"You look like shit, ya know."

The blunt statement brought Sam from groggily rousing to sharp awareness. Glaring up at his brother he managed a grumpy response. "Right back attcha."

Dean smirked. "Don't be jealous, Sammy."

"Not even a little." Stretching, Sam asked, "Whatimeizit?"

"Just after 11, sleeping beauty."

Sam made a face then ignored the nick name. "When did you wake up?"

"About an hour ago."

"And you didn't wake me?"

"You were out, dude." Sam leaned back in his chair and stared at nothing for a moment. The events of the night before slowly made their way to the forefront. Had the image of Jess in the fire simply been a dream or something else? And if it was something else, what exactly did that mean? Something deep in his gut hinted that there was more to it.

Concerned at his brother's silence, Dean inquired, "You ok?" There was still no response from the younger Winchester. Again he attempted to gain Sam's attention, "Earth to Sammy. You there?"

Dean's voice managed to break through his wayward thoughts. Not sure what to think about his musings let alone say, Sam gave a quick nod. "Yeah."

But Dean wasn't fooled. His baby brother's face still held a small pout and his brow creased in intense contemplation. "Alright, out with it. What's wrong?"

Snapping out of his reverie and pushing the memory of Jess burning aside, Sam shook his head in denial. "Nothing's wrong."

"Don't give me that BS. I know that look." Sam was about to protest but Dean kept talking. "The look you always got when working on some puzzle where you haven't got all the pieces to fit together just yet and it's bothering the hell out of you. So spill."

Suddenly Sam felt strangely protective of his thoughts. If they had been a physical toy like when they were kids, he would have tucked it away in his jacket or bag to hide it. Of course, Dean had already called him out on it which meant his brother wouldn't stop asking about it until Sam told him something. Sighing, he began, "Really dude, it's nothing. Just a rough night and a bad dream. Nothing I can't handle and nothing you need to worry about. Seriously." He did his best to reassure his brother.

"Fine. You don't have to tell me if you don't want to." Dean threw his hands up as sign of his backing off. But Dean Winchester never really backed away from anything. "If you want to carry all that baggage around by yourself, I'm not stopping you. You know where to find me when you're ready to talk."

"Talk?" Sam snapped. The younger Winchester went from slightly annoyed to down right pissed in .025 seconds flat. "I should talk? Open up? That's rich coming from you. I thought you hated – what do you call them? – Chick flick moments."

Taken aback by the sudden fury pouring off his brother, Dean shot up his defenses. "Hey, if you don't want to talk, then don't talk!"

Infuriated, Sam jumped up out of his chair, began pacing and combing his fingers through his shaggy hair. "Damn it Dean, all I've wanted to do was talk to you since I got here. I wanted you to tell me what's going on so I can help you."

"And you did help me. We got this Shifter, didn't we?"

"It's more than that, Dean. That Shifter did more than just copy your face. He was you. Or a twisted version of you and some of the things he said, the things he eluded to… I couldn't stop him from talking, but he wasn't the one I wanted to hear it from." Some of his anger subsided as he turned painfilled eyes on his broken brother. Desperate to reconnect. "You've always been there for me growing up. But I'm not a kid anymore. You don't have to protect me. And I was stupid cutting you out of my life. I realize that now, but there's nothing I can do about that. All I want is to be there for you like you were for me. For you to trust me like I do you. For you to tell me what's happened to you since I've been gone."

Dean stared up at his ginormous baby brother. This wasn't the little kid Dean had taken care of, this was a man. And as much as he wanted to open up and share everything, he wasn't sure if he could or even knew how. He had been fighting alone for so long, bottling up so much crap, that if he dared let a little out, he feared it would topple the dam he erected and come flooding out.

But that wasn't his only reason for hesitating. Sure, Sammy was here now when he was in a real jam and bailed him out. But this was only a quick trip. College was waiting and he knew Sam wasn't ready to jump back in the saddle and ride with Dean again. Two cowboys, fighting the good fight and riding off into the sunset. No, when this was all over, it would be one cowboy riding off while the other waved goodbye. Why burden the kid with knowledge he didn't need to carry?

Clearing his throat, Dean glanced down at his hands resting in his lap on top of the bleached hospital sheet. "There's nothing to tell."

"Don't lie to me! Not after all this. Not after what that monster said."

"And what did he say, Sammy? Enlighten me, why don'tcha?"

"He told me about dad. Told me how he shut down and focused on hunting. That you both got involved with some hunts that went south."

"Yeah, well that's nothing new. How many hunts have gone sideways on us over the years?"

"Then what about how he said you tried to leave the life. Even thought about marriage."

Dean's gaze narrowed dangerously. "Ever think this bastard may have been lying to get under your skin?"

The venom in his voice and the daggers in his eyes, told Sammy that this was something Dean absolutely did not want to talk about. Something too painful. He had seen the expression many times growing up, whenever he broached the subject of their mother. Realization crashed over Sam. "My God, it's true," he whispered. All the anger and frustration drained out of him. Slowly, he sank back into the chair. "You actually tried to get out?"

Dean pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, cursing the fact that despite years of separation they could still read each other pretty well. Deflating in the hospital bed, Dean admitted, "It was a while ago. I wasn't thinking straight. Down right stupid really. It didn't work. I left. End of story."

"But you actually tried to leave the life?" Sam just couldn't believe it.

"No Sam, not leave. Just put it on hold for a while," Dean clarified. "She wanted me to join her at school, but you know me, I'm not really the schooling type. I'm hands on, ya know. But I thought I would give normal a shot for a little while. It was short lived. And I was an idiot for ever thinking I could get out."

"But you did try," Sam pointed out eagerly. Maybe there was still hope for both of them for a future.

"Yeah and it was one of the worst mistakes I ever made. Got back and Dad reamed me out for taking so long. He didn't trust me after that. And he had ever right not to. Just kept sending me on the kiddie hunts. It took forever for him to finally give me some bigger jobs.. And when I finally thought we were back to the way we were before, he sends me on a hunt to New Orleans and then bails. Turns out I was wrong. I was just a liability to him. Tho, can't blame him for not wanting me along, I do just mess stuff up. Now, all I want to know is if he's ok."

"If you ask me, good riddance. The man should be the one checking up on us and making sure we're ok, not dumping us when it suits him." Bitterness lined every syllable. "He's probably de-"

"Hey! Don't you say it. He's fine."

"Well then he should have checked in by now."

"I'm sure he has his reasons."

"Stop it! Stop defending the man. He doesn't deserve it."

"He's our father Sam. He deserves our respect."

"Respect is a two way street Dean. He's treated us like kids all our lives. Never trusting us enough to tell us what the hell is going on. Just that he was after the thing that killed mom, a woman I barely even knew."

Dean threw off the flimsy sheet and sprang to his feet in the blink of an eye. Adrenaline stopped the pain from knocking him back on his ass. He advanced a step toward Sam and grabbed the younger man's collar. All the wires and hook ups straining to stay connected as Dean stretched them to their limits. "Don't you talk about mom like that."

Sam refused to buckle under the intense fury raging in the green gaze of his brother. Fortunately the standoff was aborted when someone cleared their throat in the doorway.

"Ahem. I hope I'm interrupting something." The day nurse announced with a scowl and her hands firmly planted on her hips.

Dean abruptly let go of Sam with a slight push, as if suddenly disgusted by the close proximity, but his eyes never left his brother's face.

Sam stood his ground for a moment before turning to reply to the nurse. "Don't worry, the discussion's over anyway."

"Uh huh." She seemed entirely unconvinced. The nurse eyed the pair critically then chose to tackle duty first. "You," she pointed at Dean, "back into bed. I want to check your leads to make sure they are still in place."

And for once Dean was grateful for the command. As quickly as his burst of adrenaline hit it seemed to fade twice as fast. His knee was throbbing again. And the fight left him overexcited yet oddly drained. He flumped back onto the bed and then paused. He couldn't quite pull his leg up onto the thin mattress.

Sam automatically moved to help his brother as soon as he saw Dean struggle. Neither spoke but both knew exactly what the other was thinking.

The nurse waited silently until the older Winchester was settled back in position. She then proceeded to check his leads and begin her routine checks as well. She was almost done when she decided to interrupt the thickening silence. "Looks like everything is still in place and you're recovering as well as can be expected considering…"

"Considering what?" Dean asked.

She frowned, "Considering that my patient's recovery is being extremely hindered by negative influences." The nurse glared daggers at the brothers, who knew enough to look at least a little chagrinned even if their melting fury still flickered in their eyes. "I really don't care how or who started it. It's my job to ease my patient's discomfort and create a healing environment. In my experience, that is helped when the patient is surrounded by supporting and loving friends and family."

Her gaze locked with Sam's then slowly moved to Dean. Whatever argument was happening before was slowly giving way to guilt and regret. She decided to take pity on the pair. "Look, in my line of work, I've seen a lot of things, heard a lot of stories. And no matter what pasts people struggle with, even if it seems horrible, it's still something you can forgive and over come. And believe me, it's possible. This may seem a little random, but hear me out.

"I met a man once a while ago. His story was really amazing. Joe told me about his younger sister and how she got married. Everything seemed ok, but one day Joe found out his sister was murdered by her husband, Frank. His brother-in-law was tried and convicted of the murder and serving time. Needless to say Joe was angry and plotting his revenge. But while Frank was in jail, he got help and found his faith again. He asked for forgiveness of his in-laws, knew he could never right the wrong he had done, but that he was truly sorry. Joe didn't want to forgive Frank even though the rest of his family had. And Frank really wanted Joe's forgiveness but understood his anger. Later on, Frank decided he wanted to help other inmates heal and started working as a missionary at a prison. While Joe worked on finding a way to forgive, he decided to go on a mission trip to a local prison. There, for the first time since the murder, both men were finally able to meet and talk. And they were finally able to find forgiveness. The two now work together as missionaries to help criminals find their way again."

She waited a few minutes to let the boys absorb the story. "Now I don't know what's gone on between you two, but I can also see that there's still love there. Perhaps all you two need to do is talk things trough, hear the other's perspective. And if that's the case, don't try to run before you can walk. There's a reason we take baby steps. It's a way of testing our surroundings and limitations. You build confidence on secure footing. And when you fall you have two options, give up or try again. Just take it one step at a time."

Sighing deeply, she headed for the door. "Well, that's all you're getting from me. I'll be back to check up on you boys. Don't make me separate you." With one hand on the door frame, the nurse turned and gave them a pointed look before walking away.

In the following silence, the Winchesters were deep in thought. Neither really knew what to say or where to begin. And there was some trepidation on starting up another conversation. It seemed that every time they talked, they somehow ended up in a heated argument.

It was a couple hours later when one finally spoke. "'M sorry," Sam muttered.

Dean automatically dismissed with a smirk, "Don't worry about it, Sammy. It takes two to tango, right?"

"That's not what I'm talking about, Dean."

"There's nothing you ne-"

"Yes, there is. There's a lot I need to be sorry for. That I need to apologize for." Sam's pleading eyes peered up at his brother.

Dean's façade was on the verge of collapse when he saw the pained expression on his baby brother's face. He needed them off this line of thought. "Come on, Sammy."

"Dean, let me get this out, ok?" Sam watched his brother, the concern and worry easily written on his face, but Dean remained silent. Sam continued, "I am so sorry for how I acted growing up."

"You were just a kid." Dean countered.

"Yeah, but that's no excuse for the way I treated you. You always took care of me, watched out for me, did everything you could to make life easier for all of us. And I never really thanked you for any of that."

"It was my job, Sammy."

"But it shouldn't have been. You were just a kid yourself, not meant to shoulder that kind of responsibility."

"Dad had more important things to take care of. I was just trying not to screw it up too badly."

"No, he should have been taking care of his kids – us. But you stepped up, kept our family together. You took care of us. Sacrificed everything for us."

"I think you've got things a little skewed there, Sammy. I just did what I had to."

"You did more than that." At Dean's sardonic laugh, Sam asked, "Why do you always do that?"

"What?"

"Downplay everything you've done."

"Because you're making mountains out of mole hills. I did my job. That's all. You're making me sound like I did all this… That I'm some kinda… I don't know what but I'm not who you think I am. I screwed up more than I ever got it right."

"That's not true. Who kept us fed and clothed and got us to school on time?"

"Yeah, the same guy who fed you Lucky Charms and PB&J for a month, which you hated, until the money ran out and we starved til Dad showed up. The same guy who took you to goodwill to get crappy hand me downs that got you picked on all the time. That's who."

"But I still got fed and clothed. It wasn't your fault we didn't have money. You did the best you could with what we had."

"Stop, Sam. Stop trying to make it sound better than it really was. You hated growing up the way we did, moving all the time. Now you're trying to tell me it was all honey and milk."

"You're right, it wasn't perfect, but it could have been a helluva lot worse if not for you."

"Sam…" There were equal portions of pleading and warning in his older brother's tone as the man pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Just take the compliment, Dean."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because."

"That's not an answer."

"That's all you're gonna get."

"No."

"Yes."

"No."

"Yes."

"You're gonna tell me, Dean."

"Tell you what?"

"Why you can't accept any praise."

Sam's face was set in grim determination, so Dean knew his brother was not going to let this go until he got an answer. So he reverted back to his old tactics in hopes it would end this conversation. "Because I already know how awesome I am. I don't need people to tell me."

A cocky smirk graced his features, but Sam noted that it also never reached his eyes.

And he wasn't about to be put off. He decided to deploy some old tactics of his own. "Great. Glad to hear it. Cause you are awesome. You figured out it was a Shifter. Saved Becky's life, mine, Jenn's and the real Patrick's with that little ruse of yours when you sent me back to the sewers."

"Yeah, sorry 'bout that. Hope you're not too mad at me for sending on that goose chase."

"Actually, I'm still pissed. But like I said, it saved Patrick's life."

"Which was an awesome move on my part, because he saved the day in the end."

"No, that was still you, Dean. You got the Shifter."

"But only cause of his distraction."

Suddenly, Sam was back in those last crazy moments. That creature on top of his broken brother. That sickening feeling returning as he recalled the defeat in his brother's gaze. Swallowing back the bile threatening to come up, Sam asked in a quiet whisper, "Would you… when the Shifter threatened – bargained with you… would you have done it? If Patrick hadn't…"

"Sammy…"

"Dean, please. The truth. Just tell me the truth, just this once. Would you have let him… just to save me?" Sam couldn't say what that creature implied. It was too horrific to fathom and he would not let his mind wander down that path.

"Sammy, you should know the answer to that." Dean tried to smile reassuringly, but it fell short.

And Sam's heart broke, because he really did know the answer. "God Dean…" he sobbed.

Automatically, Dean reached out to his brother to console him. "Hey, hey, hey. It's ok, Sammy. It's ok. You know I'd do anything to protect you, no matter what the cost. That's my job, right?"

"Dammit Dean, No!" Tear filled eyes looked up at the older man. "No. Not if the cost is you, Dean. I'm not willing to pay that price."

Dean was stunned into silence. The raw emotion in his brother's features tore away every barrier Dean had ever erected in his life. And he hated how the kid could do that to him so easily. He had to be better than this. Stronger. With one last ditch effort to lift the oppressive mood that had settled in the room, he attempted a weak joke, "Aw Sammy, me for you? That's a bargain in my book. Blue light special, right?"

The attempt only caused the younger man's breath to hitch. "You're wrong. You are worth so much more to me."

Dean pulled his brother into a tight embrace, saying, "You too, Sammy. You too."

For long minutes the two brothers held on to each other with everything they had. When they finally did decide to break away, Sam's tears had been reduced to sniffles. And instead of the sorrow, a serious expression had settled there. "Dean, I want you to promise me something." Dean's quiet expectant expression encouraged him to go on. "Promise that if it ever came down to you trading your life for mine, that you won't. That you will do everything in your power to stay alive, no matter what."

"Sammy, you know I ca-"

"Promise me, Dean. Cause I couldn't live with myself if I knew you sacrificed yourself for me." Dean looked about ready to protest, desperate Sam resorted to drastic measures. Means he isn't proud of but demanded results. "Promise me, Dean, or I walk out that door right now and I won't come back."

"You'd do that Sammy, to me? After everything that's happened? You'd walk out. Again?"

And how that one little word cut Sam to the core. Yes he had walked out on his family 4 years ago, but he believed they would look out for each other. He was wrong. And if Dean couldn't see what he saw, he would have to make him. "If it means you would look out for yourself for a change, then yes."

A flash of deeply rooted pain flickered in the hazel depths of his brother, but Sam couldn't back down. "I don't want to walk away Dean. I missed you. But dammit, I don't want you trading your life for mine. Promise me, Dean."

Narrowing his eyes, Dean countered, "Only if you promise me that you'll look out for yourself too. Even if I'm not there. And if you ever need help, you ask me. And I'll come. I promise."

"Deal."

- S- P – N – S – P – N-

Yes, this really is an update. You are not hallucinating. I hope this nice, long chapter makes up for my nice, long absence. Hehe. That past year had definitely been a crazy one for my family and even more so over the past few months. But all good things! We got out from under the 50 ton elephant on our backs and completed a short sale on our house back in Dec. Moved for the first time in 6 years to a new place. Auditioned for Shirley Markowitz in the Local Theatre's production of the Producers and got it! It was such an awesome show. I loved every second of it! And I make some friends too. And with one of my new friends we are gearing up to start a new biz together, which should be a lot of fun!

Even better news for you all is that I have finally finished my draft of this story so I can post steadily again until the end – which is just 7 more chapters! I have decided to post on Wednesdays now, since I need a Supernatural fix to fill the space until the new season starts. So please review and I will reply. And you have permission to yell at me if I am late on a chapter here on out. I have no excuse and deserve what I get.

For those of you who have stuck with me thus far, thank you again for your infinite patience! Much love for you all. Thanks to all for reading. Please let me know how I'm doing even if it's just a word or two. Those reviews feed a writer's soul! If not, I appreciate all the faves and follows! And don't worry I recognize those lurkers out there too. Love me some Story stats! Lol.

Lastly, no shout outs for last chapter, so I will respond to the few signed reviews I got back then during Ghost Hunters tonight. Oh and just a quick FYI, I have posted 3 One-shot stories over the past few months too. If you have a mo, please check them out on my Profile. I would greatly appreciate the feedback! May the blessings of life rain upon you.

Until next Wednesday…

~Ari :D