Author's Note: Hey all! First off, a huge apology for how long this has taken to get posted. I've been trying to get this letter finished for literally going on three years, and with no productive muse whatsoever, it has proven to be a real challenge. Couple that with a broken laptop that decided to eat all of my word documents and you have a recipe for the worst writers block I think I've ever had in over ten years of writing. So again, my apologies to anyone that has been waiting or following this series. I guarantee that this series WILL be finished and I promise that it won't take a further three years lol

This chapter is dedicated to Lythandre who sent me the most wonderful message regarding these stories and definitely had a hand in getting those old creative juices flowing again. So, my dear, thank you so very much for taking the time to message me. I couldn't have gotten this one finished without you!

I hope you enjoy this chapter!

Cheers!

Disclaimer: Still just playing in the sandbox. I own nothing. Though I wish I did...


T is for Train

Train: a series of railroad cars moved as a unit by a locomotive or by integral motors; a means of travel or escape.


The old and ratty curtains fluttered in the light breeze coming in through the open window and Sam sighed quietly to himself, looking down at the open book he held loosely in his hands.

His internal clock was telling him that it was sometime after midnight and even though he was tired, completely exhausted, he couldn't seem to make himself lay down. His mind was going a mile a minute and he knew that sleep wouldn't come to him easily.

He'd made a decision that day.

After what felt like weeks of agonizing over it and thinking about it, he'd finally made a choice.

He was leaving.

It hadn't been an easy choice to make. In fact, it was probably the most difficult decision he'd made since the day he'd chosen to accept his Stanford scholarship. They were coming up on the four month anniversary of their father's death and the words still rang painfully clearly in his ears.

He just said that I have to save you, that nothin' else mattered…

and if I couldn't…

I'd have to kill you.

And as strange as it was, even though the words had originated with their father, they'd hurt all the more coming from Dean.

Sam hadn't wanted to believe it at first. He hadn't wanted to believe that the demon that had worked to destroy their lives year after year, person after person, had tainted him…poisoned him so that he could be used later for something bigger and more terrifying than anything he could imagine. Deep down in his heart, Sam had finally accepted that his father had known; somehow, someway, whatever his future held the old man had known about it and had left them to face it alone.

But not before giving his favorite son one last order.

And Dean for his part hadn't wanted to believe it any more than Sam had; the look on the older man's face when he'd told Sam about it had demonstrated that much at least. That was cause for some fleeting feelings of relief, even though it wasn't much in the grand scheme of things.

They'd checked themselves into a below-their-usual-standards motel just outside of Winona, Minnesota, and after noticing a schedule tacked up in the front office, Sam had learned the location of a small train station only a few minutes away. He'd buy a ticket and leave his family behind—his maverick older brother and his beloved cherry-black baby.

He said that I might have to kill you, Sammy.

And as he grabbed his duffle bag, quietly leaving the motel room he was sharing with Dean—who was dead to the world in the bed closest to the door—those words echoed loudly in Sam's ears.

He didn't know what his future held in store for him. All he did know was that the responsibility for what he could become would not be piled onto Dean's already burdened shoulders. There was only so much a person could take, only so many obligations one man could handle before breaking down completely. John Winchester's final words were too much, even for Sam's childhood hero.

And so he'd face those words and that destiny alone and give Dean a break from constantly protecting and constantly watching. Try to remove some of that weight and take it on himself.

Because after all, Dean didn't have the corner on protecting his brother

Sam was a brother, too.


Sprawled out on his stomach with the blankets twisted around his midsection, Dean came back to awareness slowly. The room was black as pitch, the only sounds coming from the decrepit old air conditioner that was whirring and clanking up a storm in the far corner. He briefly wondered if that was what had woken him as he stretched out his arms and legs.

As he always did when waking up in the dead of night he turned to look blankly at the empty bed only a few feet away.

It took a minute before he realized what was wrong with that picture and lurched upright.

"Sam?"

Dean's big-brother spidey-sense was tingling and without hesitation he reached over and switched on the lamp that was sitting on his bedside table. The room was suddenly bathed in light and as if his eyes didn't believe what he'd seen in the darkness he looked again to Sam's bed.

It was untouched.

"Son of a bitch," he muttered darkly to himself, raising his right hand to squint down at his watch. "Son of a bitch."

4:26AM.

With a tremendous amount of effort he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and forced himself to stand, his muscles popping the moment he started to move. The air in the room was cold and he felt goosebumps rise on the bare skin of his arms as he crossed the room in three quick strides, sweeping aside the curtains of the window. His eyes immediately fell on the rain-slicked back end of the Impala parked only a few feet away from their room door…exactly where Dean had left her.

Where the hell is he?

And when he turned around to once again study the room, it was then that he saw it.

The folded piece of paper sitting innocently on their small dining table.

Dean lunged for it, Sam's near-perfect handwriting glaring up at him in a form that was becoming far too routine for the older brother's liking. The note was short and to the point, so very like Sam, that Dean had had to read it three times before the words truly started to sink in.

I'm leaving. I can't be your responsibility anymore.

Dean prided himself on the fact that he knew Sam, genuinely knew him, better than the Sasquatch knew himself; and even though Sam hadn't said the words out loud, Dean knew that he'd been thinking about it…mulling things over and figuring out what his options were. The months since losing their father had been some of the most difficult since Sam had returned to the hunt, challenging both brothers and forcing them to bring issues into the open that both men would rather bury.

Sam's humanity, his destiny…the final words of their dad that, even months later, still haunted the now oldest Winchester.

I'm leaving.

Dean couldn't deny that he'd kept a closer eye than usual on Sam ever since. How could he not? One of the people he'd trusted most in the world had given him a stern warning and despite how much he hated it, how furious he was with his father for opening his damn mouth in the first place, he couldn't ignore it. He couldn't push it aside or pretend that it hadn't happened, regardless of how much he wanted to. Sam was his responsibility—it was his job to watch over the kid, protect him, keep him on the straight and narrow. His plan had been to lay low until they could figure out just what in the hell was going on…

Then came Sam's first disappearing act.

After the debacle in River Grove—a picturesque little town, its only flaw being that it's residents were blood-infected knife-wielding crazy people—Dean had revealed the truth about their dad's final words, and as it would with anyone, it had completely turned Sam inside out. At the first available opportunity the determined little punk had taken off for Indiana, doing everything in his power to make sure that Dean, who was traveling along angrily behind him, couldn't track him down or interfere. As a big brother who prided himself on his never-failing knowledge of Sam's whereabouts, it had been beyond humiliating having to call the Roadhouse and practically beg Ellen for information, somehow knowing that Sam would go there to recruit Ash for the cause.

Now, Dean, they say you can't protect your loved ones forever.

Well I say 'screw that'. What else is family for?

He's in Lafayette, Indiana.

And then all hell had broken loose—Ava Wilson, Gordon Walker, trip wires, and a furious Dean Winchester tied to a chair.

The two brothers had had a rare heart-to-heart in the car afterwards where Dean had said that under no circumstances was Sam to ever take off in such a way again. Whatever was coming, whatever Sam's supposed destiny was, they would work through it together as they always had previously and as they were meant to.

And Sam had agreed.

Which made disappearing act number two even more nerve-wracking.

They had just finished a simple salt and burn in West Texas and had schlepped their way into their motel room, Dean stripping off his sodden black jacket and kicking off his boots in a near stupor. Sam had very graciously offered to walk to the diner down the street to pick up burgers, and Dean, ecstatic at the idea of a cheeseburger with hot sauce and extra onions, had handed his brother a crisp twenty dollar bill before throwing himself face first onto his bed.

The panic had set in slowly and after an hour of pacing and calling Sam's cell phone with no answer, Dean had stomped his way out to the Impala to start the search.

Ellen, it's me again. Any chance you've heard from him?

I swear, it's like lookin' for my dad all over again. Losin' my mind here.

No, I've called him a thousand times! There's nothin' but voicemail. I don't know where he went or why.

Sam's just gone.

And once again, all hell had broken loose—a brutally murdered hunter, a psycho-demon-possessed Sam, a bullet in Dean's shoulder, and a thoroughly freaked out Jo Harvelle.

Now, Dean found himself staring at the business-end of disappearing act number three. The only difference was that if it was truly Sam's intention to leave? Dean knew where he was headed.

There was only one place he could go.


The Impala rumbled to a sudden stop in the parking lot of the train station and Dean wasted no time in throwing open his door and getting out of the car.

It was surprisingly busy for how late it was, people milling about with suitcases and duffle bags. His eavesdropping as he headed towards the Amtrak train sitting on the tracks told him that it was scheduled to leave for Indianapolis in only twenty minutes time. Dean headed straight for it. He knew that if Sam was there he wouldn't be waiting for the departure in the station; he'd be sitting on the train, looking instead to stay out of sight just in case some distressed big brother cruised by looking for him.

Dean didn't even hesitate as he grabbed hold of the silver handrail and pulled himself up into the first passenger car.

He made a quick left and walked through the car's narrow doorway, finding himself faced with two long rows of seats. There were people scattered throughout the car with their noses buried in books or with headphones in their ears, and Dean scanned the face of every single one as he walked down the center of the aisle, looking for the familiar stupid floppy hair and downcast eyes.

And there, right at the back on the right hand side…was Sammy.

Dean slowed his steps and approached with a purpose, knowing immediately when Sam recognized that he was there. The younger Winchester froze solid in his seat with his eyes staring almost determinedly out the large window and Dean let out a long breath, standing in the aisle with his arms crossed over his chest.

"Sam."

Sam said nothing, he simply rested his head back against his seat's headrest. Dean had to grit his teeth for a moment, trying desperately to keep his temper in line…at least until he could get the kid back to the motel where he could kick his ass up between his shoulder blades in private.

"You got ten seconds to get your emo bitch ass off this train, or so help me God, I'll carry you off myself."

The older couple sitting directly behind Sam fell silent and were watching the entire exchange with dumbfounded looks on their faces, as if they were expecting that any moment the two rather large young men would start throwing punches. The wife was looking at her husband expectantly, in a way that clearly said she wanted him to stand up and intervene, maybe tell the two of them to move their issues outside. He was looking back at her with wide eyes, an expression that said, 'I don't think so, crazy lady'.

Dean blatantly ignored them, instead focusing his attention on his fugitive little brother.

Sam still stayed silent and Dean leaned forward after a moment, bracing his hands on the seats and effectively trapping the kid in his chair. In a quiet voice that sounded dangerous even to him, he said, "You hearin' me?"

There was a very quiet, "Yeah."

"Then get up."

There was only the slightest hesitation before Sam stood, absentmindedly adjusting the strap of his satchel on his shoulder. Dean couldn't help but watch him like a hawk as he moved into the aisle, grabbed his duffle from the overhead compartment, and started back towards the exit.

The few people on the train seemed to let out an almost perceptible breath of relief as the brothers took their leave, Dean's boots and Sam's sneakers landing firmly on the darkened asphalt as they stepped down, one after the other.

The Impala was clearly visible sitting in the glow of a streetlamp across the parking lot and Sam immediately headed towards it, Dean following along right behind him, and by the time they made it to the car, he was good and pissed. Sam came to a slow stop and leaned himself against the passenger door, his eyes focusing anywhere but on his big brother, and Dean felt his irritation skyrocket accordingly. He was being dodged, avoided, no question about it.

He was being ditched.

Dean moved to open the driver's door, but paused, instead sending a furious glare at the younger man over the roof of the car. "You and me? We got a problem." The words were thrown out with so much venom, such a deadly calm, that Sam at least had the good sense to look nervous. Dean rounded back to the passenger side and advanced, clenching his hands into fists in an effort to keep them from shaking. "What the hell is wrong with you, huh? Takin' off like that."

"Dean, look—"

"I'm gettin' so sick of chasin' you, Sam…asking you to stay around, hell, practically begging you to stick this out. Is this your way of tellin' me that I've been wasting my breath all this time?"

Sam finally raised his eyes to Dean's and he just barely shook his head, looking as if he wanted to speak but for some reason wasn't able to form the words. There was powerful emotion in the kid's eyes, tumultuous emotion, and Dean recognized it for what it was instantly—whatever was going on inside his brother's head was raw and intense and for the shortest second he wanted to abandon his anger and switch gears to concerned older brother.

Part of Dean wanted to forgive without question. All he had to do was look into those big wet hazel eyes and his heart started yelling at him to play nicely.

But then somewhere in the background he recognized the telltale screeching sounds as the train started to pull away from the station and Dean was reminded where they were; he was reminded that if he hadn't woken up right when he did, if he'd been only a few minutes later, Sam would be well on his way to Indianapolis without a backwards glance.

I can't be your responsibility anymore.

Dean shook his head, let out an angry breath, and very nearly snarled, "What is it, Sam? You think you're puttin' me at risk by staying with me? You think that whatever freak factor you're carryin' around is more dangerous than everything else?"

Sam looked absolutely miserable and started moving a pebble around with the toe of his sneaker.

"You really think you're not my responsibility? You really think that I'd be better off on my own?" Sam mumbled something unintelligible and Dean leaned in closer, raising his eyebrows. "What?"

"I said, don't tell me you haven't thought about it." Sam visibly swallowed hard. "What dad said? Maybe I can't be saved, Dean."

And there was the problem. The guillotine that had been hanging over their heads ever since the night their father had died.

Sammy's floundering self-worth.

When Dad told me that I might have to kill you…it was only if I couldn't save you. Now, if it's the last thing I do, I'm gonna save you.

Dean was a force to be reckoned with and he knew it. Even at the age of twenty-four, the year he'd finally started hunting completely on his own, he'd already had a reputation amongst other hunters. They'd known him by sight and oftentimes whenever he and another hunter stumbled across each other working the same job, the other would bow out gracefully, knowing enough about the Winchester men to leave without any real argument.

And now that he was even older that reputation had done nothing but grow right along with him.

Sam may have been the pit-bull when it came to research and fact-finding…but Dean was like a pit-bull when it came to Sam.

He didn't know what was in his little brother's future, what the yellow-eyed demon had planned, but the truth was it didn't matter. What he'd said that night in the Impala—less than an hour after having a bullet dug out of his shoulder and exorcizing a furious Meg from Sam's body—still rang true. He'd do what he needed to, what was required of him, to make sure that Sam stayed on the right path.

Up to and including kicking the nerdy little bitch in the ass whenever he started feeling sorry for himself.

"Sam?" He leaned in close and raised his eyebrows again, using the action to get his brother's attention. Once they locked eyes Dean spoke in a very serious voice. "You gotta stop tryin' to outrun whatever this is, you hear me? After all that crap with Meg we agreed that we'd deal with it, that we'd take things slow. I said that I'm gonna figure this out, I said that I'm gonna save you…but dammit, you gotta let me try."

"I don't want you afraid of me, Dean."

Ah hell.

For one of the first times in his very full life, Dean Winchester, for the shortest instant, didn't know what to say.

Being afraid of Sam wasn't possible.

Sam was his little brother, his best and only real friend…how could he ever be afraid of someone he needed in his life so desperately? He'd known Sam as a baby, a toddler, a child, a teenager, and eventually, a man; a fiercely loyal and sensitive man that was always able to flare Dean's near violent protectiveness with the simplest movement or dejected word. And it made absolutely no difference what warnings their father had spouted off, none of it mattered.

Truth was, they were both freaks in their own way; each having their own issues, their own personal battles to deal with. And Dean had decided that this particular issue—their father's warning—was one of the battles that they were going to wage together. To hell with what Sam wanted.

The sound of the train was starting to fade away and Dean let out a breath, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his worn leather jacket.

"I'm not afraid of you, Sammy," he said truthfully, his voice a tad on the rough side. "I don't want you thinkin' like that."

"How can you say that? With all that's happened?"

"It's easy to say when it's the truth."

"Dean—"

"You said that you ran all the way to California and look what ended up happening." He nodded in the direction the train tracks. "Just answer me this, dude, alright? What makes you think Indianapolis would be any different?"

"And you're the one that said you were tired. Do you remember? In the clinic at River Grove, you said you were tired."

If Dean had known at the time how those words were gonna chap his ass in the months to come, he never would've uttered them out loud. "I can't believe you're throwin' that back in my face, man. That's not what I meant and you damn well know it."

"But you feel that way, Dean. How much is too much?"

"How much of what?"

"This!" Sam held out his arms to indicate their situation in general and Dean felt his breath hitch at the intense moisture that was suddenly pooling in the kid's eyes. He looked devastated, sad, as he stood there…Dean could practically feel the anxiety coming off of him in waves. "All of this, Dean. The visions, the demon, the never-ending pile of crap that dad left us to clean up. It's all me, it's my fault." Sam pointed a finger at him. "And if you're honest, you'll admit it."

"Then I guess I'm a dishonest son of a bitch, 'cause I don't think it's your fault. The stuff that dad did, that the demon did? That's not you, Sam. It's not your fault and all this effort you're putting into blamin' yourself? It's gonna kill you one of these days."

"Yeah, or it's gonna kill you."

Wait. What?

Dean couldn't help but pull back at Sam's words, his eyes widening in surprise. "What are you talkin' about?"

Sam shook his head. Forget it.

"No, no, hey—" Dean took a step closer and swatted Sam's shoulder, moving to stand directly in his brother's line of sight. There was no running…not from him, not again. "Sammy."

A few seconds passed where there was silence between them—one brother not knowing what to say, and the other brother wishing desperately for the kid to just say something…preferably before something in his nervous system ruptured.

Those boys, lemme tell ya—they can talk without talkin'.

Dean didn't know why he remembered those words at that particular moment, but he did. And not only did he remember those words, he remembered the day Bobby had said them…just a few days short of the sixth anniversary of their mother's death.

It was always the same every year at the beginning of November; John would drink himself into a stupor…Sam would fall into a complete depression, isolating himself from everyone…and Dean would flip-flop between the two of them, taking care of a father that couldn't take care of himself and a brother that was so heartbroken he couldn't utter two words, all the while doing what he could to tend to his own pain. It was the one time a year where the remaining three members of the Winchester family were inconsolable and of absolutely no use.

During that time, Dean spent most of his time with Sam. The kid may have only been six years old at the time but he had known and understood that their mom was gone and that she wasn't coming back; she was with the angels, as Dean had always tried to sugar-coat it when they were younger. But try as an older brother might, Sam had always known the real truth…on one level or another.

And so the two brothers would spend those days in silence—sharing hugs when they were needed, watching cartoons together on Bobby's ratty old sofa in the library, playing go fish and pointing at the cards rather than speaking out loud. They would have entire conversations without saying a single word…and Bobby was the adult that noticed, their father too far gone.

And then the sun would rise on November 3rd and Sam would start speaking again, his first whispered words always shared with his brother.

They'd had that connection their entire lives, at least up until Sam had left for Stanford, and they'd managed to rebuild it over the two years they'd been back on the road together. So standing there at a train station in Minnesota with their eyes locked and their mouths silent? On some level, they'd been talking the entire time.

What if you can't do it?

What if I turn?

What if I hurt you?

What if dad was right?

Dean wished that there was an easy answer. He wished that there was a way for him to get the heartsick expression off of Sam's face and replace it with the patented smile he felt like he hadn't seen in months. But there was no easy answer to be had, and truth be told, he was feeling just as heartsick as Sam was.

Their father had left them in a terrible mess and with no real idea as to what they would face in the coming months. The questions that Dean could see in his brother's eyes were reasonable. He'd asked himself the very same things, only never out loud where Sammy could hear it…he didn't need to hear it. He didn't want Sam worrying about the pressure it was putting on Dean's shoulders; his shoulders were strong, they could handle whatever he and Sam needed them to handle.

His stress wasn't supposed to be Sam's.

"It's too much, Dean." Sam's voice broke and he leaned even more of his weight against the the side of the Impala. He was no longer standing at his full height and it was as if the kid had deflated, his shoulders slumping and his back bent. There was a burden on him, Dean could see it, feel it, as if he were carrying it himself. "You're just one man, one person. You can't protect me from everything. This is too much, even for you."

"Shouldn't that be my call?"

"But you won't make the call, that's the problem. I killed Steven Wandell, I went after Joe…hell, I went after Bobby. And no matter what I did, you wouldn't—"

"Shoot, yeah, I know." Dean ran a hand down his roughly unshaven face and shook his head, "But it wasn't you. We talked about this, man."

"You didn't know that."

"Yeah, I did."

Sam snapped his head up at the words and Dean couldn't help but shake his head at the look of complete awe on his face.

It was as if he was surprised.

Surprised that Dean wouldn't believe that Sam, the kid he'd raised, would slit another hunter's throat or force himself on Joe…that Dean wouldn't believe that Sam would pull a gun on him, shoot him, and walk away without a word or backwards glance. His Sam wouldn't do those things. His Sam would rather pull his own heart out and stomp on it than do those things.

And Dean knew exactly how that felt because he felt the same way when it came to the possible part he could end up playing in Sam's so-called fate. He'd decided almost immediately that he wouldn't do it, no matter what ended up happening he wouldn't be the one to take Sam's life. He'd find a way to save the kid or he'd kill himself trying.

"I can stand here and tell you that I don't want you takin' off again, no more sneakin out in the middle of the night. But me sayin' that doesn't seem to mean very much in the grand scheme, neither does you saying that you'll stay." Dean shrugged his shoulders and let out a laugh completely devoid of humor. It was a laugh full of bitterness and disappointment…and maybe deep down inside somewhere, there was a little bit of hurt mixed in there, too. "I just don't get why you're so hell-bent on ditchin' me all the time."

"I don't wanna ditch you, Dean." The words were spoken so softly and so unexpectedly that Dean almost didn't hear them over the light breeze that suddenly blew over them. "It's not like that."

"No? This is the second time you've taken off on me since dad died—not counting the time Meg rode you to Duluth. Ain't much else it can be, Sam." At the mention of their father, as always, Dean had to pause for a second and swallow to get rid of the lump in his throat. As he'd been telling himself almost constantly since being released from the hospital after the accident, there was just too damn much to be depressed about. He nodded towards the car and sniffled slightly in the unseasonably cold air, saying, "Come on, let's get outta here. I'm cold."

And that's how it was—the two of them sliding into their respective seats in the Impala and Dean starting her up, neither brother speaking a single word all the way back to the motel.

As he often did when there was tension in the car Sam spent the entire drive with his eyes glued to the passenger side window, as if every answer to every problem they had was somewhere beyond the slowly fogging pane of glass. Dean recognized it for what it was, though; staring through the window at the quickly passing countryside was Winchester avoidance at its best. As long as Sam stayed perfectly still, controlled his breathing so not to make a sound, his eyes planted firmly on something that wasn't his big brother he wasn't encouraging conversation.

Well, that suited Dean just fine.

He didn't wanna talk to the overly-emotional self-sacrificial little punk, either.

The old motel's parking lot came up on their left hand side and as Dean made the turn, he said a silent thank you to whomever was listening that their parking spot—right in front of their room door—was still available. Telling Sam that he'd been cold hadn't just been a way to end the beyond awkward conversation back at the train station, he was in fact freezing his ass off. And the idea of having to park and walk? Well, it was just too obnoxious for words.

After directing the car into the parking space, he pulled the key from the ignition and pushed his door open in one swift movement.

He could hear Sam doing the same thing, could feel the kid behind him as he climbed the steps and pulled the decrepit old key card from his pocket, but he didn't acknowledge it. Not yet, anyway. If another discussion erupted once they were inside their own space then so be it…but it was not a conversation, or confrontation, that would be had outside.

The blast of warmth that hit them the moment they crossed the doorstep had Dean stripping off his leather jacket and hanging it somewhat precariously on the back of one of their wooden chairs.

The note that Sam had left him—I'm leaving…I can't be your responsibility anymore—was sitting noticeably on the gouged surface of the dining table and Dean averted his eyes, not even bothering to look at it. Seeing words like that written in Sam's handwriting would only make him mad and he had enough anger bubbling under the surface as it was.

Sam, on the other hand, was either completely oblivious to how Dean was feeling or he was blatantly ignoring it because a second later, he asked, "How did you know where I was?"

Dean moved to the end of his bed and opened the zipper of his duffle bag in one steady move, glancing up towards Sam, but never making eye contact. "You didn't take the car or boost one from the lot. Figured you'd either hitch or take a train." He shrugged his shoulders. "Had a fifty-fifty shot."

"I'm sorry."

Dean didn't say anything. He simply started to fold one of his long-sleeved shirts with a little more force than necessary.

"I got thinking about things, and…" The younger man appeared in the corner of Dean's vision, dropping his backpack onto his own bed. "I dunno."

"That's the problem right there—you got thinkin'. You're smart as hell, Sam, but your brain can be a real pain in the ass sometimes." Dean grabbed another shirt and kept right on folding…until he admitted to himself that he wasn't a folder and rolled it up into a ball, stuffing it into corner of his bag. "Nobody could handle this on their own. There's not one person out there that could do it. But for some reason, you seem pretty damn sure that you can."

"I keep saying that it's not like that."

"Then explain it to me, 'cause it seems that my brain ain't as smart as yours."

Dean didn't see the expression cross Sam's face, but he felt it. The patented expression that Sam always wore whenever Dean said such things—the 'aww hell' face mixed in with the 'don't say stuff like that' look. It was an expression that the older man chaffed at but secretly appreciated.

The bed springs of Sam's bed protested loudly when he lowered himself down onto it, leaning forward to face Dean and resting his elbows on his knees. He spoke in a quiet voice. "Maybe…part of it…is that I'm afraid."

And at that, Dean couldn't keep averting his eyes.

He locked hazels with his brother's and spoke in an equally quiet voice, still holding one of his t-shirts in his hands. "Afraid of what?"

There was the slightest hesitation—Sam sitting on his bed facing Dean, who was standing at the foot of his bed closest to the door. It was a state they'd found themselves in countless times over the years, and sometimes the air was heavy in those moments and sometimes it wasn't.

Right then, the air was heavy…but not with tension or awkwardness as one might expect, hell, as Dean himself would expect. No, it was something else entirely.

Anxiousness.

Regret.

Fear.

Panic.

Guilt.

Jesus, the guilt.

There was so much guilt in the air, in their lives, that sometimes it felt like that was all there was.

"Sammy?" Dean prodded gently, reminding Sam that he hadn't answered and that there was a pair of well-practiced ears waiting and available.

"Y'know what I realized the other day? I mean, I knew it but I hadn't really thought about it before." When Sam looked up, locking his now impossibly sad eyes with Dean's, the older man felt the misery hit him like a battering ram squarely in his chest. His breath was nearly stolen from him as Sam continued on. "We're alone, Dean. Mom's gone, Dad's gone…we don't have any other family, and even if we did, we don't know them. We're all that's left. You deserve a good life, Dean. You deserve a family and to be able to do whatever you want—fantasy football, barbeques…fixing up an old Charger like you've always said you want to. One of us needs to move on from all this and I thought that if I left…"

"You thought that if you left I'd be able to just, what…let you go? I'd wake up, realize you were gone, go find a girl and settle down? Just like that."

"I wanted to give you the choice."

"This has never been about choice, Sam." Dean could feel the fire in his own eyes, could feel that anger and incredible frustration heating up under his skin. It was a familiar feeling, one that often walked hand-in-hand with his recently rarely-controllable temper. "What happened to Mom, what happened to Dad…whatever's happening with you. We never asked for any of this crap. It's not about choice…or at least it hasn't been, up until now."

Sam looked down towards the worn carpet, his knuckles noticeably turning white as he wrung his hands together.

"I can't control much in this craphole world, Sam. But what I can control? Is where I spend my time and who I spend it with, however much time I got left." He held his arms out wide, as if to indicate their situation in general, and said, "I choose to be here. And I choose to make sure that both of us come out the other side, 'cause you're right, we're all that's left. If I end up living a life like that—barbeques in Pleasantville—you can bet your ass you're gonna be there too, 'cause Christ knows I can't do it alone." He dropped his arms back down to his sides and in a serious voice said, "I wouldn't wanna do it alone."

They looked at each other again.

Tears were pooling in the corners of Sam's eyes, reminding Dean of a time when a short-assed little kid had looked up at him from where he'd been tucked under his big brother's arm, terrified of whatever was living in the closet.

Those days were long gone, because that kid had grown into a man that fearlessly went after the monsters in the closet on his own.

Dean dropped the t-shirt he'd been holding into his bag and walked over to stand next to Sam, wrapping a hand around the back of the kid's neck and giving a gentle squeeze. "You gotta make your own choice now." He said the words firmly but he injected an undercurrent of softness only because he knew that Sam would detect it. "If you really wanna go…if being on your own is really what you want…then I swear on Dad I won't stop you. But it's gotta be for the right reasons, Sammy. You can't do it because you're afraid or worried about me; I don't need you to worry about me, I can handle it. Make the choice for yourself."

Sam cleared his throat. "You don't have the corner on protecting your brother, Dean."

"No, I know that." He pulled his hand from Sam's neck and crossed his arms over his chest. "That's why I'm makin' the offer, Sam…it's a one-time-only deal. If you wanna go, then go now. If not…then you stay here with me and we see this through. No more sneakin' off, no matter what happens."

He tried to inject enough seriousness, enough irritation, into his voice to make sure that he got his point across and that Sam understood it.

Simply saying the words out loud went against every instinct Dean had. Telling Sam that he could go if he wanted to, that he himself would actually allow him to leave. If Sam actually decided to leave, Dean would grudgingly keep his word. He would let it happen, wouldn't stand in the way. That didn't mean, however, that he wouldn't go after him as soon as he was able.

And he knew he would, regardless of any agreements that had been made.

How could he not?

He'd let Sam leave once before, and despite the fact that it had nearly killed him, he'd found a way to ignore the part of him that had been screaming to get in the car and follow; to ambush the California-bound Greyhound at the first stop and to drag the kid back 'home' kicking and screaming. But it wouldn't have made a difference. He'd learned that the hard way the first time he'd traveled to Stanford himself, only a couple of weeks after the beginning of Sam's freshman year.

He'd never seen anything like it.

Perfectly manicured lawns and landscaping. Tall palm trees and cobblestone pathways. Beige stucco buildings with brown thatched rooftops. Sophisticated professors in power suits and students dressed in campus clothing, all smiling in the bright California sunshine.

It was a place that had offered so much—freedom, education…a bright future. And as Dean had stood there, leaning against the side of the dust covered Impala wearing his leather jacket and perpetually torn jeans, he knew that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that he could offer Sam that would be able to compete with that place.

There wasn't enough. He wasn't enough.

It had been a very painful realization.

But at that moment in the small hole-in-the-wall motel in Winona, it had never been more obvious that times had changed. Stanford and the endless possibilities it presented were no longer the problem; fear and panic were. The unknown.

It had never occurred to him that he'd ever be able to think of the Stanford disaster as being simpler times. It had been a time when he and Sam had been as normal as they could be…but also as different as they could be. He'd never say it out loud but there were days where he couldn't help but miss the problems of their adolescence, as far away as they were.

Sam suddenly spoke up, bringing Dean back to the present.

"Running away is getting to be a regular thing for me, isn't it?" He chuckled somewhat bitterly, glancing up to meet Dean's eyes for an instant then looking back down at the carpet. "Ran to Stanford to get away from Dad, ran from Stanford after Jess died…ran away from you before that job with the scarecrow in Burkitsville."

"Hey, come on, man—" Dean let out a breath as he sat himself down on his own bed, making it so that he and Sam were only a couple feet apart. He scrubbed a hand down his roughly unshaven face and said, "You came back to Burkitsville. Saved my bacon, as I remember it."

Sam barely smiled.

"Sometimes running can be a good thing. Bailing on a fight you know you can't win? Hell, I'd probably be dead a thousand times over if Bobby hadn't taught us that one when we were tykes." He shrugged his shoulders, trying to appear as confident as possible…and he did what he could to inject some of that false confidence into his voice when he said, "But we don't know how this one's gonna turn out yet, Sam."

"Then we should see it through."

The younger Winchester spoke softly, albeit firmly, forming his words into a solid statement as opposed to an uncertain question. There was strength in those words, a strength that was surprising seeing as how they were coming from a man who not an hour previously had been sitting somewhat despondently on a train bound for Indianapolis.

But then, more often than not, that's how things went with Sam.

He had moments of complete and impossible sadness followed by a sudden fervor, a fierce desire to get results or find a solution to whatever problem that had caused the sadness in the first place. And again, more often than not, Dean would stand aside and let that fervor take over, knowing that in the end immersing himself in research and investigation was as therapeutic for his brother as beer and brunettes were for Dean himself.

That Sammy-like-fervor was a well-known phenomenon in the world of the Winchesters and Dean had dealt with it numerous times throughout their childhood; homework, hunting research, exams…nothing was safe from Sam's determination. And now in adulthood, the same was true; lore, lunar cycles and moon phases, interviewing tactics and diplomacy.

Then we should see it through.

In those words, Dean felt that he was getting a commitment—a kind of guarantee that he would never again wake up in the middle of the night to find the bed next to his empty and never again would he have to stoop to a new level of humiliation and call Ellen for information. Something told him that the secrecy and desertions were a thing of the past and that for the first time since Sam's return, they were going to stand together in a truly united front.

After all, for the Winchesters, there was strength in numbers.

And those were the words that crossed Dean's mind when he reached forward and placed a hand on Sam's shoulder, trying to convey those words through his thoughtful silence. And when Sam met his eyes, sending him a small smile and a slight not of his head, Dean knew that his message had been received.

They'd carry on, doing the very best they could to survive whatever was coming—because as strong and resourceful as they were, they both knew that something big was on the horizon. Whether it be the mystery surrounding Sam, some new horror at the hands of the demons, or some other unknown menace just waiting for the right moment to strike…both brothers knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it would most likely answer any remaining questions they had about the night their mother died.

Someone, or something, out there had all the answers…and a time would come when they would be faced with those answers, whether they wanted them or not.

But Dean knew, also beyond a shadow of a doubt, that as long as they were together they could take on and destroy anything that came their way.

He could only hope that Sam would eventually come to know that, too.

END