Disclaimer: Don't own.


Dean stood in front of Sam's burning apartment complex caught in an unwelcome reminiscent daze. The scent of Jessica's burning flesh was still clouding his lungs. The smell invaded his mind and mixed with the memory of his mother's death, reminding him that the stench of Mary's seared body and hair had choked him twenty-two years ago. The sound of his father's powerful voice screaming for their mother ghosted between his ears, sending a shiver running from his shoulders to the base of his spine. The night their family had been torn apart by the supernatural marked the genesis of the pain and despair the Winchesters would carry on their shoulders for their family's entirety; but as far as Dean was concerned, one of the only mercies birthed from that night was, ironically, natural: infantile amnesia. Sam, thanks to the developing infant brain, was unable to take in the sight of his mother's murder and subsequent cremation and commit the violent act to memory. Dean was not so lucky, but as he aged and the memory became more vivid in detail, he took comfort in the fact that his brother, who had technically seen more than he had, was unable to remember what he had witnessed.

Unfortunately for both Winchester siblings, that comfort had been dashed aside in a small apartment located in Palo Alto, California. For the second time in his life, Dean watched a beautiful and intelligent woman meet her death in the form of flames, and not thirty minutes ago, he had wrapped his arms tight around his little brother and all but carried him out of another fire. Something hollow and dark wormed its way into Dean's stomach: his family had been tainted once again by the same creature that had flayed his mother and broken not only himself, but his father and brother. But for the first time, Sam would remember.

The thought of his brother jolted him out of the corner of his consciousness that was burnt with fire and ash. Turning from the swarming masses of firefighters in front of him, Dean moved his gaze to his younger brother and made his way towards him. The sight of Sam's tall frame hovering over the Impala's trunk sent images of his father flashing behind his eyes.

Once he was at his brother's side, Dean stilled when Sam moved his eyes from the weapons hidden within the truck to his big brother's face, and his hand twitched as a tear dripped from Sam's eye. Dread bubbled up from his intestines and joined the hollow and dark thing that had burrowed into his stomach. More than anything, Dean wanted to stuff Sam inside his jacket pocket and hide him from the harsh reality that was bearing down upon the both of them, but he was unable to will his muscles into action. Instead, Dean kept his gaze on his brother's face, as if continuing to look at his younger brother would somehow allow him to bore into his soul and find there what he needed in order to make everything alright. But he found nothing. The older sibling felt angry, helpless, and stunned in turns that were overwhelming: the one thing that Dean wanted to shield Sam from indefinitely had reached up, grabbed his brother, and had snaked his lover from him. And he had been powerless to stop it.

Taking in the lost look lurking behind his brother's eyes, Dean was reminded that mental wounds were the most difficult to heal. Internally signing, he thought numbly, "How the hell am I going to fix this?"

The soft click of shells being loaded into the rife held in his brother's grasp was oddly hypnotic, and the memory of the repugnant odor resultant from his mother's murder was replaced by the smell of alcohol that had perpetually lingered around his father, like an aura of shock and emotional pain, after Mary's untimely death. No one on Earth would have been able to handle watching a loved one die in the same manner Mary had perished, but it was not as likely that many would have dropped from society in the same fashion as John. Will and determination, mixed in with some Jack and Jose, had driven John forward into more than a decade's long search for their mother's killer, and from that search a crusade was born, one that left hundreds of supernatural entities in its wake. As Sam cocked the rifle in his hands and said, "We got work to do," in a rugged and unsteady voice, Dean could not help but feel his father's presence swimming inside his kid brother's veins.

But as the Impala roared over the Californian blacktop, and the silence within the Impala was left unmarred, Dean felt that John's presence had waned, and he found himself sitting next to his younger self. Sam was quiet. The same kind of quiet he had been after his mother's death. Dean had not spoken for days after the tragedy, and his chest ached impossibly further when he realized that the same silence could fall upon his brother.

When Dean pulled into a motel parking lot and received no word of protest from his brother, a chorus of alarm bells so great was sounding off inside his head he felt as if his skull would crack. Cutting the Impala's engine, Dean studied his silent brother from his periphery. Sam was slumped in the passenger seat with his hands in his lap, his head leaning against the window. He had not moved since they had gotten into the Impala. Looking towards his brother, gaze then escaping out the windshield, Dean felt words form in his mouth, but they retreated into his throat, trapped against the muscles lining his esophagus.

Voice cracking, only one word broke free. "Sam?"

Sam did not respond, his eyes unmoving and vacant as he stared out the driver-side window.

Nerves buzzing at Sam's lack of responsiveness and the obvious threat of shock—and the inevitable breakdown—looming in his baby brother's near future, Dean's hand shot out and landed on Sam's knee. "You in there, man? C'mon, look at me."

There was a slight shake to Dean's voice that he would not acknowledge. The unsteady timber was enough to pull Sam from whatever part of his mind he was busy hiding in, but when Sam's eyes moved from the night beyond the Impala and settled on his big brother's face, Dean suppressed a curse. Sam's skin looked like thickly smeared gesso and his eyes were sunken within his sockets, the dark circles underneath his eyes almost as black as the sky. The kid looked dead, and that scared Dean more than anything else, because on the inside, Sam might as well have been.

An unwanted air of self-consciousness and uneasiness weighed Dean down as his brother stared blankly at him, failing to respond verbally to his big brother's prodding. Time seemed to still as both brothers kept their gaze on the other, one frozen in foreboding and fear, the other simply frozen physically and psychologically. Dean felt his muscles quiver as he watched an almost imperceptible tremble shake Sam's frame.

Rubbing his palm against the denim covering Sam's knee at the sight, Dean cleared his throat and said, "Look, I know you wanna get out there and find that sonuvabitch, but not tonight. Tonight we lie low, alright?"

Dean could hear beetles buzzing their wings outside the Impala as his brother remained quiet.

Frowning, Dean twisted in his seat, positioning himself closer to his brother. He gently clasped his brother's chin and looked directly into his empty, glassy eyes. "Sammy, come on, dude. Say something. Hey— alright?"

Sam's Adam's Apple lifted then descended, prompting Dean to move his thumb back and forth along Sam's jaw as he waited, hoping that the motion would coax his brother to find his voice box.

The silence dragged on inside the muscle car, Sam leaving Dean unanswered.

Dean's thumb halted its comforting gesture after a few beats, and after he ran his hand over his hair and face, he straightened in his seat and reached for the door handle, eyes moving from the motel office to his baby brother. He did not want to leave his brother alone in the Impala, especially with the extremely likely prospect that the thing that had killed Jessica and their mother could still be lurking around Palo Alto, but considering the level of unresponsiveness his brother was displaying, it was also likely that the only way Dean would be able to get Sam to enter the lobby would be to pick him up and carry—or drag—him. Dean thought it was a safe bet that doing that would do more than raise the motel manager's eye brows. The less attention the two of them attracted—especially tonight—the better.

"Stay here. I'm gonna get us a room," Dean said as he slung open the driver-side door.

As soon as his foot hit the pavement, the older man felt miles away from his brother, the phantom distance causing a bug-like sensation to crawl underneath his skin. It was as if his body would not let him move even a few feet from his brother without having Sam recognize the fact that he was leaving. Eyebrows pinched in worry, Dean quickly glanced back at his motionless and voiceless kid brother. "Sammy, can you even hear me, man? Huh? Do something so I know you're in there and know what I'm saying, would ya? Please?"

Sam responded slowly, as if the messages passing through his brain were stuck in a traffic jam. Moving his eyes from his brother's face to his fist griping the door handle, Sam turned from his older brother and slumped further into the passenger seat, signaling to Dean that he, at least at some unconscious level, understood what his big brother had communicated to him and was not planning on moving until Dean returned.

Dean swallowed. There was a storm raging silently within his baby brother, and it was bubbling just under Sam's skin, threatening to explode to the surface.

He needed to get Sam in a motel room and fast.

Surprisingly, Dean found that he did not have to carry his brother into the motel room. Sam moved of his own volition, albeit like a zombie, prompting Dean to hope that Sam was emerging from his catatonic-like state. The prospect lifted his step, but only insomuch as a person who has been condemned to trudge through quicksand wearing a ball and chain loses the extra weight, but still ends up drowning in the dirt.

Tossing his and his brother's duffel bags onto the bed closest to the door, Dean asked, "You with me, kid?"

Instead of answering, Sam planted himself on the other bed and remained unmoving, thoroughly dashing Dean's hope to the stones. False hope sucked, and as far as Dean was concerned, it could go screw itself.

Dean snatched the salt from his duffel bag. He may be at a loss on how to help his brother mentally at the moment, but protecting him physically? Dean was an expert on that, regardless of the separation he and Sam had experienced for almost two years, and doing something to shield his brother somehow, even if the shield came in the form of a routine warding, provided Dean with some comfort. At least in this hopeless situation, Dean was not completely helpless. At least that was what he told himself.

Knelling down in front of the motel room's door with the salt in hand, Dean swallowed back a curse as a stream of light slipped through the curtains and hit him in the eye. "Sonuvabitch. Don't tell me it's mornin' already," Dean spit under his as breath as he spilt more salt underneath the windows and around the room.

It was a given that neither he nor Sam were going to sleep well, if at all, for a while, but that did not mean that he did not want Sam to rest just a little before sun up: both his mind and his body needed it. Dean's attention was broken from warding the room once he heard an abrupt intake of air slit the room's silence. Dean's heart skipped at the sound. It was the first thing he had heard from Sam since they had driven from Sam's apartment.

Pivoting so fast on his heals that the salt canister slipped from his grip and sent a small blizzard of bitter granules pooling onto the motel's carpet, Dean found himself not three feet from his baby brother. He briefly wondered how he had managed to magically materialize in front of Sam, but his bewilderment at his newfound superpower hit a wall of kryptonite once his gaze fell to Sam's face. Sam's jaw was slacked, not in a relaxed manner, but like a heavy metal door stuck mid-air on an equally strong and unmoving hinge. But what electrified Dean's nerves the most were his kid brother's eyes, bug-like and blown wide as if swimming in clearlight, trained solidly on the small digital clock sitting innocently on the nightstand between the beds. The younger man looked as if he had just discovered the riddle of time, and apparently, that riddle had a horrifying answer.

"My interview—"

The words were whispered from paling lips, and Dean, at first, was not sure whether his brother had actually spoken, or if he had imagined it. Before he could decide on either option, Sam's voice box shuttered out a coughing sound, and the reflexive force behind the cough cleared the cobwebs from the passageway in his throat, only for panic to spring forth from Sam's stomach and out of his mouth.

"My interview," Sam said again. "I'm gonna miss it," the sentence escaped Sam's now gray lips in a distressed rush of oxygen, his breathing speeding up with each syllable that flew unbridled from his person. "Jess—she was worried about me missing it."

Sam broke off abruptly, the motel mattress groaning as his weight suddenly lifted from the bed, the unplanned and haphazard motion propelling the younger man into his big brother's personal space. Dean was stunned at the impulsiveness firing from his brother, especially since said brother had basically been as still as a rock since they had left Sam and Jess's apartment complex. His brain was having trouble deciphering his brother's sped-up and exaggerated speech. The one thing that did slam into his brain, and fast: Sam's stance was teetering, his brother was shaking, and his marble white face was flushing to a disgusting shade of nauseated pea green.

"Whoa, whoa," Dean said as his fingers rooted solidly into his brother's shoulders. "Take a deep breath, man," Dean added, not knowing what to say, but knowing that his brother needed to calm down before he passed out from too many shallow, rapid breaths.

Sam's hair flopped in waves as he jerked his head from side to side, the younger man not wanting to listen to what Dean had to say. "No, Dean," he said, as if he was explaining to Dean some great, but frustrating truth that his brother was just not getting. Planting a moist, clammy hand onto his brother's chest, Sam looked Dean straight in the eye. "Dean, Jess—," Sam paused, as if speaking his partner's name sent needles prickling throughout his insides. Swallowing and blinking his eyes in an attempt to see through the dizziness clouding his brain, he squeaked out, "Jess," as if her name summed up everything—panic, pain, and confusion—he felt warring inside his soul. "Dean, I told her I'd make the interview." Sam swayed in his brother's grasp as he glanced at the clock behind him. "I told her I'd be there." Turning back to face his brother, Sam looked at Dean from dark, pinched eyes, and croaked, "Dean, I wasn't there."

Dean's tongue morphed into sand. Sam was no longer talking about the interview. As soon as the last word broke into the small motel room, Sam's body shuddered, threatening to buckle his knees. In less than a second, Dean had pushed his brother into an upright sitting position on the bed closest to the wall. Stripping off his jacket, Dean started to drape it loosely around Sam's shoulders. Securing the fabric to the point that it would provide warmth, but would not restrict Sam's breathing, Dean could feel Sam's chest rise and descend in fast, pulsing waves. The storm had breached Sam's surface.

"Damn it, he'll friggan' pass out if he keeps on at this rate," Dean thought as he knelt in front of his slouched brother, his jeaned knee itching once it collided onto the cheap motel flooring, but his brain hardly detected the sensation. "Sam—Sam. Hey! Look at me, stop—just look at me," Dean said as he wrapped both hands on either side of Sam's neck, his thumbs rubbing against Sam's jaw line. Once Sam's bulging and gelatinous eyes skittered towards his face and held anxiously, Dean gave Sam's neck a gentle, reassuring shake, and lowering his voice, he let out the only thing that came to mind. "Sammy, you didn't know. It's not your fault."

Dean frowned when his reassuring words had the opposite effect on his brother. As soon as Dean's sentiment had hit Sam's ears, the younger man's eyes momentarily widened impossibly further, as if he had concurrently been reminded of one of his hidden secrets and had been told a devastating and cruel lie. Something between a scoff and a sob escaped from Sam as his muscles shuddered, the younger man pulling away from his big brother.

Dean's hands fell to Sam's thighs, refusing to lose contact with his baby brother; he knew Sam better than the back of his own hand, so the fact that Sam's recoil was not meant to reject his big brother, but himself, was as clear as day to the older man.

Inserting what he perceived as the right amount of firmness into his tone, Dean ducked his head in a failed attempt to catch his little brother's dejected gaze and said, "Don't you do that, Sam. Don't you do that. It's not your fault. So help me, if I have to beat that into that giant head of yours—Sam, you couldn't have known."

Dean's voice trailed off to a near whisper as the agitation coursing through Sam's veins doubled, the younger man reeling backwards from his brother's words as if he had been shot. Sam's eyes rolled in such a way that too much white was revealed and not enough of the iris.

"Sam!" Dean rose from his knelt position instantly and plopped himself down next to his brother, his hold on Sam's biceps preventing his brother from slumping completely backwards. "Sammy," he repeated his brother's name more in attempt to sooth him, but also because he did not know what else to say: If telling his baby brother that Jessica's death was not on him, that his hands were clean, was upsetting to the kid, then what else was there to say? Heartfelt sentiments tended to ironically mirror empty platitudes, and even though he was being sincere, Dean did not want to risk Sam rejecting his own self further via Dean's words. "Man, what I wouldn't give t'split open that damn brain of yours and rip that dumb, guilty conscious clear out of ya," Dean ranted internally at his brother.

Groaning softly, Sam leaned forward, jabbing both elbows onto his knees and cupping his forehead with his hands. Tightening his fingers around Sam's upper arms, Dean's voice, caught somewhere in the middle of rough and gentle, warned, "Sam, don't. Sit up straight, dude. Your blood pressure's low—." Dean's jaw snapped shut once a tiny drop of coolness caught the edge of his wrist while on its plummet to the floor.

Sam brought down both hands and latched on to his brother's forearm, the grip so tight Dean thought that his radius and ulna would crunch into fine powder, but he did not jerk away. Sam needed the physical reassurance, and Dean would sacrifice his limb—and more—to provide Sam with what he needed. Bending his spine further downward, Sam rested his chin on top of Dean's trapped arm; Dean could feel Sam's shaky, fast paced breathing puff warmth against his skin. Sam was trying to steady himself, but he was failing badly.

"Dean, what are we doing here?" Turning red, puffy, and liquid eyes to his brother, Sam's emotionally charged voice whispered out heatedly, "We should be out looking for it."

Dipping his shoulders and lifting his eyebrows, Dean inched closer to his brother and said, "Yeah? And how you gonna find it? We don't even know what it is Sam. Dad's been looking for this thing for two damn decades—hell, we've all been looking for this thing our entire lives."

Sam's bangs stuck to the moisture leaking from his tear ducts as he shook his head from side to side. "So, what? You say'n we won't find it? Dean, it killed mom—it killed Jess!"

"Damn it Sam, I know—and I never said that." The volume of Dean's voice startled the both of them, causing Sam to try to move away from his brother in surprise. Dean automatically slapped his free hand on Sam's back, stopping his retreat. Clearing his throat and jiggling his ensnared forearm, Dean said, "You think you can go out there like this, guns blazing and somehow find this thing—and kill it—tonight? For all we know, that's what it wants. No, Sam. We lie low now."

Sam shook his head again, and Dean's muscles twitched as he expended an enormous amount of self control to not grab both sides of Sam's face and hold him still.

"No, Dean. I told you: we've got work to do. We just can't sit here on our asses—" The grip his brother had on Dean's arm was becoming tighter with each word flying from his mouth, causing the older man's muscles to ache.

"And we won't," Dean cut Sam off, the interruption also causing Sam's grip to loosen. "We'll look, Sam. I promise. We'll find it. Okay?"

Sam's line of watery sight had settled on his boots, his mouth glued shut. A weightless sensation waved over Dean's stomach at Sam's silence; afraid that his brother was going to slip back into the comatose-like state he had been in earlier, Dean pushed his fingers into the muscles bulging from Sam's back, repeating, "Okay?"

Dean felt heat and tears roll off Sam's skin as his kid brother's chin bounced against his arm, his kid brother finally nodding at his words instead of shaking his head. The small victory went out the window once Sam crashed his forehead into Dean's arm and a violent quake slammed into him.

"The last woman I kissed wasn't Jessica."

Dean's blood ran cold at the broken words, and he sat there frozen, arm latched onto his brother's back not only to keep Sam from falling, but to ground himself.

A couple of slow seconds passed before Dean was able to realize that he could not talk, and it took him a little longer after that to actually locate his voice. "Sammy, don't be like that. You know that doesn't count. Hey—." Dean pivoted his arm so that Sam's forehead tilted towards his direction. The emotionally hollow and exhausted look seeping from Sam's pores caused an unforgiving and hard lump to form at the base of Dean's throat, forcing his Adam's Apple to scrape against the lining of his esophagus. "Sam, that Constance bitch forced you. Don't do that to yourself. You know Jessica would've understood if she'd known."

The corner of Sam's lips quirked up, the smile embodying more sorrow and pain than any grimace. "Yeah, you're right," was all Sam managed before the grin fell from his face like a cinder block plummeting into a dark, bottomless lake, his face crumpling in such a broken and devastating manner that the blood drained instantly from Dean's face.

Dean never wanted to see that look on Sam's face, not now—not ever. Before he realized what he was doing, Dean gave into the protective drive to physically shelter his brother from the world and slung the arm resting on Sam's back forward, pushing his brother down and against his stomach. Dean may not be able to stuff his ginormous little brother inside of his jacket pocket, but he could tuck the kid against his body and shield him there. Encircling his jacket further around his brother, Dean felt Sam's fingers curl around his shirt as he burrowed deeper into the warm depths of his older brother's jacket. Dean was not able to see his brother's face buried against his abs, but he could feel a scathing puddle of saltwater seep through his thin shirt and onto his stomach. He could feel his little brother's ribs jut into his own with each sharp, sobbing intake of breath Sam took.

Palming the nape of Sam's neck, Dean said quietly, "Sammy, I got ya." The words seemed to stick in his voice box and his throat felt like it was lined with sand paper. Slipping his free hand underneath the jacket and covering Sam's wet, raw eyes, Dean repeated himself in a hoarse whisper, "I got ya."

Dean felt the lump in his throat double as soon as the gentle croon left his pale, chapped lips. Dean watched as Sam's hair bounced on its roots as Sam shook, and he felt his voice box shrivel up like a grape left out too long in the sun as the wet spot burning holes into his stomach continued to expand. Unable to speak, but also incapable of leaving his brother lying encircled within his strong arms without some sort of verbal comfort, Dean felt the melody to "Hey Jude" bubble up from his insides, but it caught just behind his teeth and disappeared underneath his tongue. Fire danced behind his eyes, along with his mother's burnt, crisp corpse. After watching Jessica die in the same way as his mother, he was not able to expel "Hey Jude" and hum it as he had done many times before for a younger Sam. Doing so at the moment would only remind Dean of the many monsters that lurked in their past—and present.

Sam picked up on Dean's distress instantly, and the older man jerked once he felt Sam start to inch off his lap and away from his spot against Dean's stomach. Dean quickly pushed Sam back against him, and even though he could not manage "Hey Jude" for either of their sakes, Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful" somehow managed to rumble from his chest as he ran his fingertips over the nape of Sam's neck, playing absently with the baby hair he found there.

Humming for Sam and running his hand across Sam's neck and hair was all Dean could manage communication-wise at the moment, but apparently it was enough: Sam settled further into his brother as the world crashed around the both of them, both men clinging to the other for support and shelter. Dean began to rock slightly back and forth, the motion birthed from not only the desire to sooth his baby brother, but also because he was angry and needed to move in some way before the combination of his still stance and growing rage caused him to burst. Curling Sam impossibly closer to him, Dean glued his eyes to the mop of his broken baby brother's hair and made him an unspoken vow.

"Some day, I'm gonna find the bastard that killed mom and Jessica. I swear, I'm gonna kill that son of a bitch for you, Sammy. I promise."

At the end of the road, Jessica's and Mary's murderer would find death by Dean's hands.

That promise Dean intended to keep.

END


A/N: Well, this was difficult to write. Constructive reviews welcome.

Note on the songs: I was going to have Dean hum one of his favorite songs ("Ramble On" or "Traveling Riverside Blues"), but when I listened to them again, I did not think that the tune would actually work in the situation :/ And I just happened to be listening to Howlin' Wolf as I was writing, so that's how that happened.

Clearlight is a form of LSD.