Life Goes On

Disclaimer: I'd love to find the Winchesters under my Christmas tree this year, but sadly, it won't happen. Maybe next year?

A/N: Alex and Nicholas were introduced in Tested. Their story was continued in The Job Is Never Done and is expanded here. I think I've presented enough of their history that you don't have to read the other ones first, but no one is saying you shouldn't read them *g*.

oooOOOooo

Living under a cloud of black...udder a single word and watch the lightning strike...feel the roar of the thunder. Periods of calm are like tears dripping from a rainbow...and life goes on

- Donna A. Favors -

oooOOOooo

Three weeks back from Hell and not a minute of peace. There was something so wrong with that, Dean Winchester thought as he stood under the shower head. The water was hot, but it felt good washing over his tense muscles.

As usual, there was evil to fight, but now an angel was telling him he had a role in holding off the apocalypse. Why was he so important? He was just a guy who'd saved some people; why did God, if God even existed, give a crap about him? And what was he supposed to do about an apocalypse?

Dean grabbed the soap and lathered up. Sam was waiting for him to finish so that they could get some food. He knew that Sam probably wouldn't eat; they'd finished a job only the day before and Sam still hadn't quite recovered from having to kill someone….even if he was really a monster. Or, maybe he was still suffering the disappointment of finding out that Castiel wasn't exactly the fluffy angel Sam had expected him to be. Still, Sam's dour mood might be because Dean had seen what he could do and had told him that the angels wanted him to stop exorcising demons with his mind.

Whatever the reason for Sam's funk, Dean was sure he wouldn't want to eat, but that he needed to. Sam had agreed to join him, though, so maybe he'd be willing to swallow a few bites of steak.

As he was drying off, Dean knocked his shaving kit off of the counter. He crouched to gather up the items and his hand paused over a photograph he'd forgotten was inside.

---

"Hey, Sam?"

Sam looked up from the book he was reading as Dean walked out of the bathroom, his hair wet from the shower and a towel around his waist.

"Yeah?"

"You, uh, you think you can do me a favor?"

Sam wasn't used to his brother using a timid tone of voice with him and he was instantly curious. He closed the book and turned around in his chair to look at Dean straight-on. He slipped into a clean pair of jeans before sitting on the edge of the bed closest to Sam.

"What favor?" Sam asked, not able to miss Dean's uncomfortable fidgeting.

"I want to talk to Kristine, but I'm afraid if I call her, she'll react like you and Bobby did. Can you give her a call for me?"

Sam had actually expected this before now. Dean had been back from Hell for almost a month and he'd yet to ask about Kristine Ryan, the woman everyone but him knew that he was in love with. Of course he and Sam had had a few things going on, but there was nothing particularly new about that.

Sam would do anything for his brother and in the scheme of things, this was a pretty simple request. The thing was, though, Sam wasn't entirely sure that Kristine would take his call.

"You know Ellen is at the estate, right? You could just call her." Sam didn't miss Dean's questioning expression.

"Wouldn't that create the same problem?" Dean asked.

"Bobby hasn't told her?"

"I asked him to hold off saying anything until...well, until I was ready. We've got a little time now, right? There's no emergency that needs our attention."

"Yeah," Sam hoped he didn't look or sound as uncomfortable as he felt. "Yeah, it's about time that Kristine knows you're back. It's probably only a matter of time before it hits the grapevine."

"So, can you call her for me?"

"Uh, yeah, sure." Sam reached for his cell phone, realizing that the worst that would happen is that he'd get Kristine's voice mail.

And that's exactly what happened. After listening to her instruction to wait for the beep, Sam managed to leave a somewhat coherent message. Dean thanked him, but seemed restless, so Sam offered to call Ellen even though he felt almost the same trepidation talking to her as he did talking to Kristine. Before Dean was able to take him up on it, Sam's cell phone rang.

"It's Bobby," Sam said, stopping Dean's excitement. He saw his brother practically deflate before answering the phone. "Hey, Bobby."

Sam listened for a few moments and once he nodded an assurance to Dean that there was nothing wrong, Dean stood up and began to rummage through his duffel bag.

"Bobby," Sam began when the conversation was almost at an end. "Uh, Dean wants to talk to Kristine. I left a message on her cell, but do you think you could give Ellen a call?"

Sam noticed when Dean looked toward him.

"Yeah, we'll be waiting for your call. Thanks." Sam put the phone on the table in front of him. "Bobby will call back once he's talked to Ellen."

Dean nodded. "Why'd he call in the first place?"

"Just to check in."

Dean nodded again and went back to his bag.

"Um…Sam?" he sat down on the edge of the bed. "What's the deal with you and Kristine? When was the last time you talked to her? Or Ellen?"

"It's been a while," Sam answered vaguely.

"How long is a while? Is there something I should know?"

"Dean, come on, man. It was a rough time."

"So, it's like with Bobby? You guys didn't keep in touch?"

Sam looked at his brother. Dean's tone wasn't angry. It was more like his expression; sad.

"Dean…."

"Did you stop keeping in touch because of Ruby?'

"Dean…" Sam stood up and walked across the room. He looked out the window, but wasn't seeing anything beyond the glass.

"We haven't really talked about it," Dean said. "Everything you can do. What she encouraged you to do."

"There's nothing to talk about," Sam said quietly. "I told you I wasn't going to use my power any more and I mean it. If your angel –"

"He's not my angel," Dean said.

Sam glanced at him. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Dean asked, his head cocked to one side.

"A lot of things. But what I meant was I'm sorry I didn't keep in touch with Kristine. I know how you feel about her and I know you were worried about how she'd handle things after you were….gone. But she had Ellen, Dean, and that was probably better for her."

Kristine Ryan was the last surviving member of her immediate family. Except for her father, who died of cancer, everyone had been killed by the same demon who took Mary Winchester. She met Dean and his father when Sam was attending Stanford. After the brothers reunited, Dean brought Sam to her home in Mountain Ridge. He'd been having trouble coping with the death of his girlfriend, also at the hands of the demon. Kristine had her own experience with depression as well as being a trained counselor and Dean, feeling completely out of his element, hoped she could help him. It hadn't been an easy time, but she had been able to lend a hand.

Kristine wasn't a hunter, but was a friend to them. She'd turned her family's estate into a haven for them when they needed a break from the road. There they could find shelter, information, medical care, and just about anything else they might need. What Kristine couldn't provide herself, she managed to find elsewhere.

After the death of her friend and de facto manager of the estate, Kristine had offered the position to Ellen Harvelle. Since her bar had burned to the ground, Ellen needed somewhere to live and wanted something to be a part of. It was a perfect solution for both of them. Kristine had suffered bouts of serious depression since her sister's death and spent time in various mental hospitals. She still suffered from it and occasionally engaged in very reckless behavior. Dean had thought having Ellen around would help keep her Kristine grounded and was glad for the arrangement.

"It wasn't just for Kristine, man," Dean said, looking at Sam with affection. "It was for you. I didn't want you to be alone.'

Sam didn't respond.

"Thanks for calling her even though you obviously didn't want to."

Sam considered his possible answers and then nodded. "You're welcome."

The uncomfortable silence was broken when Dean's cell phone started to ring several minutes later.

"Bobby," Dean answered after looking at the caller ID display.

Sam sat back in his chair and listened to his brother's side of the conversation.

---

"What's wrong?" Sam asked once Dean ended the call.

"Kristine is gone."

"Gone? What do you mean, gone?"

"She left the estate a month ago and isn't keeping in touch with Ellen. She's sent some emails and has made sure the accounts are taken care of, but that's about it. Ellen has left voicemails, but Kristine hasn't returned any of the calls."

"If she's still sending emails, at least we know she's okay." Sam knew it was lame, but it was the best he could come up with. He saw the look on his brother's face. Dean was struggling with disappointment, worry and probably some regret. "Look, she's probably getting the voice mails, right? So, she'll listen to mine. Once she knows you're back, she'll call. Or, you could call her. She'll get my message, then yours…."

Sam watched as Dean took a few steps, then sat back down on the bed.

"Dean?"

"What if she's not okay? What if she's not taking her meds and –"

"Don't think like that."

"The Raines."

"What?"

"Have you talked to Nicholas or Alex?"

Sam looked away.

"Guess not," Dean sighed. "Okay, can you call the Raines? Maybe Kristine has called to talk to the boys."

"I'll call them, but why don't you call Kristine? Leave a message; you're probably working yourself up for no reason."

"Maybe," Dean conceded.

Sam reached for his phone. "Make your call. I'll make mine."

Dean took his phone and walked across the room.

---

During one of Dean's last visits to the estate before the deadline for his deal hit, he and Sam met Nicholas and Alex Cordell. Their parents had been killed by vampires and the hunter who found them had brought them to the estate, hoping that Kristine could help

They had reminded Dean of himself and Sam. At ten, Alex's head was full of what his dad had taught him about cars and he felt the same responsibility toward four-year old Nicholas that Dean had always felt for Sam. They had no other family and no one to take them in. With their safe world shattered, Dean had known what kind of life awaited them.

Kristine located a children's home in Atlanta set up to care for the orphaned children of hunters and others affected by the supernatural. At Dean's insistence, he and Sam had taken the boys there and Dean made sure that they both had his and Sam's cell phone numbers as well as Kristine's. The three of them were on file as emergency contacts for the boys and until going to Hell, Dean had called them at least once a week.

After making the deal for Sam's life, Dean hadn't intended to go back to the estate. He'd wanted Sam to tell Kristine that he'd died during a hunt, but his plan changed when Nicholas and Alex showed up on her doorstep a few months before his deadline.

Nicholas had started to have premonitions which had caused some attention from the underworld. Even now, no one was sure if he was part of a new generation of special kids created by Azazel, but nonetheless, he and his brother had become part of the disorder brought on by Azazel's destruction. The underworld was in chaos, with different factions vying for dominance and one of the demons had hoped to use Nicholas in his takeover.

Sam and Dean discovered this after finding Liam, a demon who didn't want that to happen. He'd taken the little boys from Atlanta to protect them, dropping them at the estate where he knew they'd find help.

Once all of the information was out in the open, supposedly, Kristine had found a couple, Keith and Angelica Raines, to adopt the Cordell brothers. Angelica had premonitions like Nicholas, but more importantly, she and Keith knew about hunters and the supernatural.

---

Sam finished his call to the little boys' adoptive parents, having watched his brother the entire time. He was concerned that Dean was staring out of the window, the phone held limply by his side.

"Dean?"

He gave no indication that he'd heard Sam speak.

"Dean, I talked to Angelica. She doesn't know where Kristine is, but she's keeping in touch with the boys like she said she would. In fact, Nicholas got some award at school yesterday and wanted to tell her about it. Angelica let him call; both kids talked to her yesterday."

There was still no movement from Dean.

"Did you hear me?" Sam asked, watching him closely.

Dean cleared his throat and turned around. "Yeah. Thanks, Sammy."

"What's wrong? Did you call?" Sam knew he hadn't, but wanted to get a conversation going.

"Uh, no," Dean said putting his phone on the bedside table. "You told Angelica that I'm alive?"

"Yeah. She was a little freaked, needless to say. She wants to talk to Keith about it, then to you. She said she'd call back in the morning."

Dean nodded, then stood up straighter. "You ready to get some food?"

Sam was taken aback by Dean's sudden turnaround and he hesitated. He wasn't hungry and he didn't think Dean really was either, but clearly Dean wanted to get out of the motel room for a while.

Instead of going to the steakhouse they'd discussed, Dean drove to a bar they'd passed coming into town before. By the time he parked, his mood seemed to have lightened somewhat. The place was busy, but they found a table near the back and settled in. Dean ordered them each a beer and a plate of nachos.

"I'm a little confused here, Dean," Sam said once the waitress had walked away. "Why did you change your mind about calling Kristine?"

"I didn't," Dean said. "I just….so, I was thinking we could head toward North Carolina. You don't think the Raines will decide not to let me see the boys, do you?"

"No," Sam answered quickly. "I'm sure they won't. But what about Kristine?"

"I know where the boys are. I don't know where she is. And she has your voicemail; I'm sure Ellen will call her again. Not a lot we can do until she gets in touch."

Sam knew that wasn't true. There was any number of things they could do to find Kristine, but for some reason Dean was willing to just wait. Sam wasn't going to push him to explain or try to talk him into doing something he clearly wasn't ready to do. And maybe that's what it came down to. He might not actually be ready to talk to Kristine. Dean didn't normally shy away from things, but he'd been through something Sam could never comprehend and even though Dean didn't remember his time in Hell, maybe it had changed him in ways they'd not yet thought about.

---

The brothers headed for North Carolina the next morning. There had still been no word from Kristine, but the Raines agreed to let them see Nicholas and Alex. The adults were going to get together to try to figure out the best way to explain Dean's resurrection first, though.

Sam and Dean made it as far as the estate late in the evening. Ellen had been beyond happy to find out Dean was not only alive, but on his way to Mountain Ridge, but he was still taken aback as Ellen rushed out of the house, calling his name. She threw her arms around him and he had to admit that it was nice to be greeted without suspicion that he was some supernatural creature.

Dean returned the hug warmly. After a moment, Ellen tried to speak, but it had to be hard to know what to say to someone who had literally been to Hell and back. Dean didn't know what to say to her, either.

"Let me look at you," she finally managed, holding him at arm's length and suddenly seeming very maternal. She examined his face and whatever she saw seemed to satisfy her. Keeping a hand on his arm, she smiled at Sam. "It's good to see you, too, Sam."

"Thanks," he said sounding a more than a little uncomfortable. "You, too."

"Come on, get your bags and let's get inside," she said. "Are you hungry?"

"You cook?" Dean smiled.

"I can do more than mix a good drink," she said and swatted him.

"Any guests here?" Dean asked as they walked toward the large house. He suddenly flashed on the first time he'd seen it and couldn't believe that had been more than five years ago. He'd been intimidated by its size and what he imagined the lifestyle of its inhabitants must be, but Kristine and her mother had quickly won him over.

"Not tonight, but I expect a couple tomorrow. They're only staying a day or two; mainly to drop off some stuff and pick other stuff up. Sometimes I feel like I'm running a trading post," she laughed. "You have your pick of rooms; unless you want to stay at the cottage?"

"No," Dean said quickly. "That's Kristine's place and –"

"You know she wouldn't mind," Ellen told him.

"We'll stay here," he said again.

Sam reached for Dean's duffle bag. "I'll take it upstairs so you two can talk."

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence before Dean relented and gave Sam his bag. "You coming back down?"

"Yeah. I, uh, I think I'll take a shower first."

Dean watched him ascend the stairs, but followed Ellen to the kitchen once Sam had reached the first landing.

She had already set out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses on the table. "Sure you're not hungry?"

"I'm good. Thanks," Dean said as he sat down.

"This is a little strange," she admitted coming to the table with a with a bowl of chips. "I couldn't believe when Bobby called and told me. You were yanked out of the hole by an angel?"

Dean nodded, feeling a little awkward. He'd still not gotten used to the idea and Ellen seemed to notice his disinterest in talking about it.

"So, you want to hear first hand what I know about Kristine?"

Dean reached for the bottle and poured them each a drink. "You told me on the phone."

Ellen looked at him. "You seem pretty nonchalant about finding her."

Dean shrugged and swallowed the whiskey. "I'm not looking for her."

Ellen looked surprised and she poured him another shot. "That wasn't what you said yesterday."

He nodded. "I know. But I thought about it and…."

"And what?"

"I changed my mind. I'm here now and hopefully will be able to see Nicholas and Alex tomorrow."

"Hopefully?"

"We have to figure out what to tell the boys before I can see them."

"You think the Raines will keep them from you?"

"I don't think so," he shook his head. "I hope not, anyway."

Ellen poured herself another shot and held up the glass. Dean clinked his against it and they drank.

"Welcome back, Dean," Ellen smiled, then she looked into his eyes. "Now tell me the real reason you aren't going to look for Kristine."

Dean reached for the bottle, staring at his friend. "I told you. I changed my mind."

Ellen looked disbelieving, but sighed and nodded. "Okay, then."

Dean picked up the glass, but put it down without drinking. Instead, he plucked a chip from the bowl. "Are you doing okay here? You like it?"

"I do. It's not the same as the Roadhouse, but…." Ellen sat back in her chair. "It's good. And I like the town. The people that Kristine knows all sort of took me in. I was immediately on the A list even though I didn't know a soul here."

"It's a good town," Dean agreed. "So, am I dead here?"

Ellen shook her head. "No. Kristine didn't tell anyone. Well, she told people who already know the truth about what goes on here, but it's safe for you to wander around town. Are you seeing the Raines tomorrow?"

Dean ate another chip. "Yeah. I'm going to Charlotte in the morning."

"Alone?"

Dean looked at her curiously. "I don't know. Why?"

She shrugged, downing the drink. "I was just curious. Things okay between you and your brother?"

Dean had a feeling she knew something about what Sam did when he was on his own, but was skirting the issue afraid that he didn't know. "Why wouldn't they be?"

"Well, it's a big change. You know, him being on his own after so long and then all of a sudden you're back. I thought maybe there'd be some adjustment time or something."

"All right; out with it. What do you know?"

"Nothing."

Dean stared at her.

"I mean it. I don't know anything. Sam was here for a couple weeks after you…died, then he took off. I know he was with Bobby for a little while, but not long."

"What did you hear, then? Hunters are in and out of here all the time; you must have heard something."

"Dean…." She watched as he poured another drink for each of them, then she smiled. "You think you can get me drunk and I'll start talking?"

He didn't answer as he picked up his glass, his eyes on her face.

"Please. I was drinking long before you were born, pup. You're gonna have to try harder than this." She held up her glass.

"What do you know about my brother?" Dean asked again.

They heard footfalls coming toward the kitchen. Ellen quickly swallowed her drink and moved the bottle aside as Sam walked in. He looked from one to the other and Dean could tell he was uncomfortable.

"Grab a glass, Sammy," Dean said lightly.

"I think I'll stick with soda," he said, moving toward the refrigerator.

Dean noticed he took an unusually long time to walk across the room and when he got back to the table, he didn't take a seat. "I, uh, I'm gonna get some sleep. I put our stuff in the last room on the left upstairs, but if you'd rather have a room to yours—"

"No, that's fine. Thanks, Sam."

Sam nodded and looked at Ellen before quickly averting his eyes. "Goodnight."

"See ya in the morning, Sam," Ellen said. Her cheerful tone seemed a little forced to Dean and he noted Sam's confused reaction. He nodded before turning toward the door.

"I'll be up in a few minutes," Dean said.

"Okay," Sam said, not stopping.

Once Dean was sure that Sam was out of earshot, he leaned closer to Ellen. "We're on the same side here, right?"

"Of course."

He looked at Ellen closely. He wasn't sure if she was telling the truth, but he hoped she was. He decided to let it go for the time being.

"Thanks for the drinks. I'll see you in the morning."

Ellen smiled at him and he thought it was genuine. "Goodnight, Sweetie. I'm glad you're here."

---

Dean took his time walking upstairs. He wanted to give Sam some time, but he was also taking in his surroundings. Most of Kristine's personal things were in the cottage she lived in, but this was the house where she'd grown up and it still felt like her.

He was still afraid that Kristine wasn't taking her medication and was off doing stupid and dangerous things, but he hadn't just been staring out of the window while Sam was on the phone to the Raines the night before. He knew that Sam had no idea, but he'd had actually been talking to Castiel.

The angel had an uncanny way of showing up undetected by anyone other than him. Castiel hadn't exactly told Dean not to look for Kristine – and even if he had, Dean wouldn't have listened – but he made it clear the first priority should be the Cordell boys. Dean decided he'd play along for the time being, but he had no intention of not looking for Kristine.

Dean had been suspicious of Sam's secrecy about what he did while he was on his own, but having seen his brother's reaction to Ellen, Dean was certain he was intentionally hiding something. He didn't think Ellen knew anything for sure, but he knew she had her own suspicions. Demons talk. Hunters talk. Nothing was ever easy.

Sam was in bed with a book when Dean got to the room.

"You wanna tell me why you're so weirded out being here?" Dean asked as he tossed his duffle bag onto the bed and began to rummage through it.

"What do you mean?" Sam asked.

"Riiight."

"I'm tired. I'm going to sleep."

Dean glanced over his shoulder when he heard Sam drop his book onto the floor. "You coming to Charlotte with me?"

"I thought I was. Am I?"

"We leave around noon."

"Okay."

Dean pulled a smaller bag from his duffle and headed for the door. "I'm gonna take a shower."

"Got all your hair products?" Sam joked.

"I hope so, since you clearly don't use any," Dean said as he continued out of the room.

---

Dean was still awake when the grandfather clock downstairs struck 2am. It was a comforting sound, but Dean had no idea why. He didn't remember that there had been a grandfather clock in his childhood home or that he'd learned to count with the held of its chimes.

He gave up half an hour later and made his way downstairs. It was unseasonably warm in the mountain town and Dean settled on the deck outside of the kitchen. After the vampire attack during his last visit to the estate, security had been beefed up, but he was still on guard. He looked toward the pool on the grounds below, the subtle glow of landscape lights shimmered on the still water.

It had been summer when he was here before and many fun hours had been spent in the pool, playing with Nicholas and Alex. It had been a great time, but so much had happened since then. Dean ran a hand over his face, then pulled out his cell phone. He knew that no matter where Kristine was, it was late, but he didn't let that stop him from making the call. He wasn't surprised to get her voice mail, but he briefly considered hanging up without leaving a message.

"Hey, Kristine, it's Dean. Again. Sam's left you messages and so have Bobby and Ellen, so you know it's really me. Look, Babe, I'm at the estate. Sam and I are going to Charlotte to see the kids tomorrow. Well, I hope that's how it works out, anyway. We have to figure out what to tell them first. You know the number, Kristine. Call me, okay?" Dean hesitated. "Just let me know you're all right. Please, Darlin'."

Dean went back inside as the sun was just starting to lighten the sky. Sam was still fast asleep and this time, it wasn't before Dean was as well. His rest was interrupted by a nightmare and when he jerked awake, he was alone in the bedroom.

---

"Mornin', Sam," Ellen said to Sam when she joined him on the deck. "Thanks for making the coffee."

"You're welcome," he said, somewhat suspiciously. He didn't know if she was aware of his activities while Dean was gone, but he had an idea that she did.

"You mind some company?" she asked, not waiting to sit down.

He didn't say anything.

"Is Dean still asleep?"

"Yeah. I heard him get up sometime early this morning, but he was back in bed when I woke up."

She nodded and took a long sip of the coffee, her eyes scanning the tree line across the yard. Sam waited, but he didn't know for what.

"Is he doing okay?" she asked, real concern in her voice.

Sam relaxed a little. "For the most part, I think he is."

"Bobby said he doesn't remember anything about Hell."

"That's what he says."

"You don't believe him?"

Sam thought about that for a moment. "I believe him, but…."

"But what?"

"He's having nightmares. When he wakes up, he says he doesn't remember any of the details. I'm not sure I believe that, though."

"It would probably be better for him if he never remembers."

"Yeah," Sam said quietly.

"You must be glad to have him back."

Sam looked at Ellen. Her tone had changed and he couldn't help but think she was trying to lead him into something.

"Of course I am," he said, trying not to sound too defensive.

She smiled, but there seemed to be something behind it. "Have you met the angel that pulled him out?"

"Yeah. I'm not sure I think much of him," Sam said, not sure why he was going down this road. The smart thing would be to get away from the subject of Hell and angels altogether, but Ellen had always been a friend and he wanted that to still be the case.

"What's he like?"

Sam thought about it. "He's not soft and cuddly, that's for sure. He told Dean that angels are God's warriors and I guess he is more like a soldier. The other one, though…"

"The other one?"

"Uriel. At least Castiel seems to have a little empathy. Uriel may as well be a Vulcan."

Ellen laughed. After a few sips of coffee, she looked at Sam. "You know, Sweetie, it really is good to see you again. I've missed you."

"Thanks, Ellen," Sam smiled, finally feeling comfortable.

She stood up. "I need to get to work."

"Can I do anything?"

"Just sit here and drink your coffee. Are you coming back when you're done in Charlotte?"

"We haven't thought much past Charlotte, but yeah, probably."

She patted his shoulder. "I hope so."

---

Kristine sat in the coffee shop, gripping her cell phone. She'd just listened to Dean's latest voicemail for the third time and still couldn't bring herself to delete it. But she couldn't call him. Not yet. There was something she had to take care of before she could let him back into her life.

He's back, she thought, not for the first time. And this time….

She smiled and shook her head. This time would be just like it had been before. He was a hunter and he probably always would be. Not only that, but it would always come first. She'd been okay with that before, but now…? She put down the phone and picked up the coffee, looking at the door when she noticed the man walking in.

He was tall, well over six feet, and dressed all in black, including a long overcoat and fedora. She had to admit the wardrobe was a stunning contrast to his smooth nearly alabaster skin and there was something unspeakably beautiful about him. Besides, it wasn't everyone who could pull off a fedora any more. She tried to ignore it, but her pulse quickened as he approached.

"Good morning," he said with a faint Spanish accent

"Right on time. As always," Kristine smiled.

He leaned over to kiss her cheek before pulling the other chair at the table closer to her. She couldn't help but notice that he smelled vaguely of cinnamon and vanilla.

"I'm all packed and ready to go," he said, taking off his hat and placing his large hand over hers.

"Me, too. Let me just run to the ladies room."

He smiled. "Of course, Darling."

Kristine smiled at him and left the table. In the ladies room, she splashed cold water on her face and looked at her reflection in the mirror.

"Settle down, Kristine. You know better than this."

Her reflection had no words of wisdom for her, so she turned away from the mirror.

She stopped on her way back to the table when she saw her cell phone in his hand. He knew she was watching him; he always knew. He didn't pretend to be embarrassed at getting caught; he didn't even put the phone down when she stood next to him.

"It's sweet that you're saving all of his voicemails."

"Did you listen to them?"

He smiled at her, holding out the phone. "Of course not."

Kristine slipped into the leather bomber jacket she'd picked up in a thrift store recently and stuffed the phone into a pocket. She didn't believe him, but it didn't matter.

"Are you ready?" she asked.

"I'm always ready," he smiled and stood up, easily lifting Kristine's bag she'd left sitting on the floor. With a hand her Kristine's shoulders, they walked outside.

"Are you serious?" she asked when he stopped in front of a Maserati sports car.

"I only go in style, my dear," he said walking around to the small trunk. "It's a good thing you packed light."

"So, you want to bring attention to yourself?"

"I thought that was part of the plan. You want to drive?"

She looked at the car, then at him. "Give me the keys."

---

Sam had to wake Dean so they could get on the road in time to make the appointment with the Raines. Both school teachers, they had similar schedules and agreed to meet after their last classes. Nicholas and Alex always spent Friday afternoons in karate class, so the adults would have at least a couple hours to talk before the boys needed to be picked up.

Dean was quiet as he drove, but Sam could tell from his choice of music that his mood was all right. Sam knew Dean better than anyone else did, but even for him, it was sometimes hard to read his brother. His music was always transparent, though. It was Metallica or AC/DC when he was happy, though Metallica was often used when he was anxious, as well. Led Zepplin was for when he wanted to think. Motorhead….actually, Sam had no idea what Motorhead was for.

When Sam thought his brother was gone for good, he'd installed an iPod jack in the car. Dean's first reaction had not been positive, but he'd not removed it. He hadn't actually used it yet, but Sam had made sure that his brother's iPod was ready for him. Before Hell, he'd sometimes fallen asleep listening to music, but that hadn't happened since his return.

Dean hadn't eaten before they left the estate and even though they had plenty of time, he wasn't interested in stopping for anything. Sam didn't let that worry him. Almost nothing kept his brother from food and even though his music indicated he was all right, Sam knew he was still worried about the upcoming meeting.

Keith and Angelica had officially adopted the boys and had total legal control over them. It hadn't been much of a discussion when they'd agreed to let Kristine and the Winchesters stay in the boys' lives, but there was no guarantee they'd let Dean get close to them again. If they thought there was too much risk….

Sam glanced at his brother. Any case that involved kids tended to hit Dean hard, but when Nicholas and Alex showed up at the estate, their family ripped apart, Sam knew Dean would take it to heart. And then when Alex had turned out to be so much like Dean – a big brother totally dedicated to keeping his little brother safe….Sam knew that if the Raines decided not to tell the boys that Dean was alive, he would accept it. It would break his heart, but he'd do what was best for the boys.

What did concern Sam, though, was Dean's turnaround over looking for Kristine. If there was one thing Sam knew without a doubt about his brother, it was that he was in love with Kristine Ryan. He didn't pretend to understand their relationship, but he wasn't sure either of them did, either. He also knew better than to push Dean when he didn't want to be pushed. Dean obviously had his reasons for concentrating on the boys first and maybe it really was that he knew where they were.

---

Keith and Angelica were meeting the Winchesters at a coffee shop near the high school where Keith taught. Angelica's kindergarten wasn't far away, but her workday ended earlier than her husband's. Dean found it easily – he never seemed to get lost – and parked outside. They'd made good time and had almost an hour until the Raines were expected to arrive, so Sam suggested they find something to eat.

The coffee shop was surrounded by other businesses and there were plenty of food choices. At first, he thought Dean was going to turn him down, but a few minutes later they were seated in a fast food restaurant with burgers in front of them.

Dean ate, but Sam was pretty sure it was mostly for his benefit. He wasn't going to fight it; Dean hadn't been eating right since he got out of the pit and Sam didn't much care what he had to do to make Dean take care of himself.

There was some conversation while they ate and then killed time window shopping before heading back to the coffee shop. Despite doing their best to kill the time, Sam and Dean were there several minutes before the Raines arrived.

They weren't involved in hunting, but knew about it. They'd learned more since becoming acquainted with Kristine and the Winchesters. Still, they'd not been let in on Dean's pending date with Hell. After he was gone, Sam and Kristine told the lie that Dean had intended Kristine to believe before he changed his mind: that he'd been killed in a hunt.

It hadn't been an easy thing to straighten out when Sam called them, but they didn't seem to harbor any ill feelings over the misinformation. The reason why became apparent fairly quickly after the initial greeting and small talk.

"I started having a dream," Angelica began, her hands wrapped around a cup of coffee. She looked at Dean. "I guess it was maybe a week before Kristine called to tell us about….well, to tell us that you'd died. I didn't understand it at first, but I eventually figured it out. Not the details, mind you, but the gist of it."

"You figured out that I was in Hell?" Dean asked quietly.

"No, not exactly. But I knew you hadn't died in an accident and that somehow….I don't know. Somehow I knew I shouldn't be angry about the lie. It wasn't until Sam called the other day that it all made sense."

"I'm sorry," Dean said. "It was my choice not to tell you the truth."

"It's all right," Angelica assured him with a smile.

"How are they?" Dean asked. "Are the boys doing okay?"

"They're doing very well," Keith said. "Especially considering everything that they've been through. Nicholas seems to have adjusted to everything; his dreams, a new home and school….He takes his lead from Alex most of the time and even though Alex understands more because he's older, he's doing well, too."

"I'm glad; that's good." Dean wiped his hands nervously on his pant legs.

"They trust us," Angelica began. "But they don't tell us everything. They seem to have their own secret language and they keep some things just between the two of them."

Sam and Dean glanced at each other.

"Much like any brothers, I imagine," she smiled. "But….Well, we didn't know this until yesterday, but Nicholas had his own dreams about you."

"What do you mean?" Dean asked nervously.

"He knew you were coming back."

"What?" Dean almost couldn't breathe.

"It's hard to keep secrets from a psychic," Keith grinned. "Christmas and birthdays? Pain in the butt, I tell ya."

Angelica smiled at him and Dean had a feeling there were several stories behind her smile.

"He doesn't understand how or why," Angelica said. "But he knew you were coming back and he told Alex. There's no reason for you not to see them, Dean.'

Relief flooded over Dean. It hadn't occurred to him that Nicholas would have premonitions involving his return. Because there didn't seem to be a pattern to what he dreamed, Dean had hoped Nicholas' ability was something natural and not because of demon involvement.

"We told them you'd come to the house after their karate lesson tonight; we could order pizza and you can spend as much time with them as you want."

"You're sure?" Dean asked, looking from Angelica to Keith and back again.

"Absolutely."

"Thank you," Dean said, his voice cracking.

"Not at all," she glanced at Sam. "When we first spoke a couple of days ago, you mentioned that Kristine had left the estate. Have you talked to her?"

"No," Sam answered.

"Do the boys know she's gone?" Dean asked.

"Not so far as we know," Keith said. "She still calls regularly and almost always picks up if one of the boys calls her. If she doesn't, she returns the call."

Dean looked at Angelica, but before he could ask his question she shook her head. "No, I haven't had any premonitions about her. Not a single dream. I'm sorry.'

"I knew that would be too easy," Dean smiled.

---

After some discussion, the Raines agreed to let Sam and Dean pick the boys up from their karate lesson and bring them home. The plan to order pizza stood and the Raines talked the brothers into staying at their house at least overnight.

Sam felt almost like an intruder as they waited at the curb for Nicholas and Alex to finish up their lesson. He watched Dean, leaning against the Impala and trying to look nonchalant. Sam knew his brother was far from relaxed, but he wasn't about to call him on it.

There were other people waiting for children to come outside, but Nicholas's eyes went straight to Dean as he and Nichols walked through the door. It was as if he knew to expect him standing right were he was, next to the Impala. Simultaneously, the young brothers broke into a run and Sam's eyes stung with tears as Dean crouched down to hug them both. He watched as his brother was pulled down to his knees, his eyes closed and hands clutching the boys' coats, but he stayed off to the side.

Nicholas pulled away first and he grinned before throwing himself into Sam's arms. There had been a lot of good reasons for Sam to separate himself from his former life after Dean was gone, but he suddenly regretted not staying in touch with the Cordell brothers. Alex hugged him, too, though not as enthusiastically as his brother had.

Dean loaded Nicholas and Alex into the car and as he drove to the Raines' house, there was constant chatter from the back seat. As always, Nicholas had a lot to say. He seemed determined to catch Sam and Dean up on the last several months of his life, in vivid detail.

He was still talking when they got to the house and didn't seem ready to stop. Angelica met them at the door and didn't take offense when she was all but ignored by her adoptive children, but insisted they take their baths before the pizza arrived.

Alex had no desire for assistance, but there seemed no other option for Nicholas than Dean helping him. Knowing that pizza and spending time with the Winchesters was their reward, Alex and Nicholas didn't waste time. Once they were clean and in their pajamas, the little boys settled in the den where their parents had been talking with Sam.

Keith and Angelica were amused by Nicholas' continued animation and Dean's seemingly endless patience while they waited for the pizza to be delivered.

"You're spending the night, right Dean?" Nicholas asked as he dug into the slice of pizza Keith set on his plate.

Dean glanced at his brother. They hadn't really had a chance to talk about the Raines' offer, but he saw Sam nod. "Yeah, Nicholas, we're staying the night."

"Cool."

"Can you come to my soccer game?" Alex asked.

Dean glanced at Sam again.

"Sure," Sam answered. "We'll be here for at least a couple of days. What else is going on this weekend?"

"I play soccer, too," Nicholas said. "But we don't play games like the big boys. Angelica said I could take guitar lessons next year."

And with that, Nicholas was off on another diatribe. Alex shook his head and concentrated on his pizza.

---

Once the pizza was gone, Keith and Angelica made excuses to leave Sam and Dean alone with the boys. As they went upstairs, Angelica reminded them of their bedtimes and the children grudgingly agreed. Alex found a board game that he knew Nicholas could play and that's how they spent the next couple of hours.

Alex was allowed to stay up half an hour later than Nicholas and while Dean took the little boy to his bedroom, Alex stayed downstairs with Sam.

"How do you like playing soccer?" Sam asked him.

"I like it a lot. I used to play before…."

Sam saw Alex's eyes glaze over for a moment. He'd forgotten that it wasn't really so long ago that Alex and his brother were living with their parents.

"You know about soccer?" Alex asked, almost visibly shaking the memories away.

"Yeah. I played for a while when I was a kid. I was a forward."

"I'm a midfielder. Nicky says that's what he wants to be, too, but I think he just started to play cuz I was."

"Does that bother you?"

"I guess not. Did you play cuz Dean did?"

Sam laughed. "No. Dean wasn't much into playing team sports. What about the karate? Whose idea was that?"

"Keith's."

Sam nodded.

"You know Nicholas had dreams about Dean?" Alex asked.

"That's what Keith and Angelica told us," Sam said looking at him. "Is there more to it than that?"

Alex propped his feet up on the coffee table. "Did Dean really die?"

"What did Keith and Angelica tell you?" Sam asked.

He and Dean had talked about this very topic with the Raines for quite a while during their initial meeting and they all recognized that questions from the boys were inevitable. No one knew what the best way to handle the questions was, but they all agreed that lying to them was probably a bad idea. They also agreed that telling the boys about Hell wasn't necessary.

Alex shrugged. "They said it's complicated."

"It is," Sam agreed with a smile. He saw Alex's somber expression and remembered how he'd hated being lied to as a kid. "He really did die."

"How did he come back?"

"You know there's all kinds of things out there that we don't completely understand, right?"

"Like vampires and ghosts and –"

"And good things, too. Something good brought Dean back."

"An angel?" Alex glanced at Sam, but quickly turned his eyes away.

"Why do you ask?"

Alex shrugged. "Nicholas saw angels in his dreams."

Sam didn't want to be the one answering these questions. He didn't know what was safe to tell Alex and what wasn't. He couldn't help but think Nicholas might already have all the answers, but was too young to understand them.

"Yeah," Sam finally said. "An angel brought Dean back."

"So, it's a good thing, right?"

Sam leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "You're afraid it might not be good that Dean's back?"

"It's not that," Alex said, looking at him. "I'm glad he's back. But…"

"You were afraid that something bad brought Dean back," Sam said, suddenly understanding why Alex had been so quiet all evening.

"Yeah. I thought maybe Nicholas didn't understand what he saw in the dream."

"It's okay, Alex. Nicholas understood."

Nicholas seemed about to say something else and Sam hoped it wasn't about God. He really wasn't prepared to talk about that. Instead, Alex only nodded. "Cool."

---

Dean sat on the edge of Nicholas' bed, looking around the room. He saw the familiar Lightning McCoy toys from the movie, Cars, but the room was also peppered with a few action figures from Kung Fu Panda. A standard Teddy bear lay in bed next to the little boy.

"This is a great room," Dean said.

"Yeah. Angelica and Keith are really nice."

"You like it here, then?"

"Yeah, a lot."

"Good."

"I'm glad you're back."

Dean smiled at him. "I'm glad I'm back, too."

"Was it scary being dead?"

The smile froze on his face. "You know what? I don't remember. But it's not something you have to worry about."

Nicholas nodded. "I bet Kristine will be glad you're back, too."

"Yeah," Dean said, noncommittal.

"Don't worry," Nicholas grinned at him. "She'll call you."

"What?" Dean asked before he could stop himself.

"She's doing something right now, but she'll call."

"What do you know about what she's doing?"

Nicholas shrugged and moved the bear to his other side. "Nothing. I just know she's doing something and that's why she hasn't called you."

"Did she tell you that?"

"Uh-uh."

"Did you dream it?"

Nicholas looked thoughtful. "I guess so. Sometimes I just know things and I don't know how I know them. And don't worry; it doesn't have anything to do with that man."

"What man?"

"I don't know who he is, but don't worry," Nicholas looked at Dean. "I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"I made you sad."

Dean smiled at him. "I'm not sad, Nicholas. So, you want a story?"

"No, thank you. I'm sleepy."

Dean tousled his hair. "Okay. I'll see you in the morning."

Nicholas scooted further under the covers. "Good night, Dean. Don't forget the nightlight, okay?"

"I won't," Dean said. "Goodnight, Nicholas."

He paused at the door and looked at the little boy. His bangs had already fallen over his closed eyes, reminding Dean of Sam. He watched as Nicholas rubbed his nose and after he was sure he wasn't going to say something, Dean went back to the den.

Half an hour later, Alex went to bed on his own accord, but he quickly hugged each brother before leaving the room. Once Dean was sure he and Sam were alone, he asked what they'd talked about, noting the boy's change in mood.

"They know about the angels, too?" Dean asked once Sam finished recapping the conversation? "Keith is right; keeping things from a psychic isn't easy."

"Aren't you glad I don't get premonitions?" Sam grinned.

"Oh yeah, cuz that whole demon exorcising thing isn't disturbing at all." Dean scratched his head. "Nicholas said Kristine would call when she's finished with whatever she's doing."

Sam rolled his eyes. "They know she's gone?"

"I guess," Dean sighed. "She's apparently with some guy."

"What?"

"He said not to worry because her not calling didn't have anything to do with 'the man'," Dean said using air quotes.

"He doesn't know who –"

"No, he doesn't know who the man is."

"Well…it doesn't sound like she's with him if her calling doesn't have anything to do with him."

"I don't want to talk about this any more," Dean said suddenly. "What the hell do we do now? It's 9:30, dude. I can't go to sleep at 9:30."

"Beer?" Keith smiled as he walked into the den. He held out two bottles and kept a third for himself as he settled in the last remaining chair.

"Thanks," the brothers said as they took the beer from him.

"You got the boys into bed okay?"

"Yeah, no problems."

"Good. Up for a movie?" Keith asked, reaching for the remote control.

"Sure," Dean said after a glance at Sam for his opinion.

"Iron Man?"

Dean grinned. "Awesome."

tbc