Crashing through the woods, the branches slapping and grabbing at his face and clothes, Dean Winchester could feel the aching agony of a stitch starting in his side. The moonlight cut jagged strips through the trees, making a kooky-funhouse world out of a normal forest. Light, dark, light, dark - sudden bursts of each on the path. The only sound was ragged breathing and the slap of two pairs of tennis shoes against the packed dirt.

"How much longer?" a voice panted to his right. Sam was running just a few steps behind him. Though you'd think his longer legs would afford him a better sprinting time than his older brother, Dean always seemed to lead their little footraces. Smirking Dean stepped up the pace. It was all about endurance.

"Seriously, Dean," Sam said a few seconds later. "We've been running for miles. There's nothing behind us. When can we - "

Dean cut him off with a glare. "Geez, Sam," he whispered as they trucked along the forest path, "why don't you just send up a flare? Dad said to run until we got to the ambush. So pipe down and haul ass."

"Yeah, but where is this ambush? He conveniently left out the marathon portion of the evening."

"Stop whining, Sammy. Exercise is good for you. You've been looking a little soft lately."

Sam made a sound suspiciously like a snort, but his footsteps quickened as he drew even with Dean. The brothers ran in silence for several more feet. Sam kept darting quick glances at Dean, but Dean stared stoically ahead, refusing to give his brother incentive to keep talking.

Turned out Sam didn't need Dean's encouragement. "I mean it, Dean. There's nothing out there. Dad was wrong - "

"Sam!" Dean barked. He stopped running so suddenly that Sam stumbled onward a few more steps without him. "Listen closely before I start beating you: Dad said run. Dad said start out at the old mill and run through the woods to the ambush point. So I'm not really sure why we're standing here in the middle of the creepy ass woods debating this. We got orders. So shut your mouth and start running."

"For the love of God! Don't you ever just think, just for one second, that maybe Dad isn't all-knowing and all-powerful? There's nothing chasing us, Dean! We're running like idiots and there's nothing behind us!"

Just then, a horrific high pitched scream sounded somewhere off in the distance. The scream was followed immediately by the distinct sounds of a large, heavy animal rushing through the underbrush. Dean and Sam looked at each other for a moment, then, as one, turned and started running.

"You were saying?" Dean shouted over noise of crackling underbrush.
The sounds were getting closer and both brothers were running flat out. Still, the something behind them was gaining. Dean hesitated a step, just enough so he was running slightly behind Sam. Reaching in his jacket pocket, Dean's fingers closed around the gun he'd brought along. Just in case. If whatever it was caught up with them, it would have to deal with him first.

Minutes passed and the thing kept gaining ground. Dean could sense Sam's growing fatigue. "Come on!" he yelled. "I'm not carrying your sorry ass, so move it!" Sam stumbled forward and for one terrifying moment Dean was sure he'd fall. But his brother recovered and surged forward.

Dean swore under his breath and cocked the pistol. Wherever John Winchester was hiding in the dark, he was taking his sweet time saving his sons. Dean caught a glimpse of something surging through the woods out of the corner of his eye. A hairy beast, easily as tall as Sam, was loping towards them. The demon.

Drawing his gun in one smooth motion, Dean shoved Sam to the ground and crouched. Sam's muffled protests aside, Dean couldn't hear anything but the wind rushing through the trees and the demon's approach. "Stay down!" he shouted and aimed carefully. The rate that thing was approaching, he'd only get one shot.

Then the demon stepped from the shadows beneath the trees and into the moonlight. Massive white teeth gleamed in the dark. The demon was covered in short, dark fur; but around its paws the light reflected oddly. Dean squinted, then shuddered as he realized that where the fur ended, scales began. Shimmering black scales that curved down into wicked claws. Gulping, Dean steadied himself and prepared to pull the trigger.

Suddenly, a dark form raced towards them from the other direction. Dean could make out the silhouette of a shotgun held in the figure's hand. "Dean! Down!"

Dean hit the deck and heard several rounds whiz over his head. His father's voice shouted something unintelligible and the demon roared in response. Several more rounds and then silence.

Unmoving, one hand pressed firmly on the back of Sam's neck to prevent his obstinate brother from doing anything stupid, Dean waited for permission to get up. Finally, after several moments of heart-pounding dread in which Dean's cursedly active imagination conjured up several images of his father dead and the demon scurrying its way towards them, he felt someone touch his head.

"It's ok, son. It's over."

Dean rolled over and clambered to his feet. Beside him, Sam was spitting out leaves and mud. Dean bit back a grin. "Sorry about that, Sammy."

"Yeah, I bet," Sam retorted.

John raised a hand to stop the argument. He looked weary and distracted. "Enough," he said quietly. "Let's get back."

"Is it dead?" Sam asked.

John paused, searched Sam's face for a moment. Dean stood uneasily between them. Lately, every word out of Sam's mouth had held a faintly accusatory tone. Something was going on between father and son and Dean was completely out of the loop. "Yes, Sam," John replied slowly, "it's dead."

Sam rolled his eyes and started off towards the general direction of the truck. Sighing, John shouldered the shotgun and followed after. Dean stayed put for a moment, staring up at the star spattered sky. Then, shrugging his shoulders, he headed off after his family.

The motel room was dank and depressing. A faint, sickly sweet smell of mold emanated from the bathroom. But the cable worked, so, in Dean's mind, this was the best place they'd stayed in weeks. He was mindlessly flicking through channels, trying to ignore the strained voices arguing quietly outside the front door.

Finally settling on a John Wayne western, Dean kicked back and sipped at his Coke. He could hear Sam's voice raise for a moment, the accusation quivering in the night air. There was a silence, an all oppressive moment of absolute quiet. Dean tensed, his jaw clenching even while his eyes never left John Wayne riding off into the sunset. But after a few seconds, he could hear his father's low voice speaking and Sam's soft grunts in response. Dean relaxed slightly.

Every night for weeks it had been the same. After the hunt came the fight. Sam and John Winchester hurling insults outside while Dean pretended that cheap hotels didn't have paper thin walls. The mornings were worse, though. Dean preferred out and out hostility to the forced pleasantries that the Winchester men engaged in these days. Sam was always on edge, their father looked like a man haunted, and Dean...

Well, Dean sat on the bed and watched TV and pretended. Pretended that Sam wasn't losing his edge in the field; pretending that nothing was wrong. Pretending that his family wasn't falling apart. Again.

Sam kept talking about college. Kid would be 17 soon, Dad said that it was normal at that age to talk about moving away. About stability. No more hunting. Never mind the fact that Dean had never gone through that particular phase. Never mind that if Sam left it would be down to two, that the Winchester family would be slowly fading.

Dean finished off his Coke and threw the empty can in the trash. Sam and their father were still outside. Dean pulled out his favorite knife and grabbed the wet-stone. Dragging the blade down the stone, the gentle 'cccrrsshh' sound soothing against the backdrop of fierce whispers, Dean tried to focus on the movie. John Wayne was now facing off with the bad guy. You could tell it was the bad guy because he was all dressed in black and had a permanent sneer.

Dean smirked. John Wayne and his ilk wouldn't last ten minutes in the real world. Sure, most demons were easy to identify. And your basic priest or horror-flick attendee would probably notice the obvious signs of a haunting or possession. But in truth, the supernatural was too easily hidden beneath layers of bills and errands and everyday living. TV made it look easy. The bad guy was always wrong, always had some big plan to take over the world; the good guy was clean-shaven and polite, and never made mistakes.

The door slammed open, rattled in its frame. Sam burst through, his ears beet red. A sure sign that Sammy-boy had been on the losing side of the argument. "That man is impossible," he said through gritted teeth.

Tearing off his jacket and tossing it across the room, Sam flopped down onto his bed and closed his eyes. Dean knew from long practice that any attempt to talk would be met with stony quiet or angry words. Sam considered Dean's silence some form of sibling betrayal, as if any sort of rebellion by one brother should be met with support by the other.

Long minutes passed. The door had rebounded off of the wall and shut with a bang, but not before Dean had caught a glimpse of John Winchester standing outside, his face blank and his hands shoved into the pockets of his jacket. He'd looked disturbingly like a lost little boy. Dean sighed. Once more into the breach.

"Dad's right," he said quietly, talking more to the TV than his brother.

Sam snorted, but didn't move. His arms folded across his chest, the very picture of a defiant teenager, Sam's eyes stayed firmly shut. But Dean knew he was listening.

"It's not just you out there, Sammy. And this ain't no weekend picnic. We're at war and we need someone to be in command. That's Dad. You questioning his every step, fighting with his every order, well that's going to get us killed. You hear me, Sam?"

"Yeah, I hear you."

Dean smiled. He knew his little brother would crack first. "So, you know I'm right. Just stop with the emo act and - "

Sam cut him off. "What I don't think, Dean, is that you're listening to yourself. Orders? Command? He's our father Dean, not our general. For God's sake, we could have died out there!"

"We weren't going to die."

"Oh, I'm sorry. I guess running through the woods with a demon on our heels to some unknown point is considered a safe father-son activity."
Dean sighed. "We weren't going to die," he repeated flatly. "Dad was out there."

Sam jumped to his feet. "Dad was using us a bait!"

The two brothers stood for a moment, staring. Sam breathing heavily, fists clenched; Dean sitting in front of the television, the knife in his hand reflecting John Wayne's triumphant shoot-out. Finally, Sam relaxed slowly. Sighing, running his hand across his face, Sam sat back down on the edge of the bed.

"He just never talks to us, you know? I want to find the thing that killed mom as much as anyone. I do. But," Sam looked up at Dean, "I'm sick of being kept in the dark about stuff. It's not worth it. Our life, what he's forced us to become...Dean, it's not what Mom would have wanted."

Dean couldn't sit any longer. Standing quickly, throwing on his jacket, he headed out the door. "Yeah, well, I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have wanted to be toasted by some demon either," he tossed over his shoulder just before shutting the door, "but you take what you get. Bitching and moaning won't raise the dead, Sam."

"Neither will killing everything in sight," Sam muttered to Dean's back.

Out in the cool night air, Dean shivered and zipped his coat. His father was nowhere to be seen. Probably driving around, looking for leads. Or holed up in some bar, plying a potential source with drinks. Either way, Dean was alone and car-less.

He shrugged. Plenty of trouble he could get into without a set of wheels. Flipping his collar up, Dean started to walk into the wind. Downtown Nowheresville was only a mile or so off. Dean intended to find a place with alcohol and attractive women and have himself a good time.

Because, the truth was, Sammy was starting to make just a bit too much sense. Dean had been honestly afraid out there. Every job, it seemed, Dad pushed the edge just a little bit further. The demon tonight was a perfect example. They'd had three or four opportunities to go in and kill it while it slept. But Dad had wanted to find out some stuff, to see if it could lead them to The Demon.

It was always about The Demon. The one that killed mom, the one that started this whole wild existence of hunting and killing and bad hotel rooms. They never seemed to get close enough, though. Tonight the demon lead had turned into a bust; no information gathered, just another notch in the Winchester belt.

As he walked along the road towards town, Dean kept revisiting the chase. That one heart-wrenching moment when he was sure Sam was going to fall. What if he had? What if Dean hadn't gotten the shot lined up in time? What if Dad had been a bit slower, the demon just a bit faster?
What if tonight it had ended?

As much as Dean hated to admit it, their Dad was single-minded and frighteningly tunnel visioned about this. He'd used the brothers before, he'd use them again. He had to.

Dean understood that. And it wasn't as if the senior Winchester wasn't willing to take on dangerous circumstances. Most of the time, their father was pushing them to the background. The rest of the time? Living bait. All in pursuit of this thing, this evil entity that had destroyed their life and was even now poisoning their family. Dean knew it had to be killed. Hell, he wanted to pull the trigger himself.

But Sam was right about one thing. No matter how much they proved themselves, no matter how hard they worked or how closely they towed the line, one thing would never change. They would never become partners for their father. They'd always be just one more thing John Winchester had to think about on a hunt. One more burden to bear.

Dean knew his father loved him. And you'd have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to see the pride in the elder Winchester's eyes when he watched Sam. But what Dean didn't know, what left a cold brick of ice in his gut, was if their father was living for anything past the hunt. If Dad didn't see him and Sammy as people he had to protect rather than sons he had to live for.

Cars whizzed by Dean as he trudged along. Squinting against the oncoming headlights, Dean tried to shake the thoughts off. Didn't really matter that he was clutching his family together desperately, that every day he could feel what little he had left draining out of his grasp. Couldn't deal in 'maybes' and 'if onlys'. If only the demon hadn't chosen them. If only their father had been a bit quicker up the stairs. Maybe if Dean had reacted better, maybe if he had been smarter or stronger...

Maybe. All the wishes in the world couldn't change what was happening, though. John Winchester would do what he thought was right by his family. Just like he always had. And Dean would follow him, but not because he was always right. Not even because Dean agreed with him, thought he did most of the time. Just because Dad and Sam were all he had left. And thoughts of losing them crushed him.

As long as he was strong. As long as he didn't miss a step. As long as he could keep doing the job. Everything would work out all right in the end.

Dean finally reached the bar he'd remembered passing on their way to the motel. "The Bear's Tooth" was blinking in neon glory over the rusty metal door. Dean stepped inside, breathed deep of stale air and cigarette smoke. One quick glance around the room proved that John Winchester was not inside. Dean moseyed over to the bar and ordered a beer.

Peering across the room, he spotted a table full of scantily clad women. All were eyeing him; feral hunters sizing up the prey. Dean shot them a crooked smile. Grabbing his drink, he walked over to their table.
"Why, hello," he said smoothly. "Name's Dean. Mind if I join you?"

Disclaimer: None of it is mine. Wish it was.

A/N: Thanks to Mermaidrain for her beta. Just a little angsty musing. Let me know what you think.