Dean walked with his head down, concentrating on the sidewalk as if it was the most interesting thing he'd seen in a long time. It was still fairly early and he shivered slightly in the cool morning air, hunching his shoulders and shoving his hands deeper into his pockets.
He was so lost in thought that he almost walked straight past the Motel, only a glimpse of the Impala out of the corner of his eye making him pull up and stop. He glanced at their room, knowing Sam was inside and most likely waiting for answers, but he wasn't really in the mood right now. Spotting a bench off to his left Dean headed for that instead, sitting down heavily and closing his eyes briefly as he rubbed a hand wearily over his face.
He should have guessed of course that very little passed Sam by these days, and in truth he wasn't all that surprised when not even ten minutes later a steaming mug of coffee appeared in front of him. A slight smile tugged at his lips and he glanced up at Sam as he took it, nodding his thanks. Taking that as acceptance of his presence Sam sat down next to him, cradling his own mug. For a moment nothing was said, Dean sipping the coffee gratefully and feeling the warmth seep into him.
Which of course had nothing at all to do with the fact it was Sam who'd made it for him and who now sat beside him.
Definitely just the coffee.
"Little cold to be sitting out here."
The statement was casually spoken but Dean could hear the underlying question and concern hidden in it and had to take another sip to hide his grin. Sam probably thought he was being subtle after all.
"Fresh air's good for you. So I'm told."
Sam's raised eyebrows and disbelieving look clearly told Dean he'd have to do better than that.
"If you'd called I could have come and got you from Lisa's. I only left cos I figured you guys wanted some time." Sam said and Dean shrugged.
"I felt like the walk."
Sam sighed inwardly. Apparently this was going to be one of those pulling teeth conversations.
"So was Ben ok?"
This time there was a visible flinch and Sam felt his heart sink. He'd had a feeling this sudden urge for 'fresh air' had something to do with the boy. Judging from Dean's demeanour, it wasn't in a good way either.
This time the question was spoken in a softer tone and Dean realised his reaction to Ben's name must have been more obvious than he thought. Which meant that Sam was now gonna be in no mood to let things go.
The day just kept getting better.
Steeling himself he leant back and schooled his face into a nonchalant expression. Or at least a good attempt at one.
"He's fine. Little freaked, but you know how kids are – they're better at handling this stuff than grown ups usually."
Which still didn't answer Sam's other question about why this kid in particular was having such an effect on his brother. Fortunately he was a master at navigating the hurdles Dean liked to put up when it came to the important stuff, and there was nowhere they needed to be right now, so Sam leant back too and took another sip of coffee before continuing in the same casual tone of voice Dean was using.
"Well at least that's something. What about Lisa though? Musta been a shock to find out what you really do for a living."
Dean shook his head.
"It wasn't exactly what she'd imagined but she took it pretty well. I think she was just relieved Ben was ok. That kinda outweighed anything else really."
"I can imagine. So it's just the two of them then?" said Sam and Dean looked at him sharply.
Sam looked innocent, but Dean was well aware that didn't necessarily mean his brother wasn't up to something.
Sam fought the urge to sigh. Apparently this really was gonna be one of their more drawn out conversations.
"What about Ben's Dad?"
"What about him?"
"Where is he?"
"How the hell should I know?"
Sam counted to ten in his head. Then counted to twenty just to be on the safe side.
Aloud he said, "So Lisa didn't mention him?"
Dean looked at him, one eyebrow raised.
"You know what I forgot to do? I forgot to interrogate Lisa about every guy she might have met since the last time I saw her. You want me to go back and do it now?"
Sam was unfazed. He knew full well that Dean used sarcasm as a diversionary tactic so therefore it was entirely less effective than his brother imagined it was.
Not that he was going to tell him that.
"No, I just figured she might have mentioned it. Why are you getting so uptight about it?"
"I am not uptight, I just don't see why I'm getting the third degree about the love life of a chick I knew for a few days a long time ago."
"You were the one who wanted to stop by and see her again." Sam pointed out and Dean scowled.
"Yeah, cos we had fun the last time and I thought it might be nice. That's all, Sam. Why the hell are you making such a big deal out of this?"
Sam braced himself. This was either gonna lead to something useful or earn him a smack in the mouth.
Or possibly both.
"Maybe because it's kinda a coincidence that Ben seems to behave an awful lot like you, Dean."
The sentence hung in the air between them. Dean downed the last of his coffee and stood up abruptly.
"If you're angling to be someone's favourite uncle I'm afraid you're outta luck. He's not mine." he said, starting to walk towards the motel room.
Sam stood up quickly and grabbed hold of Dean's arm before he could get very far.
"How do you know?" he said and Dean turned to face him, pulling his arm away.
"Because Lisa told me, genius. Now will you please drop it?"
Sam shook his head.
"So that's it? She says you're not his father and you believe her? Come on, Dean – I only met Ben a couple of times and even I could see it. Plus I saw the look on your face when you realised he was missing. This is me you're talking to, remember?"
Dean clenched his jaw.
"Why would she lie, huh? Maybe you're just seeing what you want to see." he accused and Sam shook his head.
"And maybe so are you."
Dean didn't even bother to reply to that one, simply turning round and stalking off towards the motel room. Sam sighed. Just once he'd like to be able to have a talk with his brother about something important without it descending into an argument.
By the time he reached their room Dean was already sat on one of the beds, staring at the TV and giving off 'leave me alone' signals that could have been picked up three states away. Unfortunately for Dean Sam never had been one for taking much notice of those particular signals, and this time was no different. Shutting the door behind him Sam crossed the room in two strides and turned the TV off.
"Dude, what the hell?" demanded Dean, glaring at his brother.
"Don't pretend like you got into whatever that was in the thirty seconds you've been in here, Dean. We're not done talking."
"Oh, we so are."
Sam shook his head.
"You can't just tell me that it hasn't occurred to you Lisa might be lying. And if she is, you're just gonna walk away? Not say anything to Ben?"
Dean stood up, holding out a hand in warning.
"Stop right there, Sam. This is not up for discussion, ok? Lisa says it's not my kid, then it's not my kid. End of story."
Sam folded his arms, leaning back against the chest of drawers behind him.
"Alright. I'll let it go if you can look me in the eye and tell me you're 100 convinced Ben isn't yours."
Dean swallowed and looked away. Years of making a living from hustling pool and using fake credit cards, not to mention extracting information when on a hunt, had left him skilled at hiding the truth. He'd even managed to fool John when it came to the important stuff, like not showing how he felt about something. But Sam was different. Even when they were younger he'd never been able to look his brother in the eye and lie to him. And now they were older it was even harder, since Sam knew him far better than he was actually comfortable with.
It didn't really come as any great shock then that Sam had manoeuvred him into a position where he had no choice but to admit the truth.
Sometimes their closeness really did have its drawbacks.
Sam sighed and Dean glanced back at him, recognising from his expression that he really didn't need to answer the question after all. He sat back down on the bed, resting his arms on his knees and leaning forward.
"What do you want from me, Sam?" he said wearily and Sam felt a stab of guilt. He was trying to help Dean, not make him feel like he was being attacked.
Walking over he sat on the bed opposite, matching Dean's pose.
"I just want to know the truth, that's all. I want to know why you're so keen to just walk away if there's a chance this really could be your son. That's just not like you, Dean."
Dean gave a humourless smirk.
"That's exactly like me, Sammy. You've had a go at me often enough for the way I just use women and move on. Nothing like commitment to have me running for the hills, right?"
Sam was stunned by the bitterness behind Dean's words.
"What the hell are you talking about? Ok, yeah, I might have said you have a habit of picking up women wherever we go but I've never implied you 'use' them – where's all this coming from?"
Dean looked at the floor, deliberately not meeting Sam's gaze.
This was exactly why he hadn't wanted to talk about this in the first place but now it was too late.
"Look at what we do, Sam. It was bad enough with Dad when we were younger but at least he took us with him – what would you have me do, drag Lisa and Ben around the country while we go hunt the latest bad thing that crops up? Or should I just dump it on the kid that I'm his father then disappear into the sunset? We both know how that feels, don't we. I've told you before, I'm not like you, Sammy. I'm not cut out for white picket fences and mowing the lawn on Sundays. Especially now. You really think it's ok to introduce Ben to a Dad who's gonna be gone for good in less than a year?"
Almost as soon as he'd said it Dean regretted bringing the deal into this, knowing before he even looked up what Sam's expression would be. The tightness in his jaw, the brightness in his eyes that occurred whenever the prospect of Dean dying was brought up.
But as much as he hated hurting Sam, it really was part of this whole thing with Ben and Lisa. Just one more reason why he'd make a crappy father for the kid, if Lisa really was lying.
Forcing himself to put aside the feelings Dean's talk of the deal brought up, Sam leaned forward further and waited until his brother finally looked up at him before he spoke.
"Ok, I get what you're saying about the whole hunting thing. But that's not the only reason you don't want this to be true, is it?" he said softly.
Dean cursed inwardly. Trust Sam to see past the easy answer and head straight for the real truth.
"Fine. You really want me to say it out loud? Ben deserves a better father than me. He should have someone he can be proud of, someone who can teach him the important stuff. What am I gonna teach him, huh? How to hustle pool? How to exorcise a demon? How to lie to the cops? Face it, Sam, I'm not exactly father of the year material. If he really is mine then he's better off not knowing."
Sam stared at him in disbelief. Shock, anger and frustration all warred for precedence and in the end anger won the race.
"Are you kidding me? Are you seriously gonna sit there and expect me to agree that you'd make a crappy father? How the hell can you be so stupid, Dean!"
Dean's eyebrows rose.
"Nice. If this is part of some pep talk you got going, you might want to work on it a little."
Sam was just getting started though and was merely pausing for breath before he continued.
"You really think that being a good father is about having a 9-5 job and being able to coach Little League in your spare time? That's bullshit, and you know it! You tell me how many fathers out there have saved as many lives as you have, have sacrificed as much as you have for the people they care about? Ok, so some of the things you've had to do aren't this side of 'right'. But you and I both know they come with the territory – not everything is black and white and you of all people should realise that, Dean. If you're asking me to agree that you'd be a crappy father then you're gonna have a hell of long wait. You'd make a great father. And I should know."
Dean's head snapped up at that, the implication of Sam's words as clear as if they were lit up in flashing neon. The look Sam was giving him was enough to break through everything and hit right home and he stood up abruptly, walking over to the window and leaning on the sill as he gazed out over the parking lot. For a moment he said nothing, struggling to get control of the emotions stirred up not only by the possibility of Ben being his son but also by what Sam had just said to him.
Sam too was silent, recognising that Dean needed a minute and not wanting to push too hard. In some ways he was surprised they'd managed to get this far.
Dean turned round to face him again, leaning back against the window sill.
"I get what you're saying, and I appreciate the thought, but it's not just that. Even if I could be this Super-Dad that you seem to think I would be, what about the rest of it? What about when all those demons find out I got a son? We've found out the hard way lately that being a Winchester is like having a target painted on your back. You really want to drag an innocent kid into this as well?"
Sam winced. He couldn't really argue with that one, especially not given their current circumstances. The more they found out, the more it really did seem like this whole war with the demons was somehow tied in with who they were, and not just random circumstance.
"Fair enough. I get that you want to keep Ben safe, and Lisa too. But doesn't he deserve to know who his father is?" said Sam softly and Dean gave a sad smile.
"Not if in this case he's better off not knowing."
Sam stood up and walked over to the window, stopping next to Dean but looking outwards.
"It's not fair. To him or to you." he said after a moment and Dean shook his head.
"Since when was life fair, Sam?"
Sam swallowed and carried on studying the view as if somehow it could give him the answers he sought. He shifted slightly so his shoulder was resting against Dean's.
"I just wish it could be. You deserve to know the truth. And Ben deserves to have you as a father, if you really are." he said quietly.
Dean didn't answer. He wasn't sure he could get anything past the lump that seemed to have taken up residence in his throat since Sam started talking.
Sam turned round so he too was leant with his back against the window sill and glanced at Dean. He could tell by the way the muscles in his brother's jaw were working that some of what he'd said had hit home. He just hoped at some point it might start actually sinking in for once.
"So what now?" he said aloud and Dean looked at him. He shrugged.
"We move on."
"Just like that?" said Sam with a frown and Dean nodded.
"Just like that. Whether Lisa's telling the truth or not the best thing we can do for both of them is to leave them alone. She's got her reasons just like I got mine."
"And what about Ben. He doesn't get a say in this?" said Sam, sounding a little frustrated.
"Like I said, it's for the best."
Sam was about to protest but Dean held up his hand.
"You wanted me to tell you the truth and I did, now you need to let this go, Sammy. Please."
It was the 'please' that did it. Sam could hear how much this whole thing was hurting Dean, just as he could hear the desperate need his brother had to try and put this thing behind them. Even if they both knew it was going to stay with him, just one more pain to bury deep inside with all the rest.
"Alright. If that's what you want, then alright. But for what it's worth I stand by what I said. Ben will never know what he's missing." he said and Dean ducked his head self consciously, uncomfortable as always whenever they strayed into this kind of territory.
"Whatever. I just wish you'd had such high praise for my so called parenting skills when you were his age. All you ever did was bitch about me making you do your homework and not letting you eat Cheerios for dinner every night."
Sam recognised the change of subject for what it was and went with it, adopting an indignant expression.
"Hey, I liked Cheerios. And they were better for me than the burgers you always insisted we ate whenever Dad left us money for food."
"Burgers are good for you, Sam."
Sam snorted. "Yeah, right. In your world maybe. And I did not bitch about you making me do my homework by the way – you were always the one who tried to get out of it."
"That's because I wasn't a freak who actually liked schoolwork."
Sam rolled his eyes and briefly wondered why he bothered. But as Dean pushed away from the window and clapped Sam on the shoulder as he walked back over to switch the TV on again, he knew why.
He did it for the smirk on Dean's face. For the lightness in his step that hadn't been there before. For the gratefulness in his brother's expression, even if he'd never actually say the words out loud.
As Dean began to watch whatever it was that had captured his attention previously, Sam moved round the room, gathering together their stuff so they could hit the road and put the whole thing behind them.
One more town to add to the list of places they really didn't want to revisit.
He'd just bent over to retrieve an errant sock from under his bed when he heard Dean speak, so quietly he almost missed it.
Straightening up he saw Dean's gaze was still fixed on the TV but it flicked towards him for the briefest of moments and in that second Sam just smiled. Dean seemed to relax slightly, as if relieved Sam had obviously heard without him having to acknowledge he'd actually said anything.
Twenty minutes later the Impala was loaded, the keys dropped off, and they were ready to get back on the road. Sam leant on the car's roof as he watched Dean walk across the parking lot and just as he got level with the door Sam straightened up.
"We could come back you know." he said and Dean looked at him, frowning slightly.
"I thought we were done with this?" he said, tenseness back in his shoulders, but Sam quickly continued.
"I mean later. When all this is done. When it's safe. If you wanted to."
Dean stared at him, not sure whether to be most disturbed by the fact Sam wasn't going to let this thing with Ben go, or with the fact his brother was implying that there would come a time when their war with the demons would be over. And that he'd be around to see it.
Clearly the blind optimism gene was all Sam's.
It was a nice idea though, and as he thought about it Dean realised that perhaps sometimes blind optimism had its place.
Knowing Sam was waiting for a response he shrugged as he opened the door.
"Maybe." he said and that seemed to satisfy his brother who just nodded and smiled as he opened his own door.
As Sam got in Dean hesitated for a second, taking one last look around. He was right about this, about making sure Ben and Lisa were safe from the horrors he and Sam had to face on a daily basis. As much as the idea that he could be walking away from his own flesh and blood hurt, it was better than risking their lives.
He'd lost too many people that he loved already.
But even if Ben wasn't his, he'd been wrong when he'd talked to Lisa before. If there was no way out of this deal, if he did end up dying for what they believed in, then it wouldn't just be a car he was leaving behind. His legacy was sitting in that very car, tapping his feet impatiently and looking for a tape that he could actually bear to listen to for the next few hundred miles.
His little brother - and the relationship they had - that was, in reality, Dean's greatest achievement.
And when you looked at it like that, maybe he hadn't done so badly after all.