A/N: And this is what we all would rather have happen. I'm still not sure which one makes for a better story, though, which is why you get both :)

Payment Deferred

The gun felt heavy in his hands, cool and metallic. Although he had carried it for years, shot it countless times, it felt foreign suddenly, out of place.

His hand dropped to his lap, and he looked at it in wonder. He studied it unblinkingly until he no longer understood the gun's purpose or recognized the hand that held it.

It was enticing. More tempting than the forbidden fruit in the Garden.

Just one shot. And it would all be over.

He jumped when he heard the door open. He stared in disbelief as Dean sauntered in, carrying a Burger King sack, the bottom stained with grease.

"Nothing much going on around here on a Wednesday night apparently. I tried Karaoke night at Gary's Bar and Grill, but it got a little too country. Plus all the waitresses were over 40 and the clientele seemed to be unfamiliar with the invention of deodorant and toothpaste." He tossed his keys on the bedside table. "Got us some dinner, though," he said, plopping the bag on the bed next to Sam. He then took off his coat, tossing it on the opposite bed.

Sam watched his brother's casual movements, feeling surreal. The bed shook as Dean sat down. Sam's eyes traveled to the bag, and he stared.

Dean seemed to look at him for the first time. "Sammy?"

Sam's trembling intensified. He turned his stare slowly back to the wall, his eyes wide and dilated, barely aware of the tears that were forming.

"Sam?" Dean asked again, concern tingeing his voice. He tried to shift, to get a better look at Sam, who was seated, unmoving on the edge of the bed.

Dean had dealt with his brother in many situations; he had seen Sam through many trials and joys. He had thought he could read his baby brother like a book. Sam rarely liked to mingle in the small towns they visited; Dean figured Sam needed that alone time to sort his thoughts. When Dean had gone out, Sam had not been abnormal. Quiet, reserved, dark—but normal. So he was surprised to hear a choked sob escape from his brother's lips.

"Sam?" he asked, more gently now. He stood, moving so he could see Sam face to face. As he moved to the front of the bed, his confused concern turned into genuine fear. Sam held a gun in his hands.

His first impulse was to grab the gun. While it was not pointing in any direction, he could tell from Sam's disposition that something was awry. He supposed it was possible Sam had encountered some uninvited force while he was out, but Sam did not fall apart after killing a ghost. Noticing the shivers racking Sam's body, Dean swallowed hard, stilling the trembling that threatened his own extremities. He forced a laugh. "Killing the cockroaches with the 45 may not be the most effective defense," he quipped with a cavalier grin. "I also think it might annoy the manager."

Sam gave no reply and Dean's fake smile faded. He tried to peer into his brother's face, but his head was fixed downwards, his hair obscuring his face. "Hello," he said. His nervousness began to mount. "You going to say something or are we playing charades?"

In general, Dean allowed for Sam's emotional moments. He knew Sam needed to talk every now and then, and then they could insult each other and move on. Things like that passed between them, lost in the multitude of unsaid things. Usually their talks followed a distinct pattern. Sam would be quiet, a little moodier than usual. He wouldn't laugh at Dean's jokes.

This was different. Sam wasn't just quiet tonight, he was downright unresponsive. His baby brother wouldn't even look at him.

Finally, Dean squatted, trying desperately to get some reaction from his brother. But as his eyes searched his brother's face, he felt cold.

Sammy's eyes were distant, his face pale and drawn. His baby brother looked like a shadow of himself, a ghost of the brother he had grown up with. The vacancy in Sam's eyes unexpectedly terrified him. Sam had never looked so lost, so empty, so haunted. "Sam?"

Sam's eyes met his suddenly, as though he finally realized Dean was in front of him. The brown eyes widened. "Dean?"

"Yeah," he replied, trying to sound calm. "Something you want to talk about?"

Sam's breath hitched, catching in his throat and new tears spilled down his cheeks. He looked down again, at the gun, and shook his head. "I thought I could end it. I thought I could make it right. I thought I could finally get away."

Dean's mind reeled. He tried to deny Sam's words, their meaning.

"This is the only way out. This is the only way out that I can see. But I lost it."

Dean played dumb. "Lost what, Sam? What are you talking about?"

"I'm already dead, Dean," Sam blurted, looking back into his brother's eyes. "Don't you see that? I'm already dead. I've been dying a little every day of my life and now there's more of me that dead than alive, and I just can't do that anymore."

His brother's words were coming too quickly and Dean's mind struggled to keep up. "Sam, why don't you just put the gun down and we can go out and we can—"

"We never talk about it, Dean. We never talk about it," he said. He raised the gun. "This is all there is left between us. This is the only way left to talk."

Dean tensed, his breath quickening. "That's not true, Sam."

"But nothing will change. Nothing will ever change. Nothing I tell you will change any of this. You'll still find something else to hunt and this will all just continue. And I can't. I can't. There are some things worse than death, some things that just aren't worth the cost. I lost it a long time ago, and it wasn't you, and it wasn't Dad, and it wasn't Jessica—it wasn't anything, but I can't just keep dying day after day after—" Sam's voice broke.

Dean was nearly prepared when Sam fell apart. He could see his brother's energy dissipating as his rant became irrational. His brother seemed to crumble, fall in on himself, dissolving into tears. Petrified and uncertain, Dean moved in, first gently prying the gun from his brother's fingers, putting the safety back on and setting it on the ground before grabbing Sam in an awkward embrace.

Sam's sobs became uncontrollable, the venting of years and years of unshed emotion. Dean held his brother tighter, rubbing his back, stroking his hair, praying thanks that his brother was still alive, that maybe it wasn't too late.

He had always been afraid to let Sam speak. He was afraid of the questions Sam would ask and the answers he would have to give. He was afraid of truth, of the honesty that would break down his tenuously built world with a single blow. He didn't know how to be anything other than a hunter. He clung to the same things that had brought his father to the hunt, although after three years without him, he was beginning to lose the point. He wasn't ready for that vulnerability. He wasn't ready to admit that he didn't know what to do and that maybe he wanted more.

That was fine. He could go on, keep hunting, avoid everything. It wouldn't cost that much, he had always figured.

Just Sam's life.

Nothing was worth that cost.

He had saved Sam's life repeatedly, in all ways but one, and it was the way he had always known mattered most.

Now he knew he had to open up. He had to listen and he had to speak. He had to understand. He had to let go of the hunt. He had to exist apart from it.

He had struggled against this for years, but suddenly it was an easy decision to make.

He could see the 45 out of the corner of his eye. He had nearly lost Sam to it tonight. In his mind's eye, he could see Sammy receiving the gun and he remembered the proud look on his father's face as another son became a hunter. It had protected Sam time and time again; it had never left his side. Dean imagined it was a bit of a legacy, one that his brother didn't know how to put down.

Dean would throw it in the next lake he found. He held Sam as his sobs diminished and he was trembling in his arms. Theirs was a family of blind followers; groping after one another in the dark. There was safety in knowing that it was never their choice, that it was fate. There was a certain security in never knowing how close they were to the edge, that they would never see their own death as it rapidly approached them.

But if fate had had its way, Sammy would be dead tonight, and Dean would have nothing left to live for except memories of broken hearts.

Dean could not stop the tears from slipping from his own eyes as he held Sam. In the safety of darkness, he had almost lost sight of the only thing that mattered for the sake of the hunt. He had let it go on long enough, and it had nearly cost him everything.