Author:Mirrordance

Title:Once More

Summary:Life's almost good now that Sam's back on the road with him, but then the tumors are back too, and Dean thinks he might be dying again. Sequel to "One Night," and set during the episodes "Scarecrow" and "Faith."

Notes:

1. It is recommended that you read One Night first, but not necessary. If you haven't read it or need a bullet-point refresher, One Night is about Dean visiting Sam in Stanford the night before he was scheduled for surgery on his lungs to remove a tumor, to say his goodbyes just in case he doesn't wake up. He doesn't mention that he's sick at all, but they talk, he leaves, and a week later, Sam finds out. Sam wants to quit school to look after him so Dean ducks out, and pushes him away so that he stays in college. It's the last time they see each other before Dean visits him again in the series pilot.

2. Shout out to all who reviewed Every Now and Then! To: apieceofcake, mandy, kaitokitty, zuimar, Phoebe, Mockingbird84, tvbatina, anon, deangirl1, Babyhilts, ImcaledZorro, and heather03nmg. You guys are the best... I'm a few fics into this fandom but I still feel new all the time so thank you for the support. Your c&cs are as wlecome as always!

" " "

Once More

" " "

1: Fear

Set During the Events of "Scarecrow"

" " "

It's not gonna kill me.

No, but it'll hurt like hell.

Flash of light, moment of mind-numbing brilliance, just before it was eaten by consuming black, and suddenly he was on the ground, and nothing of his body could move, nothing of his mind could make him want to--

Involuntary breath.

And damn but Sam was right, it hurt, it hurt like a sonofabitch--

Dean Winchester shot awake coughing, choking on the coughs, clutching his bruised chest, shaking with exertion. You know you've reached a new low when your nightmares equaled your memories, and he was just reflecting on that heretofore undiscovered, depressing fact, when he felt Sam's Sasquatch paws on his back, slapping, rubbing, telling him to breathe through it, asking him if he was okay.

"G' back t' sleep," he growl-gasped at his younger brother, pushing himself to his feet, and lumbering toward the bathroom. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would not be followed; their time apart and how it came to be had conditioned the both of them toward giving each other wary spaces. But he knew Sam wouldn't be following his request to be left alone completely either, because their time together before Stanford had been deep and ingrained, like blood in their veins. That blood was running on thinners right now, sure, but it was still there and all damn over.

Dean snapped on the bathroom lights, kept his head lowered as he grabbed water from the tap, drank some of it. His mouth tasted funny. Very, very lightly coppery, like his teeth were bleeding. He rinsed off his mouth, fairly confident that if he was bleeding inside from that damned shot, he'd be having it much worse than this, wouldn't he?

Still, if there was something inside him that prayed, well... it prayed. He hoped it was nothing. He hoped he could just put this damned nightmare-memory behind him, put Sam's trigger-finger completely and absolutely in the past. Getting hurt worse would just fuck everything up all the more, and the both of them were just badly dented right now.

He leaned toward the cracked, smoky old mirror. He opted out of a shirt sometime after Sam had fallen sleep, in deference to the tender skin on his chest and to make sure that Sam would not see how gloriously the late Dr. Ellicott's handiwork blazed across Dean's skin. He spared the injury a thoughtful glance, before he grit his teeth and stared at the neat white rows, turned his head from side to side, then opened his mouth wide, searching for the source of the bleed from his teeth.

The coppery taste was gone, the search too much of a bother, so he rinsed off his face, shut the light, and went back out to the dingy motel room.

He realized with a grimace that this room, now soaked by the dim light of a dull morning, was one of their worst ones ever. Hard to notice these things after a sleepless night running around in a haunted asylum with your chest shot to hell, and you stop at the first place you find. But in situations like this, things always looked worse in the morning, and some motel rooms were just damned ugly, like waking up with a woman you'd never have taken to bed if you were a measure of sober the night before.

"You okay?" Sam asked, voice still deep from sleep, brown eyes discreetly drifting to the bruises he, under the influence of the dead, mad doctor of said asylum, had inflicted on his brother just hours before. He was seated on the corner of Dean's bed, anxious and uncertain.

"Just choked on my spit or something," Dean lied, absurdly vaguely, thinking it was ridiculous enough to be possibly true. Or maybe not thinking at all. Whatever.

"That's really gross, Dean," Sam said, looking mildly skeptical and heavily disgusted. Again, their time apart had taught them doubt, in this wacky dance. But, again, their time together before that had also taught them to tango too.

So Sam shifts tactics. He had, after all, always preferred actionable routes. "What can I do?"

Referring to the injury and not the spit, unfortunately, Dean realized. So much for the half-hearted lie.

"It's just a fugly bruise, Florence," Dean told him, slinking back beneath the covers of his bed. He tried not to think about where the hell these damn sheets have been and who may have laid there doing what before him, as he settled in for sleep.

"I've had plenty worse, you know that," he assured Sam, before realizing that was never really an assurance, and--

"That's not reassuring," Sam pointed out, making Dean think, Typical.

"Live with it," he growled, shifting and wincing, closing his eyes. He nudged Sam's hip with his foot, lightly kicking him off his bed, "Go to sleep, Sam."

"You mad at me?" Sam asked, after a long moment.

Am I? Dean wondered.

"Do we have to talk about this?" Sam pressed.

Do we? Dean asked himself, vaguely remembering he must have been asked this same question before.

"He latched onto you and amplified feelings of anger," Dean droned, like it was a mantra he'd been telling himself also, "It's not your fault."

"But are you mad at me?" Sam asked, because it didn't take a genius to know that these were two different things. It might not be Sam's fault factually, but what did Dean feel about all this?

"Are you mad at me?" Dean retorted, biting back the rest of it which was, 'Cos you're the one who shot-- he kept his face turned away and his eyes closed, thinking, I would really wanna fall asleep, like, right now.

"I told you, Ellicott--"

"Nevermind," Dean cut him off, irritably, because Sam was being an evasive, coy bitch and because it didn't take a genius to know that these were two different things too. Ellicott made Sam shoot his brother, fine, but that didn't mean he planted the resentful thoughts in Sam's mind. He had fed off of that, but they were already inarguably there.

"Nevermind," Dean said again, "I told you I'm not in the mood and I just wanna sleep."

In afterthought, he added, because he imagined Sam's lonely face in the dull light as if he could actually, actually see it, "It's not your fault, Sam."

Dean heard his brother take a calming breath, before the side of the bed where he was sitting rose with the loss of his warming weight, and the rustling of the sheets on the other bed indicated Sam was making an effort to head back to sleep too.

"I wonder," Sam murmured, "What he would have picked up from you if it was the other way around."

Dean's eyes opened at that.

He stared at the window in the room and the streaks of depressing, dull light going through the cheap, ages-old-and-thinned curtains, and wondered the same thing.

" " "

It was the first time he woke up crying Jessica's name with no Dean there to lend grudging comfort. There was no firm hand on his chest, bracing him as he arched and vainly reached for the sight of her, long-gone. There were no big-brother hazel eyes darkened by the night and by worry. No tight mouth, jerking with quiet words that at first Sam doesn't hear above the echoes of his cries and the beating of his heart, until the smell of the smoke clears and his mind returns home, and he knows his brother is saying Sammy, or I gotcha, or It's just a dream, bro, or Come on back now.

He caught his breath and let the devastation devour him, wondered how deep and how long it would last, how much it would take from him, if he suffered through it alone.

Hurts like hell, he decided, imagining curly blond tendrils almost poetically catching fire at one end, then the flame winds and dances up, until the entire hair burns out. Every single strand of her hair burning out. Her eyes imploring him to save her, not understanding what was happening, expecting him to make things right. And her small mouth, moving, appropriately soundless, but he already knew that she too was crying for him.

He brushed angrily at tears that had welled over his eyes, and streaked down to his pillows. God, this room was ugly. The dull fucking light was depressing the hell out of him.

He rode the hurt, glancing his brother's deeply sleeping way.

Mad at me, he decided, miserably, just because the room was ugly, his dream was bad, and it was probably true. That was why Dean was ignoring him.

But he wouldn't, he thought, a breath before he accepted the idea with a deep knowledge. Dean was, for one reason or other, profoundly... forgiving. He was an open, unconventionally but remarkably naive, irrepressible soul. Simple, Sam allowed himself to think in weaker moments, because it felt condescending, except sometimes, there was just no two ways of looking at it. Simple did not equate to stupid, far from. It was just a question of, well, simple preference. Dean was theoretically easy to please: nice car, good food, good music, good company (which included family, women and kids, and occasionally dogs). He bore scars - who didn't?- but no grudges. Just... wishes. No grudges, just... wishes. For instance, it was never quite You-left-me-Sam much more than it was I-wish-you-were-here.

Which brought him back to the bare fact that his brother might be mad at him over that nasty asylum business, but ignoring him, especially in dreaming about Jessica, was downright impossible. The only other alternative was that he really was as busted-up tired as he had claimed.

Sam sighed, sat up, and still there was no movement from Dean. He leaned over and reached out, but his hand wavered, not quite knowing where to go. He settled for the turned shoulder.

"Dude."

Uncharacteristically light stirring.

"Dean--"

"Sleep," Dean groan-growled, irritably turning Sam's way, hazel eyes clouded and weary, half-open orbs settling on his younger brother's face and leveling out in realization and worry, "Sam...? You okay?" he asked a bit more lucidly, scrambling up to his elbows.

"No, no--" Sam's hands were waving around aimlessly again, and he felt embarrassed, "No, sleep. Sleep, please. I'm fine. I was just wondering if you were."

Dean rolled back his eyes and settled back down. He muttered something resignedly, something that sounded like 'Little brothers' in the same tone one would say 'Shit,' making Sam's mouth quirk.

"Good night, Dean."

" " "

Dean woke up once more during that timeless, eternal morning/night.

Instinctively light feet must have taken him to the bathroom without further incident, or disrupting his finally-asleep, exhausted, nightmare-plagued kid-brother. That was the extent of what he knew about getting there, because he thought he was in bed until his eyes focused on a blood-spattered sink, his head lowered down to the spoiled, aged white of it, as he caught his breath.

This is a nightmare, he thought.

Or a memory, he corrected himself, because these two things have been shuffling back and forth tonight. Inanely, he thought he could be more diplomatic and just say it's a nightmare of a memory or a memory of a nightmare. Whatever. Point being, he'd been down this road once before, and that story ended years ago, when fear was coughing up blood in a dim bathroom in the middle of nowhere, thinking This is it, this is how I'm kicking it, and No one's ever gonna know. I'm just gonna be some dead guy with eight fake credit cards in a ratty motel.

Ended, because he was fine now. Fine. And he was no longer alone, and someone's gonna know if he wasn't, and someone's gonna care, and he found that was actually far more frightening than being all alone.

Is this real? he wondered, lifting up his head and looking at his face on the mirror. Years ago, he had looked up like this too, finding a face pale and hallowed on a scarred mirror, lightly blood-spattered, just like the corners of his mouth.

Is this now? he wondered, and let his eyes rake through his face, searching desperately for a difference between today and yesterday, because he wasn't feeling well and he was desperately confused.

His eyes settled on the bruise on his chest.

The bruise that hadn't been there until Sam shot him with a salt round, a few hours ago. This was now. This was fucking now.

The realization burned him, made him cough again. He slapped a hand over his mouth, smothering the cough, making it worse, smothering it more. Fucking cycle that apparently was going to end only after he dies...

You know you've reached a new low when your nightmares equaled your memories, he had thought earlier that night. Except now was an even lower low, what with both these things becoming the present all over again.

I'm dying again, he thought, experimentally, because there was a chance that the bloody coughing was just a result of his chest injury after all. But there was something gut-hitting to the idea, something that made him know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his body remembered exactly how that first time felt, and this was what was happening again. And worse, the fact that it was happening again indicated a tendency, possibly even a malignancy to the condition. The recent chest injury was likely just the aggravating factor that made the symptoms known, like before. But the disease must have been just inside him, waiting to take him.

I'm dying again, he thought again, opening the tap and letting the water wash the blood from his hands. He caught his breath as he worked, ridiculously thinking Out damned spot as he wiped at the mirror and the sink obsessively, once, then once more over, before scanning the sink hungrily, searching for any bloodstain he might have missed.

Clean, he decided with a measure of uncertainty and resignation.

He glanced at the bathroom door, suddenly dreading going out.

He sighed, coughed lightly and was relieved to find no more blood this time, before hesitantly stepping out.

He was relieved to find that Sam was still asleep. He picked up his cellphone from where it lay on the night table between him and Sam's bed. He glanced at his brother; Sam was really out like a light. He dialed his father's number, and stepped inside the bathroom just as the call kicked into voice mail.

"Dad," he said, voice low and hushed and just a bit huskier from his ravaged throat, "You have to let us find you."

I'm sick and Sam will need you.

"You have to let us find you," Dean said again, wished he could say more. He hung up, placed the phone back on the night table, and crawled back to bed.

" " "

The rule was, no matter the time of day, if it's your fucking phone, you answer it. The rule was, if it's your fucking phone, it wasn't supposed to wake up anyone but you.

Dean's phone was ringing.

Sam was sleepy and sleepy-pissed. It just kept on ringing.

"Dean."

Damn phone, he thought, reaching over, too weary to be pissed for too long, deciding the best course would just be to answer it.

"Hello?"

"Sam, is that you?"

He once fantasized about getting this call. His father, unmistakably. Undeniably. Irrepressibly. Finally. Sometimes, he imagined being angry, and screaming his head off, asking Where the hell have you been? Sometimes, he imagined crying, about Jess, thinking, thinking their father can make things right or stab through whatever made it wrong. Sometimes, he imagined glancing at the ID and just ending the call and blocking the number for ever.

He never thought he would just sit up, slowly, as if afraid that any sudden movement would make his father scamper off.

"Dad," he said, voice low but sure, "Are you hurt?"

"I'm fine," as vague as always. Bristled him a little, also as always.

"We've been looking for you everywhere," He caught his tone, which was mildly accusatory, and he curbed it as he glanced at his still-sleeping brother, "We didn't know where you were, if you were okay."

"Sammy, I'm all right," John assured him, "What about you and Dean?"

Dean was stirring. Sam wanted to throw a pillow at his face to get him more aware, but he couldn't for the life of him think of anything else but his father on the phone.

"We're fine," Sam said, urgently, "Dad, where are you?"

He could see from the corner of his eye that Dean straightened up and turned to him with increasing focus and awareness.

"Sorry kiddo, I can't tell you that."

"What?!" Sam exclaimed, "Why not?"

"Is that dad?" Dean asked, disbelieving. But he knew better than anybody that only one person in the world could inspire that brand of rebelliousness in Sam; Why? Why not? What?!

"Look, I know this is hard for you to understand," John said, sounding like he wished painfully that Dean had answered the call instead, "You just... you're gonna have to trust me on this."

"You're after it, aren't you?" Sam asked, reverently, because it was that one thing that ruled their lives and also the one thing that was never really spoken of, "The Thing that killed mom."

"Yeah," John answered, adding, "It's a demon, Sam."

"A demon?" Sam breathed, knowing that demons were the worst of the worst. They were like humans, unpredictable, crafty, bound by very few rules, and they were thankfully fairly rare. "You know for sure?"

"A demon, what's he saying?" Dean asked, pushing off his blankets and blindly reaching for a shirt, eyes boring into his brother.

"I do," John said, "Listen, Sammy, I ah... I also know what happened to your girlfriend. I'm so sorry. I would've done anything to protect you from that."

He knows, he knows, Sam thought, But he didn't come pick up the goddamn pieces, did he?

He didn't know if this was worse, his father knowing what had happened to him and still keeping away. And yet the brutal honesty was giving him some inexplicable comfort. If there was someone in the world, anyone at all, who could honestly say that he knew what Sam was feeling, that was John.

I would have done anything to protect you from that...

He didn't know what to say. Thinking about Jess was like a stab in the gut. Speaking of her was unimaginable. No wonder their father never spoke about mom.

"You know where it is?" was all he could think to say. Actionable things, yes, let's focus on those, instead of the things that crippled and maimed a man, like memories of burning blond hair.

"Yeah," John answered, undoubtedly understanding and appreciating the shift of orientation, "I think I'm finally closing in on it."

"Let us help," Sam said at once, with blinding certainty. Let me help. Let me get it. Let me smoke it. Let me. Let me. Let me--

"You can't," John replied, also with a blinding certainty that Sam couldn't understand, "You can't be any part of it."

"Why not?" Sam snapped, biting back his tongue at I thought you understood me. I thought you knew what it was like. I have a right. I have a right--

Dean motions for the phone again, recognizing that the rebellion would soon turn unproductive. "Gimme the phone."

"Listen Sammy," said John, "That's why I'm calling. You and your brother...you gotta stop looking for me. Now I need you to write down these names."

"Names?" Sam asked in disbelief, "What names?" It sounded ridiculous, after everything his father had just revealed, "Dad, talk to me. Tell me what's going on."

"Look, we don't have time for this," John's impatience was as inevitable as Sam's rebellion, "This is bigger than you think, they're everywhere. Even us talking right now, it's not safe."

"No," Sam insisted, falling back on instinct, "All right? No way."

No reason, now. It was only fair, John was being just as vague and stubborn. He had to get his hands on the Thing that killed his mother and Jessica. He just had to.

"I've given you an order," John snapped, also falling on instinct though Sam was pretty sure they both knew those were the words that ultimately would make Sam do the opposite of whatever John was ordering, "Now you stop following me and you do your job, you understand me? Now take down these names."

He was so astounded by the ridiculousness of this conversation that he ran out of words. His mouth jerked, and he imagined sputtering a few other worthless things, except Dean snatched the phone from his anger-numbed fingers.

"Dad, it's me, where are you?" Dean asked, urgently. Sam suspected their father didn't even address that and snapped straight to the task at hand.

"Yes sir," Dean said, and Sam knew he was right.

"Uh, yeah I got a pen," Dean said, and Sam thought he was going to have a heart attack.

I got a pen? His mind screamed, is that it? After everything? After months of searching? I got a pen?!

And you were asking if I was mad at you, Sam thought, anger helplessly turning toward his brother, like a shadow of his rage at his father, or its nimbus. He pushed himself to his feet, tossed his tangled sheets on the bed. He felt Dean glance up at him with a measure of surprise but he ignored it, and just walked to the bathroom and turned on the shower.

" " "

Sam took his time in the shower, something Dean was relieved about. Let him work off that steaming, simmering rage. He wasn't an idiot, nor was he blind. Sam's eyes were just aflame, and his body tight, as if ready to spring with one wrong move from Dean.

Dean occupied himself on Sam's laptop, with their father's journal also in front of him. He was looking up the names his father had given them, when Sam stepped back into the room.

He predictably looked calmer when he stepped out of the bathroom. He glanced at the clock on the night stand, and his brows rose in surprise. "Six pm, huh?"

"Yeah," Dean winced, "Well we did sleep in the morning, right?"

Sam shrugged as he gathered his clothes. "So what? We gotta be off soon?"

"Yeah," Dean replied, "But you gotta let me shower first, dude. And I looked up the people dad told us about. Check it out while you can, I'll be out in a bit, then we can go."

Sam just shrugged, noncommittally. Dean stopped in front of him.

"Hey," he called to his younger brother, whose eyes drifted his way.

"What?"

Dean stared at him for a long, quiet, moment. The anger was still there, oh yes, but was just slightly less pronounced. "You good?"

"'Course I'm good," Sam said under his breath, just a bit sarcastic.

"We need to talk about this?" Dean asked, wincing upon the realization that it's been Sam asking him that same thing these last few hours and he was the one shrugging it off. Sam just looked at him pointedly.

Yeah, Dean thought as he warily stepped back, I guess I wouldn't be in the sharing and caring kind of mood either.

" " "

Dean let him have the wheel.

It didn't surprise him anymore, really. Dean let him drive whenever Dean felt he needed some appeasing. That's probably because, in Dean-world, the car and an open road can make everything better. It worked on Sam, but only for a little while. Kept him from thinking about Jess, and getting to know the quirks of the car was like knowing his brother a little bit more. There had even been that odd reward of the first time Dean fell asleep with him on the wheel. Dean had been injured, sure, but Sam had no doubt he could have stayed awake if he had to. It was trust, and the rare relinquishing of control. Sam had never felt so empowered and so scared in his life. He wondered if that was how Dean always felt, having Sam on the passenger seat. It was his slowest, most careful drive ever.

But there was no appeasing Sam tonight.

"All right," he said as he drove, "The names dad gave us, they're all couples?"

"Three different couples," Dean confirmed, "All went missing."

"And they're all from different towns?" Sam asked, "Different states?"

He wished he could even pretend to have read the things Dean had called up from the Internet but he was busy looking something else up while Dean was in the shower. His brother was wisely not calling him out on it, though Sam suspected he knew.

"That's right," Dean replied, encouraging, and it sounded vaguely like Welcome to the class, "You got Washington, New York, Colorado. Each couple took a road trip cross-country. None of them arrived at their destination, and none of them were ever heard from again."

"Well it's a big country, Dean," Sam pointed out, "They could've disappeared anywhere."

"Yeah, could've," Dean conceded, "But each one's route took 'em to the same part of Indiana. Always on the second week of April, one year after another, after another."

Sam's brows rose. This was the second week of April.

"So dad's sending us to Indiana to go hunting for something before another couple vanishes," Sam concludes.

"Yahtzee," Dean said, "Can you imagine putting together a pattern like this? All the different obits dad had to go through? The man's a master."

Now Sam is royally pissed. Pissed at his father for ducking out on them, pissed for the misleading instructions and always hoping and failing to find him, pissed at his brother for making excuses for their dad, pissed at Dean for over-selling their father's attributes like this, as if it was supposed to make up for everything.

Sam pulls over on the side of the road.

"What are you doing?" Dean asked.

"We're not going to Indiana."

" " "

"We're not going to Indiana."

Sam's dead serious, and even though Dean knew that any argument or reasoning would be futile the very breath Sam even begins to look and sound like this, he had no choice but to keep going.

"We're not?" he asked, lamely, trying to buy time to think.

Don't do this now, his mind begged, We gotta find dad, I know that. More than ever. But I don't know what to do...

... And having orders to follow were damned comforting.

Besides, he thought about it, in the shower. If this battle was gonna be big, he wasn't going to be any good to anybody, being so badly sick. He was just going to be a liability. The best thing to do was to hang back, take care of the small details, like vanishing couples in a small town, let his father have one less thing to worry about as he fought the war.

And whatever great danger Dean couldn't get into, he was not going to allow Sam to be involved in, oh no...

"No," Sam replied, simply, "We're going to California. Dad called from a pay phone. Sacramento area code."

"Sam," Dean said, a warning tone, hardly grounding. He couldn't think of any other word to attach to that.

"Dean," Sam implored, because he'd always been better at scrambling for words than his brother, "If this demon killed mom and Jess, and dad's closing in, we gotta be there. We gotta help."

"Dad doesn't want our help," Dean pointed out, lamely, even to his own ears.

"I don't care," Sam snapped.

Futile, but necessary: "He's given us an order."

"I don't care," Sam said, even more firmly now, because as older brother, Dean knew about all of Sam's allergies and their father's orders was the worst of them. "We don't always have to do what he says."

Dean shifts tactics. Sam always had the bleeding heart. He did the it's-not-about-dad's-orders bit since it's worked before and said, "Sam, dad is asking us to work jobs, to save lives. It's important."

"All right, I understand," Sam said quickly, "Believe me, I understand. But I'm talking one week here, man. To get answers. To get revenge."

"All right," Dean said, "Look, I know how you feel--"

"Do you?" Sam snapped.

Dean is taken aback, blinks at his younger brother's tone.

"How old were you when mom died?" Sam asked, eyes wounded and pretty damn close to bleeding by now. "Four? Jess died six months ago. How the hell would you know how I feel?"

Dean is stung. Heavily insulted, yeah, sure, but more hurt than anything. He wanted to scream. Don't you fucking know me, bro? Because to Dean, he didn't need to know Jessica to understand his brother's pain. All he needed to know was Sam, and with Sam hurting, he perforce hurt too. It was that simple. He never doubted his understanding, or his position to lend comfort or help.

I'm your brother. I didn't know her. But I know you, and I know you broken.

He had thought that knowledge gave him the best rights in the world to say I know how you feel. He didn't mean to say he knew what the loss meant. He just meant to say I know how you feel.

But there were no words for that, not now. He was hurting himself, couldn't see straight, and his chest was beginning to tighten. "Dad said it wasn't safe," he said, feeling like an idiot robot, because when did such a thing ever stop them before?

"For any of us," he emphasized, for you, "I mean, he obviously knows something that we don't so if he says to stay away, we stay away."

"I don't understand the blind faith you have in the man," Sam groaned, "I mean, it's like you don't even question him."

Sometimes, there wasn't anything wrong about blind faith. If Sam had asked Dean to duck, he wouldn't think about it, he just would. It was frustrating, this crazy rebellion, couldn't Sam see that? It was toxic and unproductive. And more than mildly insulting to Dean, compounded by all the things thrown his way over at the asylum.

Pathetic.

Take responsibility for a change.

"It's called being a good son," Dean retorted, as if he was arguing with the manic version of his brother instead, the one that had said all those things.

Sam's eyes narrowed in barely-restrained rage. Maybe they really should have talked about this after all. Sam gets out of the car.

Dean sets his jaws, wishing he had bit his tongue except he was hip-deep in it now and he was frustrated also. He felt his chest twinging. He had a feeling where this was gonna go. But it was like watching a plane crash. Nothing you can do but strap in. He coughed once, bit it back and stepped out of the car, walking to the trunk where his brother was busy gathering his meager belongings.

"You're a selfish bastard, you know that?" Dean asked, letting the words flood out of him. Sam wanted to know, didn't he? Wanted to know what Ellicott would have dug up? This was it, this was the truth, and this was his last chance to keep Sam around, short of saying I'm sick, I'll be useless to dad in a fight like that. I'll be useless to you. Stay with me. Don't go anywhere I can't follow. Don't go anywhere I can't protect you. But he wasn't made like that, was he?

"You just do whatever you want," Dean went on, "Don't care what anybody thinks."

Don't care what I think, Dean thought, Don't care what I need, don't care, don't care, don't care--

"That's what you really think?" Sam asked.

Dean looked him dead in the eye and meant it from the very very pits of his souland said, "Yes, it is."

"Well then," Sam declared, "This selfish bastard is going to California."

Sam pulled his bags on more securely, and turned to walk away. He couldn't have known, how familiar this goddamn scene was, or how much more hurtful the second time around. Sam and his bags and determined stalking toward California. Leaving Dean. Always, always leaving.

Selfish bastard.

"Come on," Dean called to him, "You're not serious."

It wasn't a dare. He knew better than calling out a bluff with Sam. Dean was mouthier, but Sam was all commitment, and by god, he never lost. Ever.

"I am serious."

I know, Dean bit back, Goddamnitt.

"It's the middle of the night," Dean reasoned, but Sam just kept going.

"Hey, I'm taking off--" Maybe not so smart, but he was his father's son that way too. Last resort: "I will leave your ass, you hear me?"

"That's what I want you to do," Sam said, almost mocking, sing-song, as if he knew his brother wouldn't leave him. Dean never has. Because Dean never did the leaving. Dean was always the one left behind. It was always Dean getting left behind. Always, always getting left behind, and it was making his eyes water and his chest tighten and hurt and he was being turned away again, turned away, left behind--

Leave me once, shame on you. Leave me twice, shame on me.

"Goodbye Sam," he said, jaws set, his look holding more conviction than his heart.

" " "

I've never been left behind by Dean before.

Dean could have hit him in the face and he'd have been less surprised by that. Been less hurt by that.

His brother closed the trunk, tossed him a look of regretful anger and disappointment before closing the door. He started the car. The lights came on. The car pulled away and macabrely, he watched. Because even as it rolled away he still couldn't believe that Dean was leaving him. Dean. Leaving. Him. It made absolutely no sense.

It made far less sense than him on an empty road in the middle of the night. Sometimes, sometimes this temper of his really got the better of him. But whatever the temper brought on, the pride always helped him weather.

Sam trudged forward.

There was no other way but.

" " "

What if he gets picked up by some psycho?

Or gets run over or clipped? That damn road was dark.

What if he catches hypothermia?

What if he gets held up?

What if there's a monster or a ghost or--

Dean's chest hurt. He coughed, once, but that wasn't going to be enough. The road blurred before him. He pulled over before he could run over anyone, like other people's stupid, stubborn kid brothers who'd have gone out on their own on dark, dangerous roads.

He hacked and wheezed. The coughs were loaded by more than just air. Wet and thick, stifling. He pressed palms over his mouth. His eyes watered as he breathed in and out, fighting for some sort of control, because he was being overcome by a pervading sense of drowning. His hand shook, as he struggled with unlocking his door. He scrambled to his knees on the dewy-wet ground, coughed to his aching heart's content. He spat out blood – bleeding teeth, my ass – and fell on his rump in weariness.

He wiped at his sweaty brow, and yet he felt chilled to the bone, and he trembled with the exertion and the feeling of shock.

If Sam was here, he'd be hovering and panicky, all uncoordinated limbs scrambling. It would be marginally funny, making the situation slightly bearable. But god, he knew better than anybody that Sam had greater problems than a dying brother, didn't he? He had a shitload more crap to deal with already, without Dean in the mix.

Maybe this is better, he realized, Dad can take care of him better. Dad can help him get what he wants. What he needs. I don't think I can, anymore.

Maybe this is better.

He gathered his feet, caught his breath.

And then headed off to work, alone.

" " "

It was a given.

Of course he'd call first.

Dean had gone and found the perfect excuse, sure, but Sam wasn't complaining. Dean calling him, that was enough. His older brother had sounded excited over the phone, telling him about some Jeepers Creepers action like the two of them weren't fighting just hours before. Like they hadn't just written each other off. Maybe he just needed to talk to someone about it and literally had no one else to call. Or maybe he did find just something exciting to talk about that would allow a temporary truce. Maybe a lot of things.

"The scarecrow climbed off its cross?" Sam breathed, amazed himself.

"Yeah," Dean confirmed, "I'm tellin' ya. Burkitsville, Indiana. Fun town."

"It didn't kill the couple, did it?" Sam asked, though of course he should have known.

"No," Dean said simply, adding, with the usual humor, "I can't cope without you, you know."

"So something must be animating it," Sam said, "A spirit."

"No, it's more than a spirit," Dean said with certainty, "It's a god. A pagan god, anyway."

Sam was surprised, but again, he shouldn't have been either. He'd always fancied himself the researcher between the two of them, and Dean had always made him know it (or was too lazy to bother, deciding to butter up his brother into compliance instead). But this was his older brother's job too, and had been doing it long before he got into it and long after he got out. Proved it time and again, always knowing more than he usually let on, like explaining how he had come to that conclusion this time, looking at annual cycles and victim demographics.

As they talked, they fell back into that old, comforting pattern. Brainstorming, cascading ideas. Falling into each other, because sometimes it was easy.

"Do you know which god you're dealing with?" Sam asked.

"No, not yet," Dean answered.

"Well you figure out what it is," said Sam, "You can figure out a way to kill it."

"I know," said Dean, "I'm actually on my way to a local community college. I got an appointment with a professor." He paused, "You know, since I don't have my trusty sidekick geek boy to do all the research."

"You know," Sam laughed, "If you're hinting you need my help, just ask."

"I'm not hinting anything," Dean said, quickly. He didn't need to, they both knew that. Dean didn't always say everything, but he almost always said everything that needed to be said. That was why he was quick to call, quick to forgive.

"Actually," he cleared his throat, "I want you to know... I mean... don't think..." the words trailed off. He wasn't good with words, but he was good with results. Sam got it, always, he got it somehow.

Don't think I don't want you around.

Don't think I'm angry enough not to care what happens to you.

Don't think you don't deserve the things you want. Some bastards got every right, every right to go after what they want.

Don't think I'm not sorry you're gone--

"Yeah," Sam said, as if he heard, and maybe he did, "I'm sorry too."

"Sam," Dean said, "You were right. You gotta do your own thing. You gotta live your own life."

He can't be serious, Sam thought, maybe he even said it aloud, because Dean expounded, "You've always known what you want, and you go after it. You stand up to dad, you always have. Hell I wish I--"

He paused, and Sam wondered if he would ever know the thought, the regret, attached to that.

"Anyway," Dean caught himself, "I admire that about you. I'm proud of you, Sammy."

"I don't even know what to say," Sam admitted.

"Say you'll take care of yourself," Dean filled in.

"I will," Sam found himself promising.

"Call me when you find dad," Dean added.

"Okay," Sam said, feeling quite awed, "Bye, Dean."

He hung up, still reeling. He barely noticed his new friend, a lean blond who was literally and figuratively on the same road as he was, rise from her spot on the floor and walk over to him.

"Who was that?" Meg asked.

"My brother," Sam replied.

"What did he say?" she asked, curiously. And a little warily.

"Goodbye," Sam said, because that had been exactly what it was.

" " "

As goodbye's went, this one didn't last too long. Maybe they were improving their relationship, or deteriorating their capacity to leave, it depended on one's perspective.

Their very first goodbye had them not-seeing each other for a year or so after Dean encouraged Sam to head on off to college. They only saw each other again when Dean popped up on his door looking mildly inebriated and lonely-cheery, offering him a beer. They said goodbye then too, and a few moments later Dean changed his mind and turned back, and they spent the evening together, just yakking. Arguing a little, but that was who they were. Dean had dropped him a note and vanished the next day and then a week later, Dean was in the hospital, since the visit hadn't been as light as he pretended after all.

After that incident they said goodbye too, albeit more harshly now, and years later Dean popped by his door again, asking him for help looking for their father. Sam joined him for a day, and then, again they said goodbye, and Dean ended up saving his life minutes later. Saved him from the fire, saved him from himself when the despair of his loss just gnawed at his soul. They haven't been apart since. They've been keeping each other alive since.

So saying goodbye in Burkitsville, Indiana... theoretically nothing new but, apparently, not a very good idea either. And this time around, it's Sam who runs to Dean's rescue, out in an orchard with a vindictive god on their heels.

They got the job done, there was no surprise about that. Handled the civies and then they were alone again, just the two of them, for the first time in days.

"So can I drop you off somewhere?" Dean asked him, even as Sam knew he already knew the answer.

"No, I think you're stuck with me," Sam said, as the two of them stopped by the Impala.

"What made you change your mind?" Dean asked.

"I didn't," Sam admitted, "I still wanna find dad. And you're still a pain in the ass."

Dean kind-of just shrug-nods at this. The first step to improvement, they say, is to be aware of one's weakness. The thing with Dean though, was that he'd been stuck at step one for awhile.

"But Jess and mom," Sam went on, earnestly, "They're both gone. Dad is God knows where." He paused, and it felt right and weighty, "You and me. We're all that's left. So if we're gonna see this through, we're gonna do it together."

He looked at his brother expectantly. Was he still welcome is the thing, isn't it? He kind of just glossed over that part, assumed that--

"Hold me, Sam," the pain-in-the-ass implored, "That was beautiful." Dean touches his shoulder to match the joke, and he swats it away with a laugh.

"You should be kissing my ass," Sam pointed out, "You were dead meat, dude."

"Yeah, right," Dean said, "I had a plan. I'd have gotten out."

Sam looked at him as he boarded his car, amused and also, weirdly enough, believing in him. "Right."

He stepped into the car.

They drove on.

" " "

Another nameless motel bathroom, and again, he couldn't remember how he came to be there.

You and me, Sam's voice echoed in his head. And Sam's eyes, they bore into him, right to the very core of him.

Another eternal morning-night.

We're all that's left...

Another light splatter of blood on the sink.

If we're gonna see this through, we're gonna do it together.

Another miserable night of smothered, bloodied coughing.

...How can I tell you...

... that we're not?

And for the life of him, he couldn't find the words--

...Hold me, Sam...?

... no dude, like, really.

To be continued...