This story was a originally part of my story, The Chick Flick Moments That Never Happened to Dean Winchester, which is a series of a stand-alone shorts. It turned out to be so complete and a lot better than I orignally though, that I decided it should stand on its own. Please let me know what you think! Thanks.


The sun was searingly bright when Dean remembered nothing but darkness. The air was clean, smelling of trees and flowers, when he recalled the fetid stink of evil and the tang of old blood. Dean Winchester was slumped back against the comfortable seat, of his beloved Impala when he had flashes of shackles and ropes binding him. He was dirty. There was blood beneath his fingernails, encrusted the soft cotton of the button-down beneath his leather jacket. His head pulsed and throbbed with a distant pain that the vivid sunshine made all the more near. Strangely, he was keyed up, motions wild and unchecked by adrenaline. But the one thing he could focus on and what his mind, festooned with cobwebs and forgetfulness, knew how to fix was his stomach-rumbling, hand-shaking hunger. With a wheezing sigh, he dragged his weary, aching body into the grocery store in search of food, and tried not to panic about not being able to remember where he'd been or what day it was.

Dean lived in the thick of the most horrific evil the world had never seen. He looked in it its luminous black eyes, and fought it with everything he had. He walked shoulder-to-shoulder with death and decay, and even managed defeat the Grim Reaper a few times. He knew that with every kill, a bit of him died too, hardening and growing all the more cynical and detached, like his father, but it seemed like a small price for keeping families whole. For keeping children from becoming him. He made an effort to make everything a joke, to find the levity in whatever he could, and eventually learned to like the nuances of his unconventional life. He'd lived it for twenty hard years, and nothing shocked him anymore. Not until he'd turned into the junk food aisle, and saw a woman, her eyes beetle black, dragging a little kid through the grocery store.

Dean's blood chilled. He was dizzy with fear. His heart slammed against his breastbone as he realized that no one noticed the possessed woman, reeking of sulfur and gin, tugging an innocent child around the store. If demons were anything, they were audacious, but he'd never thought they could go this far. He dropped his basket, contents spilling out across the aisle, and approached the thing gun drawn. With deft movements, the kid was tugged behind him, all terrified eyes and little body. "Don't think I don't know what you are," Dean seethed. "Let the kid go, Snake Eyes."

The woman screamed, horrified by the gun, her demonic eyes darting between the weapon and the child Dean was protecting. Weakly, he was aware of the other patrons, ducking for cover, dropping baskets, running to safety. It was better for them to be scared of the freak with the gun than be anywhere near a kill-happy demon.

But it was doing a fantastic job of playing the traumatized victim, shaking and panting and cowering. She called to the child like she was beckoning a dog. Dean knew he couldn't shoot her, and he wasn't sure what to do. He patted the kid's shoulder reassuringly, grimly noting that the child had wet himself out of fear. "Run outside, kid, you're safe now. I'm going to help your mother."

The kid's big, brown eyes darted to his mother, who was nodding frantically. "Go home, baby. Momma will be fine. Go NOW!"

Dean started. He knew the tone. It was burned into his subconcious. Take your brother outside as fast as you can. Now Dean. Go! It was the chilling demand of a parent trying to save a child.

No demon could duplicate that.

A blinding pain licked across his skull, oily stars popped through his vision. He blinked to shake it off, and when he looked at the mother again, over the sights of his useless .45, he saw nothing but a slight, sobbing woman, on her knees, piercing green eyes wide with fear. He was inundated with sparks of memories—the gurgled screams of pain, the dead woman by the stairs, a pristine green sofa and floral wallpaper splattered with crimson. Dean recoiled back into a shelf, aware of the pain it caused. "'M sorry…so sorry." Dean stammered, backing down the aisle.

He'd heard the wail of approaching sirens and tucked his gun away and left the store, hobbling to his car. Gunning the engine, he pulled around back, easing down an alley and through the town's side streets to avoid the police cruisers. With blurred vision, he ambled towards the interstate, and sped out of town.

He put hundreds of miles between him and the grocery store, ignoring the eerily black eyes of other drivers, the gas station attendant, the baby in the motel lobby.

He locked the door, sealed the perimeter of the hotel room with salt, armed himself with the shotgun and holy water, and started researching.

He knew from the smear of colors when he turned his head, the nausea cramping his belly and the purple pain that radiated from the side of his head that he'd hit it, hard. He knew that a concussion could change and bend the reality around him. His trusty, handmade EMF meter told him that he wasn't haunted, and hadn't picked up a cursed objected. His eyes told him the shadow of the woman flickering in the shadows and ratting the locks on the door was real.

So he huddled between the beds and the walls, and waited for the ghosts of to make its move or reality to right itself again, so he'd be free of the ghost of the woman he'd killed.

Sun and shadows moved. Pain doubled, intensified. The thing haunting him gained more strength as if it was sapping it from Dean.

The deskclerk at from the motel's main office called once he'd turned the maid away twice, but Dean stopped answering the phone. Then she'd started banging on the door.

Dean just calmly asked to be left alone. Then jammed a chair under the door, ignoring the flash of cold and the bloody woman starting at him with cold eyes. He turned the TV on when she started talking. The bang of guns on the cops shows made him jerk involuntarily. The blood from the medical shows made him puke bile all over the floor. So he settled on the Food Network, only jerking mildly when knives sliced through raw flesh. He'd heard of ghosts that could latch onto someone, drive them mad. And this bitch was winning, whittling his sanity away with efficient speed.

Finally, when the deskclerk threatened to call the police, and Dean was shaking from more than just fear, he crawled to the door, peering outside into the hum of dusk.

"Can I call anyone for you?" She asked. Dean didn't look at her eyes, kept them trained on the salt peppered carpet as he shoved bills through the door, praying she'd leave him alone.

"No. I'm fine." Dean failed at pulling off the lie.

"Call someone, sir, okay?" She said. And Dean's heart tugged at the kindness in her words. He pushed the door shut, knees buckling as soon as could throw the deadbolt, and he sank down, braced against the wood.

He could his reflection in the full length mirror off the opened bathroom door, saw the bruises spotting his forehead, his greasy hair, and eyes so dark they looked just as black as the ghost standing next to him. He barely recognized the gaunt, filthy mess of a man staring back at him.

And because he was sick and hurt and delirious, he relented, knowing he was defeated and too far gone to be ashamed. He picked up his phone and dialed without looking. When Sam picked up, Dean tugged at his unkempt, gritty hair, clinging to sanity. His eyes burned once he heard Sam's voice, strong and sunny, "Hi, Dean." He could hear the laughter of people—girls—around him.

"Sammy…" Dean blurted out, broken. He ignored the burn behind his eyes, the consequent wetness on his face.

"Dean...what's going on?"

He couldn't do it. "I just…um…Sammy, how's Stanford?"

"You're calling to shoot the breeze?" Sam scoffed. There was a tense stretch of silence. "Where are you?" Sam asked with gruff-voiced concern. And Dean almost forgave him for even leaving for Stanford right then and there just for knowing him enough that he didn't have to verbalize how bad off he was.

Dean didn't even know. He groped blindly for the tag on the door behind him, biting in a curse as the ever-present ghost lurched and leapt about the room and literally breathed down his neck, snarling next to him. His heart had been beating so fast for so long, and every jerk and fright ached. He squinted at the tag held in his shaking hand, "Garden View Inn, Pine Grove , Oregon , Room 14."

"Be there as soon as I can. Dean, can you hang on until then?"

He didn't think he could. It would take at least fifteen hours for Sam to get to him. "Yeah, Sammy."

Dean snapped the phone shut, growling at the stupid ghost sitting beside him, throwing up curdled blood. "You're really freakin' annoying."

He leaned his head back against the wall with an audible crack, canister of salt in one hand, whiskey in the other, and waited.

There were infinite kinds of evil, and Dean had seen them all. He'd seen what the tragedy of death left good men permanently twisted. He'd seen the literal hearts of good men eviscerated by evil, and knew that human will was far greater than the sum of its parts. He'd held the lifeless bodies of children who hadn't been spared from the evil he had been or even worse, died because of his own shortcomings. He knew that people could be just as evil as the thing lurking in the shadows. The ghosts of hunter's past descended upon him while he waited, reminding him of all the suffering that existed because of a determined and pissed off nine-year-old realized who'd he'd never get the mountain bike he'd wanted or live the life everyone else got, and he refused to be angry about it anymore.

He'd embraced the life of skeevy motels, ever-intensifying danger, and grisly solitude before he was old enough to shave, because he wanted to be a badass hero like his father. And now he was broken for it. Dean endured the parade of his failures, the lives he couldn't save, the people he'd killed. And the broken loved ones left to carry the burden of fatal absence. He'd seen other hunters bow and then break from it—their minds sick and scarred. And now he was one of them. Whimpering and shaking in the corner of his own personal hell as the memories were projected back, re-staged like a Broadway showing of the ultimate in macabre, in visceral detail.

He cringed away from the murder of a businessman in Des Moines he couldn't save, whose death cries he'd heard from months in his head. He clapped his hands over his ears at the sobbing screams of a woman he'd been trapped with on a ridiculously gruesome hunt for a Wendigo. He cried from the death of his own mother—not the real thing—but what Dean had imagined since that fated November night. Sam was there too, and even though he was suffering through stitches and stab wounds, breaks and black-eyes, it was the one thing that cleared his sick, sick mind from the onslaught; it was a thread of hope in a tapestry of despair, because Dean had gotten him through it. And that battered, too small little boy was now a man in a prestigious college that wanted him so bad, they were paying for him to be there.

But it was a relentless show of his grim ineptitude, and it was severing the already weak toehold he had on his sanity, shredding his nerves with unbelievably pain. His heart raced his chest and his breathing careened towards hyperventilation. Dean was too far gone now to even care that he was unglued, weeping like some swooned woman in a soap opera.

Dean whimpered like some pathetic thing when the watery form of Mark Simmons crouched next to him. There was a nasty poltergeist in his house, and he believed Dean when he told him, wanted to protect his family from any threat, even supernatural ones. He was a scrawny wholesale florist from the 'burbs who probably was skittish around water-guns. Dean thought he'd get himself killed, but Mark wouldn't take not NO for an answer and Dean recognized that steely flash in his eyes. He'd fought hard, helping Dean with the banishing spells, even protecting him with the shotgun when the ghost made its final, powerful surge. And they'd defeated it. Both were left unharmed. But it had gutted his fiancée who was hiding in the attached garage. Two days later, Mark, darkened and drunk from the grief, tracked Dean down and shot himself in the head as soon as Dean opened the door. Dean had personally scrubbed the gray matter off the otherwise pristine roof the Impala and didn't even have the strength to pretend he wasn't crying.

Seeing it all over again would kill him. It had taken a lot of booze and even more sleepless nights to remove it the first time. "Mark, don't please." He mewed to the figure loading the gun, reliving its horrific destiny.

He snarled in Dean's general direction, flickered and strobed a few times, and then the gun already in his mouth, eyes wild and wide. If he pulled the trigger, if Dean had to see his death one more time…he wouldn't survive it. He tried to burrow closer into the wall, head ducked down in submissive avoidance. He sang Metallica and freakin' crawled, too weak to stand. Wherever he went, the ghost followed like it was tethered to him by nefarious magic. He closed his eyes pulled his knees up to his chest, his heart was speeding up, and he couldn't even decipher singular beats anymore, it was just a drone of pure, painful energy. Dean held his breath, hoping he'd pass out. He nails dug deeper into his hands when the trigger was cocked, the glide of metal as loud and destructive as thunder.

But the gunshot sounded more like the slam of a hollow door. Followed by a merciful silence. For a second he thought he was gone, lost in the abyss he'd been fighting for what felt like years. But his deadened senses were coming back to him. The garbled, eerie wails and moans fell away and Dean could hear actual words. He could feel the weakness in his body, the weight of his limbs. He could feel the throbbing in his head, and the hands on his shoulders. Cool fingers cupped his jaw, sweeping down his face to gently lift it.

"Dean? Hey, hey, hey, Dean, look at me, man. You all right?" The man looked like Sammy, which was impossible because Sammy was a kid.

But his presence pushed away the demons, and let him think and observe. It felt like waking up from a decade-long nightmare. His nose immediately picked up on the stench of whiskey, sweat and vomit. His eyes flickered around the absolute dump of a hotel room, searching for the ghosts.

"What happened, Dean? What were you hunting?" Sam was crouched down beside him, eyes big and blue and worried, trying to pry the bottle of booze from his hand. "What did this to you?"

Dean let the bottle go to rub his aching head. "…can't 'member…demons, I think."

Sam was unfolding his pretzeled form, and a rush of tingling pain in his limbs pulled another pitiful moan from him. "Your'e a mess, big brother." Sam clucked, fingers pressing on the pulse point below his jaw. "You're burning up." Sam cursed, his busy hands suddenly going still as he dropped his head, analyzing and thinking. When Sam faced him again, Dean knew he had a plan. He knew he was safe. A peaceful warmth dripped over him, like molasses, and his eyes rolled back. The world, and the horror with it, finally fell away.

He'd drifted from a pool of perpetual warm and dark to back to the world with blinding lights, a broken body, and an estranged little brother. Dean had a stubborn streak wider than the Grand Canyon —the only thing he'd inherited from his daddy—and he'd never admitted defeat, never believed he couldn't come out alive. But when opened his eyes back to that faded paisley wallpaper and the fear and pain descended on him again, it was enough for him to quietly surrender again.

Dean wasn't built to ignore his little brother, and always came back to his voice, to his touch, to Sam force-feeding him pills and clucking over the infected burns on his arm and even bathing him in the tub.

Sam's purposely muted whisper brought him back to visceral pain and nauseating weakness. His vision was blurry, even the low light in the room too bright. He winced, and shifted. Bad idea. The movement ignited the pressure in his chest, and for a delirious second as he struggled to breath, panicked, he'd wonder if Sam was sitting on him. Sam was suddenly a lean shadow over him, patting his shoulder and saying words he couldn't hear over the rush in his ears and the chattering off his own teeth. Dean understood the once calloused, but now smooth hand that slipped into his, freezing cold to his fevered skin, though, and he drew in a short breath, huffing it out in a rapid inhale.

He closed his eyes as the same sobering hands gingerly lifted at the shoulders and more pillows were tucked behind him, which helped him breathe.

"Better, Dean?"

"…mhmm…"

Sam disappeared but returned a full three seconds later. Dean heard the clinking of dishes, and soon felt a spoon at his lips. "I know you're not a baby or an invalid," Sam droned, repeating Dean's own disclaimer. "Just let me do it."

Dean could only manage a weak glower before he opened his mouth and accepted the lukewarm chicken broth. "Gross," he groused. "...hate this."

"Well, it's no picnic for me either, Francis," Sam said, feeding him some more. "What were you hunting, Dean, King Kong? Almost took you to the hospital twice. I think one of your ribs is broken, you've got infected burns on your arm and welts on your back...you legs and shoulder are pretty swollen."

"..ya did good, Sammy...feel better." He swallowed, sighing as the stale, warm liquid soothed his sandpaper throat. "...told you can't remember. I got demons ontop of demons...was seeing them everywhere."

Sam lifted his eyebrows in confusion. "Everywhere?"

"...truck drivers...dogs...moms in stores..."

"Concussion?" His not-so little brother guessed.

"...pretty funky one."

For the first time, he'd looked and marveled at the man his brother had become in less than two years. Sammy was still there with their father's eyes, their mother's patience, and those dimples out of left field, but he was a little bigger, a lot taller and incredibly clean cut. College agreed with him as Dean knew it would.

Dean hated college.

"I'm trying to find out what happened to you, and then we're gonna go to Bobby's."

"I'm fine, Sammy. Don' you have school?"

"Now I know you're got knocked around, because you'd never willingly say that."

And finally, he'd felt it all—the fear of what he couldn't remember; the desperation of feeling like he'd break from all of his fatal failures. He closed his eyes at the violent onslaught, breath blocked in his throat. His heart pounded, and like a domino effect, his body because to object, lighting up with pain like a pinball machine. Sam, even having been gone for months, hadn't forgotten the sounds Dean made and was gingerly turning him just as he vomited chicken broth on the floor, and the fabric of his nice khakis. "It's okay, Dean, hang on okay."

The pain flared nastily from every part of him, so much that Dean wanted to cry, felt the niggling heat of tears in his closed eyes, the coolness of them on his fevered checks. And he surrendered again. Not caring what had happened, especially if it kept Sammy away. His resolve crumbled, and he clutched at his brother, twisting at his clothes. "Stay here, Sammy…don't want you…near it."

"Dean, it's okay," Sam said firmly over Dean's wheezing breaths. "I'm not leaving you."

"You can't…don' want you hurt…please," Dean felt crazed, tugging at his little brother with all of the strength he had left. He needed Sam to understand.

The elder Winchester flopped bonelessly against the pillows, head lulling. "Stay wit…me, Sammy. Stay here…" He clutched at the collar of Sam's sweater, locking the joints in his hand like a starving pitbull with a bone.

His eyes rolled shut, tears licking down his face, mixing with the cold sweat that silvered his skin. He felt Sam angle his arms around him, tugging him close.

"I'm right here. I swear I'm not leavin' you. Not goin' anywhere…right here…" were the last words he heard.

Dean had become a man at fourteen. On that hot October day—in the midst of an Indian summer—when he'd made the decision to spend the rest of his life hunting, he'd never looked back. He didn't sit around, weeping and playing the what-if game. He plowed ahead, focused on the goal of killing one evil and ugly before moving on to the next. But now, as he lay limp from sickness and flooded with pain, all he could think about was Out There—the world beyond the familiarity and craziness of hunting. He thought about how he was ten-years-old and he and Sam were trapped in some crappy motel room with nothing but cans of Spaghetti Os and fruit cocktail, and all he wanted was tuna noodle casserole. He decided from watching a rerun of Jeff Smith that he could be a chef. Cooking was barely controlled chaos and danger and exciting with the fire and the knives. Dean was great with knives.

Suddenly, he was consumed with that childhood dream and the unabashed happiness he had when Bobby let him have full reign of his kitchen a week later, and didn't give him anything more than amused grin at the mess on the floor, and inexplicably, the ceiling. People didn't die if you overcooked their chicken. Ghosts don't haunt you if you forget the breadsticks. So Dean watched nothing but the Food Network and dreamt of spending his days worrying about the flakiness of his pie crusts. He knew Sam was worried about him. He'd felt the stares and overheard the whispered calls to Bobby, but Sam had seen him through much worse—a dozen surgeries and a nasty bout of poisoning—and knew he'd deal.

Sam bounded into the room, tucking his phone into his pocket. He was wearing an honest-to-God baseball cap and that shadowed his bloodshot, blue eyes. Dean's watery eyes sank back to the TV. Sam stood in the threshold. Minutes later, the warm, safe cocoon of blankets Dean was buried under were snapped off of him in a flutter of cotton and cold air.

"Get your lazy ass up," Sam said affectionately, but firmly. He patted Dean's shins with a beckoning smack.

Dean groped blindly of the covers, not bothering to muffle a groan of pain. But Sam had other ideas. He gingerly hefted Dean upright and swung his legs so his bare feet hit the floor for the first time in four and a half days. "Go shower. Can't let the pain get the better of you."

Dean's face hardened. He didn't want to move or process. He just wanted to stay numb and safe. He wanted Sammy to stay.

"I found out what happened to you..."

The tremor of his voice made Dean shake his head, and proclaim, "I don't care."

"Yes, you do. Go shower. I'll pack up. We'll talk about on the road."

The choking trepidation of the past few days coupled with the pain was more than even Dean could bare. He looked at a contented Sam, prouder than he'd ever was that he'd gotten out. That he'd stood up to his father. That he'd carved his own path that led away from death and evil and torture. Dean had taught Sam everything he knew, but maybe, Sam could teach him how to walk away. "Let's just get it over with."

Sam seemed to lose his nerve. He'd swooped back in with this newfound confidence and a swagger he'd never had before he'd left. And that suddenly deflated. His shoulders dropped and he looked at Dean with sadness in his eyes. "You sure?"

He shrugged, indifferent. He knew the worst of it. He'd killed someone.

Sam sat down. "Um, well, the journal said you were checking into suspicious murders—family members killing each other. Bleeding hearts suddenly offing their dogs, co-workers…" His eyes flickered to Dean's, and he knew they were flat with unfamiliarity. He didn't remember that.

"Well, Bobby found a hunter who'd come in to do the same a few days before you called me to check out the same thing. He talked to this child…Micah Bradley…you saved his life, Dean."

Dean suddenly flashed on scared too-big brown eyes and the violent instinct to protect. "And…how did I do that exactly?"

His younger brother raked his fingers through his hair—a telltale nervous habit—and scratched at the lint on his sweater sleeve. "Micah said his mother was 'crazy' and had 'locked up the man with the cool car'. He said she had black eyes and said bad things. Which is obviously, possession," Sam said, amazed.

Possessions weren't common, the only one the Winchesters had ever heard about was Bobby's late wife, and that was always believed to be a myth. Dean had only heard about it from other hunters as Bobby never brought it up. Ever.

Sam licked his lips, and continued. "She was hurting him, and you stopped her. With the gun."

He'd been waiting for it. The fatal blow wrapped in Sam's trademark sensitive delivery. But he hadn't expected it to burn quite so much. There was a physical pain, one that eclipsed that of his injuries, at the thought that he'd taken someone's mother from them. That poor Micah would grow up without that guiding touch or the sweet voice. That he'd lay awake at night and wonder what he could have done to get his mom taken away. "I killed his mom."

Sam was at his side with no memory of the movement, hands firmly on his back. "I read the reports. Talked to that hunter. She beat and tortured you when you tried to exorcise her. She burned you with cigarettes. She locked you in that house for at least two days. I also saw the reports on the kid. I saw the medical records. She was…choking him when you shot her."

He closed his eyes and tried like hell to remember any of it, but there was only white noise and flashes of feeling. He didn't need the ghosts of hunting's past to drive him over the edge. He'd just needed the truth. The memories he'd obviously blocked out for his own sanity.

Sam's eyes glistened. "There's one other thing," he produced a photocopy of a newspaper article. He'd recognized the grocery store and the panicked patron he'd held at gunpoint. "That woman…the one you thought was a demon…she kind of was. Well, she's an alcoholic, Dean, she'd drove her kid to the store, two sheets to the wind, to buy more booze. She seems to think you were an angel or something. Her kid's staying with her sister while she goes to rehab. You saved two kids, Dean. That's amazing."

Dean twisted, barely feeling the pressure from his abused ribs, and crawled back to the head of the bed, barely heard Sam's worried protests.

He settled on the mattress, pulled up the sheet in what was a very literal waving of the white flag. He didn't know anything else all he knew was that he was done hunting.

Sam talked all the way from Oregon to Bobby's compound in South Dakota . He told Dean about school, adding every miniscule detail he could remember from the smell of the trees and ocean to his lack of knowledge about shopping for food and to his annoyance at other students panicking over trivial stresses.

He painted a beautiful scene of hard work, freedom and the misadventures of discovering the world they'd always been barred from as kids. It sounded seductive and enticing and normal.

"You could come with me, ya know, if you wanted…" Sam casually asked, turning towards him.

And Dean found himself nodding.

The plan was remarkably simple. Dean was going to recooperate at Bobby's while Sam finished out the semester and then they'd find an apartment. Luckily Sam had established legitimate credit in the months he'd been at Stanford, and even managed to save a bit of money.

Dean spent his days helping Bobby tow cars and he even started cooking again, frying chicken and grilling ribs. Bobby had never eaten so well in his life, an with regular emails and calls from an over-the-moon little brother, Dean found himself again, found the passion for life that hunting had given him, found the love for his car and the sun and the trees. After two weeks, he could hold a gun without his hands shaking or feeling like he was going to retch. He still sparred at some bar that had fight clubs on Wednesday nights. He still threw knives to clear his head. But he never thought about hunting, barely missed the job.

Until John appeared in the kitchen, cutting through the milky sunlight like some foreboding figure. Dean stepped back from the stove, towel casually tossed over his shoulder, and felt a chill amble down his spine. He'd texted John, about two weeks ago, but otherwise hadn't checked in. Bobby welcomed John with a beer laced with Holy Water and a pointed look at Dean, urging him to speak his mind. Dean severed the look with a drop of the head, feeling his back straighten as John shucked his jacket and sat at the table.

"Smells good," John said, eyes hidden under the brim of his hat. "What's cookin'?"

"Chili, sir."

"Is it ready yet?"

Dean glanced at the simmering pot. "No, sir, needs to simmer awhile."

"What about you?" John wondered gruffly. "You ready yet, Dean?" The disembodied smirk beneath the shadowed eyes was disconcerting.

"…about that, sir, I need…that last hunt…was...well, it made that werewolf debacle look like a girls' slumber party." Dean hadn't felt the shame that now reddened his cheeks when he'd said the same thing in greater detail to Sam or Bobby. "Demon possession," he said with a grimace.

"That's really what it was?" He actually seemed to light up with pride. "Demon pin you down?" John stood up and to pace the kitchen, boots clumping steadily on the wooden floor.

He had trouble meeting his father's eyes, and focused on scrubbing the already-clean counter. "That's what I hear. Got my bell rung pretty good. Details are sketchy."

John's face changed, and Dean saw empathy and understanding there. "Some hunts can be the worst things you've ever seen, son, but you gotta get back on the horse."

Dean nodded, taking the advice to heart. There was no one tougher than his father. Dean had spent years believing he was a superhero, slightly better than human. "Yes, sir, but…I need time."

John moved closer to him and took the lid off the pot of chili, stirring it gingerly. "I got a lead on a demon myself," he began, like Dean hadn't spoken. "A big one." He grabbed the bottle of red pepper flakes and added a pinch without even tasting it. "I think it may be tied to the thing that killed your mother," John continued.

Dean's heart flashed with cold—the primal, visceral need for vengeance he'd ignored swelled painfully in his stomach. "What? Where?"

"I got word that it might not be targeting random families, but specific ones. And I think I figured out a way to track it---weather signs, electrical storms. It's just a theory…a fetus of a theory, but I may be onto somethin. I'm gonna need your help, Dean."

Specific families. His hands clenched and the murderous rage that was almost a pleasantly vague sensation clamored back, fuel in his veins.

"We hunt together?" He asked, lifting his eyebrows hopefully.

He knew he couldn't hunt alone yet, and was desperate enough to lie to bide him more time, but he could hunt with his father again. He'd be fine with a second gun at his back on the trail of the thing that killed his mother. Targeted her. And once they slaughtered it, he could he think about walking away for good.

"Of course, Dean, I need you with me." John was adding salt now. "You're a damn good hunter, son. We make a good team."

Dean leaned against the counter, and thought about how upset Sam would be if he took this away from him. The one thing he wanted as much as his independence. Sam and John had both deserted him, going their separate directions, hellbent on separate goals. Inexplicably, they were both clamoring for him now, and it made his head swim.

Except Sam was going to be tied up at school and with friends until the end of the semester. And there were lives that needed to be saved. Saving one life never made up with not being able to save another, but it would leave some good behind instead of scorched earth and scarred souls, and he'd killed someone. He couldn't ignore that. He couldn't hole up in a junkyard and pretend it didn't happen.

Dean looked up at his father, startled that he was doling out a bowl of hot chili that still needed to cook for another hour. "Dad…"

John looked at him, eyes finally visible and sparking with a renewed hope Dean hadn't seen in years. "I think it's ready now."

Dean took the bowl, and nodded jerkily. "Yes, sir."

Breaking the news to Sam felt something akin to carving out one's own heart and tossing it in a woodchipper.

Sam's face darkened the second he sat down at the table of some overpriced, froo-froo coffee shop near campus and saw the telltale shape of Dean's concealed weapon. But his brother was pre-law, and truly believed in innocent-before-guilty, and let Dean tell him. He stammered through the lies, even though he had rehearsed the speech a few times on the drive over, sharing his nerves with the only family member that wouldn't rat on him.

Sam tried to talk him down, calmly and sensibility. Dean didn't budge under the scrutiny, the stony mask he'd first mimicked then adopted from his father never slipped. Dean was unwaveringly confident in his decision, or at least, he wanted Sam to think so. But his baby brother was the only one's left who was fluent in Dean. Sam leaned forward, the dark blue warmth fading from his eyes, and pounded the table. "Don't insult me by thinking you can pass off Dad's agenda for your own. You talk to me when you can manage to tell the truth." Sam stood up, all new foreboding height and icy stare, and left the coffee shop, ignoring the dozens of eyes following his departure.

He was on his feet in a second, jogging to catch up to his long-legged freak of a brother and dragging him into a back parking lot…a stuccoed wall blocking out all indications of paradise.

It was a Winchester place to have it out.

Sam pushed Dean off his him with his still-oddly sharp reflexes and he stuttered back against the wall, barely registering the blow. He turned into it, landing a flattened side against the wall and felt the air wheeze out of him like a bagpipe. But even a Dean regaining his breath didn't miss the silver of tears in his brother's eyes and the anxiety that was careening off him in waves.

"Sammy…" Sam shook his head, pacing, fists opening and closing like he wanted to punch Dean—a feeling not uncommon—and was barely restraining himself. "Talk to me, kid."

"You almost died!" Sam exploded, from quiet ire to loud, messy emotions. "Don't you get that? When I got to that hotel room, you were beaten and you had a raging infection. You were muttering about ghosts and hunts gone wrong and babies with black eyes. You were in so much pain your teeth were chatterin'. And the worst thing about it is that I knew it would happen. It wasn't an 'if' or a 'maybe', it was a 'when'."

"Sam…" Dean said calmly, still pressed against the wall.

"No! You think I'm here and it's perfect, and it's not—it's hard and it can suck sometimes. But it's a hell of a lot better than crappy motels and even worse food and risking your life for people with no reward. But all I can do is here is worry about you and about dad. And I worry so much it makes me physically sick, Dean," Sam raged. He took two giant steps and he was in Dean's face, pushing him back against the wall. "You know what happened to you. You know what you had. It's why Pastor Jim and Bobby—Bobby Singer of all people—turned their backs hunting. Doesn't that say anything to you?"

Dean let him go. When Sam got himself this worked up, there was no way to stop him. It would be like trying to tame a hurricane. He clamped his jaw shut, and let his brother do what he needed to do. For a Winchester , though, inaction was always infinitely more painful than action. When Sam got quiet, face still remarkably dry even though his eyes were dangerously full, Dean asked, "What do you want me to do?"

"I want you to STOP!" Sam hollered. His voice ping-ponged off the brick. "I want you to follow the plan we had until Dad issued an order. I want you to stay here where it's safe. I want to wake up in the morning without this huge knot in my gut because I haven't heard from you in a month and I don't know if it's because you're busy or in a coma or dead. I want my big brother."

Only now did Dean feel attacked. "I'm still your brother. I don't know where you got that selfish streak from, kid, but this is about saving lives. It's about saving people from the hell we've been through. Why is that lost on you?"

Sam shook his head slowly, eyes still glistening. "It never is, but I'm going to resign myself to living a life I hate. I want to help people but not at the cost of my sanity, my life."

"Well, we all can't get full-rides to fancy schools, dude."

"And you can't be a cop? A firefighter? Hell, even a Marine like dad was? There's more evil in the world than just…evil."

Suddenly, the two brothers that rarely fought like other siblings and were never more than a stride away were miles apart, at an impasse. Dean had a duty, an obligation to end the thing that targeted their family. Sam wanted to protect his brother, like Dean had taught him, and for him that meant eliminating the hunt…and the hunt they had yet to finish.

They stared at each other, knowing that their stubbornness and pride wouldn't let the other back down. Dean's face hardened into one of bravado and confidence and Sam's changed too, growing all the more sad, but relenting. Sam shouldered his bag, unarmed and tanned from the California sun. Dean inched towards the street where the Impala was parked and drawing appreciative stares. "I should go before someone boosts my car."

"Yeah, probably…see ya."

Sam turned and ventured down the street, back straight and strong and Dean did the same just in the opposite direction, and it felt like re-patterning a magnetic pull. He'd been trained to follow his brother, not abandon him. Then again, so had Sam. His fingers brushed the pristine paint of the Impala, and he appreciated her dependability. "One day, he'll understand," Dean told her.

He was blindedsided by long limbs as snared him in a rib-bending hug.

"Jesus, kid, warn someone." Dean huffed against his brother's back, squeezing just as hard.

Sam sniffled in response. "Take care of yourself."

He patted Sam's back and pulled back alittle. "I'm not goin' off to war, Sammy. I'm gonna be fine." He pushed Sam away from the car, smiling calmly around the pain in his chest. "Go learn some useless crap, dude. I'll talk to you soon."

"Love you." Sam whispered and let his fingers brush against the Impala before he went again.

"You're such a little bitch, Sammy!" Dean hollered down the street.

"Jerk!" Sam hollered over his shoulder.

Dean drove away, heart fluttering with unfamiliar fear, unnerving frustration and breathless anticipation. He'd hoped he and Dad could put this demon down. He'd hoped he could learn to envision life beyond the hunt. If not for himself, but for Sam.

Life, of course, never adhered to plans or unspoken dreams. For the Winchesters, the meager light could only dim. The hope could only wither.

Three weeks later, when the hunt for the demon had turned to nothing but dead ends, John, restless for a kill, left Dean had to hunt alone.

Two months later, when Dean tumbled fifteen feet down a rock-studded ravine, it was Bobby—not John—who had sat with him in the hospital, took care of him when he was released and cursed at him when he refused to call Sam. It was Bobby who ran John off with a shotgun he'd walked into the house, not to check on his son, but to sober up from a bender.

And it was two very long, painful years later when Sam and Dean would finally reunite.