Hey everyone, I'm finally back with a new story! :) This will be a multi-chapter fic set during the immediate aftermath of episode 2.10, Hunted. The title comes from a book by Janice Galloway that has always stayed with me many years after I first came across it.

I want to say an enormous thank you to Sharlot for being such an awesome friend and beta over the past few months. You rock!

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

Disclaimer: I do not own Supernatural, nor any canon characters therein, and I am making no profit from this piece of fiction.


Chapter 1 – Carry that Weight

Blood. Great swathes of crimson that spattered the darkened room, drenching body and bedspread in grotesque Rorshach patterns of death. The puckered, torn skin where the throat had been cut was little more than a warm-up act for the performance of the artist who had painted the room with psychopathic enthusiasm. So much blood. Not a mercy killing, nor mere pest control.

Enjoyment. Time taken to savour the kill.

Ava's fiance hadn't had a chance.

Dean Winchester gave his head a tiny shake, hoping to dispel the ugly image that had sharpened from mere visual horror to a jagged nausea that had begun wriggling in the pit of his stomach. The road in front of him was a blank canvas, awaiting the clotted trails and splatters of blood that seemed to materialise across its surface in ever more gruesome patterns as the Impala surged onwards.

Bad Company's Seagull was turned down low in the car, matching Dean's gloomy mood and providing a dreary yet welcome alternative to the panic he was trying to suppress. He refused to even contemplate the implications of what they'd found at that house, for Sam or for himself, but still the blood remained like a rusty film across his eyes.

He'd seen the viscous liquid many times before, the actual figure somewhere in the region of worryingly depressing – a number that was impossible to quantify in terms that weren't catastrophic. As a child he'd become desensitised to the primal life-and-death shock that the sight of wildly haemorrhaging blood elicited in those for whom such a sight was blessedly a rarity.

Dean had barely been at an age capable of even comprehending the world around him when John Winchester had gruffly handed him a tarnished Colt 45. loaded with gleaming silver bullets. With a few succinct, economical words that still rang in the young hunter's ears with a wisdom forever imbued with awed reverence, his father had demanded his assistance in the assassination of a werewolf that had shredded five people in their borrowed locale. For the young Dean, that night had been an education in so many more ways than his father would ever have wanted. The werewolf had eventually been taken down, in a commotion of slashing and snarling, by the trembling shot of a gravely injured John Winchester while his son watched on, terrified almost to the point of rigidity.

That night he'd blankly sewn his father's skin back together, the Winchester patriarch's terse directions evaporating any tears he might have had the temerity to shed before they had even formed. The deep and wrenching fear for his father had been firmly and irrevocably internalised, never to be allowed expression in any other way but anger and motion.

But he couldn't think about his father. Not then. A grief so complex, so mired in fear and disappointment...in guilt and self-loathing.

In total friggin' frustration!

And an anger so fierce it had become independent; a separate entity that sucked persistently from his strength and resolve like a greedy parasite.

But his father was gone, and Dean had become so confused about how he felt about the man that his own reaction to the mere thought of John Winchester would have been a mystery even to himself. And losing control was something he couldn't afford to do, not when Sammy needed him so badly.

How could his father have said...and then just...left...

Dean flicked his eyes from the road, casting a brief but assessing glance over his brother's dozing form. Sam was scrunched awkwardly in the passenger seat, long, pipe-cleaner legs crammed into the footwell at angles that looked as if they ought to have been physically impossible. His arms lay in a loose cross over his lap, fingers twitching slightly as he lay in a daze that robbed him of wakefulness without rewarding him with rest.

The younger man's forehead was propped up only by the passenger window, the glass fogging slightly with each stuttering breath. Every so often he'd snort slightly, head tipping precariously from its delicate position. Dean had already lost himself several hundred pretend dollars as he mentally bet against Sam being able to maintain the balance.

The elder Winchester had been watching his little brother for a while. On the drive from Ava's house, the silence had been stifling, tension billowing out from the two men and into the air like plumes of smoke. Sam had said little beyond monosyllabic murmurs since he'd found the missing woman's blood-flecked engagement ring lying discarded on the floor, and as soon as they'd returned to the Impala the younger man had pointedly turned to stare resolutely out of his window.

Dean was worried. It was a state of mind that was becoming so regular that it was now almost his default setting. He couldn't remember a time when he hadn't felt heavy hands pushing downwards on his shoulders, holding him under the choppy surface of his emotions, gripping him unassailably as he slowly drowned in their unfathomable depths.

The events of the past few days – months – refused to compute; error messages flashing up and shutting down his mental programming without warning or reason. He didn't know how he was feeling what he was feeling. It seemed like more than anyone should ever have to feel.

Or maybe it was just him.

Maybe other people would be able to cast aside the guilt at being responsible for their father's eternal torture in Hell, or the self-loathing of being the inept protector of a brother who seemed determined to walk right into the very danger he was trying to prevent.

But Dean kept going. He always kept going. For although the elder hunter wanted nothing more than to lock the Impala's doors and drive his beaten and bruised brother all the way to the end of the friggin' Earth and stow the kid away where no demon sonofabitch would ever look, he knew he could never deny Sam anything. Not since his baby brother had gawped up at him in wide-eyed awe from where he was cradled in Dean's four year-old arms on the night their mother had died.

Dean knew he would have been kidding himself if he'd thought he had any other option than to unwillingly cooperate with Sam's quest to explore the 'destiny' that kept skipping in teasing circles around them, smiling enigmatically all the while. The Gordon Walker fiasco had taught him that if he didn't, Sam would just ditch him and do it anyway. And hadn't that just turned out so friggin' well?

And despite what Sam had said, about wanting his big brother to stick around, Dean couldn't rid himself of the fear that he might wake up one morning to find that the stubborn kid had taken off again.

As they crested the curve of an urban hill, an electric blue vacancy sign seemed to rise out of the watercolour oranges and reds of the cityscape before them like a homing beacon, reluctantly drawing the elder hunter's gaze from where it had been contemplating his brother. They were both exhausted, long past the point that anything other than deep, restorative sleep could fix.

Right, like that was going to happen.

Nevertheless, at the very least Dean wanted to get his brother somewhere he could check him over, and to give him a pillow more comfortable and secure to rest against than the Impala's window. The elder Winchester hadn't forgotten the fight he'd overheard between Sam and Gordon whilst incapacitated in that infernal chair.

He was certain that there would be bruises beyond those which Sam had managed to acquire on his face – being kicked through a wall tended to have that effect, as Dean himself could testify – though his brother hadn't complained once. Not to mention the fact that the kid had also been in the vicinity of two grenade explosions – and Dean was so not going anywhere near the memory of how he'd felt in hearing what he'd thought was his brother being blasted to smithereens...

Despite Sam neglecting to be forthcoming about the nature of any injuries he might have had, Dean's keen gaze had been cataloguing every wince, every sigh, every slight favouring of limb, and he intended to cross-reference his checklist with his brother when they were safely inside.

He wasn't mentioning the fact that his own head felt like it had been cleaved in half from where the butt of Gordon's rifle had slammed into him. When raising a hand to the burgeoning lump on his temple he half expected to feel the slimy squidginess of uncovered cerebral cortex sliding underneath his fingertips rather than smooth skin. Sam hadn't asked how Gordon had taken him down, and it wasn't as if Dean planned on offering the information. A few painkillers and he'd be fine – surreptitiously taken of course; it wouldn't do to alert his brother to the injury. Sam was apt to worry about these things.

Dean eased the Chevy across the motel's gravel parking lot, noting in his periphery that Sam had begun to stir as the small stones crunched under the rolling of the Impala's tires. The younger man stretched slightly as they came to a halt, shoulders clicking and clacking like a typewriter as he contorted himself in the confined space.

"You okay?" Dean tossed across, twisting in his seat to fully gauge the truthfulness of the response.

Sam scrunched his features, inhaling a long, deep breath that quickly triggered a yawn of black hole proportions. "Uh, yeah. I'm fine."

"Really?" Dean replied, wondering if he looked as sceptical as he felt. "'Cause you look like crap."

Sam frowned, eyes shifting to linger on his big brother's temple, and Dean knew his dastardly scheme had been foiled. "Yeah, well, you don't look so great yourself. What did Gordon hit you with anyway?"

"The rifle he was tryin' to kill you with." Dean answered shortly, conveying the end of his commitment to the issue by turning away and levering his door open. He really didn't want to have this conversation now, but Sam apparently had other ideas.

"What, so you were the one who–?" Sam unfurled himself from the Impala, limbs growing outwards from the opening like petals on a blooming flower. He let the door drift shut and then turned to frown at Dean across the car's roof, dawning awareness cascading in a waterfall down his features.

"I'm gonna go check us in. You grab our stuff." Dean cut in brusquely, clearing his throat with an air of finality and striding off towards the motel office before his brother could move to stop him.

The elder Winchester knew he had to avoid talking about Gordon, and the circumstances that had led to his kidnapping. Though he and Sam had cleared a small patch of air between them that allowed them to function with bearable breathing space, Dean could almost see the swirling film of acrid smelling danger that lingered on. The easiest option was just to not talk about it, to not test the limits of his tenuous control.

Dean took his time checking in, hoping that Sam would lose interest in continuing the conversation.

The sleepy, doddering old man that was manning the front desk barely spared Dean a glance beyond what would have been necessary to determine the young hunter's status as a member of the human race. Dean shook his head slightly, amusement mixing with exasperation. He might have been a friggin' Wendigo and the proprietor probably wouldn't have noticed. In all likelihood, he'd just have asked it what kind of room it wanted and for how long.

By the time the elder Winchester had acquired their room keys and traipsed back outside, Sam was sitting slumped in boneless chaos on a bench outside the motel room nearest the Impala. Closer inspection revealed that the kid had slipped into another fitful doze, a light snore rolling out from his gaping mouth in a way that Dean would have found comical if Sam hadn't looked so young and fragile.

The elder hunter paused for a moment, gazing down at his little brother, loathe to wake him but understanding the necessity nevertheless. He cleared his throat loudly. There was a brief flicker of shuttered eyelids before they floated to a close once more. Rolling his eyes, Dean leant down and tapped Sam lightly on the knee. "Sammy? C'mon, you can get your beauty sleep later, huh?"

Sam erupted from slumber with a startled gasp and a manic flailing of arms. Jeez, he musta really been out, Dean thought with a twinge of guilt, remembering how exhausted Sam had looked when freeing him from the chair.

"Dean?" Sam's eyes were swinging wildly from side to side as he sought out his big brother's reassuring form. He let out a relieved huff of breath as his gaze met Dean's. "You were...are you–?"

The elder hunter raised an eyebrow as he attempted to mentally translate his brother's incoherence, running the garbled speech through his internal Sam phrasebook. "I'm fine, Sam." Dean knew he'd guessed correctly when the flame of anxiety in Sam's eyes sputtered out. "C'mon. Let's get inside and get you checked out."

Sam didn't protest when Dean gently eased him up from the bench, slipping a shoulder underneath one of the kid's lolling arms and tensing as he braced his brother's substantial weight. The younger Winchester was almost out again by the time they'd reached their room, after having dragged himself all of ten steps.

"You are gettin' soft Sammy," Dean muttered through the renewed ache in his head from having to prop up his brother with one arm, and carry both duffels with the other, all the while engaging in fumbling attempts to open their motel room with a rusty key that looked as if it had been cut sometime back in the Dark Ages.

Despite sagging limbs and a headache that blared through his skull with the persistent throb of a warning siren, Dean managed to gain entrance to the room, letting the door waft open while he surveyed the room with a practised eye.

It wasn't the worst he'd ever been in, but that single fact comprised the room's one positive attribute.

Stale bedspreads patterned with the sort of 1970's orange and purple psychedelia capable of blinding anyone that stared directly into its depths were half-heartedly draped across two craggy slabs of rock attempting to disguise themselves as mattresses. The spirals of lime green and deep blue in the wallpaper made Dean wonder if he'd unknowingly managed to dose himself with a hallucinogen somewhere between leaving the motel office and entering the room. The space seemed to swirl with a nauseating quality that may have had something to do with his headache, but which Dean felt couldn't have been helping his already delicate stomach.

There was a small kitchenette along the nearest wall, separated from the beds by a multi-coloured bead curtain that rippled slightly in the air conditioned breeze, providing a backdrop of plastic rustling that was just bound to ensure a night of interminable insomnia for the rattled hunter. The carpet at least was unblemished by the kinds of dubious stains that the Winchesters frequently encountered in their usual hell-hole motels, but was made of a scratchy sisal material that Dean knew was going to feel like walking on a bed of nails if he trod across it without boots.

He hefted Sam through the doorway, laying him on the farthest bed with as much care as he could manage without losing his own flimsy balance. The younger man was all but oblivious to his big brother's struggle with gravity, glassy eyes staring blankly at the wall, a slight frown the only sign he was processing anything at all.

Dean took his time tending to his little brother, hissing and grumbling as he caught sight of the marbled bruises across midriff and back. He ought to have killed that psycho sonofabitch, although the thought of Gordon enjoying some of the finest hospitality the penitentiary had to offer couldn't help but draw his lips into a satisfied smile.

But Sam was the one still dealing with the aftermath. Then again, Dean was more than thankful that his brother's limbs remained firmly attached to his torso, flesh still contained safely within skin. Gordon hadn't succeeded in his plan to kill Sam, and the elder hunter had to keep reminding himself of that every time an explosion flashed in front of his eyes and boomed disorientatingly in his ears.

Sam was beyond reaching by the time Dean had finished his ministrations, lost deep within sleep's blinding fog. The elder Winchester tugged off the kid's boots and lifted him under the bedcovers as best he could with limbs reduced to the strength of overcooked spaghetti, black spots clustering his vision and blending hypnotically with the wallpaper. He hauled the covers across his brother's slumbering form, nearly collapsing on top of him as the movement sent him lurching.

Finally satisfied that Sam had been well taken care of, the elder hunter sank back onto his own bed, wincing slightly as the bricked-in mattress sent an earthquake shuddering up the length of his spine. Exhaustion however, was attempting to convince him that this was the softest, most attractive bed in the world, and he ached to succumb to thoughtless oblivion. His whirling mind though, flightily leaping from subject to subject in a way that was only exacerbated by the distracting crinkling of the beaded curtain, would grant him no respite.

Being used as a helpless pawn in the attempted murder of the most important person in one's world was a powerful mental stimulant. Not to mention the fact that he wasn't especially keen to give sleep free rein to make him relive the moment that he'd truly believed his brother had died.

And to add flavour to the already delicious recipe, he'd found that unburdening himself to Sam about their father's warning had done absolutely nothing to lessen its panic-inducing, foreboding potency. If anything, his brother's justifiable anger had only made the words heavier, an albatross around his neck that had begun to choke the air from his lungs. And the fact that Sam was suffering because of them too...Part of Dean wished he'd never told him, though he knew he'd had no right to conceal them in the first place.

Dean let his head fall forward to rest in his hands. It was the one concession he allowed himself, his one gesture of acknowledgement. Sam could never know what this was doing to him.

He didn't care to quantify the length of time he sat like that, but the sky had begun to lighten outside the room's mottled brown curtains before he finally allowed his body to slump; sleep laying claim to the majority of his consciousness, but leaving his mind stumbling around in a vague awareness that was marred by roaring explosions and his own gagged screams.


Sam felt the ache even before his mind decided to alert him to the fact that wakefulness was beckoning; a deep, entrenched soreness that throbbed endlessly to the pace set by the baton of his heart's conductor. His consciousness carried out a brief survey, returning – cap in hand – to inform him that opening his eyes and returning to awareness probably wasn't going to improve matters. A return to hibernation was recommended, and Sam had almost authorised that very course of action when he heard a shuffling sound from somewhere in the unquantified space around him.

"D'n?" He slurred, thoughts suddenly leaping ahead before his sluggish mouth could catch up.

The surface below him was cratered with lumps and bumps, and a slight shift in body position created an internal image of lying on some kind of rocky outcrop. He felt himself frown as confusion set in. Had he and Dean gone camping?

There was a soft snort in response to his question. "Afternoon, Sammy."

A rustling sound made Sam turn his head slightly towards its source.

"Think you're gonna be disappointed, dude." Dean chuckled at his brother's continued grogginess.

With no small amount of effort, Sam dragged his eyelids upwards. And closed them again straight away. He was dreaming. He had to be dreaming...in some sort of strange technicolour blur. "Ugh. Why?" He managed bemusedly as he tried to assimilate the gyrating oranges, purples, greens and blues that were still frustratingly present on repeated blinks. He'd have to congratulate his brother on another fine choice of motels.

"All that beauty sleep didn't work," Dean tossed back, sounding farther away. "Even after twelve hours, dude."

Sam caught the concerned undertone in his big brother's words, and he began levering himself up, stifling a groan as his body levelled him a smug 'I told you so' in the form of a sharp, jabbing pain. "Twelve hours?" He croaked through a dry throat, blinking in surprise as a brimming glass of juice suddenly descended into his line of vision.

Accepting the glass and sipping it absently as he tried to comprehend his brother's words, he glanced up at a clearly hovering Dean. "You let me sleep for twelve hours?"

Panic and anger flared within him in a great roiling flame. Ava. Ava's fiance. All that blood...the engagement ring. All of that, and his brother had left him to sleep for half a friggin' day? Dean had left him imprisoned in sleep's clutches while Ava was god only knew where...He could almost feel their chance at finding her, of catching the trail of whatever demon had taken her slipping from his grasping fingers. The sensation sent his heart fluttering, blowing any calmness from his mind as anxiety took hold.

After everything that had happened, Dean still didn't understand how important this was. After telling Sam he'd stick with him, that he'd help him explore his destiny, he'd gone and demonstrated that his primary drive was, and always would be, to prevent it from happening. His big brother's commitment to the cause was questionable at best, and Sam suspected that Dean was only a few steps away from removing him by force.

But dammit, Sam needed to do this! How many times, and from how many different sources was he supposed to hear that he'd turn evil and start killing everyone before Dean would accept that he had to try and figure out what was going to happen? How was he supposed to prevent it from happening if he didn't know what it was, and how it was going to come about in the first place?

Finding Ava's fiance lying in a mire of blood had only confirmed every fear he'd ever had about what his destiny meant for him...and the person closest to him. Brady had been Ava's chosen life partner; it didn't take a genius to work out that Dean would be the first to go if Yellow-Eyes decided that Sam's presence was required. How was he supposed to keep his brother safe from that if Dean kept trying to shelter him? If the demon could get to them at any place, or any time, he had no chance of protecting his big brother. Unless he could stop it.

They needed to find out what had happened to Ava.

Dean drew his brows together, surprise colouring his cheeks at the vehemence of his little brother's accusatory response. "Sam, you got the stuffin' beaten outta you by Gordon and you nearly freakin' died in two grenade explosions. You needed to sleep."

The younger Winchester closed his eyes, needing to clear his mental framework of an anger that might lead to words he'd regret. Sighing out a breath, he chanted internally: He means well. Dean means well. Aloud he granted his mouth permission to level a reasonable amount of irritation, one that wouldn't lead to his big brother's head being bitten off for merely trying to look after him. "Fine. But not for twelve hours, okay? Not while we have work to do."

Besides, his brother hadn't exactly come out of the whole experience unscathed. Even the thought of Gordon having had Dean in his clutches for as long as he had was making Sam's muscles tense with the desire to go another round with the demented hunter. And then there was the fact that his big brother was most likely fighting off the lingering effects of the concussion he'd surely acquired after getting closely acquainted with the butt of Walker's gun.

Scribbling a mental note to check Dean's head later, Sam began pushing back his bedcovers.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Dean laid a restraining hand on Sam's shoulder, neatly using his height advantage to keep Sam seated. "Wait a second. It took a good hour last night to patch you up. How you feelin'?"

Impatiently shoving aside his brother's hand and levering himself upwards, Sam forced out a frustrated breath. "I'm fine, Dean. We don't have time to sit around. Ava's out there somewhere. We've got to find her, man." There was a shakiness in his voice that he wasn't bothering to hide. He was spooked, and it was better that Dean knew it.

The elder hunter reluctantly stood aside to let Sam pass, eyes flicking from root to tip as the younger man passed; assessing. Sam rolled his eyes inwardly. Sneaking out on Dean had only resulted in his brother engaging in ever more overt and unabashed scrutiny. It would have warmed him if he'd been anywhere in the region of acceptable coddling territory, but he needed his big brother to back off so that he could figure out what he needed to do.

"I said I'm fine, Dean." He snapped, wincing as he padded barefoot across the scratchy flooring towards the bathroom, the sisal pricking his soles like tiny needles. Had Dean been utterly blind when he'd chosen this place?

"That's a loada bull and you know it." Dean stopped him in his tracks, the directness in the older man's tone shackling his limbs and holding him immobile. "We need to talk about what happened last night."

Sam whirled to face his brother, who was eyeing him warily from across the room. Dean's fists were curled slightly; not clenched tightly enough to suggest that an argument was imminent, but enough to let the younger Winchester know that his big brother was far from relaxed. What the hell was Dean's problem? It wasn't like he'd just found out he might become so dangerous that he'd need to be put down like a dog – by his own family no less!

"You wanting to talk, Dean? That's a first," Sam retorted with a carefully arched eyebrow. Dean, whose mind was such a locked vault that he hadn't even bothered to share their father's last words until he hadn't been able to keep them secret any longer. All the while Sam had agonised about what his psychic experiences meant...his big brother had known about the danger he posed and had kept it from him.

Had kept it from him at their father's behest. Even from beyond the grave, John Winchester seemed able to have Dean dancing to his tune like the friggin' Pied Piper.

The elder Winchester ignored the jibe, stepping forward with his arms raised out to the side; placatory. "Look, Sam...What we found at Ava's..."

"What? You want to talk about the fact that it's my fault? I'm the one who told her to go home, Dean! Or do you want to talk about how you might have to kill me, huh? It seems pretty friggin' obvious that Yellow-Eyes is gonna come for me some day," Sam raised his eyes heavenward, flapping his arms like a bird attempting first flight.

Dean dropped his shoulders, features turning stricken at the younger man's outburst. "Sam–."

The sound of his brother's anguish rebounded off Sam's agitation like a rubber ball. "No, Dean. We're gonna go, and we're gonna figure out what happened to Ava, and then we're gonna find her. There's nothing else to talk about."

Sam turned his back on Dean's obvious distress, stomping into the bathroom and barely stopping short of slamming the door in self-righteous pique. He was faintly surprised at their role reversal. Normally he was the one that wanted to pick over the carcass of his feelings for leftover meat while Dean had always lived by the assumption that not talking about something meant that it had ceased to exist.

Their father's warning being a case in point.

But Sam's lingering resentment over what his big brother had kept from him was having the unforeseen effect of making him want to scrunch his emotions into a tight little ball and fling them deep into his mind's repository. The notion of what he might become...what Gordon Walker had told his big brother...it was too much. It was more than he was capable of comprehending.

But what he could do, was find Ava.

By the time Sam had finished showering, the phonebooth-sized bathroom had turned into a sauna, thick with a swirling steam that dried out the young hunter's throat. The scalding water had soothed aching muscles and bruises, slowly ironing out the grooves of pain and exhaustion that were scrawled like graffiti across his body. Mechanically he'd washed his hair, the robotic movements a pleasantly mindless alternative to ruminating about his apocalyptic future.

The fuzzy circle that he'd rubbed out on the fogged up mirror reflected back to him a visage that, if he'd encountered it under other circumstances, he would have felt compelled to salt and burn – pale skin cracked with charred-looking scabs and a colour palette of bruises, red-rimmed eyes set deep into cavernous hollows, brow etched into a scowl.

No wonder Dean had been looking at Sam as if he'd expected his little brother to keel over at a moment's notice.

The young hunter shook his head slightly, realising belatedly that the dizziness he'd been feeling since awakening was not going to be helped by having the world whip backwards and forwards before his eyes. Resting his uninjured hand on the rim of the sink, he steadied himself. He had to keep it together. Dean would find any excuse to bench Sam on this one if the younger man allowed the slightest weakness to become expressed.

A splash of cold water to his face was his final preparation before leaving the safe haven of the bathroom and returning to his big brother.

Dean was sitting with a newspaper and a mug of coffee at a rickety table in one garish corner, the lopsided legs causing the dilapidated wooden surface to tip in lurching see-saw movements at the tiniest shift in applied weight. The slight pooling of coffee beneath the mug suggested that the elder Winchester had forgotten the unsteadiness of his position more than once. He glanced up as Sam exited the bathroom, a slow, nonchalant gesture; as if he hadn't been been watching the door with the kind of rapt attention he usually only devoted to servicing his precious car.

"Feelin' better?" The older man asked with a similarly forced casualness that only a blind Sam wouldn't have been able to see right through. The realisation that Dean might actually be frightened of him knifed through his gut. After all the things that Gordon had been filling his brother's head with...what if he believed them?

No. Dean would never believe that about him. He just wouldn't.

"Yeah." He huffed out a breath, tried a smile. Failed miserably.

Dean didn't comment, but Sam knew his brother's beady eye had caught every twitch of the abandoned attempt. The elder Winchester raised his coffee mug, seemingly oblivious when several large drips splattered messily onto his newspaper, and drained it in one gulp. "Okay then," He gestured to the paper with the empty mug. "Looks like the cops followed our anonymous tip. They found Brady."

"And Ava?" Sam's gaze zoomed in on the article his brother had been perusing and began cataloguing every word.

"Reported missing," Dean answered shortly as he set his mug down, clearly edging carefully around the subject after his little brother's earlier rant. He gathered up the local paper and handed it to Sam. "Her family have made an appeal. Figured you'd want to go talk to 'em."

Sam smoothed out the article and began scrutinising it more carefully. "It says here they live in Chicago, Dean. That's like a three hour drive. It'll take us too long tonight, I think we should wait until tomorrow"

Dean nodded slowly, as if every movement was being carefully and rigorously risk-assessed. When had his big brother started acting so tentatively around him? Oh, right. After Sam had taken off on him without a word.

He quashed the little bubble of guilt that had risen at the thought. He couldn't let that get in the way of what he needed to do.

"One of her friends is quoted here." He muttered, mouth acting on autopilot as his mind reviewed the options. "Marie Vaughn. Why don't we start with her?" Appraisal completed, Sam's mind was sheepishly informing him that the contribution of such a course of action would be negligible at best. But he was at a loss as to what they should really be doing. He just knew that they had to do something.

Dean sighed, but the meaning of the signal was unclear. The way his big brother had been acting in recent times, it could have been anything from exasperation, to reluctant acceptance, to plain fatigue. Dean would voice no such expression however, leaving Sam to read his brother's behaviour with the same confidence he'd have had with a set of tarot cards – despite his supposed psychic prowess. Besides, if he'd needed a baseline measure for his ability to analyse the inner workings of Dean's mind, then the 'big secret' had more than sufficed.

Clearly he and Dean hadn't been as close as he'd thought.

"All right," Dean agreed, voice dropping several octaves and providing the younger Winchester with further evidence that his big brother was less than enthusiastic about their continued presence in Peoria.

"Then let's go," Sam crossed his arms and stared pointedly at his still seated brother.

"When was the last time you ate, Sam?" Dean refused to budge, leaning back in his chair and locking his gaze with Sam's in a manner that the younger Winchester knew would be impossible to shake unless he gave in.

"I'll get something on the way," Sam dodged, eyes skirting past Dean's and beginning to dubiously investigate the tawdry wallpaper. Anything to avoid being suckered by his brother's stare.

"No, you'll get something now," Dean returned calmly, sweeping an arm towards the kitchenette where several brown wrapped packages were sitting ostentatiously on the surface. The grease marks peppering the crumpled paper suggested the presence of something calorie-laden and artery-clogging, and Sam felt his stomach churn nauseatingly at the thought. But Dean would be insufferable if he didn't eat something.

Sam gritted his teeth. "Fine."

Dean's eyes flashed with a glimmer that looked like triumph, but a second later Sam knew he'd read concern there instead. He knew he had to stop giving his big brother a hard time, but he still allowed himself to stomp sulkily over to the kitchenette – a feat rendered almost redundant by the fact that his stocking-covered soles ended up dancing across the sisal carpet as if it was a bed of hot coals.

He was reaching for the first bag when Dean's voice stayed his hand once more. "Not those, Sammy. Those are mine. Your rabbit food's in the refrigerator."


A chuckle escaped before Sam could censor it, neatly stemming the flow of his rising irritation.

Maybe they'd be okay after all.


Sam's mood hadn't improved. In fact – and after many years of bearing the brunt of both tantrums and tears, Dean considered himself an expert – it had gotten steadily worse over the course of the afternoon. The elder Winchester found himself reminded of one of those apocalyptic stock market graphs; the ones with big red lines plummeting towards zero. For Sam, markets were crashing left, right and centre.

Now on their way back to their groovy motel room after several hours of fruitless interviews, Sam was twisted tensely into a pretzel in the passenger seat, staring out the windshield with both brow and jaw clenched so tight that he looked constipated. Dean could only imagine what the kid was seeing, but it had to be something that was irritating the hell out of him. Either that or he really was having digestive problems.

Dean sighed and flicked on the radio, the silence grating on him, shredding his composure. Boston's More than a Feeling started low on the speakers, growing louder as the young hunter felt some of the tension begin to ease from his tightly wired frame. The afternoon hadn't exactly been fun for him either, not least because Sam had apparently decided that his big brother provided the perfect verbal punching bag for belting out all of his frustrations.

And Dean was becoming increasingly fed up. Sam's propensity to snap and gnash his teeth had been rising exponentially with each dead end they'd hit, and his big brother had run out of reassuring platitudes after the first billion. He wasn't proud of it, his failure to keep Sam buoyed in the face of all the evil that seemed to have a personal vendetta against them, but he could feel himself teetering on the brink of losing control.

And Sam's whining – understandable though it was – had been pecking busily away at him for hours now, a rapping sound that seemed to vibrate through him until it was ringing in his ears. Even now that his brother was silent, the noise buzzed away unceasingly in his head like a case of tinnitus.

Marie Vaughn, a pixie-like, dark haired girl who – despite being clearly upset by her friend's disappearance – had flirted shamelessly with Dean's Agent Richards while Sam's sour-faced Agent Jagger had watched on in stony silence, had told them little of any use (besides her phone number, which was now tucked safely into the breast pocket of Dean's suit). No, she hadn't heard from Ava. No, Ava hadn't mentioned that anything weird was going on. Brady had been looking for her a couple of days ago, but then he'd been killed and Ava had still been missing.

What she had been able to give them however, had been a list of Ava's closest friends, and the name of the law firm where the missing woman had worked as a secretary. With a depressingly similar lack of success, they'd visited each person on the list. With each denial they received, Sam had begun to withdraw all the more, participating less and less in the interviews and leaving Dean to deal with the sobs and tears of devastated friends – something that had left him feeling as unsettled and nervous as a rookie on the first day of a new job.

All had indicated that the local police had been looking at Ava as being the potential murderer, given that her ring had been left at the scene; a fact that might impact on their ability to investigate her disappearance more thoroughly. Police were an unwanted complication.

Ava's boss had been an interesting character. Useless, but interesting.

Harvey Beaumont had been sitting at a computer behind a chaotically cluttered desk when they'd entered the office, hands hooked behind his neck as he'd swung from side to side in his chair. As he'd risen to greet the brothers, Dean had almost choked when he'd seen the brightly coloured Hawaiian shorts the desktop had been concealing.

Greying hair streaked with white blonde highlights had sat at shoulder length against a light blue t-shirt, and Dean had almost felt his little brother's disapproval. A lawyer dressed as if he'd just been about to head to the beach? Clearly unacceptable to his formerly Pre-Law brother.

Beaumont's handshake had been so laid back it had been like grasping a dead fish, and he'd offered them both a beer before showing them to Ava's desk. The girl's workspace hadn't been much tidier than that of her boss, and Dean found himself wondering what the hell two messy, flaky types were doing working in such a confined space. How they'd gotten any work done was beyond him.

As the brothers had delved through piles of scribbled notes and diaries, Beaumont had regaled them with stories of his greatest legal victories – though they'd specifically asked him about Ava, and only Ava – and had repeatedly knocked over several stacks of papers that Sam had laid aside to look through in more detail, a fact that had done nothing to improve the kid's state of mind.

Once his fit of narcissistic self-promotion had passed, Beaumont eventually revealed that Ava had taken an abrupt leave of absence from work – which corresponded with her trip to Lafayette – but that beforehand he'd noticed her becoming increasingly more drawn and fatigued. From what Sam had told him before, Dean figured that her nightmares must have been taking their toll.

The search of Ava's desk hadn't revealed any magical clues as to her potential whereabouts, and Dean was becoming more and more convinced that the demon that had killed her fiance had taken her along with it. In which case, their chances of finding her were almost non-existent. He wasn't mentioning that small fact to Sam, however. One didn't go waving fresh meat in front of a lion unless one wanted to lose an arm – or worse.

Extricating themselves from Harvey Beaumont had been like getting stuck in a rose bush; every time they thought they'd managed, the man would snag them and reel them back in. But eventually they had escaped, and an exhausted Dean had insisted that they return to the motel to regroup. He hadn't had the benefit of twelve hours' sleep after all, or even four hours' sleep. Sam had reluctantly and snappily agreed, muttering something under his breath about Dean having scuppered their chances of finding anything by letting him sleep so long.

And so Dean was fed up. He could see with a despairing finality that their search for Ava was leading nowhere, and the thought of having to broach the subject with Sam...He'd have happily gone up against ten rabid vampires rather than suggest that they abandon the quest.

Then there was the newspaper article he'd stumbled across that morning, the one he hadn't yet brought up with his little brother. The one that might actually represent a real case, where they might actually be able to make some kind of difference. To save lives rather than chase after a woman they had no hope of finding.

Yeah. That was going to be a popular one.

Still, Dean had found that he'd been less and less able to leave it alone as the day had dragged on. His mind had continued to return to the same spot, like a lost traveller wandering in circles. He'd passed the tree marked 'investigate' more times than he could count; all roads seemed to lead there no matter what route he chose.

He cleared his throat, watching out of the corner of his eye as Sam stirred and glanced towards him. "Sam..." He began through a voice as creaky as a rusty hinge.

"Yeah, Dean?" The response was accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a tone that exuded apathy like the stench of a rotten egg.

"I've been thinkin'...uh, I didn't want to bring it up earlier...but I think I found us a case."

"A case?" Sam blinked in confusion. "We already have a case, Dean."

"Yeah, but Sam there was a report in the local paper this mornin'. Buncha people have died from some kinda brain disease over the past coupla days–."

"So? It happens, Dean. It's sad, but it's hardly our kind of problem." Sam waved a dismissive hand, already returning his gaze to the road in front.

"Sam, the youngest person was twenty-five. Oldest was forty-four. That sound normal to you?"

"Dean...There are lots of neurological problems out there," Sam retorted in patronising smugness. The encyclopedia of Sam at work once more.

"Well, thank you very much Doctor Winchester," Dean tossed back sarcastically as he turned the Impala into the motel parking lot. "But I think I'll skip the lecture. Even the doctors over at the hospital can't explain what's been happenin' Sam. I'm not stupid!"

Sam didn't disagree, but the elder hunter was far from reassured by the daggers his brother was hurling at him from ominously narrowed eyes. "Okay. So it sounds a little odd. But Dean, we have to focus on Ava right now." There was a precision to the younger man's words that immediately made Dean's hackles rise in instinctive readiness.

The elder Winchester bit his lip as he edged the Impala into the parking space outside their motel room and propelled himself out of his seat, needing to escape the confined interior before he countered his brother's argument; the possibility that things were going to get messy occupying prime real estate at forefront of his mind.

He registered Sam's heavy footsteps behind him as he marched briskly to their room, gritting his teeth in frustration as the door took several long, awkward moments to unlock. When finally the stiff lock clicked, Dean threw the door open, not caring that it had rebounded off the psychedelic wall in his enthusiasm. He spun to face his brother several steps in, aware from Sam's stance that the kid had been readying himself for battle.

"Sam...Look, man, I think you need to prepare yourself for the fact that we might not find her," He began, watching with trepidation as the planes of his brother's face tightened.

The younger man took a deep breath and nodded, but in a way that filled Dean with dread. The gesture hadn't been one of acquiescence, it had seemed more like the acknowledgement of a hypothesis confirmed, and Dean frowned as he wondered just what theory Sam had been gathering evidence to support.

"I knew it," Sam bit out shortly, mouth pursing as his eyes flitted around the room, landing anywhere but on Dean.

"You knew what, Sam?" Dean took a step forward, twisting his neck as he tried to capture his brother's gaze. This wasn't sounding good.

"After all you said about sticking by me...you're always going to try and stop me from doing this aren't you? I thought we'd been over this!" When Sam eventually met his gaze, Dean instantly wished that he hadn't been so conscientious in seeking it out.

"Sam, what I'm always gonna try and do is look out for you!" Dean could feel his emotions bouncing around within him like atoms in a chemical reaction, colliding and reforming into volatile affective compounds that were becoming increasingly more difficult to handle. "I don't go in for all this 'destiny' crap. But that has nothin' to do with the fact that Ava is gone, and other people are dyin'. Here. Now. And that is a situation that we can do somethin' about."

To say that Sam had been looking unconvinced would have been stating it mildly. "Yeah, so it has absolutely nothing to do with you deciding what's best for everyone else, as usual. You and Dad."

Dean frowned as the accusation buried itself to the hilt in his heart, setting off ever more chain reactions through his mind. "What's Dad got to do with this?"

Their father had friggin' everything to do with it, but Dean suspected that Sam was about to unearth a whole new ingenious way of involving the Winchester patriarch.

"Only that the two of you seem to think that you have final say over my life, Dean! Dad tells you that you might have to kill me, and instead of actually sharing this with me you decide that your promise to him is more important. You know what? Some things never change!" Sam's body had become animated in his anger, limbs waving wildly and emphatically.

Dean took an involuntary step back, eyes falling to the floor as he grappled with his brother's words. Was Sam really saying...was he really dragging this dusty old resentment out of their dark family attic? Did Sam really think that their father was more important to Dean than their brotherhood?

"Sam–," Dean swore he could feel his voice cracking like a smashed plate as he met Sam's cold glare with his own disbelieving entreaty.

"Go screw yourself, Dean!" The younger man snarled, whirling dramatically to stalk towards the still open door.

Sam's furiously hurled insult was enough to shake Dean loose from his own self-pity, and he felt his own anger finally spark. Who the hell was Sam to friggin' judge? Sam, who'd run off like a sulky teenager instead of actually talking things through like an adult. "Where you goin', Sam?"

"To get some fresh air." The younger Winchester threw back without stopping.

"Well at least we've made progress," Dean spat before he could stop himself. Angry as he felt, this was not a can of worms he'd intended to go anywhere near. But the words were out there now, and their heavily laden sarcasm had finally been enough to stall Sam in the doorway.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sam turned slowly, his response low, dangerous. Flammable.

"I mean you're actually tellin' me this time." Dean smirked mirthlessly, his mouth acting out a role that his smouldering eyes weren't prepared to support. He'd not only broken past his self-imposed boundary, he'd utterly obliterated it, and found himself feeling almost exhilarated by the surge of adrenaline that followed.

"Oh, so we're back to this again, huh? You know what? If there's something you want to say Dean, go right ahead." Sam stepped back into the room, arms held cockily out to the side as if he were a prize boxer being welcomed to the ring by thousands of screaming fans. Well, Dean was more than willing to become the challenger. The arrogance in his brother's stance was setting off all manner of alarm bells in his head, all kinds of warnings that the rational part of his beleaguered mind was urging him to heed. But Dean was long past the point of listening to it.

"Fine," He accepted Sam's thrown gauntlet with bared teeth, bitterness souring his tone. "I practically begged you to give me time to think things through. You agreed and then snuck out anyway. No goodbye, no explanation. For all I knew, somethin' freakin' took you!" His voice wobbled humiliatingly without warning as hurt rose and hosed down the flame of his anger.

To Dean's surprise, Sam looked suddenly abashed, his gaze plummeting to the floor as his brow twitched into a deep furrow. For a brief moment the elder Winchester almost took a conciliatory step forward, his little brother's posture signalling imminent waterworks, but then Sam's eyes snapped upwards to meet his and Dean found himself almost scalded by the heat that frothed in their depths.

"Okay, so I should've left a note. I'm sorry. But I needed answers, and you were going to try and stop me. Just like you are now!"

The apology had sounded about as sincere as Sam's joke had back in the Impala after they'd left Gordon in the hands of the Lafayette police, and though Dean knew what he'd witnessed just moments earlier, he couldn't help feeling wounded by yet another of his brother's self-righteous justifications. He rolled his eyes, smirking internally in hollow triumph as Sam pursed his lips in response. "That's a whole bucket-loada crap, Sam! I asked for time to think. I didn't ask you stop lookin' for answers."

Sam shook his head, lips now curling into a sneer as he regarded his brother with calculated calm. "Yeah, Dean. 'Cause you have such a great track record for letting me get answers."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Dean felt himself go hot, fire burning his cheeks and searing a flaming path down through his body. He knew where this was going, and he felt his muscles ripple with tension beneath his skin in readiness as he prepared to receive the blow.

"Uh, well...there's the fact that you neglected to mention that Dad told you I might go psycho one day and, oh yeah, that you'd have to end me!"

The reminder of their father's ominous words was like a hot poker to Dean's core, Sam's irreverent delivery holding it there until it blistered and charred his flagging heart, crumbling it to pieces in his chest. All those months of soul-destroying darkness, of dread and dismay and panic and guilt and worry...all of it reduced to one flippant statement. As if all the agonising and bitter agony had been meaningless. As if it hadn't eaten him up from the inside. As if he hadn't been slowly dying from its cancerous invasion.

How Sam could think that it had been about their father, and what he'd wanted...? Dean had borne the darkness so that his brother hadn't needed to. What good would telling him have done? What good had it done? Why did Sam need to know about something that was never friggin' going to happen?

"Right," Dean swore he could almost taste the poisonous sarcasm that infused his words, an acidic burn that began building portentously at the back of his throat before it suddenly tipped forth from his mouth in a burbling rush.

"And just when exactly was I supposed to tell you, huh? When we were watchin' his body go up in flames? Or how 'bout when you were actin' like his biggest fan? Or maybe the right time to tell you would've been after you told me that you didn't want to lose me too, huh?"

Sam recoiled as if his brother's words had hit him with the force of a slap, holding up his hands in silent protest, but still Dean continued undeterred. The deluge of words and emotions drenched him like a flash flood.

"Then there was the whole gettin' arrested deal, all the crap with Andy, the Crossroads Demon...take your pick! Or maybe I shoulda told you when you thought you were gonna wig out from the Croatoan virus? 'Yeah, Sam, actually you dyin' works out real nice for me, 'cause now I don't have to kill you myself', huh?"

The younger man was staring at him, wide-eyed and open-mouthed like a startled possum. He looked like he didn't know whether to be affronted or devastated. "Dean..." He began, mouth silently forming around words he didn't seem to be able to articulate.

And in that moment, at Sam's obvious distress, Dean felt the heat of his anger cool and condense into a thick remorse that filled him to the brim. He took a deep steadying breath, allowing it to rush back out again in an enormous sigh. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. And you got a right to be pissed at me, but..." I didn't wanna break your faith in Dad after he was gone...I couldn't bear the thought that somethin' bad might happen to you...I'm so friggin' mad at Dad for leavin' me with this...I didn't wanna put this on your shoulders too...

"But, what?" Sam had materialised before him as if by magic, inches from the tip of his nose. Dean almost took a step back in surprise, but forced himself to hold his ground.

He couldn't let Sam know all the crap that was swirling beneath the surface. Sam needed him to be strong dammit! This act needed to be the performance of his life. "What Dad said, it's never gonna happen, and I knew this was how you'd react."

Sam paused for a beat, eyes narrowing as he gave Dean's features a thorough examination, suspicion gleaming from under hooded lids. Dean knew his brother hadn't believed his hasty cover up, but Sam had apparently chosen not to call him on it. "You still should've told me."

Not wishing to question this stroke of luck, Dean restricted himself to a quick nod and a softly murmured: "I know."

Eyes lowered once more, Dean couldn't suppress his startled twitch as a large paw landed on his shoulder. Sam was staring intensely down at him. Sincerely, Dean realised. "But I guess I get why you didn't. Dean, I just...I need to do this. And I need you with me. Please."

And...yeah. As expected, his brother's puppy-dog laser eyes began boring into him, locking him into place. Of all the underhanded...Sam knew he couldn't resist those. Dammit!

He sighed once more, defeat mingling with unease to weave a blanket of anxiety around his body, tightening nauseatingly as worry for his brother began mixing with guilty concern for the Peoria victims he was abandoning. "All right. We'll keep lookin'."

"Thanks, Dean."


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