Chapter Six – Reflections on a Long Ago Time

"You almost bought the farm there. You'da been dust without me."

"I had it covered." A confident, exasperated tone resonated in Dean's voice. "You know I do have a few years' experience hunting these evil sons of bitches. Not to mention those extra years while you played Joe College."

"Yeah? Well, you looked a little rusty there, Rambo."

"Whatever, dude."

"I'm just saying, good thing you had backup."

"So, you're glad I hauled your ass out of Wussy U?"

Sam looked at his brother with amusement, glad he had been there this time to save him from injury or worse. Thankful his brother was alive and well and still could be relied upon to be that habitual pain in the butt. Remembering all the times Dean had saved him and grateful he could return the favor.

"You do make life more stimulating," Sam relented.

"Stimulating, huh? Guess that means I got the old blood flowing," Dean replied, smugly pleased with himself and the adventures he was showing his wayward brother, thankful Sam had not forgotten all his training in his years away from the fight.

"Quiet is nice, too, you know. Maybe we slow it down and enjoy the season for once."

"What? You lookin' to go all Merry and Ho-Ho-Ho-ing?" Deliberate pause for effect. "Hey, I wonder if Santa knows all the definitions of Ho?" Wicked grin now, followed by smacking lips, as he considered those cute little Santa's helpers that always populated the malls at this time of the year.

"Might have known you could debase even Santa."

"What? Me?" Mock, offended posturing topped off with a sly grin.

Yeah, like I believe you're offended. "Never mind."

Dean gave his brother one of his most radiant smiles, his dimples fixed while his eyes glimmered with a strange mix of mischief and contentment, fully enjoying this exchange. "Hungry?"

"Starved."

"Yeah, nothing like a little righteous slaying to wake up the old taste buds. All righty then, here we go." Dean pulled off the highway into the dirt parking lot at Ma's Diner, a rustic structure perched to the side of the old highway, long forgotten when the interstate took all the traffic away and now surviving on the locals and adventurous tourists who sought out the country lifestyle.

"Looks like we found us some down-home cooking," Dean cheerfully announced.

"It's got to be better than the fast food joints or microwaving that garbage at the quickie mart," Sam agreed.

Dean drove past a fair share of cars parked outside the establishment. "Looks like the locals like it." He parked off to the side of the diner and jumped out.

As the brothers walked up to the entrance, Dean's attention was diverted by an early model white Cadillac, maybe a '74, parked up by the old highway and illuminated by the only street light for a mile. A deer carcass was roped down across the trunk, the blood of the animal still seeping out and running dark against the hide. A familiar sight, too familiar. How long had it been? Another lifetime, perhaps?

Sam stopped walking when he discovered he had lost his brother. He turned and noticed the Caddy for the first time, also struck by the familiarity, but not quite remembering. His brother was standing next to the deer, an eerie calm to the scene, a pensive look partially obscured by the shadows falling across his face.

"Dean…what is it?"

"Huh? Oh, nothing."

Sam felt an edge to his brother now, a noticeable hitch in his voice as he responded to his inquiry.

"Dean, what is it?" he repeated, more insistent in his tone as he stood beside his brother.

"It's just…. Never mind, let's get some food." He turned to walk away then, and Sam remembered.

What do I remember? It's all so fuzzy, Dean was upset, mad. Who was he mad at? What happened? He was young, I was just…a kid. What? Five years old? Six, max. I was crying, I was so scared.…

"Dean, what is it? Please…tell me."

Anger erupted in Dean, his voice rough, on the brittle edge of something fierce. "I told you, Sam, it's nothing. I'm hungry. Let's go!"

And so the conversation ended before it had even begun. Dean had a habit of shutting Sam down whenever the past was too painful. But what was painful about this? What the hell happened all those years ago? Why can't I remember? Why don't I want to remember?

Dean picked up his pace and burst through the door of the diner, quickly scoping out a secluded booth in the back. The waitress nodded to him as if to say, "Take your pick," so he proceeded down to the booth and settled in. She sauntered over with menus and a coffee pot to fill their cups, offering up the standard pleasantries and informing them she would be back in a few for their order. Dean immediately picked up the menu and started reading, immersed in the text like it would decipher the mysteries of the unknown.

"All righty, then. Hmm, hot roast beef sandwich. Remember when Dad used to make us get that?" His eyes lost focus as they drifted off, circling the memory, reflecting on a life light-years away from here and now. "Said it was better than a cheeseburger and fries. Whenever we went to a real sit down place he wanted us to get something more nutritious." Dean chuckled at the thought. "Like he was ever the healthy eater." His mood was noticeably lighter…still it appeared somewhat forced. He seemed half amused by the memory, looking back at those times with a melancholy fondness.

"Don't you like getting it again sometimes?" Sam asked. "You know, for old times' sake? Kinda like comfort food."

"Comfort food?" Dean shot back with a heavy dose of doubt. He continued on with more amazement, "Are you nuts?"

"I don't know, yeah…maybe.., but sometimes it brings back good memories."

"I thought you didn't have any good memories from those days. Remember, you hated the life." Dean's tone was bitter and unyielding, the stern tilt of his face revealing his annoyance. His eyes were almost accusing, his entire presence throbbing with an underlying tension.

Defensively Sam replied, "Yeah, I hated the life…but I didn't hate my family. And I didn't always hate being out on the road, at least not at first." Sam tensed, pressed by his brother and suddenly unsure what he meant, where exactly they'd veered off course. In the span of a few comments they'd left the safety of a pleasant talk and barreled into this landmine filled quagmire that seemed poised to swallow his brother in painful memories.

Dean stared straight ahead. "Really? Coulda fooled me."

"Dean, c'mon, man. You don't really think that, do you?"

"I don't know, maybe." Dean's eyes were shifting from his brother's intent gaze, nervously searching out something less intrusive to focus on. "Hard to know what was going through your warped brain back then. I mean, you were always fighting with Dad, griping about moving around…just generally a pain in the ass."

Sam now noticed a real hurt in Dean's voice and he suddenly felt the urge to comfort him, not understanding the whys and what for's, just wanting to ease his pain somehow. He offered a slight smile, his tone more tender, trying to weave his way back into the good grace of his brother. "I always liked tagging along after you. Always wanted to be around my big brother."

Finally, a smile again, hesitant but real. "You were a nuisance sometimes. But…you know…not too bad." Dean gave him a slight smirk, a turn of his head as he bowed it down before rising back up with a larger smile embracing his face, the good memories regaining tentative control.

Sam grinned at the obvious difficulty Dean had in admitting that. Thinking back they did share some good times; they were just typically overshadowed by the bad, or maybe he had simply allowed the bad times too much influence. Suddenly he had an overwhelming desire to know more about his brother, to examine all those other lives hidden behind the bold facade. "Dean, what's the best memory you have from when we were kids?"

Dean was again reading the menu, distracted, trying to decide what he was going to order. Sam thought he hadn't heard him until he opened his mouth and started to speak, in slow, deliberate words, words straight from the heart, a memory from the deepest part of his soul.

"I remember you crawling into my bed every night and me reading you a story."

Sam started to laugh, sure Dean was pulling his leg, until the look on Dean's face informed him he was deadly serious, a serene, contented look.

"Huh…that's your best memory?" he asked in wonder.

"Yep, that's it." Slight smile, his eyes opening up then and offering a glimpse into his soul, the cocky façade momentarily slipping away revealing an honest answer, no clever comeback or smartass cover-up, just the simple, unadorned truth.

The conversation was interrupted as the waitress came back for their order. Dean ordered the rib eye steak and baked potato loaded with sour cream and bacon bits, and Sam opted for the hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy, figuring he might as well fully immerse himself in the memories of that time.

Once the waitress took the menus, Dean was left with nothing to occupy his attention or hide behind. He suddenly seemed uncomfortable, shifting in the booth, suffering from a strange vulnerability as he nervously avoided Sam's attentive stare. When the intrusion got to be too much he irritably exclaimed, "What? Dude, you are freaking me out with the staring."

"I just woulda thought…" Sam started.

"What?" Dean tensed, his annoyance spilling into his words. "Just spit it out."

Sam huffed out a sigh of exasperation, his irritation with his brother only surpassed by his concern. "I just would have thought you'd say your first hunt, your first kill, or that time you saved Dad from the poltergeist and was the big hero." Sam shook his head, a tremulous grin trying to break free. "You just surprised me."

Any trace of a smile quickly left Dean's face; an angry scowl emerging. "We're talking family here, Sam, not the job. There's a difference, or didn't you ever get that?"

Realization flashed on Sam's face, a slight rise of his eyebrows as his brother's words struck a familiar, but forgotten chord. "I guess not. I guess I never really separated it out like that. I just, you know…"

"Yeah, you hated the job and you hated your family," Dean curtly replied before staring off again across the diner, searching out something of interest to focus his attention on.

"Dean, I never hated you."

Silence again as Dean processed the thought, before he softly whispered, "Yeah, but you could have."

"What?" Sam blurted out, his eyes wide and his face frozen in disbelief. "What the hell does that mean?"

"Nothin'. Forget about it."

"Forget about it? No. You don't get to drop a bombshell like that and then just tell me to forget about it." Sam reeled himself back, taking a deep breath and allowing his concern to mellow out his harsh comeback. He leaned forward on the table, his eyes connecting with his brother as he gently asked, "Dean, what's going on with you?"

Sam was now truly worried about this whole share and care conversation. Dean had started to open up to him in this backwoods diner of all places, hinting at what was bothering him before again closing down. What the hell is going on with him?

Dean started to speak, hesitating briefly before continuing in a soft, small voice, so different from how he normally sounded. "You know, my first hunt wasn't exactly something to celebrate."

"No?" Sam softly whispered, waiting for more, and trying hard not to break the spell that had suddenly moved his brother to share a piece of himself.

Dean again offered up a half-hearted smile, a nervous attempt at avoiding the emotions of his words, but his eyes betrayed him, the barest trace of moisture collecting in deep pools of green. "No, Sammy."

Just a plain statement of fact, yet Sam felt the undertone, something left unsaid. I mean, you can't just leave it at that, big brother. "What, Dean?" He kept his voice low and reassuring. "What happened?"

A slow sigh, then Dean expelled a ragged breath before answering, "I learned to make the first shot count."

"What does that mean? Dean, tell me. What happened, I don't really remember."

Another long pause, as Dean glanced around them at the empty booths, insuring no one was within earshot; hesitant enough to let Sam into his hidden world, knowing he couldn't bear to let anyone else witness his pain. It seemed like Dean wanted to talk, had been holding this story in for so long it just needed to be told; yet he still seemed buried within the memory, not knowing how to extricate himself from this hole and let it out. He looked into his brother's eyes then and nervously started to speak.

"Well, yeah, you wouldn't. You were only six."

"Then you were ten?" Sam's voice couldn't restrain the incredulous inflection. "Ten years old? What was Dad thinking?" Obvious disapproving tone, disgust for the way they were raised once more rising up.

"Not his fault," Dean quickly defended. "I was on his case for months to let me on a hunt." He captured his brother's eyes with his firm tone. "It was my decision."

Aside from the obvious, that a ten-year-old can't be held responsible for decisions made that should have never been allowed, Sam knew there was more to this story; some underlying hurt Dean wanted to expose, but was still unsure of how to go about doing it, still uncertain if he could trust his brother with his hidden secrets. Scared to lower that wall and reveal his pain.

"What happened, Dean?" Sam took a moment to still his own heart, to steady himself as he tried to reach his brother. He decided to start at the beginning, keep it simple until Dean could move the conversation into where he needed it to go. "What did you hunt?" Sam waited, knowing Dean had brought up this topic and something was loosening his tongue, obviously he wanted to tell the tale; he just needed the time and space to tell it at his own pace.

Dean was staring out the window, distracted again by that Caddy parked out under the street light. Remembering….

"It was a deer…just a deer…" He paused, drawing in a deep breath and expelling it with a gentle sigh, his eyes filling with emotion as he continued, "But, man, to watch it die like that…. Never in my life have I seen something struggle so hard to live when there was no hope, no chance."

"I don't remember. Wait…that's it," Sam added, his mind going back over years of memories, stopping at a pivotal moment, the hazy time starting to take shape. "I remember seeing a car in the parking lot with a deer strapped to it and I started to cry. I called the man a bad word, and you…"

"He told you to shut up and quit bawling," Dean interrupted, the words flowing out of him as if some huge barrier had been knocked down. "He grabbed you and shook you." The look in Dean's eyes was heartbreaking as he remember that time; how small and insignificant he had felt going toe to toe with that six-foot monster bullying his kid brother. "I told him to get his damn hands off you or I was going to make him pay."

"What'd he say to that?" Sam whispered.

Dean was again staring out the window, lost in a faraway memory, an unpleasant time, a crossroad in his life. "Say? He didn't say anything…." Dean turned and looked directly into Sam's eyes, probing to see if there was understanding there, if he could trust him with this secret, so long buried and now fighting its way back to the surface; no longer willing to suppress his feelings, wanting to finally be free of their burden. One more quick breath before he continued, "He hit me. Hard, right across the mouth."

"What?" Sam gasped. "Dean, what did you do?"

Dean again seemed unsure, uncertain if he truly wanted to revisit these feelings, if he could bear to remember that time. He was wavering, still scared Sam wouldn't understand, that he couldn't make him understand. So scared to let it out, but tired of holding it in.

"Dean? What happened?"

Oh, hell, you know this is never gonna leave you alone. Sam will never leave you alone, just let it out. To hell with it. Dean fixed his gaze upon his brother and solemnly spoke, all emotion locked down tight. "I grabbed the Ruger out of the glove box and shoved it in his face."

"You pulled a gun on the man?"

"He was an asshole, he deserved what he got."

Sam was getting scared now, the look in Dean's eyes distant and unreadable. His brother actually scared him on rare occasions like this, when his fury sometimes overshadowed rational thought. He knew if Dean was protecting his family, anything was possible. What did Dean do all those years ago? Why can't I remember? Why don't I want to remember?

"Dean, what happened? What did you do?"

"What do you think I did?" Dean stared directly into his brother's eyes, trying to determine just who Sam saw sitting across from him, what he thought he was capable of, if he had any clue how far he would go for him. "You think I killed him?"

"I don't know, I…" Sam trembled from the thoughts racing through his head, the image before him so familiar and yet so scarily unknown; his brother almost daring him to think the worst. "Dean, you're scaring me."

Dean's eyes were misting up, tears ready to fall, but he was stubbornly holding them back, determined to be brave. All the memories assaulting him at once, overwhelming his resolve and taking him back to that young age when he struggled so hard to hold it all together and be brave.

Baby, it's all right to cry. You are my brave son, but you're safe now. You need to let the pain out, you need to release the hurt.

His eyes darted around the diner, trying to find some compelling distraction to sway his attention, trying to still the voice in his head. I try to be brave, Mom, I try. I'm just so tired of being strong, I'm just so tired…. One lone tear broke free and rolled down his cheek, his hand quickly wiping it away.

"Please, Dean. Whatever happened, it's all right. I know you were just protecting me."

Dean drew in another deep breath, a hesitant grin trying to break free, a last attempt to hide his feelings. "Yeah, well, I didn't kill him." Nervous laughter then, eyes still searching, needing…desperate to be rid of this pain. "Wanted to, but didn't." Dean coughed out an anxious gasp as he shifted in his seat. "I hated him, you know? But not enough to kill him. Didn't have it in me back then."

Sam didn't like the qualifier on that statement. 'Back then.' I mean, Dean is hardly a boy scout, but he's not a killer. He would never kill over rough treatment or a slap. What we kill is evil, it deserves to die, anyone would testify to that. That's all very different than this. I mean, Dean would never….

"You know what's funny?" Dean continued, almost as if once he started he couldn't hold back any longer, suddenly not wanting to hold back.

"No, what?"

"I wanted to kill him for treating you like that. I wanted to make him pay. You know why I didn't? You know why I didn't have the stomach for it?"

"No, Dean. Why?"

"That damn deer."

"From your hunt?"

"Yeah." A look of resignation, then slowly realization flickered across his face.

"Dean, what happened to the deer?"

"Took two shots. First one only wounded it and the damn thing just thrashed around on the rocks, stumbling and gasping and fighting with all its strength, but it was dying. I knew it, Dad knew it, the only thing was…the damn deer refused to accept it. Just kept fighting until if finally broke its own goddamn leg and still it tried to live." Dean seemed to dissolve before his brother's eyes, all his feelings hidden for so long seeping out. Those expressive eyes of his opening up, all his pain swimming in a sea of green; his face a canvas detailing all his hurts, each one wearing upon his youth and forever marking him. "To see it struggle like that…it just.... Man, worst sight I'd ever witnessed."

"Dean. I'm sorry." Sam's voice broke, his face mirroring his brother's, his bottom lip quivering as he tried to stay strong. "Why didn't you ever tell me about this? I could've been there for you." He sucked in a deep breath, his gut tensing as he broached the subject, "Did Dad ever say anything?"

"Yeah, right! Never talked about this with anyone, Sam. Not once." Dean again shifted in his seat, uncomfortable in his skin and being put on display like this. He again tried to cover with a shaky grin. "I mean, come on, we're Winchesters, you do the job and you shut up about it."

"But, Dean, you were just a kid."

"No, Sam," he snapped, "I was a hunter, a soldier." That familiar look was back, the firm, tough stance he'd adopted as a child. His words the same words he'd spoken countless times before, his training trying to rescue him from his candor. "You said it yourself, we were raised to be warriors."

"Dean…" Sam started, immediately drawn in by the look on his brother's face, the slow dissolve as the warrior was overcome by the boy's emotions. Tenderly he tried to reach him, "Dean, you didn't mean for the deer to suffer like that."

Despite his determination the hurt continued to consume the features of his face, his eyes revealing years of pain and guilt and regret as he stated the truth as he saw it, "Doesn't matter, the fact is it did suffer and I was the cause."

"But you were just a kid, it wasn't your fault." Sam's voice edged toward defiance, old battles re-emerging as he fought for his brother. "Dad should have never let you go on a hunt at that age."

"Water under the bridge, Sam," Dean dismissively stated.

Sam hesitated, unsure how hard to push, "Dean…what else?"

Surprise registered on Dean's face as he looked up into his brother's eyes. "What?" He forced out a smile, the mirror image of the cocky grin he always brought out when the going got tough. "That's not enough for ya, Sammy?"

"I don't know, it just seems like there's more. Is there?"

"Can't fool you, huh, little brother?" Hesitant smile, trying to cover, trying to.…

"Dean, you've come this far. Please, tell me."

"Can't, Sammy."

"Why? Why can't you? Please, Dean, you can trust me." Sensitive puppy dog eyes were pleading, begging for the chance to share whatever pain his brother was feeling. Softly he asked one more time, "Please, tell me."

"Trust you, huh?" Nervous laughter again, his next words hinging on a lack of belief and that hurt Sam, more than a harsh word would. "Yeah, right."

Sam's frustration was growing, bordering on anger as his brother refused to just tell him. He wasn't angry with Dean, he was angry with their lives, their screwed-up childhoods and how it still affected his big brother, wondering what else could have possibly happened to push Dean to this point. "What does that mean? You can trust me. What have we been doing this last year if not building trust? I'm your brother, man."

Dean's eyes fixed on him. "That's why I can't."

"What? You're not making sense." Sam was struggling here, trying to dig his brother out from under whatever he was feeling…trying to get through to him. "Dean, what is it?"

Oh, hell! He's a pit bull when he gets his mind wrapped around something. I should have known not to start this. He's never going to stop pushing until he knows.

Dean straightened up to his full height in the booth, soldier rigid, his jaw set and determined, eyes locked on his brother.

Sam waited, knowing it was finally coming and hoping he wouldn't be thrown by it, hoping he could be there for his brother. Dammit, what is it, Dean?

Dean took in a deep breath and then the floodgates opened and the truth held so tightly through the years spilled out. "My biggest fear was you'd find out what I'd done…that I'd killed Bambi. Then when you saw that deer and went off on that hunter, I knew I was right. I knew for sure that if you ever found out, you'd hate me."

"No, never."

"Yeah, Sammy, you would have…and I knew it. It scared the crap outta me that you'd find out what I'd done." His voice turned almost fragile as he took a step back in time. "You were six years old, everything was black and white, no shades of gray."

"But Dean, I was just a kid. I didn't know any better."

"Yeah, well.…"

Sam took a deep breath, his eyes focused on his brother as he tried to bridge the distance, tried to find a way to let Dean see himself through his eyes, the eyes of a child who'd always worshiped his big brother, the eyes of a man who still did. "Dean, I idolized you. I thought you could do no wrong."

Dean stared at the silverware, his hand absently fingering the dinner knife, his finger gently running along the blade until he succeeded in drawing out a thin line of red on his thumb, trying with all his might to withdraw from the world and this conversation, wondering how he'd ever been sucked into this vacuum. Sam's eyes were a constant on him and he felt them boring a hole through his skin, probing ever deeper, demanding answers, answers he no longer cared to examine.

When it appeared no distraction was going to avert Sam's attention, Dean relented and exposed the wound; hoping time had lessened the pain. Praying the consequences would not be what he had always feared. Tired of the unbearable suspense, ready to face the inevitable and finally be free of this secret.

"See, Sammy, that was the problem. You always thought I could do no wrong, but you were wrong. I wasn't perfect, and it terrified me that you would wake up one day and realize it. That you'd see the real me for once and turn away."

"Dean, why would you think that?" A voice steady and sure tried to reassure as he stated the facts as he knew them, "I'd never turn away from you. You should know that."

Dean looked up at Sam with pain in his eyes. "Yeah, right…."

"Dean, why would you say that? Why would you think that? Please, tell me."

Dean's pain was consuming every feature on his face, every fear he had buried as a child rising to the surface, no longer refusing to be denied. He took in a deep breath and slowly released it, dreading the words as he finally revealed the truth.

"You turned on Dad."

"What?"

"You always judged Dad, you always…" he choked down a tense breath before he continued, "You turned against Dad when he didn't live up to your expectations." Dean gave a small shirk of his head, that hesitant scared grin again twisting his mouth into a fake smile. He gave one last shrug. "Why would I have been any different?"

"But Dean, I wouldn't turn away from you, Dad was different…." Only now Sam saw it wasn't different, not to a child. It was the same, it was family. And then all the pieces of the puzzle came tumbling down and formed a perfect picture, an undeniable portrait of Dean, shaped in the image of Dad.

Why didn't I see it before? Dean's looks may have come from Mom, but Dad was his role model. The parent he had to mold himself after, the man he spent his life emulating; from the hunter attitude to the worn leather jacket to his love of the Impala and countless other similarities, Dean identified with Dad. When I attacked Dad, Dean felt I was attacking him.

Dean continued on, his words honest and brutal, finally revealing his fear, "Yeah, you would have and I knew it. I always knew it. You know…I was just a kid, too, you just never saw it."

"Dean, I'm sorry. I never knew."

Dean casually shrugged his shoulders, trying to dismiss the weight still there. "Yeah, well, now you do. No biggie. Wonder when our food's coming, I'm starving here."

As if on cue, the waitress returned with their food. She placed their plates on the table, reminding them they were hot before checking the order one last time. She then placed the bill in the center of the table and left with a smile.

"Looks good, dig in." Dean at last had something neutral to occupy his mind and he embraced the chance to abandon this conversation.

Sam silently picked up his fork and poked at his food, considering his next course of action. What words would comfort his brother now?

Dean had never in his life taken this long to clean his plate. It was almost like he knew the minute he was done and no longer had a focus other than their conversation he would be thrust back into the thick of it. Sam had finished his food and was patiently waiting him out. Not gonna work this time, Dean. We are finishing this and I don't care how long you stall.

Dean finally swallowed the last bite and pushed his plate to the side of the table. He reached for the bill then. "All right, we better get back on the road if we're gonna make Pittsburgh by morning."

"Not so fast, Dean. We need to talk."

"No, Sam, we are done talking."

"Not hardly, big brother."

Dean anxiously looked around the diner. A new couple had recently sat down in a booth just feet from them. The privacy they had previously enjoyed was now gone.

"Not here. Outside," Dean growled as he gave his brother a firm, no arguments look before rising from the booth, grabbing the bill and proceeding to the cashier by the front door.

Sam silently followed, allowing his brother this temporary respite, just until they were outside, determined to finish their talk and resolve this.

Once outside, with only the stillness of the night to disturb them, Sam again pursued the truth. "Dean, we are talking about this, now."

"So what exactly do you want to talk about?" Dean spat back, his anger barely contained.

"Why you're still worried about me hating you, turning away from you."

"Sam, just leave it alone."

"No."

"Trust me, you don't want to know." Dean again spoke with nervous laughter; still trying to hide the pain he felt, the pain that consumed him.

"Yes, I do," Sam adamantly replied. "Tell me."

"Sam, you don't live in the real world. You've always been protected. Keep it that way. Just let it be."

"No, tell me. If something is wrong, I want to know," Sam stubbornly insisted.

"Yeah, you want to know." Dean shook his head, hundreds of thoughts and fears running through his mind. "Trust me, you don't. Just leave it."

"Damn it, Dean, I am not a kid anymore. Tell me!"

The weight of the years combining with the relentless probing of his brother finally wore the tentative resolve of Dean down to his breaking point, the point of no return. Weary of the secrets and fears that had buried him within his grief all these years, he was finally ready to just be free of them, once and for all.

"Okay, you want to know? Think about it real hard, Sammy, 'cause there's no turning back once it's said." The look in Dean's eyes and the tone of his voice all screamed out in anger. Years of pent up emotion coming to a boil, a dangerous crescendo. "We can get in the car right now and never bring this up again. If I were you, that's the door I'd pick."

Sam returned the anger, the tension breaking his resolve to maintain his calm. "No, you started this, finish it, dammit!"

"Think about it, Sammy, you don't mean that."

"Yes, I do. Tell me what has you so terrified."

Dean was shifting his body again, nervous.., anxious…about to reveal the secret. His eyes looked so haunted, scared, but also steely and determined. What the hell! I'm just so tired of this hanging over my head, tired of the waiting.

"Killing that deer, disappointing you when you were six, hell, that's only the beginning. You don't know half the stuff I've done out there on the hunt. You have no idea the things I've killed. What I've had to do to keep going, what I've lost along the way. All these years, I did my damnedest to protect you from the truth, to give you a safe world to live in and you have no idea the cost. The truth is, you have no idea what I'm capable of."

"Whatever you did, whatever you killed, I know you did your best. Dean, you don't have to be perfect, you're human, that's what it means to be human. So you made some mistakes, who hasn't? It doesn't make you a bad person; it doesn't mean you don't deserve my love and respect." Sam shuddered from the urgency of his words, his response heartfelt and real, his next comment the truth he only wished his brother could believe. "I could never look down on you. Never."

"Those are nice words, Sam, but you don't know." Dean's voice was again fracturing, breaking up from the strain. "This job, this life, it does stuff to you and all I've ever wanted was to not disappoint you."

"Well, then I guess you succeeded, 'cause, Dean, there is nothing you could tell me that would make me disappointed in my big brother. That's just not happening, so you better get used to the idea, 'cause like it or not, there is no way I would ever turn away from you. You are stuck with me, dude."

Dean stared at his brother, still buried deep in that hole with his fears, those hollow feelings; still terrified that their closeness, the bond they shared could disappear in an instant if Sam ever stopped seeing his fearless, bold, protector big brother and saw the fragile, fucked-up excuse for a human being Dean Winchester really was. Knowing it would all be over if Sam ever faced all the sordid things he'd done in his life.

Time to put the mask back on and hope all my fears are dead wrong, that maybe I can count on him to stand by me regardless. Maybe I'll just have to pretend I believe. Maybe if I pretend hard enough, it will come true.

All righty, then. His smirk reappeared along with his cocky attitude. "Oh, God, now you're threatening me."

"Damn straight."

The brothers shared a smile, tentative, but real. Sam knew he had just put a chink in his brother's protective wall. He hadn't yet succeeded in knocking it down, but it was a start. Now that he knew what Dean's fears were, he could keep reassuring him. With time he knew the wall just had to collapse, and he would be there to witness it. Hell, if the Berlin Wall can come down, then I guess the Winchester Wall can't last forever.

The quiet, shared moment between them was soon interrupted by the sounds of an argument. They continued across the parking lot towards the sounds and Dean again paused by the deer strapped to the Caddy. This time he wasn't distracted by the deer, but from the altercation arising from the deer. Two PETA supporters had discovered the deer and were arguing with the owner of the caddy. Two sides of a volatile issue were screaming out their beliefs at ten o'clock at night in a backwater town that's biggest prior controversy was whether the stores should stay open later on the weekend.

The hunter was a large, brute of a man, looking like he'd failed the eighth grade and gone on to an illustrious career as a gas station attendant. Brains were definitely lacking by the tone of the argument.

"Just shut the hell up."

"Sir, you need to consider the animal's rights here. We were not put on this earth to destroy the other animals. We need to live in harmony with them."

"Oh, hell, you commie liberals or something?"

"Sir, our political affiliation has nothing to do with this conversation," the woman replied.

Dean considered these were the most restrained and logical PETA protestors he had ever encountered. Hell, even Dad might not want to shoot them. Without a second thought, Dean leaped into the fray, "Look, folks, I doubt you're going to come to an understanding, so why don't you just call it a night?"

"Who the hell are you?" the man yelled.

"Us?" Dean comically raised his brow, his dimples flickering above a playful smirk. "We're John and Yoko, why don't we just give peace a chance? All right?"

"What the hell?"

"Look, you're never going to agree on this, so just give it up. Okay?"

"Son of a bitch!" And the brute took a swing at Dean. Dean ducked and the bruiser staggered before regaining his balance.

"Last chance, mister. Let it go," Dean reasoned, demonstrating considerable restraint.

"Or what?"

Dean hauled off and connected his right fist with the deer slayer's jaw. The man's head jerked back, but returned with a fierce snarl. He was taller, heavier and had more muscle than Dean, but Dean had fifteen years of pent-up pain and anger and this lucky bastard was the recipient of all that fury. This was no contest, this was a Winchester massacre.

Five minutes later, Dean was bloodied and bruised, but standing victoriously over the unconscious son of a bitch that dared face off against a Winchester. A royally pissed-off Winchester, no less.

"Or that!" And Dean smiled, the left side of his face barely able to subtly turn up in a smile. He turned his attention to the two PETA supporters then. "I guess that settles the debate. Ladies." He nodded and turned to walk away.

Sam smiled at the efficiency of his brother and the obvious joy he got out of laying out this hunter. "Nice job."

"Thanks. Stupid son of a bitch."

"Yeah, he should know better than to mess with a Winchester."

"Hah, he should know you're never gonna get a PETA protester to change their mind. Waste of effort. Gotta learn to just let it go."

"Good advice. You feel better?"

Dean looked at his brother then, knowing this conversation was hardly about a stupid deer hunter, at least not this stupid deer hunter. He thought back to that other hunter, all those years before, still wishing he could lay him out on the ground, make him pay even more for hurting his little brother. He guessed maybe what happened all those years ago just had to be enough.

Dad had checked all the newspapers for any article on the incident and found nothing. Hospital records said it was just a flesh wound; the guy probably didn't even have a limp after it healed. As a kid, he just wanted to make him pay, wanted to hurt him for hurting Sammy. Dad had always said if you fire a gun, you shoot to kill.

Dean had disobeyed that directive. He meant to hurt him, not kill him. Like he'd told Sam, he didn't have it in him back then to kill. He'd hit what he was aiming at. Still, he'd been lucky. Now he knew even a leg wound could be deadly. A major artery or an infection and the guy could have lost the leg or even died. It could have ended so very differently.

The dumb bastard was lucky; lucky he met up with Dean when he was still a child trying to be a man, before he had completely succeeded in burying his innocence. Now, it might have gone differently and that scared him. How could Sam understand what he was capable of, when he himself was still unsure? It scared him sometimes when he considered how far he would go to protect his family.

"Dean? You all right?"

"Never better."

And Sam almost believed it. He would have in the past, but now he knew one of Dean's many secrets. His brother had finally cracked open the door to his psyche and given him a glimpse of the life he lived as a child. A life Sam should have been aware of, but somehow was shielded from, or just lacked the insight to see, blinded by the image of his fearless protector.

Now that he knew, he hoped to reach his brother; to finally batter down that wall and connect with that scared child and rescue him. It was going to take time; after all, that wall wasn't built in a day. It had been constructed brick by brick, by every harsh word or hurtful event over the course of his brother's troubled life. Sam was in this for the long haul. However long it took, he would be there to help his brother heal from his childhood. Dean had taken care of him his entire life; maybe it was his turn now.

"Dean, remember when Dad used to let us drive the Impala out in the desert, when we were, what, just twelve or so? Good thing we were tall or we'da never reached the pedals."

"Yeah." And Dean smiled a warm, genuine smile, the memory touching on one of the good times in their lives, one of the times Sam had previously buried and forgotten. One of the times that maybe they needed to revisit more: a happy, fun time, a fond memory.

Dean was grinning wildly. "I remember when he told you to back it down that narrow dirt road and he better not hear any scrub trees scratching the paint on his baby. I can't believe he trusted you to do that. I'da thrashed you if you'd scratched up that car."

"Man, that made me nervous! Those bushes were right up next to the road. The car barely fit and I knew how much he loved that car."

"Never as much as you, Sammy." Dean again looked at Sam with moisture in his eyes, a chick-flick moment threatening to spill over into this trip down memory lane.

"Yeah, I know." And Sam grinned. He always knew Dad loved them; he just refused to acknowledge it above all the other crap. Now he realized Dean saw that first and the other stuff was always a distant second. Maybe he should try that perspective for once, focus on the good times. "Remember your first 180?"

Dean smiled his cocky grin, his entire face lighting up at the memory. "Good times."

Sam contentedly watched his brother, now so relaxed and happy, a totally different man than the one he'd just shared a major conversation with. "Good times," Sam agreed, and he smiled, because he knew he actually meant it.

The End

bjxmas December, 2006.

All standard disclaimers apply.

Thank you for reading.

Apologies for taking so long to post this final chapter, real life again standing in the way of the fun stuff. Stay tuned for a new story taking shape, a courtroom drama inspired by my recent research as a juror in a criminal trial. I think the Winchesters might be encountering a haunted courtroom….

Heartfelt thanks to those who take the time to leave reviews, for me or any other writer you happen to read and enjoy their stories. Each and every review I receive is treasured. Like most writers, I live with serious doubts, often times wondering why I spend so much time on these stories.

Coming from a musical background, I look at reviews as applause. I just saw Cats on stage and just being in the audience and listening to the applause makes me envy the performers 'cause I know how great that feels to know your hard work is appreciated. I can't even imagine looking out at a sea of smiling faces thanking you for entertaining them. I certainly hope J & J know how much we appreciate their efforts.

Until next time, take care, B.J.