Chapter Three – The Road Less Traveled

Morning again brought a tentative calm. Dean appeared more at ease while Bobby backed off from all the intrusive looks and silent meanings. With Ben still at his friend's house and Lisa at her meeting it was just the two hunters, familiar yet strained. They hadn't resolved anything the previous night and yet they were closer, more in tune, resigned to the inevitable even as their hearts yearned for more.

Small talk was never their strong suit but it was preferable to the other. Neither was in the mood to dredge up more hurts and worries, especially when there were no easy answers or quick fixes.

"So, how you like workin' for a living?"

Dean was staring at his waffles, absently poking them with his fork. The syrup had sat too long, turning the toasted freezer waffles to mush. He wasn't going to eat them so he didn't know why he'd popped them in the toaster. Maybe to appear normal, like he actually ate something other than burgers and fries. His mind took him back to the start of his crossroads deal for Sam and how Bobby had chastised him for eating a burger for breakfast. He'd commented then that he wasn't going to sweat the cholesterol and it was still true. Dying young or not dying old held the same appeal, a get-out-of-Hell card, or on second thought purgatory. He found that more appropriate. After all, he knew what Hell was and this sure as hell wasn't that bad, but it wasn't good either.

Lisa tried to get him to eat healthy and he ate whatever she put in front of him, as much as he ate anything, but he didn't enjoy it. Honestly, he didn't enjoy much these days. And that didn't disturb him. He didn't think he had the right to enjoy things, not when he thought of Sam. The reality was it seemed like anything he could do to enhance his suffering brought a measure of satisfaction, like it was what he deserved, what he'd somehow earned.

Truth was he couldn't forgive himself for letting Sam go. To compound his guilt, he couldn't forget the role he'd played. The knowledge that he'd helped his brother into the pit tore at him, night and day, a constant. A bitter reminder that he had again failed, failed in his duty, failed to protect his family, failed Sam.

"Dean?"

He startled, distracted and unfocused, his mind snapping back like a boomerang. Always coming back to the same bitter realization, that where he was…what he was doing didn't matter, or more pointedly, wasn't what he was supposed to be doing. In response he offered a weak, "Yeah?"

"Where were you?"

"'m here, Bobby…what'd you say?"

"Your job…how you liking it?"

He didn't need to think on it. The answer came rote, like his answer to every question Lisa posed, a constant…a recurrent attempt to somehow force a lie into the truth. "Good…it's good."

"I woulda thought you'd get a job at a garage, put your mechanicking skills to work." Intent eyes bore into the younger man…waiting, anticipating a reaction, expecting something.

Dean shifted, the tension in his shoulders showing his discomfort, like this was rummaging too far into those hidden passageways. He cleared his throat but the words still came out rough and gritty, trailing off into broken. "Ah, yeah…" Dean's eyes wandered, seeking escape. As if looking anywhere but in the vicinity of his old friend might offer refuge from the unwelcome scrutiny.

Tired of the wait, determined to furrow deeper, Bobby pressed on. "John was good, but I'd say you grew into a better mechanic, all things considered."

"Bobby…" Dean stopped and appeared stuck, shuddering to a halt and simply staring off into space, his eyes blinking, taking a second to retreat before rising and locking with the older hunter. He took in a deep breath and seemed more able to move forward again, his voice low but rumbling forth from a firm foundation. "Just needed somethin' different, y'know?" He chewed on his bottom lip, an unfamiliar look of indecision flickering briefly before he did what he's always done and shoved any uncertainty down, barreling forward. "Needed a fresh start."

Bobby smiled, warm and genuine, almost looking relieved for some unknown reason.

Quirking his lips, Dean questioned, "What?"

"It's just good to hear you're lookin' for something. It's a start."

"Yeah, well…"

Silence engulfed them, tension a constant, neither dissipating nor building, simply lying in wait, for one or the other to break through that last remaining barrier.

Bobby was again the bold hunter, pushing into unknown territory and pressing for answers. His comment seemed innocuous, but then again, as a hunter nothing is ever as it seems. Everything has a purpose, an underlying intent. "You always were good with your hands," Bobby offered with a searching smile. He continued on, filling the emptiness still stretched between them, "Your daddy always said…"

The interruption was abrupt and much too rough, if not a bit awkward. "Don't, Bobby…just… don't."

Raising a concerned brow Bobby leaned in, tender eyes trying to unmask this new defense, prodding and poking. "Don't what?"

Pushing his plate away with undue force, fierce eyes glaring with renewed hurt, Dean firmly repeated, "Just don't."

The silence again overcame them. Bobby waiting him out, quietly studying him, digging deeper than Lisa ever dared.

This was why Dean had avoided Bobby all these months. Why he sought refuge in a house that wasn't his home. Why he took comfort from people who would never truly know him, not when he insisted on hiding so much of himself.

Sometimes it's easier not to examine things too closely.

Sometimes it's safer to maintain that distance.

Sometimes it hurts too much and scars too deep to feel.

xxx

Bobby seemed to know when the time was right, allowing Dean the chance to retreat and fortify his resources before again treading on unwelcome ground. Dean appeared ready, knowing it was coming and resigned to the fact, grateful for the temporary reprieve before the inevitable.

In fact, it was Dean who broached the subject, mulling over what he needed before cracking open that door. They had escaped the confines of the house and were in the large garage in the back, Dean tinkering with on old lawn mower that had been abandoned on the property when Lisa bought it, trying to fire it up while Bobby patiently observed him. Dean stopped working and the wrench suddenly felt heavy in his grip, his hand idly bouncing it as he pondered what he wanted to say. Finally he laid it down and turned to his old friend, facing down the truths that haunted him. His voice was worn, hesitant and yet resolved, forging forward like only a Winchester can. "Bobby…how'd you do it?"

"Do what?"

Dean swallowed, not wanting to bring more pain to his friend, knowing pain like this never died. That it might lie dormant for years until stirred up, again morphing into a bloody dagger slicing through you. He'd seen it first hand in the devastation Bobby expressed after Lucifer brought back his wife and he was again forced to kill her. That had only cemented the certainty that pain like this would never end. Not with the lives they led, not considering what they were constantly called upon to endure, not when hunters were allowed so little comfort. Dean couldn't imagine having as active a role in the death of a loved one as Bobby had when he'd been forced to kill his own wife…not just once, but twice. He shuddered from the aftershocks of that pain, intense even for an outsider looking in, unable to fully comprehend what it must have felt like. What Dean had experienced with Sam was torment enough. His own guilt gnawing at his insides. His own memories of losing his brother twice making a concerted effort to devour him. He spoke deliberately, his tone trembling from the deeply held pain he felt for the sensitive subject matter. "Your wife, Bobby… How'd you ever…" His words suddenly stopped, the stricken look on Bobby's face a mirror to his own anguish, so naked and raw, even after all these years, driving home the truth, the reality of a loss like that.

Two men had been burdened with unfathomable grief and yet one had found the means to function, to live his life without a neon sign telegraphing his brokenness. Dean needed to know how he'd done it. If the path he'd taken was feasible. If he could ever hope to function again on some level within this unbearable pain that constantly pulled at him. He had Lisa and Ben to think of now and he was tired of burdening them with his misery, tired of hurting the people he loved, tired of not being who he thought he should be.

Bobby tensed, sensitive eyes blistering from the weight of too many hard truths and unrelenting agonies. He sucked in a heavy breath, his hands fidgeting in his lap before he gripped his knees to still them as his head rose and he spoke, his words rumbling forth from a reservoir of determination and strength. "How'd I go on? After losing the love of my life?" he filled in.

Nodding, Dean silently apologized, his eyes offering all his compassion if not his understanding, that was what he was most in need of, understanding. "Yeah," was all he managed, hoping Bobby would continue unbidden, offering up whatever insight he'd found to manage that intolerable loss.

"You just do."

Dean gulped, that wasn't the answer he was looking for, he knew that much. His eyes pleaded his case, tearing up as the war raged on. He needed more than common platitudes, the simple direction of just doing it. Hell, he'd told himself that a hundred times…a thousand times, before each night of drinking and then again as morning came and the emptiness continued to fill him. Every tense muscle in his body must have conveyed that pressing need because Bobby again spoke, his voice gruff but kind, telling it like only Bobby could.

"Dean, somethin' bad happens you got two choices. You can get buried in it and never dig out, or you can fight your way through and move on with your life." He got up from where he was sitting and walked closer, his foot kicking out at the old mower that refused to start. "You let things sit long enough they forget how to work. This old mower, it had a job to do once, a purpose, but somehow it got neglected. It sat out here in this dusty old shed and it went to pot. It might still run, but it's gonna need a crapload of care to get it back to what it was." Bobby offered a tender smile then, his tone almost wistful. "It would have been a helluva lot better not to let it get this busted."

There was a long pause, time to digest the comment and consider the implication. A moment that quickly ran the gamut from a mildly outraged what-the-hell gasp to an incredulous you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me smirk and eyebrow quirk. Dean's voice was tinged with befuddlement as he finally voiced his thoughts. "You're comparing me to a mower, Bobby?" He leaned in, the rumble within his deep voice registering the absurdity and disbelief. "Really?"

Bobby chuckled, apparently satisfied with this small breakthrough, a chink in the tension between them. "Hey, I'm working on the fly here…I'm just goin' with what I got."

One moment of levity couldn't derail the seriousness of the conversation or the demanding need within Dean and they both knew it. Somehow though they had needed this break, one short reprieve before barreling back into painful territory.

Allowing the moment to pass, they headed back down that long road together.

Dean was bordering on belligerent as he asked his next question, already bristling, itching for a fight. He still knew how to fight. Truth was that was the only response he felt confident in, the only way he could manage this turmoil without surrendering himself further. He hunkered down for the coming battle, sure of Bobby's intent and adamantly opposed to it. "You're telling me to go back to hunting?"

"No."

Dean startled, surprised by Bobby's quick response, even more shocked that he wasn't there to recruit him for a job. "No?" he questioned. Both eyebrows arched over searching eyes as he rasped out, "Then what?"

"Life… Dean. I'm telling you, you got to get back to livin'."

It took a few seconds for the tsunami to hit, defiant eyes filling with tears, a gentle gasp and trembling chin following as his mind raced. All his defenses floundered as the first wave hit, a man now lost in a sea of doubt, his thoughts rolling on a crest of surging emotions, taking him to new heights as he considered what life with Lisa and Ben could offer and then in a heartbeat crashing down around him as all thought turned to Sam and the waves pounded him under. The idea of living his own life felt rancid and wrong. The ever present regret and the fracturing of his responsibility twisting him sideways. He struggled against the very idea, stale and repugnant, incomprehensible considering where his brother now was. How could he live when Sam wasn't even allowed to die in peace? His fury, at Sam's fate, at his impotence to do anything about it, rose up with the intensity of his voice, sharp and cutting, brutal in his assault. "Sounds good, Bobby, but…how? How exactly do I forget everything that's happened?"

"You don't, dammit." Bobby almost immediately drew back from the harsh response that blew out of him, his eyes holding steady, searching out a connection, wanting to help. He scratched at the growth on his chin, his scruff rough and unruly. He took in a deep breath and let out a heavy sigh before he found his voice and continued, still forceful and fierce. "Dean, you find a way to shove it out of sight." The raw pain before him, so familiar and fresh, triggered something long buried and he got a far off look in his eyes, distant memories no longer distant before he shook off the unexpected assault and continued, snapping back to the moment and the man before him, all focus on his pain. His voice turned mellow, soft and mournful. "Son, you've always lived your life for your family. Since you were a kid and first lost your mom. You managed to keep going because you had a purpose, a job to do in taking care of them." Bobby's features continued to soften, the warmth of his eyes beseeching the man to listen. Years of worry and concern tempering his normal gruffness as tenderness reached out. "Dean, when have you ever taken the time to think of yourself? What you want, what you need?"

"I need my brother," was the angry reply.

Bobby's eyes misted, trembling from the echo of the past, lingering within that same sentiment. His eyes held focus for a brief moment and then he glanced away, unable to withstand the longing within Dean, the boy's tears too much to bear. His voice was low and heartfelt as he softly answered, "I know." His manner remained resigned but firm as he continued, "But that's not gonna happen, Dean. You got to move on, boy."

"Move on to what?" Impatient and unwilling to travel down this road yet again Dean schooled his features and stood his ground. "Bobby, this ain't about that. I don't need you telling me to get a life. I had a life and it's gone," he growled out.

Calmly Bobby continued, his voice bordering on soothing, as much as his raspy tone could accomplish. "Dean, I know it might seem like your life is over, that you're never gonna get past this, but this is just one chapter that's ended." As every memory of his own pain assaulted him, he closed his eyes and tried to focus on Dean, on this new challenge, on conquering this current pain. His voice immediately shifted, rising with a forcefulness that demanded attention when he saw the set of Dean's jaw, recognizing his rebuttal from the insolent cast of his eyes. He was never surer than he was now as he surged forward, the register of his voice deepening in response, fierce in tone. "It hurts…it hurts like hell and it seems like you can't get around it. There's no denying that…but that don't mean your whole life needs to be over."

That cocky defense rose up, the bantering that wasn't tumbling forth. "Oh, so I'm just supposed to go on my merry way, just forget what happened, forget where Sam is?" Rubbing his hand down the length of his face, Dean shuddered through his anger and contempt. His jaw fixed as he protested, "I can't do that!"

"No, dammit! You never forget. But you shove it down like you've always done and you keep going." If Bobby were a dog his hackles would be raised. As it was the intense glare and the stern posture conveyed his rigidity, his absolute conviction of what he was saying. He'd never been one to pussyfoot around and in his mind, now was the time to stand firm and push as hard as he could. Maybe if he pushed hard enough he could get Dean to push back, which would be the first step to him fighting his way back. "And I'm telling you right now, this is gonna be the hardest thing you have ever had to do." Bobby's voice was harsh and unyielding, certain within his explosive tone. "But you're gonna do it because you got no choice, Dean…and you know it."

"I do?"

"Yeah, you do. And it's killing you because you'd rather curl up and die and just end it. But that's not who you are."

Absorbing the words, Dean stood there, eyes tearing, that persistent twitch in his jaw throbbing from the intense pressure, his lips trying to form a word, trembling but remaining silent. Pleading eyes were finally joined by a voice, hesitant and soft and so very needy. "But how, Bobby? How do I get past this?"

"You put the past away. You look for something to make you get out of bed in the morning. Something to give you a reason to keep going. You find a way to get out of your head and back in your life." Bobby eased back, his voice losing all venom as he softly revealed, "For me, it was you boys."

Dean looked up, his eyes childlike, full of wonder, years falling away as he most resembled that hurt child that had held such strength for one so young. His voice was barely there as he whispered, "Us?"

Gripping his shoulder, applying just the right amount of pressure, Bobby told the tale of another broken hunter, another shattered soul. "Dean, you came into my life when I most needed you. You and that brother of yours just burrowed right in. Hell, I needed you as much as you needed me." Bobby smiled from the memories. How the boys filled his life with renewed purpose, offering him the same contentment now as they did then. His eyes took on a darker cast, the rest of his memories catching up, the more unpleasant ones he'd bore witness to in those early days alongside the painful truth of how it all ended for Sam. "Your daddy, well, he never quite figured out how to put your momma to rest. It ate at him. He had you two, and don't get me wrong, he loved you, woulda done anything for you. Anything except let your momma go."

"I understand, Bobby…how he felt, how it tore through him…why he drank." Those compassionate, forgiving eyes glimmered from all the surging emotions threatening to undo him. Dean stood tall, at the forefront of defending his dad. The image of that young boy cleaning up his dad's messes melding with the strong man still protecting his family as one tragedy bled into another.

"Hell, son, we all understand…don't make it right."

Silence again entombed them, too many tragic memories darkening their thoughts.

Dean's eyes traveled out the open garage door, trailing up to the house, his thoughts settling on another young boy. He found it hard to speak of this, the fear of failing ever present. "Bobby…how do I keep from becoming him?" He looked up, tender eyes wounded, buried within his need.

"Who, Dean?"

"My dad. How do I not do to Ben what he did to us?"

"Dean, you're not your dad, never were."

He bit his bottom lip, leaning in slightly and quirking his head to the side. "But I feel it, Bobby…the terror he had for us…the hopelessness, the emptiness." Dean sucked down a ragged breath, his eyes holding forth all his fears. "I get what you said, y' know…before, about Ben…about me. About how dad raised us. I can't do that to him."

"Then don't."

"But how? How do I stop myself when all I feel is…"

"What, Dean? How do you feel?"

The struggle seemed endless, the war within raging on, never allowing him to break free. Every thought played out within his expressive features, through tender eyes and the quiver of soft lips pressed firm in a fixed grimace, trying so hard to hold it together. The intensity of the pressure only managing to escape through subtle twitches and soft gasps, held back by a strong will. His eyes flickered before the decision seemed to shift and he opened up, slowly but surely. "Bobby…I look at Ben and I see Sammy. I see this innocence and I don't want to be the one to take that from him. There's so much evil in the world. That's all I see now and it terrifies me." His face was unmasked, every thought and worry etched upon his features, furrowing deeper to scar his soul. "I couldn't save him, Bobby. I couldn't save my own brother. I tried, I did everything I could to keep him safe and look what happened."

"Dean, you done your best."

"But it wasn't enough." His voice broke as a tremor ran through him. Every failure twisting his gut, forcing him back down that long, dark road towards an impossible destiny. "I can't lose Ben like that and yet I don't know how to protect him." His voice vibrated from the strain, his hands absently gripping at his sides, fingers twined within his gray t-shirt as he nervously tugged it down.

"Just be there, Dean. Show him you care. You got to try and put what happened to Sam behind you and look to the future. You got a chance at a family here."

"But how can I look to the future…knowing my past? How do I know it's not gonna come back to haunt me?"

Shuddering through the fear, his own and Dean's colliding in the knowledge of what evil existed in the world and what evil might still be stalking a Winchester, Bobby closed his eyes to the truth before him, the terror in Dean's eyes again too much to handle. He sucked down a deep breath and faced down that fear, opening his eyes and muddling his way through. "Dean, the world's a dangerous place, we both know that, but you also know how to fight it if it comes to that. You, being here with Ben, you just have to do what you can to protect him."

Choking down a sob, tender eyes pleading, Dean forced out a confession. "But how do I protect him from me?"

It didn't take much for Bobby to smile, open and genuine, honest and sure. "Nothin' to fret on there, Dean. I know you. It's plain you love that boy… You're not gonna do anything to hurt him."

"I don't want to." The brokenness of his voice shifted, anger and fight replacing it as he lashed out, at his dad…at himself. "But Dad didn't want to hurt us either…and he scared the crap out of me when I was Ben's age."

"Dean." Bobby moved closer, placing his hand in a tight grip around the back of his neck and squeezing, insuring he had his full attention before proceeding. When their eyes connected he continued on, "Dean, you are not your daddy." His voice then turned to comfort, pleading with the younger man to listen to reason. "And you're not hunting. John went looking for evil and he found it, and sometimes that evil spilled over on his family. I don't know what he could have done different, what with the demon after Sam and all… But I do know what you got here is nothin' like that. You're different and if you make up your mind to do this, there ain't nobody better to raise that boy."

"Yeah?"

"Believe it."

Dean's lips turned up in a tender smile, his eyes glowing with love and pride. The same way he always lit up when he talked of his brother. "He's a good kid, Bobby. I just want to do right by him."

"I know." Bobby's memories turned to good, to two young boys filling his house with laughter and promise. He remembered his own struggles, his fights with John over how to properly raise those boys. Sam and Dean got the best he and John could each offer and despite their obvious failings through the years, they turned out to be good men. He took pride in seeing the men they'd become and he hoped that one day Dean would look back and feel the same satisfaction in helping to shape Ben's life. It was more than most hunters were allowed, but certainly much less than Dean deserved. "Dean, Ben's your reason to pull yourself together. You're gonna do it for that kid. Because he looks up to you and you're not the sort to let him down. And because you need him just as much as he needs you." Bobby took another deep breath, long talks were an abnormality for him, but this was important and there was a hell of a lot to say to set things straight. He looked deep into Dean's eyes and pushed on. "Dean, you're not a quitter. Never have been. This is gonna be the toughest thing you've ever done, but you're gonna do it because you ain't got no other choice." Dean was silent, listening and hopefully absorbing the words. Bobby felt like he'd talk more than he'd talked in the last month, but then that's what comes from living alone. Being a curmudgeonly hermit was okay for a grizzled up hunter like himself, but Dean was still young enough to find more and he was determined he have it. He smiled as he saw the tension ease off of Dean, the signs all pointing that he was making progress. The boy just needed another nudge in the right direction. Bobby's hand found it's way to the side of Dean's face, clasping onto his jaw line in a rare display of the affection he'd always felt for the boy. He patted his cheek twice before he latched on for the count, offering his final thoughts on the matter. "And family, well, Dean, you know better than anyone what family means. It don't matter if Ben's yours or not, he is now."

'Yeah, he is."

"Yeah….just like you, you idjit."

With the matter of Ben settled, there was only the matter of his brother remaining. A matter that Dean still struggled to put an end to…even though he knew it would never truly end. His heart drew him back to that failure, that loss. He once more turned to his old friend, to the wisdom of someone who managed to carry on.

"Bobby, I hear what you're saying…I do…but I can't lose Sam. He's a part of me and I don't know how to go on without him. It's like this hole is cut right out of me…like…" Dean gasped, as if his very breath was stolen from him. His eyes widened and all his hurt showed within the liquid emerald depths. He struggled to continue on, his throat tightening around the words. "I'm not whole without him."

Bobby thought he'd said all he had to say on the matter, but if Dean still needed guidance then he'd have to come up with something more. He wasn't about to give up on the boy. He thought back to the hole he'd felt when Karen died, how while the boys gave him a reason to go on, they could never replace what he'd lost with his wife. How that hole was still there and he knew it would never completely close up. But he'd learned to focus on what he still had, ignoring the loss until it rose up and demanded it's due. His mind then took him back to John and how he struggled to hold on, to his life before, to his memories of Mary. How holding on ended up costing him so much more.

Dean was silent, watching and waiting; hope glistening in tender eyes forever struggling to understand.

Sucking down a steadying breath, Bobby trudged on. "Dean, your daddy always wore his wedding band. I think it brought him comfort at times, let him feel close to your momma, but it also kept him locked in the past, tied to that night." He saw a glimmer of recognition in Dean's eyes and knew he'd understood his dad more than a child ever should, observing the loss and feeling the rippling aftereffects throughout his life, even as he refused to acknowledge the resultant pain. Bobby's voice was plaintive as he rebuked John's choices. "That ain't no way to live, son."

Reverting to the defender, holding on to the last of his family if only through his memories, Dean angrily fought back. "So, what? He should have tossed it? Just moved on?"

Fury exploded out of him. Contempt for how John warped Dean's sensibilities and denied him his due and anger at how hopeless it all seemed colliding as Bobby railed against John and his destructive choices. "No, dammit! You take it and you put it away, some place safe for when you really need it, for when you need to go back and remember…but you don't do that all the time. You don't keep it out in broad daylight. You don't make it the center of your life." He got a handle on his anger, toning it down and speaking now to Dean, trying to coax him down a difficult but necessary road. "You have to let the dead stay buried. You're a part of the living and you don't need to be constantly reminding yourself of that loss. It's gonna be there regardless." Once Bobby got going he found he had more to say than he thought, and since he had Dean's attention he needed to get it all out, even if this next part was what he had found most difficult. "And let me tell you something else, when the time finally comes that you go a whole day without thinking of Sam, when Lisa and Ben fill you with so much joy that you forget all this pain…don't you go letting that make you feel guilty again. Don't you fall back into the bottle 'cause you managed to break free for a bit. You're allowed to feel good again…and you will, Dean. You will. But it's gonna take time and it's gonna tax you to your limit, but you'll make it." He was almost out of breath, his tirade taking everything he had. Now he only needed to wait to see how Dean reacted, if the boy could do what he himself had found almost impossible to accomplish, barely making it through those dark days.

The reaction from Dean was a stillness. His eyes registering the words without speaking. All his thoughts flickering across his face as he stood transfixed, either unwilling or unable to offer a counter-assault. Those liquid eyes were heartbreaking in the intensity of their pain, the quiet underscoring the emptiness and longing ever present.

Bobby only hoped the words would settle in the favorable. It was unusual for Dean to not have a comment, to not put up a fight. Maybe that meant he accepted the harsh truth and just needed to work his way around it.

xxx

Dean was diligent as he worked on that mower, determined to fix it, all focus on bringing the rusty thing back to life. It gave him something to do, something to keep his hands and mind busy. Bobby shared a few beers with him as he worked, offering up small talk and fond memories, tales from his own life, things Dean had never known about. They both managed to steer clear of talking of Sam. They didn't need to speak of him. He was there, in every glance or silent pause.

Focusing on something other than Sam seemed to help, even as it tore at his gut how wrong that was. Sam had always been at the center of his life, at the forefront of his thoughts. Even when he'd left them and gone to Stanford, he was always there, just like Dean knew he'd always be there now. Something as integral to who you are doesn't just lose that importance. Who he was hinged on being the big brother. Even with Sam gone he knew he would always be his big brother.

Maybe Bobby was right, maybe he could be more, but he would never surrender that. Sam was too important. What they meant to each other was too crucial. Who they were and what they'd done could never be replaced.

He found when he thought of Sam now he couldn't forget the promise he had made. How Sam wanted him to carry on, to be happy. He'd always wanted to give Sam everything he desired. He just wasn't sure he could give him this.

The longer it took to fix that old mower the more frustrated Dean became. His hands working furiously, the clank of his tools growing louder and more destructive as the damn thing refused to fire. In frustration he stood up and kicked the wheel of the dang thing and cursed, "Sonuvabitch!" Then something snapped and he kicked it again, the toe of his boot connecting heavily with it and shoving it back a good three feet. He released the wrench in his hand and it clanked loudly to the ground as he geared up for another swift kick, pummeling the dirt-encrusted metal until he succeeded in snapping off the top of the engine. As the pieces flew he settled down. His fists unclenching as he tried to calm his mind. The destruction doing nothing to soothe him, only revealing the turmoil from deep inside he was so desperate to release.

"Guess it's a goner," Bobby wryly offered, his tone compassionate and tender as he returned from another beer run to the house.

Dean sat down in a huff, every fiber in his body trembling from the fury as it ebbed out of him. He dejectedly sat there, lost in the aftermath.

Sitting down opposite him, Bobby popped the top off his bottle and took a cooling guzzle. He reached out the other bottle to the younger man and waited.

Dean shook off the last of those foreign feelings and looked up. It only took a moment for him to reach out and grab hold of the cool bottle, the familiarity pulling him back to himself, past his rage and the defeated feelings that tugged at him. He twisted off the top and took a long drag, his hands cradling the bottle between his bent legs, his mind taking him down another path. Back to the side of the road and a rattle that was most likely the carburetor, back to him handing off the wrench to his kid brother and the shocked look on Sam's face as he reluctantly took it. Back to words he thought would steady him in his time of need, back to his job…"That's my job, to show my little brother the ropes." He shuddered through the implication, the harsh truth that that job was now over. He ached for that time, for that role. For a purpose he could find worth in. And then his mind took him back to one of the last times he'd shared with his brother, driving down that two-lane blacktop when Sam told him he had to leave him in the pit, how he wanted him to live his life, find Lisa and go to ball games and picnics. Back to the promise he had made. His eyes continued to tear even as he bolstered his shoulders and cast off his thoughts of that time. He opened his box and lovingly placed his most precious memories inside, next to his mom and all those childhood moments so long gone.

Time stilled as the two men simply sat there. Dean collecting himself as Bobby waited. They had time.

xxx

"Bobby?"

"Yeah, Dean?"

"You help me do something?"

"Anything, Dean…you know that."

"Yeah, Bobby, I do." Dean paused, a hesitant smile finally breaking through as his eyes glimmered with every emotion possible and then some. He wet his lips before he softly whispered, "Thanks."

The tone was still gruff, the register of his voice not allowing anything else, but the feelings were evident. "You're welcome."

Dean then went to work, pulling out more of the derelict leavings the previous owners had abandoned. An accumulation of clutter that Lisa had tried to ignore, preferring to get her house in order and leaving the back building to Dean's care. Care that had until this moment been lax. When he'd cleared out a spot big enough for what he had in mind he left Bobby slack-jawed as he headed back up the hill to the house.

Bobby knew his intentions as soon as he heard the deep rumble of the Impala's engine, her throaty purr both heaven and hell to his ears. She too held many memories for Bobby, all the good now weighed down by the obvious loss. He silently watched as Dean drove her into the back of the building and cut her engine.

Dean sat inside his baby for a long time, the silence drawing out more memories. He mustered one last smile before his hands released his grip on the steering wheel and he pulled open the heavy door. The resultant creak lingered until the dull thud echoed through the building as the door closed for the last time. He stood next to her, his hand lovingly gliding along the newly waxed contour of the door. He took one final look and then stepped back.

"Dean, you sure?"

Lips held tight, pensive and solemn, Dean responded, "Yeah, Bobby, I'm sure."

Once the tarp was on it seemed like a weight had been lifted, like once his course was set Dean could move on to other things. Their walk back to the house was quiet, both men still pondering the implications, both still locked in the memories that would take more than a tarp to obscure.

xxx

When Ben returned home later that afternoon he and Dean had their promised catch. Dean showed considerable talent considering he hadn't played baseball since he was four and T-ball was all the rage. He had natural ability and a gentle ease with Ben. Bobby enjoyed watching them from the swing on the back porch. Lisa brought out lemonade and they finally had a chance to talk and get acquainted.

"Bobby, thanks for coming."

Easing back and letting the swing gently rock, Bobby smiled, happy that Dean had someone in his life who cared for him, cared like Sam had, someone who was looking out for him, even if he didn't fully realize it. "Thanks for the call."

"He seems better," she observed, not yet knowing what the change might be, just hoping and praying that it would last.

Bobby took a drink of his lemonade, not his usual, but then, nothing was as it was. Just watching Dean in a game of catch was unusual, but nice. Seeing him smiling and laughing was even nicer. His attention wandered back to Lisa, her last comment finally registering and nodding his agreement. "Yeah…I think he's gonna make it. It's gonna take time, but he's a fighter, always has been." His focus was now drawn entirely to Lisa, watching her watch Dean. Her eyes held the same wonder, the same contentment that he was sure glimmered within his own eyes. Dean was in good hands, with someone who was willing to fight for him…someone who saw his worth. "It's good to know he has someone looking after him for a change."

Lisa looked back and her smile wavered, just a flicker of doubt before her determination took over. "He's so amazing, so strong…" her voice trailed off, the 'but' lingering in the air between them. Her eyes were again drawn to the game of catch. The image before her mesmerizing and perfect, what she'd always hoped for.

Used to slow conversations, pulling information from reluctant non-talkative Winchesters, Bobby gently prodded, bringing Lisa back to her thoughts. "But?"

She turned and her smile teetered, her eyes conveying the effort it took to maintain the bliss they'd found in this moment. "It's Sam…he was everything to him. It hurts to see him struggling. He's lost so much."

"Yeah, he has," Bobby agreed, "And that loss is always gonna be there, but I'm hoping he found something else here." Lisa's smile returned at the comment and Bobby was sure it was true, long overdue but finally true. His gaze again wandered to Dean playing catch. Such a rare and unexpected moment and yet it fit. It didn't fit with the hunter he'd become, but looking back at that kid, at who he could have been if the demon hadn't killed his mom and stolen his dad on that fateful night, well…this was good, as it should be. "He's spent his life taking care of his family, watching over Sam and losing him, well it left a hole so big that he's never gonna fill it…but you and Ben, you give him something he needs." Bobby took another gulp of the lemonade. It held just enough bitterness to dispel the saccharine in the moment. "You take care of him, and if you ever need anything or if he stumbles, you got my number. You call me."

"I will…promise."

Descending on the porch, their game of catch over, Dean and Ben brought a vibrant energy to the proceedings, their laughter lightening the mood further. It was strange to see Dean with a mitt on his left hand, a ball bouncing in the glove as he leaned against the railing; long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, looking relaxed and content. Ben stood nearby, looking up to the man beside him, grinning like this was the best day of his life.

Bobby didn't want to leave, didn't want to head back to the hard life of a hunter, but he also didn't want to intrude further. He didn't belong here; this was Dean's world now. He thought it best to leave Dean to it. "Well, guess I best be shoving off."

"You sure?" Dean immediately stood straight up, concern and anxiety glimmering within his eyes. He slipped off the glove and laid it and the ball on the railing. "You're welcome to stay," he quickly offered.

"Nah, I need to get on back. Besides, you don't need an old coot like me hanging around."

Looking slightly uncomfortable, as if he wanted to hold on for just a while longer, Dean extended his invitation. "Bobby, you're always welcome."

"Same goes for you. My place ain't exactly the Ritz…but if you ever need a place…or anything, I'll be there."

Dean then moved to close the distance between them, reaching out to give his old friend a deep hug, wrapping his arms around him and holding on tight. They embraced for a long time, neither eager to let the other go, not when they'd just found each other again. Finally the hug lessened and one firm pat on Bobby's back signaled it was over. Their smiles never dimmed as they released their hold and stepped back.

Times like this they didn't need to talk. A nod of the head and the glint in an eye enough to convey all that needed to be said. Bobby turned to go but then he stopped and turned back. His eyes glanced up from beneath his trucker cap as his mellow voice intoned, "Dean, you find somethin' that looks promising, you give me a holler. I want Sam out too."

Dean didn't try to deny or hide his intentions, the promise to look out for his brother always there. "Yeah, Bobby…I will."

"Good…then." Bobby again seemed immobile, unwilling to suffer one more goodbye, even though he knew it was necessary…and for the best.

"Bobby…" Again his eyes said it all, words superfluous, unable to express the meaning conveyed in a single look. Long goodbyes or heartfelt speeches weren't their style, totally unnecessary for men such as these who knew each other so well. All Dean saw fit to voice was a simple, "Take it easy."

Dean wasn't left standing on his own for long. Easing into place, one on each side of him, Lisa and Ben perfectly filled out the family portrait. Dean's right hand immediately clasped on to Ben's shoulder in a tender grip as Lisa leaned into his side, his left arm wrapping around her waist to draw her near. Bobby smiled. It was a pretty picture. Something he thought he'd never see with a Winchester standing there, inclusive within his own family. He turned away, his hand tugging at the brim of his hat to lower it so the sun wasn't in his eyes, the brim obscuring those same eyes as they misted. He then offered what might be his last words to Dean for the foreseeable future. "You two take care of each other…and call if you need anything."

He knew he wouldn't be hearing from Dean, not unless he found that miracle to spring Sam out of the box. His mind told him it was for the best, even if his heart had a hard time accepting it. Silently he got into his car and pulled away. That picture of a happy family standing by their back porch fixed in his mind, one small piece of Dean he'd carry with him as he resumed his life as a hunter and left Dean to begin his new life.

The End

bjxmas

January 2011

All standard disclaimers apply.

Thanks for reading. Apologies that this chapter took so long to post, I wanted to get it right so I've been endlessly tinkering with it. I love the bond between Bobby and Dean and I hope I realistically portrayed their love and closeness. I was originally going to go into more depth with Dean's relationship with Lisa. I have that in extra material, but if I continue to write that it will come in a companion story. This seemed to be a good place to end this story, with Dean on the path to functioning in his new life, even though Exile on Main Street clearly showed that his thoughts still turned to Sam. Dean managed to build a new life with Lisa, as best he could, but he never forgot Sam or where he was. He is forever the big brother.

And I may be in denial, but I can accept Bobby's decision not to tell Dean that Sam was out. Particularly if it happened after my story, when Bobby had clear indications that Dean was on the road to recovery and acceptance. It is still a hard call, but I believe Bobby made it for Dean's sake, to give him a chance for a life outside the hunting world, and for himself, so he wouldn't have to bury another Winchester. Not to say it wasn't wrong and unfair, but like John's decisions…I believe it was done out of love. I do love the complexity of their world and how there are no easy answers.

So, thanks for coming along on this journey of Dean's. Comments are always welcome.

Coming soon I will have two new stories to post. First off is O' Death, a 6.11 Appointment in Samarra tag with extended dialogue between Dean and Death. I love how Death challenges Dean and I love writing dialogue for these intriguing characters.

Then I have a 2.17 Heart tag called This is How a Heart Breaks. That has angst galore, hurt!Sam, protective big brother Dean, Dean & Bobby worry, and maybe a little insight into Sam's head. That one's been in the works for over a year and my compulsive tinkering is almost done. Hey, I never said I was fast! LOL

Later, B.J.