A/N: Tag to 1.01 - takes place just before 1.02. Thanks to zookitty for the awesome beta work.
: Not mine. Lyrics at beginning are from "Monday Morning Church" by Alan Jackson.

"'Cause the faithful man that you loved
is nowhere to be found
since they took all that he believed
and laid it in the ground…"

Dean violently tossed his head back, the whiskey burning his throat as he drained the shot. He really hadn't planned on getting hammered tonight, seeing as how he was hoping to drive in the morning. However, the radio kept spitting out rather depressing, overtly twangy, and downright annoying country songs, which prompted a few extra shots to prevent him from throwing the knife hidden in his boot at the old piece of junk.

"Tough week?" the portly bartender asked as he set another shot in front of Dean, shoving the three empty glasses aside.

"No, I always enjoy getting plastered and listening to crappy music on a Sunday night," Dean shot back, draining the glass again.

The barman snorted. "I hear you. I'd change the radio, but the wife won't have it," he confessed, propping his elbows up on the counter. He smirked almost sheepishly at the hunter as he added, "And I hafta listen to her if I wanna be let in the house after work. Anythin' I can help ya out with?"

Dean shook his head. "'S'not me with th' problem," he replied with a shrug. At the barman's questioning glance, he clarified, "My brother."

"So if your brother's the one with the problem, why are you the one drinking?" the bartender questioned, eyebrows furrowed.

Dean twirled the shot glass on the countertop. The glass caught in a deep groove in the varnish, sending it onto its side with a clatter. "S'complicated," he muttered, grabbing the glass before it could skitter to the floor.

"And you probably can't talk about it," the man said knowingly, straightening up. Dean merely smirked, spinning the glass again and flinging small drops of whiskey on the counter.

Lifeless eyes staring aimlessly at an orange fire, smeared drops of blood on his forehead

Dean shuddered slightly, snatching the small glass up off the counter and rolling it between his fingers.

"But y'know, if the problem's this bad," the barman continued, snagging the cup between from Dean's fingers, "you probably shouldn't be here, son."

"Where else should I be?" Dean asked, his voice going hard.

"I think you know the answer to that one," the bartender replied, a small smile curling the ends of his bushy mustache.

"Yeah, well… he's not talkin' t'me," Dean said morosely. "At least… not like he used to."

"What do you mean?"

Dean stared at the scarred counter top, subconsciously fingering at his gold pendant, wondering just why he was talking this much to a complete stranger. "Well… he left awhile ago. He needed space… so we – I – gave it to him… but now…"

"Now you don't know how to close the gap," the barman finished.

Dean nodded, his eyes locking with the barman's again. "An' I swore I'd look after him, but… I don't even know if he wants me to now," he added, his voice rough. "At least, not after…" Not after I basically killed his girlfriend.

"Not after you haven't talked for so long?" the man hedged.

Dean raised and lowered his right shoulder. "Somethin' like that."

"Well, you know, you won't ever be able to close that gap if you don't try and talk to the kid," the barman said. "Somethin' tells me he needs – and wants – to talk to you as much as you wanna talk to him."

"Yeah? What makes ya say that?" Dean asked, his voice a little more hopeful.

The bartender smiled. "Call it an educated guess," he answered, reaching for something under the counter. "You're Sam Winchester's brother, right?"

Dean's eyes narrowed as his entire body tensed, instantly suspicious. "Who wants to know?"

"Easy, buddy," the barman replied casually, handing Dean a faded, folded, and wrinkled piece of paper. "Sam worked here last summer," he explained as Dean unfolded the small sheet. "One of the best hires I ever had."

Dean's eyebrows rose up slightly when he saw the worn photocopy of a picture of the Winchester brothers taken about a year before Sam had left for Stanford. Sam's close-friend-who-just-happened-to-be-a-girl at the time – a rather curvy brunette named Amanda, if Dean remembered correctly – had visited Sam one night to "do homework" (well, actually, knowing Sammy… that's all they probably did, Dean thought ruefully) and had snapped the photo when Dean was on his way out. Sam had received it at one of the mail drops about a month after they had left that town.

Dean smiled faintly as he stared at the photo. His younger self had thrown an arm around his brother's neck, yanking him down so that his head was lower than Dean's (at the height it had been mere months before the picture). Sam was shooting Dean a glare, but his mouth was twitched in a grin as Dean smirked triumphantly.

Dean's eyes shot back up to the bartender. "Sam give this to you?"

The barman grinned ruefully. "Actually, I snuck a copy of it one night when he got so drunk after work he couldn't go home until Jess picked him up. He didn't talk about you a lot, but that night, he brought out this picture. Damn kid was nearly bawling just lookin' at the thing, and he mentioned this is the kind of place where you'd show up. Figured I'd make a copy so I could keep an eye out for the only thing that ever made that kid get drunk," he finished. "And here you are."

"Here I am," Dean repeated softly, gazing back at the image of his brother's face. And all I've done is got his girlfriend murdered and dragged him back into a life he hates.

"I heard about Jess," the barkeep murmured gravely. "How's Sam holdin' up?"

"He's…" Dean trailed off with a shrug, swallowing hard.

The bartender sighed and ducked under his counter again. He straightened up and held out a bottle of Jack Daniel's. He smiled faintly when he saw Dean's confused look. "To help you with your brother. Booze may not do much to deaden the pain, but it can make a pretty good icebreaker."

"I couldn't –"

"Please. It's on the house. That kid brought me more business in one summer than I'd had over the last two years," the man replied seriously. He chuckled a little and added, "Sam figured it was his eyes. Jess figured it was his ass."

Dean's lips quirked a little as he took the bottle. "Thanks…"

"Pat," the barman filled in. He gathered up the small collection of dirty glasses in front of him. "You take care of him, kid."

"I will," Dean replied, glancing back down at the photo still clenched in his hand.

Pat smiled as he turned away. "I know you will," he murmured.

Dean stared at the photo for a moment longer before folding it up and tucking it into his jacket pocket, next to his father's journal. He snagged the bottle of Jack off the counter and headed out the door.

The night air was nippy, and Dean's shoulders hunched instinctively to ward off the cold. The motel he and Sam were camped out at was just down the street, so he'd left the Impala in the parking lot. He kicked at a pebble lying on the sidewalk, watching disinterestedly as it skittered off underneath a parked car.

One week. It'd been a week since flames had changed the course of Winchester history – again. Only this time Dad was gone, and Dean and Sam were old and wise enough to understand the depth of the implications this fire had on their world.

For the last week, Dean had watched his brother ride a roller coaster of emotions – from angry rants where he tossed whatever was in reach in their small motel room, to wistful reminisces with the few friends that managed to track down his location, to silent funks where he stared at the empty wall with blank eyes.

And for the last week, Dean had never felt more helpless in his life. Any elation he'd had from having Sam back in the passenger seat of the Impala had been buried under guilt. After all, Sam had been just fine living on his own for four years. Then his brother shows up to talk face-to-face for the first time in years, drags him back into a hunt, only to come back home to a girlfriend pinned to the ceiling and bursting into flame? More than mere coincidence.

But that wasn't even the thing Dean felt the most guilt over. Yes, he wished all of this had never happened, that Sam could've gone to that damn interview and celebrated with his girlfriend on Friday instead of visiting her grave in a suit that was promptly burned to ashes after the visit. He wished Sam could've slipped back into his apple-pie life with hardly a mention of the weekend spent with his older brother.

But deep down, he was glad – frickin' relieved, even – that it had been Jess on that ceiling. Because as soon as Dean had heard the static as the Impala's radio fritzed out and had seen the glow of flames from Sam's apartment, his only thought had been, Not Sam. Not Sam. NotSamnotSamnotSam.

Later, after the flames had been put out and his brother was sprawled on top of a motel comforter and Dean was in the bathroom getting ready to shower, he'd thrown up until all that came up was stringy bile – a delayed reaction to the visions he'd had of rushing into that bedroom only to see Sam on the ceiling, stomach sliced open as his skins burst into flames–

Even now, Dean's stomach rolled violently at those images. But the relief he'd felt when he'd burst into that room to see Sam on his bed – alive – had turned mostly to guilt over the course of the last week as he'd watched his brother retreat away from everyone around him.

Most of it, but not all of it. Because even though he'd liked Jess the moment he'd met her, even though Sam had loved her, even though Sam probably would've married her, she was gone. Not Sam.

Not Sam.

Not that Dean could ever say that to Sam out loud. Dean knew better than that.

Still, as relieved as Dean was to have Sam alive, he was frustrated. Before Stanford, Dean had always been able to figure out a way to get Sam to cheer up. Some situations had taken longer to figure out than others, but he'd reached a solution eventually.

But now, the only thing Dean had been able to figure out was that there was absolutely nothing he could do. That didn't sit well with the older Winchester at all – his entire life had been focused on protecting Sam, making sure he was safe, watching out for him, and doing everything he could do to make the kid happy.

Dean could hear the photocopied picture rustling whenever his jacket shifted, and he sighed. He wished he could go back, stop all of this from happening, and put that wry grin back on his little brother's face.

His stride slowed for a moment when he caught sight of the silhouette inside the Impala. He changed his course slightly and curved behind the Chevy. After a split-second's hesitation, he tugged the front passenger door open and slid inside, slamming the door shut behind him.

The interior of the Impala was silent for a long time as they both stared out of the windshield at the dark walls of the motel. "You're back earlier than I expected," Sam finally croaked softly.

Dean held out the bottle of Jack Daniel's. "Brought you a present," he replied just as quietly.

Sam's hands remained in his lap for a moment. "From who?"


Sam turned his head a little towards his brother as he took the bottle. "Figured. He's a good guy."

"He is," Dean agreed, shifting slightly so he could lean back more comfortably in the bench seat. They fell silent again as Sam opened the bottle and took a few swigs. Wordlessly, Dean took the bottle when Sam held it out and took a few swallows himself before passing it back.

They sat that way for awhile, passing the bottle back and forth silently, keeping their gazes focused on the drab siding.

The bottle was nearly half empty before Sam spoke again. "She'd made me cookies."

Dean said nothing as he took another swig of whiskey, but he filed away the information. It explained why Sam's face had gone so white when one of his friends had brought over a tray of goodies to try and cheer him up.

"They were still warm," Sam continued, his voice rough and flat as he gripped the steering wheel with his hand. "She always made the best cookies…"

Dean remained silent, settling the bottle of Jack against his leg, one hand loosely gripping the neck to keep it from tipping over. He kept his eyes focused on the leather band fastened securely around Sam's right wrist, and when he moved his arm a little, he could feel his own matching bands rub his arm.

After a moment Sam shifted a little in his seat so he could stare at his brother. "Why? Why Jess, Dean? Why the hell does this keep happening to us?"

Dean tilted his head a little to look Sam in the eyes and was nearly flattened by the force of the despair he saw in those dark depths. He swallowed hard. "I don't know, Sammy."

And that was the kicker. Twenty-two years after their mom's death, decades of hunting supernatural creatures under their belts, and they still had no idea why it happened or even what did it.

Sam swallowed convulsively as he looked away. His hand clenched the steering wheel in a white-knuckle grip, and Dean had to glance down for a moment when he saw a trickle of moisture slip down Sam's cheek.

"We'll find it, though, right? Together?"

Dean raised his head again to look Sam firmly in the eyes. "Count on it."

Sam stared at him for a long moment before he nodded once and looked out of the windshield again. His grip was still white-knuckle tight on the wheel, but Dean saw a small degree of tension release from his brother's shoulders. He focused his gaze out the windshield and took another sip of whiskey.

He couldn't protect Sam from everything anymore. The last week had proven that. And tracking down whatever it was that had taken both Jess and their mom would be difficult – if not impossible. The last twenty years of their lives had proven that.

But Sam was there. Broken, defeated, maybe, but still there. As broken and messed up as their lives were, they were still together.

And as long as Dean had Sam, he'd be willing to try the impossible any day of the week.