Six days later

Flicking through the files displayed on the plasma screen and frowning in thought, Sam tried hard to ignore the pacing of his elder brother. He focused on his research and rubbed at the back of his aching neck, frowning as he read again through the information.

Dean reached the door of the small motel and paused for a moment before turning and marching back across the room. Like a caged animal, he counted out the strides to the other side of his confines and sighed in frustration.

"For god's sake, Dean!" Sam groaned suddenly, leaning back from the laptop and throwing his hands in the air. "Can't you watch TV or something?"

Dean glared a warning at his brother and spun to make his return trip across the garish green and orange carpet.

"What?" Sam sighed, following his brother's slow march past him. "It's you that's on home arrest, Dean. Not me. Why do I have to suffer?" He shook his head slowly and clenched his fists. "God, I could handle some of these hunts by myself - "

Halting abruptly, Dean's faraway gaze was suddenly focused. He fixed his eyes on his brother and his shoulders fell.

"Right …" Sam recalled, remorse stirring somewhere beyond his frustration. "You don't want me out of your sight."

Dean nodded and returned to his maddening pacing.

"So, in the meantime, this is your plan? You hoping I'll get so mad at you that I'll give in?"

Dean made no reply, reached the door and turned back across the room.

"The doctor said two weeks and two weeks it is." Sam stated evenly, shaking his head as he turned his attention back to his computer and hunched over the screen. Wishing he'd taken Ellen up on her offer of a bed for the time Dean needed to recover -- and longing for the many escape routes staying there would have offered -- he peered at the new information he had pulled from the internet and took a deep breath as he read through the files once more. The words danced in front of his weary eyes and his head span dizzily as, in the corner of his vision, his brother reached the far wall and turned to march back across the room.

"Okay!" Sam slammed the laptop closed and groaned in annoyance. "Shit!" Dragging his hands through his hair and getting to his feet, he dropped his arms by his side and shrugged in defeat. "Fine. You win."

Dean stopped abruptly and turned to his brother, frowning warily.

"You win." Sam repeated, throwing his hands in the air. "Pack your stuff."

A small smile danced on Dean's lips and he regarded Sam in suspicion. "You're yanking me, right?"

"No." Sam groaned, "I'm getting us out of here before I kill you."

"Ha!" Dean cheered merrily and hurried over to stuff a few clothes into his hold-all. "Done. Packed. Let's go!"

Sam picked up his computer and gathered together the papers scattered across the small table.

"Come on, Sammy! Look lively!"

"Dean!" Sam glared a warning and padded slowly over to his bed. "I swear … one of these days …"

"What?" Dean laughed merrily, "You'll use the force on me, Ani?"

Shoving the last few items into his back-pack and shooting daggers at his brother's grinning face, Sam shook his head in despair. "But you're only riding shot-gun." He reminded wearily, "You stay in the car and behave. You hear me?"

"Loud and clear, Cap'n." Dean gave an exaggerated salute and swung his bag over his shoulder. Wincing as the action pulled at his side and quickly dropping his bag lower, Dean hoped his brother had not noticed and opened the door.

Sam followed Dean out to the car and loaded their bags into the trunk. Making his way round to the driver's door, a sudden memory of his brother bleeding to death in the sleek black Impala slammed into him and he paused for a moment.

"Come on, Sammy!"

Opening the door and sliding inside, Sam could not help but smile at his brother's bright, eager grin and shook his head in dismay. "Remind me again why I even try to reason with you."

"Aw, don't be like that." Dean urged merrily, "You were just as cranky when zombie-Barbie broke your hand."

Sam shrugged slightly and slid the key into the ignition.

"So." Dean took a deep breath and sighed happily. "Where we going?"

"Ohio." Sam answered, guiding the car from the parking lot and gunning it out onto the main road.

"Uh-huh." Dean responded thoughtfully, "And what's in Ohio?"

"Possibly a vengeful spirit or maybe a poltergeist. Local news reports point towards the latter, what with items disappearing and electrical equipment malfunctions."

Dean nodded quietly.

"It'll be boring." Sam offered, smiling in amusement.

Dean sighed and rested back against the seat. "It's scenery." He countered with a shrug and looked out of the window at the town that passed by.

Sam suddenly laughed and reached over to place a gentle thump on Dean's arm. "It's a good job I love ya, dude!"

Flinching in protest and rubbing at his arm, Dean then grinned in response and turned back out to the road as a contented smile rested on his mouth. The Impala then rocked suddenly as the near-side wheels shuddered over a pothole in the poorly maintained road. Without thinking, he hissed in protest and closed his eyes, his left hand sliding across his abdomen to support the still healing wound.

"Dude?"

Keeping his eyes closed, knowing all too well the angry concern that was being glared in his direction, Dean sighed out the breath he was holding and quickly raised his hand away from his side. "I'm okay."

"Right."

"Sam."

"Dean."

"Dude!" Dean turned and frowned in annoyance at his brother. "Stop with the mother-hen routine, okay? I can stand, I can walk. I'm fine." He shook his head slowly and focused his frustration out at the road ahead, unconsciously looking for more holes in the asphalt. "I just have to be outside, okay?" He continued, his anger fading, "I never could stand being cooped up all day."

Sam gripped the steering wheel tightly and kept his attention on guiding the car along as even a course as he could along the aging back road. "Why do you do it?" He ventured after a moment.

"Do what?"

"Push yourself so hard."

Dean had no reply and watched the countryside sailing by.

"I mean … what are you trying to prove?"

"Oh god, not now, Sam - "

"Yes, now." Sam countered, his voice suddenly loud with frustration. He guided the Impala towards the edge of the road and carefully pulled to a stop on the grass verge.

"Aw, hell." Dean groaned, turning to Sam with a pleading groan. "Just leave it, okay?"

"Sorry." Sam switched off the engine and turned to face his brother squarely. "Not this time."

Dean sighed and looked away, suddenly finding the cracks on the dash in great need of study.

"A couple of months back it was you begging me for a chance to stop and catch your breath." Sam persisted evenly, "Now it's me asking you to slow down."

"Guess our timing sucks, huh?" Dean offered merrily, chancing a look up at Sam and shrugging slightly.

"Yeah." Sam smiled. "But seriously … let's do one of your crazy-ass ideas, or something. Huh? Let's do the Grand Canyon or Amsterdam."

Dean grinned at the thought and crooked an eyebrow. "Now that is tempting …!" He agreed quietly, giving a weary sigh. "But - "

"But what?"

"This." Dean pointed to the maps and scribbled notes piled on the front seat between them. "The job."

"Screw the job!" Sam laughed suddenly, "Hell, everyone needs a little R&R every once in a while."

Dean regarded his brother in suspicion for a second, his smile growing. "This really you?"

Sam returned the smile and nodded slowly. "It just seems like forever since there was anything more than 'the job'." He held up his hands to express the enormity of the word and then flopped them back into his lap. "And …"

"And?"

"And I hate what it's doing to you."

Dean's smile slowly faded and he looked down at his hands.

"You're exhausted, man." Sam continued. "And it makes you one grumpy S-O-B." He saw the brief grin that generated and sighed in relief. "Hell, maybe we need a time-out just so I don't smack you down."

"Or get your ass kicked trying."

Sam shrugged, deciding to let that one pass for the sake of the delighted grin that suddenly took years off of his brother's pale face.

Dean watched Sam regarding him in concern and took a deep breath, nodding slightly. "I kinda thought the brave face was still working."

"Not with me." Sam corrected softly. Or Ellen, he wanted to add but decided better of it, knowing Dean would be upset at the thought of being discussed by the pair of them. That and the slightly embarrassed way he had avoided the farewell hug she had offered before she left, obviously uncomfortable with how far he had dropped his guard.

Ellen had covered the awkwardness with a quick crack about having to get back before Ash drank her profits and Dean had clearly been relieved. She had then turned to Sam and shot him a quick talk to him look before leaving the hospital room. Yeah, right. Might as well try to start a conversation with a dry wall, he had chided to himself. But here he was, having almost a chat with his stubborn-as-hell big brother.

"Okay."

Sam was pulled from his musing and frowned slightly. "What?"

Dean shrugged and looked over at him. "If you swear there'll be no more fluffy talks … I'll take it easy for a while longer."

"Really?" Sam urged, trying not to sound too surprised.

"Really."

"Okay." Sam threw up his hands and sighed in happy relief. "Cool."

"I'll go where you want and I'll be a good patient. So long as there's fresh air, open space and plenty of beer."

Sam laughed in delight and span round to start up the engine quickly before his brother changed his mind. "Colorado it is, then." He guided the Impala back onto the road and gave another brief laugh. "Dude, a real road trip!"

"Okay, getting scary now, freak-boy."

"Sorry."

Dean smiled and pulled the map out from under the pile of papers between them. "What about Ohio?"

"Someone else can pick it up." Sam shrugged. He glanced across and saw the slight discomfort that Dean obviously had at the notion. "Or call it in?"

Dean nodded thoughtfully and then suddenly laughed. "Dude, this is so Stan Lee."

"Sorry?"

"Well … you with your superpowers, contacts in the business who we call on for help, secret hideouts and stuff. It's totally comic book."

"And you would know this how?"

"Dude, wherever Dad would take us, there was always a comic book store." He caught the look of surprise that was shot at him and gave a brief shrug. "What?" Dean defended, "My collection came in handy. The original edition Spider-man's paid for the first .45 I bought."

"Huh." Sam frowned as he watched the road, a smile dancing on his lips as a distant memory surfaced; an image of his brother sat cross-legged on a motel bed, head bent low over his latest purchase. "But …" His smile grew and he glanced at Dean. "If I have the superpowers … that makes you the sidekick."

"Oh, no way!" Dean scoffed, grinning back at Sam. "Dude, I own the Batmobile!" He nodded firmly and patted the dash. "'Sides … I'm the eldest."

"Oh, that old chestnut!" Sam smiled, enjoying the banter and glad to see his brother so animated.

"So what does this make Bobby? Alfred? Aunt May?" Dean giggled, then seeing Sam suddenly sobering. "Hmm … he was still pissed, huh?"

Sam gave a small shrug. "You could say that. He kind of avoided me." He took a deep breath and blew out a long sigh. "Ellen thinks he just needs time to calm down."

Dean considered this for a moment and nodded thoughtfully. "At least we got each other."

It was so sincere and offered so freely that it brought a sudden lump to Sam's throat. He smiled and blinked away tears as they reached the freeway and he headed west to start their vacation.

XXXXX

It was well after dusk when they arrived in the outskirts of the town and a few hours since Sam had surrendered once more to his brother's incessant nagging and let him take the wheel. An easy choice between listening to Dean's constant whining or helping his stubborn brother stagger into bed later that evening with a handful of painkillers after pushing his healing body too far. And to be fair Sam knew he had lost the battle as soon as Dean asked to drive.

Taking the chance to catch some sleep of his own, quietly content in the knowledge that his brother was healed enough to be able to drive, Sam woke suddenly as the car pulled to a stop and he peered out into the rain.

Dean switched off the engine but left the radio idling, smiling in greeting as Sam stretched out a yawn.

"What?" Sam rubbed his face and turned to his brother. "Why are we stopping?"

"I'm hungry." Dean replied simply.

Sam groaned and checked his watch. "We should keep going. Find somewhere to crash for the night."

"We will." Dean shrugged, "But I need food. Now."

Sam sighed, "Okay, I get it. This is where you turn 180 and actually enjoy convalescing, huh?" Seeing the glint in Dean's eye and already able to hear the futile attempts he would make to try and get his brother to go get his own damned food, Sam groaned and grabbed the door handle.

"With extra onions." Dean added quickly.

"Dude!" Sam protested, "It's me that has to ride with your extra onions." He watched his brother's smile grow and grumbled in annoyance as he climbed from the car.

Dean cranked up the music merrily. "And see if they have any pie." He added as an afterthought, knowing he was pushing his luck but too cheeky not to try.

Sam made no reply and slammed the door closed.

"Bring me some pie!" Dean shouted with a smile, watching his brother trudge towards the roadside cafe, flipping a middle finger up at Dean as he walked away.

Watching Sam head inside, Dean hummed happily to the music and then frowned as the radio began to crackle and die. Tapping the stereo with his finger, sudden icy dread flooded through him and he looked up quickly.

The cafe was empty. Dean gasped and clambered from the car, ignoring the pull in his side as he hurried across the flooded path and into the cafe.

He was not prepared for the sight that greeted him. Customers and staff alike were scattered throughout the small cafe, their bodies twisted unnaturally and bright pools of blood still spreading from their slit throats.

His heart pounding in his head, Dean scanned the cafe and murmured worriedly as panic grew. "Sam?" He called out quietly, somehow knowing there would be no response. Making his way through the gruesome scene, he found no sign of his brother and retreated to the the front of the cafe. Backing into the door, Dean groaned and steadied himself, his hand sinking into a fine flour-like substance on the window frame.

Rubbing the yellow, strong-scented powder between his fingers and feeling the world falling from beneath his feet, Dean could not breathe.

"Sam?" He managed after a moment, his voice tight in his throat. "Sam?" Stepping out into the rain swept darkness, his head spinning in terror, Dean clenched his fists and felt panic surging within him. "Sammy!" He called urgently, his voice echoing amid the still trees that surrounded him. "SAM!"