Notes: It's been ages since I've written anything. I started this story last spring, then lost my mojo. Finally had the courage to pull it out again and give writing another try, so I hope the effort was worth it. Please let me know. For once, I'm begging for reviews. LOL! Yes, I fully admit, I could use some encouragement. Thanks so much to Kim for the beta! All remaining mistakes are my own. Enjoy, and don't forget to leave me a note. :) - Kam

This story is set midway through season four.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXx

The tar road cut through the Appalachian foothills, contrasting sharply with the blinding yellow canopy of leaves overhead. It was a dichotomy that worked, and put Sam in mind of a golden halo over the darkness of hell. He watched the asphalt twist and turn before them, felt Dean press down and ease up on the gas as the Impala kicked up billows of fallen leaves, clearing that dark path. The analogies were becoming too much for Sam, and he fixed his eyes instead on the flashes of rocky ledges that were close enough to touch. Dark trunks sliced through the yellow glow, creating a feeling that these way-too thin lines of trees were doing little to support the weighty canopy, and indeed the way the leaves were cascading down led Sam to believe that these study trunks were losing their own battle.

He really needed to shut off his brain. His head thumped back against the seat, and his eyes closed.

His brain defied him. He thought of Ruby. Her dark hair, those big eyes, the way she was perfect and yet not so perfect. Powerful, restrained, and so different from before. He had a bad feeling about her, but like the sight before him, she was a halo over the dark. She was his light, even as he steered down a dark path.

He wasn't stupid. And Dean wasn't either. He resented the fact that his brother knew what was going on, and had ceased warning him. Sam could feel his own self-destruction coming, and lately it seemed Dean had stepped back to see if it would really happen. Sam pushed his back against the seat and stretched his long legs as far as they would go. Released the stretch with a sigh, and looked across the seat at his brother.

Dean had been silent for a good while. Any other time Sam would take it for tension, but Dean's grip on the steering wheel was lose and comfortable. His face was relaxed, and he allowed himself to casually gaze at the view around them. He had nothing to say, then. Nothing was wrong. Just a nice, quiet time on the road with no problems. Sam winced against the yellow glare and leaned back once more, intending to nap, but he was afraid to miss a view. As a result his tired eyes opened once more, and he lifted his head.

The small town appeared without warning. Steep hills suddenly rolled back to reveal crisp white buildings glowing in the daylight. Stacks of leaves swirled toward the car as Dean slowed his speed. They passed a man with a blower who took the disturbance in stride, giving the brothers a friendly wave as they passed. Dean honked the horn lightly in greeting and continued on. Sam saw kids running around and was glad for his brother's caution.

"Welcome to Walnut Grove," Dean muttered, ducking his head under the glare shield of the Impala for a better view of the sky. Sam watched his brother's eyes take in the sight before he turned the car to follow the town's circle to the right.

"Please. Like you know anything about Little House on the Prairie," Sam muttered, more out of habit than anything.

"I know Mary was hot. Hell, the mom was hot."

"Caroline?"

"That her name? Yeah, she was a definite MILF."

"You're degrading a classic!"

"Really? Thought she'd take that as a compliment." Dean pointed to a large building that proudly proclaimed itself 'River Forge Municipal Building'. "Guess this place is named after that creek we were following."

Sam rattled the map as he folded it. "Actually, that's a river."

"Oh, please. That's not a river. It's pathetic."

"They probably haven't had much rain lately."

"The rain probably got caught in those trees and never hit the ground." Again, Dean peered upwards at the thick foliage. "Never even saw the ground."

Sam grinned, then smacked Dean's arm with the back of his hand and pointed. "Hey, stop here. I'm hungry."

"Whoa, talk about the coming apocalypse! You're actually gonna eat something?" Dean parked the Impala between two stark white lines about fifty feet from the restaurant door. His hand flew out to feel Sam's forehead. "What is it, feed a fever, starve a brother. . ."

"Knock it off." Sam pushed his hand away.

"Seriously, you ill?"

"Would I be asking for food if I was?"

Dean's brows rose quickly. He leaned over and sang an unidentifiable riff of a song right in Sam's face before launching himself out of the car. Sam just shook his head at his brother's antics, and swung open his own door.

Dean was pocketing his keys. "Chalk one up for the starving minion. I suppose Ruby put you up to it. You know, keeping your strength up to lead the army and all that."

So Dean wasn't as relaxed as he looked. It was now painfully obvious what his brother had been thinking during the drive. Sam slammed his door closed and rounded the front of the car, abruptly blocking Dean's path. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means, it seems Ruby can get you to do thing that I can't."

"It's - food, Dean! It's just food!"

"Today food, tomorrow the world."

Dean tried to shoulder past, but Sam threw out one hand, stopping him mid-motion. "Whoa, wait a minute. Where'd this come from?" he insisted.

"Where'd what come from?"

"I thought you were okay with this. I mean, you know." Sam gave a weak shrug. "Considering."

"Considering what? That she's a demon? She may be batting for the winning team, but she's still a demon." He gave a smirk. "But hell, you're a big boy, I'm sure you know what you're doing." He gave Sam a pat on the arm and pulled away.

So, he did give a damn after all. But now he was accusing Sam of being the bad guy, and wasn't that a change from before? "Hey, what happened to all the talk about not letting me go evil? What, you're just gonna renege on that?"

"It's not my place, Sam. Like I said, you're a big boy." Dean patted his jeans pockets, then turned back to the car.

Sam followed, changing tactics. "Okay. What about Anna? You sure she's so trustworthy? She's not exactly a paragon of goodness herself."

"You're seriously gonna compare the two?" Dean's eyes flashed as he yanked open the car door. He dove inside, and emerged with his wallet.

Sam shrugged. "What's the difference between a good demon and a fallen angel?"

Dean's lips pressed tight, and one finger pointed accusingly. Sam waited, his brows raised. But his brother turned away, spotted a colorful door, and said in an exaggerated, dismissive tone, "Oh, look. A toy store." He glared over his shoulder.

"Dean, I'm hungry!" But Dean was already crossing the street, pausing briefly as a car passed and tossed about the few leaves left on the road. Sam pounded that flat of his hand on the Impala's hood in frustration, and followed.

The front door was painted a welcoming bright red and outlined in boyish blue. Sam regarded it for a moment before he climbed the stairs and leaned over the rail to peer through the large bay window. An assortment of dolls from cradle to toddler size, planes, RC cars, board games, puzzles, and blocks filled every possible corner. It was a little more old fashioned than what he usually saw at Walmart; a vague flashback to his childhood, of holidays spent staring in shop windows in unnamed towns, wondering what it was like for kids to make lists that Santa would check twice. Granted, those days were filled with longings for Transformers rather than trains. But an eerie pain pulled at him, and he blinked rapidly then jerked the door open with more force than was necessary, nearly sending the little brass bell off its door hook.

Inside, the aisles were thick with boxes. Packages, opened toys, metal cars, rocking horses, dolls, small poles with streamers, and plastic containers of pocket toys all flooded the walkways. Wrapped candies filled glass jars. Sam hesitated and took in the cheerful, chaotic atmosphere. Model planes hung from the ceiling. Around the perimeter of the shop, high above the windows, shelves were joined end-to-end, supporting two tiny N scale trains. The box cars ran the length of their tracks, dangerously close to the edge, but never tipping over. A larger train with a shorter track wrapped itself in a perpetual circle around the base of a small tree. The windows in the back held small stained-glass figures, each plastic piece of art lovingly hand-painted by a child. Flowers, baseball players, cats, and sailboats all hung from suction cups no larger than a nickel, and lent color to the back of the room, where a small art table stood. Paper flowers bordered the craft area, and Sam marveled that they were intact.

The store was mesmerizing. All remaining ire vanished. Sam tucked his hands into his pockets and found himself smiling as he passed bins of metal wind-ups toys. He picked up a small jet and studied the mechanism, delicately winding the white wheel that served as a key. He listened to the tinny whir of gears rolling. He was so absorbed that he jumped and nearly crapped in his pants at the deep voice that sounded behind him. "Can I help you, sir?"

The man had come from nowhere, or maybe the aisles were just too crowded to notice. Sam dropped the jet, then hurriedly bent down to scoop it up and put it back in the bin. His hands instantly flew back into his pockets. He felt like he'd been caught stealing. "Uh, hi! I just came in to look for my brother." It occurred to him that he hadn't even seen Dean, and he quickly raised his head and surveyed the small store.

"He's back in the corner, if he's who I think he is." The man pointed. "Just the two of you in here right now." And in confirmation, a distant voice called, "I'm back here, Sammy."

Judging from the glee in his voice, it seemed Dean was as taken with the place as he was. What the hell, they needed a break. Sam smiled at the shopkeeper. "Thanks. You own this place?"

"For forty-six years. I'm Mr. Beasley." The man extended his hand, which Sam took in his own.

"Sam. That's my brother Dean back there."

"Older or younger?"

"Uh, older."

"I had an older brother. Seems like a lifetime ago. You two don't fight a lot, do ya?"

It was an odd question, yet not so much. It seemed that older people were always asking things like that. "Some." Sam released Mr. Beasley's grip and gave a little shrug. "I guess. I mean I don't know if I'd call it fighting."

"Well, I don't mean bad-like. Me and my brother used to go at it like cats and dogs fighting over the last bit of beef." Mr. Beasley chuckled. "Course if anyone else tried to start something, we'd be all over them."

Sam thought back to all the times he was teased by his brother, only to have him kick the crap out of someone on the school grounds for doing the same thing. "Sounds about right."

"Brothers are a good thing," the older man sighed. "I sure miss mine."

A lump formed in Sam's throat, and he looked at the man in sympathy. "Is he. . ." Sam waved his hand in the air lightly, not wanting to ask.

"He passed on a few years ago. Shortly after my wife died."

The lump didn't go away. Memories of Dean's own death raced through his mind. Seeing his brother prone on the floor, torturously ripped apart right before him, his body too still and not at all like Dean. It was too soon, too raw. "I'm sorry," he forced out around a tight throat.

"He left me with this." Mr. Beasley gestured around the store. "We opened it together. What better business than a toy store, huh? Get to play all day, or so we thought! We were pretty stupid then. But it's been fun enough. Always said we were going to leave this town, but never did." He nodded, his gaze turning to the window. "I like it here. Friends, family, that's what matters. Not leaving it all and chasing down some dream. Even the kids end up coming back, and that's saying something." He waddled towards the counter, apparently favoring an arthritic hip. Sam followed. "They all get out of school and leave, say they want to make something of themselves, but they come back. Cause they know what's important. Where you boys from?"

"All over, really. Born in Kansas."

"You got family there?"

"It's really just me and my brother."

"Hmm." Mr. Beasley raised his chin and studied Sam. "Parents gone?"

Sam hesitated. "Yes, sir."

"No other relatives?"

Sam glanced back where Dean was half hidden behind shelves. There was no way he wasn't hearing every word of this conversation. Probably ignoring it. "Not really. There's Bobby, I guess he's sort of like a father, or uncle or something." He was suddenly uncomfortable with the personal question. He decided to chalk it up to a man's loneliness.

"I'm sorry for you. You should stick around here. Someone would sure be happy to adopt a young, strapping boy like yourself." He chuckled and gave Sam a playful slap on the arm before stepping behind the counter. "Ah, well. I still feel young, you know. Hard to believe I'm old. The ole body's giving out, heart wants to, but I still feel like a teenager in here." He fisted his chest. "Growing old's a pain in the ass, boy. You better appreciate your youth while you got it."

"Yes, sir." Sam didn't know what else to say. He liked Mr. Beasley, and his grandfatherly attitude. But he didn't like the thought of growing old, of not being able to do what he was doing now. Of course in his line of work, the chance of growing old was pretty slim. That had been proven time and time again, even if they did keep coming back. Which was pretty bizarre, really. Now he was wondering if they would last another year.

Dean finally emerged from around the corner, his arms loaded with prizes, his face beaming like a four year old. Sam's black mood faded, and he erupted into a laugh. "What's all this?"

"This, Sammy-boy, is the proverbial jackpot." Dean dumped his load onto the counter and sorted through the items. He picked out a small paper package and showed it to Sam, holding it up with pride. "Balsa wood planes. When's the last time you flew one of these babies, huh?"

Sam smiled. "Uh – never?"

"Never?" Dean's hand flew to his chest in mock drama. "Oh, Sammy. Sammy! I've failed you as a big brother. We're getting some of these." He set the package down decisively, and rummaged through his finds.

"With what?"

"With what. With money! These things are cheap."

"And what about these other things?" Sam picked through the stack as Mr. Beasley watched in amusement. "Seriously? Walkie-talkies?"

Dean hardly glanced up. "Sure. For when we're separated."

" - we have cell phones."

Dean pointed at Sam. "Ah! Yes, but they're easy to trace. And expensive."

Sam held up a walkie-talkie. "And these have a range of four feet. And they're cheap." He checked himself, and sent Mr. Beasley an apologetic look, which was waved away.

"So? Hard to lose each other if we're only four feet away. . .okay, okay, look. How about this?" Dean proudly held up a piece of cardboard backing.

"Plastic handcuffs? Are you serious?"

"Fine." He tossed the item back down and held up a small metal Tonka truck. "Remember these?"

Sam did, and he took the item from Dean's fingers. He thumbed the wheels and stared at the yellow paint. "Dean - wow. I used to have one of these!" Nostalgia hit him with the force of a bat.

"You had several of these." Dean's voice softened as he leaned his elbow on the counter. "You used to play with them in the backseat. We were constantly digging them out of the seat. Remember that?"

Sam nodded, rolling the small truck against the palm of his hand. "Yeah. That's why I wanted to roll them on the back dashboard instead, but Dad would get mad and make me sit down."

"Don't know why. The man had no respect for seatbelt laws" Dean was back to shuffling through his picks.

In the distance a buzz sounded, and Mr. Beasley perked up. "Unless you gentlemen are planning on buying all this, I'd suggest you put it back, and quickly."

"Huh? Oh. I – why?" Dean was caught off guard. He started stacking the items into the crook of his arm, and jerked in surprise as the door was flung open. He was shoved back against the counter, his arms as high as he could manage to keep them out of the way of the hordes of children that had suddenly, and noisily, burst into the room.

School was out.

Sam flattened himself back against the counter, bracing himself with his hands, and watched the flurry of light jackets rush by. Multicolored hoods were flung off as they reached the craft table. Jackets were removed and placed on the backs of chairs, or tossed onto the floor. The chatter increased in excited volumes as more kids ran inside. The building shook from the shift in energy.

Dean was wide-eyed, but his surprise eased into a smile. Mr. Beasley was gathering a few boxes from behind the counter. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a class to teach. You fellas gonna purchase anything?" He lifted his load, then grunted and quickly set it down.

"Whoa, hey, easy there." Dean dropped the assorted toys onto the counter while simultaneously reaching out for the man. "You okay?"

"Just my back." Mr. Beasley offered a smile, but his pain was obvious. "Like I was telling your brother, I'm not as young as I used to be. It's not good. I have inventory coming up, but I'm not sure I can handle it this year. Too much getting up and down and bending. These old gears have had it."

"Don't you have someone do it for you?" Sam asked, crossing behind the counter to pick up the boxes Mr. Beasley had dropped.

"Have someone else count?" He gestured at the packed store. "Who would count this stuff?"

"Well, there's companies that do that sort of thing," Sam said. "But I guess you're a bit out of the way for that."

"Companies. You mean those hand-held monstrosities? No. A pencil and a yellow pad, that's how you do it."

"But they do count by hand. . ." Sam started, easing back from behind the counter.

Dean signaled for him to stop talking. "What's your name again?"

"Mr. Beasley, son. And you're Dean."

"Yes, sir. Mr. Beasley, I'd like to strike a deal with you. We'll count your inventory for, say, five of these?" He held up a balsa wood plane.

The man stopped, and planted his hands on his hips. "Are you pulling my leg, son?"

"No sir. This is an honest offer. And I'd like to purchase one now, if I may." He held up the package.

The volume in the corner was increasing. Mr. Beasley took the boxes from Sam. "Five o'clock tomorrow," he said loudly over the din. "Take the planes with you."

"Yeah? Thank you!" Dean smiled, and again looked like a preschooler.

"And put those other items away!" the man called as a cheer went up around him. Kids swarmed the boxes, pulling out various art supplies.

Dean did as he was told, then pocketed the little wooden planes.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXx

The hotel room, designed for tourists that were coming through the mountains, was the most homely place they'd stayed in apart from actually being in someone's house. The sheets were white and clean, as was the bedspread. The room was well lit. The walls were pale and decorated with assorted pictures of summer and fall foliage. Dark beams crisscrossed the ceiling. A small balcony with two plastic chairs sat above a creek babbling over flat stones. Dean was seated in one of the plastic chairs. The other was drawn in front of him against his knees. Thin pieces of wood were grouped together in its seat. He looked up as Sam opened the sliding glass door. "Hey. What'dya think about staying here a few days?"

"You serious?" The rolling mechanisms rumbled minutely as Sam slid the door closed behind him.

"Why not? I say we need a break. A short one, granted, but a break."

"No sixty-six seals and all that?"

"I'm sure Mr. Columbo wanna-be can find us if he needs us."

"You sure you're not running?" Sam raised his hands in submission at Dean's glare. "I'm just sayin', man."

"Well, just zip it." Dean frowned over his construction.

Sam walked to the balcony railing and leaned over. The trees rustled in the wind, dripping golden leaves onto the brown mulch below. Various leaves caught in the creek and turned in the current. "You haven't been talking much," he ventured quietly.

"Hmm?" Dean squinted at a tip of wood.

"Since – you know. Since you told me about Hell." Sam swallowed, then faced Dean, leaning his elbows back on the rail.

Dean was wincing at his project, trying to balance the paper-thin wings. "Nothing else to say."

"I think there's probably a lot for you to say -"

"- God! What do you want from me, Sammy? Huh?" Dean set down the sticks and rubbed at his face. He seemed startled by his own outburst, and let his gaze drift over the scene before him as he regrouped.

Sam stared down at the ground through the slats of the deck. "Dean, what you went through with Alastair," he paused, "I just want to know you're okay." He felt embarrassed. A moment later, he looked up.

Dean's face surprised him. The intensity was back in his eyes, an intensity that he'd only noticed after his brother's return. The way Dean looked at him at times was almost frightening. "I'm not," he said, honestly. "But you can't do anything about it, okay? So drop it."

"I just want – I wish I could. Do something, I mean." Sam sighed in frustration and faced the peaceful natural scene before him, which was much more pleasant than the stormy scene to his side.

Dean's response came after a lengthy pause. "I wish you could too, Sammy." The pain in his voice stung Sam's heart. Dean was staring out at the same view, only his was obstructed by the railing which was about at his eye level. "I wish you could lift this from me. I wish someone could. But it's on my shoulders, and I have to deal with it."

Sam pressed his lips together, and nodded, then let his sight fall back to the ground. Sure. Somehow, Dean was dealing with it. Maybe it was through drink. He had plenty of good days. He wasn't suffering from a mental breakdown. He wasn't delusional. He was coping, and all things considered, he was doing a damned good job of it. Sam marveled at his brother's strength. And his chest filled with such heated affection that he was afraid he would burst into tears. He swallowed hard, trying not to look at Dean. He felt so overwhelmed in that moment, that to look at him would result in a bone-crushing hug that he'd never hear the end of.

"You ready to test this thing?" Sam heard the plastic chair scrape to the side, and before he could respond, a small wooden plane launched itself from Dean's fingertips over the rail, curving in a graceful arc through the falling leaves, floating on the wind. It collided mid-flight with a thick trunk, then fell to the ground tail-first.

"Oh, man, come on! That's not right."

Sam smirked. Dean shoved his hands into his denim pockets, disappointment obvious on his face.

"We could always get something to eat. We never did."

Dean stared at the offending tree. "I guess."

XxXxXxXxXxXxXx

They sat at a table by the front window. Red and white checked curtains were pulled back to reveal a view of the street, and the toy shop on the other side several doors down. The post office was directly across from them. On the far right on the corner stood a fire station, and to the right of it was a small church with a playground. A gas station-slash-mom and pop store was two blocks from the restaurant. All the town's necessities were crammed together within four and a half blocks, which defined "Main Street."

Dean was opening and closing the menu, studying each item, checking the specials on the paper insert, eyeing the board behind the counter. He made up his mind and gently tossed the menu to the tablecloth, slinging his right arm over the back of the booth as he shifted to look outside. "You going hot or cold?"

"Dunno. Kinda tired of sandwiches." Sam glanced at Dean over his menu. "You?"

"Hot. Chopped steak, mashed potatoes, rolls, the works."

"Sounds good." His stomach rumbled. "Think I'll do that too."

"You want coffee?"

"Of course." Sam closed his menu and leaned back, closing his eyes. He listened to the waitress greet them, but didn't have the strength to look at her. Dean ordered for both them, giving identical requests, except for ordering his coffee black and requesting cream and sugar for Sam. He heard the jibe, "better make it extra sugar" and felt his lip quirk slightly. He didn't know why he was so tired. Probably the mountain air. Dean didn't bother him, and he cracked his eyelids to see his brother staring outside, tapping his fingers on the back of the booth as he waited. He looked relaxed, and that gave Sam the go-ahead to close his eyes and rest.

A kick under the table jolted him awake. He blinked blearily at the steaming food that had been set in front of him, and met Dean's concerned eyes. "Dude, you were out. Mouth hanging all open, snoring like a freak. Had the customers complaining. Where's your manners?"

"You're one to talk," Sam muttered as Dean cut into the chopped steak then shoveled a fork full of hot meat into his mouth. Dean chewed quickly, then promptly re-opened, fanning frantically with his hand.

"Haht – iss haht!"

"Yeah. Blow next time." Sam gave his head a shake, trying to loosen the cobwebs of fatigue. He filled his coffee mug with cream and sugar. The brew immediately worked its wonders, and his head started to clear. He wondered if the initial pep of coffee was purely a mental thing.

Dean tried his hardest to curse around the burning food as he finally managed to chew and swallow. He reached for his mug, but Sam quickly stopped him and nodded towards the glass of water. Dean downed it.

People milled in and out. Everyone was friendly. Several stopped at their table, asking if they were passing through. After the fifth interruption, Dean raised an inquiring eyebrow at Sam, only to have his question answered by the waitress. "Everyone here knows everyone else," she said apologetically while refilling their mugs. "We're not nosy, just curious."

"How often you get people through here?" Sam asked, pulling his mug back to him.

"Not too much. Usually people take the main road through the pass."

"We're more of the back roads type," Dean said.

"Obviously, or you wouldn't be here." She smiled. Her tag said Lisa, though she had yet to introduce herself. Sam wondered if she had left her tag at home, and was borrowing one. Jess had done that. Went around as "Dionne" for a day, which of course resulted in unrepentant ribbing and. . .he shifted his thoughts

"I don't suppose you'd know any more back roads around here, would you?" Dean asked. He gave his 'special' smile, the one that always made Sam groan inwardly.

She gave him a coy look, and walked to the next table. Then she glanced back, and nodded.

"Score!" Dean said, pleased with himself, then noticed Sam's look. "What? We'll be busy tomorrow night so I gotta make tonight count. You know, loosen up some tension." He rolled his shoulders. "Maybe she has a friend, you could use some stress relief too."

"You sure get over things easily." Sam raised his mug to his lips.

Dean's jaw worked, then he leaned back. "What the hell, Sam. You keep bringing that up. You jealous or something?"

"What, of Anna? No. I just think it's weird how I hooked up with Ruby and you hooked up with an angel."

Dean leaned forward on his elbows, his head tilting in that odd way he had when making a point. "Hey. We're not hooked up, okay? She's gone, I chose you over her, remember? Or did you sleep through that part?"

"She fell once before, Dean. What makes you think she won't be back?" It was a casual question, thrown out without much thought, but Sam saw the pain on his brother's face. "Dean? You have thought about this, haven't you?"

"Of course I've thought about it, Sam! I'm not stupid. She was intriguing. She was intriguing and I liked her, okay? I mean I didn't really know her but I could have."

"So it's not just about a warm hot body, then."

Dean looked around quickly. "Christ, Sam, you're talking about an angel, here!" he hissed.

"Yeah, so are you! God. I'm the one who believed in angels, and here you are shacking up with them. Anna, Castiel. . ." He chuckled, but it quickly turned into a callous feeling. The callousness turned to a sudden bitterness, and he forced himself to frown at the view outside his window.

"I am NOT shaking up with Cas." He felt Dean lean in toward him. "I didn't ask for any of this, okay? You think I wouldn't change things if I could? I tried to. I tried, Sammy, hell I put myself in the pit trying to change things. I didn't ask for any of this."

"I know." But Sam was angry, and getting angrier. "I don't supposed it occurred to you that. . ." he shook his head, his anger reaching a boiling point and he'd be damned if he let it lose in front of all these people. "You know what? Forget it. I'm going out for some air." He quickly pushed out of the booth.

"Sammy? Sam!" He heard Dean's voice, but ignored it as he walked out, trying to avoid the glances that turned into stares. He hated leaving Dean with the bill, no, wait, actually he didn't. Dean had all the money at the moment. Maybe he really hated leaving that food. Their funds were dwindling, he couldn't afford to waste anything. But this knot in his gut – he rounded the corner of the restaurant and marched down the hill, slipping on the fallen leaves, hoping to lose himself in the trees and woodlands at the bottom. It was a long hill, and he nearly took a tumble several times as he gained speed. The distant sound of a shout proved Dean had left the restaurant, and the intense need to be away from his brother fueled him with a sense of panic. He didn't want to be seen.

But he heard Dean's voice above him, and heard the shuffle of leaves. Crap! Sam's boots hit a patch of damp mulch and his feet flew out from under him. He landed hard on his ass and slid sideways, but managed to roll to his hands and knees and push up to his feet, and then he was running over a yellow carpet, praying there wasn't a hidden hole to wrench his ankle in. His brother was no longer calling out for him, but he heard him coming.

The trees weren't going to hide him. This area wasn't dense enough, it was more like a picnic area, only there were no benches to. . .nope, he was wrong. He rounded a tree and smacked right into one on the other side, killing his knees and doubling him over. His breath flew out in a whoosh. He tried to straighten himself, and instead fell backwards, his sight swimming. It would have been comedic if Dean wasn't coming, and then he was there, hoisting Sam up by the shirt and spinning him around to sit on the splintered bench.

"You okay?" Dean demanded, shoving his face into Sam's.

Sam waved his brother away and silently begged for the world to stop moving. "Yeah," he managed to say through a grimace. He pried Dean's grip from his shirt. "I'm fine."

"This is fine? What the hell was all that? Huh? You were fine, then what? What the hell's going through that head of yours?" Dean looked angry.

And Sam still was. His labored breathing didn't soften. His mind was reeling. "You should've left me."

"Left you? Where?"

"Dead!" Sam yelled. "You should've left me dead." His eyes pinched in sorrow.

He missed the warmth as Dean took three shocked steps backwards. "What?" The word was forced, and pained. Sam braced himself with his hand on his knee, trying to catch his breath through the pain of running into the table, and from the enormity of his emotion. Dean took another step back away from him. "I should've left you dead?" he asked in angry disbelief. "What the hell kind of remark is that?"

He hung his head. "If I stayed dead, none of this would have happened!"

"Oh, you think so? So this is all my fault? It's my fault for giving a crap and caring enough to bring you back?"

"Cut the bullshit, Dean! You did it for you, not me!"

Dean's mouth worked. "So now you're calling me selfish."

"No. Yes. I don't know!"

"You don't know?"

"There's no way to know!"

"And yet I was supposed to leave you dead!"

"Yes!"

"I see. And what about you, huh? All those deals you tried to make with the demons to raise my soul from hell. What was that, huh? What, that was okay because you didn't succeed, but what I did was wrong?"

"Yes," Sam growled out.

Dean barked out a laugh that held no humor, and turned away. Sam wasn't ready when he spun and a fist met his face. He hit the ground hard and rolled as he palmed his cheek. Gasping through the shock, he looked up at his brother. "Nice. Is that your answer to everything these days, Dean? Punch the lights out of it? Beat it? Or worse?" He didn't realize what he'd said until it was too late, and he couldn't take it back. Oh god, he couldn't take it back.

Dean's face fell. No, it didn't just fall, it plummeted into betrayed despair. He took a step back, then another, and for a moment Sam was afraid he would run off. He stood quickly, one hand still on his cheek, the other out in a peace offering. "God, wait, I didn't mean that, Dean. I didn't mean it."

"You're an asshole." That was the response, voiced with more pain and venom than he'd ever heard from his brother. "You're an ungrateful asshole." He said nothing more, just clenched his jaw, his eyes ripe with emotion, his head shaking in denial. He looked like he wanted to say so much more, but couldn't.

"Please, I – that was – shit!" Sam nervously ran his fingers through his hair, then darted out and grabbed Dean's arm as his brother turned away from him. "No, Dean, wait, please!"

Dean yanked his arm away. "You asked me about Hell, dammit. Do you know how hard it was for me to tell you that shit?"

"I do, I really do." Sam was pleading.

"No. You got your answer. You've satisfied your - morbid - curiosity. I'm not your go to boy, Sam. Next time you want to know about Hell, you can go there yourself." But his voice broke. He couldn't even deliver the swear word with appropriate punch. Sam started toward him only to be shoved back. "No! You don't get to make yourself feel better. Not this time." Tears tracked down his cheeks but he made no effort to wipe them away. He turned and started back up the hill, and didn't slide once.

Sam fell back onto the bench, and buried his head in his hands.

XxXxXxXxXxXxXxXx

He had walked back to the hotel after wandering around town, alone, for several hours. The kids played like nothing was wrong, and in that small town, nothing was. He couldn't even imagine gossip working its way around the street lamps. If it did, it was about wedding plans, or homemade recipes. Everyone smiled. Everyone looked content. Even the shop owners asked if he needed help in a pleasant voice, and talked with the regulars that came in. Perfectly normal for a small community nestled in the mountains, where everybody knew each other. He caught bits of conversation here and there, and found himself listening more and more intently.

The town was too trusting. He was used to deceit, to hiding his cards, to watching his back. It seemed that in this place, kids played late into the night on the weekends with no fear. They went from house to house and were given snacks. The elderly sat on their porches with flannel blankets covering their knees, and the townspeople would greet them, rather than pretending they didn't exist, or were insane. Music was played at a reasonable level. Even the shop lights softened as the sun set. It was too much. So Sam had grabbed a sandwich, coke, and bag of chips at the deli inside the gas station (more like a deli that happened to have a pump outside, and an old-fashioned one at that) and returned to his room.

Dean was gone. He'd taken the car, but thought to leave the food from the restaurant behind in the fridge, which Sam found a little heartening. He tried not to think about the darkness, that Dean was alone on the twisting roads, that he was angry. Maybe he wasn't angry anymore. Maybe he was just driving. He unwrapped his sandwich and ate it without tasting it, crunched his way through his chips, and swigged his coke, all in the silence of the room. Ten o'clock rolled around, and he walked out on the balcony to listen to the creek. The sound of the water dodging the rocks was more noticeable in the stillness of the hour. It was an odd reminder of how things carry on.

Sam put on his jacket and walked out front to find Dean pulling up in the Impala. He stopped, his hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket.

Dean climbed out and slammed the door. It sounded like a shotgun going off, echoing of the foothill behind them. Sam expected someone to poke their head out.

His brother looked exhausted. He walked right up to Sam and stood toe to toe, nose to nose, or as close as his shorter six-foot frame would allow. "Here's the deal," he said. "One. No more eggshells. What's happened, happened. Two. No more eggshells."

Sam's mouth quirked. "Is there a three?"

"Yeah. Kick my ass next time I punch you, okay? Don't just stand there and take it."

"Dean. . ."

"Listen. Do you really want to keep fighting like this? Huh? We both know what it's like, Sammy. We've lost each other. We know what that feels like, and I'm pretty sure it scares you as much as it scares me. It makes this job a hell of a lot harder. But we've gotta stop doing this, you know?"

"Dean, we're gonna fight."

"I know that. That's not what I'm – look, just forget it." Dean shouldered past and opened the door. "You coming in?"

Sam raised his eyes heavenwards, his smile growing, the pain in his chest releasing. "Yeah." He stepped inside. "You missed your date."

"I blame you for that, too." And the door closed.