"We're lost, Chris," Julie muttered. Tightening her grip on the steering wheel, she chanced a glance at her friend and navigator.

Christine shifted the atlas that lay open on her lap and ground out, "We're not lost. It's just taking a bit longer than I thought to meet back up with the highway."

Julie Similar rolled her eyes at her friend's explanation and returned her gaze to the road. She'd learned miles back not to take her eyes off the road for more than a second or run the risk of driving them off an embankment. The curvy mountain roads that had been so much fun to drive earlier turned into a downright nightmare once nightfall arrived. It didn't help that the farther east they went the higher the elevations.

At this point, there was little chance they'd be making it into Huntington, West Virginia as planned. In fact, there was a good chance they'd end up taking a truck-stop nap sooner rather than later. Julie was having a hard time keeping her eyes open.

"Listen, Chris, I'm beat. Just pick the first town you find and get us there. I don't care how podunk it is, there's gotta be someplace we can catch some sleep."

Christine sighed and bent over the map once more, a small penlight in her hand. "Are you sure? I was really looking forward to the HoJo's."

Julie had to admit she'd looked forward to a night's stay in a real motel also, but as she'd learned over the last three months, flexibility was key. It was especially important when you were intent on driving through each state in the continental United States. "We'll just do it tomorrow night instead. Besides its already past midnight, I'd hate to waste a room on only a couple hours sleep."

"I guess," Christine replied heavily. "Well, then our closest town would be Lovely."

Julie felt a lifting of her spirits at the town name. "Lovely, Kentucky?"

Christine's finger trailed across the worn page of the map and she nodded. "Yup, Lovely Kentucky. From the looks of it if we sneeze we'll miss it."

Determined to brighten her friend's outlook, Julie smiled and said, "Come on, with a name like Lovely, it's gotta be worth seeing."

888

"I'm not going. He can't make me," Sam stated, inwardly frowning at the petulant sound of his voice. He didn't miss his older brother's grimace as Dean continued to hone the edge of his favorite bowie knife.

"Wanna make a bet?" Dean replied evenly.

His brother's words echoing his own thoughts only served to increase Sam's anger. "I've got exams tomorrow. I can't just ditch." Sam's voice rising in frustration.

If Sam wasn't so completely focused on Dean, he would have missed the slight tic in his brother's strong jaw. Sam knew that if it was up to the twenty year old he'd be allowed to skive off his father's latest hunt.

"Well, what's a big brother for if not to help you blow off school?" Dean said his joking words at odds with his sympathetic tone. "I'll write you a note."

Dean's refusal to side with him against John's sudden announcement that they were going to get an early start on the weekend in order to track down a rawhead causing problems in the next state, only increased Sam's ire. Though his mind insisted his current nightmare wasn't Dean's fault, his emotions refused to let his only champion off the hook. The rational thing to do would have been to save his argument for his father, problem was there was no guarantee John would return tonight or he'd bother to listen if he did.

So, that left Dean.

Sam firmed his resolve and pushed. "I already missed the first four weeks of my sophomore year for Dad's stupid crusade. I skip exams and my teachers are going to start asking questions."

"Finding the thing that killed mom is not stupid, Sam!" Dean snapped, all trace of his earlier sympathy gone.

Sam felt a pang of guilt course through him at his brother's words. He knew this was one subject he and Dean would likely never agree on. Dean wholeheartedly supported their father's decision to search the countryside trying to find Mary's killer. Though he rarely discussed their mother, Sam knew the image of Mary would forever live in his brother's heart, a mother lost, their family destroyed.

For Sam it was different. Mary was an idol, put on a pedestal by his brother and his father, not someone that had once been flesh and blood. She was no more real to him than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. That made it all the easier for him to accept she was gone and no amount of revenge would bring her back. To Sam, the time spent tracking down her killer was little more than a crusade that would end like all crusades did, in bloodshed and heartache. The years spent hunting only served to convince him he was right, every member of the Winchester family bore the scars to prove it.

Like always, Sam found his brother's dogged defense of their father baffling. Dean, more than any of them, bore the marks of John's poor decisions. He would never understand how his older brother, who usually saw the world so clearly in terms of black and white, could paint John in such shades of grey.

Internally acknowledging his misstep, Sam backtracked, "I know," he muttered trying to sound remorseful. "It's just I'm worried about drawing too much attention to myself." Sam met his brother's piercing green gaze and widened his eyes in a silent plea.

He could see the moment his brother weakened. Dean's frown smoothed out and the fingers that gripped the knife's hilt eased slightly. "I can't promise anything," Dean stated flatly.

"Thanks, Dean," Sam breathed, careful not to sound smug. He had to admit as annoying as Dean sometimes was, his big brother could always be counted on to come through for him in a clutch. Confident in Dean's ability to out maneuver their father, Sam turned his attention back to the books spread out on the thread-bared bedspread he sat upon.

888

Dean watched as his brother's slight frame eased, the tension slipping from the kid at his words. Already, the lanky youth was once more absorbed in his world of academia, his worries about missing school already forgotten. As far as Sam was concerned Dean's word was law, no matter what John Winchester allowed himself to believe. Sad thing was, Dean knew his father wouldn't fight too hard to have Sam on the hunt simply because the senior Winchester and the youngest had done little more than argue over the last year and a half.

Strike that, he thought as he gathered up the supplies he'd been prepping and slipped from the cramped bedroom he and Sam shared. The discord between John and Sam actually began years ago in a town called Fall River. It was there Sam's hero worship of their father began to wear thin, causing the kid to question John's leadership. The last five years of hunting, living a near constant life on the road and injuries sustained by them all only served to widen the gap between the two of them. Problem was, Dean now found himself straddling that gap more and more as their arguments increased in ferocity.

A slight sigh escaped him as he began double-checking the supplies needed for the upcoming hunt. His father had called early yesterday morning to let them know he'd hit upon a town suffering from a spate of missing children. The town was located about four hours away in the foothill mountains of Appalachia. Though it was hard to get a read on the reclusive residents of the tiny settlement, John figured there were at least eight kids missing from the surrounding area. Some had disappeared as far back as a year and a half ago, but more recently, three children had gone missing less than a week ago. Near as John could tell they were dealing with a rawhead, a creature that preyed on the young and helpless.

The hunt proved to be a tricky one and not at all pleasant. Dean understood this wasn't a rescue mission. There was very little chance the creature had left any of the children still alive. Most likely, they'd find little more than the remains of its young victims. That was another reason he'd allowed Sam to beg off. After all, despite the fact his brother was far from naive Dean couldn't help but try and protect what little innocence Sam had left.

Dean never gave a thought to his own innocence as he worked to load the remaining equipment into the back of the Impala. Though he'd never dealt with a rawhead before he'd seen enough horror in his twenty years to have permanently erased what little naivety he'd had to begin with. He knew his fate had been sealed years ago on the night his mother had died for him.

For him there was no turning back.

Sam, on the other hand, deserved better. Dean had spent the larger part of his life trying to soften the blows life so often seemed to want to deal out to the Winchesters. He'd protected his brother as well as he could from the darker side of their business. Though Sam did the majority of the research on most of their hunts and knew the realities of the creatures they fought. There were simply certain images that once seen could never be erased.

Certain at last he had everything he needed to meet up with his father, Dean slammed the trunk lid closed and ran an appreciative hand over the glossy black finish of his classic car. Ever since his father had turned the keys over to him he still found it hard to believe the car was really his. Though he'd never dared to voice aloud his desire to own the black beauty, both his father and Sam had known just what the car meant to him. Gifting him the keys had been one of the few things that both John and Sam had wholeheartedly agreed about.

As he headed back inside the tiny two-bedroom house they'd been renting in Charleston, West Virginia, he cringed as the rusted screen door screeched shut behind him. The Winchesters had been staying here for the last three months now and though Dean knew they'd stayed in worse places, he had to admit this one was pretty bad. Everything from its location, dead center in the worst part of town, to the faulty heater and brown water made it a contender in 'the worst slum ever stayed in' contest he and his brother had going.

"Sammy," Dean called, moving across the tiny living room and into the even smaller kitchen. A quick rummage through the cabinets for a bag of chips to tide him over, accompanied by a groan as he shook a roach free from the bag and squashed it under his boot, and he was ready to go. "Get a move on, Princess, Dad's waiting on me."

At last, Sam ambled out of their shared bedroom, one hand raking through his shaggy brown hair. The hair had been one more rebellion in Sam's never ending quest for normal. Despite their father's countless orders, the teen adamantly refused to have it cut. Short of physically holding the kid down and shaving him bald, an empty threat which John had uttered on more than one occasion, there was little their father could do about it. Dean knew it pleased Sam to no end, the kid made pissing their dad off an art form and it was a craft he was constantly honing.

"'s up?" Sam questioned as he came to a stop before Dean.

Dean bit back a sharp retort and took a deep breath before he spoke. "Just wanted to say goodbye. Dad an' I'll be back by Tuesday at the latest. We won't call unless there's a problem. I left the motel info on the notepad by the phone just in case."

Sam nodded a slight frown creasing his eyebrows. "It's not like this is the first time I've been left alone, Dean. I'm not a kid."

Again, Dean bit back his first response and schooled himself to patience. Sam was right, this wasn't the first time he was being left alone, and it most likely wouldn't be the last if Sam continued to get his way. However, that didn't stop the guilt that dogged Dean's heels each time he left his brother. "I know, kiddo. Just go with me okay?"

"Sorry," Sam muttered, contrition written all over his expression.

Happy to catch a glimpse of his baby brother inside the six foot two gangly youth with the shaggy hair and mercurial temper, Dean nodded and turned to go. With one last, "Take care of yourself, Sam." He headed out the door and into the evening air. As he crossed the scrub serving as their lawn he couldn't help but call out, "Don't get so caught up in your studying that you forget to party hard and get yourself laid."

"Jerk!" Sam called out.

Dean didn't bother to turn around to admire the blush that was probably working its way up his baby brother's fuzzy cheeks. Instead, he simply called out, "Bitch" and climbed into the car.

Despite his regrets at leaving Sam behind, he couldn't help but get caught up in the thrill of the hunt to come. Over the years he'd become a larger part of his father's hunts and he'd relished every moment. Despite Sam's accusations that Dean only hunted to appease John, Dean felt as if he'd finally found his place in life. His only complaint was the constant contention between Sam and John. Dean wanted nothing more than for Sam to get the same kind of enjoyment from hunting that Dean himself got. Problem was it seemed Sammy couldn't see past the sacrifices to the benefits that could be reaped.

With one last glance in the rearview, Dean pulled away from the house, his mind already focused on convincing his dad he'd done the right thing by leaving Sammy behind.

888

Sam stood in the driveway long after the Impala pulled out, a feeling of unease snaking its way through his gut. Though he'd gotten what he wanted, he couldn't help but worry. His brother was always so stupidly sacrificial when it came to hunting and Sam spent every day in fear that one of these times Dean's luck would run out. It was one of the reasons he could no longer blindly follow his father into danger.

He found it harder and harder to give a damn about the victims they saved when it was his brother putting himself in danger instead. When John had hunted on his own, it had been easy for Sam to get caught up in the glamour of the job, to feel pride in the fact that though his father had no official uniform he was no less a hero than any other soldier at war. It was only once Dean had begun to truly hunt, and not just train, did Sam realize that like all soldiers there would come a time when his brother didn't return. The loss of his father, though it would be excruciating, was tolerable. Losing Dean, well, that would end his world.

So, he'd done the only thing he could do. He'd begun to buck against his father's orders. To question his plans and judgments. To find fault with the old man's logic in a desperate attempt to make Dean realize blind faith would only serve to get him killed. Instead, the plot had backfired, making Dean even more insistent that all three Winchesters together made an unbeatable team.

That had left Sam with little in the way of options. He could fall into line and accept the inevitable, or he could refuse. He could work to carve out his own life, in his own world and when the call finally came, he would at least have something left to live for. It wouldn't be enough to fill in the spaces dedicated to his big brother, but, at least he might avoid drowning in his own sorrow.

As a shiver ran down Sam's back he came to realize darkness was quickly approaching. Resolutely shoving his worries to the back of his mind, he turned his thoughts back to his studies. He hadn't been lying to his brother when he'd used school as an excuse. Though he hadn't mentioned it to John, Sam had loaded as many college courses into his course load as possible. Ever since he'd arrived in Charleston he'd begun to think about his future in a way that didn't involve the next nameless town or worse some unimaginable horror.

Instead, he'd begun to dream about putting down roots. A dream that always started the same way, a scholarship to a great school, it would be his stepping stone and his way out all in one neatly wrapped paid for package. Sam's mind skittered away once more as he considered what his leaving would do to his father and brother. He would get away and if he had his way he'd take his brother with him.

888

Dean could not believe his friggin' luck, as he guided the Impala onto the shoulder of the highway. The oh so familiar, and yet dreaded, thump, thump, thump of a tire that's gone flat never failed to piss him off. Not that changing the tire was any big deal. He would have it done and be back on the road again in less than twenty. It was the fact that now he was going to be late, that was really bothering him.

Showing up early and ready to go, minus one shaggy-haired brother, might get overlooked. Showing up late, no matter the excuse, and minus one shaggy haired brother would earn him an ass-chewing not soon forgotten.

Dean, unlike his brother, had learned early on in life that going above and beyond John's wishes was the easiest way to stay off the man's bitch list. It was a simple matter of: do it faster, do it better, and last, but not least, do it without questioning. That was the key to living with his father in peace.

It was the 'do it without questioning', that had always gotten Sammy in hot water. Unfortunately the kid, starting at an early age, always found it necessary to know not just the how, but the why of things. It was a trait that both Dean and his father encouraged in Sam. If only they would have realized just what kind of monster they'd end up creating, Dean thought with a snort.

Throwing the car in park, Dean grabbed his jacket from the wide leather bench and quickly climbed from the car. Luckily, at midnight the traffic gliding past was minimal. As he headed for the trunk, he gave the rear left flat only a cursory glance. Already focused on the job at hand he quickly slid himself under the rear of his baby and deftly began undoing the bolts that held the spare in place.

888

With an ease that comes from practice, Dean had gotten the spare tire out from beneath the car, had the back end of his girl lifted, and was starting in on the lug nuts when a set of lights separated from the passing traffic and moved up behind the car.

With a curse at what he knew would end up being a delay, Dean winced against the bright light of the headlights and kept working. As soon as a figure stepped from the car, the young hunter waved a hand and shouted, "Just a flat, I'm good."

At his words, the outline leaned back into the car. Suddenly revolving blue lights flashed atop the roof of the vehicle, the police officer slammed shut his door and started walking toward Dean.

"Just great," he mumbled as he continued to work.

"Got everything under control?" the officer asked, his knees popping loudly as he hunched down next to Dean.

Dean flashed him a grin as he kept right on loosening the lug nuts. "Yeah, just a flat. I got it."

The policeman, grizzled and looking to be on the back end of fifty, tipped back his hat and nodded. "Good. Tell you what, kid. You're lucky you didn't get clipped working without the proper safety signs. With this black car and that jacket you're wearing, I barely saw you."

Long ago John Winchester had run through the rules of how to manage cops. Top on his dad's list was "always agree with them". Though Dean had a tendency to run off at the mouth a bit when faced with any kind of authority, he did know when to "hold 'em and when to fold 'em" and right now was definitely a place to hold.

"Sorry, officer, just wanted to get back on the road. Never even gave a thought to the flares I got in the trunk." Dean kept his voice carefully respectful, even as he groaned internally over what else he had in his trunk.

The cop nodded, obviously happy with Dean's tone, and said, "I understand." With a groan, and several more knee-pops, the man in uniform straightened up and stepped away.

"This is some beauty you got here," he said as he ran an admiring gaze over the Impala's glossy black paint.

Dean had to admit; in the glow of the cruiser's headlights his 'baby' did look exceptionally sweet. Lug nuts now gone; he slid the tire off and set it aside. He then got the spare in place and hefted it onto the shaft. "Thanks," he said with pride as he stood up for a moment to stretch the kinks out of his back.

"Impala, right?" the officer asked as he slowly walked around the car, eyeballing the vehicle.

Normally, Dean would have figured the guy was checking him out, looking for any red flags. However, genuine appreciation for the car was clear in his expression. Much like a proud Papa, Dean couldn't help but grin. "A '67"

"Whew, she is a beaut," the officer praised as his hand ghosted over the car's paint. Like any true car aficionado, the man was careful not to touch or allow his coat to drag against the finish.

"Yup," Dean preened before dropping back down onto the gravel shoulder to tighten the lugs on the spare.

"Let me guess, big block? 427?"

"You got it," he affirmed as he started in on yet another lug.

The cop let out a loud whistle and gave the car one long last look. "She is cherry."

As Dean finished up he and the officer spent a few more moments discussing cars, the Impala specifically. Though, he knew the half-hour lead he'd had was quickly dissipating, Dean couldn't help but enjoy listening to his fellow fanatic slaver over his baby.

Though his father spent a large part of his youth, living and breathing Detroit metal, he rarely gained any enjoyment from vehicles now a days. To him, the Impala, and his own pickup were merely tools. Meant to be kept in top-notch condition, not out of love, but because your life might just depend on them.

As for Sammy, the kid seemed to have missed the grease monkey gene all together. Though both Dean and John had done there best to show him, his kid brother seemed to have some sort of mental block when it came to cars.

At last, spare in place, Dean got ready to stash the flat back under the car.

"Huh, thought the spare to these things were kept in the trunk?" The cop suddenly asked.

Given the fact that his father had long ago altered the trunk for less than honest reasons, Dean was glad he was hidden under the bumper instead of face to face with the police officer.

"Owner before me altered it, I just never changed it back," Dean offered, hoping it would be enough.

"I'm sure that extra trunks space comes in handy. Though, god knows, the classics already have trunks big enough to stash a body in."

Dean joined in with the cop's low chuckle as he gained his feet. Dusting off his jeans as best he could, he held out a hand and said, "Thanks for stopping."

Tipping his hat, the cop nodded and said, "Now you just remember those road flare's next time. Don't want you or your girl, here, getting dinged up for something as dumb as a flat tire.

"Will do, officer," Dean replied as he opened the driver's side door and slid behind the wheel. He watched in the rearview as the cop got into his own car, before carefully easing out into traffic. Mindful of his tail, Dean kept to the speed limit, cursing his bad luck the whole way.

Earlier today he'd spent an hour pouring over maps of West Virginia and Kentucky to pick the best route. However, sticking with said route wasn't going to work this time, not as long as Smokey continued to follow him. Decision made, Dean chose to take the second right he came to.

There on the corner, was a small sign proclaiming 15 miles to Lovely, Kentucky. The hunter had seen and noted the town as he'd followed the progression of Route 292. Confident he could find his way and maybe even shave off a few minutes off the trip; Dean glanced into his rearview and watched the cruiser speed past him.

Free at last to put the pedal down, Dean turned the volume up on the stereo and prepared to make some time.

888

Christine leaned slightly forward, eyes straining for any sign of civilization. Though she was loathe to admit it at some point her navigating skills had obviously failed. They were dead lost. The worst part was Julie was fading fast.

Her friend though game enough, just couldn't physically stay awake any longer. She knew Julie would deny it if asked but Christine was certain she'd seen her 'resting' her eyes more and more for the last ten minutes.

At last ready to call it quits and chance sleeping on the narrow shoulder of the one lane road they were traveling, Christine opened her mouth to tell her friend. Instead, she snapped it shut and leaned even farther forward.

Forehead practically touching the windshield, she focused on the tiny pinpoint of light she could see growing steadily larger. Afraid to say anything for fear the dot was a figment of her overtired imagination, she waited a moment longer.

The light continued to grow, until she could clearly make out its source. The warm glow was coming from a lamppost that marked the end of an overgrown driveway. Content in the knowledge that even if they didn't go all the way to the house, they'd at least be able to park in the drive, Christine pointed and said, "There, see the light?"

The car jerked sideways as her friend gasped suddenly. "Huh?"

More certain than ever stopping was the smart thing to do, Christine pointed again and said, "Just pull in, we'll worry about chainsaw wielding psycho's later."

"I don't know Chris, this place is a mess," Julie said as she carefully nosed the car into the drive.

"Well, mess or not we're out of choices." Christine's words brooked no argument but she couldn't beat down the fissure of unease that snaked up her spine.

They moved up the driveway at a snail's pace. At every curve they encountered, Christine fought off a sudden urge to yell 'stop'. There was just something about the heavily wooded area that didn't inspire confidence. The fact that it was late and they were in the mountains of Kentucky didn't help.

Just then, as they crested the last rise, the driveway widened and she found herself staring at a tiny, white, two-story, clapboard, house. As Julie parked the car, Christine focused on the home itself.

A warm buttery light shone from each of the four facing windows. Stone steps led to a solid-looking green door. On each step there was a large planter, with a profusion of blooms, lending the entrance a welcoming look.

"Oh, thank god," Julie breathed as she shut down the engine and pulled out the key. "I was seriously expecting the Bate's house."

Christine nodded happily. "Looks pretty good, right? Plus, seems like they're still awake which is a bonus. Maybe they can point us towards Lovely."

Both girls climbed out of the car and immediately began stretching and groaning. Even at the tender age of twenty, there was only so much time one could spend cooped up in a car without feeling the effects.

"You bringing in your purse?" Julie asked with one hand on her oversized bag.

With a shrug, Christine answered, "I'm not gonna bother. Just lock the car."

Christine continued to eye the dark countryside as she waited for her friend to lock up the car and toss her keys in the front pocket of her purse.

Ready at last the two girls shared one long glance before moving toward the door. Christine had to admit now that it came down to knocking on some stranger's door, she was more than a little nervous despite how nice the place looked.

Full of trepidation, Christine moved up the stone stairs first and reached to knock on the green door. As they waited, she found herself wanting to grab Jules and head for the car. This was such a bad idea, she couldn't believe they'd even considered it.

"No one's home, Chris. Let's just go," Julie said, sounding as nervous as Christine felt.

She was a breath away from agreeing when the door in front of them was suddenly flung wide.

TBC