Thus the long maudlin chronicles of the Winchester Boys in Lander, Wyoming comes to an end. Okay, continues first, and then comes to an end.

And can I get a "hallelujah" from the readers in the back?

Part 31

Lander, Wyoming, 2006

Unbelievable, Sam thought, juggling two to-go boxes and the key as he entered the room.

The empty room.

He tossed the steak fries and chili-roasted quesadilla on the table.

"I'm fine, Sam. I'm just going to sleep, Sam. I'm just going to tell you whatever you want to hear to so I can keep my stupid Marine-Dad-indoctrinated, emotionally-repressed, older brother poker face, Sam… la la la." Friggin jerk.

He let the annoyance crawl up his spine and percolate into the base of his skull while he dug out his cell phone and dialed.


And again.

And again.

The Impala was in the parking lot.

Glimpses through the windows of the Oxbow restaurant—the closest locale his brother might have gone to if he'd gotten hungry—revealed no Dean. But there was also a McDonald's across the street. And The Roadway Inn Pronghorn Lodge's Lander Guidebook—found on top of the nightstand—informed Sam of just under a dozen other bars and eateries positioned down Main Street. All within walking distance.

He searched the table and nightstand for any sign Dean had left a note, growled through his teeth when he came up empty, and sat on the edge of the bed to dial again.

Then, flashing back to Dean collapsed after his shower at Charlie's, went to check inside the open bathroom… just in case.

He was fingering the pile of Dean's muddy clothes, feeling for the keys of the Impala, when the door opened.

"Where were you?" he called, dropping his brother's jeans and exiting the bathroom.

Dean stood stock still inside the door. The scrape on his forehead had reopened—again—and trickling blood was tracing the ridge of his eyebrow. Blood was also dripping from his nose and lips—a small drying river of it smeared thickly in front of his ear and down the side of his neck, part of his hair painted dark with it.

Purple covered his jawline, blotching up his cheek, creeping darkly onto his forehead.

One arm was being held stiffly across his stomach.

Stark, wide, strangely un-swollen eyes met Sam's, shining dark with color for a bright moment—rolling to white as Dean crumpled to the floor.

Dean awoke on a cough, jerking against it—something trickling down the back of his throat, triggering his gag reflex.

"Easy," said Sam, smooth hands pressing under his shoulders, shifting him higher on the bed. Sam's hands felt warm and Dean's head pulsed and swam as Sam moved him. He coughed again and felt his chest spasm thickly, pain rocketing in a circuit around to the ribs in his back. "Easy."

Dean swallowed his next cough but gagged on the tickle in his throat and the harsh copper taste coating his tongue. He ended up groaning and coughing harder.

"Whoa—no," Sam averted, stopping him before he sat up. "Here." He pressed a cup delicately to Dean's lower lip, one large hand shifting from his shoulder to the back of his head. "Don't swallow—rinse," he ordered.

Dean swished, spat red swirled water and bits of dusty gravel into the ice bucket Sam held out—leaned back into the pillows and hummed a moan over tender-raw lips.

The room's lights dipped and swirled in his vision.

Sam's fingers caught his chin, tilted it down, creeped inside his mouth.

Dean grunted but let them, achy slither of pain taking over his jaw as Sam pressed gingerly. "No broken teeth," he assured softly, taking his fingers away.

Dean hummed again, closed his eyes, watched the slow tilt of movement and color behind his lids and fought to hold the nausea in. His ears felt excessively hollow, everything loud. He could hear Sam's preparatory swallow.

"You need stitches, at least," he said. Fingers feathered over the side of Dean's head, eliciting a flinch, replaced in the next moment by a damp cloth. "And your ribs—I think they're… they might be broken. I should get Jack." His voice wobbled.

"No." Dean shook his head, stopped when the world flipped, focused on not moving and repeated himself instead. "No. I'm… I'm good." It was hard to talk, mumble hiss of hurt rolling over him. His eyes drooped and he let them, took inventory and figured, by the hard beat in is head and the gremlins slow dancing over the nerves in his chest, Sam was probably right—broken, hopefully just cracked.

The next time he was aware of anything, his shirt was off, he could feel towel wrapped icepacks pressed down his sides. A throbbing pulse was beating through his stomach and his chest was peanut butter thick when he tried to breathe.

"Dean, what happened?" Sam asked, a miserable low rumble of anxiety.

Dean opened his eyes to see Sam's were pinched—to see Sam was looking at him like he was broken in places that couldn't be reached.

And Dean didn't know what to say to that. He didn't know what to tell him.

He didn't want this… event… to become one more thing Sam had no right to feel guilty about, but would anyway.


"Sam." He wanted his tone to convince Sam to let it go. Wanted to sound strong enough, clear enough, sane enough, for Sam to know he hadn't gone out and picked some fight on purpose—that this wasn't some manifestation of his apparently messed up psyche. Self-flagellation, or whatever Sam was thinking.

Sam didn't speak. He looked away from Dean's face—leaned forward with his forearms on his knees, hands laced together, fingers clamped bloodless and white between his knees, staring at the carpet with an uneven expression.

Dean tracked his profile—watched his jaw muscle move and his throat work. "Sam—"

"It wasn't your fault, either."


Sam kept staring at the carpet. "What happened to Jessica—it wasn't your fault either."

Dean closed his mouth, felt the rawness of his lips rubbing together and glanced away—focused on the drab green of the bedspread and felt a shake start somewhere deep inside his messed up body.

"She would've… she would've really liked you."

Jessica knew you were bad news.

Sick freak.

Dean blinked.

"I meant what I said—before—back with Bloody Mary. I don't blame you. You didn't drag me away from her. And you didn't bring the demon to her." Sam's voice was laced with earnestness. He turned his head, expression gauging Dean's reaction, looking sympathetic and determined, operating on the best knowledge he had because they'd both been feeling and feeling and feeling so much, leaving each other guessing and grabbing.

"Sam, you don't have to—"

"No, just listen. Please. I don't know what you've been thinking about these past few days… but I know your ghost—"

"It wasn't my ghost."

"—has been messing with you, and we know now—we know it was the same ghost as before and—"


"You said it hurt—before, back in '96—when Dad and I… when we weren't with you."


"And I don't know if it hurt the same this time. You said it didn't but… I don't know if you'd tell me that. And I know—I know—these ghosts, what they latched onto and what they brought to the surface, was already there. In me they did. And what your ghost said in the graveyard… you need to know…"

He had what he needed. He had Sam. Want and need

"I mean… I told you… I'm in this. I'm with you. You're not alone. I said we'd see this through together. And you're not—"

Dean tried to get words to his throat—couldn't get them to move out of his chest.

"I mean… you're my brother. I'm not worried about getting new law school interviews or whatever you're thinking. I'm here. And I know you must've—you've heard Blake pushing me to go back to school. And I think he must've said something to you, because Sara said he did, but just because he thinks I should, that doesn't—"

"He told me you were in the hospital last year."

Silence, and Sam furrowing his brow. "What?"

Dean worked his mouth, tested his sore lips, sore jaw, sore body—wobbly head—met Sam's confused eyes. "He said… he said you were taken to the ER and that you didn't want us there… that you didn't want me or Dad to come."

Sam stared.

Time turned sticky-sludge-swamp slow, flashes of thoughts flitting over Sam's face, pieces tumbling into place, or cards falling from a tower, Dean wasn't sure which.

Sam blinked.

A short, drawn moment later, Dean saw the shift.

Sam's gaze sharpened—groped over Dean's face, down his torso, and back to his eyes.

The little brother expression disappeared—became something inherited straight from John Winchester—white at the edges and hard around the mouth. Eyes flat cold and questioning.

Dean swallowed, felt a wash of resignation. He tipped his head forward and conceded, admitting in monotone, "He blindsided me with a two-by-four, going out the back."

There was a rush and flood of blood pound-pound-pounding in his ears. Ticks of the second hand clicking faster and faster as everything click-click-clicked into place.

Thanks for the game, shortstop—Dean stiff and thrumming tension.

Walking into Charlie's kitchen the other night to see Dean wearing a darkening expression, eyes raking over Sam.

Sara saying, I wanted to apologize—for Blake. I know he's been a real jerk.

Blake taunting Dean into a fight—Right. Marines. Known for their great investigative skills.

And Dean confessing—He told me you were in the hospital last year… that you didn't want me or Dad to come.

The last one sticking in Sam's throat like rare rancid honey. Because there was no way Blake could have told Dean something like that with anything other than cruelty in mind. Rawheads and ghosts and a million other things—they weren't supposed to have needed to protect themselves from humans. Friends. His friends. He blindsided me with a two-by-fourblindsided… blindsided…

The rage settled over Sam like wool—spun tighter and thicker with each step back toward Carter's. Deep and hazy and coldly calm calm calm.

Tables of John Deer capped people silenced as he passed—responding to the danger he spread to the air.

Blake sat on a stool near the bar, Charlie on his left and Sara on his right, looking vaguely pleased and indifferent—a small scrape visible across the back of one knuckle when he lifted his beer to his mouth.

When he noticed Sam, his mouth curled up in the corners, expression reflecting something like kindness, a blatant facsimile, and it made Sam want to hurl.

The realization that they had a problem crossed Blake's face a second too late. "Sa—" He never got to finish. Sam's fist flew, lighting quick, no tells. Sharp, violent—crack and burst of blood. It knocked Blake bluntly sideways, took him completely off his stool.

He was still conscious when he hit the floor, because Sam wanted him to be. He wanted him to hear this, and not misinterpret one single word.

"Sam!" It might have been Sara's voice. He didn't care. There were a few other surprised shouts, and a strong arm trying to circle him as he stood over Blake—over Blake's bruising face and his bleeding nose and mouth.

Sam shook off the arm laughably restraining him—Jack's, he realized—and stepped closer.

"If you ever touch my brother again, look at him sideways, go near him, or even say his name, you will spend the rest of your life breathing through a tube you son of a bitch." Words starting cold and soft—building in momentum until they sounded like gunfire.

"Sam." Jack pulled, but not before Sam had a hand on the stool Blake had been sitting on, knocking it over to bounce heavy across Blake's wide-eyed stare, knocking him out cold.

A murmur and shuffle grew from the crowd. From the corner of his eye, Sam saw the bartender making slow movements—reaching for a phone or a gun, Sam didn't know, didn't care.

He turned, shook off Jack, bee-lined for the alleyway, left shock and silence in his wake, awestruck expressions on the faces of his friends, and didn't care at all what any of them thought. Calm, easygoing, freakin' docile Sam—not caring at all. Still shaking with so much rage, it scared him.

When he got outside, he was grateful for the cold in the air because his face felt hot, roasted, crackling with emotions that kept him shaky. He leaned back against the cool brick of the alley wall and tried not to see the tiny, dark splatterings on the ground that may or may not have been Dean's blood.

His legs wouldn't hold him anymore and he slid down, jackknifing his knees in front of him, sucking in both cheeks and biting down to keep from breaking into sobs.

Despite his efforts, a few tears leaked out.

Which made it doubly horrific when Charlie's brother knelt down in front of him.

"Sam?" The gentle voice again. Would people just stop using that around him? It made him feel more insane than he already was. "Did something happen to Dean?"

Sam didn't trust his voice—settled on merely nodding.

"Where is he?"

"He won't go to the clinic."

"He back in your room?"

Sam nodded again. His eyes darted behind Jack to see Charlie and Donna in the doorway, Kim standing startled-white behind them.

Jack moved, blocking Sam's view and forcing eye contact. "Let's go look at your brother, okay?"

Sam sniffed, gave another nod, and let Jack pull him to his feet. He deliberately didn't look at any of his friends—let Jack guide him forward, past them, with a hand on his back.

"Jack?" Charlie's voice echoed behind them.

"Check on Blake," Jack ordered. "Then get my first aid kit from the car and meet us over there."

At the mention of Blake, Sam paused, a flare in his gut, but Jack pressed his hand harder into his back and kept him moving.

Jack was good.

And not just at being a doctor, Sam realized.

After Jack had seen Dean—propped on the bed, fading in and out of consciousness whenever he tried to move—when he'd seen the evidence of the brutality in Blake's attack, he'd wanted to call the police. When he'd picked up on the fact that neither Dean nor Sam wanted the police involved, he'd tossed his first aid kit aside impatiently and used the information as leverage to get Dean to the clinic.

Sam had had no objections.

He was just grateful that—instead of making him wait out in the linoleum loud foyer like he'd had to the last time—Jack let him follow with as x-rays were taken, let Sam lurk in the corner of the curtained treatment room as Jack cleaned and bandaged, as he stitched Dean's bloody head and hooked him to an IV.

"He should be out the rest of the night," Jack told him.

Dean was back in the same bed—in the same position—he'd been in before being released from the clinic that afternoon. The difference was, next to the regular plastic chair in the corner, Jack had wheeled in a ratty, cloth-covered barcalounger. "It's from Dr. Norris's office," he shrugged. "She uses it to take naps when things get slow. I'm assuming you're staying with him, so," he gestured to the chair, "try to get some sleep."

When Sam sat in the chair, it put him nearly at the same height as Dean's lowered bed. Close enough to brush his fingers over the fine hairs on Dean's forearm without having to lean forward. It creaked and rocked, felt like it was swallowing him, sucking the energy out, turning hair and fingers and fingernails heavy.

But he wasn't ready for sleep.

He folded himself forward, set his forehead on Dean's mattress and wrapped his hand around Dean's wrist. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he whispered, aware he sounded six, which was okay, because he felt six. It wasn't your fault, Sammy, he heard in his head

He tightened his hold, smoothed his thumb across Dean's wrist, staring into the mattress.

A moment later he tilted his head up, balanced on his chin, and was surprised to find Dean's eyes were open—watching him.

He sat up quickly. "Hey," he said, a little startled—like Dean showing up outside his motel room when he was supposed to be in the hospital. "You're supposed to be asleep."

Dean slowly blinked. His lips moved, but his expression stayed the same—too worried, too knowing. "Are you okay?" he mumbled.

"Yeah," Sam answered, but his voice broke on it, body slumping. He reached up—because he knew Dean wouldn't stop him, couldn't stop him—and ran his hand roughly over the top of Dean's scalp. "I'm fine."

"Liar." Dean shifted his head groggily under Sam's hand. "You didn't kill him, did you?"

"No," Sam breathed, from the back of his throat, half the syllable stuck in his lungs. "Wanted to."

Dean's eyes crinkled in the corners, face so… understanding, Sam kind of wanted to start bawling all over again.

He wrapped his hand tighter around Dean's wrist—smooth, warm skin—forced his voice out stronger and said, "Guess we should have been watching for that one. I never thought… I never… I didn't realize he was… what he was."

"Stop it, Sam."

Sam bit his lip miserably. "I thought you and he were just—that you and he were just giving each other a bad time."

Dean moved his lips. "We were, Sammy. I picked at him. He picked back. He was good at it. I just thought he was… a colossal prick."

Sam snorted tiredly. "Yeah, well, turns out—you were right." It was an attempt to force levity into his croaky voice, but it was the bitterness that ran to the surface.

Dean tilted his head, watching Sam's face. "Wasn't your fault, okay?"

Sam scrubbed a hand over his eyes, looked down at Dean's wrist, the knob of fragile wrist bone. He could feel Dean's eyes on him, and responded with a tiny nod.

"Good," Dean said, "good."

When Sam looked up, Dean was still watching. He chewed his lip, letting the silence stretch. And when it felt like Dean was still waiting for something, he swallowed thickly and cleared his throat. "So you know about the basketball game, huh? The Emergency Room?" He'd been working over in his mind how to say this, and since Dean was awake, somewhat captive, and because Sam needed to say it, he pushed the topic tentatively into the air between them.

Dean's eyes shuttered instantly. He blinked into a different direction of the room, and it hurt Sam's heart to see it. With everything else they'd learned that night, Sam's fears and Dean's fears, and everything they'd shoved through and overcome—don't lose him now, I'm hurting you, and only if you let go—it hurt a little more than it should have. Deeper, sharper—all Dean's bruising easier to see.

Sam took a slow breath, calmed the emotion breaking free from his chest and kept going.

Dean had to know.

Sam couldn't leave him thinking what Blake had left him thinking.

"I did," he whispered into his brother's closed expression. "I said… I said what Blake said I said." Dean kept his gaze averted and Sam let his voice get stronger. "Jess… and everyone else told me later—after—that I kept telling them not to call you."

Dean's eyes sharpened, dark green, bright. His lips parted, like he was getting ready to cut Sam off.

Sam sped up. "I had a head injury, so I don't remember saying it, but I believed them when they told me what I said because…"

Dean's mouth remained open, just slightly, but he stayed silent, watching again, eyes damningly interested.

"I believed them because, from my first day of school, I thought those words all the time." He remembered it, like a mantra he'd repeated to himself nearly every day—don't call Dad or Dean, don't call Dad or Dean, don't call Dad or Dean.

His brother's lips closed, expression openly raw with confusion and hurt.

Sam hesitated. How could he explain that, back then, he'd still been a kid in so many ways? He hadn't seen Dad's worry or Dean's concern. He'd seen all the sins he hadn't wanted to pay for and all the things he didn't want to be condemned to. He'd seen one's obsession and the other's perfect skill—seen the walls they'd built around him and the million different ways they seemed to tell him you can't do this yourself. You need us.

And he had and did. Needed. Wanted. Missed.

Back then, need and fear meant weakness. And as glaring as it was in others—in his father and brother, where it shouldn't have existed—it was even greater in himself.

After that first year, it'd gotten easier, but there'd been a few times, when things were especially rough… that he'd almost caved, almost broken down, wanted to call do over. Reach for the phone and say, Dean, come get me.

"My first year was… pretty rough," he explained aloud.

Dean's eyes narrowed, a small catch in his breath.

"Nothing… bad happened," Sam assured. "But, a lot of the time I was so… afraid… just… just being on my own." He lifted and dropped his shoulders. "It was hard. And I missed you." His voice broke again, and he cursed himself. He looked down to realize he now had both hands wrapped around Dean's arm—Dean's skin bloodless around the edges of his grip—and forced himself to loosen his fingers.

"I kept thinking, if the littlest thing happened… if you or Dad showed up, I'd just… cave and go with you. And I wanted to prove to myself—to you and to Dad—that I could do it. Especially with… with the way things were left with Dad."

Dean's eyes crinkled in the corners, secrets breathing out his eyes, voice compassionate. "Sam—"

"I didn't want you guys out of my life—I didn't want you out of my life. I just, sometimes, I pictured you and Dad showing up—Dad saying, I told you so, Sammy, now get in the car. And some of those times, I'm pretty sure I would have just said—yes sir—would have been packed and ready to go in seconds." Testing self and independence and growing. Sometimes, it had been like a kid holding his finger to a flame—how long can I keep it there and not burn? How far can I get away from my family and still breathe?

Sam's voice inflection must have been a pretty reasonable imitation of a John-Sam exchange, because Dean huffed and jerked the arm in Sam's grip toward his stomach when the motion from the laugh undoubtedly pulled.

Surprised at the sound, Sam smiled back.

Dean's eyes had changed, no longer defensive, no longer shuttered, but Sam had to make sure. "It was never… it wasn't about you, Dean. It was never…"

"It's okay, Sammy, I get it. It's okay."

Sam released a shaky breath—a grateful breath—meeting Dean's eyes with compassion of his own. Seeing things in Dean he couldn't have seen fully before—things that explained good soldier, I can't do this alone, and, yeah, well I don't want to, a little better. Things little kids never recognize in their big brothers.

Dean rolled his head, mumbling a grunt.

"You should be asleep," Sam said, eyeing Dean's IV. "I thought Jack gave you painkillers."

"Think he did," Dean answered.

"Were they enough?" he pushed, observing the grimace on Dean's face, knowing his brother had an annoyingly high tolerance for some of them.

Dean didn't say anything.

"I'll get Jack." Sam slipped out before Dean could stop him.

A shot in the IV and five minutes later Dean was fading fast, but he kept blinking his eyes wide and darting them at Sam.

Sam ran his hand up his brother's forearm. "Go to sleep," he encouraged.

"You gonna sleep?" Dean mumbled, eyes closing again.

"Yeah," he said softly. "Yes."

Dean looked like he might say more, like his eyes might blink open again, but he didn't—they didn't—and soon his breathing evened, the lines on his face smoothed.

Sam stared.

There were no ghosts now… no latchers... and Dean wasn't exactly ghost-coma-unconscious, but sitting next to him, Sam felt his fingers itch and the sensation didn't go away until he gave in—reached out—and laid his hand flat over Dean's heart.

Charlie clicked the door open cautiously and tried to make the moving rustle of curtain chains against ceiling runners as soft as possible. Standing by the window, Sam turned his head, eyes narrowed, face hard for a flashing moment, as if he was looking for a threat, but it softened quickly. "Hey," he greeted.

"Thought you might still be asleep," Charlie returned, voice respectfully low.

"Not anymore," Sam shrugged, pulling hands out of pockets as Charlie handed him a cup of coffee. "Thanks."

The early morning light through the window folded around Sam as he lifted the cup to his lips. It made him seem bigger than he already was—awkwardly large in the space they were confined to—like a tiger in a cage…

Charlie's eyes flickered down at Dean. He jerked his chin at him after sipping at his own cup. "Jack said he's going to keep Dean drugged a bit longer—doesn't want him to have to deal with the pain from the ribs and muscle damage yet, says he'll probably sleep for a while."

"He's had worse," Sam mumbled.

Charlie flashed over the last several days—thought of Sam saying, his damn heart, thought of ghost infections and electrocutions—and heard a thousand other things he didn't know about coming out in Sam's voice. "Yeah. Yeah I guess so," he mumbled.

Sam set his coffee on the little table near Dean's head and dropped himself into the creaking easy chair, roughly rubbing his face.

Charlie took the plastic one near Dean's feet. "Blake's gone," he informed, ignoring the confusion that situation stirred in his own stomach.

Sam's face shifted—hard and dark. "Is he?" he said neutrally—like he needed more and couldn't care less at the same time.

"He left last night," Charlie confirmed.

Sam glanced away.

"It was Jack," Charlie continued. "After he set his broken nose, he gave him an hour to be out or…" he didn't finish, licked his lips, let his tone lighten. "It was pretty scary actually. In fact, I've added him to my list of super scary things I never thought I'd see ever. And I certainly never thought I'd see them all in one weekend. You're on the list too, by the way."

Sam's expression turned wry, but Charlie caught the smile and felt a little pleased.

"Is there something about that?" he continued. "Should I be paying attention to the cycles of the moon and the tides and such? Warning signs that will help me avoid colossal streaks of supernatural bad luck?"

Sam chin pointed at Dean and slowly blinked. "Not hanging around us might do it."

"Nah," Charlie dismissed, and turned serious. "Something tells me this all might have been a lot worse if you two hadn't been here."

Sam looked over, gaze open and direct, revealing the extent of his red-rimmed eyes, exposing his worry and anger and hope. "I try to believe that sometimes."

Charlie cleared his throat, bounced one foot. "Back to… back to Blake. I'm sorry… that this happened." He gestured at Dean, tried not to stare at Dean—at the scabs on his lips, at the black and blue and green and purple, and the motionlessness of him. "I feel like we should've known. I still… it's still kind of hard to believe—"

"I should have known," Sam whispered.

"Don't do that," Charlie said, voice as edged and serious as he ever got. "None of us saw it. We've been talking about it—all of us—and none of us saw this. We all feel we should have, but…" He sighed. "We thought—I thought, at first, maybe the ghost thing just… made him snap."

Sam was listening—intent.

"Then Donna said—she said when she and Blake were dating, that when they were going to break up, she'd wanted him to think it was his idea, because she was kind of afraid of his reaction. And I guess since she never hesitates to say what she thinks to anyone else—that should have been a clue. And there was Blake's image thing… the way he always needed to be in charge and hated to lose. Jack said something about malignant narcissism or something. And I don't know about that, but… I think it was always there—the part of Blake that made him do this."

Sam's eyes clouded over, line appearing between his eyebrows as he stared at nothing, like he was searching his memory for warning signs of his own he should have caught.

Charlie cleared his throat and let his voice sharpen. "The thing is, all this analyzing is in retrospect. None of us could've predicted this. Not you, not any of us. We had no basis for it. Some people are just… really good liars, Sam."

Sam turned white. He dropped his eyes. Charlie watched a dark flush crawl over his ears—saw a guilty flash in his expression and didn't understand the reaction until Sam spoke. "I didn't mean… I never meant to really lie to you guys—"

"You didn't," Charlie cut over. "I mean, despite a few very impressive Jason Bourne-esque skills you neglected to mention… you're the same Sam Winchester I've known since freshman year."

Sam stared at the floor, bit his lip and ran long fingers over his forehead.

Charlie waited, remembering himself and Sam, new and green, trying to figure out school and classes—both the only ones on their floor not getting nightly phone calls and weekly care packages from their mothers.

Sam glanced up, flashed a look of gratitude, gave him a nod and reached for his coffee cup.

Charlie took that as his cue to turn things light. "Now, since—if Jack has anything to say about it, and my recent experiences with Scary Jack say he probably does—you and Dean will be stuck here for a bit. Jack has agreed to steal Dr. Norris's super secret TV/DVD player and bring it in here. And luckily, there is a brand new Blockbuster right down the road."

Dean awoke in stages, catching voices, flashes of conversation, fading again and starting over.

"Becky knows?"

"And Zack, probably. I'm sure she told him."

"Wait… so the thing with…"

"It was a shapeshifter."

"And you guys…"

Brain foggy and clouded, then dark dark dark.




"Rare, but yes—and don't mention them around Dean, he has an unhealthy fascination."

"Okay, um… fairies?"

Sam's laugh. Dean liked the soundhe felt it lighten the worry about Sam's mental state he'd had bricked into his stomach when he'd gone under with the sedative. The lightness of it stayed looped in his ears as he slipped under again.

"Why Sara? Why did the ghost take you and the others… but just do whatever it did to Sara?"

"Not sure. Ghosts that possess usually have to pick someone who's already vulnerable in some way. Stress or grief or…"

"Her mom, I think her mom's been getting worse."

"How bad?"

"Not sure. She doesn't talk about it much."

Yeah, Dean thought, sometimes families suck even without the curse of the supernatural.

"Why'd it possess her?"

He felt his eyebrows twitch in confusion. Hadn't that already been asked an answered? Had he fallen asleep again?

"No, I mean… you said 'ghosts that possess.' Don't all ghosts possess? I can't believe I'm asking stuff like this."

Sam cleared his throat smoothly. "Ghosts possess people when they're not strong enough to do things themselves… not strong enough to communicate or travel from place to place. It probably used Sara for both but couldn't stay in her all the time because it was already weakened and was being pulled back with the other ghosts."

And Dean was under again, but he thought he'd felt Sam's gaze on him just before sleep won out.

"I think my eyes are getting better. Instead of a big dark blur, I see a big light blur."

"There's nothing to see. I used to live here, you know."

"You're gonna die here, you know—convenient."

It took Dean a minute to realize he wasn't crazy, that he was listening to Star Wars. Return of the Jedi?

The air smelled vaguely of popcorn.

"Dean?" It wasn't Sam's voice.

He worked open his cotton-coated mouth and sore jaw—blinked crusty eyes. He hated what sedatives and painkillers—whatever crap Jack had given him—did to him, making him slow and unguarded.

"Sam's in the hall. Will you grab him?"

Dean grimaced. He hated being talked about, hated Sam being fetched for him. Hated that he was struggling to place the face and voice. Jack, he thought a minute later. Jack was staring down at him.

By the time Sam came in, things weren't so hazy, but he was still fighting the dullness in his head, was grimacing from having tried to move, and felt hungry as hell.

"Hey, you're awake," Sam said—relieved, pleased—laying his hand on Dean's shoulder with enough subtle pressure to keep him down.

"I'm awake," Dean conceded.

"Good," Sam answered. "But, since you're stuck here," he said with another tiny brush of pressure on Dean's shoulder, "we're having a movie marathon."

It was warning and need. Forced recovery time. Dean smirked in acceptance.

"You're going to be thrilled," Sam continued, completely serious. "Sara and Kim rented the new Godzilla."

The DVD fest lasted through that day and the next two—through Dean's groggy grousing in the clinic, to him lying gingerly on the couch back in the basement of Charlie's cabin—and included several series of TV shows, including Boy Meets World, which Sam picked out, and got mocked for relentlessly by more than just Dean.

He still made Dean watch the whole second season and part of the third.

His friends—stuck in the hazy cloud of dealing with their rewritten universe—got sucked into it with them. None of them were in the mood for hiking and climbing like their vacation plans originally included. And Sam liked it… stupid movies and not thinking and being lazy. He liked watching Dean interact with Sara and Charlie and felt a little tickle of satisfaction when he overheard Garrett recounting to Dean the way Sam had just totally laid Blake out and how they'd all scrambled to get the bartender not to call the police.

Sam had just come back into the room as the story was being told. Pretending he'd heard nothing, he set his soda down on the coffee table before lifting Dean's legs back onto his lap, watching the TV screen, ignoring Dean's stare. Dean was asleep again ten minutes later.

At which point, Sam switched focus, letting his eyes roll over the others. Everyone lazily engrossed in the movie. He felt a heavy ache when he inadvertently wondered where Jessica would've sat, wondered what Jessica would have thought—wondered what would Jess have said to Dean, if she'd been there.

Dean and Charlie weren't something Sam had really expected. While Dean seemed most comfortable and at ease with Jack, it was Charlie that elicited and got the most verbal response. There were jokes and there were questions. Conversations happening both in and out of Sam's presence he felt like he shouldn't be listening to—the oddity of hearing people gossip right in front of his face.

"Sam played soccer?"

"There's a Latin club at Stanford? What the hell do Latin clubs do? It's not like they're out exorcizing stuff."

"What is with his ketchup-on-spaghetti thing? Disgusting."

"Is that why he started crushing cornflakes over ice cream? Twisted, dude, seriously."

Charlie recounted Sam's Christmas with him and his parents on Martha's Vineyard. "They said he was the most polite boy they'd had in their home, ever." Charlie grinned and Sam blushed.

Dean recounted a Christmas at Pastor Jim's that included Sam's at-the-time fascination with flying reindeer and an incident on Pastor Jim's roof involving an eight-pound bag of rock salt and the snow reconstruction of a yeti.

They talked about Sam's grades, his lack of partying habits, and how he'd met Jessica Moore.

After a while Sam joined in on that one and it didn't hurt as much as he thought it was going to. Dean listened, laughed occasionally, and watched Sam's face. But after that, he stopped asking Charlie questions and turned contemplative and strangely quiet the rest of the afternoon.

The kitchen was empty.

Or not empty, exactly. Jack was standing at the refrigerator, Garrett and Kim were chopping vegetables, Charlie and Sara were debating which plates in front of the cupboards, and Donna and Elly were whispering at the table.

"Where's Dean?"

There was a swiveling of heads, like they thought they might magically see Dean appear out of thin air if they looked in the right direction.

Sam found him near the top of the stairs, right hand holding tight to the banister, left tucked close to his body. Sam skipped up them four at time, coming behind and setting hands at Dean's sides. "Trying to kill yourself?" he asked casually, but his heart thumped as he eyed the possible descent.

Dean responded with a tremble.

"You going to the room?" Sam pushed, not waiting for the response from his first question. They'd slept in the basement the night before but their duffels were in the room they'd used earlier.

"Just tired," Dean hissed. There was defeat in the sound—annoyance.

Sam felt his gut clench at the familiarity of the words, the untruthfulness so often inherent when uttered by anyone in their family.

Dean sighed. "I just wanted to be alone for a while, okay?" He didn't sound mad or distraught or anything abnormally worrisome and Sam didn't think Dean meant him when he said 'alone'—thought maybe the activity and mess of personalities and required interaction was getting to him.

Dean hadn't said anything about it—hadn't pushed Sam about leaving yet.

Sam kept his hands under Dean's elbows, guiding him up the remaining steps wordlessly.

When he eased Dean down on the bed, he saw contemplation again on Dean's face and wasn't sure what it meant.

"You're being quiet," he said.

Dean's eyes darted toward him—shadowed—some emotion in them Sam couldn't read.

"Hey, are you okay?"

"Yeah." Dean coughed lightly. Sam caught the flash of wonder in his look—caught what looked like a question.

He frowned.

"I don't know," Dean shrugged out finally, tilting his head against the headboard. "This is just weird, I guess. I knew you had a… a life. It was always just… really hard to picture." Dean smiled, but it was faint, gone before Sam could dwell on it, struck instead by the way Dean's voice cleared around the uncharacteristic honesty.

There was space between Dean and the edge of the bed. Sam drew a sighing breath and sat, his own back against the headboard, one leg bent up on the bed, shoulder brushing Dean's, a contented weariness settling on him as he sat. "So you like them?" he asked. "Besides the whole… one of them almost trying to kill you thing?" He froze as soon as he said it because it was a Dean thing to say—trying to make a joke of something that wasn't funny and never would be. Sam was surprised it'd come out of him—like maybe, back in the graveyard, their grips on each other had been fierce enough that they'd spread into each other and left bits behind.

Dean snorted. Then groaned, tucking an arm across his chest. "Ah, don't make me laugh."

Sam dragged his other leg onto the bed and just… sat. Waiting.

A long minute later, Dean said, "Yeah, I like them." Sam turned his head and Dean met his eyes. "I'm glad you were happy."

Sam swallowed. Outside their door, down the stairs, way away in the kitchen, he could hear the tiny echoes of his friends, sounds of them recovering from weird, getting back to normal, likely to never experience anything supernatural again.

For a minute, he wanted it all to be gone. Wanted it to just be him and Dean. For a minute, it all felt like too much—pretense and pretending and remembering the steps to a dance that should have been familiar because he'd danced it for years, but wasn't. Not anymore. We could stay, he heard Dean saying, somewhere in the echoes of his mind. But Sam didn't want to.

It was an illusion, those sounds. This… temporary peace. There were things still out there, there was Dad still out there, and demons, and killers.

Maybe Dean would recover better on the road.

And maybe, Sam thought, he would too.

Dean hadn't pushed, but he had to be feeling it—the itch to just get away.

Dean. Sam. Impala. Road.

"If you're up to it," Sam said carefully. "I think… I think it's time to go. I think we need to go."

When he turned to check, Dean looked relieved.

"You still have to take it easy," he clarified. "We're not looking for a hunt yet. I just think we'd do better… moving on."

Dean held his hands up. "I'm not arguing."

"You will," groused Sam. "I'm sure of it."

"You know, you're welcome to stay—recuperate a little more."

Sam shook Jack's hand. "Thanks, for everything, but uh… we coop Dean up in there any longer and recuperation isn't going to be what's happening."

Jack smiled, tipping his head in concession. "Then good luck, I guess—but make sure he takes it slow." He handed Sam a card—business card, two extra numbers scrawled on the back. "Call. If anything… if you need… just call."

"Thank you," Sam repeated, meaning it, "for everything."

Jack nodded, then continued down the walk to where Dean was leaning against the car. He shook his hand also—gently grasped his shoulder—before heading back to the house.

When Sam took his eyes from Jack, Kim stepped forward to hug him, like Donna and Sara already had. When she pulled back, her look was scrutinizing, a little less self conscious, a lot more genuine. "And you're happy?" she asked.

Sam glanced over his shoulder at Dean, watched him fiddle with the sunglasses in his hands with a frown between his eyebrows. Healing and getting better and there. "I'm content," he answered.

Kim looked at Dean then back at Sam—nodding, like she believed him. "Well, be careful." She smiled and hugged him again, giving Dean a wave as she turned away. "We'll be thinking of you—both of you."

"Thanks," Sam acknowledged.

Charlie came out the front door, a small cooler in his hand and a grocery bag of other odds and ends in the other. "For the road," he said innocently, when Sam's eyebrows went up.

"People always send us away with weird food," Sam muttered, pacing Charlie toward Dean and the car.

"It's a good tradition," Charlie defended. "And it makes goodbye feel less final because… well, now you have to bring my cooler back."

When they got closer to the car, Sam held his hand out to Dean for the car keys—got a pause just long enough to make him scowl before Dean handed them over.

Charlie shook Dean's hand and gripped his bicep while Sam put the food in the back seat.

"Take care of yourself, Charlie," Dean said.

"I've already begun stockpiling rock salt—I've got it covered."

Dean laughed, then moaned. Sam caught his elbow, holding him upright as he opened the passenger door and started to settle him in. "Take it easy, Dean."

"I got it, Sam."

Sam rolled his eyes, handed Dean a pillow to support his ribs, and shut the door, sighing as he turned to face his friend. "So, when do the rest of you head back?" he asked, walking Charlie a few paces back toward the cabin.

Charlie stopped, fingers tucked in his jeans pockets. "Everyone goes back tomorrow, but, ah, I'm taking the semester off. I'm gonna stay here for a bit… help Jack with Elly… and the wedding if they get it rolling. It just… feels right."

Dean. Sam. Impala. Road.

"And Donna?"

"She understands. She'll fly out a few weekends when she can. We're good."

"Good." Sam shifted. "Good."

"If you ever need anything. Anything at all—"

"I know," Sam said. "Thank you."

They shook hands, pulled forward for a brief hug and a thump on the back.

Charlie looked thoughtful when he pulled away. His eyes flicked over to the car and Dean, staring for a moment, looking undecided. He looked Sam in the eye, shrugged, started to walk away then stopped again. "Hey, Sam," he said finally. "You know I'm jealous, right? I mean… the things you've been through I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy… or Blake for that matter, and I'd rather deal with the all the classic plagues of Egypt than go through any of what you've been through but… I'm still jealous."

Something in Sam's eyes sparked, a pleased feeling making its way to his lips. "I know," he answered.

Charlie nodded, an expression of contentment on his face, like he was glad he'd said what he'd said. He turned back up the walk, toward Donna and Jack and Sara—all still lingering on the porch.

And Sam felt the pang of loss and regret every bit as much as the he felt the joy and relief of what he had—of what he knew he had, and had to say it—

"Hey, Charlie?"

Charlie turned.

"Me too."

Charlie watched his face, and nodded.

Sam took one last look, then tore himself away. Walked to the car. Walked to Dean.

It felt right.

When he got in, he pretended not to notice Dean watching him from the passenger seat as he started the ignition.

"You're content?" Dean pushed, having obviously heard his conversation with Kim.

"Yeah," he answered, using his best what of it tone. "We're both alive. You're… getting better. And this stupid hunt is finally over."

The lie was in him being okay with the rest of it.

The truth was Dean was the only thing he couldn't afford to lose.

He could feel Dean smiling at him.

"What?" Sam asked. "Did you want to stay a little longer or something?"

"Nah." Dean slid his sunglasses onto his face. "Let's hit the road, Ponyboy."

Sam narrowed his eyes at Dean's comment—random—shook his head and let his foot press down on the accelerator.

Leaving Lander, Wyoming, 1996

Sammy was inside the gas station, a grocery list in one fist and cash in the other.

Dean would have gone with him, but Dad had said no, and that was kinda okay, because he was still feeing wrung out in more ways than he expected. But it was also kinda not okay, because there was a charged feeling in the truck, filling the space, pulsing out from Dad's blank face.

The engine was off. John sat silently behind the wheel. Motionless. But he was working up to saying something, Dean realized, with a tiny seed of apprehension sprouting in his gut.


Dean shook his head, staring toward the gas station and Sammy.

He didn't want to talk about what the ghost had done to him. He didn't want to think about it, remember the pain, or the waiting, or the fear. And he didn't want to have to explain it to his dad. He didn't want to re-hash the argument they'd had before it'd all happened either. Because even with all he'd just been through—Dean would have still fought to stay with his family, wouldn't have let John send him off, and he wasn't sorry.

He wasn't sorry.

But John had been working his way up to some sort of talk or lecture ever since Dean had woken. Maybe it was inevitable, but he still didn't want to hear it. "Dad, don't—"

"No," John said sharply.

Dean snapped his mouth closed—felt his chest quiver.

"Listen. Just listen."

He swallowed and kept his eyes dead ahead. Waiting for the inevitable.

When the silence grew, he looked left, breath instantly stuttered because his dad's face wasn't what he'd thought it'd be, and it made his stomach tighten even more.

This was the face that reflected memories of Mom, reflected regret and grief and a thousand other things that were raw and delicate and never talked about. Things he'd watched his dad cling to so hard they inevitably bled through the cracks—streaming out, too intense for most people to understand or deal with. But Dean had practice—he'd been dealing with it since he was four years old.

He braced himself.

But the words that came were soft and not what he expected.

"I know I don't say it often to you boys. Not for a long time, but—" John's throat jumped visibly. "I love you, Dean."

Dean blinked, frozen.

"And I never meant… I never meant for us to lose any members of our family. I never meant for you to lose your mother."

Dean clamped his teeth together, fought the rise of emotion in his chest—fighting, because while John squeezed, Dean buried.

Dad was looking at him, like he needed Dean to believe him. And Dean realized with a little click that this is what had made him vulnerable—that if he believed his dad a little more, missed his mom a little less, worried about losing again not as much…

He swallowed, nodded his head carefully, and kept the emotions from rising past his throat. "I know, Dad," he shoved out.

John watched him for a long moment, and must not have seen what he hoped for on Dean's face because his own turned to shadow, lost in resignation. "Do you?"


John smiled sadly.

Dean shifted uncomfortably, not understanding the expression.

Then Dad reached out, scrubbing a hand over Dean's head, giving his neck a shake, gentle and rough all at once. "I hope so, kiddo," he said next, soft enough Dean almost couldn't hear. "I hope so."

The side door banged open a split second later, Sammy handing in the ordered supplies, fishing a cold Dr. Pepper out of the bag and giving it to Dean once he was inside, then passing a Coke to their father.

"You're in a good mood," commented John, putting the coke in the cup holder and starting the engine.

"We're leaving," Sam shrugged, popping his Sprite, leaning back in the seat and propping his feet up behind Dean's head.

"And you're happy about that?" Dean asked.

"I don't like Wyoming. Where we going now, anyway?"

"We're gonna get the Impala out of storage, take her to Uncle Bobby's and get her running again."

"Really?" Dean asked. He liked the truck fine, but it wasn't… it wasn't home like the Impala—familiar, constant.

"Good," said Sam, emphatic. He dropped his feet, leaned forward and punched Dean's shoulder, then left his hand on Dean's arm—left it there long enough for Dean to turn his head to see if he needed something. But Sam didn't—was just sipping on his Sprite and looking out the front windshield toward the road, hand absently gripping, hooked in Dean's sleeve.

Dean said nothing about it, leaned his head back against the headrest and sipped his own drink—content, for now, with what was in front of him. Because sometimes being content was in how you defined it. Sometimes being content meant pretending to let go of what you'd lost and holding on instead to what you hadn't.

He had Dad, and Sammy, and an open road.

He told himself he was okay as long as they were okay.

He told himself, as long as he had them, everything would be just fine.

The End

Random author notes:

A friend asked me the other day, "In one word, how would you describe your writing?"

"Excessive" was the only one that came to mind. ;)

I'm impressed anyone stuck through this. Despite the time it took, this was fun to write—a pure guilty pleasure for me in every sense. Thank you to those who had fun with it along with me. The support this fiction received was unexpected.

More random author notes and acknowledgements:

The song "Little Bird" comes from "The Man of La Mancha."

"The Twilight Zone," was an awesome classic show, and clearly, Charlie's thought process/introduction utilizing it was pulled directly from Rod Serling and I have no claim or ownership over it.

"The Outsiders," was written by S.E. Hinton when she was just sixteen years old. If you haven't read it—go! Read! And I've since been informed that several other authors have made the same comparisons with the characters in the book to Sam and Dean and John that I have. Hopefully proving that great minds think alike. If you haven't read the book, what more of an endorsement are you looking for—go! Read!

There were many other shows and books and movies and things referenced in a more minor or passing way throughout this fic. If you recognize it from someplace else, particularly if it's a pop culture reference—yeah, probably not mine. Special reference to Pool Terms and Slang (website), to Banking With the Beard: True Road Adventures. Thanks to my buddy Dave for making an adequate attempt to explain "ball in hand." And with gratitude to short stories by

Thanks also to Geminigrl11, Faith, November's Guest, and I think I even dragged May7 into beta reading for me at some point. All gave excellent feedback and helped keep the typos at bay. Some of the reviewers helped in this regard - like a mini group beta project for trapping typos. Due to the nature of how this was written, these comments were very helpful, as was everyone's patience.

Besides the episode "Faith" this fic was spawned out of one line: Dean's "Maybe you know your friends as well as they know you" comment in the episode Skin. I wanted to explore the outsider's pov of Sam's world as well as the idea that, if Sam was able to hide things so well, what would it take for someone else to do the same? And that was Blake.

Afterward: Charlie ditches Harvard Law partway through and becomes the next Stephen King.

Any other questions?

Thank you all again. Sincerely. Thank you!

Additional afterward: For whatever reason, I haven't been able to look at this story since I finished it, having a strange relationship with it in general, and feeling I'd end up wanting to either take it down or change it all. Recently, I did finally, actually click on it, and replaced the section breaks that got coded out by this site how ever many years ago. What a mess you've all been reading with those gone. I also fixed a few minor typos, though I'm sure several remain. Beyond that, it's still the same woefully overwrought beast it's always been. :)