Disclaimer: All characters herein are the property of Eric Kripke, Robert Singer, and the CW. No infringement is intended, and no profit is being made. For entertainment only.

A/N: Written for the Family Secret Challenge on LJ, Prompt #33: Why did Dean's eyes bleed in "Bloody Mary"? Spoilers for episodes 101 and 108.

March 22, 1983

Dean sits underneath the big oak tree in the front yard and nudges the tire swing tied to one of its branches with a stick he'd found by the porch. The swing creaks and groans as it moves through the air in a dreamy arc, and it reminds him of the runners of Mama's rocking chair on the wooden floor of the baby's room. It's an unpleasant association, and so he stops poking the tire, but the noise doesn't stop right away; momentum carries the balding Goodyear through six swings more, each one slower and smaller than the one before. The noise isn't smaller, though. It's loud as ever, a rumbling, lonely creak that makes his tummy feel like it's filled with balloons. It's the sound of Not Right Now.

He hears that a lot lately. Mostly from Mama, who has time for nothing but her tummy anymore. She spends most of her time sleeping or sitting in the rocking chair in the baby's room, making the floor and Daddy's back creak while he pushes furniture from one spot to another in the room. She rock rock rocks all day long, and her feet move like she's playing the piano. Sometimes, her hand rubs her swollen belly in rhythmic circles while her feet tap and the runners glide, and he suspects she's talking to his baby brother, singing him a lullaby only he can hear. Daddy talks, too, but he's pretty sure the baby shouldn't hear what he says. He knows this because Mama stops her rocking and says, "John Winchester," and he's old enough to know that when she uses your whole name, you're in big trouble. Daddy knows it, too, because he always apologizes and scurries out of the room for a beer.

Dean wonders for a moment what Daddy is so afraid of. Mama never brings a dishtowel into the baby's room, and Daddy's work-roughened skin is tougher than his. Even if she did bring one to pop him with, it wouldn't hurt much, and besides, he's sure Daddy can outrun her. The baby has made her big and slow, and when she walks, she waddles from side to side like the elephants he saw once at the zoo in Topeka. Sometimes, Daddy has to help her off the couch or out of the rocker so she can go to the bathroom.

He doesn't tell her about the elephants, of course. He loves his mama, and he doesn't want to hurt her feelings, not when her face is so white and her eyes are so dark and so many of her hours are spent in the silence of the nursery or the quarantined darkness of her room with a washcloth plastered to her pinched forehead to shut out the eye grains that make her pale and pukey and too cranky to read him The Lorax before bed.

But he thinks it. When she tells him to stop playing with his Castle Greyskull because the noise of the lowering drawbridge is too loud, or when she scolds him for leaving his Hot Wheels in the living room in front of the TV. He thinks it most fiercely when she refuses to play hide-and-seek with him like she used to before Daddy took her to the cabbage patch. It was their game, their special time, and they don't play it anymore.

Stupid elephant, he thinks savagely, and then he's ashamed. But he can't help it, and he refuses to let go of the uncharitable thought because it anchors him to himself, reassures him that he hasn't lost himself in the shadow of Mama's expanding stomach. It's a piece of stolen sweet that leaves a bitter aftertaste on his tongue. He knows it will taste terrible if he unwraps it a puts it in his mouth, but he craves it all the same and reaches for it with sticky, eager fingers.

Mama's not the only one who's different now. Daddy seems to have forgotten him, too. He still ruffles his hair with oil-stained fingers when he comes home from the body shop, still calls him "tiger", but his eyes are fixed on the hump of Mama's belly underneath her maternity clothes, like he's hoping what she's got in there is better than the baby she gave him the first time. He still tosses the ball around after dinner, but only if Mama doesn't need him to rub her feet or back or go to the store for ice cream and olives. Sometimes they only get five minutes before Mama's voice drifts from inside the house, waspish and demanding and deeper than her voice should be. Then he's left standing in the backyard with the ball in his hands and a lump in his throat, and all he can do is reach for the sour candy of waddling elephants.

Once, he'd tried to tell his father how he'd felt, tried to protest the loss of time and space in the world, but all that had emerged from his mouth had been a whiny baby demand to throw the ball for just two more minutes, please, Dad, please. That had earned him a stern, "Not now, Dean," and his father's shame, and he'd spent dinner swallowing guilt with his mashed potatoes and washing it down with enormous swallows of icy cold milk that had hurt his chest from the inside.

The baby's room. That's what they called it now, but until November, it had been his room. Daddy said they needed the space for the crib and the changing table, and that it was closer to his and Mama's room. They had moved him into the smaller room across the hall, the room that overlooked Mr. Krebbins' yard and gave the mean old man a perfect view of his bed. It was okay, he guesses, but it wasn't his, and he wonders why the baby gets everything that had once been his-Daddy, Mama, and even his place in the house, the place he'd had since he was in Mama's tummy. It doesn't seem fair; Mama taught him that good boys share, but so far, the stupid baby hasn't shared anything. All it has done is take, and he suspects it will only get worse after he comes out of Mama and screams for his supper.

He scuffs his shoe into the barren patch of dirt in front of him. Most of the snow from the last storm has melted, but the ground is still hard, and he leaves only the faintest impression. He frowns and gouges a divot into the dark soil with the point of his stick. There. That's better. He pushes the stick deeper into the dirt, a defiant claim of proprietorship. He pushes until splinters sink into his fingers and palms, until the stick creaks ominously under the pressure. The stinging pain in his hands is strangely comforting, and he turns them up to examine the damage, peering studiously at the scrapes, raw spots, and flecks of wood. Blood beads from the scrapes, and he wipes it on the faded knees of his jeans. Mama might yell at him for getting them dirty, but at least she'd notice him then. He wonders how long it will be before she notices the splinters in his hand, or for that matter, how long it will be before his father does. Every inch that Mama's belly grows, a little more of him disappears.

He secretly wonders how long it will be before he vanishes altogether, gobbled up by the ponderous, sleeping moon of Mama's belly like a shadow by a passing cloud. Not long, if Bobby McCabe is right. He says that Mama and Daddy had the baby to replace him, that when they bring him home from the hospital, Dean will come home from Aunt Judy's and find his bags packed and waiting by the door. They'll send him to Siberia or an orphanage in New York, and he'll never see his parents again.

He hadn't wanted to believe Bobby. After all, the grungy twerp had told him after he'd swallowed a live worm from Daddy's bait cup that it would lay eggs in his belly and have babies inside it until he exploded, and Mama had promised him it was a lie. She was right, too, because he'd never exploded. His tummy had never even gotten big. But then again, maybe that was because he'd barfed on the bathroom rug after he'd confessed to her what he'd done. Maybe it was luck. Because Mama had also said that mamas loved their little boys forever and ever, and he wasn't sure that was true at all.

Besides, Bobby had reminded him of Johnny Walton, and everybody knew about him.

Johnny Walton had been the grungy kid who smelled like old socks and strained peas and who never talked when Miss Parsons from the Sunday school asked him to recite the weekly Bible verse. He had slumped in his chair in his too-big clothes and drawn pictures in the thin mat of the church carpet with the toe of his dirty sneakers, and after a while, Miss Parsons had stopped asking. Dean had always wondered why Johnny was so dumb. All he had to do was remember the words, and Miss Parsons would give him a lemon butter cookie, but he never did. Sometimes, he had gotten a cookie anyway and eaten it in ravenous gulps. Swallowed it whole, Mama would've said.

Johnny had turned up every Sunday in the same shirt, and Dean had suspected it was for the chance of a cookie. Then he disappeared until the next Sunday. Dean had never noticed anybody waiting for him. He just wandered out of the church, turned right at the edge of the lawn, and was gone. Miss Parsons had stood at the top of the steps with her hands fisted on her bony hips and her lips pursed like she tasted dirt on her teeth, but she had never spoken. She'd just shaken head as she watched him become dust, and retreated into the cool shade of the Sunday school room.

He had seen Mrs. Walton once, right before Johnny had become dust forever and ever. He'd been at the grocery store with Mama, hanging from the push handle of the shopping cart and begging her for a box of Trix instead of the nasty Raisin Bran she made him eat.

"But it tastes like the box, Mama," he'd said, and from the corner of his eye, he'd seen a flash of grey. He'd smelled socks, too, overripe and sour, and when he'd turned his head from the bright display of colored boxes, he'd seen Johnny, duck-footed and small behind his mother.

Mrs. Walton had been pale and skinny except for her belly, which had been heavy and bloated like Mama's underneath her flimsy, faded, red dress. All arms and fingers and horsey teeth. She had reminded him of a walking stick, and he'd shuddered. Her hair had been lank and greasy, and it had covered her sharp, ugly face. Johnny had not looked up from the floor, had just stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and watched his mama's shadow stretch over the floor like a spider.

They had still been in the store when he and Mama had been ready to pay the cashier lady, had been in front of them, as a matter of fact, and from his vantage point beside the cart, he'd realized that Mrs. Walton hadn't been paying with Washingtons and Lincolns, but with a card full of yellow postage stamps. They had reminded him of the thick, stubby movie tickets you got at the movie theater where they played movies you didn't want to see anymore but your grandma did.

"Why's she paying with movie tickets?" he'd asked Mama.

Mama had clapped him upside the head with the heel of her palm and hissed his name through her teeth, and in front of him, Mrs. Walton had hunched her scrawny, yellow shoulders like someone had boxed her ears. Johnny had just looked at him with glassy, teddy-bear eyes and made his ratty sneakers scream on the gritty, terrazzo floor. The noise had hurt his ears and prompted an absent-minded slap from Mrs. Walton, but the look had hurt his heart and made his stomach knot with a mixture of shame and fear. It was the look of a kid who had nothing to look forward to but a lifetime of whippings and creamed broccoli and shots at the doctor's office. It had followed him home and filled his tummy with cotton and mothballs, and he hadn't been able to eat his hard-won box of Trix for three days. Every time he'd thought about sweet mouthfuls of sugary victory, he would see Johnny's eyes peering balefully at him over the edge of the kitchen table or from behind the milk pitcher, and they would turn to ashes in his mouth.

Not ashes, he thinks as he digs half-heartedly at a splinter driven into his palm like its big brother is driven into the nearby dirt. Dust. Dust like Johnny.

A month after his mama had paid for milk and day-old bread with yellow movie tickets, Johnny had failed to turn up at Sunday school. For the first time, the room hadn't smelled like strained peas and onion-boiled socks, and it should have made him glad, but it had only made him uneasy and vaguely ashamed, as though he'd seen something he wasn't supposed to. Miss Parson had felt it, too, because she'd spent the whole lesson stealing glances at Johnny's empty seat, blinking and licking her lips and flaring her nostrils as if she were casting for his scent. She had even left two lemon butter cookies on his seat after Bible recitation, as if she had thought to coax him out of hiding with the promise of forbidden fruit. But he had never appeared, and Miss Parsons had gathered the uneaten cookies and tossed them into the garbage can beside her desk. He hadn't shown up the next week, either, and the week after that, Miss Parsons had stopped setting a place for him in the circle of hard, plastic chairs.

It was Bobby McCabe who had come with the answer. He'd turned up at Sunday school three weeks after Johnny had gone missing from the unbroken circle, bug-eyed with glee and dancing from foot to foot like he had to pee. He had lived two doors over from the Waltons, and he swore on his Dad's gun that the day after Johnny's first no-show at the church, some lady in a station wagon with county plates had knocked on the front door. She'd had a sheriff with her, too. They had gone inside, and there had been what Bobby had called a "great big mess of hooraw"-banging, screaming, and crying. When the lady and the sheriff had emerged fifteen minutes later, the sheriff had had Johnny by one arm and his ruined shades in one hand. The lady from the county station wagon had been carrying a grocery bag of clothes.

Bobby had told them as they clustered around the rusty spigot that jutted from the concrete wall like a wiener that Mrs. Watson had followed them onto the sagging porch, crying and begging them not to take her baby, but they hadn't listened. They hadn't even turned around to say goodbye or stopped to pick up the toy that had tumbled from the grocery sack and landed in the dirt. They had simply packed Johnny into the back of the station wagon and left Mrs. Walton crying on the porch with her hand over her mouth like she was going to throw up.

Crine. That was the way Bobby had said it, Dean remembers now. The same way Daddy says crayon.

"Where'd they take 'em?" an older kid had asked, and Dean had felt the same sick fear in his own belly.

"Dunno," Bobby had said as he crouched beside the spigot and twisted the rusty, flaking knob until water beaded from the spout like a snot bubble. "Prob'ly Siberia." He had shrugged. "Or The Home."

Mention of The Home had sent a ripple of terror through the group, and they had dispersed shortly thereafter, trying, maybe, to dodge the bogeyman. Everyone knew that The Home was where they sent kids whose parents had died in car wrecks or had held their hands against the stove burner for peeing their pants or stealing a cookie before supper. The Home was a bad place under the ground, and once you went there, you never came back.

He hadn't wanted to believe Bobby's story about Johnny then, but he did now. He was right; Johnny was never coming back, but it wasn't because he'd gone to The Home or been shipped to a Siberian gulag to eat rocks and sleep on straw. It was because he had been replaced. The baby had taken over, and the house at the end of the dirt road hadn't been big enough for the both of them. Johnny had been turned out and turned to Kansas dust.

Dean is filled with sudden panic. He doesn't want to be replaced, pushed out of his life by a bundle of screaming wrinkles that smells like poop and baby powder. He doesn't want to be left to wander the Kansas highways, trailing dust as he goes. He doesn't want to meet Johnny on the road, a mournful dust-boy with no friends and a fistful of yellow movie tickets in one weightless hand. He doesn't want to whisper through the leaves on dusty feet and play Tag with a boy he can't see forever and ever, amen. He wants to go fishing with Daddy in the spring and late summer and play hide-and-seek with Mama in the walk-in closet. Those belong to him, his secret joys, and he doesn't want to share, even if Mama says he should.

He yanks the stick from the ground and beats it against the dark, rough bark of the tree, determined to make his parents see him again. Bark flies from the trunk in a fine dust, and the splinters embedded in his hands prickle with renewed life. He watches the house for signs of movement, for Mama's face in the nursery window or Daddy's shadow in the front door. But nothing stirs inside the house, not even dust. The upstairs window remains dark, and Daddy doesn't appear on the front porch. Everything is still and quiet, as though they've gone and left him without saying goodbye.

It's not them who've gone, whispers a nasty, swamp-monster voice inside his head. It's you, Deano. You've already started to disappear. They can't hear you anymore, and soon, they won't be able to see you, either. When that happens, the lady in the county station wagon will come and take you away, and when Sheriff Goodkind doff his hat and goes back to the station, she'll drive you to the edge of town and let you out. Johnny Walton will be waiting for you with dust in his hair and streaked on his cheeks, and when you become a dust-boy like him, you can go to the church and dance in the heavy air of Miss Parsons' Sunday school room.

Stick meets tree in furious, choppy strokes, and still there comes no rebuke from his parents. Harder and harder he pounds, until blood weeps from his hands and his chest and shoulders throb with too much, too hard. He's crying now, and he doesn't know why, and snot drips onto his chin and into the cold dirt. He dimly wonders what will grow there in the spring.

"Still here, still here, still here," he mutters feverishly, and for one horrified instant, he's sure that the wood flying from the tree isn't wood at all, but dust, dust from his sloughing skin. He's disappearing, disappearing, and it's too late. Then the stick snaps in his hands with the sound of a breaking heart, and he sits in the dirt with the two halves in his sweaty, raw hands. A whimper escapes him, and he realizes that he's crying like a big sissy baby. It doesn't matter now, because no one can hear him.

Then the front door flies open, and Daddy emerges onto the porch, squinting into the dusk and scratching the seat of his sweatpants.

"Dean? What the hell are you doing out here, son? Paul Bunyan is dead, and there's no place to park the ox." He descends the porch steps and draws nearer.

Daddy's voice is furry with sleep, and his hair is sticking up from his scalp in wild tufts, and Dean knows he's probably in a heap of trouble, but he's too preoccupied with relief to really care. If Daddy's yelling, that means he can see him, and that means he's not a dust boy. Not yet.

He drops the stick and barrels into his father, nose pressed into his bellybutton. He smells like dirty cotton and Old Spice and the lumpy, living room couch, and Dean thinks it's the best smell in the world. His throat hurts and his nose is plugged with syrup, and his hands burn.

"Dean? What's the matter?" Daddy says, and there's more confusion than anger now.

He crouches so they're eye to eye, and Dean sees sleep crust in the corners of his eyes and stubble on his chin. He knows it will hurt if he touches the latter, but he does it anyway because he needs to make sure that his fingers are still solid. He grazes the hard point of his chin and winces when raw fingers meet coarse bristles.

Daddy sees the flinch and grasps his hand as it drops. He turns it over and scowls. "What happened?"

But Dean doesn't know how to explain it, so he takes a deep breath and says, "Make him go away, Daddy. Please."

Daddy's scowl deeps into a frown. "Make who go away?"

"The dust-boy," he says.

"Dust-boy?" Daddy repeats. "I don't see anybody else out here, kiddo. Did you maybe fall asleep out here and have a bad dream?"

"Yes, sir, maybe," Dean says. It's easier to let Daddy believe that than admit he was talking about his baby brother. Besides, he's not telling a lie exactly. He's just letting Daddy believe one.

Daddy ruffles his hair and rises from his crouch with crackly, popping knees. "C'mon," he says. "Let's get you cleaned up before dinner." He grabs him by the wrist so as not to hurt his hands and leads him toward the porch.

Dean goes, but he casts a glance over his shoulder. The moon hangs low on the horizon, bloated and full. It reminds him of Mama's tummy, and he shivers. He turns his gaze to the upstairs window, hoping to see her looking down at him, but she isn't there. He suspects she's in the bedroom, curled beneath the blankets and singing lullabies to the moon of her belly. He feels an ugly stab of resentment and wonders how much longer it will be before it becomes a new moon. He also wonders if that will bring the woman in the county station wagon.

Daddy takes him into the kitchen and washes his bloody hands in the sink, and Dean watches the pink water swirl down the drain, looks for signs that he's become a dust-boy, after all. But his hands remain solid under the rush of warm water, and they hurt plenty when Daddy sits him in a chair at the kitchen table and tweezes bits of tree and stick from his hands. He cries when he cleans the cuts left behind with rubbing alcohol. He can't help it.

He has nightmares about turning to dust that night and the night after that, but he doesn't remember them, and the day after that, Daddy takes him fishing. He sits in the small, aluminum boat with the wicker creel between his feet and loses the dust-boy in the soothing rhythm of the lake water as it laps the sides.

He doesn't remember him again until Sammy comes home from the hospital in May, and even then, he doesn't remember right away because Sammy is nothing like he'd thought he'd be. Oh, he's wrinkly and screams and smells like poop and baby powder, but he's also soft and grips his finger with a chubby fist, and when Mama helps him hold him, Sammy looks at him with big, brown, rabbit eyes. No monster, just his baby brother.

Then he looks out the window of his room as he's getting ready for bed and realizes that there's no moon. The sky has eaten it whole, and standing on the lawn is a long, thin shadow. He knows without seeing him that it's Johnny Walton, come to warn him of the lady in the county station wagon and invite him to play beneath the moonless, lightless sky. Dean shudders and closes the curtains and curls in on himself beneath the covers, afraid to poke his head out in case Johnny is at the foot of his bed, leaving dusty footprints on the smooth, wooden floor.

He spends the next three weeks waiting for the authoritative rap on the door and peering through the curtains every time a car pulls into the yard. He expects to see the battered county station wagon parked in the driveway on balding tires, but it's never there. Neither is the woman who drives it, tall and reedy with a Mary Poppins hat. Just Daddy or Mama or Miss Jewel from the hair salon, come to gossip on the porch with Mama.

He forgets with time, but never entirely. At night, he dreams of Johnny Walton and cars that make no sound, and he wakes from these dreams in a cold sweat. They're worst at the full moon and at the new. He never tells anyone because he is ashamed of them, ashamed that once upon a time, he wished Sammy away. He turns his back to the window, screws his eyes shut, and promises that he'll make up for his fear by being the best big brother ever.

Johnny Walton watches from the closet and says nothing.

November 3, 1984

Dean kneels on the backseat of the Impala and clears a hole in the cold-fogged window with his palm. Daddy stands on the shoulder of the road with Sammy in his hands, and Sammy is screaming, little face scrunched and fists bunched. Dean can see Sammy's scream on the air, white and cloudy like steam. There hasn't been any snow today, but the cold is sharp, and it sinks its claws into his crossed ankles and bloodless cheeks even with the heater cranked to the max. He knows it's colder outside.

But the cold isn't what scares him, what makes his mouth too small and his heart too big and his peepee ache like he has to go. It's Daddy's face. It's blank and too white as he looks down at little, shrieking Sammy. It's not a Daddy face; it's a monster face, the kind like they have on the posters in the library that warn of Stranger Danger. Daddy's eyes have gone out. Now they're only black scribbles inside his face, and Dean is suddenly sure that any minute now, Daddy is going to lean down and nuzzle Sammy's belly. Only when he looks up, his teeth will be full of Sammy's guts, red and stringy and oh-so-yummy.

The vision inspires a swooning horror, and he wants to scream, but his throat is pinched, and raw from smoke and tears. The house burned and took Mama with it, and Mama tastes bitter on his tongue when she had once been so sweet. He blinks to clear his vision of orange light and billowing black smoke. That's all he knows of what happened and why they got into the Impala, and that's all his mind wants to know.

He's not sure he wants to know anything more about this, either. Daddy is still staring at Sammy with that awful, blank face, and Sammy is still screaming, feet kicking and back arching out of Daddy's hands. His cries are piercing even through the thick glass of the car window, and Dean wonders why Daddy doesn't make them stop. Usually when Sammy bawls, Mama and Daddy rush to quiet him, but Mama is Cinderella now, and Daddy is just holding Sammy in his hands like he's never seen him before. Everything has changed.

He's tempted to get out of the car and ask what's wrong, but he doesn't dare. Daddy has too many teeth in his closed mouth now, and if he startles him, he might bite. So, he freezes in the seat and curls his fingers around the door until the thin, cold strip of metal bites his fingers. It reminds him of splinters sunk deep into the tender meat of his hands, and he swallows a hot knot of fear. It lodges in his tummy like a stone and makes it cramp.

The porthole in the window is icing over again, and he bunches his fist and scrubs frantically at the glass. If he loses sight of either of them, one or both of them will be gone. Either this strange Daddy-thing will have eaten Sammy and left nothing but red smears on the side of the road, or the Daddy-thing will be gone, and Sammy will be lying on the hard shoulder in his yellow jammies, screaming for him to bring him out of the cold. Worse still, they might both be gone, and he'd be left alone in the car, surrounded by the smell of smoke and Sammy on his baby blankets. Maybe a passing highway patrolman would find him and take him to The Home, but most likely he'd sit here in the car until it ran out of gas and took the heat with it. He'd sit in the backseat and be frozen by his own breath, and when he got too tired too move or scream, Johnny Walton would find him. Snow was only white dust.

Daddy is stirring at last, and he knows that this is the moment of truth. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen right now.

I didn't mean it, Daddy! his mind wails, and the breath catches in his throat, hot and cold by turns and sour with the memory of wishing Sammy away underneath the big oak tree in the front yard. I didn't mean it. I don't want Sammy to go away. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Wish I may, wish I might-

Daddy's hand comes up, and Dean tenses in anticipation, but he only unbuttons Sammy's jammies and starts yanking them off. This is so contrary to what Dean had expected that he blinks in confusion. In later years, this surreal moment will return to him in dreams of Daddy tearing pieces of sunshine from a disembodied, screaming Sammy head, but for now, he can only stare. Daddy bunches the torn jammies in his big, raw-knuckled hand, and Dean waits for him to drop it or throw it into the nearby culvert, but he only squeezes it until the soft fabric bulges from between his fingers like a lump of fat.

Sammy screams. He looks skinned in Daddy's arms, naked except for his diaper. His skin is pink underneath the heavy, grey sky, but Dean knows it won't be if Daddy doesn't come back to the car soon. Then he'll get frostbite, and his fingers and toes might fall off, and in the dim, naughty part of his mind, he suspects other parts might, too. He wonders if it will be like when Sammy's Uncle Bill cord shriveled up and fell off, dried, brown, and scaly like a scab.

Daddy starts moving, and Dean hopes that he's coming back to the car, but he walks instead to the edge of the culvert and squats, Sammy braced in the crook of one arm. For one horrified instant, he thinks Daddy's going to drop Sammy into the freezing water that sluices and gurgles through the drainpipe, but he doesn't. He dips his hand into the stream of grey water and sloshes it over Sammy's head. Dean hadn't thought that it was possible, but Sammy screams even louder and twists away from the water. Daddy's mouth moves, but he can't hear what he's saying. The glass is too thick, and Sammy is too loud.

He wonders why Daddy is baptizing Sammy in the ditch. They'd already baptized him when he was six weeks old. He remembers because Grammy Alcott dropped her false teeth in the mashed potatoes at the supper afterwards, and Daddy had spit out his beer. Sammy had screamed then, too, so loud in the quiet church, and Mama had laughed.

He doesn't think Mama would be laughing now. Daddy sloshes more water on Sammy's head, and Sammy shrieks. His feet kick furiously, and Daddy wets them, too. Then Daddy takes off his flannel shirt and wraps Sammy in it. He drops Sammy's wadded jammies into the ditch and doesn't look back, and then he's heading for the car, the bundle of Sammy wedged in the crook of his arm. He raps on the rear window with one knuckle, and Dean rolls it down.

"Take your brother," Daddy says, and thrusts Sammy through the half-open window.

Dean cradles Sammy, who is still howling. "'S'OK, Sammy," he croons, and bounces Sammy like Mama used to. He's sure of no such thing, but he thinks he should say something. He can hear the crunch of Daddy's boots on rock salt as he clumps around the back of the Impala to the driver's side.

"Why'd you baptize Sammy again?" he asks as Daddy slides into the driver's seat and closes the door.

Daddy goes very still, and his fingers go white at the knuckles around the steering wheel. Dean is sure that he has said something wrong, that he has provoked the Daddy-thing, and that when Daddy turns around, there will be long, yellow teeth and black scribbles for eyes. He knows, with a dazed, sick certainty, that when he speaks, it will be with the voice of the sluiceway, cold, bubbling mud and grinding rocks.

But when he speaks, it's only Daddy. "Had to get it off him, bud," he says quietly.

"Oh." He isn't sure what Daddy means by that. The soot and dirt, maybe, but if that's what it is, he missed a spot. There's a smudge of soot over Sammy's left eye. The mark makes him uneasy, and he grabs Sammy's blanket and uses the edge to wipe it off. Sammy fusses at the contact, and Dean clucks soothingly.

"You're still dirty, Daddy," he points out. "Dirtier than Sammy." There is soot on Daddy's arms from fingertip to elbow, and the fingers look red and raw, as though he'd tried to grab something hot. He smells, too, like ice and burning wood, and Dean wrinkles his nose.

"Wrap your brother in his blanket. Keep him warm," is all Daddy says, and he turns up the heater as high as it will go.

Dean does as he is told, and Sammy settles immediately against his chest, tiny fingers scrunching in the fabric of his dirty shirt. Daddy puts the car in drive, and the Sammy jammy-eating culvert recedes into the distance. Dean lets out a breath he hasn't realized he's been holding and sags into the seat.

"It'll be okay, Dean," Daddy says. Words are heavy and thick in his mouth, and Dean thinks of too many teeth.

"I know, Daddy," he answers dutifully, and tightens his grip on Sammy.

It's a lie, but it's one of necessity. He senses the truth would be dangerous now, and he doesn't know how to tell his Daddy that there are such things as monsters and spooks, oh, my. Nor does he know how to tell him that he might be one. So he sits in the backseat and lies his head off and holds Sammy tight enough to make his arms ache. He doesn't say another word until Daddy is herding him into a motel bathroom later that morning.

"I didn't mean it," he mumbles.

"Didn't mean what, Dean?" Daddy asks, and sways in the doorway. There are bruises underneath his puffy eyes, but at least they're Daddy's eyes.

"When I asked you to make Sammy g'way."

Daddy only blinks at him, and Dean knows he doesn't remember.

"Wash up now," he orders.

"Yes, Daddy," he says, and sinks into the tub of lukewarm water. It turns grey at once, and he wonders if he's dissolving. Mama was the ashes, so maybe he'll be the dust. He almost hopes for it, but then he thinks of Sammy, lying on the bed and gumming his chubby fist. He can't leave Sammy alone, so he scoops the water in his cupped hands and sloshes it over himself in an effort to put his pieces back together. He even drinks some so that bits of him don't slip down the drain into H-E-L-L. He drinks until his belly sloshes and his tongue tastes like nickels and pennies, and he only stops when Daddy knocks on the door and tells him it's time for bed.

He and Sammy sleep in one bed, and Daddy sleeps in the other, and Dean watches him as long as he can, searching for signs that the monster he saw by the side of the road has followed them here-rounded shoulders and long, gleaming teeth and black-scribble eyes. But it's just his Daddy, long-limbed and sleeping, one arm dangling bonelessly over the edge of the bed.

Even so, he places himself between Sammy and Daddy and watches the vague hump beneath the sheets of the opposite bed until exhaustion overcomes willpower and drags him into the abyss. He wakes, screaming, from dreams of Daddy with pieces of Sammy in his teeth and Mama burning like a candle on his birthday cake, face running like wax and turning into Sammy's yellow jammies wadded in Daddy's hand.

It's Daddy who tries to comfort him, floundering from his blankets to sit on the edge of his bed and gather him up, but it's Sammy Dean looks for, twisting in Daddy's groping, well-meaning embrace until he can see him lying where he had left him the night before, in a nest of pillows and blankets. Only when Sammy gawks at him with those big, brown eyes does he stop shivering. Sammy is the only thing that's safe anymore.

Within five minutes, he's up and changing Sammy's diaper, and if Daddy thinks it's strange that he's eager to chance a stinky Sammy bomb, he doesn't say. He just tells him to watch his brother while he takes a shower. Dean waits until he hears the water gurgle and splash into the tub, and then he kisses the bottoms of Sammy's feet and his forehead.

"I'll take care of you, Sammy," he says. "I won't let the monsters get you. Promise."

Sammy offers him a toothless, gummy smile and promptly kicks him in the mouth with a chubby foot. Fire on his bottom lip and blood in his mouth, and Dean reckons that the deal has been sealed. He offers Sammy a smile in return and hunts for the baby wipes in the duffel bag by Daddy's bed. Sammy's changed and dressed by the time Daddy gets out of the shower, and twenty minutes later, it as if they've never been there at all. The only evidence of their passing is a stippling of blood on the sheets and a fine layer of grit and silt in the bathtub. Soon enough, even that's gone, erased by the cracked hands of a cleaning woman who notices them not at all.

June 30, 1995

Dean sits in the sagging folding chair and prays it won't collapse under his weight. Not that he's a lardass; Bobby just isn't known for his fine furniture. Cars, now, are a different story. Man can take a bucket of rust and bolts and make that baby purr. He's surrounded by evidence of the man's genius-a '66 Mustang to his right, a Pontiac GTO to his left, and a by-God '57 Chevy right out of Christine in front of him. She's got her hood up to expose the brand-new four-barrel carb and four-hundred-horsepower engine Bobby'd dropped in her guts that morning. And she's wearing four white-walls. Sweet car. He's been mooning at it all morning, imagining himself in the driver's seat with his arm around Candace Litchfield and a rubber in the glove box.

Not that he's got a prayer in hell at that. The car, that is. Candy had been all over him underneath the bleachers at Friday night's game, tasting of gum and pretzel salt, but Bobby was tighter than a virgin's cunt about his cars. "I ain't loanin' her to you so you can use it as a rollin' fuck wagon, boy," he'd grunted when Dean had asked if he could take her for a spin earlier that morning, and Dad had laughed at him.

Dad's laughing now, too, standing with Bobby at the little grill the latter has set up in a char pit at the back of the salvage yard. It's too far to hear what he's laughing at, but he can see the glint of teeth and the telltale tilt of his head. Bobby's laughing, too, and poking at the grill with tongs. Dean dimly hopes those aren't the same tongs he uses to scrape engine buildup from cracked blocks.

"Is it done yet?" Sammy asks plaintively, and Dean turns to look at him. He's sitting cross-legged in the dirt and gravel, book momentarily forgotten in one long-fingered hand.

"If it was, you think I'd still be here?"

Sammy squints at him from beneath shaggy bangs, and Dean knows Dad going to order him to get a haircut before the week is out. Sam chews on his thumbnail for a moment and spits in the gravel. "Maybe," he says at last. "You've been drooling over that car since you got here last night. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were gonna cheat on the Impala."

"Kiss my ass, Sammy," he mutters. "Just because I've got one good woman, that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the fine attributes of another." He leans back in the chair, satisfied with his wisdom.

Sammy surveys him with long-suffering patience. "It's a car, Dean, not a girl."

"Same thing."

"So you whack off to pictures of cars, too?"

Dean sits up so fast that he nearly overbalances in his chair. "What the hell are you talking about?" he demands.

Sammy shrugs. "I found some magazines under your mattress last week. Some of the pages were sticky." Casual, but he's biting his thumbnail again, harder and faster this time, and Dean knows he's afraid he's said something he shouldn't, crossed an unspoken line.

"Yeah, well, at least I don't stroke it to the smell of ink and glue," he retorts loftily. "What're you reading anyway?" He snatches the book from Sammy's lax hand.

Sammy lunges for his prize, but he's not fast enough. "Give it back," he whines.

"Relax, Sammy. I'm not gonna keep your stroke material forever. I just want to see what brings your soldier to attention." He closes the book and examines the front cover with an exaggerated flourish. "The Grapes of Wrath," he reads to the assembled cars. Christine stares blankly at him, hood-mouth open in a surprised gape.

"You lost my place," Sammy cries indignantly, and leaps to his feet, hands fisted at his sides.

"I'm sure you'll find it again, super-genius," he says dismissively.

"Least I c'n read it," Sammy says sullenly.

The gibe at his intelligence hurts. He can read just fine, thank you. He just has no time for pompous blowhards, particularly dead ones. It pisses him off, too; Sammy can be such a smug, superior little asshole. As if having memorized the dictionary makes him better than him and Dad. He smirks at Sammy.

"You want your book back, Sammy?" he asks. "Go fucking get it." He cocks his arm and hurls it as far as he can. The covers spread like wings, and then it drops like a stone, out of sight behind the cars.

Sammy moves with surprising speed. One minute, he's watching the flight of his beloved book, and the next, he's shoving him onto his ass. The chair upends with a defeated, comical spang, and he has time to muse that the chair has probably sat its last ass. Then he's on his back in the hot gravel, and Sammy is straddling him, punching him in the shoulders and chest with wild, aimless blows.

"Stupid bastard," he shouts. Shrill and clogged with snot and rage.

The combination amuses and alarms him. Sammy is seldom angry, preferring to brood and stew in slouched, shrew-faced pique. Violence is his last resort. Dean blocks his flailing blows and seizes his wrists. Sammy grunts and twists on top of him, teeth bared. He's stronger than his scrawny frame suggests, and agile. He brings a bony knee into his thigh, and Dean might be the valedictorian of dumbasses, but he knows Sammy was aiming for his balls.

He uses his weight advantage and rolls on top of Sammy, who bellows and thrashes and twists in his grip. The skin of his palms burns with friction and sweat, and he squeezes until Sammy's skin bulges between his fingers. Sammy yelps, but he doesn't stop fighting. He's all motion and rage, a snake with empty fangs. His head snaps up and catches him on the chin, and the taste of copper fills his mouth.

"Little fucker," he snarls. "What crawled up your ass?" He rolls Sammy onto his stomach and twists his arm behind his back, pinning him facedown in the dirt and gravel. "Stop it, Sammy," he commands. But Sammy doesn't stop. He bucks and twists, and so Dean seizes him by the hair and rubs his face into the dirt.

Sammy screams, but there's no defiance now, only fear and pain. His free hand scrabbles at the ground in an effort to raise him from the dirt and leaves long harrows in the gravel, as though a snared creature had tried to dig its way out.

"Dean, please," he sobs, and the misery stops Dean cold. He dismounts Sammy and sits on his ass in the warm dirt, stunned by what he's done. When Sammy rolls over and sits up, he's sickened, too.

Sammy's chin is raw and bleeding, and snot and tears mingle with the blood to drip onto the sun-bleached dirt. There's a cut on his cheek that crosses the narrow bridge of his nose. Not deep enough to need stitches, thank God; at least he hopes so, or Dad will kick his ass into his earlobes. There's another, smaller scratch above his left eye that makes Dean's stomach lurch and his heart triphammer inside his chest.

That's where Sammy had the smudge the night Dad baptized him in the ditch, he thinks. Where he had his Mark of Cain. Daddy washed it off, but now I've given him one, too.

In his mind, he sees Dad's hand slopping water over Sammy's wrinkled head, cupping his tiny skull in one massive hand and wiping away a smudge of soot with the ball of his thumb, benediction in reverse. Dad had been trying to save Sammy then, but he hadn't realized it. Not until he'd picked up one of Dad's research books and read about the Mark of Cain. Then he'd sat in the hard corner of Bobby's crowded supply room, looking at the pages without really seeing them and wondering how he could ever have thought Dad was a monster. He'd been ashamed and disgusted with himself, and he'd punched the wall of the supply room until his knuckles had cracked and bled. Blood for atonement. That was how it worked. When Dad had asked him what had happened to his hand later that night, he'd lied to him for the first time in his life and blamed it on a balky carburetor. Bobby had looked up from his mashed potatoes at that, but he'd let him do it, and Dad hadn't asked any questions. God, it seemed, gave not a damn for mothers and children, but He protected liars and skeptics.

Dad had been trying to protect Sammy from the Mark that night, but sitting in the gravel and watching him cry, Dean is certain Dad failed. Sammy had been marked that night and every night thereafter. The evidence is in his guileless, wounded face and anguished expression. Sammy has known for a long time that there really are monsters, and that life isn't fair. Sammy knows that there are no such things as best friends forever and home sweet home. Home is wherever the monsters lead him and smells of gunpowder and burning rubber. These are truths the monsters taught him, and they came with the smudge of soot that Dad had tried so hard to erase.

But for all the harsh lessons that Sammy has learned on the never-ending roadtrip of the hunt, there have been occasional kindnesses, bits of truth that do not cut and tear and poison. Sammy knows, for instance, that rock salt repels ghosts and silver kills werewolves. He also knows that no monster will ever taste him while him and Dad still breathe. The world may hurt, but family never does.

At least, he did know that, before Dean and his vicious pride shattered another illusion under his feet. Now he knows better, knows the simple, bitter truth. Family hurts the deepest of all, crushes and breaks and strangles with the tenderest of touches and the sweetest of words. Family is the one monster for which there is no remedy and from which there is no escape.

Dean reaches out to brush the scrape over Sammy's eye, but Sammy recoils and scuttles backwards until his back meets the rocker panel of the Mustang. He flinches at the hot metal, but he doesn't get up. He just stares at him with red, tear-scalded eyes.

"Why'd you do that?' he demands, and wipes a runner of snot from his nose with a dirty, scraped forearm. He sounds bewildered, and far younger than his twelve years.

Dean opens his mouth. He wants to apologize, but his guilt is so enormous that it's easier to be a bastard, so he shrugs and says, "Jesus, Sammy, it's just a book. Since when've you been such a sniveling pantywaist?"

Sammy blinks at him in wide-eyed outrage. "Dean, it's a library book," he wails, as though it had come from the collection at Alexandria and not the local podunk branch of the Lawrence Library. "Mrs. Pudnicki will never let me check out more books now."

"Mrs. Pudnicki?" Dean repeats.

He understands Sammy's hysteria now, and the guilt tightens around his throat and chest like an auger. Books are Sammy's only pleasure, his only escape from the monotony of turning wheels and changing addresses. They're his window into happier lives and brighter futures, his promise that this is not forever. Dean has his own such promise in the axle grease on his hands and the hours spent with Bobby and Dad underneath the hood or chassis of an old car. He knows how much the light from those promises can mean when all other light has gone out and even the moon has deserted the sky. The thought that he might have extinguished Sammy's promise in a moment of unthinking cruelty makes him sick and sad, and he looks at the scuffed toes of his boots when he speaks.

"It's still just a book, Sammy," he says dully, stubborn even in the throes of misery. "There's probably nothing wrong with the damn thing, anyway. It probably just fell in the dirt or bounced off one of the wrecks. No problem."

But it is a problem. Libraries are Sammy's only access to books. Every dime not spent on rent and food is poured into guns and bullets. Even Sammy's clothes are second-hand, passed from Dean's closet to his or rummaged from the bargain bins at Goodwill or the Salvation Army. If the illustrious Mrs. Pudnicki bars Sam from the library, there will be no escape when the nights are long and the hotel-room air reeks of bullets and blood.

"'S'not the point, Dean," Sammy mumbles, and Dean knows it's not. He also knows that he could be in very big trouble, because Dad has spotted them and is wending his way through the maze of cars.

"Shit," he says morosely.

Dad emerges from behind Christine, a can of Budweiser clutched in one hand. Black eyes dart from Dean to Sammy's raw, bloody face, and his gaze sharpens and turns on Dean.

"What's going on here?" he asks. He takes a measured sip of beer, but his eyes never leave Dean's face.

"It's my fault, Dad," Sammy says from his crabbed crouch beside the Mustang, his voice choked and shrill. "I bet Dean he couldn't take me in a fight, and he kicked my a-butt," he finishes lamely. He's staring at his reedy shadow as it lies listlessly on the gravel, runny and distorted.

Dad reads Sammy like a transparent newspaper. "Is that true, Dean?"

Dean clears his throat and squares his shoulders. "No, sir," he admits. "Sammy said I couldn't read, so I dropkicked his book over the cars." He fights the urge to fidget. It sounds so stupid said aloud. So pissant.

"Mmhm," Dad says. "And what? The book came for revenge and mauled his face?"

"No, sir, but that'd be awesome." He offers Dad a hopeful grin. Dad doesn't return it, and so he drops the grin like a heavy stone. "He, uh, came at me, so I dropped him and rubbed his face in the gravel."

"Gravel what?" Dad says tonelessly, and his face is blank.

It's the Daddy-thing, Dean thinks with fuzzy, dry-mouthed horror. Why, hello there. I haven't seen you in a long time. Not since you stood on the side of the road with baby Sammy in your dirty hands and stared at him with lifeless, black-scribble eyes. Thought I'd left you back there in the Kansas dust, but I guess not. Guess finding you again is the price of homecoming.

For a moment, Dean's vision is so sharp that he can see the individual hairs on Dad's chin, and over Dad's shoulder, he can see Bobby standing at the grill, tongs in one hand, beer in the other. He can even see the expression on Bobby's face-idle curiosity and dim amusement that he-Dean has obviously landed in the shithouse again.

Then he blinks, and it's just Dad again. Bobby fades to a familiar, comforting blur. He shakes himself, licks his lips, and croaks, "Gravel, sir?"

Right answer, apparently. Dad grunts and takes a long swallow of beer. "Go get yourself cleaned up, Sam," he orders.

"Yes, sir," Sammy sniffles, and scuttles away, headed for the rusty tap in Bobby's workshop.

Dean has not been dismissed, and so he stands with his shoulders squared and waits for the inevitable.

Dad surveys him in silence for several, long moments. "You rub your brother's face in the dirt again, and you'll have me to answer to. Is that understood?" No bluster. It's not even loud. Just plain Winchester promise.

"Yes, sir."

Another long look to see if he's bullshitting, and then Dad says, "Go on; get cleaned up. Steak's almost ready."

Dean nods and swallows and flees from the scene on legs that have gone to wooden stilts inside his jeans. It could've been much worse, and in his heart, he knows it should've been. He doesn't understand the odd gleam of pride in his father's eyes when he had confessed his sin, as though he had been glad of what he'd done. Maybe Dad had just been glad to hear the truth, but it's not like him to just let it go. A dull, twisting knot of worry settles in the pit of his stomach. Gentleness only comes to his father when there is a greater blow to come. He doesn't want to consider what that might be, but a part of him already knows, and he lets his gaze linger over his surroundings as he washes gravel and dust from his hands. Sammy's blood stipples the dirty porcelain, and he's careful not to look at it.

His mood does not improve when Sammy comes to the grill pit with the library book in his hands. Dean's heart drops in his chest, and the steak he has been eating with such gusto goes rotten in his mouth. Sammy's cradling the book in his hands like a wounded bird, and even though the book is closed, Dean sees pages bulging from between the covers like herniated disks. There is also a perfect impression of his boot on the front cover.

"It's ruined," Sammy says dully to no one in particular, and sits down in the chair Bobby has left for him in the uneven circle around the grill. He refuses to look at him.

"I'm sure it's not ruined, Sammy," Dean counters, but he knows it is, and he also knows that there will be no more books for his little brother from the Lawrence library.

Sammy doesn't dignify his wishful thinking with a reply. Instead, he curls in his chair and picks at his food and looks anywhere but at Dean or the ruined book at his feet. Dean has lost his appetite, and his meat and cob go untouched on his plate. He's too preoccupied with Sammy's bland, hopeless face. It's raw from the gravel, and if Sammy turns his head just so, he can see the faint outline of a bruise on his cheek, a subtle crescent that will bloom to a deep, ugly purple by tomorrow morning.

There are more of those underneath the skin, he thinks suddenly. A new one for every day that he stays here, and tomorrow, Dad will give him another.

It sickens him to think that he has left this one, and he wonders just how many he will leave before it's all said and done, how many he's unwittingly given him by virtue of being Dean Winchester. The thought tightens the knot of worry in his stomach, and he throws his plate into the trash. Bobby raises his eyebrows, but doesn't say anything, and Dean is grateful.

He retreats to the familiarity of cars and wrenches, wastes time by waxing Christine's hood. It's Sammy who comes after him to see what's wrong. Of course it is. For all his and Dad's talk about looking out for Sammy, he looks out for them just as much. Maybe more. He worries enough for all of them.

Sammy shuffles his feet and watches without saying anything for a while, and then he says, "Can I help? Tenative and filled with painful hope. Let me make something okay.

Dean's throat constricts as he hands Sammy a grimy, oil-stained rag. "Get the Armor-All and shine the wheels," he says brusquely.

Sammy does as he is told, and they work in silence for hours, until light bleeds from the sky and the workshop cools with approaching darkness. He turns on the light when it gets too dark to see, and the stark, bare bulb dangling from the ceiling lets him watch the bruise blossom on his brother's cheek whether he wants to or not. Sammy doesn't seem to notice it at all, and Dean works until his knuckles crack and bleed and bruise to the color of the one on his brother's face. Until they're even.

September 23, 2001

Dean doesn't know what he's doing here, really, sitting on a bench outside the Humanties building of the Stanford campus with a hooded sweatshirt on and his hands stuffed into the pockets even though they're slick and sweaty. Nor does he know why he left the Impala in Kansas and drove here in a Buick station wagon that galumphs down the highway with an ass full of lead. He'd gotten some strange looks out where the rubber met the road, tourists and soccer moms who'd craned to see why Black Sabbath screamed from the rattling speakers of a squat, suburban chariot. He'd waved cheekily as they drove past, but the friendly gesture had never been returned. They had just rolled up the window and hit the gas. He'd wondered why. His boys had been zipped and holstered, after all.

He supposes he could've driven the Impala; she was cherry, fresh off an engine overhaul. But she attracts attention, his girl, and he'd been afraid that Sammy might see it cruising the narrow, campus streets and go to ground. So, Big Bertha had made the trip, waddling and puffing and providing good cover. She's parked in one of the garages a few streets over, wedged between a Mazda Miata and a Honda Civic.

He shifts on the bench and smiles at a passing gaggle of sun-bleached and gym-toned coeds. They roll their eyes and hug their books more tightly to their ample chests, and Dean is flummoxed. He prides himself on his ability to charm the pants(and bras and panties)off any girl on his radar, but that fabled Winchester charm seems to have deserted him. Everyone has given him a wide berth, and they've watched him fretfully from the corners of their eyes, as though they expect him to lunge and snap at their unprotected throats. The lady at the Registrar's office had spent their entire conversation with her hand pressed to her throat, and when he'd leaned over the desk in a bid to turn on the down-home charm, she had actually recoiled and reached for the phone. He'd left without Sammy's class schedule. He had picked here on a desperate whim. Pompous dead guys with unpronounceable names had been just the sort of thing to blow smoke up Sammy's skirt back in the day, and he hopes that much hasn't changed. He needs something, anything, to be the same.

People avoid you because they know you're hunting, says a voice inside his head that reminds him of Bobby and Dad all at once. They can smell it on you like musk, danger and high piss-off. Guarandamntee they won't be selling that shit alongside Chanel, but there's no mistaking it, either. You get different when you're hunting. You all do. Leaner. Meaner. More teeth and claws and balls-out dickery. Anybody with a lick of sense knows to stay the hell away, and they do. It's how they stay alive.

Except he's not hunting Sam. He's not. He's just…checking up on things. Sammy hasn't written or called since August, when he left the house with nothing but what he could carry in his old, green duffel bag. Dean had driven him to the bus depot in the Impala, and that had been that. Sammy had boarded the bus without a backward glance, and he had driven home and slept in the car. Dad hadn't asked where Sammy was the next morning because he had already known. In fact, Dad hadn't asked after Sammy at all since Samuel Winchester had decided to refuse his marching orders and tell him to kiss his ass. As far as John Winchester is concerned, Sammy is dead, and judging from the stubborn radio silence from Sammy's end, the feeling is mutual.

Except Dean gets the feeling he's dead, too.

He doesn't want to be dead, doesn't deserve it. Not after eighteen years of being his brother's keeper and casting a shadow long enough to hide them both from the monsters that move in the darkness. He can accept that Sammy left him behind in the miring shitpit of the hunt because he has always known that was the way it had to be, and he can accept that Sammy hates Dad because in some dim, shameful part of himself, he harbors the same bitter resentment of crushed dreams and hijacked futures. He can accept Sammy wanting to slip his bone cage, because every day, the bars of his own close around him a little more. He can even forgive Sammy for not trying to take him with him. But he cannot accept the idea that for Sammy, he was just another part of the nightmare from which he has awakened.

He isn't sure what he'll say if he finds Sammy out here on this lush expanse of carefully-tended green. He thinks maybe he'll invite him for a beer; he's legal now, after all. He'll ask him to go to one of the local hangouts, and they can order a pitcher and burgers and shoot the shit in the darkest corner where no one can see. He'll ask him about school and if he's bagged any of the hot chicks that flit over this campus like butterflies. They won't talk about Dad or the hunt or any of the things that go bump in the night and linger in the dark, forgotten places of the world.

He won't ask Sammy to come back with him, no matter how much the words burns on his tongue. He won't remind him that family is the one monster you can't escape, and he won't admit that he is afraid. He'll assure Sammy that everything is fine, just like he had when Sammy was four years old and hiding from the kelpies circling the Impala on webbed, amphibious feet. He'll lie. He's gotten remarkably good at it over the years. It is, he thinks, part of being a big brother.

He sits on the bench and watches students mill over the grounds or sprawl on towels in the California sunshine. It's like something out of 90210, all pretty girls and trust-fund boys, a living Rockwell unspooled at his feet. He watches from the corner of his eye as a guy about Sammy's age straddles the ass of a girl in a bikini and reaches for a bottle of sunblock. He knows without looking that Ken has his hardon strategically placed in the crack of Barbie's ass, and he wonders if Sammy has ever done the same. He hopes so, and if he has, he hopes Sammy hasn't lost his penchant for sharing. If nothing else, he'd like to leave with his own piece of the California dream.

The doors to the lecture hall open with a resounding crash, and people stream from the building, arms laden with books and cellphones pressed to ears. Couples kiss on the sidewalk, and Dean counts no fewer than five instances of public groping. Singles move around the entwined couples with practiced indifference, and groups break apart and reform, jellyfish moving through the sea. Dean is looking for Sammy so intently that he almost misses him.

It violates every law of nature that he should miss him. Sammy has been a beanpole from the time he was twelve, a gangly lightning rod that towered over his surroundings. By the time he was fifteen, he had been taller than both Dad and him, all knees and elbows and Opie Taylor smile. But he does miss because he'd been looking for him in the wrong place, in the stragglers who creep from the building bowed beneath greasy hair and bulging bookbags stuffed with books and existential rage, in the mousy loners who are invisible even in broad daylight. It's where Sammy has always lived, tucked safely into corners and hidden rooms and between Dean's body and the monster. It's where Dean's mind insists he belongs.

But Sammy has blossomed in the three weeks he's been away from the long reach of Winchester law. He's brighter and even bigger than Dean remembers, a young sapling with his branches outstretched to reach the sun. He's surrounded by people who are clearly his friends, people who move in his orbit without intruding or unbalancing it. His bookbag dangles loosely over one broad shoulder, and he reminds Dean of Johnny Appleseed, loping with easy grace over the field and spreading happiness instead of seeds.

Dean knows then that he won't say anything to Sammy, not then, and not ever if Sammy doesn't want it. There are no bruises on Sammy's face, you see, no traces of the Mark of Cain that Mama's ashes left behind. It's been lifted, erased by freedom and distance, and Dean suspects that any contact, even the simple invitation for a beer, will mark him again. All the old bruises will resurface like blood boils, and maybe this time, they won't go away.

Dean tucks his chin to his chest and pretends to look at a penny stuck to the sidewalk by blackened gum. His heart is pounding inside his chest, and he prays-prays-that Sammy won't see him. He's all but sick with it, and still there is a dizzying surge of disappointment when Sammy passes him without a flicker of interest. It's irrefutable proof that he must be dead, and the realization hollows him with a cruel, efficient blade.

I'm a dust-boy, he thinks with dismal, shell-shocked clarity. So why don't I just dry up and blow away?

But he doesn't. He remains depressingly solid as he watches Sammy put unfathomable distance between them. For a moment as he watches Sammy throw back his head and laugh, the envy is so immense that it hurts, and he's tempted to shout his name, to make him turn and see him there. But he doesn't. He can't. Sammy is free as he wishes he could be, and he won't ruin that. He won't be Sammy's Johnny Walton, standing beneath his bedroom window and beckoning him home to the nightmare.

He stays on the bench a while longer, savoring Sammy's paradise that will never be his, and then he goes back to the parking garage to retrieve Big Bertha. The Miata and the Civic are both gone, and she looks bereft as she squats in the space. He pats her cracked dashboard in absent sympathy as he climbs inside.

He drives to a local hangout and orders a burger and a pitcher. He eats the burger without tasting it and drinks the pitcher by himself, and when the perky, young waitress comes with his check, he's buzzed enough to flirt with her. He's numb, though, and he remembers none of their encounter later that night in a no-tell motel just off campus. Just wet heat and blessed friction. So much for the California dream.

He leaves her without a goodbye and drives Big Bertha home. He blows out the speakers in Topeka and finds he doesn't care until he realizes that Sammy isn't there to fill the silence. Then he drums his fingers on the dashboard until they ache and tells himself it isn't punishment.

Dad is sitting at the kitchen table, sorting bills from credit card applications when he comes home.

"Where you been?" he asks without looking up.

"On a hunt," Dean says. It's the truth, after all. Then, "Went bad." And that's true, too. He goes to his room before Dad can ask any more questions.

October 17, 2005

Dean lies on the dirty, glass-strewn floor of Estate Antiques in Toledo, Ohio, and reflects that this hunt has gone bad. Very bad, indeed. Memories press against the inside of his throbbing skull and force blood from his eyes, and for a wild instant, he hopes that he'll blow a vessel. If he does, the memories will stop, and so will all the guilt that comes with them. There will be no need to hold on with both hands because his clutching, clenching fingers will at long last turn to dust. He can only hope.

They are not all bad, the memories that cloud his mind and turn his vision red. Some of them are bittersweet and ache in his teeth like too much sugar. Sammy taking his first steps across Aunt Judy's living room. Sammy whooping in celebration and dancing around the kitchen table over making the honor roll. Sammy telling Dad he'd applied to Stanford, and hunting be damned. California on a warm fall day, and a campus that had sprawled like Eden as far as the eye could see.

But those aren't the memories she wants. They're too sweet, too kind, and the scabrous hand of Mary Worthington bats them aside in search of riper, darker fruit. Cold, dead fingers clitter over his hemorrhaging psyche, and he can't stop her from dredging them from the darkest recesses of his mind.

You hated him, she warbles in a grating, alien voice, and he sees himself at five, sitting beneath an oak tree in the front yard and wishing that Sammy who was not yet Sammy would go away and never be. He hears himself begging his father to make Sammy disappear. He closes his eyes as if that will make the vision disappear, but it only grows clearer and more vivid in the wet, sticky darkness behind his eyelids, so he wrenches them open again.

You feared him, she hisses, and it's Dad he sees now, standing beside the Impala with Sammy cradled in his arms. Dad has ashes on his face and arms, and his eyes are black scribbles. His teeth are too long, and there are too many of them, and the old fear rises in his gut like bile. He knows that it's impossible, that the past can't be relived, but he's convinced with the certainty of the damned that this time, Dad will lean down and sink his teeth into Sammy's guts. Sammy will have an even better reason to scream this time, and there will be nothing he can do. The culvert will run red, and Sammy's jammies will float to Hell on a river of blood. He screams behind clenched teeth and writhes in agony.

You robbed him of his promise. Sammy, small and defeated and huddled beside the rocker panel of a '66 Mustang. The Grapes of Wrath sailing majestically over the raised hood of Christine, marked forever by his bootprint. Just like he'd marked Sammy a few minutes later with a new Mark of Cain.

He opens his mouth to protest that he hadn't stolen Sammy's promise, but nothing emerges but a moan, and blood fills his mouth. Besides, there's nothing to protest; Mary is right. He had stolen Sammy's promise. For the rest of that summer, anyway. Mrs. Pudnicki had refused to reinstate Sammy's library privileges even after Dean had paid the restocking fee with a handful of crumpled, grungy bills he'd hustled from local barflies. Dean had secretly called her Mrs. Pudpuller after that in an act of petty rebellion, but it hadn't done Sammy any good, and for the rest of that summer, the only books he'd read were the ones Dean had cadged from the dollar rack at the Rexall. Oddly, Sammy hadn't appreciated the free education afforded by such dimestore classics as Wheels of Desire and Burning Passion.

Any amusement gleaned from that recollection is crushed beneath the weight of the next memory and its accompanying accusation.

You envied him. He's at Stanford in the fall, sitting on a bench and watching Sammy slip the fetters of being a Winchester. He sees the sun on Sammy's unbruised, clean face and the glint of it on his exposed teeth as he laughs. He sees the man on his left and the girl on his right. The man he doesn't know, but the girl is-was-Jess, and once upon a time, his brother had loved her. Maybe he'd loved her even then. Now she's dead, ashes and charred bone, and that's his fault, too.

Of course it is, jeers Mary as she shambles forward on squelching feet and points a decaying finger at him. Your envy is what brought you here. You knew what would happen if you came back for him; that's why you fled Eden without a word. You knew you would corrupt his hard-won paradise with your mere presence, re-impose the Mark of Cain that he'd tried so hard to erase. But in the end, you could not stop yourself. Your selfishness runs too deep, and your fear of being alone is greater than your love for your brother. Just as your father's love for your dead mother is greater than his love for his sons.

This, too, he would deny if he could, but she is relentless and pays out memories like links in a corroded chain, each meant to bind him more firmly to his guilt. He is twenty-three and on a hunt with Dad in Mobile, and he is acutely aware of Sam's absence as he splashes through the swamp mud in pursuit of ghost lights. His burdens are heavier now that Sam is gone, literally and figuratively. He is the only good soldier Dad has left, and he pays for his inadequacy in sharper orders, shorter patience, and twice the baggage.

Dad is far ahead, unencumbered by the burdens of rifle parts, rock salt, and ammunition, and though he is wordless as he sloshes through the muck, his footfalls hold a note of reproach. Dean quickens his pace in an effort to defuse the rebuke before it comes, but it's no use. It simply moves from sole to iris. Dean swallows and fixes his gaze on the bobbing lights in the distance, and for the first time since he was five years old and living in fear of the lady in the county station wagon, he hates Sammy.

It isn't fair that he should be left here to follow in his father's footsteps while Sammy turns his face to the sun and swims in more ass than should be allowed by law. He'd had dreams, too, not so long ago, before Sammy came into the world baptized in soot and sulfur. He'd dreamed of cars and engines and vintage leather seats, and he'd fantasized about seeing his name mounted above a corrugated iron door. But he had put those dreams aside for Sammy, for family. He'd thought that his loyalty would be repaid in kind, but here he is, up to his ass in gator shit and stinking of mud, and he is alone.

He had thought that family was the one monster you couldn't outrun, and he is right; he can't. But Sammy could, and the little bastard did. He thinks of the green in front of the Humanities building at Stanford, and the hatred is bright and clean as the spirit light in front of him. He thinks of Sammy, bent over his beloved fucking books in the reverent silence of the library, and he entertains the savage hope that the ink and graphite stain his hands like blood. He hopes that his ambitions crumble to dust as his have done. The wish lasts as long as the spirit light, and as it disintegrates in a hail of rock salt, Dean can't shake the feeling that he's wished upon a star.

You did wish, Mary croaks, and she's close enough for him to smell, blood and putrid fat. You wished upon the star of a spent life, and all your dreams came true. Sammy has his degree, for what it's worth, and Jess is dead. All that bound him here is gone. You're all he has left, you and the hunt, and that's the way you've always wanted it, because you're a monster just like your father.

Bullshit, he snarls, but there is precious little conviction behind it because another memory surfaces, and he doesn't need Mary to call it forth. He does that all by himself. He sees himself driving down the highway, listening to Blue Oyster Cult and carefully clearing the passenger seat of the Impala of the roadmap and burger wrappers. Sammy'll need the seat, after all. He even adjusts the seat to accommodate his lanky legs.

So, maybe he had entertained the hope that Sammy would rejoin the hunt, but he had never wanted it at this price, never wanted to steal from Sammy the light he'd been seeking for himself. Not a second time. At worst, he'd thought he'd catch the fever again and rejoin the hunt for old times' sake, leave Jess with a kiss and a promise to call. They'd kill a few monsters and down a few beers, and when the need for home burned brighter than the love of brotherhood, he'd bring him home. It had been as simple as that, and when Sam had refused the unspoken invitation, he'd accepted it and moved on.

But part of you is glad, Mary insists, and he cannot deny it.

He closes his eyes and waits for it to be over. Death is no more than he deserves for dragging his brother back into the darkness he despises. Then Sammy screams, and it cuts through his self-pity like a slap. He may deserve to rot in Hell, but Sammy doesn't deserve to die. Not for him, and not for his dirty, little secrets.

He reaches for a nearby mirror and wishes that he had Sammy's lanky arms. From the corner of his eye, he sees Sammy curled in a fetal position, his hands clapped to his temples. He's screaming between clenched teeth, and Dean knows he's running out of time. They both are.

He marshals his flagging will and lunges for the mirror. Then it's in his hands, heavy and blessedly cool. He holds it in front of him like a shield, heart in his throat and sending hammerspikes into his swollen temples. If this doesn't work, he's going to get his wish and leave the hunt forever, toes up and short a pair of eyes. So will Sam, and he thinks even as he tightens his grip on the age-blackened frame that there is a poetic justice to that end. He and Sammy together again. It'll be like when they were kids, sharing a bed in some sleazy motel or a room in a rented house on the outskirts of the latest town to host their fleeting roots. Instead of nappy covers or second-hand bunk beds, they'll share matching slabs of concrete in a garden of stone.

Then the monstrous pain in his head is gone, and when he chances a peek from behind the mirror, he knows that he has won. Mary Worthington lurches and sways in the center of the room, casting innumerable reflections in the shards at her feet. She is transfixed by the scene in the mirror, and he wonders what she sees, how many secret sinners she has made to stand before her mirror. He wonders how many secrets a heart can hold when it has no dimension.

Blood trickles from her eyes in dark, viscous rivulets, and her expression-what he can see of it behind the matted hanks of hair that had once been lovely-is so lost, so horrified that he experiences a pang of reluctant sympathy. He understands that look because he's seen it before, felt it mold itself to his own face when he was five years old and kneeling on the backseat of the Impala. It is the face of epiphany, the face of someone who sees a monster…and understands.

The revenant of Mary Worthington opens her boneless mouth wide and utters a beseeching wail, and then she surrenders to the end in a gout of blood that pools on the floor. The air stinks of copper and salt and despair, and Dean blinks blood and tears from his eyes as he tosses the mirror aside and rolls to his hands and knees. The world seesaws violently, and he almost pitches onto his face, but he bulls his way to tentative equilibrium and crawls toward Sammy, who kneels on the floor with his hands to his face and his forehead pressed to the concrete.

"Sammy!" He flounders onward, suddenly convinced that his heroics have come too late, that when Sam lifts his face, there will be nothing but bloody, raw sockets. His eyes will dribble down his cheeks like poached eggs. Sammy will spend the rest of his life in the dark, with only his memories of the light to tether him to sanity. "Sammy!" Breathless now, and he cradles Sammy's face in his hands, trying to see the damage.

Sammy shrugs out of his solicitous grip and falls gracefully onto his skinny ass. "It's Sam," he mutters irritably, and it's so peevish, so Sammy that Dean momentarily forgets his panic. "I'm fine," Sam says, and when he looks up, Dean is relieved to see that he and Stevie Wonder won't be striking up a relationship any time soon. His eyes are bloodshot and mulish, but intact.

Dean helps Sammy to his feet, and they stare in silence at the wreckage of the store. Glass glitters with eerie beauty in the pre-dawn light, and all that remains of Mary Worthington dries to a tacky smear in their midst.

The Mark of Mary, he thinks, and shudders.

"What is this-about 720 years' bad luck?" Sammy muses wryly, and Dean chuckles in relief.

His relief lasts until later that afternoon, after they've left Charlie and Toledo, Ohio in the rearview mirror. Sammy is asleep in the passenger seat, shaggy head pillowed on his forearm and the window, and Dean can't help but notice how pale and wasted he looks. It's taken little more than a summer and part of a fall for the long teeth of the hunt to find him again. There are bruises, too, and not all of them are fresh. In fact, most of them only show when the light is just right, ghost bruises that rise from the dead and press their memory to his skin. Some of them are old, old as freezing wind on naked, infant skin and library books with ruined pages and bootprints on the cover. None of them are Sammy's fault.

The family mark, he thinks. The Mark of Cain.

He shifts gears and puts the pedal to the metal to escape the thought, and dust hangs in his wake, dancing in farewell before settling to the earth with a mournful sigh.