Chapter Eight

I'd take our family over normal any day."

Saturday, in the wee morning hours

He knew there wasn't a chance in hell Dean was going to wait for him. In twenty years, Sam hadn't ever been able to get Dean to do what he wanted, not to mention what was SMART. Maybe if he threw in some sad puppy eyes, and even if he was willing to stoop that low – and he was decidedly NOT – Sam didn't think it would help at this point. He was two years removed from being the little brother that left Dean behind, the one that may actually have been able to get Dean to listen. He figured the little brother he was now wasn't going to get much from him.

Sam took the stairs two at a time, figuring Dean was already in the basement. Hand on the banister at the second-floor landing, he rounded the corner and stopped so quickly he nearly overbalanced and went headfirst down the stairwell.

From the look of things, he wouldn't have been first one.

For the second time in as many days, Sam's entire world narrowed to the image of his brother sprawled and unmoving, looking much too like a broken puppet that'd had its strings cut. And for the second time, Sam rushed clumsily to Dean's side, nearly tripping in his haste and thudding ungracefully to his knees. But this time, it WAS blood, not water, pooling under his brother's body, soaking the knees of his jeans.

"Dean," Sam choked out, pressing two fingers to the side of Dean's neck. Nothing. Desperate, he gripped Dean's wrist with his other hand. Still nothing. The blood under his knees was warm, but Dean's skin was shockingly cold. His eyes were dark and glassy, open without seeing even with Sam right in his face. No, no, no no no no nonononono, was all that was running through Sam's head. He'd just been talking to him.

Shock, sadness, and something unfamiliar and vicious brought Sam near tears as he grabbed Dean's shoulders and shook him hard. Not now, not like this, you stupid, stubborn asshole. He shook Dean until he was shaking, himself and then Sam sat back hard, his spine connecting painfully with the railing. His foot shot out from under him, giving Dean an unintended nudge. His body shifted, and that's when Sam saw a bit of thin knotted string peeking out from underneath the cuff of Dean's jacket sleeve. He reached out and pulled up the sleeve, revealing a brown string bracelet on Dean's wrist. The same bracelet Sam had found on the floor in his living room just hours earlier. The one that was supposed to be on his bedside table right now. Wha –

Confused, in shock, and barely able to breathe, Sam swallowed hard and put his hand on Dean's wrist. He still didn't feel alive, lacking both warmth and a pulse, but he certainly felt real.

"You made them face their worst fears," Sam muttered. He dug out his cell phone, relieved to have a signal, hoping for this theory of his to pan out. "Please, please, please," he whispered as the phone rang. The line was picked up quickly, but Sam didn't hear anything but breathing on the other end. His fingers tightened around the plastic casing. "Dean?"

There was a hitch in the breathing. "Sammy?" The single word was barely more than a strangled sound in Dean's voice.

"Oh, thank God, you're okay." Sam let out a breath and pulled himself to his feet, carefully avoiding looking at the dead body of his brother stretched out at his feet.

"Yeah." Dean spoke slowly. "Yeah…you, too."

"I think it's safe to say Bradley's screwing with us."

Dean barked a laugh. "Yeah, I'd say so."

Sam frowned. Something was definitely off in Dean's voice, and he had a pretty good guess what it might have been. "What did you see?"

"Doesn't matter. I'm by the closet where you found me."

"I'm on my way." Sam was already moving and he all but sprinted to the spot, finding Dean standing in front of the closet door. He was obviously tense, shifting his weight and shooting glances down the hall opposite Sam's direction.

"Hey." Sam made his presence known while still a good distance away, because Dean just looked THAT jumpy.

Dean's eyes seemed to triple in size. "Sam." He made like he was going to move towards Sam but stopped.

"Are you okay? Really, Dean. What did you see?"

That rare vulnerability he had seen in his brother vanished before his eyes. Dean straightened and shifted out of the beam from Sam's flashlight. He started spinning in a circle with a frown on his face. "What?" Sam asked, worried what Dean might be seeing now.

"Where the hell's my gun?"


"My fucking gun!" Dean stormed down the hallway and back, retracing his steps as if the shotgun was stuck in a crack in the linoleum.

"I didn't see it, Dean."

"I HAD it."

"I know you HAD it, but I'm not seeing it now." Feeling mildly pathetic, Sam could do nothing but stand by while Dean stomped around a little longer.

Pissed but satisfied the gun was nowhere to be found Dean struck out and slammed his flashlight against the wall. Somehow, the light survived. "Let's get this over with." He turned and moved determinedly towards the door at the end of the hall. "I have officially had it with the good professor."

Dean didn't know what it specifically was he wanted from the car, but he was sure he would have felt a whole hell of a lot better than he currently did if he could just make to the Impala. Which he couldn't. Dean punctuated his frustration with a pair of slammed fists against the solid stone that should have been the broken boards covering the window that had served as their point of ingress. And shouldhave also been their way out. It wasn't only that window, but every window and door – every possible way out of the building seemed to have been magically sealed shut after Sam was back inside. Which was a bit problematic.

"What do you have in the car?" Sam asked.

Dean shrugged. "The basics." This did nothing to satisfy Sam's curiosity, and he was forced to elaborate. "Enough lighter fluid to barbeque a decent-sized cemetery. Stick or two of dynamite. Maybe some C-4."

Sam gaped. "Dynamite? C-4? What the hell, Dean?"

"I said, 'maybe.'"

"How the hell did you get C-4?"

"I dunno," Dean said with another shrug. "I might have found it lying around…in a military warehouse."

"What – "

"Two years, Sam," Dean snapped. "This whole thing would be so much easier if you could just accept that."

Sam visibly recoiled, but Dean felt no remorse. "Regardless. We are not blowing up this building."

"Suit yourself. It's gonna make taking care of this little problem a lot harder and slower." He stalked off in the direction of the basement.

The basement was locked, which didn't exactly come as a shock to either one of them. Dean fingered the heavy padlock, wishing he had that fucking gun; he'd blast the ever-loving shit out of that lock. Just who the hell did this ghost think he was? He thought longingly about the freakin' ARMORY out there in the car. "You have anything to pick this with?"

"Oh, sure." Always the helpful little prick, Sam made a show of patting down his pockets. "Um…no. No, can't say that I do."

Dean rotated his head to look up at his brother. "A simple 'no' works just fine."

Sam smiled tightly. "No."

"Thank you." Dean sighed and started digging through his own pockets. Lighter, gum…money? Phone number. "I might have…Ha!" Victorious, he pulled a safety pin from his inside jacket pocket.

"Hope that's good enough."

Dean couldn't help thinking maybe Sam meant, hope YOU'RE good enough. "Yeah, well." At the same time, maybe Sam wasn't the only Winchester off his game. Lost the gun, no lock pick…Dad would have had a field day. Dean hesitated, thinking back to the phone call and then the sight of Sammy's lifeless body. Maybe the message wasn't as real as he'd thought it was. You sneaky little son of a –

"I'm kinda surprised we've gotten this far."

Dean snapped out of it. Not all of us, he amended silently, thinking of his gun. He didn't look up from his task. "Yeah, I know what you mean."

"Bradley obviously knows what we're planning, or at least that we're planning something – but instead of stopping us, he just sealed us inside the building."


"Why not just kill us?"

"Sam, could you please not give the ghost any ideas?"

"I'm just saying – "

"And I hear you. But right now, I'd like to focus on the job – " Dean grunted and gave the lock a tug, pulling it loose with a faint click – "at hand." He sat back on his heels and tossed the lock up to Sam. "No more killing talk, deal?" The image of Sam's dead body was still very much fresh in his mind, despite the fact it no longer appeared to be lying at the end of the hall.

His tone must have conveyed his seriousness, because Sam nodded solemnly. "Okay."

"Okay." Dean stood, jerking the door open.

A strong scent wafted up from below; something stale and old and even harder to handle than the atmosphere they'd been subjected to thus far. Dean wrinkled his nose against the stench.

"Better than a decomposing body," Sam said, holding a hand over his own nose and mouth.

Dean raised his eyebrows in agreement. Not taking any chances, he descended a single step and jumped up and down a few times. Behind him, Sam leaned against the door, holding it open. The old wood creaked but held, and Dean next grabbed hold of the questionable-looking railing and gave it a rough shake. Momentarily satisfied they weren't going to fall through the stairs and plummet twenty or so feet to a sudden and painful stop against the concrete below – because that would just be redundant at this point – he motioned Sam forward with a jerk of his head and started down.

The door slammed shut as soon as Sam pulled away from it. He jiggled the knob. "Um…Dean."

Should've seen that coming. Dean rolled his eyes. "Just think of it this way: we take care of this ghost and a locked door won't matter." He thought a moment and added quietly, "And if we don't take care of this ghost, a locked door won't really matter." To Sam, "You have any idea what exactly we're looking for?"

"Ben just said that they moved everything left in Bradley's lab and office down to the basement."

"That kid is one giant geek." Dean used his flashlight to guide each careful step on the staircase. Every rotted step seemed to creak just a little more than the previous and every sound was magnified, bouncing off the solid walls surrounding them. As soon as his boot hit the floor, Dean's flashlight winked out. The next second they were plunged into total darkness as Sam lost his light.

Sam sighed and threw his useless light to the floor, where it landed with a thunk. "You're not still afraid of the dark, are you?" he asked, not kindly.

Even though he was barely able to see Sam, Dean glared, hitting his light against the flat of his palm. Come on, you stupid piece of… "I've never been afraid of the dark." Sam returned the glare until Dean averted his eyes. "No," he admitted. "Are you kidding me? Not since I was seven." He smirked. Two could play that game. "You still afraid of Barney?"

"Oh, you're gonna go there?"

"You were nine."

Suddenly the bulb of Dean's flashlight popped and the small beam hit Sam flush in the eyes. Dean grinned as Sam flinched away. "See? Told ya."

Sam knocked Dean's arm out of the way and retrieved his own flashlight from the floor. "So what's the plan?"

Dean shrugged. "Find Bradley's shit. Burn the hell out of it. Beers on me."

Sam huffed, and Dean decided it was about time to start taking count. "Whatever," he mumbled in his very special mumbly-Sam way. He pointed to the farthest corner with his light. "You go that way, I'll go this way."

Dean mock-saluted. "Aye, aye." He was almost positive Sam huffed AGAIN as he stalked to a row of stacked boxes off to their right. He watched his brother walk away, not understanding him anymore than he had two years ago. Only moments earlier he'd approached Dean with such caution, what had seemed like genuine concern. And now Huffy McPanties-in-a-Twist was being the same little bitch he'd always been. The kid had mood swings like a fifteen-year-old girl. Whatever, he echoed Sam silently.

As directed, Dean took the left. At first glance it was pretty obvious this little endeavor was going to be much more complicated than he would have hoped. "Find Bradley's shit" might have seemed to be a pretty easy task but in actuality, well…there was a LOT of shit in that basement and it would take more time than they had to sift through it all.

"Basements are awesome." Dean was muttering to himself as he moved through the piles and piles and PILES of crap. Crap on top of crap. Crap underneath crap. "Nothing better than a dark, cold, dusty basement. Filled with dusty old crap." Dean picked up a large book from a table and made a face. He wiped his hand on his jeans. Nasty.

"Are you talking to yourself?"

Dean sighed. "No, I'm talking to all of this crap. What are we looking for? It could be a fucking paperweight for all we know." He slammed the book onto the table and it shook with the force.

"You think it's a paperweight?"

Dean narrowed his eyes at Sam, quite a feat considering he could barely make out his shadow across the room. What the fuck is wrong with you?

Getting the message, Sam averted his eyes and turned back to his side of the basement. After a moment he turned back. "Should I look for a – "

Dean dropped another stack of heavy books and threw up his hands. Fuck it. "I'm burning all of it."

"But – "

"All of it." Dean swung the beam of his flashlight around, purposefully pausing long enough to get a kick out of momentarily blinding Sam.

"Dean!" he exclaimed, annoyed. It was basically whining, and Dean smirked. He found what he was looking for, though, behind Sam's head: a stack of perfectly flammable cardboard boxes. Yahtzee.

Sam followed Dean's gaze and movement as he crossed the basement to the boxes. "Dean, I really don't think we should do this."

"Then I'll do it and you can watch." Dean tossed the flashlight to Sam, who caught it clumsily, barely hanging onto his own. His mouth was open, a million excuses predictably building up and just itching to bubble over. Dean shook his head. "You're welcome to wait outside. Oh, wait, that's right. We can't get outside."

Sam huffed right on cue. "Okay, you've made your point. I just don't think we need to take down the entire building."

Not wasting another moment on pointless arguing, Dean yanked at the box in the middle of the stack and tried to quickly shove what he had together to make a larger pile. Sam was doing what Sam did best: hovering over Dean's shoulder. "What can I do to help?"

Dean laughed, swinging a box around so it was kissing an old wooden desk – perfect kindling – on his right. He tore open the flaps of the box, wincing as the act released a veritable dust bunny attack, and laid them out so the cardboard was overlapping the wood of the desk. "Just don't think about anything you're scared of, okay?"

Sam was fidgeting behind Dean; he could sense it. "What?" Dean asked without looking up from his work. I do not have time for your shit, Sammy.

"Well, it's just…" Sam suddenly appeared in front of Dean, on the other side of his growing pile. "You can't really tell me not to think about something and expect me not to think about it."

Dean stared at Sam. "What?" Sam's eyebrows did a nervous little dance. Before he had a chance to say something even more stupid Dean reached out and smacked his little brother in the side of the head. "Knock it off."

"OW." Sam glared, but it seemed to work, because nothing spooky came crawling out of the shadows.

Dean waved Sam away. "Go find me some more crap to burn."

Rubbing at the side of his head, Sam started to walk away before stopping abruptly. "Can we not do this?"

Dean stared blankly. He really was good at putting on that dumb face when he wanted to. "This…what?"

"THIS. This same damn thing, over and over and – acting like…you know what?" Sam took a breath and smiled tightly. "Forget it. I give it forty-five minutes. We set fire to this historic building on this very populated and respected campus and you'll be on your way. Finally," he added under his breath. Under his breath, but just loud enough to be heard, which Dean assumed was the point.

He didn't retort, didn't give Sam the satisfaction. He just let Sam pout in the corner, daydreaming about how wonderful and perfect his life had been only one week before.

Dean had been doing this long enough, he could sense there was something with him before he could hear or see anything. His head came up, right hand instinctively groping the desk in front of him, reaching for the gun he didn't have. So he was pretty damn surprised when his fingers touched the cool metal of his shotgun's barrel. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, even when said gift horse was probably trying to kill him, he brought up the gun.

It seemed quieter all of a sudden; no sounds of rummaging from Sam's direction. Dean could only hear his own breathing, which sounded embarrassingly loud to his own ears. He couldn't see anything, but that didn't mean there was nothing there. Dean heard the footsteps before he saw the large form emerge from the shadows in front of him. "Dad?" he managed.

The face was definitely John Winchester's but there was something wrong, something in the eyes. "You think I didn't know what you were up to, boy?" Something cruel in the voice. "You think I'm stupid?"

Dean forced a hoarse laugh. "I get it. You're not him. You're not my dad." He couldn't believe he'd fallen for it, even for half a second.

This John laughed, too. His eyes were dark. "Don't be so sure." He cocked his head. "You're not sure, are you?"

"Sure enough to do this." Dean hefted his shotgun, palms sweaty as he aimed at his father, whether it was really him or not. Definitely not.

"You gonna shoot me, Dean? Shoot your own father after everything I've done for you? You ungrateful little son of a –"

He lunged, and Dean didn't hesitate to pull the trigger.

Sam heard the shot from the other side of the basement and raised the flashlight in his hand like a weapon. It was more instinct than anything, because he really didn't think of a Maglite as much of a weapon. Really, the only thing he was thinking was, where the hell did Dean get a gun? "Dean?"

When Dean didn't answer Sam gave a stack of boxes a harsh kick to clear a path and froze in his tracks as a creepy, utterly disturbing laugh trickled through the air. The hairs on the back of his neck stood straight up and Sam turned slowly, prepared to use that friggin' flashlight however he needed to.

Sam was eleven when Dean had made him watch It as part of his newest way to cope with being stuck with babysitting detail – coming up with ways to scare the shit out of Sam. This activity provided him a valid reason, in Dean's eyes, to ignore his algebra homework. It wasn't that fifteen-year-old Dean didn't love his little brother; of course, he did. It was the combination of cabin fever and teenage boy-osity that drove him to torment Sam.

It was Sam's first scary movie, and mission very much accomplished. The first time Sam squashed his face into a pillow Dean laughed and turned the volume up. The second time, he took the pillow away. Dean thought it was a riot, until it was an hour after the movie had ended and Sam was still freaking out, jumping as a car backfired in the parking lot and at the sight of his own red sweatshirt slung over the back of a chair. He seemed to sense, and rightfully so, Dad wouldn't find the whole scaring-the-piss-out-of-Sammy thing quite as funny as he did.

"Dude, it's just a movie. Pennywise isn't real, he's just an actor wearing some really creepy makeup." Dean snapped his fingers. "He was in 'Home Alone 2.' You liked that movie, remember?"

Sam remembered. He also made Dean walk the fourteen blocks to the video store to rent the tape. And that was the only reason he was able to sleep that night, knowing the clown was just Tim Curry in some really creepy makeup. That and Dean's promise to give him whatever he wanted as long as he didn't act scared when Dad got home.

A single red balloon floated out from behind a rusted file cabinet. Sam's stomach dropped, and he stared as it came closer, jumping nearly out of his skin when it popped a foot or so from his face. He knew Bradley was screwing with him – he KNEW it – and yet he couldn't help feeing scared and uneasy. Brandon Perry had died because of his fears, and Sam had nothing with which to defend himself.

And then there he was. Red nose, red hair, creepy white bald head. His mouth opened in an impossibly wide grin. "Beep beep, Sammy," he said, and Sam seriously considered throwing the flashlight at him. "They all float down here." And then his face exploded.

Sam flinched away and when he looked up Dean was standing there, shotgun raised, expression unreadable.

That's right, Dean, Sam thought resentfully. Thanks for scarring your little brother for life. He swallowed. "Where'd you get the gun?"

Dean shrugged. He leaned the shotgun lazily against his shoulder, but everything else about his body language was tense, a coiled spring ready to snap. "You about ready to get the hell out of here?"

Dean had handed the shotgun over to Sam, who now stood watch while he pulled wads of newspaper out of boxes. The fragile items the paper was packing tickled and crashed against each other as Dean yanked it out without really giving a shit about what was breaking. After he had a decent pile he pulled out his lighter and held the small flame over his intended target – the desk – but paused. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, somewhere over Sam's shoulder. He could barely make out what he was looking at, but once he could, he couldn't believe his eyes.

Sam shifted his weight. "Quit screwing around Dean. If you're gonna light that thing, will you just do it and get it over with?" When Dean didn't reply Sam turned, all those unwanted, eternally bitched-about instincts causing him to grip the gun tighter as he saw what Dean was seeing.

The form was blinking in and out, clearly the professor type. The elbow pads on the tweed jacket kind of gave it away. The man was sixty-ish, gray hair and salt and pepper beard. Plaid collared shirt with a dark sweater vest over it and that tweed coat over that. With elbow pads. Dean had to stifle a laugh. The professor was much less solid than anything else they'd encountered, and he knew they'd hit paydirt. Yahtzee. Of course, he'd never seen such a harmless-looking ghost in his life. He looked like someone's grandfather, not a murdering spirit.

Sam, apparently, was thinking the same thing. "Should I shoot him?"

Dean tipped his head back. "I dunno. He's not really doing anything."

The professor's mouth widened in an innocent yet creepy grin. "I can help you." He took a step forward, and both Winchesters took a step back.

"Okay," Dean amended. "Shoot him."

Sam pulled the trigger. And missed. Badly.

"Are you kidding me!" Dean exclaimed. "If Dad was here, he'd smack the crap out of you!"

"Light your stupid fire, moron!" Sam shouted back.

Dean, caught up in the image of an old, tweedy ghost, had completely forgotten the open lighter he was holding. The ghost seemed to have just figured it out, as well. He breezed past Sam, causing him to shudder. "I can help you overcome your fears."

"No, thanks." Dean threw the lighter in the pile.

Nothing happened.

Dean shifted his weight. Sam frowned. Bradley's spirit cocked his head. That creepy grin once again broke the eerie calm of his face.

"Dean?" Sam said out of the side of his mouth, as if the ghost wasn't going to hear him.

"Well, it's not gonna happen right away," Dean whispered back harshly. "We don't know what exactly we're trying to destroy. Just think happy thoughts."

Sam squeezed his eyes shut like a fucking child and Dean could only imagine what he was thinking about. Puppies, kittens, butterflies; a barrage of helpless, harmless baby animals parading through his dingy little head. It seemed to work, though, because nothing came creeping out of the shadows.

The fire cracked, popped, and then started to burn very quickly. Whatever it was they were looking for must have been in one of those desks, because Bradley's ghost started strobing in and out until he winked out completely.

All in all, Dean found it to be somewhat anticlimactic, and they had never really figured out what exactly was keeping the professor tied to Maxwell.

"Could have been a paperweight," Sam said.

"Shut up."

There's a bit of a pyromaniac in everyone, and the both of them stood transfixed by the flames before them. Dean didn't realize he had zoned out until Sam's voice snapped him out of it. "Um, Dean. The, uh, fire."

It then hit him that the skin of his face felt tight and hot. The basement had quite the abundance of dry wooden furniture, most of which was now ablaze all around them. Dean blinked. "Shit."

That pretty much summed it up. Sam took a few steps back and then turned and bolted up the staircase, Dean right on his heels. The locked door at the top of the stairs wasn't quite as locked anymore now that Bradley was gone. Dean had been right. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Sammy Boy. They made it all the way back to the window they'd been using as their access point without any further obstacles. Except, of course, for the ever-spreading fire. Dean gave an inner fist pump when he saw their exit was once again open. They squeezed as quickly as possible through the window, Dean quite literally shoving Sam through.

They sprinted around the building and across the quad. The distant wail of sirens could already be heard, and it was an unspoken certainty they weren't going to make it all the way back to the car without the stray onlooker seeing them very literally running away from the scene of the crime. Sam cut a quick left and Dean was right on his heels as they took quick cover behind a row of bushes nestled up against the tree line.

"Decent cover spot," Dean noted.

"Yeah, I thought so."

Dean glanced over, and caught moonlight reflecting off of something behind Sam. He leaned back, looking around his brother, and snickered, realizing the sounds he had heard over the phone. "You rode a bike here?"

"Shut up."

Dean snickered to himself the entire time the fire trucks were outside Maxwell, until a snort slipped out.

Sam looked at him sideways. "What?"

Dean returned the look, grinning. "Been shooting since you were seven years old and you miss with a shotgun from ten feet?"

It had been a chilly night, and the morning air still had a bite to it. The breeze rustling the leaves of the trees lining the quad was not gentle, but Sam was warm. His face felt tight and hot, left over from the flames now eating away at the skeleton of Maxwell Hall. And he was pretty sure his eyebrows were singed.

The quad was deserted which, honestly, was a bit surprising, being a college town in the middle of the night on a weekend. On fire. Sam would take it, though. Considering the complete and total act of ARSON they'd just committed he'd rather there wasn't an audience for their getaway. The entire night was really starting to fall into perspective.

The Impala was just where they'd left it, and that seemed very, very far away. Sam tried to pick up the pace, but Dean wasn't having any of it. He, apparently, wanted to savor the feeling. Of being a criminal. Some things really don't change, Sam thought bitterly, breaking into an uneasy jog towards the car.

Dean caught up to him, lit up like a Christmas tree. Big ass grin plastered on his face. "That was pretty cool, huh?" He kept bumping Sam with his elbow, and Sam had just about HAD IT.

He stopped dead, letting Dean walk ahead a few paces before realizing Sam had stopped moving. He turned, his face a giant question mark. "No," Sam snapped. "No, Dean. It's not COOL."

Dean rolled his eyes in that way that meant 'untwist your lace panties, Samantha' and it did nothing but further infuriate Sam. "We just destroyed a building, Dean," he whispered harshly. It was ridiculously late – or early, depending on your perspective – but he didn't want to be overheard discussing their recent criminal activity in the middle of campus.

Dean was stone, was steel, and really wasn't having it. "And how many lives do you think we might have saved in the process?"

Sam's jaw was clenched so tightly it hurt. Dean just didn't get it. Never had, never would. What's the fucking point? "Just forget it." He shoved past his brother and stalked to the passenger side of the car.

Dean huffed and caught up with him, planting himself firmly in Sam's path. "Forget WHAT? Sam, what's your problem?"

"Nothing, Dean."

Dean's head jerked violently. "Nah, I'm not buying that bull. I mean, yeah, a patented Sam Winchester hissy fit might have been pretty easy to come by a few years ago but I'd like to think you've grown up a little since then – "

"Yeah, I have, Dean. I've grown up. A lot." Dean just stared at him. He had that irritating eyebrows quirked, mouth hanging open, dumbass look on his face. The one he always had when he was trying to make SAM feel like the dumbass. Sam yanked open the car door. "At least that makes one of is."

Dean shook his head. "Nuh uh. Out of my car."

Sam rolled his eyes, one leg already on the way in. "What?"

"I'm not gonna let you PMS all over it."

"You don't know how to have an adult conversation, do you?"

Dean laughed. "This is an adult conversation? Because I feel like I'm talking to a fifteen-year-old girl."

The wail of sirens drew closer, and Sam met Dean's eyes over the top of the car. He sighed. "Can we just finish this at home?" Dean snorted and Sam winced. "Wrong choice of words." He didn't apologize.

"Whatever." Dean practically threw open the driver's side door, the ever-present creak sounding violent.

The drive back to the apartment was tense and silent. Dean had always been a fast, if not reckless, driver, which was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser considering how much he loved the damn thing. More than people, Sam thought viciously.

He felt only the smallest stab of guilt over the thought, feeling much more over the emergency response vehicles racing past. It wasn't like Dean had come out to drag him around on a ghost hunt. It had very much been the other way around and Sam really only had himself to blame. And he was very much kicking himself.

Dean slammed the brake pedal to the floor and Sam's knees smacked the dash. He glared at Dean, who only grinned. "Ow," he said pointedly.

Dean yanked the keys from the ignition. "Home sweet home, Princess."

Sam went into the bathroom. He wasn't yet sure he wasn't going to be sick. He'd been up for…God, he didn't even know long. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten and was coming down from a hell of an adrenaline high. He felt beaten and exhausted, staring into the mirror at a Sam that was dirty and pale – a complete stranger. He knew he was supposed to be mad at Dean; he HAD been mad at Dean only moments before. He was just too tired to remember why.

With a scraped and bruised hand Sam scrubbed roughly at his dusty hair and a dirt shower rained onto the counter. He turned the faucet and splashed ice cold water on his face.

When Sam returned to the living room Dean was bent over next to the couch, stuffing shirts and jeans into his duffel. He paused when Sam entered the room but didn't look up. "Thought I'd go ahead and get out of here," he said when Sam didn't speak first. "Get an early start."

Sam opened his mouth, unsure what was going to come out. "You're not gonna try to talk me into coming with you?"

THAT caused Dean to look up. "Why? Did you want me to?"

Sam didn't break eye contact, just lifted a noncommittal shoulder. He wasn't sure if he wanted Dean to, but he'd been expecting him to.

"Or did you just want to tell me 'no?'"

Oh, NOW he remembered why he was mad at Dean. Because Dean was a jerk. An asshole. A brainwashed little soldier.

Dean raised his eyebrows and nodded, and that's when Sam realized he'd said all of that out loud. "And you wanted to know why I wasn't going to ask you to come with?" He didn't rise, dropping a shirt into his bag.

Sam just stared at Dean, and Dean just stared back. "You're wrong," he finally said.

"Okay." Dean went back to packing his bag, wincing when he straightened. He walked stiffly to the bathroom, not making eye contact with Sam as he passed. He didn't comment on Sam's little outburst, didn't strike back.

Listening to the muted sounds of Dean gathering his things, Sam stared at a spot on the wall. Dean was wrong. He was so wrong. Like Sam had nothing better to think about or do with his time. "You're not wrong," he found himself saying.

"I know." Dean brushed past Sam. He finished cramming his duffel and zipped it. He tossed it towards the front door.

Sam had a switch. A switch that up until the moment Dean's bag smacked the linoleum, he'd thought only John Winchester could flip. As it turned out, switch-flipping was a hereditary trait.

Just like that goddamned condescending tone. Like Dean just knew EVERYTHING. What Sam was thinking, what was best for him.

Dean. Didn't. Know. Shit.

Sam swallowed, and it was like trying to swallow a rock into a stomach filled with fire. He hadn't felt this way in two years – the last time he'd seen his father. "What do you mean you KNOW?" he spat, clenching fists at his side.

Dean, clearly oblivious to everything going on inside of Sam, a LAUGH RIOT since he knew everything about everything, dropped to the couch with a sigh, rubbing a sore spot on his shoulder. He looked older, maybe wiser, and much too like their father, and it all made Sam despise him. "Who knows when we're going to see each other again, Sam? I'm too tired to fight with you right now."

It was later than Sam was supposed to be up on a school night. He was stretched out on his stomach on the floor, government text open in front of him. Dean was passed out on the couch, a square of gauze taped neatly to his forehead, bright red spots of blood just starting to seep through.

Sam had stayed behind to do homework, and left his letter from Stanford out on the counter. It'd been burning a hole in his book bag for two weeks, and now seemed as good a time as ever. It was hard to keep his eyes on his textbook, and he risked a glance into the kitchen.

John held his left arm tight to his side when he poured a drink with his right, staring at the letter the entire time. He carried his glass over to his armchair and sat back with a wince. He looked just worn down enough to give it a shot.

Sam kept his eyes glued innocently to the same sentence he'd been staring at for ten minutes. "I got accepted to Stanford."

John grunted and took a drink.

"Got a scholarship, actually. That's not exactly an easy thing to do."

Another grunt. Dean shifted on the couch. That small move attracted more of John's attention than the biggest news of Sam's life, and it started to fuel the fire. "Are you even listening to me?"

"Samuel," John sighed, rubbing his brow. "I'm too tired to fight with you right now."

But Sam was young, full of energy, and full of fight.

The images flashed in Sam's mind. "You sound just like Dad."

"Okay, Sam."

"Don't do that!" Sam knew he was all but shouting and he didn't give a crap. "Don't act all high and mighty and above everything. Dad did that. You're just like him, and that's all you've ever wanted. You and Dad. For me to be like the two of you."

Dean put his hand to his head and made a sound that was kind of a laugh, kind of a snarl. "I only ever wanted what was best for you, Sammy. Dad," he continued before Sam could jump in, "only ever wanted what was best for you. For us." As if Sam was making it all about himself.

"What? Five schools in three years? Yeah, I don't think so."

Dean stood, hands raised in surrender. "I'm not getting into this with you, Sammy."


Dean stared, and the camel's back snapped.

"Sam. Not Sammy. Barely a Winchester. Not like you, and definitely not like Dad."

"You done?"

"Why won't you talk to me about this?"

Dean crossed his arms. "Fine. You wanna talk? We'll talk. Why do you hate Dad so much? What is the matter with you?"

Sam barely heard him, caught up in his snowballing thoughts. "What's best for me, Dean? Really? I would think attending a prestigious – that means 'important' – school on a FULL SCHOLARSHIP would be what my family thought was best for me. I was wrong. They didn't want me to go."

"I had sixty-seven goddamn dollars!" Dean exploded. "And I gave you every one of them!"

"You could have given me more than money, Dean."

Dean shook his head, laughing. "Well, I'm sorry, Sam, but I was fresh out of gift baskets."

"Why do you always do that?"

"Do what?"

Act like a dick. "Forget it. Just…" Sam wanted to pull his hair out. He didn't know how to make Dean understand that he was different, and wanted different things. He stared at their distorted reflections in the dark screen of the television. "You know how I pay for things, Dean?" he asked finally. "With a credit card that has my name on it." Dean rolled his eyes and Sam continued, hardly pausing for a breath. "My name. Not a dead rock star's."

Dean started to chuckle to himself, but it wasn't an amused laugh; it was the laugh that let you know a hit was coming. "Is that it? Me and Dad, we're not good enough for you?"

"God! It's not about you, Dean! This was never about you!"

Dean took a step forward. "Yes. Yes, it was. It was about me and Dad and how we've never been good enough for you. You've always thought you deserved better than us."

"That's what you think?" Sam took his own step forward.

"That's what I think."

"You wanna know what I think? I think you're just jealous because I had the guts to do what you never could."

Sam was ready when the punch came. He ducked to the right and grabbed Dean's arm. His brother's eyes widened in surprise and Sam smirked.

"Let go of me." Dean's words were like acid.

Sam threw Dean's arm away, taking satisfaction as Dean caught himself on the back on the couch with a wince. Once again, Dean didn't strike back; not with words, not with fists. He only stared at Sam, eyes wide like he didn't think Sam'd had it in him. He was sure in for a surprise. Sam had that, and a whole hell of a lot more where it came from. "You know what I have? For the first time in my life?"

"A Sissies Anonymous support group?"

"Friends," Sam ground out.

Dean snorted. "Oh, fuck you, Sam. You think these people care about you more than me and Dad? They don't even know who you are."

"Who I am? Do you even know who you are, Dean? Tell me, when you look in the mirror, do you just see Dad? Because that's all I see when I look at you."

"What, you take a couple psych classes and now you think you know all about me? There're things that you can't get from school, and THAT'S what you walked out on."

"Yeah? Well, I'm gonna walk out of this, too. Have a nice life, Dean." He went into his bedroom, slamming the door. Even though he'd thought Dean to be dead only hours before, he didn't care if he never saw his brother again.

It's waaaaaay too early for this shit.

As soon as the screaming started – not the most pleasant way to wake up – Ben leaned over and grabbed his CD player and headphones from beside his bed; he'd been prepared for this. He turned to max volume and laid there, letting Pearl Jam's "Ten" drown out the yelling on the other side of the wall. He wasn't even sure they knew he was in the apartment; then again, they probably didn't care. The whole thing lasted about twenty minutes and ended with a couple of pretty spectacularly slammed doors, which he even heard over "Jeremy" cranked up to ten.

What was the cool-off time for something like this? As a fairly obedient only child, the biggest family fight Ben had ever had was with his pet gerbil when he was seven. He considered waiting until morning, since it was very nearly morning already, but Sam was a sulker and a dweller and sitting in his room all night would only make living with him extremely unpleasant for the next few days. Weeks, maybe. He wasn't going to put up with it and let Sam wallow in self-pity or whatever. They weren't chicks.

After another fifteen minutes or so, long enough to finish his CD, Ben found himself squatting next to the front door, making just enough noise to draw attention to himself, and Sam was staring at him. He could feel those steely eyes burning twin holes in his back. Could feel how tight Sam was holding his jaw from the tension in the room.

He swallowed hard but couldn't keep from smiling. He had to smile. It was in the official job description of 'best friend' to lighten this mood that had fallen in the apartment. "Just checking."

Sam asked "Checking what?" but Ben heard what he was really thinking: 'Do I even want to know?'

Ben sat back on his heels, flashing a winning smile behind him to where Sam was standing in the doorway to his bedroom. "The hinges." Sam rolled his eyes but his body language seemed to say, 'let's hear it,' so Ben continued. "Door's been through a lot this week. Just wanted to make sure she's okay."

"She?" Sam raised an eyebrow. He did that so often Ben was beginning to wonder whether it was even voluntary.

Ben shrugged.

"I'm going to bed." Sam turned but paused with his back to Ben, one hand braced on the doorframe.

Ben seized the opportunity. "Where's your brother?" Pulling punches was not his style.

"He, uh, left."

Yes, thanks. I got that much. "Just like that?"

Sam turned back and leaned against the frame, crossing his arms with a harsh bark of a laugh. "Yeah. That's…kinda how we do it."

Ben stood, stretching out his back; Sam had sure taken his sweet time coming out to investigate the noises he was making. "You okay?"

. Sam took his sweet time here, too. When he finally answered, though, it seemed to be sincere. "Yeah. Yeah I am."

It might have done to end the conversation there but, you know, no pulling punches. "He just…took off?"


"He kinda seems like a jackass."

"Yeah." Sam again let out that horrible, almost cruel, laugh. "Yeah, he kinda is."

Sam didn't say anything for a long moment, just stared at a nondescript spot on the carpet, and Ben thought maybe that was all he was going to get tonight. He pushed up from his lazy lean against the front door. "Okay, then. I'm gonna – "

"He just makes me so…mad."

"Yeah." Ben nodded. "Brothers tend to do that." He lifted a shoulder. "Or so I've been told."

"Is that some kind of pointed comment that I should be happy with what I have because at least I have a brother?"

Whatever you need to hear, man. "No," Ben said innocently, heading for his room. "Not at all."

Sam shook his head as Ben passed him. "Right."

Ben was the one to pause now, stopping in his own bedroom doorway. "Sam."


"You know how I promised to hold off on the analysis of the pathetic state of your mental health until after your brother left?"

It might have been a figment of his imagination, but Ben could have sworn Sam cracked a smile. "Can it wait til tomorrow?"

Ben nodded. "Sure. Hey," he added, as Sam started to close the door.


"I've got your back."

There was something sad in Sam's eyes as he nodded, shutting the door between them.

Ben sighed, not looking forward to spending all that quality time with Moody, Broody Sam; the Sam he first befriended. At least he didn't slam it.

The drive was silent but for the ever-present growl of his baby's engine. No music. He was too angry for music. Music was calming or energizing – and yes, it could be both. Dean wanted to stew and be mad. Thinking about what Sam had said. What Dean himself had said. What the HELL Dean was going to say to his dad to keep from getting his ass handed to him. He was simply moving from between a rock and a hard to between a bigger rock and a harder place. It wasn't like he'd passed out at some chick's apartment and had to catch up with Dad and Sammy three towns over because John had left without him. That had only happened once. Twice. In a year. Something like that had come to be expected of him. Ignoring calls wasn't something Dean ever did, and he really didn't know how his dad was going to react. He only hoped the man was stone-cold sober, otherwise they were both at risk for saying things they couldn't take back and he couldn't go through that twice in one day.

If Dean had learned anything from his week in California it was there were no take-backs when you were a Winchester.

Except the knife. He damn well had taken that back.

Dean drove all day and the next day, not feeling a thing but the anger he was holding onto. He didn't watch the speedometer; hell, he barely watched for road signs. Maybe he sort of hoped he'd miss an exit or take the wrong one. It would be nice to disappear for awhile. But he couldn't. He had responsibilities.

Dean had a knot in his gut, and he identified it as the feeling you get when you've forgotten or lost something but can't put a finger on what it is. He was maybe an hour and a half out when he made this realization, finally snapped, and couldn't take the silence for another second.

With a vicious stab at the radio knobs the sound of static filled the tight space of the car. Dean grunted in frustration and adjusted the dial before finding a classic rock station. "Renegade" was just fading out, "Highway to Hell" faded in, and Dean decided that was enough of the radio.

Five miles outside of Richmond, he pulled over on a small bridge, highway patrol be damned, and tossed his cell phone into a dirty creek. The plastic made a particularly satisfying smack as it hit the water. Takes care of one problem.

Sunday night

John continued cleaning his gun, didn't even look up when Dean entered the motel room. "'Bout time."

"Yeah." No apologies. No excuses. They were as worthless to John Winchester as light beer.

"Could've used you out there."

Back at ya. All of the aches and pains of the past week suddenly came at Dean full-force. He wanted to fall into bed and sleep for a week. Of course, John Winchester was never going to let that happen. After the shit Dean had pulled? They'd be on the road by sunrise tomorrow. Sleep in the car to save money. Be on the move nonstop for days. Dear old Dad. Maybe Sam had rubbed off on him a little.

Dean dumped his bag at the foot of the bed not currently occupied by a small weapons cache and moved stiffly and wordlessly to the mini-fridge, pulling out a beer. He leaned back against the counter, holding the cold, unopened bottle to the bruise on the side of his head.

John had yet to look up at him. "Called you a couple of times."

Dean's heart tripped around maniacally while he tried to keep his face cool and easygoing. He forced a yawn – not that hard to do – and lobbied for a little sympathy. "Lost the damn thing."

"At least you didn't let anything happen the car." It was sort of a question and John's eyes flicked up. If he was at all concerned about how utterly crappy Dean undoubtedly looked, he didn't show it. Almost seemed to enjoy it. He held Dean's eyes long enough to secure the yes-the-car-is-fine nod before turning his attention back to the gun. "Trouble?"

"You have no idea."

John's eyebrows went up but his head stayed down. "Did you get it?"

What? "Yeah, I got it." Dean popped the top to his beer.

"So it's done?"

"Yeah. It's, uh, it's done." He couldn't even recall what the hell it was he'd told his dad he was doing. It's so done. Dean kept his expression blank. He knew his dad wasn't buying what he was selling, but even if he suspected Dean hadn't spent the entirety of the past few days like he said he had, there was no way the man would guess he'd been in California with Sam.

John nodded. Dean took a long, silence-filling drink. The couple in the next room screamed at each other. Dean listened to the muted shouts, unable to speak or move, himself.

John stood abruptly, grabbed his beer bottle from the bedside table, and moved towards the front door. He didn't meet Dean's eyes as he passed. "How's your brother?"

The words were harsh, the tone cold, and Dean's head whipped up of its own volition. John had already left the room, leaving only a slamming door in his wake. The truck rumbled to a start and squealed away from the curb in front of the room.

Dean sank slowly into a chair that creaked when it took on his weight. He stared at the ring of condensation left by his father's bottle.

He just seemed to have that effect on people.

Texas, late summer 2001

It was more or less a quick and easy getaway. Sam didn't have a whole lot of possessions he really called his own. Clothes, some books Dean had given him on random holidays over the past couple of years, and the standard baseball glove that hadn't fit his hand since he was fourteen. He didn't take the glove.

He'd been gone only thirteen hours when he seriously considered going back. Sam was at a bus station outside San Antonio, having already exhausted decent chunk of his dismal money supply – one hundred and seventy-three dollars of his own and the sixty-seven of Dean's – on a taxi ride to get this far, which was pretty fucking stupid on his part. And funny, but not in the 'ha ha' kind of way. Sam was running away to claim a scholarship, something he'd received for being SMART. Or so he'd been led to believe. Here he was, making stupid mistakes, burning through his money and not thinking twice about it because he was running on raw fury. He'd even gone so far as to dump his cell in a trash can before climbing into the cab.

Enough of that fury had dissipated now for Sam to begin to think about what he was doing. He had a quarter burning a hole in his pocket and another forty-five minutes to kill before his bus pulled out. He found himself in a staring contest with the pay phone outside. The pay phone was winning.

What finally drove Sam outside was the combination of the cramp in his butt from sitting in a plastic chair, the overwhelming stench of urine, and that fucking quarter.

Once outside, Sam spent another five minutes staring down the chipped receiver. It wasn't like he OWED anyone a phone call. Certainly, no one deserved a phone call.

"Yo, buddy." The voice came from behind him and Sam turned to see a scrawny, dirty man – quite possibly the source of the urine smell – crowding him from behind. "You gonna use the phone or not?"

Sam then realized there was a short line of people behind Stinky. Apparently, everyone else in the bus station had also thrown out their cell phones and had immediate calls to make. It was pretty much now or never, and 'never' had never seemed like a more appealing prospect. The little man jabbed him in the back and Sam stumbled into the phone, knocking the receiver from the hook. It looked like it was going to be 'now' after all. Sam grabbed the swinging receiver and dug into his pocket for that damned quarter.

"No, Danny, don't put that in your mouth."

Sam paused with the quarter halfway to the coin slot. Across the parking lot a young boy was pulling an even younger boy away from a wad of gum he'd been trying to pull up from the pavement. They were obviously brothers; Big Brother taking care of Little Brother.

Sam watched as Danny's brother held his hand as they followed their parents towards a waiting bus.

"Hey!" Stinky was suddenly right in Sam's face. "Make your fucking call!"

As Sam watched Danny's big brother help him up the steps onto their bus he realized he no longer wanted to make his fucking call. "Here." He pressed the quarter into Stinky's hand. Maybe to make up for the wait, maybe to remove the temptation.

Sam walked towards his bus, not understanding the empty feeling in his gut. After all, he'd gotten what he wanted.

He was out.

The End. Still, a million thanks to my uberpatient beta Rinne.