Tested

Chapter 4

Disclaimer: See chapter 1

A/N: This is the last chapter. It doesn't look like I've alienated anyone with this story and I'm really glad about this. Like I said before, I was nervous about posting this, but this story has been on my mind for a long time. I really hope that Dean didn't have to go through anything like this, but it makes total sense to me that he could have.

Until we meet again – and maybe I'll write a story about something paranormal next time – thanks for reading and for all of the wonderful comments.

Happy holidays!

oooOOOooo

You can play by the rules, or bend them to your needs.

But the test isn't over till you reach your dark eternal sleep.

There are no absolutes, no big wheels in the sky...

You don't have to be first, just to get a sundown goodbye.

From the song Tested by Bad Religion

oooOOOooo

Sam knew it wasn't over. Dean had talked about what happened; he was probably even feeling the same emotions that he had that night, but he wasn't through. Talking about it was a huge step, Sam knew. It would be hard for anyone to admit something like Dean just had, but his brother tried to hide his feelings from the world and that made it more difficult for him than for some. Sam understood that and he knew that just talking about it would make Dean feel better, but there was more to be done. He didn't want his brother to hurt any more, but if he let Dean stop now, the relief would only be in the short term.

He watched Dean, his head still resting in his hands. Sam felt him tremble lightly under his touch, but he was afraid if he moved any closer or touched him in any other way, that Dean would not react well. He didn't know what to do next, but he knew that unless he did something, the progress would stop now. Dean's nightmares would likely continue, as well as the panic attacks. As scared as they made Sam in general – it was wrong to see his strong, brave brother so undone – he knew that he couldn't allow Dean to go into a fight with anything supernatural until he had them under control.

Sam squeezed Dean's arm and a moment later Dean looked at him. There were tears in his eyes, but more than that, there was fear. Sam didn't know exactly what was causing it – it could be the memory of what had happened, what Sam's reaction would be, or even the understanding that he wasn't done working his way through his emotions.

Sam wanted to make Dean feel safe enough to continue and that meant he had to make his brother understand that nothing had changed between them. He was completely crazed by what had happened to Dean, but he had been a victim and Sam still loved him.

"I'm not going anywhere," Sam said, his voice soft. "Are you all right?"

Dean rubbed his face and sat up. "Yeah."

"Dean."

"I'm tired. I just want to go back to bed and sleep for a hundred years."

"I don't think it's over, Dean. I'm sorry, but I don't think the nightmares are going to stop until you've pr—" Sam stopped knowing that if he said what he was going to, Dean would only accuse him of using psychobabble and probably make a joke about watching Oprah. He already saw a twinkle in Dean's eyes; not that that was a completely bad thing right now.

"Can it be over for tonight?" Dean asked.

Maybe it was okay to take a break for a while, Sam thought. It was late, they were both tired and he had begun to wonder if pushing Dean might be worse than letting it go for the time being.

Sam nodded. "Let's go back to bed. But I think we should take some time off. The last thing that either of us needs is for a panic attack to happen in the middle of a fight with some badass."

Sam flinched inside when he saw the look on Dean's face. He was clearly hurt and embarrassed that Sam didn't think he could be trusted in a fight.

"Dean, I –"

"It's okay, Sammy. You're right."

Sam didn't hear any anger in Dean's voice and when he looked into his eyes, he saw only understanding.

"I don't want either of us to get hurt because of me."

It didn't take long for them to settle back into their beds, but Sam wouldn't let himself relax until he was sure that Dean had fallen asleep.

---

The next time Dean opened his eyes it was nearly 11:00 in the morning. He had a headache, almost like he had a hangover. He got out of bed and watched Sam as he slept for a few minutes before making his way to the bathroom. He felt a little better after a shower, but he really wanted some coffee and food.

Sam was still asleep when Dean came back into the room. He wanted to let him sleep, but check-out time was noon and they had to leave the room. Dean reluctantly woke his brother and while Sam was in the shower, he made their things were packed and ready to go.

Before getting on the road, they walked next door to a diner. Dean ordered coffee and a large breakfast plate while Sam chose something less elaborate. They sat in silence, each with a section of the newspaper.

Dean was glad that Sam didn't seem to want to talk about his revelation from the night before, but he couldn't help but wonder what his brother's thoughts were. Asking him, though, would open the door for more conversation and that was something Dean wasn't up to yet. He couldn't miss Sam's occasional worried glances his way, but he seemed content to stay quiet. Dean suspected if they'd had more time in the room that Sam would have brought their early-morning conversation and he wondered what the car ride was going to be like.

---

Once their food arrived the men put aside their newspaper sections and ate while engaging in conversations about safe subjects. Sam had noticed that his brother's face was a little pale and he didn't look like he felt very good. He suspected it was from the lack of sleep and his emotional admission the night before. He was glad to see that Dean ate most of the large breakfast he'd ordered and after three cups of coffee, he looked like he was feeling better.

Sam wanted to talk about the previous night, but he didn't think Dean was ready and he definitely wouldn't be interested in talking about it in a public place. He still hated the thought of what his brother had gone through, but none of it changed his feelings for Dean. To think that he had given in to strange men's desires to make sure they were both taken care of….Sam knew that Dean didn't want him to feel guilty about that, but he couldn't help it. He was also angry with their father for putting Dean in that position and then being blind to the pain it must have caused him.

But, like Dean had said, in the beginning their dad had a hard time dealing with the things he was seeing. Each hunt was emotionally draining and it was probably all he could do to survive, let alone have anything left over for his sons. Sam used to resent that, but he'd learned that their dad had only done what he thought he had to. It was clear now that evil was not going to leave them in peace and while it had not been easy to grow up the way they did, it taught them how to survive.

Dean paid the price for that childhood more than Sam had and that was one of the many things Sam felt guilty about. It wasn't Sam's fault and he understood that, but what Dean did had been more for Sam's benefit than for his own. He didn't know how to handle that, but his focus right now had to be on his brother. Maybe he would talk to Kristine about it when they got back to North Carolina.

After they finished eating and had paid the bill, the brothers walked back across the street. Dean unlocked the driver side door of the Impala, but he didn't open it. Instead, he stood staring off into the distance.

"Dean?" Sam called. He followed his brother's gaze, but didn't see anything of interest and he turned back around. "Dean? Are you all right?"

"Yeah, uh….Yeah." Still, he didn't open the door.

"You want me to drive?" he asked.

"No." Dean looked at him. "Are we okay?"

The question took Sam by surprise and he wondered if maybe he should have brought up what they'd talked about the night before so that Dean would know nothing had changed between them.

"Of course we are."

"You're not….you're not freaked out by what I told you?"

Sam could barely hear him because he was speaking so softly. He put his elbows on the car and leaned forward. "Dean, you did what you thought you had to do to take care of me. I wish there'd been some other way because no kid should have to go through what you did. And I hate what that bastard did to you, but I'm not freaked out by you."

Dean looked at his brother with a flood of affection and appreciation evident in his eyes. After a moment he nodded and got into the car.

oooOOOooo

The drive back to Kristine's was uneventful and when Sam tried to bring the conversation around to their childhood, Dean expertly avoided it. Sam didn't try as hard as he might have, but he knew he would have to push it at some point to help Dean fully get past what had happened. He couldn't help but wonder what some of Dean's current day late night activities were, but decided that as long as he was safe, it didn't matter. Dean was still Dean. He was still Sam's big brother and that would never change.

It was early evening when they got to the estate and Kristine welcomed them warmly. Dean had called her while at a gas station and told her about the brothers' conversation early that morning. She knew better than to try to interfere with their relationship, but she wanted to talk to Sam – not only to make sure that he was okay with Dean's admission, but to make sure he knew what the next step should be.

She was fully confident in Sam's instincts to handle his brother, and she knew by their conversations that he had studied enough to possess scholarly knowledge to back up his instincts, but he was very close to the situation and sometimes that could make things dangerous. He couldn't be truly objective and his own pain might cause him to back away from the really important work that needed to be done. Of course, caring about the brothers the way she did put her very close to the situation as well.

Dean resolutely refused to speak any more about the rape and nearly a week later, Sam was more worried about his brother than he had been. He and Kristine had more than one conversation about the hypothetical and probable impact the incident would have had on Dean, but neither one could get Dean to talk.

Kristine was in the library of the main house with a hunter who was on his way out when she heard commotion at the front door.

"What's going on?" she asked, walking into the foyer. Ross was standing with a hunter she knew and they were trying to calm two young boys. They were cowering behind the hunter and she couldn't get a good enough look at them to even judge their age. The boys weren't crying, but she could see enough to know they were more than just a little afraid. She didn't think it had anything to do with being in a strange place.

"We've got us a little situation," Ross said.

"I see that," she looked to the boys. "Hey guys; my name is Kristine. Are you hungry or thirsty? We've got all kinds of stuff in the kitchen."

They looked at her warily.

"Come on, guys," the hunter encouraged them. "I know I'm hungry."

He led them into the kitchen and with Kristine's help, Ross quickly laid out a small buffet. At first the boys refused to eat, though they looked at the food with wide, hungry eyes. It took a few minutes, but Ross managed to win them over, at least temporarily, with chocolate cake and some stupid jokes. Once he was sure the boys were more interested in the cake than in him, the hunter caught Kristine's eye and motioned for her to join him in a corner of the kitchen.

"Whose kids are they?" Kristine asked in a whisper.

The hunter, Tom Harper, watched the boys for a moment before answering. "Their parents were killed by vampires. I found them in their house, hiding in the master bedroom's walk-in closet. It took me a few days to gain their trust….I didn't know where else to bring them."

Kristine shook her head. "Don't worry about that. You did the right thing to bring them here. Are you sure they haven't been turned?"

Tom nodded. "Yeah, but the vampires fed on them."

"Jesus."

"Physically I think they'll be okay, but…."

"I'll spend some time with them; see what I can do. They don't have any other family?"

"None I've been able to get them to talk about."

"If there really isn't anyone, there's a group home in Atlanta for children who have been victims of supernatural activity."

"I've never heard about that place," Tom said.

"You have now," Kristine smiled. "It's well run and the children are taken very good care of. It's only been around for a couple of years and by all accounts is a legitimate home for run aways….if that one doesn't work out there are other places we can try."

"Amazing."

"There are a lot of resources out there," Kristine confirmed with a smile.

"Apparently." Tom looked toward the table.

"When was the last time you ate?" Kristine asked.

"It's not been all that long, but I have to admit the spread over there looks pretty good."

"Help yourself."

---

Kristine spent a few hours with the boys, under Tom's close supervision, and learned their names were Alex and Nicholas Cordell. Alex was the oldest at ten and Nicholas had just turned four a few days before their parents were killed. Alex said he had never met any other family; he didn't know any grandparents, aunts or uncles. He knew some of his parents' friends, but he wouldn't tell her any of their names. Kristine knew a simple background check would find any family they would have to be concerned about as well as any family friends. Even though their circumstances were different than many other orphaned children, Kristine knew it would be best for them to stay with people they knew if possible.

A few hours later, the boys were far from comfortable, but they seemed to at least not be as afraid as they had been when they arrived. Nicholas took his lead from Alex and refused to let his older brother out of his site. Alex was good with him and Kristine couldn't help but see the similarities between them and the Winchester brothers.

Sam and Dean had gone to Asheville for the day; a museum there had an exhibition that Sam was interested in and to his surprise, Dean had wanted to go along. Kristine knew that Dean hadn't shared any more with his brother, but she'd noticed that he hadn't let Sam get too far away from him since they got back from the hunt.

---

Sam and Dean got back from Asheville just after the Cordell boys finished an early dinner. Tom was watching over them while Alex helped Nicholas with a bath and Kristine settled in the den with the Winchesters to tell them about the newcomers.

"God, that's horrible," Sam said when she'd finished. "Have you looked for their family yet?"

Kristine shook her head. "Not yet."

"I could work on it while you and Dean go out to dinner."

"We're going out to dinner?" Kristine asked, looking at Dean. He shrugged.

"Oh come on," Sam said and rolled his eyes. "You two haven't spent a whole evening together since we've been here and frankly, I'm getting a little sick of both of you."

Sam's grin told them he wasn't serious, but the idea of spending some time alone with Dean appealed to Kristine. She knew that Tom could handle anything that might happen with the children overnight, but she kept her cell phone close. She noticed that Dean did the same thing with his phone; seemingly in case Sam called.

Despite their preoccupation, Kristine and Dean managed to spend an enjoyable evening together, but both were anxious to get to the estate house the next morning. Sam hadn't come out of his room yet and Ross told Dean he saw a light on under his door long after midnight when he'd gotten up to use the bathroom. Dean assumed Sam had lost track of time while on the computer and he decided to spend some time working on the Impala while his brother slept.

Tom came into the kitchen before Dean headed out and after introductions were made, Tom told Kristine that the night had been mainly uneventful. Nicholas had woken up from a nightmare, but Alex had quickly been able to calm him and get him back to sleep. Kristine saw the look on Dean's face as Tom spoke and she wondered if he was thinking about similar nights of taking care of Sam.

---

"That's a sweet ride."

Dean was bent over the Impala's engine and he looked in the direction of the voice to see a young boy standing off to his right. He had parked the car just outside of the detached garage where Ross' car and a truck belonging to the estate were parked.

"You know about cars?" Dean asked as he stood up and wiped his hand on a rag he'd had in his back pocket.

The boy shrugged. "A little. My dad sells…he sold vintage cars. I'm Alex."

Dean was surprised when he stepped forward with his right hand extended. Dean shook it. "I'm Dean."

"Do you live here?"

"No, I'm just visiting."

"Me, too. Me and my brother. His name is Nicholas and he's four."

"Where is he now?" Dean asked, glancing around.

"He's still sleeping."

"My brother is here, too," Dean said. "His name is Sam."

"Where is he?"

"Still sleeping; like Nicholas."

Alex shuffled his feet. "Is something wrong with your car?"

"Not really. I just finished an oil change and I'm checking some other things out."

"Can I help? My dad lets….he let me help him sometimes."

"Yeah, but just a second." Dean knew there was a small crate just inside the garage and he brought it out for Alex to stand on. "Here you go."

He stepped up carefully and leaned on the car.

"So, your dad sold old cars, huh?" he said, trying to sound nonchalant.

"Vintage," Alex corrected.

"Vintage," Dean repeated, hiding his smile.

"This a high-performance 327?"

Dean looked at the boy, impressed. "Yeah. I rebuilt her not too long ago; made a modification or two."

Alex nodded approvingly and for the next fifteen minutes talked about the original 1967 Impala specifications. Dean had very little to add.

"Your dad teach you all that?"

Alex nodded again, then looked away.

"My dad taught me about cars, too."

"Is your dad here?"

Dean shook his head. "No. My dad died. I know what happened to your parents. I'm sorry."

"You know about vampires and stuff?" Alex asked, his eyes turned back to the car.

"Yeah. Me and my brother, we kind of go around helping people who have problems with vampires and other stuff. That's what most of the people who come here do."

"I didn't know they were real. I saw movies about them, but I thought they were just stories." He looked at Dean. "What about other things that I thought were just stories? Like ghosts?"

"A lot of things are real, Alex, but you don't have to worry about that. You and Nicholas are safe here."

"We weren't safe in our house."

"It's different here; I promise. We all know about things that most people think are just stories."

"How come you don't let people know that vampires and other things are real?"

Dean looked at the boy, then turned to lean back against the car. "Most people wouldn't believe it until they had to; until they'd seen the things for themselves. So, instead we try to keep people from finding out so they won't be too scared. We want to help people; to protect them."

"I think that's a good idea," Alex said. He turned to lean back against the car, his posture very much like Dean's. "It was really scary,"

Dean stayed quiet, somehow knowing that Alex would continue on his own.

"Me and Nicholas were sleeping. We watched Cars in my room and he fell asleep in my bed. Nicholas had a Lightning McQueen toy, but one of the vampires broke it. Anyway, I woke up cuz my mom was screaming and I got out of bed to see what was going on. But Nicholas woke up and he started crying, so I had to take care of him. He's my little brother and that's what I'm supposed to do."

Dean felt a lump in his throat and ice in the pit of his stomach. He saw flashes of the night he carried a six-month old Sammy out of their house and any number of times that he'd taken care of his little brother when Sam woke up crying. He knew exactly how Alex was feeling.

"I got him to stop crying and we hid in the secret place. There's a little door in the wall of my closet and we hid in there for a while, but the vampires found us." Alex absently touched the bandage on his neck. This girl vampire dragged us out and….I just wanted her to leave Nicholas alone and she said she would if I did what she wanted. She called someone's name and this guy vampire came in. I just had to do what she said, so I had to let that guy…."

Alex touched the bandage again; his face had gone blank and he was staring off into the distance.

"It wasn't your fault," Dean said, struggling to keep his emotions under control. "Nothing that happened was your fault."

"I should have done something –"

"You did, Alex. You did everything you could."

Dean watched as the little boy stepped down off of the crate and paced in front of it for a moment. He had started to shake and Dean was afraid he was going to fall to the ground; he didn't think Alex realized that he'd started to cry. He sat down on the crate and softly called Alex's name. At first he ignored Dean, becoming more agitated. He paced faster and his breath was coming in gasps.

"Alex, listen to me," Dean said, carefully reaching out for him. He turned the boy around to face him and looked into his eyes. "You did everything you could and nothing that happened was your fault."

"You don't know! You don't –"

"Yeah, I do. I have a little brother, too. Sam – Sammy's younger than me and I've always taken care of him."

"But you never let monsters do things to you. You –"

Dean pulled him closer. "Yeah, I did, Alex. Not exactly the same kind of monsters, but I let things happen to me so my little brother would be all right. I was scared, just like you, but we're both okay."

Alex looked at him, uncertain at first, but then he suddenly threw his arms around Dean's neck and held on tight. Dean put his arms around him, rubbing his back like he had done for Sam so many times when they were kids. A few minutes later they heard a little voice calling his name and Alex pulled away. He wiped away the tears on his face and looked toward the direction of the voice.

"I'm coming, Nicholas." He looked at Dean, who smiled at him confidently and nodded.

Alex nodded back and ran toward his little brother. As soon as Alex was out of sight, Dean wrapped his arms around his stomach, feeling sick.

---

Kristine put Nicholas down and let him run toward Alex. She and Sam had seen and heard everything that happened between him and Dean. She saw the concern on Sam's face and patted his arm encouragingly.

"He needs you, Sam."

"I don't know what to do."

She smiled. "Yes, you do. You know him better than anyone else. Just follow your instincts."

"Maybe you –"

"He needs his brother."

Sam looked back to his brother and nodded. As he stepped forward, Kristine moved toward the boys and with a hand on each of their shoulders, led them back to the house.

---

Sam didn't want to startle his brother, so when he got closer to the car, he quietly called out his name. Dean wiped his face and stood up, clearly losing the struggle to remain calm.

"I'm coming, Sammy."

Before he could move, Sam came from around the car. "I heard what you said to Alex."

"Oh." Dean looked away, clearly embarrassed.

"It's not your fault either, you know."

"I thought I was done."

"Done?"

"I thought after I told you about what happened that it wouldn't hurt like this any more."

Sam was taken aback by Dean's honesty.

"Dean, what happened to you was horrible and you've never really dealt with it. I know you think that's all psychobabble and crap, but it isn't. When bad things happen, people have to talk about them. Stuffing it all away gives it power to come out whenever it wants to. You know that. That's why you tried to get me to talk after Jessica died."

"You were having nightmares," Dean whispered.

"So are you, Dean. And panic attacks. What that bastard did to you still has power over you, but it's time to take that power back."

Sam watched as Dean began to pace, much like Alex had. A moment later, he dropped down onto the crate, clearly struggling to breathe. Sam crouched next to him, close enough to touch him, but not making any move to do it.

"Deep breaths, Dean. Just like you told me. Remember?"

Dean looked at him, fear and confusion in his eyes.

"When I was little?" Sam continued. "I'd wake up from a dream and there you were, rubbing my back and telling me to take deep breaths. You'd say come on, Sammy, it's all right. You just have to breathe. Take deep breaths, Sammy."

Sam waited a moment before continuing, keeping his voice even. "And even a few times after I'd dream about Jessica. You remember that? There were some bad ones and you sat on the edge of my bed, rubbing my back just like when we were kids."

"I never should have let that guy do those things to me."

"You didn't let him, Dean. Just like those vampires and Alex. What happened to you was no more your fault than the vampires feeding on Alex was his."

"That's not true. I went to the park to get men to pay me. Alex didn't invite those vampires in."

"You didn't invite that guy, either. You were doing what you had to do to take care of me," Sam said, playing to his brother's protectiveness. "You didn't ask him to drug you or to handcuff you to a tree. If you'd wanted him to do what he did, he wouldn't have had to trick you."

"Sammy…."

"Listen to me, Dean. Listen to me and hear me. It's not your fault. You were attacked; you were the victim."

Dean leaned forward and Sam gently laid a hand on his back. His brother stiffened at first, but then relaxed under his touch.

"I didn't want it to happen."

"I know you didn't."

"He forced me."

"Yeah," Sam agreed, still rubbing Dean's back gently. He felt Dean start to shake and he leaned closer to him. "Come on, Dean, it's all right. You just have to breathe. Take deep breaths, Dean."

A few minutes later Dean was still. "No monster, no demon we've got up against scared me as much as that guy."

"I don't doubt it."

"He had no right to do that to me," Dean said, his voice becoming angry. "I agreed to one thing and he had no right to make me do more."

"No, he didn't, Dean."

"I felt really alone after it happened," Dean said quietly after a few minutes. "I couldn't tell you what happened; I couldn't tell Dad. And I was scared for a long time."

"I'm sorry you had to go through that."

Dean nodded, but said nothing.

"Thank you," Sam whispered a few minutes later.

Dean looked at him, questioningly. "What for?"

"Being my big brother and taking care of me. I just wish it hadn't cost you so much."

After a moment of hesitation, Dean straightened up and put a hand on the back of his brother's neck. "You're worth any cost, Sammy."

"You know that's how I feel about you, too, right?" Sam whispered. "And I'm right here; I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here to listen when you need to talk – about anything. It's going to be a while before you work through this, but I'll be right here."

Dean squeezed Sam's neck. "You're not bad for a pain in the ass little brother."

Sam smiled at him. "Thanks."

---

After several minutes in a comfortable silence, Dean stood up and looked back at his brother. Sam had sat down on the ground, next to the crate, just close enough to Dean to offer silent support. Dean stood up.

"You okay?" Sam asked, looking up at him.

Dean shook his head. "No."

"Dean –"

He held up a hand. "Don't worry; I will be."

"What can I do?"

"You're already doing it," he took a deep breath. "I think I'm gonna take a walk. I'll be back in a little while, okay?"

Dean didn't wait for an answer before heading off toward the dirt road that connected the cottage to the main house. He felt Sam's eyes on him as he walked away and he knew his brother was worried, but he needed some time to himself.

The dirt road meandered through a lightly wooded area of the estate and about halfway between the two houses it passed close to a pond that had a large, flat rock next to it. Dean always seemed to gravitate toward water when he wanted to think and the rock was a perfect place to sit. The irony of being in the woods wasn't lost on him, but he refused to dwell on it.

Dean crouched next to the pond for a few minutes, running his fingers through the cold water. It wasn't a natural body of water; Kristine told him her grandfather had it built when he became the legal owner of the estate and that it hadn't always been quite as secluded as it was now. When her father was growing up, there had been a large gazebo nearby where parties were held in the summer, but it was destroyed when a tree had fallen on it during a storm in Kristine's childhood. Her parents had a new one built closer to the main house.

Dean stuck both hands into the water and then rubbed his face before moving to the rock. He thought about the time he'd found Kristine sitting in the same spot when she had been in the midst of a bout with extreme depression. She had been drinking heavily, cutting herself and engaging in all sorts of risky activities at a time when he just happened into town for a visit. It had been a difficult revelation for him – she had told him about being in and out of hospitals after the death of her sister and nephew, but until he'd seen the behavior, they had just been stories.

He took a deep breath and looked around. He didn't feel well, but he knew there wasn't a physical cause. He didn't want to remember what had happened in the woods that night, but he knew that he had to. Sam was right; it was time he finally deal with it. The thing was, though, he didn't know how. The only things he really knew how to deal with were the evil sonsofbitches that he and Sam went around the country killing. When it came to his emotions, Dean always found it much easier just to stuff things away.

He couldn't talk about it any more. Not right now. He knew that Sam would be there to listen when he was ready again, but for right now he just needed to be alone. There were so many things that hurt too badly to think about very often. Even though he had only been four when his mother died, Dean remembered that night. He could hear her screaming for his dad and then his father's scream when he saw what should have been impossible….he remembered carrying his baby brother out of the house and stopping to look up at the nursery window as it exploded from the heat of the fire. He could feel the warmth on his face even now and remembered feeling safe in his dad's strong arms as he ran out of the house and whisked both boys away.

It hurt to think about that night because that's when his entire world collapsed. His dad was never the same after that. Once in a while the fun-loving gentle man would come out, but he had all but been replaced by the hard and determined hunter.

It also hurt to think about some of the things he'd done over the years; the hard edge he'd had to develop to keep his sanity in an insane world. Dean knew his dad's last option was to leave him and Sam alone in a motel room or shabby apartment when he'd go off on a hunt, but it happened all too often. Dean had been terrified every time that his dad would never come back, or someone would find out that he and Sam were alone.

One of the worst things about thinking about what he'd done with those men was realizing that he hadn't done it just for the money. That had been the primary motivator at first, but as he got older and found there were other ways to make money, he still often preferred to solicit men. He liked the way it made him feel and he didn't always find the same pleasure with women.

He'd stuff away too much pain over the years to ever fully deal with all of it, but he knew that unless he started to work his way through things, the panic attacks would continue and he'd eventually put not only himself in jeopardy, but Sam as well. That was not something he was willing to do. Their jobs were dangerous enough and the thought of him being the cause of Sam getting hurt, or worse, was too horrible to contemplate.

Dean found himself staring at a large tree on the other side of the pond. It was a pine tree and although he didn't know what kind of tree he'd been handcuffed to outside of that park, he knew it wasn't a pine. Yet something….Dean pulled his jacket tighter around himself as a cool breeze blew by. His thoughts drifted to Alex and Nicholas and what kind of life they had ahead of them. If no family was found, he trusted Kristine's opinion that the group home was the right place for them, but he knew firsthand how hard it was to grow up knowing that the monster in the closet is real.

He knew that his situation growing up had been extreme. Dean knew that Alex and Nicholas would have adults looking out for them better than his own father had been able to do for him, but Dean couldn't help but wonder what situations the boy might find himself in. Still looking at the tree and his thoughts on Alex, suddenly Dean could see the man who had attacked him less than a decade before. It was as if it had just happened; his face was as fresh in his memory now as it had been the day after. They had lived in the same town for another few months, but Dean hadn't been able to bring himself to go back to that park. He didn't approach men after that for a very long time; in fact, it wasn't until an accidental encounter only a couple of years before that it started happening again.

Dean didn't realize he was screaming until he felt his throat burn from the effort. He looked around and saw that he had fallen to the ground and was curled into a small ball. His face was wet with tears that he didn't remember crying. He had no idea how long he'd been that way, but somehow he felt better.

"No more," he said to himself. "You're not going to win."

Dean got to his feet and squared his shoulders. He looked back at the pine tree across the pond and willingly pictured the man who had attacked him. Dean envisioned him, not as the beast his mind had been seeing all these years, but as the small, sick human that he really was.

"I've fought better than you and won, you sonofabitch," Dean said to the vision in front of him. "You're a sick motherfucker who doesn't deserve the amount of thought I've given you. You didn't take anything away from me. I gave it up for a while, but I'm taking it back and I hope you rot in Hell."

oooOOOooo

After giving himself some time to settle down, Dean went looking for Alex and Nicholas. They were in the den with Tom, watching cartoons. As soon as Alex saw Dean, his face lit up. Dean sat with them for a little while, then suggested they go into town for ice cream. The boys slipped into their coats while Dean went looking for Sam to invite him to come along.

Dean found him in the office with Kristine, their expressions somber.

"What's going on?" he asked.

"The boys really don't have any family," Sam said sadly.

"That sucks."

"I called the group home in Atlanta and there's room for them there. The home's attorney started on the paperwork," Kristine said. "We just have to get them there. Maybe Tom –"

"We can take them."

Sam looked at his brother, surprised. "We can?"

"Yeah."

Dean saw Sam glance at Kristine before he nodded. "Sure. If you want to."

The entire group decided to go into town for ice cream and after the boys finished their cones, Dean took them to the toy store down the street. He wanted to make sure Nicholas got a new Lightning McQueen toy.

---

"You okay?" Kristine asked Sam once they were alone at the table. Tom had decided to go to the toy store with Dean and the boys.

Sam nodded. "Yeah. It's just weird to see Dean bond with those kids."

"Is it really?" she pressed. "He's just acting like a big brother."

"I guess you're right," Sam consented and smiled. "But they can't have him. He's my big brother."

Kristine laughed. "So, it looks like you did an okay job with Dean after I took the kids inside."

Sam shrugged. "I guess. Did you see his eyes when he found us in the office? He looked like he'd been crying."

"I saw," she confirmed quietly. "But he needed to. Tears are a good thing."

"He seems better now. I know it's not over, though."

"No," Kristine agreed. "But he's making progress. How are you handling what he told you?"

Sam took a deep breath. "I don't know. I really hate that he did what he did for money – money to take care of me. And that's what led to him being attacked. What do I do with that, Kristine?"

"I'm sure it's easier said than done, but you shouldn't think about it that way. You've always known that Dean would go to any length to make sure that you were okay. I guess this is just more evidence of that."

"I hate what happened to him," Sam grumbled.

"I think it's okay to let him see that anger as long as you make sure he knows it's not directed at him."

"I'd never let him think I was mad at him over this."

"I know that. But don't assume anything and don't take anything for granted."

Sam nodded, looking pensive. Kristine pretended to be interested in the mug of cocoa she had chosen instead of ice cream and left him to his thoughts for a few minutes.

"Are you sure you're all right?" she prompted once the mug was empty.

"I'm fine. I just….this is Dean. I guess the thought that he'd willingly seek out men for money, before trying anything else –"

"Sam, no. He didn't walk out of your home one day with the idea. He took a shortcut through a park and the opportunity presented itself."

"That's what he said, but do you really think that's what happened?"

Kristine couldn't pretend that she hadn't thought about that possibility, but she'd chosen to discount it. "Would it matter?"

"It….I don't know."

"Sam, he's still your brother. And you've known all your life that he keeps secrets. It doesn't mean he cares about you any less. For whatever reason, he's afraid of losing your acceptance and he keeps things close to the vest that he thinks might lead to that. And honestly, I'm not sure if his initial intentions are important any more."

"Maybe not." Sam sat back in his chair and sighed. "You realize we let Dean go to a toy store unsupervised."

"Good point," she smiled. "What were we thinking?"

---

"Are you sure about driving the boys to Atlanta?" Kristine asked Dean when they were alone in the cottage later.

"Yeah, why not?"

Kristine handed him a beer and sat on the couch next to him. "No reason; I just wanted to make sure. I heard Alex telling Nicholas all about the Impala."

Dean smiled fondly. "He's a good kid. And he's got a hard road in front of him. Growing up without parents, knowing what he does now….and his little brother is going to need him. I just….I want to spend some time with him; make sure he knows he's got someone on his side."

"You know, it would be okay if you kept in touch with him, too. Maybe visited once in a while. You could be a big help to him."

"You really think so?"

"Dean, you understand exactly what he's going through. You know that and that's why you want to spend time with him."

"You're a mind reader now?" he joked.

Kristine shrugged and leaned against him. "Are you coming back here after you drop them off?"

"You're not getting sick of me being here?"

"Maybe a little," she said smiling at him. "But I like Sam."

Dean saw the twinkle in her eye. He'd known she wasn't serious, but it was nice to see it on her face. He held her close and she nuzzled the crook of his neck. "I adore you, Dean Winchester."

oooOOOooo

Atlanta was only a four hour drive from Mountain Ridge, but Dean had a stop at a zoo planned. Kristine had liked the idea when he ran it past her and Sam, though surprised, had no problems with it.

"Hey, Dean?" He looked toward Alex, who was picking at the French fries on his lunch plate. Nicholas had insisted on going to the bathroom with Sam.

"Yeah?" Dean put his burger down.

"What's this place like? Where we're going?"

"I've never been there, but Kristine says it's a good place. Other kids live there and people who know about the same things as me and Sam, so you'll be safe."

"I miss my mom and dad."

Dean felt a lump in his throat. "I know you do. I miss my mom and dad, too. But there will be people at the group home to take care of you and Nicholas. It's all going to work out."

"Will you come to visit us?" Alex asked, his eyes planted firmly on his plate.

"Would you like me to?"

"Yeah," Alex looked up slowly and Dean saw the tears in his eyes.

"Then I will. And you have my number. The people at the home will have it, too. If you need anything, all you have to do is call."

Alex nodded.

"I promise, okay?"

"I'm scared, Dean."

"I know you are. And it's okay to be scared, but I promise that everything will be all right."

Alex nodded again.

Dean reached out and laid a hand on the little boy's arm. "And if things aren't okay, if anything happens, anything at all, you just have to call me, okay?"

Alex slipped off of his chair and moved closer to Dean before wrapping his arms around Dean's neck. Dean held him close and whispered assurances into his ear.

---

They spent another hour at the zoo before getting back on the road. During the extensive tour of the group home Alex was never more than a few steps away from Dean and Nicholas held fast to his big brother's hand. Sam followed behind, keeping an eye on his own brother.

He knew that Dean didn't want to leave the boys right away, but it had been agreed that would be best for them in the long run. After helping them unpack their few belongings, including the new Lighting McQueen toy Dean had gotten for Nicholas, the Winchesters knew it was time to go. Sam distracted Nicholas while Dean sat on the edge of one of the twin beds and pulled Alex close to him.

"You remember what I said earlier, okay? If you need me, you call. You can call Sam or Kristine, too, okay? Kristine isn't that far away and she'll always know how to get in touch with me."

Alex nodded.

Dean reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a Batman action figure. "When I was a kid, I was really into Batman. Sometimes our dad had to leave me and Sam alone and there were times I'd have to go out for a little while after Sam was asleep. I'd put my Batman toy in bed with him so if he woke up while I was gone, he'd know that he was safe and I'd be back. I'm gonna leave this with you so you know that I'll be back."

Alex took the toy and hugged Dean. "Thank you."

A few minutes later Sam and Dean were in the Impala, headed back to North Carolina.

"You okay?" Sam asked his brother.

"Yeah. I feel bad for those kids, though. It's not going to be easy."

"No, it's not. But they've got a lot of people on their side. Hey, they've got you on their side and that's really all they need."

"So, Sammy," Dean began, ignoring his brother's comment. "I figured we could stay in North Carolina another few days, but you gotta find us a job because if I don't kill something soon, I'm gonna go crazy."

"I'll start looking in the morning," Sam promised.

---

"Hey, Sam?" Dean asked after nearly half an hour of nothing but the sound of the car radio.

"Yeah?"

"That stuff I told you….We're okay, right?"

"Of course we are." Sam looked at him. "I've told you that, but I'll keep saying it until you believe me."

Dean didn't speak again for long enough that Sam thought he was already done with the conversation.

"I went to the pond after we talked."

Sam waited, seeing Dean's hand tighten on the steering wheel.

"I did a lot of thinking. And remembering. Can't say that I cared for it all that much," he said and smiled sadly at his brother. "I've thought a lot about that guy and I used to think that I'd like to just beat the shit out of him; make him feel the fear and pain that I did. I realized something, though."

"What's that?" Sam asked, his throat feeling tight.

"He probably already feels fear. He probably feels it every day of his life and that's why he does what he does. If he wasn't afraid, he wouldn't have to drug people and tie them up. I walked out of that park and went back to people who love me. He probably doesn't have that – even if he has a family, no one who knows what he did could really love him. Don't get me wrong; I don't feel sorry for him. I still want him to suffer for what he did to me, but I think he's doing just that."

Sam fought back the tears that he felt burning his eyes. It wasn't often that Dean let him see this side of his; the sensitive, insightful side and it always surprised him when it came out.

"I want to keep an eye on Alex and Nicholas," Dean continued. "And I want to go visit them; check up on them, ya know?"

Sam cleared his throat and nodded. "Yeah, I think that's a good idea."

"And seriously, dude, I gotta kill something evil soon."

Sam smiled to himself. He knew that one of this ways his brother dealt with frustration was to take it out on the creatures they hunted. He would find a hunt for them near Mountain Ridge; something easy and relatively safe where Dean could burn off some energy without them being in too much danger in case he had another panic attack. Sam thought that they would probably not plague Dean now that he seemed to be openly dealing with his past, but it was always better not to take too many chances.

He looked toward Dean and saw that he looked more at ease than he had in a while. His hand was resting lightly on the steering wheel and his posture was more relaxed than even a few minutes ago. He reached for the volume control on the radio and turned it up slightly. Sam didn't think it was in an effort to drown out further conversation, but because the song currently playing was one of his favorites.

Things weren't perfect, but they were better and seeing his brother more calm allowed Sam to be more at ease. He settled more comfortably into the seat, resting his head on the back of it, ready to enjoy the rest of the trip back to North Carolina.

Fin