"Hey, my blue shirt isn't in your bag is it? I can't find it anywhere."
Sam didn't look up as he rifled through his bag, upending the contents on to the bed as he looked for the particular shirt he'd decided to wear today. He wasn't just being pedantic – he had very few clothes that weren't in dire need of a good wash at the moment and he knew he remembered laundering the blue one a few weeks ago.
He suddenly realised he'd had no response to his question and he glanced over at Dean, who was sitting in front of the window looking at the laptop. Sam frowned as he saw Dean's pained expression and the way his eyes were glued to the screen.
Crap. Now what? he thought, bracing himself for whatever bad news fate was deciding to inflict on them this week. He walked over to Dean, saying his name again quietly as he did so.
The startled jump Dean did and the way his head snapped up to look at Sam would have been comical if Sam weren't so worried about whatever had his brother so obviously upset.
"What?" said Dean, recovering his composure and slamming the laptop shut before Sam could get a good look at the screen.
"Everything ok?" said Sam cautiously, bearing in mind as always how well Dean reacted to any obvious show of concern.
"Yeah, everything's fine. What did you want?" said Dean, deliberately putting an end to Sam's queries before his brother get into full 'hover' mode.
He really wasn't ready to talk about this. In fact if Sam never found out that would be just fine by him.
Sam sighed but knew there was no point pushing the issue.
"I was asking if my blue shirt was in your bag? I can't find it."
Dean picked up his bag and rummaged around, finally pulling out the object of Sam's search.
"Here. Musta got mixed in with my stuff when we had to make that quick getaway last week." he said, flashing a wry grin in Sam's direction.
Sam rolled his eyes as he reached out and took the shirt. Quick getaway was an understatement. Suffice to say the Motel manager had been less than thrilled by the noises emanating from room 202 when the poltergeist they were hunting had somehow managed to latch on to them and follow them 'home'.
Shaking his head at the memory Sam turned his attention back to Dean, who was now gathering his own stuff to take into the bathroom just vacated by Sam. His brother was deliberately not looking at him and Sam could tell by the tense set of his shoulders and the way he kept working the muscle in his jaw that whatever had Dean so agitated must be something pretty big.
Dean was aware of the scrutiny and he just hoped that by the time he came out of the bathroom something else would have piqued Sam's interest. He couldn't do this right now – he really couldn't.
"Won't be long." he said as he headed into the bathroom, shutting the door firmly behind him.
As soon as he was gone Sam opened up the laptop. As he clicked on internet explorer and went into the tools section he reflected sometimes that it was a bonus Dean was so averse to technology.
Otherwise Sam wouldn't have been able to pull up a list of the sites his brother had visited.
As he clicked on the last address that had been used he braced himself. When the page that opened was the Obituary section of the Nebraska Times he knew it was going to be bad. The paper alone gave him a heads up as to what he was about to see but it still made his stomach flip when the page finally loaded fully and he was confronted with a photograph of Layla, smiling back at him just as she had the last time they'd seen her.
Died peacefully at St Mary's Hospice
"Damn it." whispered Sam, feeling his own eyes sting and knowing the pain Dean must have felt at seeing those words in black and white must have been tenfold.
He glanced through the article, noting that the funeral had been 3 days ago and that instead of flowers Layla had asked for donations to the Hospice and the local church.
He couldn't help smiling sadly. That sounded like her.
As he heard the shower start he logged off the site and closed down the laptop. He leant back and pondered how he should handle this. He didn't want Dean to do what he usually did, which was bury the pain deep inside and pretend it had never happened. Nor did he particularly want the smack in the mouth he'd be risking if he pushed the issue when Dean was set against talking about it.
He really did marvel sometimes at the intricacies of dealing with his brother. If they had an exam in 'How to handle the contradiction that is Dean Winchester' then he'd graduate with top marks.
Unaware of Sam's musings, Dean stood under the hot water as he bowed his head forward, letting the spray pound against the back of his neck. He'd known this day would come, of course he had. Roy La Grange had been Layla's last hope and that had been taken away forever when he and Sam had destroyed the Reaper. But somehow when her name didn't appear each time he checked the website, it began to feel almost like maybe they'd been lucky. Maybe she'd been given a second chance.
But no. The universe never was that kind.
He knew it was a little ridiculous to get so upset over someone he'd barely known, but it wasn't just about Layla. It was about the guilt he felt that she'd died and he'd lived.
Especially when she was ten times the person he was.
He felt his eyes burn and blinked furiously, fighting a loosing battle as his tears mixed with the water already running down his face.
He allowed himself this moment, out of sight, knowing that no one would ever know he'd cried like this. His secret would be safe, as always.
By the time he'd finished washing the tears had stopped. Switching off the water he stepped out, dried himself and pulled on clean jeans and a t-shirt. He made a mental note that they were gonna have to stop and do some laundry in the next town they passed, and before he opened the door he wiped the steam from the mirror and checked his reflection. It wasn't vanity – he wanted to make sure there was no tell-tale redness around his eyes. He frowned when he saw they were a little bloodshot and he turned on the tap, splashing his eyes with cold water.
Drying his face he looked again and was satisfied that this time you'd have to be looking really hard to notice the fading signs of his temporary lapse.
Of course Sam was just the person to be looking that hard, but he had his own ways of distracting his brother.
Sam looked up as the door opened and noted that Dean was looking more in control now. He knew of course that this didn't mean he felt any better, it just meant the mask was firmly back in place. Stifling a sigh of frustration, he waved one hand in the general direction of the bags.
"We're gonna need to do a laundry run." he said and Dean nodded.
"Yeah, I know. We'll get a couple of miles on the clock then stop somewhere for lunch. We can do it then." he said.
10 minutes later they were in the car and on the road. Dean had the music blaring and Sam knew that on this occasion it was as much to prevent conversation as it was for appreciation of the music.
He wondered if Dean had any real idea how transparent he was as far as Sam was concerned.
He contented himself for now with looking out the window as the trees and fields sped past, and tapping his foot to 'Carry On My Wayward Son'. He shook his head to himself. He was so gonna have that stuck in his head for the rest of the day.
As they drove into a town that looked like every other one they came across, Sam spotted what he was looking for and sat up straighter.
"Hey, can you pull over?" he said and Dean shot him a quizzical look.
"What for?" he said and Sam sighed.
"Please? Just over there." he said, pointing.
Dean sighed but did as he was asked. Once they'd stopped he switched off the Impala's engine and turned to Sam with one eyebrow raised.
"So? You gonna tell me what's so fascinating we just had to pull over?" he said and Sam swallowed. He really hoped this wasn't about to be a complete disaster.
"Would you promise to just hear me out and not be all, you know, 'you' about this?" he said and Dean frowned.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he demanded, but Sam was already getting out of the car.
Muttering under his breath, Dean got out as well. He saw Sam glance from the building in front of them to Dean and back again, and as he finally took notice of what they'd stopped in front of Dean's gaze darkened.
"Oh you had got to be kidding me!" he said and Sam held his hands up defensively before Dean could really get going.
"Just hear me out, Dean. I know about Layla, ok? I saw the obituary. And I know you don't believe in all this but Layla did, and I thought maybe this might help a little. Since you didn't get to go to the funeral." he said imploringly.
Dean crossed his arms and stared mutinously at the church behind Sam. This was just perfect. Not only did Sam know about Layla, and now therefore be making a 'thing' of it, but he wanted Dean to go to church.
This day just kept getting better and better.
"Look you wanna go in there and say a prayer, think about how she's gone to a better place and all that, you go right ahead, Sam. But I am not stepping foot inside that building." he said firmly, clenching the muscles in his jaw to stop himself shouting.
Sam ran a hand through his hair, the way he did when he was frustrated and worried, and fixed Dean with a pleading look.
"Please, Dean. It really might help." he said and Dean snorted.
"Seriously? How is this gonna help, Sam? Is it gonna bring her back? Is it gonna change anything? No, it's not! Look, you have faith in this stuff and I get that, ok, and I'm happy for you. But I don't, so just drop it alright." he said, opening the door and getting back in the car.
Sam's shoulders slumped, defeated. Short of picking Dean up and putting him over his shoulder, a move which he was fairly certain would end with a trip to the local hospital for him, there was nothing he could do to change Dean's mind. Religion was one of those things they never discussed but he knew Dean didn't believe in God. He never told Dean that actually prayed, that he had done for years, but his brother knew he did believe and the way they got around it was to simply not talk about it.
He really did think this would help Dean begin to come to terms with what had happened to Layla though, and it was so frustrating that he couldn't persuade him to even come inside the church. Sighing, he took one last look at Dean, who was now staring resolutely in the other direction, and made his way slowly up the steps, alone.
Dean stared out at the people coming and going in the town square, without seeing any of it. Why the hell couldn't Sam just leave it alone? Why couldn't he just let him deal with it in his own way?
Because you're not going to deal with it. You're just going to ignore it and bury it inside, like you always do said a helpful voice that sounded remarkably like his brother.
Dean sighed, the anger draining out of him as suddenly as it had come. He knew Sam was only trying to help and he was touched by the concern, however annoying it was. He was still getting used to this side of Sam, the one that seemed almost as protective of him as he was of Sam. They'd just been getting used to being with each other again, to spending their lives together 24/7 after so long apart, but then the whole electrocution thing had happened and suddenly it was as if those years had never happened. Sam had instantly been determined to find a way to save him and while Dean had always known of course that his brother did love him, despite their disagreements, it was still slightly astonishing and somewhat humbling exactly how resolute and desperate Sam had been to keep him alive.
In the months that had followed things had gradually moved back to more even keel again, which was great because Dean reflected it really would have been a shame for him to have to shoot Sam for 'hovering' when they were just getting along so well, but there were still flashes of that new element to their relationship – concerned glances, sticking close when they were hunting, taking over stuff without even debating it whenever Dean got hurt.
It was frustrating on one hand and kind of comforting on the other. And now it had lead them to here.
Dean glanced up at the church, seeing in his mind the image of Sam walking dejectedly up the steps. He knew his brother was in there right now, brooding and worrying and making that half frowning face that he did when he was having a Dr Phil moment.
Dean shook his head. Of course he was going to go in there. It had never been in question from the moment Sam had gone ahead and still entered the church.
He was just doing it on his own terms, that was all.
He grimaced. Oh yeah – he was totally in control of the moment. That's why he was sat here having a conversation with himself instead of just getting the whole thing other with.
Getting out he stopped himself slamming the door in frustration – no need to take things out on his baby – and walked up the steps looking for all the world like a condemned man approaching the gallows.
When he stepped inside the church he was immediately struck by how quiet it was. He remembered to grab the door just before it slammed shut and he stood there for a second, letting his eyes adjust to the light inside. He could see Sam sitting at the front, just in front of a row of candles that flickered from the breeze he'd just created by opening the door. With that sixth sense he always had where Dean was concerned, Sam turned round and even from this distance Dean could see the hopeful look on his face.
Resigning himself to his fate, Dean walked towards the front of the church and slid into the pew beside his brother. Sam looked at him tentatively, not saying anything. He was just glad Dean was actually inside the church – that was something of a miracle in itself.
"Don't get all excited, I just came in so you wouldn't bug me about it for the next week." said Dean.
As he glanced at Sam he saw a flash of hurt cross his brother's face and he felt a stab of guilt.
That hadn't been fair.
"Hey," he said, nudging Sam with his shoulder until he turned round to look at him again. "I'm sorry – I didn't mean that."
Sam's expression softened and he gave a small smile as he nodded. He knew this was hard for Dean and he also knew his brother tended to lash out when he was hurting and then regret it almost instantly, so he let it go.
They sat there in silence for a moment, watching the candles, shoulder to shoulder as they lent against the pew.
"You could light one if you wanted to." said Sam quietly after a while.
"Isn't that kind of hypocritical if you don't believe in it?" said Dean and Sam shook his head.
"Not if the person you're doing it for did. It's the gesture that counts."
Dean thought about it. He had a feeling Layla would have liked the idea, so he got up and moved self consciously to where the candles were. Feeling a little awkward he picked one up from the box underneath, lit it carefully from one of those already burning, and placed it in the empty holder near the front. He stared at it for a moment, before turning round and sitting back down next to Sam.
They both watched Layla's candle flickering as it began to burn brightly.
"She shouldn't have died." said Dean quietly.
Sam's heart ached at the pain in Dean's voice and the guilt that lay underneath that simple statement. He thought carefully about what he was going to say before he answered.
"I know, Layla didn't deserve to die. But you know what? Neither did you. And I'm gonna keep telling you that until you believe it." said Sam softly.
Dean swallowed and gazed at the flickering flames in front of them. For a moment he said nothing, but when he spoke his voice was hesitant and Sam only just heard it.
"It's just – what if he was wrong, Sam? What if I don't really still have work to do? What if.."
Dean tailed off but Sam heard the unspoken question anyway.
What if I'm not good enough?
He leaned even closer, waiting until Dean finally looked up and met his gaze before he spoke.
"You do still have work to do, Dean. And you are worth it." he said vehemently and Dean couldn't help himself. He raised one eyebrow and gave a tired smirk.
"You sound like that damn advert." he said and Sam shook his head with a slight smile.
"Don't change the subject – I'm being serious. But you know something? I didn't save you because of all the people you help, all the lives you save, all the good that you do. Even though you do do all that. Saved you for one simple, selfish reason – because you're my brother." he said.
Dean's smirk actually widened briefly. "Dude, you said 'do do'." he said and Sam found himself grinning despite himself.
Sometimes it was like trying to have a serious conversation with a child.
"I give up." he said, even though they both knew if there was one thing Sam Winchester would never do it was give up on his brother.
Dean nudged Sam with his shoulder and tried to look contrite. At least a little.
"I get what you're saying, Sammy, and I do appreciate it." he said, and Sam relented a little as he heard the honesty in Dean's voice.
"You just don't believe it though." he said, sadly, and Dean shifted awkwardly and moved his gaze back to the candles.
Sam sighed. One of the main frustrations in his life was how little Dean actually thought of himself. For all the bravado, for all the cocky attitude that he showed everyone else, Sam knew that underneath he just couldn't see how much good he did. How important he really was.
Part of him blamed John for that, for making Dean's aim in life for all those years 'look after Sam'. All that time spent concentrating on being a big brother meant it genuinely never occurred to Dean that the whole thing went both ways. It was one of the things Sam was determined to fix, however long it took.
He just hoped he'd get the chance to do it before Dean's self sacrificing nature got him killed.
Dean meanwhile didn't know what to say. He just couldn't reconcile himself with the picture his brother seemed to have of him.
As he sat there though a thought occurred to him. Maybe it didn't matter whether he believed it or not. Maybe what mattered was that Sam did. And however guilty he felt about Layla he was still glad to be alive, if for no other reason than the idea of leaving Sam scared him more than the idea of death itself.
He pulled his gaze away from the candles and looked at Sam, who was unsurprisingly still studying him with that worried look he seemed to reserve just for Dean. Although Dean would never admit it, sometimes it was nice to be on the receiving end of that look. To know that it mattered to Sam so much if he was ok.
Grimacing to himself at the maudlin path his thoughts were taking, he smiled at Sam. And not the cocky or amused grin he used all the time, but the soft genuine smile he'd only ever let Sam or John see.
"I really do appreciate this," he said, gesturing with his arm towards the candles. "And what you said too. Even if you did have to get all inspirational about it."
Sam grinned slightly at the typical reaction to anything resembling a 'moment', but he recognised the sincerity behind Dean's words.
"For the record I did not get inspirational about it. It's not my fault you come out in a rash when someone wants you to have an actual grown up conversation." he said, dryly.
"Whatever, man." said Dean but the smile stayed on his face even as he looked back to where Layla's candle burned brightly.
The smile turned slightly sad as he saw her in his mind's eye briefly, her bright eyes and her warmth making it seem as if he could reach out and touch her. He leant back against the pew and shifted slightly so that some of his weight was resting against Sam's shoulder. He saw his brother glance at him out of the corner of his eye but he said nothing, just accepting the gesture for what it was. Maybe Dean wasn't ready to let Sam carry his burdens for him but it looked like he was prepared to share the load a little. And for Sam that was enough for now.
The rest they could work on.
As they both stared at the candles unbeknownst to the other they said silent thanks to Layla.
For Dean it was for what she had done for him. For the way she had showed him maybe true faith did still exist in this world. For the way she had believed he was worth saving, that he was worth praying for.
Sam also thanked her for those things, but his thanks included the simple fact that she had never blamed Dean for being chosen ahead of her. It had meant more to him than he could explain that someone else had finally seen his brother's worth, had finally acknowledged it. And he also thanked whoever it was that had made Roy Le Grange choose Dean that day. Because he really didn't know what he would have done if he hadn't. The alternative was too appalling to even contemplate.
"Come on." said Dean suddenly, nudging Sam as he stood up.
Sam stood himself and looked at Dean searchingly for a moment.
"Are you sure?" he said and Dean nodded.
"Yeah, I'm sure. You know me, Sammy – too long in a church and I start to itch."
Sam sighed. "It's Sam." he said, more out of habit than a genuine desire for Dean to ever stop calling him that. It was one of those things that made their lives familiar and comforting, along with the sound of the Impala's engine and mullet rock played at ear splitting volume.
Dean knew this too of course and took no notice of the correction, as always. As they walked towards the door of the church, Sam rested his hand on Dean's back briefly and, for once, Dean let him.
As they stepped out of the building and headed down the steps towards the Impala Dean realised the ache that had been permanently in his throat since he'd first seen the obituary had gone.
And he knew he had more than one trip to church to light a candle to thank for that.
He felt himself grinning. He might not have faith in the religious sense but he had something better than that. He had Sam.
"What's so funny?" said Sam, looking at him quizzically.
"Nothing. Just thinking."
Sam raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah? You need me to drive for a bit while you lie down?" he said with mock concern and Dean whacked him lightly on the chest.
"Smart ass. And I was gonna let you pick the music."
Sam snorted. "Yeah, sure you were." he said as he got in the car and Dean shot him a wounded look.
"I'm hurt, Sam – when have I ever lied to you?" he said and Sam gave him an incredulous look.
"You really wanna go there? Cos I'm thinking pretty much every time you get hurt for starters. This could be a long conversation you know."
Dean ignored the comment and started the engine, listening to her purr.
Sam watched with an amused look on his face. He was glad to see Dean in a lighter mood and grateful that their little trip seemed to have done some good.
In an ideal world he'd be able to take away the pain completely, to turn back time and make it so Layla got to live and Dean didn't have to torture himself feeling guilty that he was chosen instead of her. But this wasn't an ideal world, and things never wrapped themselves up so neatly with a 'happy ever after' bow in real life.
But despite that they were here, they were together and they were moving on.
And for that reason alone they could both count their blessings.