A/N: I hesitate to post this because 1) it's already been Kripked and 2) it's already been Kripked. In my defense, I started this a WHILE time ago and I'm a spoilerphobe so I had no idea of the impending Kripke. So, long story short, this is essentially an AU - set before Criss Angel is a Douchebag, and should be 6-7 parts. I hope you enjoy!

Many thanks to LdyAnne for the alpha and encouragement.

Dark, Yet Lovely

The snow drifted into frozen waves across empty fields, patches of dark poking through in places as if the soil refused to yield to the clean white. Everything around them was naked and cold and lifeless. Iowa felt desolate to Sam Winchester, barrenness stretching far ahead and lingering for miles behind as he and Dean drove toward Centerville. It was a state he doubted he'd ever voluntarily visit, and didn't know why anyone would choose to remain there if they didn't have to. Between the five or six major population centers, most of them small themselves, there was a whole lot of nothing. Sam felt himself starting to ache with the nothing, even as numb as he'd become.

The distance between him and Dean felt so much wider than the span of the Impala's bench seat. Telling the truth about everything was supposed to bring them closer to understanding. Sam had even hoped it would help him feel like he had his brother back. He wanted their version of normal back. All it did was increase his worry. Before, it had hurt to see Dean because he didn't know what was going on in his brother's head. Now when he looked at Dean, all Sam could see was his brother stretched on a rack, with Alastair stripping away his flesh. All Sam saw was his brother throwing himself in the bottle or the hunt to avoid feeling. Possibly to avoid accomplishing anything worthwhile.

He was pretty sure he didn't want to know what Dean saw in him when he looked back, if he saw anything beyond his own inner turmoil. Sam couldn't blame his brother for being trapped in the grips of his own pain. He couldn't bear thinking about Dean hurting like that, but at the same time it all made him feel more hollowed out. It didn't seem like it should be possible for Sam to be as lost with Dean at his side as he'd been without. It was some sort of cosmic joke for him to be so alone when he wasn't. The god he'd thought he loved was turning out to be as cold as the bleak Iowa cornfields, cruel and lurking. His brother had been returned, but broken, and they were stuck in a loop of inaction.

"Are we going to find a motel this time?"

"It's like thirty below," Dean said, voice gruffer now than it ever had been before, like his throat had been seared and scarred. It was life. It was pain. "Of course we are."

Dean always summed up winter in the Midwest as thirty below, and summer in the South automatically meant one hundred fifty in the shade. It wasn't that cold out, but even if it were the question wasn't that far off base. Sam couldn't remember the last time the backseat hadn't doubled as his bed, or Dean hadn't spent the night awake in an attempt to hunt himself into redemption. If anyone knew that saving others to clear something ugly within wouldn't work, it was Sam. No good intentions would purify the blood pumping through his veins. No number of rescues would wipe clean the number of souls Dean tortured in Hell.

Neither of them could stop trying.

"I was just checking. We haven't exactly been ritzing it up lately," Sam said, sounding defensive and hating it. He was so fucking tired. "I figured we'd ride in, kick some supernatural ass, and ride out."

He hadn't thought that. They didn't even know what they were dealing with yet. So far there had been four deaths that wouldn't seem suspicious to most people. Most of them were spaced far enough apart, and the causes seemed natural. Except for the fact all the victims had been male, mid-thirties or younger. What he'd thought was that they'd camp on the edges of town, sleep in the car.

"You're funny, Sam," Dean said. "I thought you'd be excited to roll up your sleeves and hit the research."

"It'll be a barrel of laughs. I can't wait."

"Since when did you start hating research?"

"Since you di…" Sam reconsidered his response, scrunching his eyebrows together. "I guess I tend to lean more toward action these days, that's all."

His brother scowled and pointedly kept his eyes on the road. Sam had effectively killed what was passing as conversation, leaving the space between them lonely and more arctic than ever. His mind wandered to the only safe subject – the upcoming hunt. The thing was, Sam wasn't convinced there was a hunt in Centerville, and even if there was, he wasn't convinced they should be dealing with it. Lilith was still out there. It was Dean who insisted they needed to check it out.

Six months ago, John Case went for a midnight swim and ended up dead in the Lower City Reservoir outside town. A year ago, Rick Wanakta from nearby Mystic went cross-country skiing around Rathbun Lake and never returned. In November, Matt Keener's car stalled and in going for help on foot he somehow knocked himself unconscious and fell into a snowdrift on the road between Centerville and Sunshine. The latest, Warren Warner, had fallen asleep last week in his truck after an apparently long night of drinking and froze to death. The frequency of occurrences was increasing.

It was really the first death that had half-raised red flags for Dean. With a little digging, Sam had pinpointed the string of passive deaths had begun two years ago when Vince Watkins had committed suicide by starvation three months after his wife and baby died in childbirth. The motive was understandable, but the method was strange. There were much quicker ways to do it. Sam thought about the number of liquor bottles he'd made it to the bottom of in the months after Dean died. Suddenly, he was less convinced Watkins hadn't just given up and decided he had something to atone for which would justify such a horribly slow and painful way to die.

The man couldn't have been responsible for his wife's death, the loss of a baby. Not the way Sam was responsible for Dean dying, for Dean being tortured, for Dean torturing. A lump formed in his throat, misery trying to claw its way out of his gut. He choked it down, gazing out at the dirty snow. It wasn't rational. Sam even knew somewhere deep down that it wasn't his burden alone to bear. Just like he wasn't to blame for some demon infecting him with evil when he was a baby, or how the power that evil gave him was like a drug and a tantalizing promise of a future free from hunting.

But all of it was his fault just the same.

Lost in his own thoughts, Sam barely registered it when they entered town limits. The atmosphere tinged blue as dusk settled around them. With any luck, they'd run into a few locals to pump for information if they grabbed something to eat, but he assumed most of the night would be spent researching and pretending he didn't think they should instead be working with Bobby to figure out which seal Lilith could go after next. Or simply track her down, so they could end this once and for all. Eventually, he wasn't going to be able to pretend anymore.

Without much verbal communication, they managed to find a motel, unload their stuff and drive outside of town to the Spur, which served food that met their low standards. It was always good to kill two birds with one stone; Dean might be focusing more on hunting now, but he still tossed back more alcohol than a normal person. Sam wasn't exactly a lightweight anymore himself, and for some reason he felt like getting drunk. Maybe drunk enough to puke out the emptiness inside him, so he could expel it out of his system before the actual hunt began. No one ever refused to answer even the most ridiculous questions from a drunken man, after all, and Warren Warner happened to have been a patron of Spur the night he died. There should be plenty of people who might have insight.

He placed his food order, snagged a beer and made his way through the dimly lit room to a booth in the bar section. Dean stayed at the bar, chatting up the bartender. Sam knew he should try to mingle instead of nursing his drink, but he couldn't seem to care enough to actually do it. This had always been more Dean's thing. Just because Sam was friendlier with alcohol these days didn't mean he was social about it.

"Here are your onion rings," a husky-voiced waitress said, sliding a red plastic basket piled high with deep-fried rings between himself and the beer.

"I didn't order these," Sam said, stomach turning at the thought. There wasn't room for those in his system. He was all full up on empty. "There must be some mistake."

"No mistake, hon. They're definitely for your table. Maybe someone here likes you." The waitress shrugged at him, thumping a bottle of ketchup down. "It must be your lucky night."

Sam scanned the crowded bar area for a possible candidate, finding only flannel-wearing townies, most of whom were wearing greasy trucker hats. Well, that was unnerving. He gave the waitress a weak smile, picking up his pint glass in a mock-toast gesture.

"That's me: Luckiest guy on the planet." He took a long drink.

"Hey, free food's free food," the waitress said, following it up with a throaty chuckle that reminded him of Ellen Harvelle. "You could do worse."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Someone could have ordered you the cheese balls." She waggled her eyebrows, saying as she left, "Think what kind of person that would be."

Despite himself, Sam laughed. He wasn't quite sure he understood what she meant, but conceded the point as a fair one. It was more than likely that Dean had ordered the rings and had them sent over for his own eventual consumption. Or it was his brother's unsubtle reminder for him to eat, not that he needed a reminder. Muscle wasn't put on by starvation, though bar food wouldn't be his first choice. He poured a mound of ketchup on the edge of the basket, mindlessly picking up a ring and munching on it.

He'd finished half the basket before his meal came, and Dean with it.

"Hey, onion rings. I got dibs on the rest," Dean said, sliding into the other side of the booth. He shoved three of them, whole, into his mouth. "Mmm, good."

"Augustus, sweetheart, save some room for later," Sam muttered with a fake German accent and a real grimace.

"Cute." Dean was undaunted by the remark, picking up his burger and taking an enormous bite. "That's cute, Sam."

Food was one of the few things his brother still enjoyed without reservation, so as gross as it was to watch Dean talk with his mouth full, Sam was also grateful. It was all about the little things these days, and all he could do was cling to them to make sure they didn't disappear. Sometimes it felt like it didn't matter how tightly he clung. Everything good would go away in the end, and they would spend forever fighting an unwinnable war. He picked up his own burger with a fraction of the anticipation Dean showed, eating because he had to.

"So the bartender said Warren was a regular here. Had lots of friends," Dean said. "Never drank so much he'd pass out cold."

"Except for the night he died in the parking lot," Sam said. "I wonder where his friends were then."

"They probably thought he was fine." Dean shoved two fries and an onion ring in his mouth. "And anyway, you know better than anyone that sometimes shit happens right in front of us and there's nothing we can do about it."

Sam's stomach turned. Yes, he did know that. He pushed the basket of half-eaten food away, toying instead with a napkin. He shredded it into small pieces. He didn't much like where Dean was going with that, getting the feeling his brother was talking to him more than about Warren Warner's friends. As if on cue, he replayed Dean getting shredded into small pieces right in front of him, much like he'd done to the napkin. He couldn't stay in that mental place. Sam drained the last of his beer and slid to the edge of the booth.

"I'm gonna get another. You want?"

Dean narrowed his eyes, assessing for a moment. "Yeah. Sure."

"I'll be right back."

Sam made his way to the back of the room, heading for the bathroom first. Cold water on his face would sober him up before he drank himself into a stupor. Just another fun-filled Winchester night. He bumped into a dark-haired woman coming out of the ladies room, reaching for her elbow as she stumbled back.

"Excuse me," he said.

"It's okay," the woman said, giving him a bright smile. Her striking, dark eyes sparkled. "You can bump into me anytime."

A familiar flush of heat ran through him. Sam tightened his grasp on the woman's arm. She didn't pull away.

&-&-&