Title: From Yesterday
Fandom: Supernatural
Author: gaelicspirit
Characters: Dean, Sam, and OCs
Disclaimer/Summary: See Part 1: Prologue

Author's Note: Thanks for indulging me another off week. Holidays, man. They can be as tough as they are wonderful. Some of you have asked about the excerpts from the memoir "Roadtrip With My Brother" that appeared at the start of Part 1 and Part 2 – they are not from a published book/story. I created those excerpts for this fic and you'll see more of this memoir and the reason behind it when we reach the Epilogue. So stay tuned!

And now we shift things a bit – location, focus, and OCs. But everything the brothers went through in Part 1 affects their choices in Part 2. After all, you can't outrun your past….

One final note: I don't actually have a ~beta~ for my stories, but my dear friend Thru Terry's Eyes gives each chapter a 'sanity check' to make sure I haven't gone too far off the rails. She had (successful) hip surgery this week and has been out of pocket. To keep on-schedule, I'm posting this chapter without her once-over, so try not to judge too harshly. *hides*

Hope you enjoy!


"I should have told you."

Dean wasn't looking at him. Wouldn't look at him. And hadn't said a word to him since Sam insisted they leave Mason's garage.

Without offering Dean anything in the way of explanation, Sam had headed out to the Impala after declaring they needed to talk, forcing Dean to scramble and gather his clothes, following close behind. Sam had driven to a clearing near the Kansas River, north of town, turned off the engine, and exited the car, sitting on the hood, waiting for Dean to join him. The warmth from the black metal had seeped through his running pants, making it difficult to sit still as he waited.

When Dean had finally stepped out of the car, evidently overcoming his annoyance at Sam's mysterious behavior, Sam hadn't waited until his brother sat next to him. He'd simply started talking the moment he saw Dean, needing to complete his confession about the letter he'd found months ago before Dean said anything.

Right now, though, he was wishing he'd let Dean speak first.

"Dean?"

Dean had turned away from him, his left hand hanging on the back of his neck, his thumb working a knot near his spine. His shoulders were square, tense, and his right hand moved along his pant leg as if he were trying to dry it.

Or clean it.

Or something.

"Listen, man, I'm sorry—"

"Do you still have it?"

Sam startled at the deep rumble of Dean's voice; it sounded as if it were emanating from his belly.

"Yeah," Sam nodded, though Dean hadn't turned to face him. "Not with me, but…yeah."

"I want it back."

"Sure, of course." Sam slid from the hood of the Impala. He saw Dean flinch slightly at the sound of his shoes hitting the dirt. "What do you want to do about Virge?"

Dean turned then, and Sam frowned at the unreadable expression in his brother's eyes.

"What do you mean?"

Sam's frown deepened. "I mean…I don't think he would've called me if it weren't our kind of thing."

At that, Dean's eyebrow rose. "Our kind of thing?"

The tone of his brother's voice turned the air around Sam brittle. He rolled his lips against his teeth, feeling as if were suddenly standing on ice. He shifted his weight, trying to find the right words to offer in reply that wouldn't light Dean's very short fuse.

"I just meant…he said there was no one else he could call."

"We don't have a thing anymore, Sam," Dean snapped. There was a dead expression in his eyes that bothered Sam more than the heat of anger he'd expected.

Sam swallowed, resting his hands on his hips as he searched for balance. "Dean—"

"No." Dean shook his head once, decisively. "Gimme the keys."

Sam pulled his head back, puzzled. "What? No." They weren't done talking as far as he was concerned.

"Sam." Dean took a step forward. "Gimme the damn keys."

"Not until you tell me what you want to do about Virgil."

Dean dropped his chin, dangerous eyes meeting Sam's. "Nothing."

Sam's eyebrows went up. "Nothing?"

"You heard me. Now give. me. the. keys."

"But, Dean," Sam dropped his hands, opening them at his sides in a plea for understanding. "He said it was about Brenna. I thought you would want to at least—"

Dean surged forward, grabbing Sam's shirt in a fist and shoving him back against the Impala's hood. His right arm came up and Sam saw him try – as if on instinct, working from blind fury only – to curl his hand into a fist. The pain derived from that motion was a visible blow: Sam saw the color drain from Dean's face as he bit off a gasp, releasing Sam and stepping back as he grabbed his right hand in his left, the pressure of the grip seeming to alleviate some of the agony sluicing through his damaged nerve endings.

"Forget it," Dean muttered, his voice trembling slightly from the after-shocks of trying to close his hand.

He turned and began to make his way back to the gravel road Sam had followed to the clearing. Sam pushed himself away from the Impala, staring after his brother.

"Wait! Where the hell are you going?!"

"Home."

Dean's answer filtered back toward him, the muggy air capturing the word and holding it prisoner as Dean's angry, marching steps kicked up dust from the gravel. Sam watched his brother for a few moments, sweat gathering at the base of his neck and along his hairline. Dean didn't pause, didn't turn around.

"Dammit," Sam muttered, stomping to the driver's door, climbing inside, and starting the engine. He pulled out onto the road and quickly caught up with his brother. "Dean. Get in the car."

Dean didn't reply. He simply continued walking, his jaw line tense.

"Dude, it's like…ninety out here. Get in the damn car before you melt."

"Just go, Sam."

Frustrated, Sam slammed the flat of his hand against the steering wheel. "What the hell is the matter with you?!"

At that, Dean rotated on his heel and faced the opened window, causing Sam to slam on the brakes.

"You planted us here, man," Dean all-but growled. He leaned both hands on the opened window ledge. "You asked me to promise you – to promise you – that I'd try to have a normal life. And, dammit," he dropped his head, hanging it low between his braced arms, "I've tried. Every fucking day."

Sam opened his mouth to reply, but Dean lifted his head, cutting him off with the heat in his eyes.

"So when you tell me that you found my letter and say we gotta talk to an old friend about our kind of thing," he spat the words, "you're gonna have to give me a minute before I grab the rock salt and head out."

"I didn't say we had to go."

Dean pushed away from the car, his stone-faced expression leaving Sam scrambling for solid ground. Shaking his head at Sam as if he couldn't believe Sam would dare say such a thing, Dean looked down the road, a novel of unspoken words saturating the air between them.

"Dean, c'mon, man."

Dean started walking once more. "Get outta here, Sam."

Frustrated, Sam flattened the accelerator, not really caring that he most likely sprayed his brother with a shower of gravel as he pulled away. It wasn't like he'd asked Virgil to call them. Dean was acting like he'd purposely set up a situation for them to get roped back into hunting.

Let him walk home, the jerk, Sam thought sullenly. This transition into a non-hunting life hadn't been exactly easy for Sam, either. Dean wasn't the only one struggling.

Sam took the turn back onto the main road a bit fast, the rear of the Impala squirreling sideways. Correcting the vehicle, Sam considered their options. He didn't even know if he wanted to go on this hunt – or if it even was a hunt. Though, he was really pretty sure it was.

They hadn't heard from Virgil or Brenna in almost four years; he had to assume the only reason the former EMT called him now was because a hunt had come their way, one they weren't equipped to deal with even after they'd spent countless hours learning from Dean and Sam.

He pulled along the curb in front of their house, shoving the gear into park and sitting silently in the idling Chevy. He should have told Dean about the letter months ago. It had honestly slipped his mind, but he knew it didn't appear that way to Dean.

To his brother, Sam had been holding out, keeping it secret. Keeping it away from Dean and not letting him decide for himself how he wanted to handle it now that he was no longer a hunter.

Sam dragged a hand down his face. No longer a hunter….

His brother would always be a hunter. It was simply a matter of if he were actively hunting something or laying low. A part of Sam knew that – the part he'd been actively ignoring for the past six months.

Even after Dean had taken care to keep Tommy safe and distracted months after the incident in his grandmother's house...even after he broke apart in Mason's garage...even after he'd saved Sam from the possessed doll in Stella's mother's house, Dean had kept his promise. But it had only been a matter of time.

Sam didn't want it to be true, but what he wanted and what simply was didn't really mesh up this time.

He turned off the Impala and made his way inside, feeling suddenly weighted with guilt he didn't think should be his, but he shouldered just the same. He stepped inside their house, standing still and listening to the quiet for a moment. As if on auto-pilot, he headed to his bedroom and opened the top drawer of his dresser where he kept their father's journal, a leather bracelet Jessica had given him, his mother's wedding ring, and Dean's letter to Brenna.

Pulling the letter out, he headed back to the main room of the house, strode to the refrigerator and grabbed a six-pack of beer. He pulled out one bottle, twisted off the top and gulped down half in one breath.

Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he headed outside once more – the pack of beer and the letter in his hand – and sat on the steps, waiting for Dean. The afternoon air had grown thick, the humidity forcing his lungs to work harder just sitting on the steps outside their small house. Sam could hear the intermittent traffic from Sixth Street to his right, the voices of kids calling to one another at the ball fields to his left.

As he waited, his temper cooled, his irritation at Dean's reaction becoming less prevalent. It wasn't the phone call or the possible hunt that had unnerved Dean, Sam reasoned. It was the reminder of that letter and the state of mind he'd been in when he'd written it. Sam was sure that was the reason for Dean's rather visceral reaction.

On that thinking, Sam pulled out his cell phone and hit 'connect' off of the voice mail from Virgil. He may as well find out what the man had called about. Dean would have to deal with his issues about the letter no matter what Virgil needed.

"Hello?"

Sam swallowed, suddenly, inexplicably anxious. He started to hang up.

"Hello? Sam?"

Sam blinked. "Y-Yeah. Hey, Virge. How'd you know it was me?"

"Looked at the number."

"Right," Sam laughed weakly, his nervousness trickling through the word. "Hey, so, uh…you called?"

"Gimme a sec."

Sam heard rustling and some muted voices before Virgil was back on the line.

"Hey."

"Been awhile," Sam commented, thinking how the man's voice sounded exactly as he remembered - rough, like he'd been screaming himself hoarse - and remembered back to the last time he'd seen Virge, the way the man had helped him fight to save Dean…because saving Dean meant saving Brenna.

"How'ya doing?"

The South Boston accent that had initially caught Sam's attention when he'd first met Virgil was still present, though tempered a bit by time. Sam leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, his beer hanging from loose fingers.

"'M okay," he replied. "Hanging in there."

"Yeah…," Virge said softly. "Imagine it's not been easy."

The inference to his losing Dean all those years ago was left in Virgil's exhale. And Sam heard sympathy in the man's words, even though Virgil didn't come out and directly confront the issue.

He could tell him now, Sam knew. Could tell him that Dean wasn't dead, that he wasn't alone. But something stopped him, held his tongue. The reason Virgil had left with Brenna had been because Dean was facing a death sentence in Hell. Sam wasn't sure how the man might react if he found out Dean was still alive. And, for Dean's sake, Sam needed to find out what was going on and how it affected Brenna.

"So, what's going on, Virge?"

Sam heard Virgil sigh, a ragged sound that told him the man may not be at the end of is rope, but he could feel the cords fraying.

"I need your help, Sam," Virgil said, as if admitting to one of his greatest sins. "I'm in over my head, here."

Sam set his beer down, then parted his hair with his fingers, supporting his suddenly heavy head in the palm of his hand. "Why don't you start at the beginning?"

In halting sentences, Virgil tossed Sam the details of events that had transpired over the last several months in the small town of Argo, Colorado. After a few moments, though, Sam realized that Virgil hadn't experienced what he was sharing himself. The lack of emotion, the hazy facts, and the way Virge repeated, it seemed like, as he spoke had Sam frowning into the phone.

"Wait, hold up," Sam interrupted. "How do you know you're dealing with a coven?"

"I just…I just do."

Sam chewed on the inside of his bottom lip. "Where are you right now, Virge?"

"Denver."

"How far away is Argo?"

"An hour or so up the mountain."

"You living in Argo?"

"No."

Sam paused a moment, hazarding a guess. "Is Brenna?"

He heard the sound of whiskers against the mouthpiece of the phone and Virgil paused long enough for Sam to straighten his back with worry.

"It's complicated."

"You two aren't together anymore, I take it?"

"Can't say we ever were," Virgil muttered. "Not really."

"But, you're…," Sam let his eyes wander along the tree line across from their house as he searched for the right words, "keeping tabs on her?"

"I watch out for her," Virgil retaliated. "Just like always."

"'Kay," Sam bobbed his head in a nod. "And I'm guessing Brenna's the one who told you about the coven in Argo."

"Well…," Virgil hedged. "She didn't say coven exactly."

"What did she say?"

"She called it a…draíocht."

Sam pulled his brows together. "What the hell is that?"

"Near as I can tell…it's a witch. A druid witch."

"Thought druids were all about…the earth and white magic," Sam countered, frowning. He hoped Virgil was wrong; their encounters with witches in the past had not been easy or pain-free.

"Yeah, well," Virgil cleared his throat, "there's three dead people up in Argo who'd probably argue differently. If they could."

"So, how does this involve you?"

"I'm working at a station in Littleton – just outside of Denver. EMT."

Sam nodded, remembering it was Virgil's job as an EMT that brought him to them in the first place, several years ago.

"We get called up to the mountains when they're short. Argo has a working gold mine and needs about as much coverage as the ski resorts; I head up that way at least once a month to work their station."

Sam finished his beer and opened another while he listened, watching the road for signs of Dean.

"A week ago, we get called up to help the locals and when we get there…," Virgil paused and Sam swallowed his beer with a gulp, waiting. "It's two men and a woman. All in their fifties. I think. One was drowned, one had been stoned to death, and the woman had been…," Virgil cleared his throat again, "impaled."

"Damn."

"'Course they didn't know any of that when they called us. We were just supposed to help look for the first guy; he'd gone missing and they were asking for help to search the mine, the forest, that sort of thing. We didn't know…well, anything. And then it kinda…snowballed. Found the one guy in a shallow river, the other outside the mine, and the woman…," Virgil tapered off. "She was in front of the church. On a fence."

Sam winced. "And this was a week ago?"

"I'd've just written it off as some whackjob. Left it to the cops. But…, well, then Brenna called."

"She suspected this…what was it?"

"Draíocht."

It sounded as if he were saying dry-earth. Sam was sure it sounded differently coming from Brenna.

"Right. That."

"Not exactly," Virgil said. "At first she just told me she was in trouble. Someone else had gone missing and people were starting to talk human sacrifices and witches and someone vandalized her place."

"What for?" Sam frowned, puzzled.

"She moved to the mountains a couple years back for two reasons: to keep Aislinn away from the city and to study druidism. She opened some kind of…herb store. Grows 'em herself."

"Wait, back up," Sam raised a hand in an instinctive gesture to cease. "Who is Aislinn?"

At that question, Virgil paused. The silence was heavy enough that Sam found himself leaning forward.

"Virge?"

"Aislinn's…Brenna's daughter."

"Holy shit, you've got a kid?" Sam exclaimed.

"We're not together," Virgil reminded him. "Aislinn lives with her mother up in Argo; I work in the city."

"What, you don't even see her?"

"I see her," Virgil hastened to correct Sam, his voice carrying an edge that confused Sam. "That little girl is like air to me. Brenna knows that; she would never stop me from seeing her."

"Okay, okay!" Sam placated.

"It just…after everything with Declan and that damn wizard and you guys…," Virgil sighed. "Brenna needed something simple. She needed basics. And I…I was suffocating up there."

"So you left."

"I did what I had to do," Virgil snapped.

Sam said nothing, recognizing that he was scraping at a wound not yet scarred over.

"She sells her herbs and she teaches Aislinn Gaelic and she just…," Virgil's voice tapered off.

"Hides," Sam guessed.

"Kinda, yeah."

"Because of her powers?" Sam asked, looking down at his left hand.

"Maybe."

"So, she's still got them," Sam concluded, remembering how the grief over her grandfather, Declan's, death at the hands of a wraith had stolen Brenna's unique druid sight for a time. Until she'd encountered Dean once more, that is. Sam had to wonder if she'd been affected as greatly by Dean's death, as transient as it had been.

"She doesn't really advertise it, but yeah…they're still there."

"So…if she doesn't advertise it, why were people vandalizing her place when all the witch talk started?"

"That's where it gets…weird."

"You have a warped definition of weird," Sam commented mildly.

"Yeah, well," Virgil chuckled softly. "I blame you and your brother for that." He stopped, as if afraid he'd said too much by mentioning Dean, and cleared his throat. "Most people buy herbs from Brenna like her place is some natural food supplier. All…mother earth and that shit. But some know she's a druid and they…I don't know…come to her for…stuff."

Sam narrowed his eyes, switching his phone from one ear to the other as he sipped his second beer. "Stuff. Like…?"

"Look, I don't know, okay? But it pays the bills, whatever she does. I don't ask, long as she and Aislinn are safe. Never understood all that druid shit anyway," Virgil's voice faded from the phone for a moment before returning. "Anyway, the woman…the third victim?"

"Impaled," Sam recounted.

"Right. She was one of the ones who knew Brenna's druid connections. And somehow, that got out and spun up and suddenly Brenna's got windows broken out and someone's spray-painting the word witch on her door…." The tension in Virgil's voice grew as he spoke.

"Is Brenna okay?"

"Pissed as hell. But yeah, she's okay." Virgil paused a moment. "When she called to tell me about this…draíocht…she kinda sounded like the old Brenna. That fire was there again."

"What about—"

"She took Aislinn to stay at my Aunt's in Boulder."

"You've…you've got family out there?" It surprised Sam to discover this.

"That was one of the reasons we headed west when we left you guys," Virgil revealed. "Neither of us had anyone back in Blackroot, and Boston wasn't hiring at the time, so we ended up in Colorado."

"So, how'd you get coven out of all this?"

"No way one person – witch or not – killed those three people. And if Brenna thinks it's this Celtic bad guy, then I say there's more than one. So I started looking into witches," Virgil's voice began to increase in intensity as he finally got to what he'd needed Sam to know from the moment he'd left his voice mail, "and everything I can find says that human sacrifices are done to increase their power."

"Yeah, well," Sam set his empty beer bottle down and rubbed the back of his neck, "if it is a coven, it's nothing you – or Brenna – should be messing with."

"No shit," Virgil commented dryly. "Which is why I called you."

Sam dragged a hand down his face. "Listen…things are a little complicated here."

"Sam , I wouldn't have called you at all – even after the three deaths – but…someone else went missing yesterday. And if they turn up dead…I'm afraid of what this town will do to Brenna."

"Can't you get her out of there?"

"Don't think I haven't tried," Virgil all-but growled. "But she's digging in her heels. Says she can't run every time something tries to kill her." He sighed. "Aislinn's safe and Brenna's…spoiling for a fight."

Sam supported his forehead on the heel of his hand. He felt Virgil waiting for his answer. But he didn't know what one to give him. There was no way he could promise to come and help without talking to Dean. This was more than just a taking out a spirit in his girlfriend's house.

This was the type of thing he should call Rufus about, see who was in the area, send in another hunter. It was exactly what he'd argued with Dean about in January – it didn't have to be them. They'd had it easy over the last six months. There hadn't been anything – save the fluke with Stella's mom – that had drawn them back into the fray. Nothing they had to take a stand against and decide to hand over to someone else in order to stay retired.

Why did it have to be her, Sam mentally groaned.

Of all the people who could have needed help, it had to be the one person Dean had been willing to give it all up for. How could he ask his brother to not go?

"Sam?" Virgil asked into the silence. "Can you help me?"

Sam sighed. "It's not that I don't want to…."

He lifted his head, peering down the road, finally seeing the slowly lumbering figure of his brother approaching. "Listen. Get salt. Lots of it. Line the doors and windows. If you get in a bind, make a circle of salt around you or anyone you are trying to protect. Check for hex bags – they could be anywhere. If you find one, burn it."

"How will I know—"

"You'll know," Sam interrupted, talking fast to get the words out before Dean got too close. "Little pouch filled with fun things like razor blades and cat bones."

"Nice."

"Get Brenna to make protection charms and wear them."

"Out of what?"

"Silver or consecrated iron – or, hell, she should know what druids use for protection."

"Good point."

"And get an alarm system on her place." Dean was closer now. Within earshot. Sam dropped his voice. "I'll call you when I can."

"Wait—are you heading out here, or—"

"I'll let you know."

Sam hung up, not saying goodbye. He set his phone down next to the box holding the four remaining beers, and waited for Dean to walk up the short drive to stand in front of him. Silently, he stared at his brother's sweaty face and waited.

"So, I was an asshole," Dean said by way of apology.

"Kinda."

Dean didn't say anything else and Sam realized that was better than he probably would have gotten six months ago. He pulled out one of the sweating bottles and twisted off the top, handing the beer to Dean. His brother took it and moved to sit next to Sam on the narrow front steps, their hips nearly touching.

Sam waited until Dean had taken a few drinks, then handed his brother the envelope. Dean stared at it a moment, and Sam watched the muscle along his scarred jaw jump as he contemplated taking it. Not wanting to push, Sam sat patiently, arm extended, letter trembling in the slight breeze that wrapped around the afternoon.

Dean took another drink, then grabbed the envelope. To Sam's surprise, he didn't open it. He just stared at the paper, his thumb flicking one of the torn edges rhythmically.

"When did you find it?" Dean asked.

"Like a week after you got out of the hospital," Sam reminded him. "I'd planned on just leaving it in your room, not saying anything about it, but then you came home all gung-ho about Tommy and I…kinda forgot about it."

Dean nodded, understanding plain on his face. They sat quietly for a few more minutes as Dean finished his beer and reached for another. Sam watched him surreptitiously, trying to determine if now was a good time to tell him about the phone call with Virgil.

Dean had seemed to be doing fine with their new routine; he was even looking healthier. If it wasn't for the occasional limp after a tough workout, or the nightmares that were now such a constant Sam almost didn't register them, Sam might be able to move past what had happened to them. He didn't even really notice the scars around Dean's eye anymore; it was just part of who his brother was now.

But he couldn't miss the way his brother's right hand had trembled, the way he even now rubbed it along the edge of his pant leg as if trying to rid himself of something, trying to clean it off. Dean had started that, Sam remembered, back in February when a dead deer had snapped his control. Watching Dean drain his second beer, Sam realized he simply hadn't been looking closely enough these past six months.

Or maybe he just hadn't wanted to see.

There were shadows beneath Dean's eyes, evidence of his sleepless nights. And though stronger, toned from Mason's rigorous workouts, he was thin. His face lined with the strain of one constantly on alert. Sam had seen this carefully masked haunted expression on his brother's face before: in the days after they'd lost their father.

Sam had been working through his own grief at the time; he hadn't recognized Dean's until he'd come outside to Bobby's junkyard one morning to see the Impala's trunk annihilated and Dean passed-out drunk on the ground by the rear wheels. Sam's only excuse for missing it this time was that he had happily retreated into a world where everything was shiny and nothing hurt.

"Dude."

Dean's grumble caused Sam to blink dry eyes.

"What?"

"You're creeping me out, staring like that."

Sam looked down and realized that Dean was on his third beer. He opened another up for himself and took a drink.

"Sorry. Just thinking."

"I bet I can guess what you're thinking," Dean muttered.

Sam raised an eyebrow. "Is that right?"

Dean finished the beer in three large swallows and set the bottle down. Sam didn't think they had enough alcohol in the house for what Dean wanted to do with the rest of his night. And that was probably a good thing.

"I know what I wrote, man," Dean reached for another beer only to frown when he realized Sam had taken the last one.

"There's more in the house," Sam offered.

Dean pushed himself stiffly to his feet. Sam was willing to bet his hip was cursing at him right about now after that long walk.

"There'd better be," Dean grumbled. "Or you're driving to Alvin's to get more."

"Why me?"

"Because you got the damn keys," Dean jerked the screen door open and headed inside.

Sam grabbed his phone, dropping it into the pocket of his sweat pants, and followed. He watched as Dean set his letter on the table and then grabbed their second six pack of bottles from the fridge and set it on the counter before systematically opening the cabinets in search of the whiskey Sam had stashed weeks ago. Mason had been adamant that Dean keep the drinking to a minimum and his brother had respected that, willing as ever to follow orders from a man he trusted.

But apparently rules were out the window tonight. Dean set a full bottle of Jack Daniels on the counter next to the beer, then reached above the fridge to pull down a bottle of Jose Cuervo that Sam hadn't even realized they owned.

"Guess I'm saved a trip to the liquor store," he commented dryly, closing the door behind him. He felt and heard the air conditioner kick on and stood under the vent for a moment, the sweat running down the valley of his spine drying with the cool air.

"You're thinking," Dean picked up where he'd left off, a beer in his hand, "that I told her I'd stay with her, so why the hell did I give you so much trouble about staying here."

Sam tilted his head in concession; that was shockingly close to the truth. He made his way across to the make-shift bar and grabbed his fourth beer. It had been a long time since he'd consumed this much alcohol this fast. Not since his birthday, at least. And Dean had been sober then. This was going to be an interesting night.

"Okay, so…why did you?" Sam asked, leaning against the back of the couch, opposite his brother, and watching Dean drain the bottle impressively quickly.

"I thought I was going to die, Sam," Dean offered finally. "I thought it was over. I was just thinking what if…."

"I call bullshit on that, man," Sam shook his head. "You almost died here and you never thought what if."

Dean lifted a shoulder. "Don't know what to tell you."

"How about the truth? Wanna give that a test drive?"

"When have I lied to you?" At Sam's incredulous double take, Dean amended, "Recently."

"Why can't you just say you have feelings for this girl?"

Dean scoffed, shaking his head and grabbing another beer. After this, it was on to the hard stuff, Sam realized. He needed to back off, he knew. But something about the loose feeling in his body, the cloud in his head, the way he kinda didn't care about what he said next was so enticing, he decided to finish his beer and grab two glasses from the cabinet.

Standing so close to his brother, Sam thought he could feel something tremble through the air, like the weird force that surrounded a magnet or the pull right before he was shocked by static. He took a step back and the sensation dissipated, but a glance at Dean's tight expression showed him that he wasn't the only one who'd felt it.

"You do, don't you?" Sam pressed.

"I might've," Dean conceded, pouring three fingers of whiskey into the glass Sam had set next to him. "Once. A long time ago."

"I know you loved her," Sam said. "You told me you did."

"That was years ago, Sam," Dean shook his head. "None of that matters anymore."

"Why not?"

Dean shrugged, pouring more whiskey. "Just doesn't. I'm not that same person. She probably isn't either."

Sam shook his head, pouring himself more whiskey and then heading back to lean on the couch once more as he spoke. "You're a son of a bitch, man."

"Easy, now," Dean teased. "That's our mom you're talking about."

Sam wouldn't be distracted, though. The alcohol had greased the wheels in his brain, erasing the filters he normally kept firmly in place. He pointed toward Dean with a wavering finger.

"You do everything you can to help me keep Stella around…keep me happy…live this life that you fucking hate—"

"I don't hate it," Dean interjected.

"You do! You do." Sam nodded, hearing his words slurring and not caring. "I know you do. You're a…a damn faker."

"Well, so what? What do you care if I'm faking?" Dean challenged, his voice oddly clear, words unaffected by the alcohol he'd consumed.

Or maybe Sam's ears were too numb to notice.

"So what?" Sam echoed, finishing his whiskey and holding his glass out for more. Dean obliged, apparently completely comfortable with the idea of both of them being shitfaced by the end of the evening. "What the hell's gonna happen when you get tired of it, huh? When you…when you finally decide you want…s'thing real?"

"What are you really afraid of, Sammy?"

"Afraid? I'm not afraid."

"Then why do you keep trying to make me live your life?"

Sam frowned. Is that what he was doing? Trying to force Dean's hand?

"'Cause I don't want you to die," he admitted. "Again."

Dean was quiet. Sam watched him swallow the last of the whiskey in his glass like a shot, then pour himself more. He looked down at his own glass, still half-full, and set it carefully down on the table, not trusting his wavering vision. He needed to be done. The world was more than soft edges; the edges had been completely obliterated.

"But…you kinda already are, aren't you?" Sam asked as the haze in his brain provided an unusual sense of clarity.

"I am what?" Dean asked, so softly Sam almost didn't hear him.

"Dying. A little bit. Every day."

Dean looked at him then and Sam saw the mask fall away, the truth – raw and real and so painful it made him gasp – sitting heavy in Dean's eyes. He stepped forward, closing the gap between them too quickly for his unsteady balance and he wavered, bouncing against the kitchen chair. The sound caused Dean to blink and the mask was back.

"Okay, no more Oprah for you," Dean muttered, swallowing the rest of his whiskey.

But Sam wasn't anywhere close to sober and he was now on a mission. He stepped into Dean's personal space, feeling that strange snap of energy once more. He felt like he could touch it, the sensation was so strong. He lifted his hand pushing gently against the air.

"Dude," Dean drew his head back, as far away from Sam as he could make himself with the counter right behind him, "what the hell are you doing?"

"You feel that? Like a magnet," Sam said, pressing once more.

Dean set down his empty glass next to the – now half-full – bottle.

"Back up, Sam."

"Seriously, you don't feel that?" Sam asked again, missing the look of panic that crossed Dean's face. "I remember feeling it before, just not this strong."

He reached for Dean, thinking only to touch his shoulder, when a surge of heat filled the space between them, and he stepped back, surprised.

"Whoa." Sam blinked at his brother. "Did you do that?"

"Do what?" Dean asked, confused, but Sam saw a sheen of sweat on his face.

"That…that heat – like a flash of it, really quick."

"I didn't do anything," Dean muttered, grabbing the whiskey bottle by the neck and moving away from the counter.

"Where are you going?"

"My room."

"Wait, Dean!" Sam stumbled forward, grabbing for Dean's shirt. "We're not done talking."

"I am." Dean shrugged Sam's hand off and side-stepped the kitchen furniture as he headed for the hallway.

"Well, I'm not!"

Sam stumbled forward again, his limbs clumsy and uncoordinated, and tripped over the chair Dean had dodged, going down in a heap, legs tangled. He tried to kick the chair away, but the laces from one of his running shoes had gotten tangled around one of the chair legs and he ended up cracking the back of the chair against his opposite leg, crying out in surprise from the impact.

"All right, all right, all right, Jesus!" Sam suddenly became aware that Dean was crouching next to him, trying to help get him untangled. "Quit thrashing, you damn colt. Let me get you free first."

Sam watched, vision wavering slightly, as Dean untangled his laces, pulling the chair away, and setting it upright. Once his legs were free, Sam pushed himself upright, leaning back against the couch, his head tipped forward, fingers carded through his hair. He was so drunk.

"I am so drunk."

"Yeah, I got that." Dean's voice was close, next to him.

"How come you're not?" Sam asked toward the floor.

"Just had more practice than you, I guess."

"Guess everybody has to have a skill."

"Don't you dare puke in here, man."

"Not gonna puke."

"You gonna cry?" Dean asked, but his voice was gentle.

"Maybe." Sam confessed, his voice wavering around the knot of emotion at the base of his throat.

"You always were a sappy drunk."

"I don't know what to do, Dean," Sam confessed.

"About what?"

"Anything. You."

He heard Dean sigh. "You don't have to do anything about me, Sam."

Sam shook his head, lifting his face and letting the air cool his heated skin. "Yeah, I do. I made you change who you are."

"I'm still me," Dean argued.

"You're dying inside."

"There you go with the drama again," Dean chuckled, though there was little mirth in it.

"I see it when I look," Sam argued.

"So stop looking," Dean said quiet.

"No, and would you shut up a minute?"

Sam looked over at his brother, seeing that Dean still held the bottle of whiskey by the neck as if it had personally affronted him. His right hand moved restlessly against his leg and his head was back, his throat exposed so that Sam could see him swallow convulsively.

"I'm trying to say something here," Sam continued.

Dean pressed his lips out with a slight nod.

"I'm happy here. I like our life. I like my friends. I like not having to worry about where we're going to sleep or if we're going to eat. I like not having to hustle money. I like earning a paycheck. I like being around Stella. I like having sex with her. I like—"

"I get the picture, Sam," Dean interrupted.

"I like this town," Sam continued. "I like Kansas. I like everything about this place." He swallowed, staring with bleary eyes at his brother's profile. "But none of that matters if you don't."

Frowning Dean looked over at him. "What?"

"If you don't like it here…if you don't like this life…, then none of it matters."

"That's not right, Sam."

Sam shrugged. "Doesn't have to be right. It just is."

Dean looked down. He lifted the whiskey bottle and regarded the amber liquid. "I don't…not like it here."

"Then why does it feel like you can't breathe sometimes?"

"Because," Dean paused, took a drink, then sighed. "Because I can't. Because…I feel like something inside of me is…burning. I just…," Dean struggled, unable to share what he meant, "I hate that I can't help anyone like this. What I did used to matter. Even if no one knew it."

"It still matters," Sam argued. "Only now it matters and you're safe."

Dean didn't say anything for awhile and Sam felt his body relaxing against the couch, slipping sideways until his shoulder touched Dean's. He was sleepy and warm and perfectly happy to stay right where he was forever.

"Too bad we can't have both," Dean mused.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean…too bad we can't live here…and be hunters."

Sam was quiet a moment, trying to reform the thread of thought that had led him to this part of the conversation. He yawned, then shrugged.

"Well," he sighed, closing his eyes, "that's prolly what we're gonna hafta do to help Brenna wi' the witches."

Sam missed Dean's look and the jerk of his brother's shoulder as he started at those words. He relaxed into his alcohol-infused haze, letting his head tip forward, chin to his chest, and fell asleep. He dreamed of nothing. It was always quiet in Sam's head when he slept. There was no urge to move, no anxious twitch of his nerves, no rush of blood through his body compelling him into action. It was just darkness and peace.

Which was why the incessant vibration against his hip had him frowning irritably as he opened his eyes to a dark, chilly house. It took him a moment to orient himself; he wasn't in his room, but he was no longer on the floor, either. Lying still, he breathed carefully, taking stock.

The couch.

Somehow, Dean had managed to manhandle him onto the couch – which meant he'd probably woken up for a bit at some point because he had no idea how his brother had managed that without making skin contact. He was still in his running pants and T-shirt, but his shoes were off. And while his stomach lurched a bit as he sat up, he didn't feel too ill, which meant that he was either still drunk, or the luckiest guy in the world after the amount and mixture of alcohol he'd put in his body.

His hip vibrated again and he frowned, reaching into his pocket for his phone. Blinking against the harsh light from his screen he focused in on the text messages – eight of them – that he'd missed from Stella.

"Aw, dammit," he muttered.

He'd completely forgotten that he had made plans to meet up with her that night. He peered at the digital time at the top of the phone. 11:34pm. He was supposed to have met her two hours ago.

The tone of her last text had shifted from irritation to worry and Sam realized she also left a voice mail. Clearing his throat, he dialed her number. With as many messages as she'd left him, he fully expected to hear her answer on the first ring and was surprised when he got her voice mail.

"Hey," he said, clearing his throat again as the word caught against his teeth. "I'm sorry. Dean, uh…got some news today and…well, it wasn't good—"

A scream ripped through the quiet house, startling Sam into dropping his phone. It was Dean, he knew, but that sound... He picked up his phone and stood.

"I gotta go. We're okay, but I gotta go. I'll call you in the morning."

He hung up and hurried back to Dean's room, moving through the small house instinctively. Dean's door was shut, which surprised him. His brother always left the door open to hear the music. Sam winced inwardly as he turned the handle. The music hadn't been on tonight.

Sam hurried into the bedroom, the moonlight spilling in from Dean's uncovered window illuminating his brother's bed. Sam's sock-covered toes knocked the now-empty bottle of Jack Daniels over. He heard it roll under Dean's bed as he made his way across the room.

"Dean! Hey," Sam reached the bed, trying to find some place he could safely grab his brother and pull him out of his nightmare.

But Dean was writhing, twisting on the bed like he was caught in a massive grip and trying desperately to escape. Sam could hear his teeth grinding together as his brother fought to keep his scream inside. Reaching out a hand, Sam laid his fingers on Dean's T-shirt covered chest and the contact triggered something in the nightmare – something that completely unhinged Dean.

His brother surged up, both hands – Sam would later realize – grabbing Sam's T-shirt in tight fists as he shoved back and away, propelling them from the bed and to the floor. Dean crouched over Sam like a Ninja, his fisted hands so near Sam's throat he was dangerously close to cutting off Sam's air. His face was a contorted mix of pain, fear, and rage and Sam saw that his eyes were tightly closed.

"D-Dean—" Sam choked out, pushing at Dean's center, trying to shove his brother away without touching his skin. "H-hey, man, it's me."

"Nnnnnrrrrrgg," Dean growled uncomprehendingly. "No!" He shook Sam once, hard enough that the back of Sam's head cracked dully against the floor. "STOP!"

His voice seemed to bleed; Sam grunted at the sound of it, wanting desperately to wake his brother, to stop that sound from ever breaking free again.

Desperate, out of options, Sam reached up and grabbed Dean's wrists, hoping to get enough leverage to push him away before he wasn't able to see anything but Dean's nightmare. The moment his fingers found Dean's skin, however, his brother opened his eyes and Sam saw a flash of light before he felt himself tumble into darkness.

Sam felt his skin tear as hooks dug in at his shoulders and at his hips, recognizing the breath-stealing pain he'd come to associate with Hell. He heard his brother scream for him, calling for help in a fearful, pleading voice that broke Sam's heart every time. He saw a face he didn't know leer close to him, heard words he couldn't understand wrap around him and Sam knew that Dean was in deep.

Music wouldn't have helped this nightmare right itself.

He tried to turn the flickering darkness into light, but it wavered and crashed against the black. He wasn't strong enough this time to climb into Dean's mind and force him out. If he didn't do something quickly, Sam was afraid he was going to be lost.

So he let go.

He lay still, panting, sweating, trembling with remembered pain that wasn't his own. His hands had fallen to his chest, his heartbeat slamming against his fingertips. He sensed Dean next to him, still not conscious, but at least he was no longer screaming.

Groaning slightly, Sam turned to his side, trying to get a better view of Dean. His brother was shaking with the after-effects of the connection and nightmare, sweat covering him, causing his shirt to stick to the plains of his torso, his short hair matted to his head. His breath rasped out through parted lips and his eyes moved rapidly behind closed lids.

Pulling himself upright, Sam stumbled into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge, then turned on the radio, cranking the volume to be sure Dean would hear it when he woke. He headed back to Dean's room and pulled up short when he saw Dean roll to his back, brow puckered as he forced heavy-lidded eyes open.

"Easy there," Sam soothed, crouching down next to Dean, the water bottle hanging between his knees. "You're okay."

Dean peered up at him, eyes cloudy from alcohol and bad dreams. "The hell?"

"So, turns out," Sam said softly, waiting for Dean to come fully around, "maybe a bottle of Jack between the two of us wasn't the greatest idea we ever had."

Sam saw Dean blink fully aware, the panic in his eyes slowly making way for recognition. He was glad he'd turned on the music; he could almost see Dean mentally search for that grounding.

"Nightmare?" Dean groaned in question, pushing himself up to a sluggish seated position.

Sam handed him the uncapped bottle of water. "Nightmare."

Dean took a drink and then his face folded in a look of genuine discomfort as he handed the bottle back to Sam and gripped his right hand with his left. "You tossed me off the bed?"

"Dude," Sam shook his head tiredly. "I tried the usual stuff to wake you up first. It wasn't working. And I didn't toss you; you jumped."

"Ahh," Dean groaned in pain, curling over his hand. "What'd you do to my hand?"

Sam tilted his head as he remembered Dean using that hand, curling it into a fist without hesitation. "Nothing. You tried to strangle me."

Dean blinked up at him owlishly. "I…I did?"

Sam rubbed at his chest. "Yeah," he said, clambering to his feet. "You did. Think you can go back to sleep now?"

Dean was still staring at him, face pale in the moonlight. Sam didn't blame him. These nightmares rattled him; they had to be Hell on Dean.

"C'mon, man," Sam waved a loose hand at him. "We both need the sleep."

Dean looked down, then rubbed the back of his head. "I think I might've been drunk tonight," he confessed quietly.

"I think you still are," Sam yawned. "C'mon. On your feet."

Dean used his bed and the wall to get upright, only to climb back into his bed, burying himself face-first into his pillow.

"Drink some more of this water," Sam ordered.

"M'fine," Dean replied, muffled.

"You're gonna have a helluva hangover tomorrow."

"Hair of the dog," Dean retorted.

Sighing, Sam walked out of the room, leaving the door open. He pulled his sweaty T-shirt off and fell into bed, burrowing into his pillow with a tired sigh.

Definitely no more whiskey.


His head was hollow and roughly three sizes larger than it should be.

Dean had to move very carefully or he was absolutely certain it was going to tumble from his shoulders and roll across the room. Then again, he'd probably feel a hell of a lot better if that were the case, so maybe he should just let it happen. Taking a breath, Dean rolled carefully to his side, cautiously opening his eyes.

Sunlight streamed in through his window, harsh and bright, forcing him to slam his eyes closed once more. His stomach rolled, his skin felt gritty with dried-on sweat, and his right hand had its own heartbeat. He lifted it, blearily looking at the knotted scar on his palm. His fingers seemed swollen and stiff, his wrist ached, but other than that, the appendage appeared the same.

Sam had said he'd used it. To try to strangle his brother, sure, but he'd used it.

Taking a shaky, steadying breath, Dean pushed himself slowly upright, then paused there as the world caught up. He refused to get sick. It would not happen. He'd accept a raging, kill-me-now headache, but he'd be damned if he puked his guts out the morning after a whiskey bender. No. Just…no.

Oh, God, I'm gonna be sick….

Pressing the back of his left hand to his mouth, he closed his eyes and sat very still, breathing slowly and carefully through his nose, willing his stomach to settle. His mouth wasn't helping matters; his teeth felt like they had hair on them and the back of his tongue tasted like ass.

Fuck. He hadn't been this hungover in…hell, he couldn't remember. But it had been awhile.

After several long moments, Dean realized that he was out of the danger zone – at least for the time being – and it might be safe to stand. The world shifted around him and he reached helplessly for the nearest wall.

Is the world actually spinning? Is this a thing now? He liked it better when he took the motion for granted, not when he could feel it.

His throbbing head mocking him mercilessly, he made it to the door of his bedroom before he had to pause once more to breathe through the nausea. It was only then he realized that the voices he'd heard upon waking weren't classic rock in nature.

It was Sam. Talking to Stella. About Dean.

"…I told you about that night back in February," Sam was saying. "And he does this…this thing with his hands. Like he can't get them clean." Sam sighed deeply, tiredly. "It doesn't help to point out that there's nothing there. Nothing on them."

"He has all the classic signs, Sam," Stella replied. "You said he's had nightmares for years."

"Yeah, but last night was bad," Sam sighed again. He sounded exhausted. Dean wondered how much his brother had slept that night. "I'm sure it was mostly because of the alcohol, but…I mean, this all happened to him years ago. Why now?"

Dean frowned, cradling his scarred hand against his chest and leaning against the door frame to listen. And to regain his balance. He could really, really, use some coffee. About a gallon of it would do just fine.

"Because it's quiet," Stella replied, her voice a gentle caress against Sam's worried tones. He wasn't sure how much Stella knew, or what version of the truth Sam had shared with her about Hell and Stull, but it was clear she knew something."Because you guys are…retired. Because he doesn't have to worry about all the other stuff he's had to worry about before. Now there's space for everything that was chasing him to catch up."

"So it's my fault, then," Sam said with resignation.

"Well, did you torture him? Did you take him away from his family?"

"No," Sam replied sullenly. "But I'm making him live this life. I'm the reason for the quiet."

"Sam," Stella sighed his brother's name and Dean heard a chair push back from the table. "Your brother isn't a prisoner. You aren't chaining him to this town or to you. He's a grown-up. If he wanted to leave, he could."

"You don't get it," Sam replied. "Dean would never leave me."

"That's his choice, then."

"He never had a choice," Sam mumbled.

"When you were younger, maybe." Dean heard Stella's voice fade a bit as if she were turning away. "But he has a choice now."

Sam didn't reply. Dean felt his heart slam against the base of his throat, waiting for their next words. He was sweating and his right hand shook against his side in time with the pounding in his head, but he couldn't move.

"Dean is staying because he needs to," Stella declared. "You have to see that. He's here because he chooses to be."

"Yeah, well."

"Yeah well nothing," Stella's voice got stronger and Dean could picture her leaning closer to Sam to make her point. "You aren't making him do anything. You're not keeping him from some magic life. So stop playing the victim."

Dean blinked at that. He wasn't surprised when he didn't hear Sam respond.

"You said this old friend of yours has a problem you guys can fix?"

"I think so," Sam sighed. "We've dealt with witches before."

Dean straightened up, his pounding head momentarily forgotten. Sam had mentioned witches last night as well.

"And you think Dean needs closure or something with this woman?"

"Or something," Sam mumbled.

"Then go. Take care of it. And come home."

"It's not that easy…," Sam hedged.

"Why?"

Stella was beginning to sound angry. And confused. And Dean didn't blame her. He wasn't sure he understood himself anymore.

"Because I asked him to stop hunting. How do I tell him we need to start again?"

"You made an exception for my mom," Stella pointed out.

"That's different," Sam protested.

Why? Dean wondered.

"Why?" Stella asked.

"Because with this, Dean might not—"

"Come back?" Stella filled in. "That's it, isn't it? It's all or nothing with you."

Dean winced at her tone, even though her words were dead on. Choosing that moment to make his presence known, he stumbled forward, purposely stepping on the creaking floorboard and entered the kitchen as all conversation ceased.

"Please," he growled out, his voice sounding like a rock star on a bender, "somebody. Tell me you have coffee."

"Well, hey there, sunshine," Sam greeted a little too brightly. "I was about to head in there and put a mirror under your nose."

"Time 's it?" Dean peered at them through puffy eyes, squinting against the sunlight streaming in. Stella always pulled the shades up; he preferred the more cave-like environment of safely covered windows. Especially when sunlight turned into spears through his eyes.

"About two."

"Oh, God," Dean groaned rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Mason's gonna kill me."

"I called him," Sam replied. "It's okay."

Dean narrowed his eyes at them, taking note of how Stella was studying him. "How long you been up, man?"

"Since nine."

"He didn't have a choice," Stella commented, affectionately ruffling Sam's hair. "I made him get up. And I'll fix you some coffee."

Dean blinked at her, working his mouth into the semblance of a smile. The world shifted around him once more and he felt the queasy, sweaty feeling of impending sickness. Closing his eyes he took a long, slow breath, then opened them once more to see two pairs of eyes looking at him with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity.

"Shower," he said, squinting and pointing in the general direction of the bathroom.

Their conversation began once more as he left the room, but they strayed to safer topics, aware now that there were listening ears. Dean stepped into the bathroom and turned the water on high and hot, canceling out anything else he might have heard. He took care of business and brushed his teeth before stepping into the steam behind the glass door.

Turning away from the water, he let the pressure beat against the stiff muscles along his back and neck, then he rotated to let it wash away the whiskey-tinged cobwebs still muddling his head. Stella was right: he had a choice. And for the last six months, he'd chosen to live a promise he made to Sam simply to keep his brother happy.

It was Dean's fall-back position: watch out for Sam. When his brother wasn't in mortal peril, that constituted making sure Sam was happy, whether that meant stepping between him and John and breaking up a fight, or supporting Sam as he left for college, or giving up hunting completely to live a normal life.

But Sam had said as much last night: Dean wasn't living this life. He was merely surviving it. Finding a way to make it work because the alternative was too hard. The alternative was scary. The alternative held the very real possibility of his being alone – really and truly alone. And Dean had never really done alone well.

Dean leaned his left hand on the cool tile wall and bowed his head beneath the shower, watching as the water ran down the contours of his body – a body changed by circumstance and re-formed by training. He was leaner than before, but strong and sturdy. His right hand might never consciously obey him, but he'd learned to compensate with his left. And though his left eye was damaged, he'd figured out how to see around his own blind spot.

Physically, he was as healthy as he could be – scars and all.

Mentally…that was another story. He thought back to what Sam had said, about his trying to rid his hands of the blood he always felt staining them. He hadn't realized he did it so often – or that Sam noticed it. He knew Sam was aware of the nightmares; he'd lost count of the number of times his brother had been there, waking him, drawing him away from the Hell that waited in the darkness. But he hadn't realized how obvious it was to his brother how hard he fought just to get through the day sometimes.

Rubbing his thumb gently across the coil of scar tissue in the palm of his right hand, Dean wished he could find a way to heal his mind the same way. Sure he couldn't use this hand, not really. But the open wound was no longer there. And he'd found ways to get over the loss of what had once come so naturally to him.

He didn't know how to force his mind to scar over. He didn't know how to make the nightmares stop. He didn't know how to get over everything that had happened to him. He only knew how to ignore it. He knew how to stuff it down. He knew how to use it.

He needed to be a hunter. But Sam did not. It was as simple and as complicated as that.

Turning off the shower, his headache reduced to more of an annoyance than something that threatened to take him to his knees, Dean wrapped a towel around his waist. The shower had helped him sweat out a good portion of the alcohol that had threatened to turn his stomach inside out. He wiped the steam from the small mirror above the sink and used the electric razor to shave as much as he'd been able to since losing the dexterity of his right hand.

Feeling slightly more human, he made his way to his room to dress, the smell of fresh coffee making his mouth water. He heard Sam's laugh echoed by Stella and was glad that they weren't talking about him anymore. It would make what he had to say a little easier.

Freshly clothed, he headed back to the kitchen and took his promised cup of coffee from Stella's hand, smiling his thanks before turning to his brother. Sam didn't know it yet, but Dean's days of acquiescing because it was easier than facing the truth were over.

"Tell me about the witches," he ordered.

Sam blinked, his face paling. "Wh-what?"

"I know you called Virgil back," Dean told him. "Last night you said Brenna needed help with witches."

Sam looked down at the table, irritation at himself etched on his face like closed captioning. "I don't remember saying that."

"Well, unless I've picked up another power, I'm not a mind-reader, so…."

Stella frowned at him. "Another power?"

Dean gave her a smile, thought it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Long story."

So, Sam hadn't told her about the amulet yet. Dean supposed that would come when and if his brother decided how serious he was about her. He looked at Sam, his eyebrows up, waiting.

"Are you saying you want us to help them?" Sam asked, looking up at Dean with that same childlike expression that always hit him in the knees.

"No," Dean finished his coffee and then turned away to pour himself more. "I'm saying tell me about the witches."

With a sigh, Sam relayed what he'd learned in his conversation with Virgil, which in Dean's estimation was a whole lot of nothing.

"So, basically, we got four dead bodies—"

"Three," Sam corrected. "And one missing."

"Fine," Dean lifted a shoulder, bringing his mug to his lips. "Three dead bodies. And a town full of people jumping to conclusions."

"Well, and that draíocht thing Brenna was talking about."

"Right. Druids," Dean rolled his eyes. "Nothing like a secret order of robe wearers to make a mess of things." He sipped his coffee, masking his worry with sarcasm, his stomach clenching.

Brenna had never been wrong, not once in each encounter they'd had with her. She'd identified the banshee – or bean-sidhe as she'd known it – when John had been thinking witch. She'd known about the wraith and the wizard. If she said this druid witch was involved, Dean was betting she was right. But Sam didn't need to know how much the idea of that frightened him.

"Virgil seemed pretty shaken up, Dean," Sam frowned at him.

"Oh, I'm sure he was. He never did take these things well," Dean set his cup aside, then crossed his arms over his growling stomach. "Okay, so…I'll talk to Mason and head out in the morning."

Sam looked up at him and Dean caught Stella's double-take. "Wait, what?"

"It's witches, Sam," Dean said calmly. "Bird bones, bodily fluids, incantations, all that shit. Nothing we haven't handled before. I got this."

Sam shoved his chin forward, his hands open on the table in a gesture of disbelief. "You forgetting you almost died last time? Razor blades in the stomach ring any bells?"

Dean scrunched his face up, scratching the back of his head. "Yeah, that hurt like a bitch. But…hey, now we know about hex bags. Win win."

"You're crazy." Sam stood up.

Dean tilted his head in concession at that.

Sam crossed his arms, his expression stone. "I can't let you go."

Taking a breath, Dean glanced at Stella then slid his eyes over to Sam. If she was going to stay with Sam, she needed to see more than just beers and barbeques and brotherly love between them. She needed to see the real Winchesters.

And Dean was pretty sure that things were about to get real.

"Sam," he said quietly, his tone betraying none of the restless energy and anxiety currently bouncing his heart against his ribcage. "You asked me for six months. It's been six months."

Sam closed his mouth with a click, his hands sliding from his chest to his hips.

"I kept my promise," Dean continued. "I didn't look for a hunt, I got healthy—"

"Healthy, my ass!" Sam exploded. "You sleep like two hours a night! The rest is all…Hell and torture and—"

"I got strong," Dean amended, keeping his tone even, though he could feel his hands begin to tremble, folded beneath his arms. "But the world didn't end, man, and I have to decide who I'm going to be now." He stepped forward, his eyes level, fighting to ignore the look of panic shimmering from Sam's hazel eyes. "You have to let me decide."

"You can't just…just fall back on what you used to do," Sam protested, moving toward Dean in his earnestness. Dean worked to control his breathing, to not feel confronted, to listen carefully to what Sam wasn't saying as well as to what he was. "You only became a hunter because of Dad…and Dad only became a hunter because of what happened to Mom."

"But Mom was a hunter, Sam," Dean reminded him. "It's in our blood, it's part of our history…our DNA. It's part of me."

Sam shook his head, looking away.

"I know you're worried," Dean said, carefully choosing his words. "I know you think I won't make it. I know you're protecting me. But I know what I'm doing. And I won't be alone."

Sam scoffed. "You mean Virge?" he asked, looking back at Dean. He stepped forward. "Brenna? If she wanted to, she could see right through you."

Dean nodded; he was counting on that. He'd never been able to lie to her; her druid ancestry had marked her with a gift – or curse, depending on who was asked – that had freed Dean from pretense where Brenna was concerned.

"I know."

As Sam slowly advanced, Dean forced himself to stand his ground, to not back away, but felt his heart race at the dangerous glint in Sam's eye. The strange, magnetized force he'd felt last night seemed to grow stronger the closer Sam got.

"You gonna let her see everything?" Sam challenged. "See what I've seen?"

Dean saw Stella shift at that, staying silent, but intent on their exchange. He didn't blame her; the direction of their conversation impacted her as well.

"Sometimes…people need to see the truth," Dean said, letting meaning hang heavy from the end of his sentence.

Sam turned away, shoving a hand through his hair and Dean relaxed slightly.

"I can't let you go," Sam repeated, dropping his head, "alone."

Dean didn't reply, knowing enough to wait his brother out. Stella, however, didn't know Sam as well.

"Sam!" She protested. "Listen to him. He wants to do this – let him go do this!"

Sam turned to her. "This isn't like your mom's house, Stel," he said. "This is…it's bigger."

"He said he wouldn't be alone," Stella reminded him, stepping forward, looking up at him with an expression Dean had seen before: recognition of the loss of control. "He's not asking you to go."

Sam put his hands on her shoulders. They seemed to engulf her. "I know," he said softly. "And that's why I have to."

Stella looked at Dean. He took a shallow breath, knowing what was coming next.

"Tell him not to go," she asked Dean. "He'll listen to you."

Dean looked down. "I can't do that."

"Why not?" Stella asked, her voice cracking.

Dean didn't reply; he pushed his lips out, waiting for Sam, knowing his brother would step in.

"Stella," Sam started.

"No," Stella pushed away from Sam. "This is stupid. You said you were done. Retired. This isn't you. You're not a hunter anymore!"

"But I am a brother," Sam replied, his voice soft, acceptance filtering in. "And I need to do this."

For several heartbeats, silence pervaded the small house. Clearing his throat, Dean took a step around Sam and Stella, heading for the door.

"Keys?" He asked without looking back.

"TV," Sam replied.

Dean saw them on top of the TV, snagged them, then with his hand on the doorknob said over his shoulder, "I'm heading over to Mason's. You guys just…take your time."

He didn't wait for either of them to respond. The humidity of the June afternoon gave him the space to breathe he'd been searching for inside the small house. Sliding behind the wheel of the Impala gave him a renewed sense of purpose, as if suddenly he had a direction, a plan. Something solid he could stand on.

He circled through a drive thru – a greasy cheeseburger was just what the hangover ordered – and headed to Mason's garage. He didn't want to leave his friend short a mechanic, but he was hoping the big man would understand why he was leaving.

"Mace!"

"Inna ba'" came the garbled reply.

Frowning, Dean headed through the shop, waving at Mia who smiled wide enough he saw her gold tooth. He headed to Mason's office and saw Sergeant Kirby Jackson was sitting in there with Mason, his feet propped up on the desk. Mason sat behind his desk, a pencil clutched in his teeth, another behind his ear, and a third being used to mark down numbers on a spreadsheet.

He looked up at Dean's entrance and spit out the pencil. "Thought you were sick?"

Dean pulled a cheeseburger out from the sack he carried, peeling back the wrapper. "Whiskey flu," he said around a large bite.

"Heard that was going around," Jackson commented dryly, his large hands folded over his chest.

"Tommy?" Dean guessed.

Mason shrugged, sighing, and tossed the pencil he'd been writing with down next to the one he'd spit out. "Think I'm going to have to let him go," he said. "Trying to work out the numbers on how I can make things work with two again."

Dean nodded, tucking his tongue in his teeth, then wadded up his now-empty wrapper and tossed it across Jackson to hit the trash basket.

"About that," he said, leaning against the window, his back to the garage. "Need to talk to you a minute."

"This about Sorenson?" Jackson asked.

Dean frowned. "Sorenson? No, why?"

Jackson dropped his feet from Mason's desk, sitting forward to prop his elbows on his knees. "Thought he might've called you. Seems he's been trying to dig up some leads on your cold case since March."

"Is that right?" Dean asked, sucking on his teeth. "Well, he hasn't called."

"He might," Jackson warned him. "Just a heads up."

"What's going on, kid?" Mason asked, leaning back in his chair, his blue eyes intent as they studied Dean.

"I need to go away for awhile," Dean said. "Couple weeks at least."

"Away where?"

"Colorado."

Mason narrowed his eyes. "Vacation?"

Dean couldn't help himself. He chuckled. "No, nothing like that. A friend of ours is in trouble."

"What kind of trouble?" Jackson asked.

Dean looked at him. "The kind that makes cold cases."

Jackson nodded slowly, looking down.

"Thought you two were retired," Mason asked, frowning.

Dean didn't address that directly. "This friend…has been through a lot with us."

"Can't call another hunter on this one, huh?" Mason guessed.

Dean shook his head.

"So…you just gotta go burn some bones in Colorado?" Jackson asked. "Why do you need a couple weeks?"

Dean cleared his throat, rolling his neck. "This…isn't a spirit."

"What is it?"

"Looks like a witch," he replied.

"A witch," Mason echoed, his voice dull.

"As in green face…broomstick…flying monkeys?" Jackson almost-laughed.

Dean shook his head. "As in human sacrifices, hex bags, and spells that can melt your bones while you're still breathing."

"Ah, right. Those kind of witches. Got it." Jackson lifted his eyebrows and looked over at Mason.

"And…you know how to, ah...kill it? Them?" Mason's frown had grown darker as Dean spoke.

Dean wrinkled his nose. "It's a bit of a gray area. Witches are human. So…generally binding their powers is preferred. But…, when it's you or them…."

"I have officially stopped listening," Jackson muttered, lifting a hand.

Mason stared at Dean. "Can I ask you something, kid?"

"Sure."

"When you were hunting before, all those years…where'd you live?"

Dean lifted a shoulder. "Nowhere, really. The Impala. Motels. Abandoned houses."

"But this time, you're coming back," Mason clarified, his tone doubtful.

Dean looked down. "Sam's coming with me," he replied, walking around the question with careful words.

"I see," Mason nodded. The office was quiet a moment save for the sound of Mia's drill and the Rolling Stone's Shelter From the Storm echoing across the poor acoustics of the garage. "I can hold your job for two weeks. After that, I need you back, or I need to know why."

Dean nodded.

"Without pay," Mason added, leaning forward to look at the spreadsheet he'd been working on.

"Fair enough." Dean pushed away from the window and turned to leave.

"Dean."

Dean paused, looking back at his boss.

"You sure you got this?"

Dean nodded. "Yeah. I'm sure."

"'Cause I ain't above heading out to Colorado to bind some witches," Mason grumbled. "I just don't want to put broken pieces of you back together."

Dean gave him a small smile. "You won't."

"Holding you to that," Mason said gruffly before turning back to his spreadsheet.

Dean glanced back at Jackson and nodded. "Keep an eye on him."

"Like always," Jackson nodded back.

Dean stepped out of the office and started to head out of the garage, then stopped and made his way over to Mia. He tapped her on the shoulder and waited until she turned around, wrench in one hand, oil can in the other. He leaned over and gave her a hug, which she leaned into with surprise.

"What was that for?" She asked.

"For being a decent human being, Mia," Dean said with a smile. "See ya later."

Mia blushed. "See ya."

Dean made his way to the Impala, calling Rufus as he walked. Getting the older hunter's voice mail, he slid behind the wheel and said into the phone, "Rufus. Got a hunt out your way. Ish. Need you to meet us in Limon with some supplies. I'll text you the list."

Turning on the car, he headed back home, feeling better than he had in weeks.


Sam was still half asleep when they pulled away from the little house the next morning.

The air smelled clean after the midnight thunderstorm and the world looked new and alarmingly safe. He'd spent the rest of the previous day with Stella, then called his boss at Freestate to request a leave of absence for a family emergency. He was granted two weeks as un-paid vacation, though it hadn't been done happily.

Stella hadn't been there to see him off; she'd stayed with him into the night, but headed back to her place around midnight. Sam hadn't really cared if his brother had heard them. Dean wasn't new at this. He knew what it meant when the bedroom door was shut.

To Dean's credit, he didn't say a word when Sam walked Stella to her car, then came back inside and headed straight to his room. He'd simply sat on the couch, his guns spread out before him, cleaning each meticulously, a rerun of Magnum P.I. playing silently on the TV.

Sam woke up to the sound of his brother moving around in the kitchen. He wasn't really sure Dean had slept the night before, but he didn't ask. He'd just packed his duffel, dropping it into the trunk on top of where Dean had once more stored their weapons, and climbed into the passenger seat. Their apartment had been paid up through the rest of the month; if they were back inside the two week window their jobs allowed, no one would bother their house.

"Mason said he'd grab the mail for us," Dean told his brother as they headed down the road toward I-70.

"'Kay," Sam yawned, finding it interesting that Dean had thought to make sure the mail was cared for. His brother had not lived at a place that actually got regular mail in almost twenty years. "Coffee?"

"Pulling over at the truck stop outside of Topeka," Dean replied.

Sam nodded, scrunching down in the seat, trying to get comfortable against the door as he had so many times before. He watched Dean push a cassette into the player and sighed in audible resignation as Led Zeppelin's Kashmir filled the interior of the car. The strange familiarity of the scene felt like a dream; if he closed his eyes, Sam could almost convince himself he wasn't here, he was back in his bed, his arms wrapped around Stella's warm shoulders.

"Rufus called," Dean told him. "He can't meet us in Limon; he's up north on a job. We have to jump up to Omaha real quick."

"He got what we need?" Sam asked, eyes closed.

"Yeah," Dean replied, turning up the music. "Go back to sleep."

Sam sighed. Familiarity did indeed breed contempt, he thought, but stifled any audible protest. He took the coffee when Dean stopped, checked the map for the shortest route, searched his phone when cell towers allowed for any information he could glean on Argo, CO. It was only after they'd stopped for lunch in Omaha and to get the supplies Dean requested from Rufus that it occurred to Sam he hadn't shared one very important piece of information with Dean.

"You boys be careful," Rufus admonished as he handed over the book on binding rituals and box containing the herbs and oils they'd need to make the rituals work. "Shouldn't have to tell you that binding spells are dangerous."

He looked meaningfully at Dean's right hand.

"Don't worry," Dean replied, his tone at once both confident and troubled. Sam knew his brother was putting up a front – had been since they'd decided to drink the house dry two nights ago. But he couldn't find the chink in Dean's armor to prove this fact and right now, Dean needed that armor. "If this doesn't work, we'll just shoot the bitch."

Rufus bounced his head once. "How you been sleeping, Dean?"

"On my back, mostly," Dean retorted, the flat look in his eyes betraying nothing.

"Well. You know where to find me, you need help," Rufus said finally, shaking their hands – being sure to reach for Dean's left hand, Sam noticed – and heading back to his truck.

Dean used the break to re-pack the weapons, putting the ritual supplies inside the hidden compartment with their guns.

"Could be more than one, you know," Sam reminded him, watching. He hadn't seen Dean move this confidently, this easily, in a long time. Not even at Mason's when he'd watched his brother work on cars or take on the heavy bag. "Virge was saying coven."

"Virge wasn't sure what he was dealing with," Dean replied. "One powerful witch can seem like a coven. You know that."

"Dean, there's something else," Sam told him as Dean closed the trunk. "I didn't tell Virge about you."

Dean turned to him, the slant of the afternoon light causing him to narrow his eyes. "Didn't tell him what about me?"

Sam rubbed the back of his neck. "That you were…uh…back."

Dean tilted his head. "Back."

"From Hell."

Dean tipped his chin up. "He thinks I'm dead."

"So does Brenna," Sam nodded.

Dean pushed his lips out in thought and looked away. Sam braced himself, unsure of his brother's reaction to this news.

"Well," Dean thunked his knuckles against the Impala's trunk. "I'm gonna be a helluva surprise then, huh?"

Dean started to move around him and Sam rotated, snagging the edge of Dean's T-shirt. To his surprise, he felt that push – the slight heat mirrored by the strange magnet force – he'd felt the night back at their house. It wasn't strong, but it was enough to make him pull his hand away.

Sam wondered if Dean were even aware he was doing it.

"Wait," Sam called as he dropped his hand. "That's it? Surprise, I'm back from the dead?"

"You got a better idea?" Dean asked, pulling open the driver's side door and pausing long enough to look up at Sam. His eyes seemed to shimmer slightly in the heat-filtered light.

Sam watched him a moment, then shook his head. "Not really."

"Okay then," Dean shrugged, climbing into the car, the discussion over.

Sam continued to amuse himself with online searches, texts to and from Stella, and links to books he'd been reading back home while Dean drove on. They headed through a drive thru around dinner time, once they reached the Colorado border, and Dean cycled through the next round of cassettes. Sam was leaning against the window, admiring the number of stars he could see out on the west Colorado plains, when Dean suddenly pulled over to the side of the road.

"What's the matter?" Sam asked.

Dean was rubbing his right hand on his leg in that strange gesture Sam had started noticing back in February – as if he couldn't get it clean.

"Think you could drive for a bit?"

Surprised, Sam stared at his brother. Dean never willing gave up the wheel unless he was hurt.

"You okay?" Sam asked, scanning Dean's profile. Aside from the muscle bouncing along Dean's jaw line, Sam couldn't see anything wrong.

"Yeah, I just…," Dean rolled his neck, keeping his eyes on the dash. "Can't see real good at night."

Sam gaped. "What?"

Dean gestured almost dismissively to his left eye. "Hard to focus on the road and not the lights."

"How…how come you never said anything before?"

Dean lifted a shoulder. "Didn't really matter before."

"But you've been driving at night in Lawrence," Sam protested, still dumbfounded that he'd not picked up on this.

Dean sighed, looking over at Sam. "I knew Lawrence. There were street lights. I made do. You want me to make do on the Interstate?"

Sam shook his head. "No, it's okay, I just—"

"I get it," Dean cut him off, pulling his legs up from the wheel well and shifting sideways. "You didn't know. You do now."

Sam muttered to himself as he climbed over Dean, neither of them wanting to get out of the car at night on the Interstate with semi-trucks barreling along at seventy miles per hour. Once Sam was behind the wheel and Dean in the passenger seat, he pulled out on the road again. After he'd picked up speed, he reached for the cassette, ejecting it and spinning the dial.

"Dude," Dean protested.

"Dude nothing," Sam retorted. "Driver picks the music."

"Son of a bitch," Dean groaned good naturedly, scrunching down in the seat and leaning against the window, eyes closed.

Sam drove on, picking up a station out of Boulder, and bouncing his fingers along with the Foo Fighters. It didn't take him long to get into the rhythm of driving the highway at night, Dean sleeping next to him. It felt almost…normal. In fact, though he'd be loathe to admit it, it felt like the first really normal thing he'd done in months.

When Sam pulled over to a gas station a few miles outside of Denver, he woke Dean up, registering that it was the first time his brother had slept more than two hours straight without nightmares in longer than he could remember.

"You want to get a room? Don't think we should head up the mountain at night," Sam said as he filled up the Impala's tank.

Dean stood and stretched, his face slightly puffy from sleep. "Nah," he said, then leaned on the roof of the Impala, looking over at his brother. "We can just find a side road. Catch a few hours."

Sam nodded. He'd just as soon save their money as well.

"You change your mind about calling ahead?" Sam asked.

Dean frowned. "What for?"

"To warn Brenna," Sam replied, holstering the gas pump back into its slot and pulling the receipt free.

Dean rolled his eyes. "We're going up there to help them with some witches," he said. "That's it. Me being alive just means is they've got more help."

They climbed inside the car and Sam pulled back out onto the main road, eyes searching for a safe turn-off.

"You loved her once, Dean," he said. "Time doesn't just…erase those feelings."

"Hell does," Dean muttered, leaning against the window again. "She doesn't need to be saddled with a broken-down version of someone she once knew."

Sam looked over at his brother, brow furrowed, but Dean's eyes were closed once more. Giving in for the moment, Sam saw a frontage road that appeared to lead into a wooded area. He exited, then pulled off the road and shut off the car. It had always been easier to sleep in the Impala on summer road trips; during the fall and winter, nights got so cold he couldn't sleep for shivering.

But as it was, the June night was soft, the stars were a blanket of light across an ink-black sky, and the wind offered just enough comfort as he rolled down his window, Sam was asleep within minutes. As was usual since the amulet had eradicated the devil from his mind, his sleep was peaceful, undisturbed until he felt the car rock and heard the door creak as Dean exited.

The morning light was still thin, barely penetrating the coverage of trees, but offering enough illumination that Sam could see the interior of the now-empty car. It was oddly comforting, once more waking in the arms of the Impala. No matter how he tried to create an environment of right and should be with their house back in Lawrence, nothing felt quite as much like home as the Impala.

Blinking blearily, arms outstretched on a quiet yawn, Sam looked through the windshield to see Dean leaning stiff-armed against the hood of the car, head hanging low, his shoulders heaving with rough breaths. Sam froze, watching, as Dean lifted his head and used the back of his hand to wipe what could have been sweat, but what Sam was willing to swear were tears, from his face. Dean licked his lips, then ran a hand roughly through his short hair before turning away from the car and heading into the woods.

Sam hadn't heard his brother's dream this time, but that clearly hadn't meant Dean escaped nightmare-free. Stella's point that the damage done to his brother in Hell – and honestly, every moment since then – only catching up to him in the quiet of his life resonated as he thought about how Dean had slept peacefully while the Impala rumbled around him.

He climbed out of the car, heading into the woods to take a leak, then returned to dig his toothbrush and a bottle of water from the trunk. Dean joined him, doing the same, and they used the rest of the water to splash their faces, ridding their eyes of the last remnants of sleep. They moved in synchronization, each knowing exactly what needed to happen, pausing to allow the other space. It was a harmony that Sam realized had been lacking back in Lawrence.

It hadn't been needed there.

"You find Argo on the map?" Dean asked finally.

"Yeah – good thing it's June," Sam told him. "In the winter, we'd have to have chains on our tires."

Dean looked horrified. Sam shrugged and clapped him on the shoulder. They pulled back out onto the road – Dean at the wheel – and got to the other side of Denver before grabbing some breakfast. Sam used that opportunity to call Virgil to tell him how close they were.

"Glad to hear it," Virgil replied. Sam put the call on speaker, though Dean simply listened. "Remember I told you another guy went missing a couple days back?"

"You find him?"

"Drowned," Virgil replied. "Rate this is going, pretty sure someone's gonna be stoned next. And not the kind that gives you the munchies."

"You put an alarm on Brenna's place?" Sam asked.

"He tried," came a new voice, faded, as if hearing Virgil's conversation through the handset.

Sam looked over at Dean when he sensed his brother stiffen. Dean was pale, his left hand white-knuckling the steering wheel. Sam took a breath: his brother might bluff a good game, but there was no denying that reaction to hearing Brenna's voice again for the first time in nearly four years.

"Hey Brenna," Sam greeted. He heard a rustle and then when Brenna spoke again, he could tell he'd been placed on speaker as well.

"Hey, Sam," she replied. "Glad you could make it."

"I take it the alarm system was a no-go?"

"Well," Brenna sighed. "Not much use. Someone broke in before he could get up here. They destroyed all my plants - which was pretty much all I had worth something."

"Holy shit," Sam exclaimed, forgetting for a moment that Dean was beside him. "Aislinn wasn't there, right? You guys are okay?"

He felt Dean's eyes on him, but ignored him for the moment.

"She's up at Virge's Aunt's. I took all her baby stuff there, along with anything else that matters to me," Brenna said. "I got a place to stay. Just pissed me off is all. Narrow-minded freaks."

"How about the charms?"

"I'm charming as hell," Brenna teased. "Trying to make Virge wear one, too."

"Not much for necklaces," Virgil groused.

"Get over it," Sam told him. "Or get a tattoo."

Brenna laughed and Sam heard Dean shift restlessly next to him.

"How far out are you?" Virgil asked.

"About…ninety minutes?" Sam guessed. "Give or take. Where do you want to meet?"

"The fire station," Virgil told him. "You can't miss it. It's the only one in town and it's right next to the gold mine."

"'Kay. See you then."

Sam hung up the phone, then sat very still. The car rumbled around him, tires eating up the road, but Sam swore he could hear Dean's heartbeat.

"Baby things?" Dean asked, his voice rough.

Sam swallowed. "They have a kid," he said.

Dean nodded. "Might've mentioned that before," he said, glancing sideways at Sam. "Y'know, when you were reminding me how I used to love her."

"I'm sorry."

Dean shook his head, accelerating enough to roughly press Sam against the seat.

"I am sorry, Dean," Sam tried again. "If it helps…they're not together."

Dean shot him a look. "Why would that help?"

"I just meant…it's not like you'd be breaking up a family."

"Oh, real nice, Sam."

"Well, what do you want me to say?" Sam protested helplessly.

"Anything else you forget to share? Or are you waiting for me to be directly in the cross hairs before more bombs drop?"

Sam frowned. "Hey, it wasn't like I had a transcript of the damn call," he snapped. "You asked about the hunt; I told you about the hunt."

"Doesn't matter," Dean muttered, his voice tight, a nameless emotion trembling just beneath the surface. "We're going up there to help a friend, smoke this witch, then we're gone."

Sam watched out the window as the mountains drew close. "And then what?"

"What do you mean?" Dean frowned, his left hand tightening on the steering wheel.

"And then you're gone, aren't you?" Sam voiced the worry that had been nagging him since Dean announced he was healthy enough to hunt.

"I don't know, Sam," Dean replied on a heavy exhale.

Sam felt tension burble up inside him, hot and fast. "I mean, it's not like we have to find old Yellow Eyes anymore…your soul's not on the line…no angels or demons after our asses anymore…. Everything that kept us together is done."

Dean frowned at him. "How about just being brothers?"

Sam slouched in his seat, feeling that anxious need to move shimmy through his system.

"That's always been enough for me, man," Dean replied.

"Yeah, well…," Sam muttered.

"Let's get through this hunt first, yeah?"

"Fine," Sam replied, pulling out the map and watching for the exit to Argo.

The Impala struggled slightly at the sharp embankments; Dean leaned toward the wheel as if somehow the position of his body would continue to propel the car forward. Sam split his attention between the road, the map, and the amazing vistas spread out before him. It wasn't as if he'd never seen mountains; traversing the country offered him more chances than most.

He'd just not seen anything except the rolling hills and limestone cliffs of Lawrence for months.

He'd almost forgotten how amazing it could be to see a sea of open plains one day and craggy mountains the next. Sam filled his eyes, noting the silver turn of the Aspen leaves as the cluster of trees snaked through the expanse of evergreen, the unexpected waterfall from the mountain side, and the dance of morning light tossing random shadows through the valleys.

"There," he called out when he saw the exit. "Argo."

Dean took the exit without a word and slowed as he drove down the main drag of town.

It seemed like a town caught in a strange balance between yesterday and tomorrow. The buildings all had false fronts like a classic western town, but Sam saw an internet café next to what had clearly once been - and probably still was - a saloon. A free-standing church, the white-washed building complete with a steeple and bell, was situated next to a grocery store as tiny as the diner next to it. And he saw a library connected to a gas station.

There was a sense of humanity barely holding nature at bay. The mountain reached in between the buildings with formidable arms, embracing the town as if it intended to pull it close and crush it as soon as the people turned their backs. Age and weather sagged the rooftops, clouding the windows, and turned the edges of the brick-and-asphalt street to dust.

Sam saw people dressed in a blend of Wranglers and Carhartts climbing from pick-up trucks and SUVs parked at a slant in front of the buildings, heading inside hardware stores and restaurants, mindful of only what they had to focus on, unaware of what seemingly lurked at the edges of their perception.

Dean followed the brown landmark signs toward the Argo Mine: Oldest Working Gold Mine in America. Virgil had been right; it wasn't hard to find the fire station. It was the most modern building in the entire town, though it looked as if it had been built back in the '80's.

Dean parked along the side of the road, turned off the car, and took a breath.

"Don't see anyone outside," Sam commented.

"Let's get this over with," Dean muttered, climbing out of the car.

He took a few moments to stretch, kicking feeling back into his legs. Sam waited for him, recognizing Dean's stall tactics for what they were. He moved around to the front of the car, starting for the door of the station, trusting that Dean would follow him. As he pushed the door open, Sam was surprised to realize he was nervous as well.

That vanished, though, the moment he saw Virgil – Red Sox baseball hat at home on his bald head, blue eyes bright as ever, grin wide and welcoming – head toward him.

"Hey, Sinatra," Sam greeted with a grin of his own, using the boys' nickname for the paramedic.

"Hey, yourself, Winchester!" Virgil greeted, taking Sam's outstretched hand and pulling Sam close for a fierce hug, clapping him on the back. He stepped back, his eyes sweeping Sam's face. "Man, it's good to see you. Been a long time."

Sam nodded. "Almost four years," he recounted.

Virgil tipped his chin up at Sam's nearly shoulder-length hair. "Still a hair farmer, I see," he teased.

Sam pushed at his shoulder. "Someone's gotta make up for you," he replied.

Virgil's laugh was almost drowned out by a female voice bellowing Sam's name. Sam looked up to see Brenna hurrying toward him, her reddish-blonde hair tied back away from her face, her odd gold eyes tired but happy. She grinned, her nose wrinkling as she did, and reached up to hug him. Sam had to bend – she barely came to his shoulders – but he hugged her tightly, thinking somehow to brace her for what came next.

"Your trip okay?" she asked.

Sam nodded. "Yeah, we just traded drivers," he said.

Brenna frowned. "You hunting with someone again?"

Sam took a breath, hearing the door open behind him. He nodded once, then rotated slightly, moving away from the door. Dean stepped inside, looking both uncertain and formidable.

For a moment, Sam saw him as others might: squared shoulders, slight build, an unconscious lean to the right, thin pink scars around his left eye and along his jaw, his right hand tucked into his jacket pocket.

Dean glanced once at Sam, then his eyes slid to take in Virgil and Brenna, landing and staying on Brenna's face. Sam saw the three of them pale as if on cue. He caught his lip between his teeth at Brenna's sharp inhale.

"How the hell…?" Virgil tried, but his voice seemed to dry up and evaporate as Dean continued to watch them. "Wait, are you real? I mean, you're really here?"

Dean nodded.

"Not like…a ghost?"

Dean's lips quirked slightly at the question, but he shook his head. Sam wondered if he was ever going to say anything – if he could say anything. His eyes seemed to take over his face, the green standing out against the unnatural paleness of his skin.

Virgil dragged a hand over his mouth, looking from Sam to Dean, then shifted and stared at Brenna. She hadn't moved; it didn't appear as though she were even breathing.

"Hey, Brenna." Dean's voice had a husky quality to it that Sam had only heard a few other times, the most recent being when they were saying goodbye to Bobby.

Brenna tilted her head to the side, her chin jutting out slightly. Sam saw her curling her fingers into fists. A muscle in her jaw bounced.

"How did you do it?" Her voice was venom.

Dean flinched as if she'd struck him. "Do what?"

Brenna clenched and unclenched her fingers. "Lie to me. I always know…," she took a step forward, "...I always know. I mourned you and…you…you lied to me."

Sam watched as Dean squared his shoulders; he saw a tremor run through his brother and he braced himself. Whatever happened next was not going to be pretty. He glanced at Virgil, but the paramedic had yet to look away from Brenna.

"I didn't lie to you."

She took another step forward and Sam felt the room inhale. Before any of them could stop her, she reached out and with the full force of her small body, cracked Dean across the cheek with the flat of her hand. Sam flinched as Dean's head snapped back to the right, the fluorescent lights catching on his scars. He straightened his head, his cheek turning read from the impact.

"I didn't lie," he repeated calmly, and Sam saw the soft reflection of the soul light – as he'd come to think of it – begin to shine from Dean's eyes.

"Hell? A death sentence? Trading your soul for Sam's life?" Brenna all-but shouted, her body trembling. "That mean anything to you? Because it damn sure meant something to me!"

Dean's voice dropped an octave and he lowered his chin. "I didn't lie."

Brenna's eyes danced over his face. "You standing here says different."

"Find out for yourself," Dean told her.

"Dean, wait are you—" Sam started to caution, suddenly afraid of how much truth Brenna might see.

But before he could get the rest of his warning out, Brenna reached out once more and placed a hand on Dean's face, her fingers on the scar that ran along his jaw.

Sam had experienced Brenna's druid touch before – felt the way it seemed to peel him open and set on display everything he fought so hard to keep hidden. Dean had told him it was the same for him. The abilities that fell to her because of her druid origins stripped away the masks that people so carefully constructed showing her the truth and in Dean's case, exposed layers of scars that went deeper than anything she could touch on the outside.

Dean flinched, his body shuddering once as Brenna made contact. Sam heard her gasp and utter a brief, pained cry, and then she stepped back. It hadn't been long enough to see much, he reasoned, but whatever she saw turned her eyes wide – pupils larger than normal, gold nearly gone – and caused her to pale even more than before.

Dean and Brenna stepped away from each other, Dean searching for a wall to lean against, Brenna reaching a hand out for support. Virgil instinctively took it, offering her the anchor he'd always been.

"What did you see?" Sam and Virgil asked in unison.

Brenna looked at Dean, her eyes slowly returning to normal, the devastated expression there mirroring Dean's own.

"You didn't lie," she whispered.

"I didn't lie," Dean repeated and Sam winced at the pain he heard lacing those words.

"Brenna?" Virgil turned her to face him, forcing her to look away from Dean. "Tell me."

"He died," she said and Sam heard her draw a breath as she found balance once more. "He died and was in Hell, just like he said would happen."

Virgil looked back at Dean. "But you're back."

Dean nodded, finally glancing at Sam. "I'm back."

"How?" Virgil demanded.

Dean licked his lips and Sam could practically hear the cacophony of events crashing against each other as they fought to be the one Dean selected as his reason for standing there today.

"Would you believe…angels?" Sam interjected, rescuing Dean from having to explain.

Virgil's eyebrows bounced up, disappearing beneath the brim of his hat. "Angels."

Dean nodded, his voice having apparently vacated once more.

"Angels are...are real," Virgil said, releasing Brenna's hand and facing Dean once more, his eyes bouncing between the brothers.

Sam nodded. "And demons."

"Angels and demons." Virgil took off his hat, scratched his forehead and then pulled the hat down low once more. "Dan Brown would be shittin' bricks."

Before Sam could react to the fact that Virgil had read Dan Brown's books, Brenna was stepping forward again. After the last assault, Sam found himself tensing, preparing to stop her from striking Dean again.

"You were…rescued?" Brenna asked, clearly trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

Dean's lifted his chin, his eyes low. "You said I had a purpose," he reminded her. "Hell didn't take it from me."

Brenna tipped her head back, as if remembering. "And did you find out what it was?"

"Sort of. Part of it, anyway." Dean exchanged a look with Sam.

Sam heard Virgil take a breath. "And you didn't think it might have been a good idea to mention that…oh, I don't know…your brother was back from the dead when we talked, Sam?"

Sam glanced at Virgil, his brows pulled together. "It slipped my mind," he replied with strained remorse.

Virgil turned away, his fingers laced behind his neck. "I can't fuckin' believe this," he muttered. "I mean, sure, there's weird shit out there, but dead is dead…that's the whole reason I do what I do…to stop that from happening…and here he is, just hey, I'm alive…healthy as can be—"

"Virge," Brenna took his arm, turning him to face her and cutting off his litany. "It's okay."

"How is this even in the vicinity of okay?" Virgil demanded, waving an arm at Dean.

"We got a lot to figure out – we don't know the whole story," she reminded him. "But right now, we need to focus on this," she circled her hand around them.

"Just leave, Bren," Virgil pleaded in a tired, I'm going to say this until you finally listen to me voice. "Just get Aislinn and go to some other town, somewhere no one knows you."

"And then what happens if they follow me? Find me? What happens the next time someone finds out about me? What happens if they come after Aislinn? No," she shook her head. "This stops here." She looked over at Sam, then slid her eyes to Dean, then back to Virgil. "And they're here to help."

Virgil hung his head for a moment, then straightened and faced the brothers. Sam moved closer to Dean. Without realizing it, they mirrored each other in a parade rest stance, waiting to see what was said next.

"I'm sorry," Virgil said.

Sam blinked. That was the last thing he'd expected to hear.

"I know you're here to help us," he continued, "but you have to understand that there's just so much weird I can take in one day."

Sam nodded, seeing Dean follow suit.

"So…what happens now?" Sam asked.

Virgil opened his mouth, but before he could reply, the alarm sounded, causing all four to jump in surprise. A voice over the loudspeaker called EMTs to their buses, belting out an address. Without another word, Virgil turned and headed through a door marked Authorized Personnel Only, leaving Brenna, Dean, and Sam standing in the reception area.

"You saw more than Hell, didn't you?" Dean asked her softly, surprising Sam.

Brenna nodded. "Yes. It didn't make much sense, but…yes."

Dean looked down. "Thought so." He raised his eyes once more, and rocked Sam back on his heels when he said, "I saw what you saw."

Brenna looked away. "How?"

As Sam watched, Dean looked at the scar marring the palm of his right hand.

"Don't know," he whispered. "But I think we're going to find out."


a/n: Hope the initial reunion worked for you. There's some serious warming up that needs to happen, but in pure Winchester style, they don't really have time for all of that, what with witches on their tail. Hope you enjoy what's to come!

Note: There is a small town called Argo, CO, located roughly an hour outside of Denver along I-70, and it does have a gold mine, but that's where the intentional similarities end. Everything else is the magic of fiction.