Tested

Chapter 1

Disclaimer: I don't own them; I just like to borrow them once in a while.

A/N: I've been thinking off and on about what a young Dean might have had to do to take care of himself and Sam when left alone in motel rooms or shabby apartments. I went to some really dark places that intrigued and frightened me.

Recently I read a couple works in progress that got me thinking about the subject again and the first part of this story demanded to be written. Then I got cold feet and it was hard to keep going. A friend suggested that maybe I was trying to do too much with one tale. I thought about that and decided which story I really wanted to tell. It still wasn't easy because it's still pretty dark – even for me.

This is set sometime in the second season – it's after John's death and before Dean's deal, but the actual timing probably isn't that important. I didn't want to tackle the deal on top of everything else going on here. For regular readers familiar with other stories I've written, what I've come to think of as the "Scars stories" (Scars Challenge, Scars from the Past and Haunted Memory) did not happen in this Winchester world. Breakdown and Let it Go did happen, though. Kristine makes an appearance, but as always, the focus is on the boys.

The story is basically finished, so new chapters will be posted fairly quickly. It will probably be broken into three, maybe four, sections.

I'd love to know what you think about this one. I'm nervous about posting it, but I'm doing it with the encouragement of a good friend. She also helped me keep this psychologically real and for that, along with everything else, I thank her.

oooOOOooo

Yeah they say there's a place free of trouble and care,

And you have to pass a test for, to make it there.

It has something to do with a road that's straight and narrow,

And the only way to go it is by being like them...

There's always one more hill to climb –

From the song Tested by Bad Religion

oooOOOooo

Dean Winchester wasn't one to talk about significant, emotional subjects. He eschewed anything that even resembled a serious conversation as much as possible. He didn't want to remember a lot of the things he'd done in his life – he was proud of the things he'd accomplished as a hunter of evil, but the other things….It hurt to think about them and there was enough pain without going to look for more.

He couldn't say he regretted those things. Not exactly, anyway. He'd done what he had to so that Sammy would have what he needed and he couldn't be sorry for that. Maybe if it had just been him, if Dean hadn't had to worry about Sammy, he wouldn't have tried so hard, but his little brother was worth it.

Sammy was everything to his older brother and there was nothing Dean wouldn't do for him. There was no line he wouldn't cross. Of course, a lot of what he'd done he'd pushed so far down inside that it only came out in the occasional nightmare. Sam didn't know that Dean had nightmares and that's how Dean wanted it. Sam knew him better than anyone else in the world did, but there were things Dean had to keep even from him.

It wasn't that Dean was afraid his brother's feelings would change if he knew too much. He was confident that Sam loved him and always would. Mostly, anyway. But even if Sam did hate him for what he'd done, Dean wouldn't change anything. He'd done what he had to do to protect his little brother and to make sure he had what he needed. They'd grown up in a harsh world, but even now that Sam was an adult, Dean didn't want Sam to know the true horror of their childhood.

Dean glanced over at the bed where his brother now slept. It wasn't even dawn yet and the older man was wide awake. He'd had one of the infrequent nightmares and hadn't been able to get back to sleep. Sam had been exhausted when they fell into bed the night before and even the smell of the coffee brewing his morning didn't wake him. Dean was happy to let him sleep. It was comforting enough that he was in the room, but the nightmare had left Dean uneasy and he actually found himself wanting to talk to someone.

After a few minutes consideration, Dean pulled his coat on and slipped out of the room onto the balcony. It was actually little more than a shelf with a couple of old wooden chairs on it, but it would give him the privacy he needed. He took a sip of coffee while dialing a number on his cell phone. He hadn't expected the rush of emotion that came with the sound of her voice. He cleared his throat, forcing himself to speak.

"Hey, it's me. I hope I'm not calling too early."

"Hey, me." She sounded happy to hear from him. "How are you?"

He couldn't very well tell her how he was really feeling, so Dean tried to stuff it all away to sound normal. He was good at hiding behind the walls he'd built years ago and it was always easy slip behind them.

"Okay," Dean lied. "We just finished a job."

"Is everything all right?"

"Yeah. We sent another nasty ghost packing."

There were only a handful of people that Dean could be so open with about the paranormal. He and his brother were hunters, but not the usual kind. They didn't hunt animals; instead their targets were ghosts, demons and other things that most people thought were only a part of myths and legends. But Kristine knew about his life; she knew what he did and he could talk to her about it. Not everything, of course, because what he did was dangerous and she already worried enough about him.

"Well, good for you," she said with a smile in her voice. "Where are you?"

"Ohio. I, uh, I was thinking we could spend a few days with you. If that's okay, I mean."

"Of course it is. You know you're welcome here any time."

"Like the other hunters who come to the safe house?" Dean asked, knowing perfectly well that's not what she'd meant.

"Don't be an ass," she laughed.

Dean loved the sound of her laugh. He loved the sound of anyone's, really. He and Sam had so little to laugh about; so little to be happy about. What they did was dangerous and it was hard work. They didn't have a home. Instead they moved from town to town, living in one crappy motel after another. They didn't get paid for their work, so they had to live off of credit card scams and what Dean could win gambling. It's not that they needed much. They'd been raised without an appreciation for material goods, but some days it seemed like everything was a struggle.

They didn't have more than a couple of people they could call friends. They didn't get to just hang out with anyone; at least not without being on total guard the entire time. They could let go with each other. Most of the way. There were things Dean hid from Sam and he suspected there were things his brother kept to himself as well. Kristine Ryan was the one person, other than his brother, that Dean could be himself with. She'd even been in some of the places he kept Sam locked out of.

"Sorry, darlin', being an ass is what I do best."

"Are you okay?" she asked, her tone turning serious. "You don't sound like yourself."

"I'm okay," he said quietly.

"Sam's okay?"

"Yeah. I just…."

"You just what?"

"I'm tired. I haven't slept much and was too keyed up last night…I'm okay." He didn't sound believable; even to himself. And she knew him too well to be fooled by his lies. "Look, uh, I'm gonna jump in the shower and we'll take off when Sam is ready. I'll call you later okay?"

He heard her let out a breath and for a moment he was afraid she would ask him something he wouldn't want to answer. "Okay. Drive carefully."

"Always. I wouldn't want to hurt my car."

Dean flipped his phone closed and gripped it tightly in his hand. Some days he felt like he had such a fragile link to the world and right now, he just needed something to hold on to. He heard the sliding glass door open and he glanced at Sam as he stuck his head out of the room.

"What are you doing out here?"

"I didn't want to wake you."

"It's like a degree out here. Come inside before you get frost bite." Sam ducked back in and Dean followed him.

Sam poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down on the edge of his bed while Dean topped off his own cup. "Were you on the phone?"

"Yeah." Dean was struggling to sound nonchalant, but his head was spinning and he felt like he was going to crawl out of his skin. "I called Kristine."

"Are we going to North Carolina?" Sam asked, smiling.

"Do you mind?"

"Of course not. Why don't you drop me in Asheville so you can –"

"Dude, I'm not abandoning you anywhere. You're coming with me."

He saw Sam turn his head sharply toward him, an unasked question dying on his lips.

---

They were on the road within the hour with fresh coffee and bagels from a coffee shop they found right before the freeway entrance. Dean's choice of music told Sam even more than his silence did. Although he kept the volume low, the songs were angry. He tried to engage Dean in conversation, but he responded to questions with nods or only a few words. He barely looked at Sam and even when he did, his eyes were downcast as if he were ashamed of something.

Sam had seen Dean this way before, but he never knew what caused the mood and he'd not found a way to help Dean out of it. All he could do was wait until it was over.

"You want to stop for lunch?" Dean asked later.

Sam was surprised to hear his voice. Other than the music, which was now mournful, there had been no sound in the car. Sam had given up trying to get Dean to talk and Dean had made no attempt at conversation himself.

"Yeah, sure."

A few minutes later Dean parked the Impala outside a fast food restaurant. As they walked inside, Dean veered off toward the bathroom. "You know what I want."

Sam watched, worried, for a few moments before making his way to the counter.

---

"Okay, Dean." He'd made sure he was alone in the bathroom before starting a conversation with his reflection in the mirror. "It's not that bad and if you don't snap out of it, you're gonna have Sam all over you to talk. So. Get. Over. It. All that crap is in the past and doesn't matter any more. You did what you had to do and you got through it. Besides, it was just a stupid dream."

After staring at himself in the mirror for another few moments, Dean left the bathroom. Sam had claimed a table near the window so they could see the Impala and he already had their food laid out.

"Thanks, Sammy," he said, making an effort to appear normal. He didn't think he was fooling Sam, but at least his brother had the decency to pretend nothing was wrong. For now, anyway.

"Sure. I even got you extra onions. Kristine will love that."

Dean saw the smile playing on his brother's face.

"Unlike you," Dean said, trying to keep his tone light. "Kristine likes a good onion."

Sam looked at him, his brow creased. "I don't think I want to continue this conversation."

Dean smiled and realized he was beginning to feel better.

oooOOOooo

Kristine Ryan kept a house in a small North Carolina mountain town where hunters could come for rest and relaxation; they could get medical attention, counseling, information and a restocking of supplies.

The house was a part of the Ryan estate, left to her after her mother's death. Her family had been decimated by the same demon that had killed Mary Winchester and as the surviving member, Kristine wanted to do something for the hunters that were out there fighting evil things and helping people. She made herself available to the guests of the house and also worked part-time at a mental health clinic in nearby Asheville. She was in her office when Dean called again.

"Hey," she said, seeing his name on her cell phone's caller ID display.

"Hi. We're about two hours out."

"I'm stuck at work. One of my clients is on his way in for an emergency session. I'll probably get to the cottage about the time you do. If I'm not there, go in and make yourselves at home."

"Do you have beer?"

"Do I have beer?" she sounded incredulous.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to insult you. Gimme a call when you head out."

"Will do. See ya soon. Say hi to Sam for me."

Dean closed his phone and dropped it on the seat next to him. "She says hi."

"She's not at home?"

"No, she's in Asheville. She said she'll be home about the same time we get there. And she has beer."

"Thank God," Sam said without conviction, going back to the book he'd been reading.

---

"You want to just drop me at the estate house?" Sam suggested when the got into town. Kristine lived in what used to be the estate caretaker's cottage. It was on the edge of town, but still on the estate and separated from the main house by about a mile.

"I'm not abandoning you."

Sam looked at him. "Dude, that's the second time you've said that. I'm just trying to stay out of your way so you can have some time with Kristine."

"I appreciate that, but –"

"It's the estate house, not some cave."

"Yeah…."

"What's going on, Dean?" Sam asked after a moment.

"Nothin'," Dean insisted.

"Uh-huh."

Dean reached for the volume control to turn up the music, a sure indication that he was not interested in talking. A few minutes later, he parked in front of the cottage. Sam didn't want to argue with him about going to the main house; he could easily walk the distance anyway.

Kristine called a few minutes later to say that she was just leaving Asheville and suggested they meet at a bar in town called Mojo's. It was part of her family's holdings, but Kristine left its running completely to the manager.

Sam watched as Dean pretended to be in a good mood. He knew several of the regulars and it seemed like every one of them wanted to say hi. Dean shook hands, slapped backs and said hello to more people in a few minutes than he had in weeks. To the untrained, he was happy to be there and thrilled to see so many old friends, but Sam knew the truth. Dean was about ready to jump out of his skin.

"Hey, the nachos are getting cold," Sam said as he walked up to Dean and a couple of men he recognized. They had grabbed him when he went to the bar for a couple of beers. "You guys mind if I steal my brother back?"

After a few more jokes and some more slaps on the back and arm pats, Dean walked back to the table with Sam.

"Thanks, man."

"You okay?" Sam was smiling, but he was actually worried about his brother.

"Yeah," Dean took a swig of beer and grabbed a cheese-covered tortilla chip from the plate set between them. "I don't know how Kristine does it. All this normal."

"Everyone has a different normal."

"True."

Sam noticed that Dean's eyes had glazed over and he was staring at the bottle of beer in front of him. Sam knew that something was going on with him. He'd known it from the moment he found Dean sitting on the balcony outside their room that morning. But knowing his brother the way he did, Sam knew better than to push him to talk.

Their last job had been relatively non-eventful. It was a simple haunting and the only challenge had been to find where the body of the ghost had been buried so they could salt and burn the bones. He couldn't think of anything that might have triggered his brother's current mood.

Sam wondered if they'd come to North Carolina so Dean could talk to Kristine about whatever was bothering him. While he was happy that his brother had that kind of relationship with a woman – it was nice to know Dean had more use for women than one-night stands –he couldn't ignore that the thought also made him a little sad. The brothers had spent so much time together in their lives and had only each other to depend on for companionship….and Sam's own relationships had each ended with the death of the woman. He was glad that Dean had been able to let someone else into the fortress he'd built around himself, but Sam had to admit to being a little jealous.

Sam took a sip of beer and glanced around the room. It was a standard country bar with a worn wooden floor, tables and chairs made to look old, and a small wooden stage with a dance floor in front of it. On the weekends, a house band played a mixture of country music and Southern rock. The juke box in the corner was stocked with the same kind of music along with some classic rock for added spice.

Sam realized that he liked it here. Not just the bar, but the town itself. It was comfortable and he liked that people knew him and his brother. This was just the kind of place he'd wished they'd grown up in and he was glad they visited as often as they did.

His attention went back to Dean when Sam saw him gesture to the waitress for another beer. He'd not been sitting at the table very long and already finished his first drink. Sam tried not to worry, but something was definitely going on with his brother and he couldn't help but be concerned.

When Kristine arrived a little while later, Sam was surprised that Dean's mood didn't lighten. He smiled and kissed her as she sat at the table, but he didn't seem particularly happy to see her. Sam thought his own greeting was warmer, but Kristine didn't seem to notice.

The three ate dinner and while Sam managed to finish two beers, his brother had switched to something stronger and his speech became slightly slurred.

"I'm about ready to head out," Sam said. "Is there a room at the estate house I can use?"

"Of course. I talked to Ross about it after Dean called this morning."

The safe house was staffed with trusted employees 24 hours a day so that whenever anyone arrived, announced or not, there was someone to make sure he or she was taken care of. Most everyone in the small town knew that Kristine had opened some type of treatment center at the estate, but no one had become overly curious about it. Maybe it was her family's position in the town, or their affection for Kristine in general, but whatever it was, Sam knew she was grateful.

Ross Greenfield had been a hunter until an injury forced him out of the game. He was basically the manager of the safe house and made the decisions when Kristine couldn't be there to do it. They jokingly referred to those times as when she was off living her real life. Ironically, though, the world of the hunter was where she felt more at home. She and Sam had talked about that a lot when they first met. It hadn't been long after Jessica's death and he'd been headed toward a nasty breakdown. Dean had taken him to the one place he knew for sure that Sam could get help.

"Thanks," he turned to Dean. "Can I have the keys?"

Dean reached into his pocket and as he handed the keys to his brother, he grabbed Sam's wrist and looked into his eyes.

"You be careful, okay?"

Sam knew his curiosity had to be showing on his face. "Dean…."

The older man pulled away and rolled his shoulders. "You know; don't scratch the paint."

"Right," Sam said, knowing that something else entirely had been on his brother's mind.

Sam saw Kristine glance from him to Dean before suggesting that they take off, too. Dean didn't protest and as Sam followed them to the door, he couldn't help but notice the slight sway to his brother's step.

"Oh, crap," Kristine groaned as she stepped outside. "I forgot my coat. I'll be right back. Have a good night, Sam."

"Thanks, you too." He looked at her, hoping she could see the gratitude on his face. She smiled slightly before turning back toward the bar.

He and Dean walked toward the Impala; Kristine's car was parked only a few spots away. Sam leaned against the door and looked at his brother. "Hey, Dean?"

"Yeah?" Dean leaned against the car, too, but Sam knew it was to keep from falling down. He didn't expect to get much out of him, but wanted to take advantage of the few minutes alone that Kristine had given them.

Sam looked off into the distance. "What was that inside?"

"I told you. Don't scratch my car."

"I don't believe that's what you meant."

"Look, man, I'm tired and I'll admit to being a little drunk. You can't hold me responsible for anything right now."

Sam turned to face him. "Just tell me you're okay."

"Sam…."

"I mean it, Dean. And tell me the truth."

Dean sighed. "You'll believe what I tell you?"

"If it's the truth."

"Don't do this tonight, Sam."

That surprised the younger man and he had no idea how to react. When Dean looked at him, Sam saw pleading in his eyes that was rarely there.

"Look, I'm just tired, okay? Tired and drunk and I really just need not to be standing up anymore."

Just then, Sam saw Kristine coming out of the bar door. He nodded toward her, then reached out to grab Dean as he began to slide to the ground.

"Hold on, there, Dean. I got ya."

"Door's open," he heard Kristine call as she rushed toward them. Sam helped Dean to her car and poured him into the passenger seat.

"You okay, Dean?" Sam asked as he crouched beside the car.

His head was resting against the seat and his eyes were closed. "I will be once the hangover is gone tomorrow."

Sam laid a gentle hand on his arm. "I'll come to the cottage in the morning, okay?"

Dean nodded. "G'night, Sammy."

Sam stood up and closed the door carefully. "Are you going to be able to get him inside or do you want me to follow you home?"

"We'll be all right, but you're welcome to stay with at my place tonight."

"No, thanks. I have a feeling we're here for a reason that has nothing to do with my being with Dean."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know," he smiled sadly.

"I could tell something was going on with him when he called this morning. What's up?"

"Like I said; I don't know."

Kristine nodded. "Okay…."

"I'll come by in the morning."

"I have to leave around 8:30 to go to the clinic for a few hours."

"I'll come by before 8:30, then. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Sam." Kristine said. Sam noted the concern and confusion in her voice. He wished his could set her mind at ease, but all he could do was smile and walk back to the Impala.

Sam watched as Kristine drove out of the parking lot and followed a moment later.

He had no idea what was going on with his brother, nor did he really understand his relationship with Kristine, but he hoped she could help. He knew about her family history with the demon; he'd even had a vision about her once that led him and Dean to a complicated set of clues she'd left for them. Her brother-in-law, Patrick, had been possessed and was determined to kill her. They'd been able to save her, but not Patrick. Once the last member of her immediate family was gone, she'd slipped into a very dark place, but as far as Sam knew, she was all right now.

Dean didn't talk about her much and he certainly wasn't monogamous, but Sam knew he felt something for Kristine that for any other person in any other life would be love. He knew his brother was capable of love, but he was very bad at being loved. Dean didn't think he was worth a second glance from anyone for anything more than a one-night stand. Sam realized, though, that even his pursuit of the ladies had diminished somewhat and he wondered if that had anything to do with how he felt about Kristine.

Ross met Sam at the door of the estate house with a smile. He had known Sam's father, though not very well, and was always happy to see the man's sons. Sam suspected he was just as welcoming to the other hunters who found their way to the safe house.

"We've only got a couple of guests right now," Ross said as he led Sam to one of the bedrooms upstairs. "They've mostly been keeping to themselves."

Sam knew that a lot of guests, as Ross called them, were used to keeping a low profile and tended to do the same even at a place exclusively for hunters. That wasn't always the case; some hunters liked the freedom of being themselves in a place where they felt safe to do so. No one was forced to do anything he or she didn't want to, though.

Everything provided at the safe house was free of charge. Though he and Dean hadn't realized it when they were growing up, there was a network of sorts and underground help of just about every kind was available to hunters who needed it. Kristine had become a part of that network, though earning the trust of the community hadn't been particularly easy. Sam knew she enjoyed helping where she could and he was glad that people like her were in the game. Hunting was a lonely existence and it helped to know there was back-up.

After making sure Sam had everything he needed for the night, Ross went to his own room. Sam was tired and he quickly got ready for bed. Once he was under the warm blankets, though, he found he couldn't sleep. He was worried about Dean, which he often was, but something about this time seemed different. It wasn't unusual for Dean to drink to excess after a job, especially when Sam was around to make sure he didn't do anything too stupid, but it surprised Sam he'd done it their first night in town. He didn't get to spend a lot of time with Kristine and it seemed odd to Sam he would willingly waste even one night with her.

oooOOOooo

Getting Dean into the cottage was no easy task, but this wasn't the first time Kristine had had to get his drunk ass into the house. She'd actually left him in the car overnight once, but that hadn't turned out well for her upholstery. She'd also been driving a bigger car then and didn't think Dean would appreciate being left in a two-seater sports car. Getting him upstairs to the bedroom was even more difficult, but he'd woken up enough to at least be a little help. He was even able to undress himself and crawl into bed on his own. Mostly.

Kristine pulled the covers up over him and gently touched his face. Dean snuggled under the blankets and let out a soft sound that might have been a whimper. She watched him for a moment, then went to the bathroom to get ready for bed herself.

She loved having Dean at the house. He was safe and comfortable and there was very little she had to hide from him. He knew most of her dark secrets; he knew the big ones, anyway. It hadn't been her intention to let him get that close, but there had been an immediate attraction that quickly grew into something more once they'd accidentally realized their common history with the yellow-eyed demon. It had been such a relief to talk to someone who understood the loss of a family member to something that most people had no idea even existed.

She tried not to analyze her relationship with Dean. It defied all explanation and made very little sense. Conventional sense, anyway. They didn't define what they felt for each other, nor what they expected. She knew he had sex with other women and, oddly, that didn't bother her very much. She'd had her own adventures with other men, but after her last foray into what she always thought of as the dark hole, she'd only been with Dean. Sex had been survival for her for too long and she was tired of it being a sport. Being with Dean was different, but she didn't expect him to feel the same way.

Kristine came back into the bedroom and set the alarm. She crawled into bed next to Dean and he moved toward her, but didn't wake. As she drifted off to sleep, she thought about the worried expression on Sam's face and what he'd said about them being here for a reason. She didn't know what he'd meant and, honestly, she was a little afraid to find out.

When the alarm clock began to beep the next morning, Kristine shut it off quickly so it wouldn't wake Dean. She hadn't needed to worry since he wasn't in bed next to her. She found him downstairs on the couch with a large cup of coffee clasped in his hands. He definitely looked like he'd seen better mornings, but not as bad as she had expected.

"Hey," she smiled, intentionally keeping her voice low.

He glanced at her briefly. "Hey."

"Is there more coffee or did you pour it all into that trough?"

"There's more."

Kristine went into the kitchen and poured some coffee into a smaller, but still substantial mug and returned to the living room. She sat across from Dean in one of what had been her mother's wing-back chairs. Despite their formal appearance, they were actually very comfortable recliners. She set the mug on the coffee table and leaned forward.

"How bad do you feel?"

"I've been worse. I – uh – I'm sorry about last night."

"There's nothing to be sorry about."

"Sam went to the main house?"

Kristine nodded. "Yeah. I have to go to Asheville today and he said he'd be here before I go."

"How worried is he?"

"I don't really know. What do you remember about last night?"

"He had to keep me from falling to the ground in the parking lot."

"That was about the extent of it. No harm, no foul."

Dean nodded, clearly distracted. Kristine took a few sips of her coffee while they sat in silence. It wasn't comfortable or uncomfortable; it just was.

"I need to get ready. You know you can help yourself to anything in the kitchen. I'd stay away from the moldy thing in the back of the fridge, though."

Dean grimaced.

"Sorry." She smiled and moved to kiss him gently before heading back upstairs.

Dean drank more of the coffee until his stomach started to protest. He heard the shower start upstairs and a few minutes later, he saw the Impala through the big living room window. He slowly made his way to the front door knowing Sam wouldn't just walk in.

"I didn't expect you to be awake," Sam said a he walked past Dean and into the house.

Dean considered putting on the game face and pretending he was all right, but he just didn't have the energy. Instead, he led Sam into the living room and sat back down on the couch. "I really hate it when bed spins wake me up. There's probably still coffee in the kitchen. If not, make more."

---

Sam had been to Kristine's several times before and knew his way around the small house. He'd helped make meals before and had made coffee more than once, but that was always when Kristine was nearby. Even though he knew she wouldn't mind, he felt uncomfortable in her kitchen alone. He had to admit, though, this was the one room in the house that felt the least like her.

Her disdain for cooking was well known and beer took up more room in her refrigerator than food did. There was tequila and whiskey in cabinets where Sam would have expected to find cereal or maybe some other dry goods. The coffee maker was state of the art and the coffee gourmet, but other than a package of Oreo cookies, the other little bit of food was store brand and seemed to be chosen hastily.

Feeling guilty for snooping, Sam set the coffee maker and went back to the living room. Dean was still on the couch, but now he was lying down and appeared to be asleep. Sam sat in one of the chairs and watched him.

"Stop it."

"Stop what?" Sam asked, feeling like he'd gotten caught taking cookies.

"Stop staring at me."

"Sorry. Coffee's on. How do you feel?"

"Pretty much like crap." Dean opened one eye and turned to Sam. "Thanks for not letting me hit the ground last night."

"Anytime, man."

"You're not pissed at me?"

Sam leaned forward. "Why would I be pissed at you?"

Dean closed his eye and settled further into the couch. "I don't know."

Before Sam could say anything else, Kristine came downstairs. She was dressed in a conservative pantsuit rather than the jeans and t-shirt she preferred. Her shoulder length light brown hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail.

"Hey, Sam." She said and smiled. "Is that fresh coffee I smell? Bless you."

"Can you top me off, Sammy?" Dean asked, his voice low.

"Sure." Sam took the enormous cup into the kitchen.

He saw Kristine pouring coffee into a commuter mug. He set Dean's cup on the counter and pulled another from the cabinet.

"I can't believe Dean was able to drink that much coffee and he wants more," she said, shaking her head. "What the hell is his stomach made out of?

"I've been wondering that for years." Sam smiled. "I think he'll be back asleep before too long. Was he okay last night?"

"He woke up enough for me to get him into bed. He didn't say anything if that's what you're wondering. Did something happen on this last job?"

"No. It was the easiest thing we've done in months. He was fine when we turned in, but the next morning…."

"Well, you know how he is. He'll talk when he's ready. I need to get going. I'll probably be back around 3:00, but I need to put some time in at the main house. There isn't much here, but you're welcome to whatever you can find. Of course the main house is fully stocked and you can help yourself."

"Don't worry about us."

He stood in the doorway as Kristine kissed Dean on the forehead. "I'll see you late this afternoon, okay? Today's the last day I have to go into Asheville for a while."

Sam didn't hear what his brother said, but it made Kristine smile. A moment later she walked out of the front door and Sam walked all the way into the room with two cups of coffee.

"You sure you want this?" he asked as Dean slowly sat up.

"Yeah. Is there anything to eat?"

"Oreos."

Dean smiled over the mug. "Figures. You want to head back to the main house? I need hangover food. Is there anyone staying there?"

"Ross said a couple of hunters were there, but I didn't see them."

Dean finished half of the coffee in his cup. "I'm gonna take a shower and then we can head out."

"Sure. I forgot to give you your bag last night, but it's in the car. I'll bring it upstairs."

"Thanks."

---

After eating scrambled eggs and toast in the main house, Dean found a movie neither one of them had seen before in the library. They settled on the queen sized bed in the room where Sam had slept to watch it, but Dean was asleep before it was half over. Sam turned down the volume and eased himself to a more prone position. He laid awake most of the night before and soon was asleep next to his brother.

---

Dean's eyes flew open as the last of the dream faded away. He was breathing hard and could feel the sweat on his forehead. He rolled onto his back and saw Sam sleeping next to him. It had been a long time since they'd shared a bed. It used to happen a lot when they were kids and he could vaguely remember climbing into his baby brother's crib often after their mother died.

He sat up slowly and quietly stood. He didn't want to wake Sam because the kid obviously needed the sleep, but also because he didn't want Sam to see him until he'd had a chance to get himself together.

Dean moved down the hall to the bathroom and locked the door behind him. He let water run into the sink, watching it swirl down the drain, before filling his hands and splashing his face. He avoided his reflection in the mirror until he'd gotten his breathing under control and his heart wasn't beating through his chest. He still looked bad, but he figured that Sam would just think it was the hangover.

He waited a few more minutes, forcing away the images he'd seen in the dream. Sam was still asleep when he got back to the bedroom, but he had rolled over to face the spot where Dean had slept. A warm feeling flooded through Dean's body and he gingerly sat on the edge of the bed. He put his hand on Sam's shoulder as he fought back tears.

"Just sleep, Sammy. I'll take care of you. I'll always take care of you."

Sam stirred and Dean jerked his hand away. He rubbed his face and a moment later Sam opened his eyes.

"Dean?"

"Yeah."

Sam rubbed his eyes and sat up. "What time is it?"

"Almost 3:00."

"Wow."

"No kidding."

"You okay, man? You're still looking kind of rough."

"Yeah, I'm okay. I want more coffee. You want coffee?"

"Uh, sure. I'll meet you downstairs; I'm gonna make a stop in the bathroom."

Dean went downstairs and was surprised to see Kristine in the kitchen with a man he didn't recognize. She smiled at him and introduced the two men using first names only. There were no 12-step program rules to follow at the safe house, but it was up to the hunters how much information they shared with each other. They tended to get along, but not all hunters were friends and if someone wanted to remain anonymous, Kristine was certainly not going to do anything to change that.

Dean poured coffee into two mugs and headed off to the den, meeting Sam as he came down the stairs.

"Kristine's in the kitchen with someone," he said and Sam followed him.

"You know who it is?" Sam asked as he took one of the mugs and sat on the couch.

"Some guy named Rob," Dean shrugged. He sat down in a large recliner and pulled out the footstool. He still didn't feel well, but he wasn't sure if it was from the hangover or the dreams. He was pretty sure he was hungry, though.

"You have plans with Kristine tonight?" Sam asked.

"Not yet. You wanna do something?"

"Dean," Sam looked at him. "You can spend time with me whenever. We're here so you can spend some time with Kristine."

"We're here for some downtime."

Dean saw his brother's curious expression, but looked away.

"Look, man, I don't need you to babysit me, okay?"

Dean didn't let Sam see the pain his words caused. He didn't understand why, exactly, it hurt to hear Sam say he didn't need a babysitter. Of course he didn't. He was a well-trained hunter who could certainly take care of himself. It wasn't even so much that Dean had spent most of his life taking care of Sam and felt unneeded. Sam needed him. Maybe not like when he was a kid and maybe not the same way Dean needed him, but the need was still there.

Even though Dean looked away from his brother, Sam must have seen something. He leaned forward. "Dean."

"Look, man, there's nothing going on here, okay? I'm fine. You're fine. It's all good."

---

Kristine joined them a few minutes later and after a some conversation about Kristine's day and Dean's hangover, she told them that she'd talked Ross into making dinner. In addition to his talents as a hunter and safe house manager, Ross was an excellent cook who came up with the most creative meals. There was always food available for the guests, but it wasn't every night that a real meal was prepared.

During the evening, Kristine saw how Dean never let Sam get too far away from him. He wasn't obvious about it, but in addition to knowing the brothers, she was a trained observer of human behavior. She watched people for a living and did it for fun at parties. She often had to represent her family at formal functions from town activities all the way up to those at the governor's mansion. She hated every moment of it and the only thing that made it tolerable was the people-watching.

The two safe house guests join them for the meal, which was something Kristine liked to see. They'd both been keeping to themselves since their arrival a couple of days before. After everyone felt more comfortable with each other, stories were told and information compared. It was like some weird, dysfunctional family get together.

Kristine knew that Dean trusted Sam's skills and she knew that he wasn't afraid something would happen to him here, but despite how he appeared to those who didn't know him, she could tell he was definitely on edge. She knew Sam felt it, too. Whatever had pushed his protective nature into overdrive had nothing to do with anything going on at the moment; Kristine was sure of that. What she didn't know was how to get him to talk about it. Even though that's what he'd come here to do, it wasn't something that would come easily for him.

Despite the amount of alcohol he consumed the night before, Dean wasn't shy with the beer before, during or after dinner. He didn't get anywhere near as drunk as he had, but he still put a surprising amount of alcohol away.

---

"I'm going to head upstairs to bed," Sam said later. After dinner, the party had moved into the den and lasted longer than he'd anticipated. "I want to read a little before falling asleep."

Dean nodded. He wasn't used to them sleeping in different places, last night notwithstanding. He'd barely noticed since he passed out on the way to the cottage. Even when Dean picked up some random woman, he was almost never spent the entire night away from Sam. They weren't tied at the hip and were both completely able to spend time apart, but an entire night separated was rare.

Sam looked at his brother and Dean found it hard not to flinch under his gaze. He wondered if Sam felt the same way about sleeping in different places as he did.

"Hey, uh, can you come up with me for a second?" Sam asked Dean after saying goodnight to Kristine and the others.

"Sure." When they got to the bedroom, Dean looked at his brother closely, though he stood across the room. "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I just….I'm used to you being in the next bed, not a mile away. I just wanted to say goodnight in private. As pathetic as that sounds."

Dean wondered if this was more for his benefit than for Sam's, but realized he didn't care.

"Look, Dean," Sam began in the tone that Dean recognized as the one he used almost exclusively for their most emotional conversations. "I know there's something going on with you and you'll talk to me when you're ready. But…."

"Come on, Sam. You're being way too serious here," Dean said, trying to defuse the situation. An emotional Sam was more dangerous to him than the worst demon.

Sam blinked a few times and nodded. "I'll see you in the morning, okay?"

"Sam…." Dean hesitated and then sat down on the bed. He clasped his hands between his knees. "Yeah, I guess there's something going on with me, but I don't know what it is. It's probably too much work and not enough fun. I don't want you to worry, though, okay?"

Sam sat down next to him. "Dean, you're my brother. If you're going through something –"

Dean shook his head. "I'm not going through anything. I just…I just need some downtime."

He saw the concern in Sam's eyes and he saw the affection. "Okay, Dean."

"I'll see you for breakfast, okay?"

TBC