Tag for "Heart." What a brilliantly acted ending. It really was heart-breaking.

Special thanks, as always, to gemini grl11 for editing this for me, even over her busy weekend. She helped me make this much better than it originally was.

I don't own Supernatural. Reviews welcomed.



Dean had never seen a man nurse a single bottle of beer for almost two hours. But he'd watched Sam do just that to twelve of them over the past day. Sam was drinking them so slowly that he was avoiding getting drunk.

Or maybe the alcohol was just getting crushed in the black hole of his little brother's depression.

Sam had been sitting on a chair in their motel room since Dean had guided him in there. He stared at the wall, barely moving except for the almost constant crying. He breathed, he drank slowly, he cried, but he didn't utter a word.

Not one word for more than a day.


Dean did precisely as he was asked. He waited while Sam marched into the other room of Madison's apartment. He listened for the gun shot that would kill her. He fought down the urge to run to Sam's side when he heard it, to try and take away the agony he knew that the younger man was drowning in. It was a battle that he almost lost.

It was impossible to keep his mind's eye from putting himself in Sam's place. Keeping his promise had never seemed more impossible. He thought again about the look Sam had given him before entering the room. For the first time, he thought Sam might understand why Dean had resisted the promise so strongly…how hard it would be to kill someone you cared about, no matter how logical the reason.

It was something he had privately hoped that Sam would never have to comprehend.

He waited until Sam moved slowly back into view, and time seemed to stop.

Sam was there physically, but his little brother was just gone. Dean searched his eyes, but they were just empty, tear-soaked orbs of pain. It took everything he had to take a halting step forward and lay his hand on Sam's shoulder. It didn't look like Sam even felt it.


"We have to go, Dean." Sam interrupted gruffly. He didn't sound like Sam at all. But he did sound a lot like John Winchester.

Dean followed him out to the car, waiting for something…he didn't know what. He kept waiting to hear something, or to think of something to say. But nothing came.

When they got to the car, Sam seemed to forget how to operate the door. Dean opened it and pushed the tall zombie that had replaced his brother down onto the seat.

"Stay here, okay? I'll be right back."

Sam just stared at the dashboard as if he'd never seen one.

Dean re-entered the house and grabbed their duffel bag. He hated himself for what he had to do, but it was necessary. They'd left too much evidence. And they couldn't take a chance leaving the body like that. He let the hunter side of him, the detached warrior that John Winchester had created, take over. It was the only way he could act without despising himself for it.

He saw Madison's body, by the table where she'd fallen. Blood soaked her chest, covering her and Sam's shirt that she was still wearing. He begged Sam's forgiveness in advance, then gathered her and the crimson-tainted clothes and carried her into the bathroom, laying her as gently as he could in the tub. He paused.

Sam had been there the entire previous day, and Dean was pretty damn certain what he'd been doing a lot of that time. He stalked into the bedroom and tore the sheets off the bed, and carried them into the bathroom as well.

Using the sheets like a shroud, he laid them over Madison. A quarter of a carton of salt, and a long stream of accelerant, and match…that was all it took. He used the shower head---fortunately one of the hose-attached kinds that could be taken off the wall---to spray down the walls and floor so that the fire wouldn't spread.

He tried to ignore the stench, and the deafening smoke alarm, while he wiped down as many surfaces as he could think of for fingerprints. He had no idea where Sam and this girl had been the previous day, so it was impossible to get everything. But he did the best he could.

By the time he returned to the bathroom, the flames were already subsiding. The mound of cloth was a smoking, blackened heap. He prayed there wasn't enough blood or DNA, of any kind, left. There were still enough flames burning to take care of the rest.

He swore he saw Sam in that heap as well.

He glanced at his watch. He'd been in there for almost an hour. The lack of sirens indicated that no neighbors were home, which Dean supposed was a glimmer of good news. They didn't need any more police encounters.

With alarm, he suddenly realized that he'd been in there for almost an hour. That he'd left Sam in the car, alone, for almost an hour. He grabbed the bag and bolted, slamming the door shut as he rushed outside.

There'd been no need for him to rush. Sam was sitting right where he'd been placed. Only now, he was doubled over. Dean heard the sobbing from the doorstep.

The hunter inside him vanished, leaving the big brother in charge again. He strode quickly to the car and tossed the duffel in the back. Kneeling beside the still open passenger door, he reached in and took Sam by the shoulders. There was no reaction.


No response. Nothing but sobs too painful to listen to.

After a few minutes, he gave up and closed the door. He drove back to the motel without saying anything, without turning the radio on, and mostly, without even watching the road.


The past twenty-four hours had been a blur, even though an outside observer might have called it monotonous. Sam sat, nursing beer after beer from the two cases Dean had bought the night he was alone in the motel. He would just stare blankly and then cry. On and off for hours on end.

Dean sat on the other chair, watching Sam. He couldn't tear his eyes away. Part of him, a very big part, was breaking apart right along with his younger brother.

A few half-hearted attempts to speak had fallen on deaf ears. Even fewer attempts to comfort Sam when he wept got less of a response, if that was even possible. What could he say anyway? "It was for the best?" That would just be patronizing.

Dean got up to get water, or use the bathroom, to eat a little, but always returned to the chair facing Sam. He waited. There was nothing else to do.

Not long after, Dean's own feelings of sadness were replaced by anger.

He hated the universe. Hated hunting, and the world, and Dad and the Demon and God. He hated the very existence that had conspired to systematically destroy his brother…that had so cruelly crushed the idealistic boy who Dean had raised. To give Sam a moment, hell, a whole day, of happiness and normality, and then strip it away, tearing Sam's heart to pieces in the process.

How was that even remotely fair? What was it? A life lesson? Fuck that. It was just plain cruel as far as Dean was concerned.

Dean didn't know exactly what happened between Sam and Madison, but from the looks they had been giving each other, and the fact that Sam had stayed there all day and half the night…well, Dean didn't need to have a picture drawn for him. What was worse, he knew what it must have taken for Sam to open up like that.

He'd almost had to twist Sam's arm to get him to go on a simple date with Sarah Blake the year before. That Sam had allowed himself to get so close, so---intimate--- with Madison was a huge step for his brother. Dean would give anything to erase the rest. He wanted to change this more than he'd wanted his father back. Seeing Sam like this made something in his chest wither and die.

He'd carry the look Sam gave him before killing her to his grave. He'd ached to try and stop what was about to happen. He couldn't stand the plea he'd seen in Sam's face. The look that begged his older brother to fix it…like he'd done so many times when they were younger, and that said he finally understood why it was so hard for Dean to promise to kill him. And all Dean could do was stare back. This was nothing anyone could fix. Not even a big brother.

It was early in hour twenty-six when Dean was nearly scared out of his skin by six hoarse, raspy words, the break in the silence catching him off guard.

"Do you think it was me?"

Dean blinked. "What?"

Sam raised his eyes for the first time since Madison's house. What Dean saw scared him. There was just nothing there.

"She was fine…she didn't change. Then, I stayed there…and I…." The tears started again. "Maybe it was me…."

Leave it to his little brother to mull something over for more than a day, and then come to the most self-damning of incorrect conclusions.

Dean slid off his chair, took the nearly empty bottle---what was that, number 13?---out of Sam's hand and braced himself against the arms of Sam's chair so that he filled his brother's vision.

"It wasn't that…I swear to God, it wasn't that. It wasn't your fault."

"Everyone around me dies," came the murmured response.

It was a statement, a proposal, and a chant all at the same time. Sam said it as if he was summing up his entire existence with four condemning words. And Dean hated that too. But, when he spoke, none of his burning anger escaped. He'd bear that by himself.

"Sam…no. Whatever made her a werewolf--- I don't know. But, you didn't make her change. There was nothing we could do."

Sam wasn't listening. He shook his head slowly. "How could I do that? After Mom…and Jess…and Dad…why did I let this happen? What the fuck was I thinking?"


"NO!" Sam grabbed Dean's shirt, like he was angry, but there was no fire behind it.

Dean could have pulled away easily, but he didn't. Instead, he reached up and pulled Sam toward him, stopping when Sam's head was buried in the bend of his neck and shoulder. Sam let out a strangled choking sound, then managed to slide his arms through Dean's. For a little while, the resulting embrace was crushing, but Dean didn't let go.

"Dean…." There it was again, that plea that sent him back in time to when he could fix anything. He just held on tighter. It was all he could do.

"It's gonna be all right Sam, I promise." He whispered.

Sam didn't answer. His breathing hitched and his shoulders trembled, but he didn't say anything.

Eventually, Sam's grip slackened, and those vice-like arms slid down a bit. Sam had finally fallen asleep. Dean was grateful for that. He wasn't sure how much more grieving Sam could have endured, but after a whole day of observing it, he figured Sam was at his limit.

Dean picked Sam up as gently as he could, and half-carried, half-dragged the taller man over to the closest bed. Fortunately, the kid was far too out of it to notice the movement. Dean deposited him onto the bed, adjusted his head onto the pillow, and draped a blanket over him. Sam's exhaustion seemed to have finally caught up with him. He'd run off of grief and alcohol for nearly a day, and now he was spent.

Sinking down to the floor, Dean rested his back against the bed and tried to relax. Sam wasn't the only one who was running on empty. He decided to stay there in case Sam needed anything, and dropped his head against the bed to just let himself zone out. He felt Sam curl into a ball behind him.

He followed his brother into an exhausted sleep moments later.


Dean woke to the smell of toast and the scrape-scrape sound of a knife against bread. His neck was sore from lying in the same position for so long. However long it had been. He twisted around, and immediately noticed that Sam was no longer in the bed. He pulled himself to his feet, noting with some dismay the stiffness in his joints. Sleeping on the floor really didn't agree with him.

Sam was standing in the small kitchen across the room. The one good thing about taking jobs in big cities was that even the cheaper motel rooms had a coffee maker...sometimes a microwave. This one had a toaster, as well. He found Sam standing by the counter, making toast from the loaf of bread Dean had bought with the beer. Of course, Dean had only been planning to use it to help mitigate the expected hangover from the beer he'd planned to drink.

Events at Madison's had shot that plan to hell...

He walked over, watching Sam as he approached. The younger man was up and moving, but that blank stare hadn't changed. The current recipient was the toaster; his eyes didn't leave it even when Dean settled against the counter beside him.

Dean didn't have to watch long to realize that Sam was on autopilot. The rhythmic left-right-left-right of the butter knife against the piece of toast in his hand continued robotically, even though the knife had already cut clean through the bread and was currently smearing butter across Sam's exposed fingers. Dean frowned.

"I think that's enough on that one, Sammy," he said softly, reaching over and removing the shreds of bread and the knife from Sam's hands. A quick look verified that the fingers were unharmed. He grabbed a towel and wiped butter off of Sam's hand.

The activity made Sam blink, finally. He glanced toward Dean with a detached expression. "I made you some toast. You didn't eat yesterday."

More than a little surprised that Sam had noticed anything the day before, Dean wasn't sure what to say, so he simply said "thank you."

The edge of Sam's mouth tilted upward briefly, but there was no emotion behind the gesture. Sam merely knew what was expected and was responding the way he thought Dean wanted him to. After all this time, Dean knew his brother well enough to know what was for show and what was real. This was definitely for show.

"Are you okay?" he asked tentatively, afraid to disturb whatever fragile peace had settled over Sam.

"Fine. You?" Automatic. Expected. Another piece of toast went under the knife.

Dean frowned, but said nothing else. He just watched Sam respond in the standard Winchester fashion.

Ignore. Pretend. Repress. Repeat.

Dean knew the act well. He'd learned it from Dad, and Sam learned it from him. Only problem was, this time Dean was pretty sure the issue he was repressing was too big. So big that keeping it in was pushing Sam out.

Sam had always worn his heart on his sleeve…usually to his detriment. Dean could count all the occasions he'd seen the world stomp on that heart. Hell, I can count three this year alone... While he wouldn't change Sam for the world, he couldn't help but wonder how many times it would take before Sam just threw in his towel and left the game altogether.

Not many more, I'd guess….

His staring must have finally been noticed, because Sam glanced in his direction again. No eye contact, another sign of how badly Sam was hurting, but it was more of an acknowledgement than he had gotten previously.

Dean switched tracks, "You need to eat too."

Sam obediently took a bite of toast, chewed, made a face, swallowed, and promptly tossed the bread to the counter.

Frowning again, Dean followed suit, and found out why Sam had discarded it. Most of the toast was either overdone or underdone, and half of it was in pieces from the severe buttering. None of it was edible, even by their standards. Apparently, Sam had been no more attentive during the cooking than he was during the preparation. Dean put his down and turned back to his zombie-like sibling. He'd have to go out and get them something later.

Sam sighed quietly, and then took a breath like he was going to speak, but nothing came out. Dean waited, not wanting to prod any more than he had to. Sam finally started over.

"I'm sorry."

Dean blinked. Not what he'd expected. But then, Sam was always jumping to the wrong conclusion when blame was the topic. Sam continued before he could respond.

"I didn't get it until now…why you…why the promise hurt you so much. I thought--- I just…thought…that it was the only option that made sense. I didn't think about how it would feel…."

When Sam paused for a shuddering breath, Dean edged closer, stopping short of contact for fear of frightening him off. "I know you didn't. I didn't blame you for--- I didn't blame you."

"You should."

Dean shook his head, "Sam---"

"I want to go to her funeral. I owe her that much."

Dean nodded. "Okay. I'll find out where it is."


Madison's funeral came quickly. The immolated body couldn't be viewed, so she was slated for burial almost immediately upon her release from the coroner. Dean found the announcement in the newspaper, which also featured an article on her death. The gory details were all there, and after clipping out a part that he needed, Dean destroyed the paper before Sam could see it.

The only good news was that nothing linking Sam to the scene had been found. The last thing his brother needed was another police investigation…an investigation which Dean had no doubt would conclude that Sam had shot and burned Madison after sleeping with her…probably with a rape accusation to boot.

No, burning the body had been the right thing to do. He just couldn't stomach the idea of explaining that to Sam.

They had to wait two days for the funeral; it took that long for the police to release her remains. Dean spent the time getting them some food, and even managed to get Sam to eat a little. He also got their black suits dry-cleaned.

Sam spent the time staring out the motel window, drinking, and generally pretending that he was still alive. Dean caught him crying in the shower the second day, but didn't say anything, just letting him grieve in private. Sam's infamous independent streak would show itself sooner or later, and Dean couldn't risk getting caught prying or intruding. Sam would likely disown him in a fit of rage.

He didn't know what else to do. Sam hadn't been this devastated since the week after Jessica died…which was appropriate, he figured, since that was the last time Sam had fully opened his heart to anyone outside of his family. Not that we're any easier on him…. How many times did we stomp on his feelings when we thought it was for his own good?

For Dean, the funeral came all too fast. He would have preferred a few more days so that Sam could compose himself…so that he wouldn't be so raw when he had to view the casket. But, like everything else in their lives, even funeral homes seemed determined to make Sam suffer.

Too early in the day for his taste, Dean was standing next to his distraught brother, back along the edge of the cemetery, watching family and friends mourn Madison's loss. They couldn't get too close, lest people start asking about them and how they knew her.

Within two hours it was over. Dean had no clue as to how Sam made it that far. He stood absolutely rigid beside Dean, shoulders slumped, hands locked together to keep them from shaking. Sam was pale, and his face was creased with exhaustion and grief. The kid hadn't eaten more than a bite or two in three days and slept less than four hours in the same period. Still, when the mourners filed away at last, Sam moved up to the gravesite to pay his respects.

After giving him a few minutes in private, Dean stepped silently up behind Sam's stone-still form. Sam turned, somehow knowing he was there, which was unexpected but not too surprising. They'd both had a sixth sense about such things ever since they were children.

When he couldn't stand the stillness of the area anymore, he broke down and spoke. "She, um…she seemed---" he took a breath, "I thought she was nice."

Sam didn't respond, and when Dean saw the solitary tear drip from under the black sunglasses, he feared he might have misspoken. He was about to apologize for the interruption when Sam replied.

"She was. Heh. She liked you, too. She said you were funny." He paused, then added, "We did the right thing, didn't we? Didn't I?"

This question, Dean was ready for. He'd been waiting for it. "Yeah, you did. She didn't want to be a monster, Sam. She didn't want to hurt people. You saved her from that."

They stood quietly, Sam staring at the mahogany coffin, Dean keeping one eye on Sam and the other out for passersby. It was a while before Sam spoke again.

"I slept with her."

Taken aback by the random comment, and the fact that Sam had never been one to share intimate details, Dean let his mouth fall open at that. He was still struggling to find an answer that was appropriate for the setting when Sam kept going.

"I felt--- I thought we had a connection. I think I could have fallen in love with her…. I know--- I know it's stupid. But it's how I felt when I was with her." Sam dropped his head at that; a blush forming as he studiously looked at anything but Dean.

Dean considered that for a moment. He couldn't figure out if Sam was seeking approval or criticism. He honestly couldn't criticize, so he decided on approval. Maybe it would help Sam out of the hole he'd fallen into since the incident. A small part of Dean's mind pointed out that it was never that simple.

"It's not stupid," he started, then rethought it and grinned, "Hey, I'm the one who sleeps with every girl I meet. You actually get to know 'em. You bond with them. And I know I always make fun of you for that, but the truth is…that makes you a better person than me."

Sam snorted derisively. "No…it makes me an idiot," he turned on Dean suddenly, his voice low and shaky and angry, "I'm cursed. Everyone I care for ends up like her. I should have left her alone after the night she didn't change."

Dean hadn't realized how physically and emotionally exhausted he was until he felt the instant and irrational rage at Sam for saying that. He glanced away; the anger threatened to erupt, so he clamped his jaw shut and focused on the horizon. He didn't want to snap, but Sam could be incredibly frustrating when he convinced himself of something. He'd slowly but surely built this illusion of being cursed, so that whenever something went wrong, there was always enough evidence to blame himself for it.

It made Dean angry, but now wasn't the time to argue. He swallowed his ire and turned back to Sam, who was clearly spoiling for a fight. But Dean didn't have the heart to give him one. He wasn't going to feed Sam's self-esteem problem, so he aimed low and told Sam the brutal truth.

"I was in that room, Sam, and I can read people. And I can read women, believe me. When Madison looked at you…she didn't see a curse. You're the one who gave her a chance. She knew you cared about her."

The words hit their mark. Sam's breath hitched and he looked away, focusing on the coffin again. The tremor that worked it way across Sam's lower lip cut Dean. But, sometimes you had to slap Sam to get him to listen. And if telling him something that hurt to hear helped him deal, then Dean was going to do it. It was a little backhanded, but Dean was a big brother first.

Sam turned back to the grave. "Can…can you give me a minute?" The anger was gone as suddenly as it had appeared. Dean didn't press.

"Okay. I'll be at the car."

Sam nodded once in acknowledgement. Dean left him there, but didn't take his eyes off of him. When Sam returned to the car a few minutes later, he didn't say anything. He just dropped into the seat and closed the door. Dean sighed quietly and cast a last look at Madison's resting place before following.


Dean drove them south after lunch. He knew Palo Alto was nearby, and stuck to the coast, hoping to minimize sightings of signs for it. Mention of Stanford was something Sam didn't need right now. Not that Dean had any illusions as to the kinds of memories that Sam was drowning in.

The plan didn't work completely, since they still saw a few road signs for Sam's almost Alma Mater. Dean sped up when he saw them so as to pass them as quickly as possible. Sam appeared too busy staring out the window to notice, but it made Dean feel better, so he kept doing it.

Like the day immediately after Madison's death, Sam didn't speak. The closest Dean got to a reply to anything was a disinterested shrug at the suggestion of dinner.

Eight days after starting the hunt in San Francisco, and four days after her death, they found themselves at a secluded beach near Monterey. Sam clearly didn't want to be there, but didn't object out loud. Dean decided to stay there for a few days to try and coax Sam out of his lingering depression. Hell, they both needed a break.

Sam couldn't even look at a gun, a fact he'd proven quite graphically the previous night. Sam had wandered by Dean while the elder sibling was cleaning the weapons and, to his credit, sat down on the bed and made a halfway decent attempt at starting a conversation. But he'd nearly vomited when his hand accidentally brushed the handgun he'd used on Madison. It sent him straight back into his shell, despite Dean's effort to smooth it over, and he'd retreated to the other bed to bury himself in pillows and blankets…though Dean knew Sam didn't sleep at all that night.

The end result was: they couldn't hunt. Not like this. Not while Sam was still rebuilding his walls. Not while Dean was trying to keep him from bricking himself up completely.

So, Dean decided to work on his tan instead; he drove Sam to the beach every day. The first few times, he had to literally drag Sam out of the motel, but after that Sam just followed him around like an automaton. He'd lie in the sun; Sam would…well, Sam was there, anyway, even if he was miserable.

Sam repetitively drew circles in the sand. It took Dean a little while to notice that the circles were devil's traps, and he wondered if Sam was even aware of what he was doodling. He decided against asking.

The third day on the beach, Sam started talking, at least occasionally. Dean regretted wishing for it after the first few questions. It wasn't so much that Sam was asking questions---hell, he'd been doing that constantly since he was six, much to their Dad's consternation and Dean's amusement. His irritation was stemming more from the fact that he could hear Sam's self-blame in every word.

Nothing Dean did or said seemed to be getting through, and Sam seemed to be twisting everything Dean did say into another reason to feel guilty. He felt like he was being cross-examined at Sam's own private murder trial, as utterly ridiculous as that sounded.

"Dean? Can I ask you a question?" Sam asked quietly, again. He was staring at the blue Pacific and sitting uncomfortably with his arms on his knees. Dean glanced at him over his sunglasses, and couldn't help but use the retort he'd been thinking since the intermittent brotherly interrogation had started four hours earlier.

"Why is it whenever we talk, you only ask questions?"

Sam didn't look at him, but the subtle shift in his demeanor made Dean regret his sarcastic reply.

"Maybe questions are all I have left."

Dean's smirk fell off his face, and he looked at his brother with remorse. "I'm sorry. Ask away."

Sam's mouth worked few a few seconds, like he was trying to build up to something.

"Do you ever think about just letting go?"

Dean frowned, not liking the tone of voice or the direction of conversation. He decided to play dumb and buy time.

"Letting go? Of hunting?"

"No…I remember the Amsterdam idea. I mean…everything. Just ending this."

That's it; he was hiding the guns tonight. He dismissed the question in hopes of turning Sam onto another topic. "Of course not."

Sam looked at him, and even through the two sets of sunglasses, Dean felt those eyes bore into his.

"Don't lie to me. I remember what you said in River Grove."

Squirming under the angry stare, Dean shrugged. Sam had that way of forcing honesty out of him that by turns made him love and resent the guy. "A few times…since Dad died."

Sam nodded faintly. "I bet Dad did too."

Dean glanced at him. A few months back, neither of them could casually mention Dad in conversation…especially in a conversation about death.

How far we've come…. He thought grimly.

He shrugged again. "Maybe. Probably those times we found him hanging out with Jack, Jim and José."

Sam looked back at the ocean, muttering. "I didn't understand then. I was too wrapped up in myself and that crusade to be normal…."

The self-loathing he heard in his brother's voice made Dean feel sick. "Sam, you weren't---"

"Don't. Just…don't." Sam growled softly, cutting him off. Dean could tell the anger wasn't really directed at him, but felt chastised just the same.

He couldn't blame Sam for not listening. He'd known how Sam was feeling about running away to school for a long time, and had done very little to ease his conscience over it. He should have told Sam that he hadn't been selfish to want something more out of life…that he was proud that Sam had tried to spread his wings, should have never let Sam leave for Palo Alto thinking neither his father nor his brother believed in him. But that opportunity had come five years earlier, the night Sam had been thrown out that shabby house by their father…the night Dean should have jumped to his brother's defense. That moment was passed and he'd blown it. He'd tried to tell Sam once, when they'd separated in Indiana, how he'd really felt. But like a lot of things in their lives, he knew it had been too little, too late. And now, the damage was done.

Sam withdrew again, leaving Dean feeling more than a little alone. Sam was in a nose-dive, and wasn't pulling out. What can I say to him? He won't talk about Madison's death…he won't accept that it was the only way….

Dean wondered if maybe he had made the same mistake.

Watching Sam march in and kill Madison was one of the hardest things he had ever done. He knew how vulnerable Sam had left himself…knew how much Sam equated saving her with his own future.

Worst of all, he knew that someday, he might have to "save" Sam the exact same way. He knew that Sam knew it to. That realization gave them more in common than they'd ever had…and also threw a wall up between them.

So, me you won't kill, but her you're just gonna blow away?

Sam had done the right thing, and Dean had to find some way to make him see that. But doing so meant facing up to something he'd been ignoring for weeks.

He looked at Sam, who was morosely doodling again…just a bunch of odd lines in the sand this time. Dean cleared his throat, trying to pretend it was just salt and sand that was choking him.

"I need to tell you something…and I need you to listen." He blurted out. Sam didn't answer, but he looked up from the sand. Dean felt those eyes pin him again. He pressed on before he lost his nerve.

"A while back…when Meg possessed you? After we saw that tape of the hunter she killed…you asked me to keep my promise."

Sam's attention focused on him at that. Dean hadn't told him about this at the time, and it was clear Sam had no memory of it. Dean steeled himself, not knowing how this conversation was going to end, worried that it might backfire.

"I didn't know…I mean, turned out it was her just acting, but…I thought it was you asking. I thought it was you handing me the gun," he looked away, not enjoying the memory, "…and I couldn't do it. I couldn't kill--- I couldn't keep my promise."

He cast a quick glance at Sam, and tried to cover the awkwardness with cheer he didn't feel. "I mean…I'm glad I didn't, now, since it wasn't you talking but---. When the time came, I just couldn't."

Sam's mouth fell open a little, and his Adam's apple bobbed before he answered. "Dean…. You never told me that…."

Dean shrugged it off, shaking his head slightly before turning back to Sam.

"Madison…. She didn't want to be a monster," he said, "You saved her, Sammy. She asked you to save her…and you did."

Sam stared at him silently from behind his sunglasses, so long that Dean feared he had overstepped, that he'd somehow hurt Sam even worse. When Sam spoke, his voice was raspy.

"I'm tired, Dean," he said, reminding Dean too much of his words in that clinic in River Grove, "I'm gonna go to the car, okay?"

Dean nodded, and watched Sam grab his towel and start walking slowly up the hill to where the Impala rested near the road. Dean needed to speak one more time.

"Sam?" When his brother turned, he continued, "I swear I didn't know what was going to happen. I just wanted you to---. I shouldn't have pushed so hard. I'm sorry."

Sam surprised him with a sad smile and a shake of his head. "I know. You didn't push me." He turned and resumed walking up the hill.

Dean knew his sibling probably just needed to be alone. He sympathized with that, but that didn't help suppress the urge to follow...to make sure Sam knew he wasn't alone. Less than ten minutes later, he gave in to his urge and followed.


Three weeks passed while they stayed in Monterey. Dean weaseled his way into the motel staff's weekly poker game so that they could lay off the credit cards. He won more money than he thought he would, but was careful not to rip them off too much. After all, these weren't the usual crowds he hustled, and Sam seemed hesitant to the idea of his cheating hard-working maids and bellboys. Dean agreed to keep his winnings light, usually just enough to buy food once a week.

Sam was slowly growing a little more talkative, and Dean hoped he was coming back to himself at last, but suspected that a lot of it was merely a brave front. He wore his sunglasses a lot, even when he didn't need to. He was hiding behind them…maintaining a wall between himself and Dean's prying concern.

The younger hunter still wouldn't touch the guns.

He seemed to look forward to the time they spent on the beach, though. He was coming along freely, without cajoling or coercion. Dean would never admit it, but he did too. It had been a long time since they'd been able to simply be brothers and not two hunters constantly in danger of being killed. It was a refreshing change, and Dean used it to his advantage.

He'd been getting Sam to talk, usually nothing heavy or serious, just enjoying a companionship that they'd missed since…well, since their Dad's death. Every now and then, Sam would mention Madison. It was often quiet, wistful, but it wasn't as painful a topic as it had been in weeks prior.

Three weeks without a case, and Dean found himself simultaneously itching for a gig, and hoping not to find one. Sam badly needed this, a break from the nightmarish life they led. He needed to put the guilt behind him. But the distraction would likely get him hurt, or worse, on a hunt, so Dean was in no hurry. He made a show of perusing papers and the internet, but it was mostly an act to give Sam a sense that everything was getting back to normal. Well, normal for them.

It was Sam who actually stumbled across one. They were eating dinner, and watching a Fresno news station, when reports of mysterious serial killings were announced. Conflicting reports of people being in two places at once when the killings occurred peppered the report. Sam casually mumbled around a mouthful of hamburger that it sounded like a shapeshifter.

Dean was prepared to ignore it. Let someone else come along…other hunters watched the news, after all. He was nearly ready to blow it off, when he heard the second report. The 'shifter had killed ten people already, and the Fresno PD didn't have a clue. His long-ingrained instinct to hunt warred with the even-longer ingrained need to protect Sam.

His words to Sam over the last few weeks echoed in his mind. He'd told Sam that he'd done the right thing. Saving people was their business. How much of a hypocrite would he be if he told Sam that he'd been right to put his feelings aside, and then placed his own feelings out front when faced with a problem he knew how to solve? More people would die because he didn't act.

That thought ended the internal debate for him. But Sam would be reluctant. He'd pulled so far back from being a hunter in the past few weeks that he was almost in denial.

Dean somehow managed to convince him that they needed to check it out. It wasn't an easy sell. Sam was clearly hesitant, and if that wasn't enough, the look that all-too-briefly crossed his face when Dean brought out the silver bullets was. Sam wasn't ready to get back in the saddle yet. So, Dean compromised.

He decided to hunt the thing himself, and let Sam handle the research side. That way, Sam wouldn't have to handle the guns. His normal .45 might not have been so difficult to deal with, but since they had to use the handguns with the silver rounds…well, even Dean wasn't so dense as to miss the problem there.

Dean…maybe this isn't such a good idea….

Look, Sammy…I'd like nothing more than to spend the rest of my life on a beach. But this thing is killing people…and I can stop it. We need to go to Fresno.

So they went. Sam handled the research, even helped Dean interview the families. He utterly refused to speak to the dark-haired sister of one of the victims. Dean didn't force him to, just let him return to the car and dig online. It wasn't exactly a perfect arrangement, but he wasn't going to push Sam any harder than he had to. The kid had suffered enough already.


They managed to track the thing down in one of the suburbs, posing, they believed, as a male college student living off campus. "His" girlfriend, Amy, seemed to be the next target.

Dean watched them walking down the street in the dark, and waited until they were inside, then armed himself to go in. He offered the handgun---the one Sam still wouldn't touch---to his brother, but Sam stared at it like it was possessed. Sam tried to reach out for it, but pulled back at the last moment. Dean wasn't offended. He knew getting back into hunting was going to be hard.

Instead, Dean laid the pistol down on the seat between them and opened the door. Sam started to protest, sounding more than a little afraid.

"Dean…you shouldn't go by yourself. Maybe…I could just keep a lookout with you…."

"Sam, I can't watch both our backs…and we're running out of time. Just stay here…I'll be back soon."

Sam bit his lip, clearing wanting to object some more, and looking far too young for Dean's liking. It reminded him of better, more innocent days. He plastered his best confident face on and flashed a smile, hoping he looked convincing.

"I've hunted solo before, little brother. I can take care of myself." He pointed at the gun. "Just make sure he doesn't steal the car."

He didn't wait for an answer, just closed the door, flashed Sammy another grin, and moved toward the house.

Dean broke in through the back door five minutes later. He brandished his gun and crept quietly through the house. He hadn't gone far when he saw the guy he was here to hunt. The boyfriend was sprawled against the far wall of the dining room, his throat slit from ear to ear.

Oh, shit… Dean thought with alarm, the girlfriend….

He turned, intent on searching the rest of the house, when something heavy hit him in the back. "Amy" batted the gun from his hands, and punched his three times before he could react. He felt himself slamming through a swinging door between the dining room and living area. "She" landed on top of him again. He managed to bring his hands up to catch hers as she tried to claw at his eyes.

"Amy" and Dean wrestled across the living room, and while he got in a few good punches, the 'shifter still gained the upper hand. Its inhumanly strong fingers were soon wrapped around his neck, cutting off his air completely, and his silver-loaded gun was in the corner, out of reach.

Just make sure he doesn't steal the car.

As last words went, he wished they'd been a little more poignant. He had so much more to say.

He began to see stars, but still clawed at her wrists desperately, trying to weaken the hold. Snake-like skin slid off her arms with a sickening slurp when he tried to get a grip. He was out of options, and almost out of air, when he heard what he could have sworn was a door busting open.


Dean wasn't sure who was more surprised at hearing Sam's voice, himself or the shifter, who'd reared up just in time to take three bullets to the chest. She was catapulted off of him by the impact, landing a few feet away.

Dean would have grinned, if he hadn't been struggling for oxygen.

He heard quick footsteps, then saw Sam's worried face looming over his.

"Are you okay?" came the breathless question as Sam propped Dean's head up.

Dean did grin this time. "You're a sight for sore eyes, little brother. How---?"

Sam glanced up at the fallen 'shifter, then back. "Heard a report over the police scanner…they found Amy climbing out of a sewer across town, she escaped."

Dean rubbed his sore neck, then let Sam help him up. "I guess it's a good thing I let you stay in the car then."

A close look at his brother's shell-shocked expression revealed what Dean suspected. Sam must have acted on instinct when he entered the house. Dean decided to get them moving before Sam had too much time to think…about shooting the gun…or about which gun it was. He retrieved his own weapon and herded Sam outside to the car, rattling off something about leaving before the police arrived.

They pulled off the road a few miles away, on Sam's insistence, so that they could check for injuries. Sam was inspecting a cut on Dean's side, where he'd been tossed over a countertop, when he spoke again.

"Looks okay..." He glanced up at Dean's face with a guilty look, "I should have been watching your back in there."

Dean shrugged. "You did. You got that thing off me."

Sam was not easily thrown off though, and shook his head while inspecting another cut. "I shouldn't have stayed in the car; I should have been inside with you."

"I understood why you weren't."

Sam moved on to yet another abrasion, this one on the small of Dean's back. Boy should have been a triage nurse… Dean thought with amusement. They both had enough training by now.

"Hey, Dean?" Sam called from behind him.


"Thanks for…you know…um…" Sam trailed off, then started again, "Thanks for being there the last few weeks. I-- I know I probably drove you nuts…."

"Don't mention it--- Ow!"

Sam's face appeared over his shoulder, looking contrite, "Sorry, this one needs a bandage."

Dean looked back at him and feigned annoyance. "Well, if it didn't before it does now!" He pulled his shirt back down and started to move back to the driver's side when Sam stopped him.

"Dude, seriously…I…I, um---"

"Hey," he said softly, punching Sam lightly on the shoulder, "I said don't mention it."

Sam glanced away, but then back again. "Want me to drive?"

Dean frowned and pretended to think hard. "I don't know…if your driving is as bad as your bedside manner---"

Sam thrust out his hand, "Give me the keys, jerk."

Dean couldn't help but smile when he looked back. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but some quality that had been missing was back in those expressive eyes. For the first time in weeks, he saw his brother gazing at him. He'd missed seeing him.

He handed over the keys and let Sam walk past him. He made sure their shoulders touched as they exchanged sides. He got a decidedly playful little shove back. He watched Sam get in before sinking on the seat himself. The wound on his back stung, but didn't seem too bad. He adjusted himself so he could keep any blood off the seat, and ended up sideways facing Sam.

Sam spared him a concerned look before adjusting the rearview mirror, and then he stopped, eyes shifting up to the sun visor. He reached up and tugged out a small square.

Dammit…the newspaper clipping, Dean thought grimly. He'd completely forgotten that it was up there. Sam hadn't been driving and hadn't noticed it.

Dean had cut Madison's photo out of the paper when he searched for her obituary. He'd meant to give it to Sam later, when he thought it wouldn't do more harm than good. But he hadn't planned on Sam finding it on his own. He bit his lip, bracing himself for the worst.

Sam stared at the black-and-white photo for a few long moments, and Dean could see his eyes well up. For a moment, he feared keeping the photo was a bad idea. Sam squeezed his eyes shut for a second, then blinked and looked at Dean.

"You saved this for me?" His voice was shaky and rough.

Dean nodded. "I thought--- I thought you might want it. I meant to give it to you."

Sam nodded once, staring at the picture, then meeting Dean's eyes again. The raw gratitude in his eyes was both heartwarming and painful to look at. Sam reached out and placed his hand on Dean's leg, squeezing it.

"Thank you." He didn't say anything else. He didn't have to. It was written all over his face. Dean nodded once, offering a small smile.

I love you too, little bro….

Dean let Sam compose himself in the relative darkness of the car, and busied himself in trying to find a comfortable position. A few minutes later, he heard Sam clear his throat, and pretended not to hear the scratchiness of the words that followed.

"So…where to?"

Dean hesitated, not willing to get back to business if Sam wasn't. He was rethinking the wisdom of hunting solo each time a part of his bruised back leaned too hard against the car door.

"Well…if you're feeling up to it---"

"I'm ready." Sam cut in, quiet, controlled. With just a hint of the pride and defiance that had been so noticeably absent since San Francisco.

"---well, I saw this thing in the paper yesterday…"

"The Weekly World News, again?" Sam interrupted, looking over at him.

"Yeah, saw this thing," smiling when Sam rolled his eyes. His Sammy. "about a haunted movie set in Hollywood…."