could to Kansas, because frankly, he was tired of being on his own, of being the responsible one. He was tired of being forced into making choices that inevitably blew up in his face. He wanted someone else to do it. He wanted someone else to take charge, someone who knew what he was doing, someone that wasn't Dean.

He wanted his father, he realized. More than anything, Dean wished his father were with him. It seemed childish to admit, but never before had he so desperately wanted his father by his side.

Dad would know what to do. Dad would know how to fix this.

For a few long moments, he stared at his cell phone sitting on the bedside table. But he didn't pick it up. He didn't dial the number he knew so well he could've dialed in his sleep. He didn't leave any pleading messages. If John Winchester intended to communicate with him, he would have done so by now. This was on Dean's shoulders now; he couldn't shrug his problems off on someone else. If he couldn't figure out the solution, no one would.

He just wished he had some help. A guide, a sign, anything to tell him what his next move should be. There were too many pieces of this puzzle for him to fit together into a workable solution--the police, the thing, Sam's powers...not to mention the original cornerstone piece, his father's disappearance. If only there was some miracle cure, a simple answer that would rectify all of these mistakes and misfortunes...

One step at a time, ace. First get to Illinois, then you can start worrying about everything else again.

Dean inhaled deeply, a false calm settling over him. Yes, that was his next move. Drive to Illinois, meet up with Missouri, and return home to Kansas. Strict, clear cut, and straight forward. A small part of an otherwise disastrous situation, but one he could deal with easily. This narrow-minded approach was something Sam called "thinking linearly," and Dean was quite practiced at it. It meant, as Sam often told him, of thinking of one problem at a time, from point A to point B, heedless of the difficulties between point B and point C until the hurldes were in sight. Sam had warned him a thousand times about the dangers of failing to see the big picture. He'd said it would get Dean killed some day. Dean had always replied that he wouldn't have to worry with Sam around, since Sam always saw the big picture for him.

The truth was, Dean didn't know if he could handle the big picture. He was more of a shoot first, ask questions later kind of guy. He'd drive himself insane trying to think about the what ifs. That was Sam's job. And since his brother was currently unable to protest the faults of linear thinking, Dean was all too happy to embrace the philosophy; to forget about everything else and focus entirely on getting his his Impala and not looking back.

He clapped his hands together and stood. The exhaustion and headache he replaced with fresh resolve. It was time to go.

"Yeah. Time to get a move on," Dean said aloud, as much to encourage himself as to spur himself into action. "No problem. Just don't think about it. As long as you don't think about it, it'll be okay."

Ignoring the problem doesn't make it disappear, Dean.

Great, now the voice was starting to sound like Sammy in lecture mode. Bad enough that Dean had to deal with the masochistic psuedo-personality, now he had to listen to his sibling/surrogate mother from the confines of his own head. If it would have helped, Dean would have put his fingers in his ears. Instead, he grabbed his car keys from the night stand and began to sing all the verses of the Twelve Days of Christmas: it was the longest song he knew and could keep him from thinking for at least a good fifteen minutes. Long enough to get back on the road without having a mental breakdown.

Then again, he was singing the Twelve Days of Christmas. Aloud. And with great (though forced) gusto. Perhaps the breakdown had already found him. Too bad. He didn't much fancy the straightjacket look.

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…

As Dean manuevered Sam into the backseat of the Impala, he was actually thankful that his brother was unconscious. He still had eleven verses to go, and it was a long way to Illinois.