Obligation

Disclaimer: See chapter 1

A/N: Thanks to everyone who read this one – it probably wasn't easy to find with the alerts down. Again. Ugh. I digress… Thanks, also, to Kelli for her beta reading and never-ending support. I appreciate the reviews – I've been called a review whore before and I have to admit, it's kinda true. LOL. Until next time!

oooOOOooo

The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other -

Mario Puzo, The Family

oooOOOooo

John was almost at the car when he heard glass breaking. He heard a gunshot and prayed that Sam hit the rougarou. When he heard his younger son yell, another burst of energy spurred him on. He heard another gunshot and when he reached the car, his heart nearly stopped.

"Dean?"

He'd never seen quite that expression on his son's face. He was pointing his gun at the creature as it stood over a bleeding Sam, staring at Dean. Dean's face looked angry and afraid at the same time; his hand was shaking.

"Dean, son –"

John moved forward carefully; he didn't have a clear shot of the thing. Before he could reach his son, Dean fired his gun again. The creature howled, and seemed about to lunge at him, but fell to its side instead. Dean didn't move; he kept his gun pointed forward and didn't respond when John called his name.

The older man moved slowly, not wanting to startle his son. He spoke to him softly as he pulled the gun from his taut fingers. He turned his attention to Sam, who lay on the ground unconscious and bleeding. Even before getting a good look, John could see that his hand was turned at an odd angle and there were deep gashes on his face.

This wasn't Dean's first kill. A few weeks before they had been out with Aidan and Caleb, hunting a black dog, and it was Dean's weapon that took it out. But that hadn't turned into a human at death, nor had it hurt his brother. John recognized Dean's reaction; he'd seen it in other new hunters. He'd been the same way himself. But he didn't have time to coerce Dean into movement. There was never time for gentleness in the field.

"Dean," John said harshly. He needed to get help for Sam and he couldn't do that if Dean was standing as if in a trance. "You need to snap out of it, kiddo. Sammy – your brother – needs you."

John didn't wait for Dean to react; he took off his jacket and used it to wipe the glass from the back seat. When it was as clean as he could get it, he picked Sam's limp body up from the ground and laid him in the car. He called Dean's name as he worked and, finally, the older boy seemed to shake himself out of his stupor.

"Oh god, Sammy! Dad –"

"Get your gun, Dean, and get in the car. Sammy needs a doctor."

Dean looked at him in surprise, but did as he was told. He knew that Sam had to be hurt badly or his father never would have suggested a doctor. He had the skills of a field medic and could handle almost any injury on his own. Doctors and hospitals were always a last resort because they tended to ask questions that weren't always easy to answer.

He got into the car as he was told and John quickly hid the now human body of the rougarou. A moment later they were headed back to town.

oooOOOooo

"Hey, Slick," Aidan said. It had been several minutes since Dean got off the phone with his brother and he hadn't said anything. "You hungry?"

Dean shook his head and moved to the window. He stared into the parking lot.

"What's going on?"

"It was my fault, man."

"What?"

"That Sammy got hurt. It was my fault."

"How do you figure that?" Aidan asked gently. "Because it's your job to look out for him?"

Dean glanced at his friend from the corner of his eye.

"It was a hunt, Slick. Things happen and people get hurt. Sammy never should have been in that car." Aidan stopped himself. He didn't agree with how John was raising his sons, but he swore he would never speak ill of the man in front of them. "Look, he's going to be fine. He'll be out of that hospital in a couple of days and back with you giving you crap."

"I don't mind him giving me crap if it means he's okay."

Aidan hesitated, then stood next to Dean and put his hand on his shoulder. "He is okay, Dean. So what the hell was in doing in the car, anyway? I thought your dad normally left him in a motel room."

"He does," Dean nodded. "But there were bikers and…"

"Bikers?" Aidan tensed.

Dean looked at him. "What?"

"Nothing. So John didn't think he'd be safe at the motel?"

"This is bullshit, man," Dean grumbled as he pulled away from Aidan. "What do you know about the bikers? Dad saw something – that's why he didn't want to leave Sammy. He wouldn't tell me. He just blew me off. What do you know?"

Aidan sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. "Nothing much. I just know that there's someone your dad had a pretty bad falling out with and he hangs with bikers. Probably just a coincidence."

Dean grunted. "Right."

"Look, this is something you need to talk to your dad about."

Turning from the window, Dean couldn't help but laugh. "Dad has us all on a need to know basis. He's not going to tell me anything."

"It's not my place, Slick."

Dean sat on the edge of the bed and glared at him. He wasn't angry at Aidan; not really. He knew the man had to walk a fine line with John. Aidan was close enough to Dean's age to understand him, but he was adult enough to understand his father, too. Aidan also felt a great deal of loyalty to the man. It was John who found him after his parents had been killed by a demon. He left the young boy in the care of Pastor Jim, but took a keen interest in his upbringing. He was somewhere between a younger brother and a third son.

Aidan leaned against the nearby desk and sighed. "I don't really know that much about it. I was with your dad once when we ran into the guy; I don't even know if I'd recognize him again. He didn't tell me anything more than I've already said."

Dean nodded.

"You know your dad. He'll come around eventually and tell you what you need to know."

"Yeah," Dean said with an uncharacteristic grumble. "What I need to know."

Sam was asleep and John sat guard next to his bed. Things hadn't really been easy since Mary's death, but they were easier when the boys were younger. They were always together; John never felt like he was torn between them. He had a responsibility to Sam; he was really still just a little boy and shouldn't be left alone in the hospital. But he also had a responsibility to Dean; one he tended to ignore. Dean was always so capable of taking care of himself that John too often left him to do that.

But between Sam being hurt and Dean killing the rougarou, John knew that his older son needed him. He talked to Dean again a few minutes ago and was worried about how he sounded. Aidan assured him the boy was all right, but John wasn't convinced. The fever hadn't returned and Dean insisted he didn't feel sick, so John acquiesced and told him he could visit his brother.

Sam spent most of the evening sleeping, which the doctor warned John would happen. He would occasionally whimper in his sleep, but a hand on his arm or a soothing word was enough to calm him.

John looked toward the door when it opened a few minutes later. Dean walked in, followed by Aidan, who nodded to John and took up a place across the room. He stood next to his father, looking closely at Sam.

"He's been asleep for a little while," John said quietly. "The doctor said he'd sleep a lot for the next day or so."

Dean nodded, wordlessly.

John stood up and patted Dean's back. "I'm going to take a little break."

Before walking out of the room, he gave Aidan a pointed look and the other man followed him into the hallway. After a pit stop in the men's room, they settled in a lounge with bad coffee.

"Dean told me about the bikers," Aidan said offhanded.

"Oh yeah?"

He nodded. "Yeah. And he said you saw something and that's when you decided Sam needed to come with you. Was it your friend?"

John looked at him, but couldn't quite manage anger. "He's not my friend."

"So he was there?"

"What did you tell Dean?"

"Nothing much. Just that you had a falling out with someone who'd hung out with bikers –"

"Great."

"Oh come on! He was already curious. Hell, John, he wants to know everything you know. He wants to be as good as you are at hunting. He thinks he missed something."

John leaned back in the overstuffed chair. "I don't want either of the boys to know about Marshall."

"I don't understand this need you have for secrecy –"

"You don't have to understand it. You just have to realize it's my decision."

Aidan sighed. "I understand that, but I don't agree with your decision. You expect Dean to protect Sammy, but you don't tell him what to protect him from. How can he do the job you gave him without all the facts?"

"Aidan –"

"So what is it with this guy, anyway?"

Now it was John's turn to sigh. "He's just not a good guy."

"He's a hunter."

"Not all hunters think the same way."

"Ain't that the truth," Aidan muttered. "So what happened between you two?"

At first John wasn't going to answer, but suddenly he felt like he needed to talk about it. Only one other person knew the real reason that John now refused to hunt with Marshall King and Pastor Jim would never betray John's trust.

John briefly closed his eyes. "He knows about Sammy."

Aidan was confused; he leaned forward. "He knows what about Sammy?"

"He knows my suspicions."

"What? That Sammy is somehow involved with whatever killed Mary?"

"That makes it sound like he was complicit in her death. He was six months old –"

"I know, I didn't mean it that way. So this biker guy knows that and…?"

"He has ideas of his own. He agrees that Sammy is somehow tied to this thing and that it will eventually come back for him. For some reason, he also thinks that Sam will go willingly and turn on us."

Aidan opened his mouth to speak, but could think of nothing to say.

"If he'd just stopped with the opinion, I could have lived with that, but he went further."

"What do you mean?"

"He wanted to take Sammy away. He wanted to study him, find out what tied him to the thing that killed his mother. Then he wanted…." John looked away.

"He wanted what?" Aidan asked, barely above a whisper.

"He thought Sammy should be… destroyed. That's how he put it. Destroyed."

"Jesus," Aidan breathed.

"So that's why I couldn't leave Sammy alone there. I was afraid Marshall would see me and Dean leaving and just assume…."

"Yeah, yeah," Aidan ran his fingers through his hair.

"So, instead, Sam gets hurt in a hunt."

"You had no way to know that was going to happen. Do you think that guy has shared his ideas with other hunters? Was he at the same motel because he knew you were there?"

"Yes and I don't know."

Aidan just stared at him. He didn't know what to say.

"That's why I'm so careful about who I let near the boys."

"Jesus," was all Aidan could think to say.

Dean was sitting in the chair John vacated when he heard Sam's breathing become more labored. His head turned from side to side and he grimaced. Dean leaned forward and laid a hand on Sam's arm.

"Sammy?"

He pulled away, crying out softly. Dean knew he was dreaming; probably having a nightmare about the attack.

"Wake up, Sammy," he said, shaking him gently. "Sammy…."

The younger boy awoke with a start, his eyes wild with fear. He relaxed as soon as he saw his brother, but his hands shook lightly.

"Dean…."

"Hey, Sammy."

"I thought you were sick."

"Nah, I told you that I was already feeling better. You okay?"

He tried to sit up while looking calmer than he felt. Dean recognized it as an act and held him down with a hand on his chest. "Take it easy."

"Where's Dad?"

"He went off with Aidan; he'll be right back." Dean moved to the edge of the hospital bed. "What were you dreaming about?"

Sam looked embarrassed.

"It's okay, you can tell me."

"Just – it just pulled me out of the car, Dean. I didn't see it coming and …."

Dean watched as Sam closed his eyes and struggled not to cry. He hadn't seen tears from his brother in a long time, but he didn't see it as a weakness. He and John strived to keep Sam away from the worst of their life and he hated to see him so scared now.

"I know, Sammy. I'm sorry. Dad and I – well, I should have protected you –"

Sam looked at him. "You killed it."

"Yeah, but a little too late."

"But you killed it," Sam said, a bit in awe. "That's cool."

"Yeah," Dean whispered, feeling more like a failure than someone who had done something to warrant praise. He watched as Sam's eyes fluttered closed.

Sam absently reached out with his non-injured hand and held fast to the sleeve of his brother's shirt. Dean moved closer and rested his hand on Sam's arm.

"Don't go," Sam muttered as he fell asleep.

I'm right here, Sammy. I won't leave."

Aidan paced behind John. He was having a hard time believing that one of them, one of the hunters, wanted to destroy Sam. That isn't how they operated. They got rid of evil things, not innocent little boys. He didn't believe there was anything that could make Sam turn on his family; marked by the thing that killed Mary or not.

"What are you going to do?" he finally asked the father.

"The same thing I've been doing. I'll keep Sam away from hunters I don't trust and keep looking for the thing that killed Mary."

John said it so matter of fact that it sounded like a home improvement to do list. Aidan stopped pacing and looked at his friend. His back was to him and he couldn't see John's expression, but he could imagine the firm set to his jaw and determined look in his eyes. Aidan thought there should be more to say about the subject, but he didn't know what.

"Can you take Dean back to the motel?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Give me a minute alone with the boys first?" John said, pausing at the waiting room door.

"Take as long as you want."

John nodded his thanks and headed to Sam's room. He stood just inside the doorway, fighting to keep the tears that suddenly sprang into his eyes from falling. Both boys were asleep in the hospital bed. Sam's head had fallen to the side and was resting on his brother's shoulder; his hand held a fistful of Dean's shirt. John laid a gentle hand on Dean's face and found no trace of the earlier fever. He decided there would be no harm in letting him stay with Sam overnight.

Sam was feeling better the next day and John felt comfortable enough to leave him under Dean's watchful eye. He saw the motorcycle parked in a spot near his motel room and though it could have belonged to anyone, he knew it was Marshall King's. He stood next to the Impala and looked around, but saw no one. Before going to the room, he took a gun from the trunk and slipped it into the waistband of his jeans.

"Hello, John."

He calmly closed the door behind him and leaned against it. Marshall King was sitting on the closest bed.

"Marshall."

"How's your boy?"

"What do you want?"

"It's been a long time."

John stared at him. The man's thick southern accent irritated him; he sounded too genteel to be someone willing to kill a young boy.

"So is he showing any signs?"

"Fuck you, Marshall. My son is none of your business."

"You know, I'd lost track of you. The great man is good at keeping a low profile, even among hunters. You can't protect him forever, John."

John said nothing.

"When my friends and I pulled into that motel parking lot, I saw the Impala right away. Not exactly a low profile car, my friend. I saw you come out of the room and sneak it around the back – that's when you must have gotten the boys. I followed you, keeping out of sight, of course. I thought about taking Sam when you left him in the car, but obviously I changed my mind," Marshall stood up. "Dean did a good job of shooting the rougarou. I took care of the body, by the way. I figured you had enough to worry about with Sammy in the hospital."

John continued to glare. He pulled the gun from his waistband and held it loosely in front of him, pointed down.

"Why are you here?"

"Just wanted to check in. You know, reconnect."

"You leave my son alone, you hear me?"

"We're all in danger, John. That thing that got your wife –"

"You know what it was?" John asked, showing no emotion.

"No. Not yet. But Sammy –"

"Leave. My. Son. Alone." John held the gun more securely, but didn't quite point it at the other man.

There was a slight smile on Marshall's face. "I'm not alone, John. If you kill me, there will still be others. Others who think Sam is a threat."

"My son is no threat. He's a kid. He's a kid who lost his mother when he was a baby. That's all he is."

"You don't believe that, John. I know you don't. We talked about it –"

"I said I thought the thing was drawn to him or marked him. That's what I believe," John said coldly. "Now, it would be a really good idea for you to get the hell out of here."

John moved away from the door, his eyes never leaving Marshall. The other man picked his jacket up off the bed and slipped it on. "It's not over, John."

Once Marshall was gone, John calmly put his gun on top of the television. He paced for a few minutes, then slammed his fist into the wall.

"There's a family emergency," John said to the doctor later. "I need to go to help take care of things – is Sam well enough to travel?"

The doctor looked skeptical, then glanced through Sam's chart.

"I'd rather he stay in the hospital for at least another day, but I think he's okay for the road trip you described. He'll need some special care and medication, but he should be all right. I'll get the paperwork started."

"Thanks."

When John turned around a moment later, he saw Aidan staring at him.

"John –"

John led him to the waiting room down the hall. "Marshall was in the motel room when I got there."

"What?"

"I want to get Sammy out of here."

"You think he's going to try to get to him?"

John shook his head. "No, I think he probably left town, but I want to get Sammy away from here. I'll head to Jim's; at least there he can still rest. Jim will fuss over him like a mother hen. When he's better, we'll disappear again."

"You're that afraid of Marshall?"

The older man said nothing for a moment; he only walked across the room and rubbed his chin.

"John?"

"What if he's right?"

"Who? Marshall?"

John nodded. "What if it comes for Sam and – and he goes willingly?"

"Why would he do that? Sam loves you and Dean – he's not going to turn on you."

"What killed Mary? And why? How is Sammy involved?"

Aidan stood next to his friend and put a hand on his shoulder. "I don't know, John, but we're going to find out. And in the meantime, we'll keep Sammy safe."

They stood quietly for a few minutes. "You need to tell them."

John looked at Aidan. "What?"

"You need to tell the boys what's going on. You can't keep this from them."

"I'm supposed to tell them – tell Dean – that his little brother is somehow tied to the thing that killed his mother and might try to kill him some day?" John laughed without humor. "And I'm supposed to say the same thing to Sammy? No, Aidan. That's not going to happen. Until I know exactly what I'm up against, the boys will know nothing. And if I'm lucky, I'll never have to tell them."

Aidan sighed and watched as John walked out of the waiting room.

Dean looked at his father. They'd been on the road for almost three hours without talking. Sam was asleep in the back seat. Dean hadn't seen the car, but he knew Aidan was behind them. He also knew they were running and that wasn't something they did often. They finished a job and moved on, but they didn't normally run.

Dean saw the familiar set of John's jaw; the one that told him that John wouldn't answer any of his questions. But he saw something else in his father's eyes. It was something he'd seen before, but not very often. His father was afraid of something.

He saw John's eyes flicker to the rearview mirror; it was positioned so that he could see into the back seat. Dean looked over his shoulder and saw that Sam was still sleeping. He'd gotten a little tangled in the blanket that covered him, but he was peaceful.

"We'll stop at the next town," John said, the sudden noise startling Dean. "It will be time for your brother's medicine soon and he'll need something to eat."

"Yes, sir." Dean saw John glance at him.

"Something on your mind, son?"

Dean quickly went over his options. He didn't think there was much hope of his father telling him the truth, but, for a change, he felt he needed to voice his questions. He decided a less than direct line would work best.

"Sammy shouldn't have been taken out of the hospital this soon. Something big must be going on."

"You know hospitals can be dangerous. Insurance fraud isn't such an easy thing to get away with."

"Yes, sir," he paused. "Does this have anything to do with those bikers we saw at the motel the other night?"

Dean saw his father's hands tense on the steering wheel.

"I know what Aidan told you," John said. "But I don't want you to worry."

"Was he there?" Dean asked. "The hunter Aidan said you'd had a falling out with?"

John tried to smile. "There are a lot of people I've disagreed with over the years, Dean. It's only a matter of time before I run into all of them again."

"You don't run from your enemies."

John looked at him briefly. "I'm not running. I'm taking you and your brother to Pastor Jim's so Sam can get well."

Dean knew there was more to it than that.

"What was the disagreement?" he ventured to ask.

"It doesn't matter," John sighed. He glanced at his son again and couldn't miss the worry on his face. "We don't see eye to eye on a lot of things."

Dean turned to the backseat when he heard Sam groan. His eyes were still closed, but his brow was furrowed.

"It's okay, Sammy," he said and reached over the seat to touch is brother's arm.

John pulled into a diner parking lot in the next town a few miles down the road.

They made it to Jim's the next day and, a few weeks later, the only real reminder of Sam's time in the hospital was the cast on his wrist. They talked about the possibility of Sam becoming a rougarou, but it never happened. John wasn't sure which theory that proved. It could be that once the creature that turned someone was dead, the curse ended. It could also be that the one who attacked Sam had not passed the 101 day requirement – or maybe there wasn't a 101 day requirement. John made notes in his journal and knew he would follow up eventually.

He refused to speak any more of Marshall King; Dean never even knew what the man's name was.

But he wasn't out of their lives. A year later, John was working a job with Caleb and Aidan and had sent the boys to spend some time with Pastor Jim. The job was a relatively complicated haunting in Louisiana and the location wasn't lost on John. He couldn't help but think back to the rougarou and Sam's hospital stay.

They finished the hunt and were celebrating in a redneck bar when John saw Marshall from the corner of his eye. He and three other leather-clad bikers had just come through the door and were getting settled in a corner table. He saw Marshall look at him pointedly before he headed to the men's room.

John followed him without a word to his friends.

"Louisiana your home base now, King?" John asked from just inside the door.

"Seems to be where we keep running into each other," he said casually as he stood in front of a urinal. He finished his business and then moved to the sink, washing his hands with deliberate slowness and watching John in the mirror. "How are the boys?"

"Fine."

Marshall nodded and then dried his hands, compulsively rubbing each finger.

"So, your boy didn't turn."

John didn't respond.

"Maybe that's because of his tie to Mary's killer."

Still, John said nothing.

Marshall sighed. "I have some information for you. I put a bunch of stuff in the mail to you at Jim's address. It's fortuitous to see you here."

"What information?" John asked coldly.

"We've found others like your boy. Others who are involved with the demon that killed your wife."

"Demon?" John repeated. He'd often suspected it, but had not been able to find proof.

"That's right. And there are other children. Well, not all of them are children anymore; the thing has been at this a while. It's amassing an army, John. We don't know when they will strike, but they will. And Sammy will be with them."

John said nothing, but this time it was because he didn't trust his voice not to falter.

"We're going after the children, John. We have to. We have to get the upper hand –"

"You're insane," he finally whispered. "You're killing innocent people!"

"They're not innocent!" Marshall hissed. "They're tied to the demon and they're going to attack unless we can stop it. So, we're going after the children one at a time as we find them."

"Stay away from my son, King. Don't come near him; don't even say his name. If I see you within five hundred miles of him, I'll kill you."

Marshall stared at him with cold, grey eyes. "You'll have to."

oooOOOooo

John walked upstairs when he and the others got to Jim's house. It was late and he was sure the boys were asleep, but he wanted to see them.

"John?"

He saw Jim at the top of the stairs; he was wearing a robe and slippers.

"I want to see the boys. Aidan and Caleb are in the kitchen. I'll be down in a few minutes."

Jim looked at him curiously, but moved aside so John could get to the boys' room.

He stood in the doorway, watching them sleep for a few minutes before going into the room. Dean was splayed out on the bed, the blanket kicked to the side. Sam was curled into a ball, burrowed under the covers. John sat quietly on Sam's bed and brushed the bangs away from his eyes. If he looked close enough, he could still see some scars on Sam's face from last year's attack, but they were easy to miss.

"Dad?"

John looked to the other bed. "Hey, son."

"Why are you here?"

"We got done with the job and decided to head back. We made good time."

"Everything go okay?"

"Yeah."

"Sammy all right?" Dean looked at his brother, concerned.

"He's fine."

John saw skepticism in his older son's eyes.

"Go back to sleep. I'll see you in the morning." He stood, but patted Dean's leg before heading to the door.

"Dad?"

John paused at the doorway. "Yeah?"

"I'm glad you're home."

He smiled. "Me, too."

"What's going on, John?" Jim asked after ten minutes of silence.

They were all seated around the kitchen table, each with a beer in front of them. Aidan and Caleb exchanged a look.

"Well?" Jim prompted.

"I ran into Marshall King."

Jim's expression darkened.

John stared at his beer. Jim looked from Aidan to Caleb, but neither spoke.

"And what happened when you ran into Marshall King?"

"Is there an envelope here for me?" John asked, still looking at the beer.

Jim was confused. "What?"

"He told me he put information in the mail to me. Has it come yet?"

"Yes, it came today. But you're not getting it until you tell me what happened."

John glowered at him. "He said he has proof that what killed Mary was a demon. He found a connection between nursery fires and people who develop skills."

"Skills?"

"From telekinesis to mind reading and more." John said. "He and a few other hunters have been tracking down people whose mothers died in nursery fires when they were six months old. They study them and eventually kill them. He's threatened to go after Sammy –"

"What did you do to him when you ran into him?"

John didn't look away. "He won't be coming after my son."

When Dean came down stairs the next morning, John was at the table with a large mug of coffee and paper spread out in front of him. As soon as his father saw him, he gathered everything up and stuffed the paper into the folder.

"What's all that?" Dean asked as he poured a cup of coffee for himself.

"Just research for a new job."

"Can I go on this one?"

"Nowhere to go yet, kiddo. Sammy still asleep?"

"No, he's taking a shower. I told him I'd take him to the bookstore in town this morning. We weren't expecting you home until later and Jim said I could use his car."

"That's fine."

Dean knew his father was distracted. It usually took him a couple of days to come down from a big hunt, but it looked like he was already onto the next one. Dean had been hoping for a little time with his father before he started working again. Disappointed, he took his coffee mug upstairs.

Years later, Dean would remember this moment in detail and would think of it as the day he truly lost his father to the hunt.

oooOOOooo

After they left Jim's, the Winchesters rented yet another rundown house. Dean knew if it wasn't for school, they wouldn't even have that. John was spending more time on the road and working hunts that he wouldn't talk about. He'd always been secretive, and Dean understood the need to know basis that his father operated under, but the intensified silence still made him nervous.

He felt the need to be even more obedient than he had been before because Sam was becoming increasingly more questioning. It had been a long time since he actually took anything their father said at face value, but more and more often he was appearing defiant and Dean often found himself in the middle of an argument between them. All he wanted to do was maintain peace and that was hard with as secretive as their father was these days.

He also felt more of a need to protect Sam, though he didn't understand why. He never questioned his father's love for him, but he sometimes wondered if he was as important as Sam. His father had always been concerned for the younger boy's safety, but it was something else that increased in the last few months. Dean never minded taking care of his brother, but once in a while he felt like that was all he was good for.

The hunts that he did go on with his father were always good times for Dean. It was often the only time they had alone together and he was praised for doing a good job. All he really wanted was his father's acceptance and his brother's love. He knew how Sam felt about him, but the only time he felt his father's acceptance was on a hunt.

They saw their friends less frequently as time passed. Aidan and Caleb still came around, but not as often as before and their visits were often tense when John was there. Eventually, they would only visit when they knew John was gone and there were never any hunts together.

As time went on, Sam and Dean saw John less and less. Sam got older, he got bigger, and eventually he stopped listening to their father altogether. The fights got worse and sometimes became physical, with Dean intervening to keep them from hurting each other. Against John's wishes, Sam applied to colleges and was accepted to a prestigious university. He didn't back down when John forbade him to go. Instead, when John issued the ultimatum that he could never come back if he left, Sam packed his few belongings and left the house that night.

Dean had never felt so lost as when his brother left. His whole reason for being walked out the door with Sam. There was nothing stopping him from hunting full time with his father now, but more often than not, John sent him off in a direction on his own. He was proud that his father thought he could handle jobs alone, but he yearned for the times they were together. He never showed John his disappointment; his father was in charge and Dean knew how to follow orders.

oooOOOooo

"You okay?" Sam asked Dean.

They reunited over two years ago when John went missing; Dean quickly fell into the familiar role of protector and was still getting used to the fact that Sam didn't need him to be a big brother anymore. Despite John's practically deathbed warning that Dean had to save him or end up killing him, Sam didn't want him to be the hero anymore. He wanted his brother by his side; he didn't need to hide behind him.

Dean looked away from the television to glance at his brother. Sam was sitting on the next bed, watching him with a concerned look on his face. Dean realized he hadn't been paying attention to the pay per view movie since soon after the opening credits ran. He'd gotten lost in thought; his mind on the past.

"Yeah, fine."

It wasn't exactly a lie, but it felt like one. He looked away.

"You've been drifting off a lot lately," Sam said casually.

Dean only nodded. Sam stood up and stretched, then grabbed two beers from the small refrigerator in a corner of the room. They were in between jobs, both grateful for a little time off. Their last gig had been exhausting and physically demanding; Dean wouldn't admit his ribs still hurt. Sam handed one of the beers to his brother, then sat on the edge of his own bed, facing him.

"What's going on, Dean?" he asked gently.

Dean normally kept things pretty close to the vest; he was a lot like their father that way. But Sam knew he could get him to talk if he approached him the right way.

"Nothing," he said and took a long swig of the beer.

"Dude, I know you. You're not all here lately and I'm worried about you."

Dean chanced a glance toward him. Sam looked curious. He looked concerned. Hell, he looked like Sam.

"You don't have to worry, Sammy. I'm okay."

Sam watched him. It hadn't been that long ago when a comment like that from him would have sent Dean into a tirade, but he wasn't sure the defeated tone he'd just heard was an improvement.

"What have you been thinking about?"

Dean took another long drag from the bottle. Just when Sam thought he wasn't going to answer, he started to speak. His voice was low and there was a faraway look in his eyes.

"I've been thinking about Dad. Well, not him so much as when we were kids. You remember that time you got attacked in Louisiana? You were like, what? Twelve?"

"Yeah," Sam answered hesitantly. He actually remembered very little about the attack, but he did remember the fear he felt in the hospital and the pain of the recovery.

"Do you remember why Dad didn't leave you at the motel?"

Sam shook his head.

"There was a group of bikers; Aidan thought one of them might have been a hunter that Dad had a falling out with. I asked Dad about it. I never really got a straight answer, but I'm pretty sure Aidan was right. Everything changed not long after that. Dad stayed gone longer; he worked jobs that he never talked about. He made even more sure than usual that I was keeping an eye on you."

"Dean, what does this have to do with anything? It was a long time ago."

Dean nodded, clearly lost in his own thoughts. "I think that's when Dad found out about the yellow-eyed demon."

"What makes you think that?" Sam asked quietly.

"A feeling more than anything else." Dean chanced another glance at his brother, but quickly looked away. "I always tried to do what he wanted, ya know? I knew something was going on; even then. He just wouldn't talk about it."

"He didn't talk about much," Sam agreed. He had no idea where Dean was headed.

"I also think that was about the time he found out for sure that you'd have some kind of ability. And that's why he wanted to keep you away from other hunters. He was afraid of hunters like Gordon; that they'd see you as something to be hunted."

"Come on, man. None of this matters anymore. Dad's gone –"

"He always wanted me to look out for you, but he never told me why. I never knew what I was supposed to protect you from, just that I was supposed to do it. Like I didn't matter."

Sam didn't believe he'd just heard his brother say those words. As much as he loved his father, and despite all the fights, he did, Sam hated what he'd done to Dean. But, at the same time, Sam understood that their father loved him. He knew he could count on Dean and he might have abused that by putting too much responsibility on too young of shoulders, but Sam always felt a little jealous of their relationship.

"Dean, he never thought you didn't matter."

"He tried to kill me."

"He was possessed; the demon did that."

"He didn't try to stop it."

"You don't believe that."

"He left me."

The words were said so softly that Sam wasn't sure his brother had said anything at all.

"Dean –"

His brother waved him off.

"Listen to me," Sam leaned forward, almost touching Dean. "I'm the last one to make excuses for Dad, but I can't let you think he didn't care about you. He gave his life for yours, man."

"Before that, Sammy. When he disappeared? It was me he left. You were gone; he was all I had left. We hardly hunted together after you were gone. He was always off on his own, working on things he wouldn't tell me about. He was probably chasing the demon, even then."

"Where's all this coming from?"

"You asked what I'd been thinking about."

Sam nodded. "Yeah, I did. Look, man, I know Dad hurt you…."

Dean tensed, but Sam didn't stop.

"But he did the best he could. Think about things from his point of view. He lost his wife to something he didn't understand, but then he found out about the supernatural. On top of that, he had two kids to raise and protect." Sam stood up and started to pace. "You're probably right that he knew, or at least suspected, I was somehow tied to the demon. It was my crib Mom died over. And that's probably why he practically kept us in hiding while we were growing up. But Dean…."

Sam paused and sat on the edge of his brother's bed. "Dean, Dad loved us both. He knew he could depend on you because you always tried to be a good son. You always tried to do what he needed you to do."

He saw tears in Dean's eyes and put a hand on his arm. "And you've always been the best brother."

"Even though I didn't save you from that werewolf wannabe?"

Sam prickled, thinking of Madison.

"Hey, I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean –"

Sam nodded. "Yeah, I know. And you did save me. You shot the thing, right?"

"Yeah, I guess I did."

"You've saved my ass quite a few times."

"Yeah, well, I wouldn't be here without you, either." Dean quickly wiped his eyes. "Okay, so, enough sharing and caring for one night."

Sam smiled and nodded. They'd said enough for now.

Later, after they'd gone to bed, Sam listened to the even sound of his brother breathing. He knew how hard it had to have been for him to open up the way he did and he suspected there was still a lot of pain left inside of him. He only recently realized how difficult it was to be Dean – always expected to take care of a younger brother and never allowed to have a life of his own.

He'd told Dean more than once that he would die for him. He would, without question, but he didn't think that compared to what Dean had done for him over his entire life. It started long before the rougarou in Louisiana; it started the day he was born. No matter what would have happened in their lives, Dean would always have been the best big brother ever. Sam knew that and he loved him for it.

Dean shifted in his sleep and it took a moment for the even breathing to resume. Sam settled into his pillow, matched his breathing to his brother's and went to sleep.

fin