Disclaimer: The boys belong not to me. More's the pity.

Spoilers: Set in Season 1 immediately after episode 1X16, Shadow

Author note: *waves sheepishly* I know it's been awhile. Real Life grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me into its undertow.

This story has been a long time coming. For a good majority of the stories I've written and posted my friend and beta, Kelly, read each chapter and helped me greatly curb my penchant for excessive use of apostrophes as well as check my choice of homophones. She never questioned motivation or plot structure; she simply made sure as best she could that typos were caught and grammar was as sound as two amateurs could make it. The only thing she asked in return for was that I write a western. *gulps*

Author disclaimer: This plot asks that you suspend reality a wee bit. I've worked to keep it as close to canon as I could, and I hope that you trust me to carry our heroes through this journey to a satisfying end. This is most definitely an area where "artistic license" lays claim. Though I've had several years' experience with horses, it's been awhile since I've been on one and I ask you equestrians out there to go easy on me. Gun-play, well, that's all been learned through movies, TV, reading, and checking in with my friend Thru Terrys Eyes. I've tried to keep it broad enough to not make blatant mistakes, but specific enough to paint a picture.

You be the judge.

I'm going to attempt something new: posting "shorter" chapters more frequently. We'll…see if it works. This is "short" as compared to my usual chapter length. *ahem* I'll be posting a chapter a week; the story is about three chapters shy of complete at this juncture, so I should be able to keep to that schedule without problem.

And just to let you know, I may be a hurt!Dean addict, but they both get bloody in this story.

Kelly, this one is for you.


Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? And cold comfort for change? Did you exchange a walk on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage?

~ Pink Floyd, "Wish You Were Here"

www

Maera, Texas 2005

The light hung low on a horizon that was miles away. Gray fingers of dawn drew tracks in the night and crawled across the flat land riddled with crab grass, tumbleweeds, and ancient, leaning posts that had once held yards of barbed wire marking territory and staking claims.

He could smell the tang of ozone on the reluctant wind as an early morning storm weighed its options; the coppery, metallic taste of blood lingered on his tongue from where he'd kissed it off the face of the one person in this world he'd ever truly loved.

His son.

He'd never wanted his boy to have this life; he'd done everything he could to protect him from it. But in the end it hadn't mattered. The bad guys found him. The bad guys won.

The bad guys always win.

"Not always, Jake," came a gruff voice over his shoulder. He hadn't realized the last thought had been out loud. "If they did…we wouldn't be here."

"Max, I just put my boy in the ground." Jake rubbed his hand over three days growth of beard, brushing at a smear of the cakey red mud that coated his boots and the cuffs of his jeans and was now drying on his cheek. "They won this one."

It wasn't the first grave he'd dug, not by a long shot. Years of ranch life and war had come before he'd ever learned what it truly meant to be a hunter. And with each bend in his road, graves had been necessary. He knew it wouldn't be the last, either. But it had been the deepest hole he'd ever climbed into. And he couldn't fill it; not even when he ran out of dirt.

He'd not dug this grave in the earth; he'd dug it in his heart.

"C'mon, Jake," Max said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. "Time to go."

"I need another minute."

He felt Max nod; the brief squeeze by his friend's hand was meant to be reassuring, but Jake only felt the hard pinch of callused fingers.

"I'll just go tell Leo to get the truck ready."

"You do that," Jake replied, not taking his eyes from the low slope of earth that would soon sink and settle, eventually growing grass and weeds and erasing all sign that it had ever been disturbed.

That his boy lay beneath.

His body trembled briefly, a heart-sick pain rolling from the inside out. He had to stop this thing. He should have stopped it before this; before Sean had been the one to fall. He wouldn't make the same mistakes again.

"Eye for an eye," Jake whispered in a dull voice to the retreating night. "Fire with fire."

He didn't offer a hollow promise at the foot of his son's unmarked grave. He didn't even whisper a prayer. His pledge for vengeance was quieter; the unspoken vow all the more dangerous because he'd not said it aloud.

When he returned to Leo's faded, red pick-up truck, he regarded his two friends: men who had stood by him and stood up for him since before he'd been able to comprehend the weight of friendship. Working their father's lands had shifted to fighting for their country then spun into ridding the world of evil.

The thing they'd forgotten, though, was that in a world without evil, heroes die.

Under Jake's sharp-edged, scrutinizing gaze, Max reached up reflexively to stroke his thick, white handlebar mustache, his dark eyes peering from beneath the brim of a Stetson he was never without. Leo, a wiry build belying the strength Jake knew lay secreted in his friend's solid grip and powerful arms, simply looked back at him, round, rimless glasses covering mild blue eyes.

They'd grown up together, fought together, hunted all matter of prey together. And Jake was relying on those years of unity to support him in what he was about to do.

"I'm going after it," he proclaimed without preamble.

Max had been leaning against the truck bed; Leo sitting with one hip on the front bench seat. Both came to a startled attention at his words.

"Jake, what about what John Winchester said—"

"Screw John Winchester," Jake said, interrupting Leo's protest. "He's still got his boys."

"He ain't with 'em," Max commented.

"Think that's my fault?"

"No." Max shook his head. "John's got his own mind about that."

Jake made his way to the truck bed and tossed the shovel in the back. It clattered against the metal ridges with a ringing finality that was almost Jake's undoing. He had to pause a moment to grip the cold edge of the tailgate and find his center.

"Jake," Leo tried. "I'm real sorry about Sean. You know that. I—we—loved that kid like he was our own."

Jake simply looked at him.

"But…you can't just…go after it."

"I can if I know where it is," Jake replied.

He watched Max and Leo exchange worried, cautious looks.

"Nobody knows where it is," Max pointed out. "That's what John—"

"John Winchester ain't God," Jake snapped, his resistance hedging on a breaking point. "Might be a damn fine hunter, but that's pretty much all I can say about the man."

"It's because he's a hunter that we should listen—" Leo began, but closed his mouth with a click when Jake exploded.

"I don't want to hear another goddamn word about John fucking Winchester!"

Max folded his lips down and slouched against the truck bed, head bent low, eyes on the ground. Leo simply raised his hands in surrender and turned to face the sight of the sun chasing the reluctant storm, a wall of steel colored clouds turning the air heavy with anticipation.

"'Sides," Jake huffed, working to calm his voice. "I'm not talking about now. I know where it's been."

Jake could practically count the heartbeats in the silence that surrounded what was left of his make-shift family. As per usual, Leo caught on before Max.

"How?"

He wasn't asking how Jake knew; he was asking how he was going to do it. With Leo it wasn't about where they'd come from but where they were going. He had to have a plan, a mission, a purpose. Without it, he panicked. And because of that, Jake knew his friend would be two steps ahead. He was counting on it.

Jake shifted his eyes to the figure hogtied and wrapped in burlap on the back seat of the truck. The figure responsible for Sean being in the ground and not standing here beside him. The figure they would return to Hell.

Max and Leo slowly followed his gaze and Jake felt them catch their collective breath.

"You can't do that." Leo shook his head. His glasses caught a glint from the rising sun as he turned back to Jake.

"Watch me."

"It's black magic," Max pressed, moving closer to Leo as if to create a wall of humanity between Jake and the thing in the back of the truck. "It's everything we've been fighting against all these years. You're…you're talking about calling on the goddamn forces of darkness, here, man!"

"We all have a little darkness inside of us," Jake replied, watching with cold satisfaction as his friends' eyes went wide with realization. "You in or out? 'Cause I ain't waiting."

He simply looked at them, showing them he meant every word, declaring that this was one thing he was prepared to do with or without them.

Wordlessly, because that was the way it had always been with them, Max climbed into the truck bed and Leo behind the wheel, both showing with their actions what Jake had always known: they wouldn't leave him to fight this alone.

Jake circled the truck and climbed into the passenger side, shifting to look at the figure in the back.

"You better be worth the price we paid."

www

Gary, IN 2005

If he hadn't gone first, he would never have seen it. He was absolutely certain of that. Dean would have fixed him up, sent him out of the room with a snarky comment, and he'd have spent the day wallowing in self pity and nursing the sting of perceived betrayal.

They'd left Chicago in silence. Dean hadn't even turned on the radio—a sure sign that all is not right in his world. Sam had gingerly touched the cuts on his face, the blood turning first sticky and then stiff as it was allowed to dry. The night had gathered them close as their separate recollections of the previous hours kept them in their individual corners.

After driving for several hours, Dean had pulled off at the Sleep EZ Motel just south of Gary, IN; he'd gone into the motel office to secure a room, apparently counting on the weak light of early morning to shadow the effect of the wounds on his face. The quick patch job with the sleeve of a spare shirt in the car had done little to make him appear presentable.

Sam had simply waited in the car, letting the bitter echoes of abandonment poison each intake of breath until he fairly shook from it.

The moment they'd entered what was easily the smallest motel room Sam had ever seen, Dean had maneuvered him into the bathroom with a hand on his shoulder, shoving him down on top of the closed lid of the toilet and told him to sit still. Sam had silently obeyed, closing his eyes against the glare of reality, memories looping through his mind in abbreviated mental pictures of light and shadows, pain and smoke.

Dad at the window, Dean crossing the room, strong arms around him…tears, longing, regret, a flash of light…blood, screams, pain, the sudden cool of the night…suffocating pressure, wasted words, Dad driving away…..

"Sit still." Dean's voice was gruff, brisk, tight.

"I am."

"If you were, I wouldn't have said anything," Dean shot back, applying more pressure than necessary as he cleaned the cuts on Sam's cheek.

Grunting in reply, Sam opened his eyes to fire back a strained retort when he saw the blood. It matted Dean's shirt against his brother's side in a wide swath from armpit to waistband, tucked around so that it was effectively hidden behind his jacket. If Sam hadn't been seated, his face level with Dean's chest, he wouldn't have noticed.

And Dean would have just gone on hiding it.

"Dean—"

The sting of antiseptic made him flinch away with a hiss and Dean's touch immediately gentled. Sam watched his brother's careful movements as he reached over to his left and rinsed some of the blood from the towel he'd been using to clean Sam's face.

Sam wanted to know what Dean saw when he closed his eyes. If he saw Dad driving away.

Their first aid kit was spread out on the narrow counter next to the sink. The water was running hot, steam rising from the steady stream and fogging the small mirror mounted on the wall. Dean turned off the water and then held a blood-smeared white towel against Sam's cheek, the heat from the water stinging the raw skin inside the cuts. Several cotton balls saturated with antiseptic lay on the edge of the counter next to their make-shift suture set.

"Almost done," Dean said. "Hang onto something; this might…sting…a little."

Instinctively, Sam closed his eyes and gripped the edge of the seat. He felt liquid fire run in quick rivers down his cheek and he gritted his teeth, a groan escaping despite his best efforts. That last douse of antiseptic nearly sent him over the edge, but almost immediately he felt the burn lessen and the warm towel return to soothe his damaged skin.

"Don't think you need stitches. Few butterflies'll do."

Sam swallowed at the controlled calm in his brother's tone. His it's okay, I've got you tone. He opened his eyes, blinking away the sweat that had gathered his lashes together as he'd stiffened against the onslaught of healing agents. His eyes tracked immediately to the blood on Dean's side, trying to remember how he'd missed such a wound in the confusion of the fight with the Daeva.

"Shut your eyes! These things are shadow demons, so let's light 'em up!"

He remembered Dad screaming, pinned to the cabinets. He remembered someone shoving him aside, a cry.

Dean's cry.

Sam closed his eyes once more and recalled the moment just before the light from the flare illuminated their small world: Dean, on his back, curling over to his side, face fisted in pain.

"When were you going to tell me?" Sam asked, eyes still closed, holding himself still as Dean's blunt, rough-skinned fingers taped the bandages carefully in place.

"About the butterflies?" Dean's confusion was plain in his tone. "Kinda had to wait until I cleaned all the blood off, Sammy."

"About your side," Sam opened his eyes and looked up at his brother's face as Dean straightened slowly.

"I'll get it in a sec," Dean muttered through stiff lips, his eyes darting to the side, unwilling—or unable—to meet Sam's accusatory gaze.

"How come you didn't say anything?" Sam pressed, a brittle edge of control crumbling at the ends of his words. He'd been too still, too pliant. He felt a familiar burn of anger twisting up inside of him, hungry to escape. He wanted to pace, to move, to hit something—anything—hard.

"It's fine," Dean replied gruffly.

Feeling mean, Sam reached out and pressed two fingers against Dean's ribs. He didn't have to press hard. Dean flinched away, stumbling back a step.

"The hell?"

"Think we need a new definition of the word fine," Sam snapped.

Dean stared hard at him for what felt like an eternity of heartbeats. His green eyes had gone flinty and shadowed and Sam knew he was being measured, that Dean was taking stock of both him and the situation. In his youth he'd alternately cowered and rebelled against that look. Since returning to the fray from his brief respite at Stanford, he'd learned to use it to his advantage.

But this time, it simply pissed him off.

"You think you're tougher than me, that it?"

"Grow up, Sam."

"Go to hell, Dean."

Throwing the towel directly at Sam's face with enough force its impact stung, Dean turned from the small bathroom and stomped into the equally small bedroom. Sam pulled the towel away and watched him walk into the other room, a familiar roll of shoulders that had always meant two things to Sam: home and safety. And because he was hurt—and the one he wanted to lash out at was gone—Sam started to poke at that safety net, widening any holes he could find.

Dean paused as he reached the break between two of the smallest beds Sam had ever seen. Sam watched as Dean's shoulders sagged, his head dropping low. The defeat he saw in that stance—the appearance of a weight that Sam knew his brother wouldn't have to carry alone if someone else picked up the pieces once in awhile—blasted away any remaining control and Sam shoved to his feet, dropping the bloody towel on the floor.

"He wouldn't have left if he knew you were hurt that bad!" Sam blurted out as he crossed the room behind his brother.

Dean half turned to face him, his expression one of disbelief. "What the hell are you—"

Sam continued to cross the room, not pausing in his stride, and reached out to grip Dean's shoulder, pulling his brother around roughly to face him.

"We had him, Dean! All this time…all these hunts…everything we've…survived—it's all been so we could find Dad. We had him! And you let him leave!"

Sam registered the shift in his brother's face, the quicksilver flash of heated emotion sluicing away to a practiced emptiness.

"Let go of me, Sam."

Dean's calm voice rode in contrast to Sam's roar, but it was just as effective at grabbing attention. Sam was two heartbeats from challenging his brother to make him when he saw the muscle along Dean's jaw bounce. Dean wanted the challenge, Sam realized. He'd missed the signs while cresting on his own wave of hurt feelings, but Dean was spoiling for a fight just as badly as Sam was.

He forced his fingers to open, releasing his grip on Dean's shoulder, and took a step back, but he wasn't through tugging open this particular hole. "He wanted to stay."

"Like hell," Dean said, shaking his head. "He knew he had to go."

"He was gonna stay for us, Dean," Sam protested. "You heard him! He saw how beat up—"

"Drop it, Sam," Dean ordered, and Sam watched as his right hand snaked up to press against the wound on his side as if on an invisible string. "Whoever Meg was working for? Wanted Dad. Not us, Dad. It—they—used us to get to him."

"So what?" Sam replied petulantly.

It didn't matter that what Dean said made logical sense. It didn't matter that Dad said the fight was just beginning, that Sam would have a part to play. It didn't matter that they were all safer apart.

What mattered was that he'd had just enough time to realize that he wanted his family together before it was ripped apart again so quickly it wrenched something inside of him. He ached deeper than the Daeva cuts, deeper than bruised muscles. He ached somewhere under his heart and he couldn't figure out how to breathe around that pain.

"Jesus, Sam." Dean rolled his eyes. He started to move past Sam. "How about thinking of someone other than yourself for a change?"

Dean's shoulder bumped Sam's arm as he made his way back to the bathroom; Sam snarled, reaching out and grabbing his brother.

"You mean like you did?" Sam yelled. "Who were you thinking about when you came and got me from school?"

Dean whirled with Sam's words, twisting out of his brother's grip, his face inches from Sam's as he shouted in return, "I am fuckin' sick of hearing about Stanford and your perfect life! You want to go back to that so bad, nobody's stopping you!"

"Not what you said yesterday!"

"Yeah? Well, things change!"

"If I wasn't here, you'd have made him stay!"

"If you weren't here, he wouldn't have come in the first place!"

Dean's bellowed confession halted them both for a moment and Sam watched something he couldn't name, but instinctually recognized, shift through his brother's eyes.

They stood toe-to-toe, chests heaving from pent up emotions and aggression, eyes hot with anger. Dean pressed his lips tightly closed as if willing the rest of his thoughts to stay back, keep quiet.

A muscle twitched in Dean's cheek and Sam knew then: the ache he now felt had been his brother's constant companion for years. He saw it in Dean's eyes. And it confused the hell out of him.

Then, as if someone had pulled a release valve, all fire, all anger, all pain disappeared from Dean's face and he lifted his chin slightly. "Forget it," he drawled. "It's not worth it. Not like it's ever gonna happen."

He half turned, ready to walk away and Sam suddenly, inexplicably saw red. The part of his brain that feasted on logic, that saw a clear path through the maze of emotion that often times ruled his world, knew that he wasn't mad at Dean. He wasn't even really mad at John. He was mad that any of this was real, that they were once again rendered apart because of circumstances beyond their control.

He couldn't fight the circumstances, but he could lash out at his brother.

"What's never gonna happen, Dean? Dad staying or me leaving?"

Dean looked at Sam out of the corner of his eyes, and the flash of vulnerability Sam saw there should have stayed his hand but instead it only fueled his fire. "'Cause I promise you that when this fight's over, I'm outta here."

Dean looked away, shaking his head once. "You go ahead and tell yourself that, Sam." He dropped his eyes to his hands; he was holding his right in his left, turning the silver ring around his finger. "But it's never going to be over."

Grumbling a low, "Yes, it will," Sam pushed Dean away from him, intending to only get space between them, suffocating on the truth that was twisting into something dark.

Whether his force was too much or Dean's balance was off, Sam never had time to really figure out, because Dean stumbled, a gasp escaping as the motion jolted his wounded side. Triggered by the pain or looking for an excuse, Dean used that push to launch at his brother.

He gripped the front of Sam's shirt and with a growl, turned him, slamming him with impressive force against the wall. Sam felt the impact rock through his body, reminding him that aside from the slashes on his face, there were numerous bruises and muscle tears that the Daeva had treated him to.

"What—"

"You can't leave it, Sam," Dean said, his words slipping out through clenched teeth and brushing against Sam's face like acid. "You can walk away from me, you can forget about Dad, you can put away your guns, but this is your life. This will always be your life!"

Sam's eyes burned, his mouth curled into a snarl, his hands fisted in Dean's jacket and with disregard for wounds or bruises or pain, he shoved back, a cry of denial building in his gut and climbing his throat to wash over his brother as he forced him away. He shoved hard enough that Dean's legs hit the side of a bed and he tumbled backwards across it with a grunt of pain audible even over Sam's rage.

"You just want to believe that, Dean!" Sam took a step forward, heat licking his cheeks as he let the words build and tumble free, riding on a confused tangle of perceived duplicity that stemmed from the one person they were supposed to be able to trust: their father. "You just want this to be my life because you don't know what else to do!" Sam paused a moment to pull in a breath, looking at his brother with eyes blind to the understanding on Dean's face. "Well, I do! I know what else is out there! I had it, man!"

He turned away from Dean, shoving his fingers into his hair and curling them into fists against his temples. God he hurt. It was pervasive. It shimmered through him. He wanted to throw up to relieve the pressure, but he knew in the back of his mind it wouldn't do any good. Because this pain wasn't from a sickness or a wound.

"I had everything…for like this one perfect moment I had everything and then she died and I…I lost it…and Dad disappeared…and you…."

Sam dropped his hands, unconsciously assuming a stance that echoed Dean's earlier defeated posture. His voice slipped to a whisper, one he couldn't be sure Dean even heard. But it didn't matter now. It wasn't about getting Dean to understand as much as it was about getting the ache to just stop.

"All I had left was finding Dad. Finding him and getting this…thing that killed Mom. Killed…killed Jess."

He felt the tears pushing against the words in an effort to escape first. "And then Dad was here…and for like two seconds everything was…was okay again. I really felt like it could be okay."

He sniffed and surrendered to the emotion that had been pursuing him since Chicago. Ignoring the shame he too often felt, he let the tears come, feeling their trail wet his cheeks, skipping across the fresh wounds, and tucking into the corners of his mouth. "And then he left. You told him…you told him to leave."

Silence pulsed between them. He could hear his harsh, sorrow-filled breaths. He tried to steady them, but too much had built up inside of him; his heart was a rebellion of emotion.

"You didn't have everything."

The words were so quiet Sam felt his body still in reaction just to hear more.

"You didn't have us."

Sam half-turned, looking at his brother laying across the foot of the bed where Sam had pushed him, his head back, his eyes closed, one hand resting on the now-growing red stain on his side.

"And I'm sorry, Sammy," Dean continued, his voice pulling Sam around like an audible hook. "I am…I am so sorry." Sam sniffed, swiping the back of his hand across his unmarked cheek and drying his tears. Dean's chin shook once and then steadied. "Fuck, man…," he almost sighed. "Don't you think I wanted him to stay? That's all I've been after—for us to be a…," Dean swallowed, seemingly forcing the words free, "to be a family again."

Sam took a step closer to the bed. Dean still hadn't opened his eyes.

"But when it comes to you guys—to you and Dad—it's not about that." He licked his lips. "It's about…I don't know. Keeping you guys safe, I guess. And if he'd been with us…they'da just kept coming until either we were dead…or he was."

"You think he's safe out there alone?" Sam asked, hearing the youth in his voice, the hope, the need for Dean to make it better.

"He's safer on his own than he is with us." Dean blinked open heavy eyes, looking up at the ceiling, not at Sam.

"You really believe that?"

Dean rolled his head to the side, meeting Sam's gaze. "No." He closed his eyes, then straightened his neck. "But he does. And that's what matters, I guess."

Sam wanted to sit down. He wanted to close his eyes. He wanted to sleep for a month.

"If you really want to go…y'know, when this is all over," Dean said suddenly, "I won't stop you."

And with those words, with that permission to be free of this one day, Sam felt the ache begin to ease. In truth, he had no idea if going back to Stanford was really what he wanted or not; he was just hurting, body and soul, and the idea that this life of death was really all he had to hope for was enough to defeat him in this moment. He wanted something else, something not tied to blood and death.

Something that didn't give him nightmares.

Watching his brother, though, he allowed himself a small, quiet confession: he didn't want to leave his family behind again in order to find that peace. Dean had been right. He hadn't had everything.

"I mean, I won't throw a party or anything," Dean continued.

"No party, huh?" Sam asked, quietly appreciative of Dean's method for putting them back on even ground.

Dean looked at him once more. "I kinda like having you around to watch my back."

"Save your ass, you mean," Sam corrected good-naturedly.

Dean folded his lips in concession, not moving from his sprawl across the bed. "Well, it's a nice ass. Deserves saving."

"Whatever, Jerk."

"Hey, Sammy?"

Sam narrowed his eyes at the shift in tone. "Yeah?"

"Wait until it's really over before you leave, okay?"

Sam looked down, tightening his jaw. "Okay."

They stayed quiet for a moment, Sam's quiet promise weaving an invisible bond in the abbreviated space between them. Finally, when Sam couldn't take the silence anymore, he looked up. "You need some help?"

The fact that Dean had stayed where he fell, that he hadn't been up, pacing the tiny room like a tiger on steroids while Sam blew angst all over them shifted his worry up a notch. Aside from a blood stain and a fragmented memory of Dean falling under Daeva claws, Sam had no idea how badly his brother was hurt.

"No, I got—" Dean tried to roll to his side, then groaned, falling back. "On second thought…."

Sam moved closer, gripping Dean's wrist and pulling gently until Dean was sitting up on the edge of the bed. Huffing out a breath, Dean listed to his right, away from the cuts.

"How bad?" Sam asked, concern tingeing his question.

"I'll live," Dean grunted. Without waiting for help, he pushed to his feet, and turned toward Sam. "Let's just…"

Sam felt his stomach drop as the color drained completely from Dean's face, his eyes falling closed. He instinctively reached out as Dean's knees buckled and caught him in an awkward embrace, carrying both of them to the floor.

In a flash, their actions caught up with him and he recalled Dean stepping across the room to hug John, watching as John embraced Sam, blocking the strike of the Daeva as Sam retrieved the flare, supporting John as they all stumbled to the car, driving through the seemingly endless night cloaked in quiet, hauling their bags and Sam from the car, forcing Sam to sit still so that he could clean his wounds first.

"You stupid…," Sam whispered, rolling Dean down his arm to get a better grip, noting the sickly, pale pallor of his brother's face. "You shoulda said something, Dean," Sam accused, pulling the jacket away from Dean's side, then carefully peeling up the sodden T-shirt.

Four claw marks to match the ones on Dean's forehead and Sam's cheek scored Dean's ribs, the lowest one digging deep into the flesh just beneath the curve of bone. The gashes were longer, the skin parting like lips around the opening.

And after their recent actions, blood now spilled freely.

"Dammit," Sam swore, getting his knees under him and boosting Dean up so that his back was against Sam's front. Dean groaned with the motion, but Sam ignored it. Pushing to his feet, he pulled Dean with him, and then dragged him onto the bed. "Goddammit," he cursed again as the blood from Dean's wound smeared along the bedspread with the movement.

"What'd you do that for, huh?" Sam asked his unconscious brother, worry and a fair amount of fear jacking up his blood pressure and increasing the speed of his breathing. "You don't just hide something like this from me, man."

Leaving Dean sprawled and still on the bed, Sam hurried to the bathroom and gathered up the first aid kit Dean had set out. Holding the package of needles, sutures, bandages, scissors, tweezers and cotton balls against his chest, he saw that there were two bottles of antiseptic. He picked up the heaviest one and then returned to the bed and set them next to Dean's wounded side.

A quick glance confirmed that Dean hadn't moved. He went back to the bathroom and gathered several towels, wetting one with hot water. As he did, he caught a glimpse of his own face in the mirror. Now clean and bandaged, the slashes in his face were little more than scratches, the third one down the longest.

The dark circles beneath his hazel eyes seemed to echo his earlier desire to lie down and just rest; he closed his eyes for a moment, jerking back in surprise when the hot water splashed from the towel onto his hand. Turning off the faucet, he carefully squeezed the excess water from the towel and returned to his brother.

Rolling Dean carefully to his right, Sam eased his arm out of his jacket, moving around the bed to repeat the motion on the other side. Taking a breath, he pulled out the scissors from their kit and cut away Dean's ruined T-shirt. He rubbed his forehead wearily as he examined the cuts in the yellowish light of the motel floor lamp, and then lifted the hot towel, gingerly touching it against the abused flesh of Dean's side.

The heat from the towel caused Dean to instinctively jerk away, but he didn't wake. Sam carefully cleaned as much blood from around the wounds as he could, returning to the bathroom twice more to rinse and re-wet the towel. As he worked, his anger evaporated leaving only a heavy sadness in its wake, the taste of regret coating the back of his tongue.

The pale light of morning slipped through the crack in the heavy curtain, the beam playing with dust motes and cutting a slash across Sam's hands and Dean's bare belly. Sam had to move the corner lamp closer to make sure he got most of the blood cleaned away from the wound. When he was sure it was clear, he wet a handful of cotton balls with antiseptic and pressed them carefully against the top cut.

Dean nearly came off the bed.

"Jesus Christ!" The words were ragged, breathy, panicked.

"Hey, easy." Sam caught Dean's instinctive flight, holding his brother down with gentle hands. "You'll start them bleeding again!"

Dean's wide eyes flew around the room, disorientation evident. "What the hell—"

"Daeva, remember? Cut your side? You fainted on me, man."

That caught his attention. Dean shot his eyes directly to Sam. "No, I didn't."

"Yeah, you did," Sam nodded, eyebrows up, and continued to dab at the open wounds. "You put your hand to your forehead and sank delicately to the ground."

"Bullshit," Dean groused, trying to get a glimpse at what Sam was doing. "Ah! Be careful, dude!"

"Dean, you've been bleeding off and on all night, man. You got some serious cuts here."

"Not serious," Dean retorted, dropping his head back and stiffening under Sam's touch.

"Serious enough," Sam grumbled. "I can't believe you made me go first."

Dean just shrugged as if to say it didn't occur to me to do anything differently. "Stitches?"

"Uh, yeah," Sam replied. "A lot of them."

"I hate stitches."

"I know."

They were quiet a moment while Sam finished cleaning the deepest of the cuts. As he prepared the sterilized needle, he looked up at Dean's face, saw the lines of tension framing his eyes and snaking down his jaw.

"You want a shot of something?"

"What do we have?"

Sam stood and went to Dean's duffel bag. A silver flask was tucked into the end. "Whatever's in this."

Dean reached out his hand, unscrewed the cap, and took a long pull. He held it wordlessly out to Sam, who waved it off.

"I think you want me clear-headed for this, Dean."

"You want to burn the needle first?" Dean asked.

"Already done. Quit stalling, you big baby," Sam retorted. "Ready?"

Dean took another swig from the flask, then pressed his lips together and nodded. To his credit, the only sound he made was when Sam got the thread knotted and tugged a bit on the wound. By the time Sam was finished with the two deepest cuts, Dean had eighteen stitches in his side. His body shook in reaction both to the intrusion of the needle and the effort at holding still for so long. Sweat ran in dark rivulets through his close-cropped hair and beaded across his upper lip.

"I think the top two are okay with bandages."

"There is a God," Dean panted. He handed the flask back to Sam with a shaking hand. "Gonna…just pass out—in a manly way—for a minute."

A rueful grin tugging up the corner of his mouth, Sam nodded. He looked at the cuts across Dean's forehead, but decided they could wait. Dean needed rest, and the cuts didn't look deep. He started to clean up the supplies; as he was about to head to the bathroom, he heard his name.

"Sammy?"

"Yeah?"

Dean spoke with his eyes closed, a slur born of alcohol, exhaustion, and latent pain giving his words more meaning.

"You w're right."

"About what?"

Dean licked his lips, turning his head away. "I wasn't thinking 'bout you when I gotcha 't Stanford."

Sam stood still, listening.

"Jus din't wanna be 'lone," Dean whispered, and with those words, Sam watched him give in to sleep, his body sighing as it relaxed into the bed.

Swallowing past the tight fist in his throat, Sam turned slowly back to the bathroom, setting the first aid supplies on the counter, and then regarded himself in the mirror. He saw his father in his own face, the cut of his cheekbones, the shape of his mouth. He saw his father in the edge he detected in his expression.

He wanted to turn away, unable for one frightening moment to see himself.

Closing his eyes, Sam leaned his forehead against the mirror. He'd spent so much time hating his father, running from the similarities he couldn't help but see. But all he wanted now was to return to that moment in the Chicago motel room before the Daeva attacked. The moment he saw nothing but relief and love in his father's eyes. The moment he felt forgiveness ease the tightness in his chest.

Just didn't want to be alone…

"Me neither," Sam whispered to the mirror.

www

Outside Maera, TX 2005

It always managed to surprise him, the amount of blood in a human body.

Even a body that used to be human could dispense an impressive arterial spray. He could smell it, feel it, practically taste it in the air, on his skin, seeping into his soul. This one he'd done on his own; he'd left the other two behind, starting the ritual on his own, knowing that exsanguination was the only guarantee that the essence would be captured.

And usable.

He disposed of the body, not bothering to clean himself up before he returned to find Leo and Max. They'd built a campfire in the center of the Devil's Trap they'd burned into the earth the previous night for the purpose of torturing the ritual out of their captive before exorcising it. He could still smell the remnants of burned fuel and flesh from where they'd gotten rid of the host body the night before, burying the ashes with rock salt.

Jake stopped just outside of the protective symbol looking at his friends. Max poked a stick into the glowing coals absentmindedly; Leo ran his Bowie across a whetstone with practiced rhythm. Both looked up when they heard him approach and drew back with twin expressions of horror at the sight of him.

"It's done," Jake informed them.

Max was the first to mask his revulsion. He dropped his eyes to the line of the Devil's Trap just beyond the toes of Jake's boots. His meaning was clear: come to our side, come back to us. Jake stepped over the barrier and dropped the Mason jar on the padding of his bedroll, the contents sloshing drunkenly within. He'd step inside the protective circle, but he knew he'd never really come back.

"You really did it." Leo's words were a simple confirmation, his eyes on the jar and the small piece of gray matter floating within.

Jake didn't reply. He was through convincing them of his intent. They were in it now; he had only to wait until they accepted that fact. Each one of them had learned in over nearly fifty years in this world that a person could be conditioned to accept anything as normal.

Even this.

"Now what?" Max asked, his eyes having returned to their stare-down with the dying fire. Jake recognized that look. It was the same expression that had made itself home on Max's face the last eight months they spent surviving in the jungle when they were twenty years old. It was resignation blended with disbelief and cut by heartache.

And this time he was responsible for it.

Dragging a hand down the length of his face and scratching at the whiskers that had grown slightly thicker since Sean's death, Jake sighed. Max knew what was next. He was just asking the question to delay the inevitable.

"Now, we find a calf."

The ritual had been specific. They had to drain the blood of an immortal then remove the creature's suprachiasmatic nucleas, the tiny part of the hypothalamus located directly above the point in the human brain where the optic nerves from the two eyes cross. This part of the brain, he learned, contained the body's central biological clock.

A vampire—the only immortal any of them could think of—had been harder to trap than they'd anticipated, given that Max was convinced they were extinct and Leo was morally averse to procuring a vial of dead man's blood to sedate their catch. Jake had found the nest, tricked the youngest, smallest female away from the rest, and, using the vial Max retrieved in Leo's stead, tied the girl to a tree and sent the other two away.

It had taken her a long time to bleed out.

It had taken him even longer to stop heaving once he'd cut apart her brain.

"A calf." Leo repeated in a dull voice. "I can't fucking believe we're doing this."

The suprachaismatic nucleas was the key ingredient in the ritual. Everything else just helped to ensure their success. But they had to be gathered in a particular order, during specific times of the day. He didn't want to understand why. He didn't care. All he needed to do was follow the instructions.

"Believe it, brother," Max droned. "'Cause we're over the wall now."

He looked up at Jake with empty eyes. Jake nodded back at him, feeling confidence build inside him. This was going to work; he would sacrifice himself if necessary, but it was going to work.

He just didn't anticipate how many failed attempts there would be before they achieved success.

www

Gary, IN 2005

When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was Sam.

His brother lay sprawled on his back on the opposite bed, mouth open as breath sawed in and out in a familiar, rhythmic snore pattern. His feet hung over the end of the small bed, kicked free of the blankets, and his left arm dangled in the open space between beds. His bed was so close that Dean stretched his hand out across the opening and pushed Sam's arm up to rest on his chest. Sam snorted softly, smacked his lips, and rolled to his side, his back to Dean.

It was refreshing to see Sam sleep, peaceful, dreamless. Too often Dean had woken up in time to bear witness to the lines of pain and panic that outlined Sam's boyish face, erasing youth and sketching a dismal future that Dean could only blame himself for.

The motel room was stuffy; his skin was covered in an uncomfortable, sticky layer of sweat under even the thin blanket and sheet from the bed. Gingerly, Dean rolled from his side to his back, feeling the motion pull the tender, sutured skin along his ribs. With an eyebrow raised in curiosity, he lifted the sheet and looked down the length of his body. Thankfully, he still had his jeans on; Sam had just done away with the bloody shirt.

Automatically, Dean reached up to rub at his gritty eyes, pulling up short as he realized the skin across his forehead felt almost…crunchy.

Groaning, Dean realized that the cuts on his face courtesy of the Daeva hadn't been bandaged last night. Last night? This morning? He blinked, looking around the room. It was light outside; he could see that much from the sunlight slipping through the cracks in the heavy curtains. But it had been light outside the last time he'd been awake, too.

Chewing on a distinctly uncomfortable feeling of missing time, Dean pushed away from the bed, letting the rough, bleach-washed sheets slip from his bare shoulders and puddle at his waist. He felt hollow; a strangely weightless sensation floated through his head and for a moment he was sure if he lifted his hand mid-air it would hover there of its own accord. Nausea that always accompanied extended hours of not eating shook through him, and Dean tossed back the covers, standing slowly and biting back a groan.

He wanted coffee more than he wanted to take another breath.

He hated the shaky, unsettled feeling of weakness that followed him from the dark. Moving toward the bathroom, quick eyes catching sight of food wrappers in the small trashcan, six empty Pepsi cans lined up along the dresser, and a pile of dirty clothes on the floor next to Sam's duffel, he hazarded a guess that he'd been asleep at least twenty-four hours, if not more.

So…blood loss. Not a good thing.

He closed the bathroom door behind him. He winced when he caught his reflection in the mirror: he looked rough. Two days beard crawled across his cheeks and jaw, dried blood matted his eyebrows, and one eye looked bruised.

Taking a deep breath, Dean turned the water in the sink to as hot as he could stand it and splashed his face, cleaning the blood away. He patted it dry with a semi-clean towel he found on the floor, then looked at the first aid kit Sam had left on the counter.

"Almost out of holy water," he muttered, picking up the lighter of the two bottles of antiseptic.

For a brief moment he wondered if Sam had remembered to clean his side with the holy water before stitching it up, but then he recalled the burn that had jerked him roughly from the comfort of oblivion. He looked at his face. Now free from blood, he could clearly see the reddening of the edges of his cuts; they'd gone a little while without being properly cleansed, so this was going to sting.

Folding over the towel he'd used to dry his face, he covered his eyes, and then poured the rest of the holy water down his forehead. It was like bathing in liquid fire. He actually heard the snap and sizzle as the blessed liquid removed the Daeva poison.

"Son. Of. A. Bitch. That hurts," he hissed through clenched teeth. "Mother fu—"

"Dean?"

"In here," he called back immediately. The worry in Sam's voice had his stomach jumping in reaction.

"You okay?" Sam's voice was close now, just on the other side of the door.

"Yeah, I'm good. Just taking care of business, Sammy," he replied, turning off the water in the sink and carefully shucking his jeans. His body thrummed with a beat unique to old pain. His bones hurt; he knew this was going to be hanging around for awhile. He'd just have to learn to work around it until he healed. "Be out in a minute."

"You hungry?"

"Are you kidding?" Dean called back as he turned on the water in the shower stall. "Right now I could eat you and not feel bad about it."

"I'll go get us some break—er, lunch," Sam replied.

Stepping under the spray and feeling his mouth relax into a smile as his body soaked up the delicious sensation of the water, Dean shouted, "What time—hell, day is it?"

"It's like one in the afternoon," Sam yelled through the door. "Saturday."

"What day did we get here?" Dean asked, frowning as he slicked up his body with the bar of soap Sam had left in the dish. He was careful to rotate his left side away from the direct spray of the water.

He heard the smile in Sam's voice. "Friday morning."

That explains a lot.

"Four cheeseburgers," Dean called back. "Fries—make that two orders of fries."

"Yeah, yeah," Sam verbally waved him off. "Want a side of cholesterol and some hardened arteries to go with that?"

"Why not," Dean said. "Hurry up!"

"Be careful of your stit—"

"Just go get the food!" Dean interrupted him, lathering his hair.

In the time it took Dean to rinse, bandage one of the cuts on his forehead, and head out of the steam-filled bathroom to his duffel bag, Sam had returned with the food.

"There's a fast-food place in walking distance from the motel," Sam explained.

"Dude," Dean sighed, not bothering to dress as he reached for a wrapped cheeseburger with a hand shaking from hunger. "Let's never leave."

"Like hell," Sam replied around a mouthful of fries. "This is the smallest room we've ever had. Look." He stood and lifted his hand above his head. Dean watched as he pressed his palm flat on the ceiling, his arm still slightly bent at the elbow.

Dean shrugged, reaching for a second burger. "Guess they didn't have gigantors in mind when they built the place."

"You can say that again," Sam grumbled, dropping down to sit on the foot of Dean's bed. "I think I'm developing claustrophobia."

"I'll just add that to my list of Weird Facts About Sam."

"Shut up." Sam reached for more fries. "You try being trapped in the world's smallest motel room with a brother recovering from blood loss and two channels on the TV."

Dean cut his eyes over to Sam. "Two channels?"

"I know," Sam nodded. "It was more interesting watching you sleep."

Dean lifted an eyebrow. "Okay, that's just creepy."

"Like you haven't done it before."

"I can honestly say I've never watched myself sleep," Dean said, wadding up the paper from one cheeseburger and reaching for another.

"Well, trust me. It's boring," Sam sighed. "I'm just glad you finally decided to wake up. I started getting headaches from too much computer time."

"On the plus side, your cuts are healing fast," Dean remarked, looking at Sam's cheek. Two of the slices were barely noticeable.

Sam nodded. "Thanks to you."

Dean bounced his eyebrows. "What can I say…I've got the magic touch."

"You wish," Sam said, rolling his eyes.

He got up and crossed to the bathroom, pulling his T-shirt over his head and dropping it neatly into the pile of dirty clothes as he did so. It occurred to Dean that Sam had quite effectively taken care of both of them over the last day and a half and had done so with his own rhythm and sense of organization. It wasn't as if Sam hadn't been on his own before—a few times in fact. But on his own and responsible for Dean were two different matters.

The last time Sam had to do that, Dean had been sure he was on his way out. Until, of course, they took a road trip to Nebraska. Dean may be been physically present, but Sam had essentially been alone and had done just fine. Both times.

Frowning at what that thought implied, Dean looked at the scrawl of notes stacked on top of Sam's laptop as he continued to eat. He had to grin slightly as he noted that Sam had started using the blank pages from John's journal when he'd run out of motel stationary.

Flipping the papers around to face him, he scanned the writing.

"Sam!"

"Yeah?" Sam called back over the sound of the shower.

"Why do we care about…villain hitting?"

He heard the water shut off and waited until Sam opened the door, letting a billow of steam escape into the already stuffy room. For a tiny motel, it had a damn good supply of hot water, Dean thought. Sam stepped out, a towel wrapped around his waist and knotted at his hip.

"It's this…ritual thing I found when I was looking up demons."

Dean pursed his lips. "Uh-huh. And, uh…why were you looking up demons?"

Sam shrugged, digging through his duffel bag. "Figure we should know as much about 'em as we can, right? I mean, if we're gonna go up against one…y'know, when Dad finds it, or whatever."

Dean sat back in the chair. "Why didn't you just look through Dad's journal?"

Sam pulled a pair of clean jeans up over his boxers. "I did," he replied, putting on a dark blue T-shirt with a wasted-looking greyhound on the front as he turned around. "I wanted to know more."

"Sam, Dad's got all we need to know—"

"It's not the Holy Grail, Dean," Sam snapped. "Dad learned this stuff as he went along; it's not like we never go to libraries or search online or whatever."

Dean felt his frown deepen, the line between his brow burrowing until a headache blossomed.

"He has protection symbols, and exorcism rites," Sam continued. "He has how to detect one with holy water and random notes on weather patterns and omens that don't make any sense. At least not to me."

Dean looked at the leather book sticking out of the top of his duffel bag. Sam sat down across from him.

"Yeah, well…," Dean conceded, not taking his eyes from the journal. "He does kinda write like—"

"Yoda," Sam finished, nodded. "So you've said. I mean, he gave us what he knew when he left," Sam continued as if sensing Dean was gearing up to go on the defensive, "but half of it's written like—"

"We've been inside his head," Dean completed, nodding.

Sam was quiet for a moment. "I just think that…since he's been out there, y'know, looking for this demon, he's learned a lot more than we're going to find in that book."

Dean reached up to rub at his now-aching head, remembering too late that his forehead had been split open by Daeva claws. He dropped his hand into his lap, the rough texture of the towel familiar beneath his fingertips, and rolled his neck. His skin felt tight, dry, like it was stretched too thin over the frame of his muscles and bones. He shifted in the chair, looking at the cuts on his side where they stood out against the smooth plane of his belly, the angry red a sharp contrast to the towel covering the rest of his body.

Dad knows something….

But there hadn't been time to find out more, and now they were on their own again. The idea of picking up where Dad had left off all those many months ago turned the food he'd just inhaled into a rock of dread in his stomach.

It all felt so much bigger now. More than just kicking over an altar table and vanquishing spirits. Something was after his dad. The same something that killed his mom. And that pissed him off.

"Dad said he was going to kill it," Sam reminded him, as if following the path of his thoughts.

"I know," Dean sighed, looking back up at his brother.

"Far as I can tell?" Sam grabbed the stack of papers from the laptop, then dropped them again. "You can't kill a demon. You can torture it, trap it, exorcise it…but you can't kill it."

"Well, Dad seemed to think there was a way."

Sam's steady eyes caught him. "And that's good enough for you, isn't it?"

His tone wasn't accusatory. Sam was, Dean realized, finding wonder in that fact. For a moment, Dean was ashamed to be perceived as such a simple being: a soldier following orders, a man with one job, one mission, and one way to get it done.

Tearing his eyes away from Sam's, Dean used the edge of the table to push himself to his feet, closing his eyes briefly as the rest of the world caught up with his change in altitude. He hated feeling weak; it was his own damn fault, though. He'd been so wrapped up in trying not to react to his dad's sudden arrival and just as sudden departure after all this time he hadn't paid attention to his body and the warning signs it had given him.

"You okay?"

Sam had stood with him, he realized, and had a hand hovering near his elbow as if expecting him to topple over any moment.

"Fine," he snapped.

"You sure? 'Cause you just went white."

Not bothering to answer, Dean turned and made his way to his duffel bag. He dug out clothes and dropped his towel, dressing as quickly as his wounds would allow, unwilling to even let a small hiss of pain escape his tightly-closed lips. He sat on the edge of his messy bed to pull on his boots, glancing up briefly at Sam.

"What?"

"Nothin'," Sam mumbled, turning away and opening the laptop. He muttered something else, too low for Dean to hear.

"Talkin' to yourself, Sammy?"

Sam's sigh was so burdened Dean almost laughed. His brother was unique: a man capable of dispatching a number of creatures multiple ways who was easily larger than most of the hunters they'd encountered and yet still fell victim to the younger-sibling mold of using passive-aggressive behavior until he felt he'd made his point.

"I just said," Sam spoke up, his head tilting slightly to the side as his tone grew sassy, "that it sucks being Superman's little brother."

"Superman was an only child. And an orphan," Dean pointed out, pulling on his boots. He stood, pulling in a steadying breath of stuffy air. "Maybe you're more like…Robin."

"Maybe you should bite me," Sam lifted an eyebrow in challenge, but Dean didn't miss the amused twinkle in his brother's eyes.

"I'll think about it," he joked, "right after coffee."

"Coffee?" Sam squeaked, pausing Dean's hand as he reached for the door. "You just had lunch!"

Dean shrugged. "And your point is…?"

Waving him off, Sam sighed again. "Go get your coffee. I'll just…look for our next hunt…or…something."

Dean opened the door. "Look down south. Someplace sunny." He stepped outside and closed the door on Sam's eye-roll.

The mid-afternoon air was crisp, the wind biting through the layers of shirts he'd chosen and crawling up his strangely over-sensitive skin in gooseflesh. He almost turned back for his jacket, but then registered that he suddenly felt better, more balanced. The fog that had forced its way into his consciousness from the moment he'd opened his eyes had lifted and he filled his lungs with fresh air.

As he crossed the lot to the fast-food restaurant Sam had referred to earlier, Dean allowed himself a moment to think about nothing. No absent father, no petulant brother, no missed opportunities, no bad guys, no car, no music…nothing. It was infrequently quiet inside his head and he mentally rolled in the peace as he walked up to the counter, smiled at the teenager who gaped openly at the wounds gracing his forehead, ordered a large coffee and walked slowly back across the lot.

He'd almost made it completely to the room wrapped in the bliss of silent thought when his cell phone rang. Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water bleated from the back pocket of his jeans and Dean sighed, practically feeling the scuttle of worried, tangled, necessary thoughts return.

"Hello?"

The rush of air across the mouthpiece on the other end immediately told him the caller was in a moving vehicle. The pause before his name told him it was his father.

"Dean?"

"Dad? You okay?"

"I'm fine. Listen, I need you boys to do something for me."

Ignoring the pinch in his heart shouting in frustration that his dad hadn't thought to ask after their well-being—considering the fact that they'd both been covered in blood when last he saw them—or if they got out of Chicago safely—considering the fact that the Daeva were merely distracted, not defeated—Dean drew his body to attention and turned his focus solely on the phone in his grip.

"What's up?"

"I got a call from...an old friend. He didn't give me much detail, but he's in trouble or he wouldn't have called."

"A hunter?"

"Yes. He's down in a place called Maera, Texas."

Dean blinked. "You want us to go to Texas?"

"You got something else planned?"

"Not exactly."

"Good. His name is Leo Dent. He's a good guy, Dean."

"What kind of trouble is he in?"

"His message didn't say, but…."

Dean heard a slew of unspoken words smack against the silence as he waited out his father.

"Leo hunts with two other guys: Max Thomas and Jake Brand."

"Okay…."

"Get down to Maera and figure out what's going on. See what you can do to help."

"Dad, where are you?" Dean frowned into the phone, hearing the static crackle back at him. "Why aren't you going?"

"I've got a…a lead on this demon."

"THE demon?"

"I told you…way…kill it…."

"Dad? You're breaking up."

"…call…again. Watch out for…other."

Dean hit the 'end' button as the line went down. Watch out for your brother. It was his dad's way of saying goodbye. Always had been.

"Texas, huh," he muttered as he shoved his phone back into his pocket. "Yee-freakin-haw."

When he stepped back into the motel room, he found Sam in the same position as when he left: shoulders bowed, head dipped, eyes on his screen. Without looking up, Sam called out, "Dude, I think I have something."

"Oh, yeah?" Dean asked casually, kicking the door shut behind him and crossing the short space to lean against the dresser.

"You know those omens I said Dad listed in the journal?"

"I've read the book, Sam."

Sam continued, oblivious to Dean's sarcasm. "Well, I think there may be something here," he pointed to the screen of his laptop.

Not yet ready to divulge the fact that Dad had called, Dean sipped his coffee. "You trying to tell me your computer's possessed?"

At that, Sam looked up. "What? No, I—what's the matter?"

Dean drew his head back, unnerved by the way his brother's eyes seemed to see through his walls as if they were made of glass. "Nothing."

"You sure?"

Dean rolled his eyes. "Would you quit asking me that? Nothing's the matter. I'm fine. And turn off that damn worried face already."

Frowning, glancing between Dean and the information on his screen, Sam said, "I found some articles about…cattle mutilations, some random lightening storms, strange symbols burned into the earth, people going missing—"

"You found this in your demon research?"

Sam shrugged. "I branched out…thought I'd try to see if I could make Dad make sense."

Good luck with that. Dean bit the inside of his cheek to keep from saying it out loud.

"Anyway, the latest events were just a few days ago, man. I think we oughta check it out." Sam closed his laptop, then stood and stretched, his arms bent to keep from hitting the ceiling. "Besides," he said mid-stretch. "It fits your criteria, location-wise."

"Let me guess," Dean sighed, pressing his thumb against the bridge of his nose. "Texas. Some little Podunk down called Maera."

Sam dropped his arms and stared at Dean in naked surprise. "How the hell did you know that?"

Dean grinned around the edge of his coffee cup.


a/n: More to come in a week…. Hope you're enjoying thus far!