Standard Disclaimer: Supernatural and its characters do not belong to me, and I'm using them without permission.

Author's Note: This takes place prior to the events of 2.21. And so it started...


Duty Protect

by Liz Bach

"So who is this lady?"

"I dunno. Some old chick."

Sam rolled his eyes and wiped a hand over his face. Then he sighed and shook his head. "Do me a favor, and don't call her that to her face, okay?"

Dean frowned. "Dude, I'm not an idiot."

"Right." Sam folded his arms across his chest and let his gaze drift to the passenger window. Arizona was brown. It was dirt, and it looked both dead and just beginning to be alive at the same time. The dirt and sand that lined the roads, adorned the lawns, sullied the houses, and caked the cars were simultaneously dull and depressing and yet suggestive of a somewhat wild potential for rebirth and growth. "Well, how did she get your number?"

Dean shrugged, keeping his eyes on the long stretch of barren road. He hummed a few bars of Smoke on the Water and leaned back into the seat, pressing his palms against the steering wheel and relishing the stretch in his shoulders. They'd been in New Mexico when they got the call. Now it was late afternoon, they'd been driving for hours, and the setting sun was beginning its blinding dive into the horizon.

"Dean."

Dean released his stretch and lazily flipped the visor down.

"Dean!"

"Huh?"

Sam shifted, propping his elbow against the door through the open window. He twisted in his seat and leveled an annoyed expression on his brother. "Your number," he repeated firmly. "How did she get it?"

"What is this, twenty questions?"

"It's one question, Dean."

"Two."

Sam pursed his lips in exasperation. "And you haven't answered either one. What the hell is your problem?"

Dean slipped his bottom lip between his teeth and squeezed gently. He kneaded the steering wheel in agitation, and Sam's irritation slowly began to melt into amused curiosity.

"You're fidgeting," Sam said knowingly, not even attempting to hide his burgeoning smile.

Dean wanted to scowl, but Sam's dimples were showing, and it was such a genuine display of ease and good humor that he didn't have the heart. Instead, he reached over and flipped off the tape deck. Without the grind of Deep Purple in the background, the whir of the tires against asphalt filled the car. They had someplace to be, but they weren't in any particular hurry. They were making decent but leisurely progress, and the wind through the windows whipped Sam's hair about his face as he stared down his brother's profile.

"I'm not fidgeting," Dean mumbled under the pronounced road noise.

"Like hell," Sam grinned. "I want to know why. Give it up."

Dean focused his attention straight ahead through the windshield. He swore, sometimes Sam still sounded like a freaking ten-year-old. Then he sighed and cocked his head wearily to the side. "Look, it's not important, okay? Just leave it alone."

Sam's eyebrows lifted jovially, and he sat back into the leather upholstery, the smile still faintly visible on his lips and in his bright hazel eyes. "Okay, man," he acquiesced with a shrug of one shoulder.

They rode on in relative silence for several miles, the small smirk still lingering at the corners of Sam's mouth, before Dean made the mistake of glancing at his brother out of the corner of his eye. Sam sensed his opening.

"So…" he said nonchalantly, wiping his palms down the tops of his jeans-clad thighs. "I – "

"If I tell you, will you shut the hell up and let me drive in peace?"

Sam's eyes widened, a petulant retort at the tip of his tongue. But at the last second, he clamped his mouth shut and just nodded.

Dean rolled his eyes. "Fine."

Sam waited, his hair and a twinkle in his eyes.

"The 'Backer."

Sam kept waiting. When it was clear no further explanation was forthcoming, he raised a quizzical eyebrow. "What?"

"The Linebacker. It's a bar outside of Phoenix."

Sam scratched at the back of his neck. March in central Arizona was abnormally warm this year, and the skin under his collar felt sweaty and grimy. He was looking forward to finding a motel and taking a long, cool shower. Food didn't sound too bad, either.

"You gave some old lady your number at a bar outside of Phoenix?" he asked skeptically. "What were you, going through a dry spell?"

Dean's eyes narrowed, and he shot his brother a scathing look that had Sam raising his hands in appeasement.

"I don't go through dry spells, man."

"No. Of course not, Hef. My mistake."

Dean pressed his lips into a thin line for several seconds before continuing. "She said she got it there."

Sam's frown was suspicious. "People at some random bar outside of Phoenix are giving out your number to old ladies?"

"Not exactly."

"Well then what exactly?" Sam demanded.

"She said she got it…" he muttered.

Sam stared expectantly.

"…off a wall."

Continued staring.

"In the ladies' restroom."

Seemed unable to stop staring for several more long moments. Then he just turned and gazed out at the passing Joshua trees. They weren't very tall, but at the late hour, the trees cast long shadows on the sandy ground. Sam was counting shadows as they flew past his window. He'd gotten to fifteen before he cracked a smile.

"So lemme get this straight – "

"You said you were gonna shut up," Dean groaned, switching the music back on in an effort to drown out his brother's delight.

"Some old lady found your name on a wall in the restroom of a bar outside of Phoenix?" Sam recapped loudly over the familiar riff.

He started laughing at that point. So hard that he threw his head back and closed his eyes. His smile was beautiful and bright, his tongue pressed against the backs of his teeth. And for the first time in far too long, he just looked so fucking relaxed that Dean could only sigh and give in to a relieved smile of his own.

"I just…" Sam started, trying to compose himself. "I just have so many more questions now. Like how did your number get onto the wall of a women's restroom? What was this old lady even doing there in the first place? And what exactly was written on that wall that led her to conclude you would be able to help her with a supernatural infestation?"

"Hey," Dean diverted with somewhat feigned annoyance, "I told you it doesn't matter. What matters is she got my number, like a dumb-ass I took the call, and now we've got a friggin' haunted house to deal with in Arizona." He threw his brother a pointed glare. "So can we at least try to be mature here?"

Sam snorted, but didn't respond. He just shook his head and let the smile fade a few watts. Then he looked down and picked at a bit of dirt caught beneath his nail. After another brief moment, the edges of his mouth turned down in a casually disinterested frown.

"So…"

Dean gripped the wheel noticeably tighter, and Sam tried to suppress another grin by licking his lips. He cleared his throat.

"So what about the house?"

"Whaddyou mean, what about it?" Dean repeated stiffly.

"It's haunted, right? So what did she tell you about it?"

The sun was low enough now that the visor didn't block its golden glare, and Dean squinted into the light, wondering where in the hell he'd put his sunglasses.

"Not much," he said distractedly, fishing around in his pockets and rifling one-handed through a wad of dirty napkins and old gasoline receipts wedged into the crease where the seatback met the bench. "Look, we should roll in around nine or something. Let's grab some grub, bunk down, get a decent night's sleep. We'll worry about the house in the morning."

Sam eyed his brother, the smile now completely gone and replaced by something older and more weary. Something more familiar and infinitely more painful. Their moment of levity gone.

Dean felt Sam's gaze on him, but he didn't return it. It was incredibly selfish of him, and even a smidgeon cruel, if he really thought about it. But Dean knew this look on his brother's face, and he just didn't want to deal with it at the moment. Felt frustratingly incapable of dealing with it.

Sam's face was so damn young. It was like an everyday reminder of the baby he'd once been; and every question he'd never asked, every pain he'd ever suppressed, was there in the soft curve of his cheek, the gentle bow of his lips, the chilling depth of his eyes. And as ingrained as it was in Dean's very sense of being to protect his brother – to move things that couldn't be moved, to change things that wouldn't change – sometimes that expression on his brother's face caused him a physical pain that he felt deep within his bones. And there were times, few and far between, when he couldn't stand that pain. Couldn't take it. And it was those times when he refused to look at his brother. Refused to acknowledge the aching suspicion that, no matter what the hell he inanely professed, there was nothing he could do for Sam when it came down to it. He could fight, and he could forestall, and he could deny till the cows came home. But Sam was destined for something they both knew damn well neither of them could ultimately control.

His entire fucked-up life, Dean had been a master at holding things together, not the least of which being his fractured family and his own damaged self. But there was one broken thing in his life that, no matter what he did, just seemed to defy repair. Sam was crumbling before his very eyes, and there seemed to be nothing he could do about it. Sam's past was beyond explanation; his future transcended prediction; and the present seemed hell-bent on dragging him down to a depth from which Dean was terrified he would eventually be irretrievable.

They'd been through a lot. More than was reasonable, really. And if Dean was being honest with himself, all he wanted to do was stop. Just for a little while; just long enough to collect themselves and regroup. Long enough to not feel like they drank, ate, slept, breathed death and destruction and loss. Just that long. And then Dean would pick himself up, and his brother, and forge ahead wherever their twisted destinies chose to lead them.

He shouldn't have taken the fucking call.