Hey everyone! First of all, I've learned my lesson – this story is finished! I wanted to get it posted before the boys returned for the second half of season 4 since it picks up at the end of 4.10, Heaven & Hell, and I wanted to get it up just in case Kripke & Co. took us off in a completely different direction. I promise to post a chapter a day so it will be complete before Family Remains graces our screens. •Sigh• Is it Thursday yet? Hope you enjoy!

The Last Picture Show

Chapter One

"How I feel… inside me… I wish I couldn't feel anything, Sammy. I wish I couldn't feel a damn thing."

Sam's heart broke at the devastation he heard in his brother's voice. He swallowed hard, knowing Dean was right -- there was simply nothing he could say that would make this any better. His brother had been through something no human should have to endure, but he had made it back and was still just that: human. He squeezed his eyes closed, fighting back the burning tears that threatened to spill. Dean needed him strong – not an emotional basket case. While his four months of pain and desolation had almost been more than he'd been able to bear, it paled in comparison to the four months – Sam swallowed hard at the thought – forty years of torture Dean had endured.

His shaking hand found its way to the back of Dean's bowed neck and he squeezed the taught muscles, before tossing the nearly empty beer bottle in his other hand to the ground and sliding off the end of the Impala's hood. Without breaking contact, he stepped around the fender, sideling up to his brother, pressing his arm firmly across Dean's shoulders.

"I know there's really nothing I can do to make this any easier for you, man." He cleared his throat, his voice a soft rumble, shaking as he tried to get control of his own emotions. "What you went through… nobody could've… nobody would've been able to handle it any better. You held out for… " he snorted a disbelieving scoff, "… a lifetime, Dean. Your lifetime. And then you did what you had to to survive. Nobody could fault you for that, least of all me." He shook his head sadly, taking a deep breath before continuing. "You have always been the strongest person I know. You still are. And what you went through, what you were forced into, it doesn't change anything. Not to me. You're my brother, my family, and whatever you had to do to hang on long enough to come back to me, I thank God you did it."

"I tortured them, Sammy." Dean didn't raise his head, but pulled his arms around himself, his voice a harsh whisper. "They made me… I became what I hunt."

"No," Sam said sharply. "They tried to break you, Dean. They used your strength and compassion against you. And it's still killing you. That means they didn't succeed." He stepped in front of his brother, both hands on his arms, and ducked his own head, trying to catch Dean's eyes. "Don't you see? You don't want to feel anything, but you do. That's because they couldn't erase who you are, Dean. You held on. You did what you were forced to do, but you never lost yourself. They couldn't take it away from you."

Dean was shaking his head slowly in denial, but he was listening and Sam pressed the advantage. "I know this isn't something your just gonna get over. Not tomorrow or in a few days or even months. And it's not gonna be easy, Dean. It's gonna eat at you and... and if you need to drown yourself in whiskey to numb the memories, I'll be right there to pick you up and drag your ass back to whatever skeevy motel room we're staying in. I promise, I'll be right there with you. I'm not gonna lose you again. But I need you to promise me one thing, too."

He waited quietly as his words made it through his brother's pain and self-loathing until the familiar green eyes slowly rose to find his. "I need you to promise me, Dean, that if it gets to be too much, before you crawl into a bottle, you'll give me a chance. Okay?" Sam waited for what seemed like an eternity before Dean took a shaky breath and gave him a slight nod. "Say it, man. Promise me."

Dean reached up and wiped a hand down his face, erasing the tears that had tracked down his cheeks but not the disdain that was obviously directed inward. "Fine," he said in a gravelly voice. "I promise. Happy?"

Sam nodded and patted both arms before letting go and taking a small step back. "Good." He took a deep breath, feeling some of the weight lift from his heart. This was only one small step on Dean's road to recovery, but if his brother would let him in – even a little – he knew they could pick up the pieces. He turned and leaned back against the fender, his shoulder brushing his brother's, the only sound Dean's tremulous breathing. He remained silent, giving the older man time to regain his composure.

Sam knew that Dean hated to appear weak – for any reason – but he was pretty sure remembering Hell was justifiable. He had been telling the truth when he said his brother was the strongest person he'd ever known. Ever since they were kids and Sam had realized the person he could always turn to was his brother, he had realized how amazing Dean was. Although only four years older, Dean had been Sam's constant his entire life. Dad had done his best, but his ever consuming quest to avenge their mother had taken so much of his energy, sometimes there just wasn't enough left for two little boys.

Ironically, now he understood exactly how John Winchester could have made the choices he did and raised them as soldiers in a war they didn't understand. He'd begun to understand what his father had been through after Jessica had died, but didn't really appreciate the absolute need for vengeance until he'd held his brother's shredded, lifeless body in his arms. Right then, he'd known exactly what had made his father into the hunter he'd become – and what had made his brother sell his soul. He didn't blame his dad – not anymore. John had been able to focus on his retribution because he'd had Dean to pick up the slack. Even when they were both too small to really understand, Dean had made it easier for their dad to do what he needed to do by making it his mission to take care of Sam. It was only after Dean had died and gone to Hell that Sam had really appreciated the scope of his brother's sacrifice.

Dean had given up his innocence in order to assure that Sam's remained. He had overlooked his own needs so many times to make sure his little brother got what he needed. Not many people were able to honestly say that they knew someone who would give up everything for them, but Sam was one of the lucky few. He knew what Dean had gone through had been for him, but he had somehow deluded himself into believing that using those damn powers to save people was in some twisted way honoring his brother. He still wasn't sure whether what he had done under Ruby's tutelage had been right or wrong, but he did know that Dean firmly believed he had to stop, so… he'd stopped.

He'd told Dean it wasn't for him or the angels or even God… it was for himself. But that was a lie. After everything, he couldn't stand to see the disappointment in his brother's eyes. He couldn't stand knowing that he was the one who'd broken his brother. If all the demons in hell couldn't do it, he'd be damned if he was going to be the one to finish the job.

Dean had always carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, now, thanks to Castiel, the weight was even heavier. Sam wasn't going to add to it. He would do anything he could to lighten the load. If that meant throwing back a few shots while Dean got tanked to deaden the pain and then safely dragging his inebriated brother to bed once in while, he could live with that. After Dean's heartbreaking confession, Sam was pretty sure he could live with just about any behavior his brother could throw at him.

As long as he was still there beside him, Sam could pretty much deal with anything.

"So, Dr. Phil," Dean's voice was still scratchy, but Sam could sense an undertone of hope lying just beneath the surface. He'd managed to share the burden that had been weighing him down and they were both still there. Sam could only hope his brother would let him in again when he needed to. "What now?"

Sam shrugged and crossed his arms against his chest. "We could go check out that haunting we were heading to before we ran into Ruby," he suggested, hoping that getting back to the job would give Dean a way to find his way back.

Dean nodded slowly, considering. "Winter in Illinois, huh?"

Sam snorted a laugh, looking sideways at his brother. "Why not? We're gonna make things easy now?"

"Right," Dean agreed, a small smile lifting the corner of his mouth. "What was I thinking?"

"Come on," Sam slapped him on the shoulder and pushed himself off the fender, striding purposefully around the front of the car. "I'm driving."

Dean raised an eyebrow, but moved toward the passenger door. "Don't think I'm gonna let this whole Assertive Sammy thing go on for long, dude. I'm still the older brother." His eyes were still red, and Sam wasn't so naïve as to believe that a little caring and sharing would be able to undo the substantial damage done to his mind and soul, but Dean had finally opened up enough to let him in, and that was enough for now.

Sam gave him a smile across the top of the car as he pulled the door open. "I'm counting on it."

Snsnsnsnsns

Sam tapped his fingers in time with the music, the volume low enough so as not to disturb his brother's restless sleep. Dean had dropped off soon after they'd crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky into southern Illinois. In deference to his brother's current state and his obvious need for rest, Sam had veered north on I57, keeping the big Chevy on the smooth tarmac of the interstate instead of their usual route of county roads and two lane highways. He twisted slowly in the driver's seat, finding that the spot no longer felt comfortable to him despite the four long, lonely months the car had been in his sole possession.

Since Dean's return from the Pit, they'd shared the driving a lot more than before, but Sam had discovered he was much more content to be riding shotgun in the Impala than driving it. When Dean was gone, the car had felt too big and far too empty without his big brother's larger-than-life personality to fill it. Sam had been tempted once or twice with the rising gas prices to trade the old girl in on a smaller, less conspicuous, more economical vehicle, but had never been able to bring himself to do it.

The Impala was Dean's car. Just sitting inside the familiar leather interior had made him feel closer to his brother. There had been many nights, nightmares wracking his attempt at sleep, imagination getting the better of him, when the only way he could calm his weary soul would be to lay across the seat of the Impala, breathing in the familiar scent of leather, sweat and oil. It was home. It was… Dean. Even after he'd come to accept that he couldn't save Dean from Hell, Sam had found some comfort within the confines of the Impala.

A slight movement in the corner of his eye caused him to glance over at his brother, and he grinned at the returning stare.

"You're awake," he observed, quickly hiding the relief he felt every time he saw his very much alive brother's eyes open as of late.

"And you're thinking too much," Dean responded. "Those gears in that egg-head of yours were grinding so loud I'm pretty sure you'd wake the entire state."

Sam chuckled and nodded to the radio. "Not much else to do. All I could get was country music and the farm report."

Dean shuddered and leaned forward, quickly twisting the radio dial to the off position. "Hell comes in all sorts of forms." He leaned back and rubbed a hand over his face, squinting out the side window at the bland scenery. "Where are we?"

"About twenty minutes out of Decatur," Sam responded. He glanced sideways at his brother, frowning at the dark circles still apparent under the older man's green eyes. "How're you feeling?"

"I'm fine, Sammy," Dean answered automatically. He momentarily met the younger man's gaze, but quickly diverted his eyes when Sam's brows rose in challenge. "So," he cleared his throat uncomfortably and pushed himself up in the seat. "Tell me again about this haunted theater."

Sam hesitated, wanting to call his brother on his self-assessment, but decided to let it go for the time being. Dean had been through enough for a while, he just needed some time to get himself back to some semblance of normal – or whatever passed as normal for a Winchester. Maybe a simple haunting would do him some good, let him regain some equilibrium and give him a chance to get his feet back under him.

"The Lincoln Theater in dowtown Decatur, Illinois," he began, ignoring Dean's smirk as his voice fell into what the older hunter had dubbed 'lecture mode'. "It was originally a vaudeville theater built in the late 1800's, but burned to the ground in the '30's killing six people. The current theater was rebuilt on the ashes, but never managed to achieve the same success and closed sometime in the 70's. It was refurbished and reopened about twenty years later, but couldn't compete with the multi-screened cineplexes springing up all over the area."

"Nobody goes for quality anymore, huh?"

Sam grinned and shook his head. "The town bought the building and renovated it about five years ago, reopening it as a source for classic movies and historical cultural reference."

"Sounds boring." Dean leaned back in the seat, shifting his legs into a more comfortable position under the dash. "I bet they play all those old black and white love stories that nobody wanted to see when they were new."

"Actually," Sam drawled, knowing he was about to pique his brother's interest. "I checked on-line and starting this week, they're showing a Ben Johnson retrospective. The Last Picture Show, The Wild Bunch, Chisum, Red Dawn…"

Dean's eyes widened and he nodded, obviously pleased at the information. "The Duke, Borgnine and Swayze? My kind of line-up."

Sam laughed out loud. "You like Patrick Swayze?"

Dean frowned, giving his brother an indignant look. "I'm not gonna go out and rent Dirty Dancing or anything, but the man could kick ass on occasion. Remember Roadhouse?"

Sam shrugged in acceptance. "Okay, I'll give you that one."

Pleased to have made his point, Dean relaxed back into the seat. "So what makes you think this theater is haunted, Dr. Venkman?"

"Ever since they re-opened, there have been weird things happening; curtains opening and closing by themselves, footsteps on the staircase, voices in the balcony…"

"Normal ghosty things," Dean concluded.

"Yeah. Until about a month ago."

Dean pursed his lips and dipped his head in curiosity. "What happened a month ago?"

"A young woman who worked in the concession area was attacked after closing."

"She hurt?"

Sam shrugged "More scared than hurt. Apparently she was shoved from behind into a storeroom and locked in. Ended up trapped there until the next morning."

"Some moron playing a sick joke?" Dean suggested.

"She swears she was the only one left in the building," Sam responded. "The night manager had left a few minutes earlier and he swears there was no one else inside when he locked the doors. "

Dean shrugged, not necessarily seeing the problem. "So they have a few restless spirits who got a little out of hand. Not exactly the end of the world, Sam."

The younger hunter frowned at his brother's choice of words. "No, but the incidents have been escalating ever since. A few weeks ago, a man was pushed from the balcony and just last week the projectionist nearly lost an arm in some kind of freak accident in the booth." Sam sighed and signaled to turn onto the exit ramp toward Decatur. "I just thought we could take care of it before anyone got killed. Besides…" he shrugged again. "I thought we could both use a break."

Dean eyed his brother for a moment then grinned, snorting a soft laugh through his nose as he shook his head slowly.

"What?" Sam asked, his face showing his confusion.

"Dude, only we would consider a haunted theater a vacation."

TBC