I. Time Trials

chapter one

The Stop-N-Go
U.S. Route 54, just outside of El Paso, Texas
May 1987

Eight-year-old Dean Winchester aimed the blaster at the screen and fired continuously, blowing up aliens and racking up points. In another thirty seconds he'd have enough for another free game.

Something tugged on his sleeve. "Bedtime, Dean."

Dean nodded. "Just another fifteen hundred points, Sammy," he said to his little brother without looking away from the screen. "Then I can put my initials up on the board."

"I wanna go."

"You're four now, dude. You can stay up longer." Dean bit his lip as he concentrated. And there went the Mother Ship! Score!

"I'm sleepy now!"

Dean winced and glanced around the convenience store they were in. Yeah, people were looking. Time to give in before Sam really made a show of it. Besides, Dad said that a good leader always took care of his sub—subor—took care of the men under him. He sighed and turned from the black metal console. "Fine, brat! Bedtime it is. Let's go."

He grabbed Sammy's hand and tugged him out the door and across a field to their latest motel room. "You better remember this the next you're screaming to stay up late," he said with a small jerk of the hand in his.

"You're mean! I'll tell Daddy!" Sammy said as he stumbled behind his brother.

"Hey, I didn't tell Dad you flushed one of his silver bullets down the toilet, so you keep your mouth shut about us going to play games."

"You played," Sammy pouted.

"And you colored. You like coloring, don'tcha?"

"Yeah. I color good, don't I?"

"Yeah, Sammy, you're real good at it." He slid the key into the lock and opened the door. "Go on and get ready for bed, kiddo."

An hour later, Sam was completely out and Dean was completely awake. He really wanted his initials on that game. It would be totally cool to come through the town again when he was really old—like twenty—and see DW up on the screen. He fingered the free game token he'd won. Sammy was sleep. And the motel was only a few yards away. And it wouldn't take him long.

And it'd be really cool.

Carefully, he slipped out the door.


The El Rio Motel
U.S. Route 54, just outside of El Paso, Texas

Sammy wiggled his nose in irritation. Something stunk. He coughed then woke up completely. He blinked as white stuff danced in front of his face. Smoke. "Dean, you playing with matches again? You know what Daddy said!" He sneezed. "Dean!"

Worried when his brother didn't answer, Sam clambered out of the bed and into the other room. Daddy called it a suite, but he called it yucky. The paint was all messed up and Dean wouldn't let him eat anything that fell on the floor. Not even if he blew on it.

"Dean?"

The room was empty, but smoky. With a cough he headed toward the door. He pulled it open just enough to stick his head out and call, "Dean!" Nothing. He turned back toward the now gray room, then nervously stepped all the way outside. "Dean!"

"Baby boy, what're doing out here all by yourself!" He looked up at the kindly face of a woman with dark hair. "Come on, child! There's a fire!"

Fire. Fire took Mom. "Dean! Daddy!"

"It's not safe here, baby. Come on. We'll find your Dean and daddy when we're safe, okay?"

Sam stood looking around indecisively. Going somewhere without Daddy or Dean wasn't good. But neither was fire. The lady took the decision out of his hands by scooping him up into her arms and up against her shoulder. "We have to go, little one."

Sam ended up looking back at the room and wondering where his family was.


The Stop-N-Go
U.S. Route 54, just outside of El Paso, Texas

Dean barely looked up as the tiny bell over the convenience store's door sounded. He was just about—yes! He could put up his initials. Score one for Dean Winchester!

"Yeah, something's burning over there at the motel. Fire trucks on their way and everything."

Dean turned so fast he almost tripped over his own feet. "What?"

A tall, thin man with a cigarette hanging from his lip nodded toward the motel. "Fire over there. Might be bad."

Dean's heart was pounding so hard he couldn't hear what else the man was saying as he was already out the door and flying across the field. He didn't stop until he saw the flames.

Mama! his mind screamed. "Sammy!" he yelled aloud.

He moved forward, only to be jerked back by a hand clamping down on his wrist.

"Stay back, kid! There's a fire!"

No shit, asshole, he thought. "Let me go!" he said sharply, kicking out blindly. "My brother's in there!"

He jerked free and ran toward the door he'd left Sammy behind. There was a pop and suddenly he was flying in the opposite direction. "No!" he cried out just before his world went painfully dark.


R.E. Thomason General Hospital
El Paso, Texas

"John."

John Winchester turned away from his steamroller route to the emergency room's main desk and headed toward his friend and fellow hunter, Jim Murphy. "Jim! Where are they? When you called Caleb's cell phone you said there was a fire at the motel? Are my kids hurt? Is that why I'm here at a hospital?" John knew the answer to his questions even as he asked them. Why else would Jim had directed him here if Sam and Dean were okay? A fire. Shit. Goddamnit! "Was it what got Mary? Where are my boys, Jim?"

"John, I suggest you get a hold of yourself before Security kicks you out of here," Jim warned softly. John finally took notice of the staring nurses and attendants and forced himself to take a deep breath before he nodded. Jim led him to a line of chairs in the far corner. "It wasn't—a demon didn't do this, okay? Bobby was just an hour away when I got the call. Dean apparently had my number written in his jacket."

"They told him to do it at school. Yours was the only permanent number he knew. Guess I need to get one of those big ass pocket phones, too, huh?" John said uneasily.

Jim nodded. "I came to the hospital while Bobby checked out the site. Your neighbors were running a drug lab in the next room. Things went—wrong."

"The boys?" John forced himself to ask calmly.

"Dean's upstairs in the pediatric ICU. An explosion sent him flying into a wall. Concussion, dislocated shoulder, broken elbow."

"And Sammy?"

Jim reached out and grasped both his wrists. "Bobby searched. No one saw a little boy, John. And...and the firemen says it'll be at least two days before anyone can safely go in—"

"No." John looked down at his captured wrists and did nothing to free them. "No, no, no. If Dean got out, then Sammy did, too. He wouldn't have—Have you talked to him?"

"He's been unconscious since they brought him in. But if there had been any sign of a lost child..."

"I need to see Dean."

"Okay." Jim ushered him into an elevator. "He's not in a coma or anything. He responds well in stimulus tests and they expect him to wake on his own in a little while."

"Good. Then he can tell us where Sammy is. Probably stashed him somewhere and told him not to come out unless he recognizes the voice. The boys are always playing games like that. Dean's version of training. The boy has good instincts."

"John."

God, the sympathy in that one word. Jim needed to shut the hell up. "You'll see, Jim. Dean's protecting Sammy. I know it."

Jim didn't say anything else as he led John to the monitoring island in the middle of the intensive care unit. John explained who he was and was led to a glass cubicle where his son lay hooked up to beeping and humming machines. Both arms were in some kind of traction/torture devices and his face was pale, except where it was bruised.

The boy needed a haircut. Which surprised him because it was always Sammy who needed the haircut. Sammy...

"Remember you have only fifteen minutes, John. I'll be in the waiting room."

He nodded at Jim, rolled a narrow stool close to the bed, and sat down. "Hey, kiddo. I really picked a winner this time, didn't I? A motel with a faulty drug factory. Wait till OSHA hears about that, huh?" Dean was still except for the tiny hitch of his chest. Up. Down. Up. Down.

John pinched the top of his nose. The last time Dean was this quiet was after the fire—the um, first fire. Damn. This had to be doing a number on his little psyche. No wonder he'd stashed Sam away somewhere. When he was awake, they'd go find Sammy, and maybe take a break. Go to Six Flags Over Texas or maybe the Grand Canyon. His boys deserved some fun, some kid time. Yeah, that's what he was gonna do as soon as Dean woke and told him where Sam was.

It took five visits to the cubicle before John noted that something was different. "He's close," the nurse explained. "See how his eyes are moving under the lids? Push the button as soon as he wakes. We'll need to do some tests as soon as possible."

John watched as Dean's eyes crinkled in the corners like they did when he concentrated. He'd seen that look a hundred times during target practice. "You can do it, Dean," he coached softly. "Wake up, son."

"Sammy," Dean hummed.

John tensed and leaned closer to Dean's mouth. "That's right, Dean. Tell me where Sammy is."

Dean's eyes flew open. The terror in them had John backing away before he knew he was moving. He took a shaky breath and gathered himself. "Dean, I know if you got out, Sammy did, too. Where is he, son? Where's your brother?"

Dean's eyes closed and John shivered as he saw the tears start to flow from the creases. "I was...I was never...in, Dad. Sammy...was there...by himself. I..." He turned his head away, his eyes never opening. "I was across the street at the store playing video games. Sammy was alone. I—I left him there to die alone. I—He's dead, ain't he? I killed my brother, didn't I?"

John froze, a chill suddenly covering him from head to toe. His first numb thought was that there had to be a ghost nearby. Then he thought maybe it was the storm whose thunder was crashing against his ears. But it wasn't thunder; just his heart pounding away, trying to escape its cage of bone and sinew. Then it wasn't even just the pounding, but the discordant noise of monitors tripped by a small boy who was now conscious of his great sin.

Cain had betrayed Abel because of a video game.

Not even a damn blessing.

"John!"

He turned toward the twin sound of his name. Jim and Bobby. A hand each on his arms.

He staggered away from their touch. "My baby's dead."

Later, there was a lid tightly clamped over the screaming anguish in his heart, the utter devastation that was matched only by what he'd felt in November of 1983. Now, he sat beside his remaining son, whose lullaby of nearly silent monitors was directed by the sedatives in his system, and while he kept watch, he planned and schemed.

He knew as soon as Dean came out of it, the boy would be on a suicide watch. The staff psychologists had been called in when Dean went nearly catatonic after finding out Sam was dead. They were worried that he was planning on following his brother in death. They'd shared with John their fears, what counseling Dean would need, what drugs might be necessary, the precautions about keeping him away from sharp objects and sheets that could be made into nooses. He never told them that Dean not only had access to guns, knives, accelerants, etc., but that he knew how to use each and every one of them quickly and efficiently. Hell, knowing Dean, he could kill himself with just the machinery in the room long before anyone could stop him.

But John really wasn't worried about that. He had a plan. He was going to make sure Dean lived by telling Dean that if he died, his dad would be right behind him. Kill yourself, kill your daddy. Yep. He was going to lay that on his son, put that kind of responsibility on a eight-year-old's shoulders. And since Dean figured he'd let his brother down, there was no way in hell he'd do the same to his daddy. No. He had no doubt that Dean was now going to be the most responsible, obedient, and safety-conscious son on the planet.

Dean always was a quick learner.

Too bad he had a blind spot where his totally irresponsible father was concerned. He knew the boy would never blame the right person for Sammy's death. He'd never take John to task for leaving his boys in a fleabag motel alone with drug dealers and probably child molesters, serial killers... Of course, he'd left them in the car while he chased ghosts, werewolves, and ghouls... No difference, really, was there? He'd been a bad dad, was going to continue being a bad dad. Blackmailing his son into living? Check. Dragging him along on hunts because hunting was now John's drug of choice? Check—and really unnecessary because although he'd ignored them, he'd heard Jim and Bobby's offers to take Dean in, to give him a proper home. But, no, Bad Dad John wouldn't be giving Dean up—not his child, not his only child.

Shameful.

"I'll keep him alive for you, Sammy. He may not thank either of us for that, but he'll be alive. I know I made your mom that same promise, that I'd keep both of you alive and...well, I failed. But not this time. For better or worse, Dean and I, we'll carry on, Sam. For you. For Mary. We'll carry on."

John tapped his foot in time with the beat of Dean's heart monitor.


chapter two

Tierney Residence
Waterloo, Iowa
January 1997

Senior year in high school was hell.

Dean turned the composition book in several directions as he tried to decipher his notes. He really needed to work on his penmanship. Squinting, he finally managed to figure out what he'd written and tapped it into the computer.

He hadn't been too happy with his dad when John came up with the grand idea of renting an apartment and settling in Waterloo, Iowa (and, yeah, after a semester of European history he got the joke) for the entire school year so that Dean could graduate. He himself had suggested getting a GED two years ago when he'd turned sixteen, but Dad had nixed that idea with a sad glance that Dean interpreted to mean, "your mom and your brother would want you to graduate." And since they were the only dead that could push Dean Winchester around and get away with it, for the past year and a half, he'd faithfully become the "new kid in school" in any place they stopped for more than a week. Because of the way the world worked—his world anyway—all their cases during that period were in small towns and, of course, there were more jerks per capita in small towns than in metropolitan areas (he'd seen that just last week in the back of his Social Studies book—in more general terms but he'd read between the lines). But he'd gritted his teeth, ignored the jackasses he could and beat down the ones he couldn't, and had earned a small smiles from Dad for every passing report card.

So to keep the smiles coming, he was now in Waterloo for the fifth straight month—raising his eyebrow at the new students who transferred in at the beginning of the semester. Unreal. However, he now knew why it was important not to change schools this crucial year—papers and projects and testing every fricking week it seemed like. There was no way he'd get enough of anything to graduate without staying stationary. Of course, he was the only one who stayed stayed. His dad just used the apartment as a base between hunts.

"I'm so boring in bed that homework is a better option?"

Dean turned and smiled at the robe-clad woman walking up behind him. "Not boring at all, Ms. T. Just trying to finish my paper before I go home. My dad's back in town tomorrow, so if I don't get it finished now, I'll have to sign up to use a machine at the library. I'll never get it done that way." During "paper season" students could only sign up for one hour segments. It royally sucked.

Aileen Tierney was, among other things, Dean's guidance counselor. She was the reason he had to do all these papers and stuff in the first place. On his first day at Waterloo East High School, Dean had been kicked out of his math class for knowing too much and sent to Ms. Tierney for placement testing. Dean got math, because, hey, a hunt was all about vectors and probabilities and shit. English and foreign languages weren't too much of a stretch either because much of it was Latin-based and he'd studied Latin as soon as he could read; Pastor Jim got a hard-on for Latin and Dean had always liked Pastor Jim. Science? He liked taking things apart and also blowing things up—science was way cool. He was, however, slightly deficient in history—Ms. T's assessment, not his. Now, the history of some of the worst crimes imaginable (usually supernatural-based even though most people weren't aware of that), he could recite off the top of his head, but when it came to normal history, he was a little behind. For example his knowledge of the US Civil War history was limited to the location of battlefield/burial grounds because soldier ghosts could be angry bastards. Modern US history? He barely knew the current president's name. The invention of the sewing machine and Henry VIII's court—um, come again? Since he placed in advanced classes in his other subjects, Ms. T had offered to tutor him in history so he could be fully on the advanced track.

Along the way, she decided to tutor him in something else.

He was more eager in one subject than the other, but Ms. T's reward plan worked well in both.

"I'm going to have to do without you for several days and you want to spend our last moments together typing a paper? Where," she said as she straddled his lap, their groins only separated by the threadbare jeans he'd donned when he climbed out of bed, "did I go wrong?"

"I'm just trying," he paused as she pulled back the robe and sort of jiggled a nipple in his direction,"to live up to your academic desires for me." He gave the nipple a lick because Ms. T had taught him to be very oral.

She leaned in for an open-mouthed kiss. "I have other desires at the moment. Leave your notes; I'll finish the paper for you during my very lonely evenings."

"You're the teacher," he agreed happily. He stood and she wrapped her legs around him, making him so very glad for all his dad's physical training exercises. Older women had a lot of stamina.

At first it'd been weird, not the sex part because the women in the bars his dad liked to hang out in, well, they weren't exactly shy. But Ms. T was a teacher! He didn't know they did the things she did. He hadn't even been sure she was hitting on him.

When he'd finally understood that, yes, she was coming on to him, he'd figured it was just a tease, a play for power. When she'd invited him to her apartment, he'd been wary but he was seventeen and she was offering sex. No was never an option. However, while she was asleep, he'd cased her place for clues—black altar, Voodoo dolls, maybe a hidden camera so she could make some quick cash on Craigslist. But all he'd found was a few school books with various names inside. The school's library had yielded past yearbooks and by putting faces to names, he'd deduced a pattern. Ms. T was just a woman with a specific kink: athletic-looking loners (no club participation) who were seniors. Probably the best way to keep old toys from new toys.

Finding out he was being used was a relief. There would be no scooping up of his bodily fluids to use in spells—he'd overheard his dad and Bobby talking about a case in Tennessee where that had happened. No seeing his naked ass on YouTube. No chance of her becoming a future stalker. She merely wanted forbidden, dirty sex with a teenage boy. And in return, he got sex (yay!), use of a computer (yay again), and someone who cared for him (sorta, like the neighbor's cat that someone took in while the owner was away). She fussed at him when he didn't try in his classes and praised him when he did. She pretended he mattered. And he was okay with that because then he could pretend that he could matter to someone.

On some days, when the apartment echoed around him and Dad hadn't checked in or stopped by in a couple of weeks, pretense was the only thing that kept him going.

"The toys I ordered from the catalog should be here by the time your dad leaves again," she whispered as he shed his jeans. "You'll like them, I promise."

There was an eager desperation in her voice that bothered him. Didn't she know he didn't care what she did to him? If he could make her happy, it was more than he'd done for someone in a long time. "Whatever you want, Ms. T. Whatever you want."


Winchester Apartment
Waterloo, Iowa

"Hey, Dad!" Dean called as he let himself into the apartment after school. He'd seen the Impala sitting in front and had nearly run up the steps.

"Hey, Dean." John gave his son a one-armed hug as Dean dropped his book bag on the sofa. "How's school?"

Dean shrugged. "How's hunting? You find whatever was killing those guys in Trenton?"

"A lady in white."

"Awesome. Caleb's man come through yet with that ordnance order you made?"

"Yep. It's all good." John sat on the sofa and Dean could see the research spread across the coffee table. A short visit then. "Picked up the mail. Jim sent you a birthday card."

Dean glanced at the yellow envelope on the table. "Yeah, he mentioned it the last time I talked to him. Said it was strange having a real address to send it to and not some P.O. box. What time did you get in?"

"Pretty early. Probably just after you'd left." John straightened a stack of notes, evening up the pages at their corners.

"Should've let me know. Could've skipped today."

John looked up with a smile. "Never did like going to school on your birthday, did ya?"

Dean grinned. "Still wish I was a summer baby."

John laughed. "Nah, that would've been too easy. You just had to be a blizzard kid—I was that close to having to deliver you myself. Scary shit. But, hey, no blizzard today, so let's go out to dinner."

"Can I get a beer?"

"You're eighteen, not twenty-one."

"Can I get a beer?"

John rolled his eyes. "We'll see."

-:- -:- -:-

"Here, Dean."

Dean looked at the papers his dad handed to him. They'd had a great time at dinner and he was feeling vaguely mellow from the single beer he'd been allowed. "What's this?" He frowned as he read. "The rental agreement has been switched over to my name?"

John nodded. "You're eighteen and legal. I've paid through June."

"Well, that's how long we were staying anyway, right? I mean, graduation's in June."

John plopped onto the fuzzy brown recliner that'd come with the apartment. Most of the furniture had actually. "Have a seat, son." Dean perched on the edge of the sofa. "You're a good hunter, Dean. Your instincts are on point, your aim on target. We were in a group of six experienced hunters over Christmas and you brought down more of that werewolf pack than any other hunter there. Everyone was impressed."

"Thank you, sir."

"I wasn't too shabby myself."

Dean grinned. "Hell, no. Best damn hunter I know," he said proudly.

John gave him a slight smile, then sobered. "But the thing is...what I've discovered while you've been in school...is that I'm a better hunter...without you."

Dean jerked as if he'd been hit. "What?" he almost stuttered.

John leaned forward. "You're my son, my only child. I—hesitate when you're near. I'm—too concerned about you when we hunt together. You understand?"

"You don't trust me." It hurt to hear it. It hurt to say it. But he'd known it since he'd let Sammy die. Hell, he hadn't trusted himself since then. He let John make all the decisions and when John wasn't there, he let Ms. T make them. Because it'd been his decision that had killed Sammy. His choice to leave a baby alone in a motel room.

Bad choices were all he ever made.

"It's not a matter of trust." John's hands flexed as if he wished he had something to fiddle with. "It's a matter of—focus. My attention should be on the hunt."

"And it's not when I'm with you," Dean said. Because you don't trust me to watch out for myself. You don't trust me to watch out for you.

"Exactly. Probably why you don't see families hunting together—just friends or acquaintances. It's like doctors not working on family members or cops not investigating their loved ones."

"Clouded vision," Dean said softly. "Second-guessing yourself."

John reached out and patted him on the knee. "I knew you'd understand, son."

Dean bit his jaw, then asked, "What do you want me to do, sir?"

"The choice is yours, Dean. As I said, you impressed the hell out of several hunters. I'm sure one of them would love to take you on. Also, I saw your semester grades over Christmas. Maybe you wanna try a community college or something? Work on your research skills?"

Dean nodded. "Sure, Dad."

"Good man." John stood and stretched. "I better call it a night. Got to hit the road early tomorrow. Give me a ride downtown? I have to pick up something."

A ride? "I don't have a car, Dad."

John smiled and tossed him the keys from his pocket. "Yeah, you do. The Impala's yours, son. Happy Birthday."

Dean stared at the keys in his hand long after John had gone to bed. He'd always wanted the Impala. It reminded him of the good times; his mom up front, Sammy strapped in his car seat in the back. But now it was going to remind him of something else. That in return for its possession, he was losing his dad.

He snorted at himself. Who was he fooling? He'd lost him ten years ago, hadn't he?

Well, at least now he'd have more time for Ms. T. Of course, there was no way in hell he was going to tell her about this. Not that she could do anything like tell Child Services—he was eighteen—but she would probably pity him or something. And that would suck. No, he'd just have to pretend Dad was home every so often and it'd be fine. No one would know. No one would know that he'd finally lost the last family member he had.

With a shrug that held just the briefest echo of a sigh, Dean went to bed.


chapter three

Waterloo East High School
Waterloo, Iowa
March 1997

Bobby Singer sat on the hood of his faded blue truck and stared at the black Impala parked just across from him. School security sucked. No way he should be in student parking just sitting around.

"Good going, Winchester," he muttered to himself. "Serve you right if I was a predator looking to go after your boy." Of course, said "boy" could probably kick his ass, tie it in a bow, and ship it FedEx. But that was beside the point.

In Bobby's opinion, John Winchester had screwed up a lot more than just in choosing a high school. When the man had stopped by his house a few days ago looking for information on demonic presages, Bobby had known something was wrong. After an aptly applied bottle of Jack, John had confessed that he hadn't seen his son in weeks, that he'd essentially cut Dean out of his life.

"S'better this way, man. I'm close, damn close to finding that sonovabitch who got Mary. I don't...Dean can't be with me...I can't risk him."

It had taken Bobby a few minutes to wrap his head around what he'd heard. For years, he and Jim had been after John to let Dean stay with one of them, at least during the school year. Now, here the boy was about to graduate and suddenly John was ready to be separated from him. He'd raised the boy to be a hunter and now he was what? Cutting him loose to go hunting on his own? "You left that boy on his own in Iowa? What's he supposed to do, John? He's a kid!"

"Told him to do wha'ever he wanted ta do. He's a man, now."

Wait. Maybe this wasn't just John's decision. Had Dean suddenly found his voice again, told his pappy he was a man, stood up for himself? If that was the case, well, Bobby'd say it was about damn time. "Dean come up with this, John? Did he finally get tired of you just throwing out orders?"

John had laughed. "Dean? Hell, Bobby, I could tell Dean to go jump into a Hell's Gate, and he wouldn't even look back to see if I was comin' along. That boy don't care nuthin' 'bout himself, nuthin' at all. Scares me, man. That's why he needs to be far away from me. Far, far away..." His voice faded off to a whisper.

Well, fuck. It was as bad as he thought. "What didya tell him, John? Didya tell him why you were leavin' him? Did you make sure he knew it was because you were trying to protect him?" Bobby had asked angrily. "Or did you tell him he was a piece of shit you were tired of dragging around on the bottom of your shoe?"

John had stared at him with the wide-eyed expression that only a drunk could achieve. "No, Bob, man. I just explained—explained how he was a good hunter, but a dis—distraction to me. He understood."

Bobby had looked at the man in disgust. Even if John didn't, Bobby remembered Dean just after the motel fire. He wasn't so much suicidal as he was depressed. Nothing had excited him, grabbed his attention, sparked his interest. He was just this ghost of a kid trailing around behind his dad, looking back for the little brother who should've been on his heels. The only thing that kept him going was John's subtle blackmail. Oh, yeah, he and Jim had picked up on that—how John would say shit like, "Your mom and Sammy loved school. They'd be proud if you did well." Or "Come on, son. You need to learn how to do this to protect my back. I need to know you have my six." They hadn't said anything because it was working, bringing Dean back to actively living. But now John was taking all that away from the boy.

"You're an asshole, John Winchester," he'd told the man. "And when your drunk ass is sober enough to hit the road, I want you to scratch my place off your map."

"I just want him safe," John had mumbled.

Bobby got that. Demons—demons meant death. He was intimately familiar with that. But he knew Dean would take this as punishment for what had happened to Sam, knew Dean punished himself every day for Sam's death. He also knew John was too busy punishing himself to ever notice what Dean was going through.

As soon as John had left, Bobby was on the phone with Jim. It was a quick conference, perhaps too quick because somehow or another, he'd ended up being the one chosen to check on Dean. That was a ten hours drive for him, compared to Jim's two from his home in Blue Earth, Minnesota. He'd tried to point that out to Jim.

"Dean gets to be a little boy with me," Jim had said. "He gets to be a man with you. I think, for the moment, he needs to be a man."

For a pastor, Jim could sling bullshit with the best of them.

"Bobby?"

He turned to see Dean loping toward him. The boy had parked his car in the back corner of the lot, away from the revving engines of children now set loose from their daily captivity. Smart kid. "Your daddy's fine, as far as I know," he said, forestalling the question he could read from a distance.

"Oh." Dean came to a stop beside him. "What's up, then? You need back-up for a hunt? I got a couple days off for Spring Break."

Bobby shrugged. "I was over in Cedar Rapids at an estate sale."

Dean grinned. "You were out—antiquing? That's cool, man. I have nothing against alternative lifestyles. Whatever floats your boat, you know? Revs your engine. Cocks your trigger, as it were."

"Now wait a goldurn minute," Bobby interrupted, a little slow to figure out what Dean was getting at. "I ain't antiquing, you idjit! The deceased was a book collector." Dean laughed and Bobby knew he'd been had. "Found a grimoire I've been tracking down for a while. Anyway, thought I'd stop by on my way home."

"Bull, Bobby. Since you knew to look for the Impala, I suppose Dad told you what he did. I'm an adult now. I don't need you to check up on me," Dean snapped.

And Bobby forgave him for the brief snit because he could see beneath the bravado, see the boy who wondered why his daddy had tossed him aside. "You might wanna give that attitude a rest, son."

The starch went out of his shoulders. "Yes, sir."

Conditioning had its moments. "Actually, I'm here for myself. I—" Bobby removed his cap and scratched his head. "Don't laugh at an old man, yeah?"

Dean leaned up against the truck, sympathetically striking his shoulder. "Spit it out, Bobby. You know I'm here for you, man, alternative lifestyle and all."

Bobby rolled his eyes and continued. "I always wanted to go on one of those John Deere factory tours." Yeah, Waterloo was known for its John Deere factory, but he was still gonna kill Jim for putting the excuse into his head. But they both knew Dean was a good boy. Even if he laughed, he'd play the good host and make sure his guest got to do what he wanted.

Dean did laugh, but it wasn't a mocking one. "Jonesing for John Deere, huh? They do that whole engine disassemble/assemble thing, don't they? Aside from the fact it's a tractor engine, it sounds kinda cool. I don't have to buy one of their caps or anything, right?"

"Aw, c'mon, Dean. Gotta love the green and yellow," Bobby teased.

"Actually, I don't." He sighed dramatically. "It really scares me what I'll do for family and friends."

Bobby laughed. "I'm not askin' for a kidney, boy. So I read you gotta make an appointment for the damn tour. Put me up for a day or so?"

Dean patted his shoulder and moved toward the Impala. "You're talking to a guy with a two bedroom bachelor pad. Tour first, party later. Right, dude?"

"I ain't said nuthin' about partying," Bobby muttered good-naturedly as he climbed behind the wheel of the truck and pulled out behind the Impala. But if the boy wanted to drown his sorrows in a six-pack or two, well, at least he'd be there to keep him from dying in his own puke.

Surrogate parenthood could be a bitch.


Winchester Apartment
Waterloo, Iowa

"I can't believe you ordered a piece of pie to bring home. Where you gonna stuff it, kid?"

Dean grinned and patted his stomach. "Some of us are still young enough to have a metabolism that works." He took the mail he'd grabbed from the box downstairs and tossed it on the table.

"And some of us are old enough to have 'senior moments' in which we reveal who we went on the John Deere tour with."

"Nah, man, you swore to take that secret to your grave!"

"And you're the one who keeps tellin' me I got one foot already in it." Bobby glanced at the mail as Dean went to put his pie in the fridge. The logo on one envelope looked familiar. "You plannin' on college or something?"

Dean placed a beer in front of him. "Got a school counselor who has a great incentive program for getting her students to apply to places."

"What? Gold stars and lollipops?"

"Well, there was some licking involved."

Bobby bit back a sigh. Everything was sexual innuendo to teenage boys. "South Dakota School of Mines & Technology? That's up in my neck of the woods."

Dean shrugged and took a long draw of his own beer. "Ms. T said my SAT scores and math grades would be interesting to technical schools. They don't seem to care as much about my lack of liberal arts successfulness. Or some such shit."

"You thinking about going?"

Another shrug.

"If you're worried about money, I could put you up—save you on room and board in exchange for some help in the salvage yard and maybe a hunt or two."

Dean scratched through short hair. Bobby hadn't seen it long since that terrible time in El Paso. The doctors had shaved off a strip of hair because of the concussion and as soon as the boy was out of the hospital, John had cut the rest. "Hell, Bobby, I don't even know if I've been accepted yet."

Bobby hefted the envelope. "Rejections are usually a lot thinner than this. It's a good school."

"Yeah? What do you know about it?" Dean gave an exaggerated burp.

Bobby fingered the label on his beer. "I sorta graduated from there."

"No shit?" Dean's eyes widened, then narrowed. "Man, why didn't I know that?"

Bobby kind of wondered why he was knowing it now. Aw, what the hell? This could be good for the boy. "I don't really talk about it. I was what you call an older student. Went there after a tour in 'Nam."

Dean looked scandalized. "Damn, Bobby. What other secrets you hiding? You a Marine like Dad?"

"Nah, just regular drafted Army. If I'd had any sense, I would've gone to college and got one of those deferments straight out, you know? Always been good at studying. Should've stuck with what I knew. But I was young...stupid. Listened to idiots who claimed books couldn't make me a man. Neither did 'Nam."

"Rough, huh?"

He wanted to rail and ask Dean what he knew of "rough." But this kid knew what it meant, had known it since he was four. "In the hunting world, I'm mainly known as a resource person...books, research, and crap like that. If you want someone in the field, go to people like your daddy. Me? I had enough duckin' and dodgin' and wadin' through blood and guts in country to last a lifetime, thank ya very much."

"So why are you a hunter at all?" Bobby didn't know what showed on his face, but Dean quickly added, "Sorry, man, I shouldn't have asked. None of my business."

Bobby cleared his throat. "Let's just say I kinda know where John Winchester's coming from."

Dean nodded solemnly and lifted the envelope, weighing it speculatively. "As long as you don't expect me to be all up in the books, I think it'd be kinda cool going to your alma mater. If I can swing it, I mean."

"We can swing it," Bobby said decisively. He'd waited years to do something for this boy and now he had the chance. Come hell or high water, Dean was going to that school. "Relatives of alumni get in-state tuition. Let's not waste those ten years of calling me Uncle Bobby. And your permanent address is gonna be with me. Get you a couple of loans...Any chance of a scholarship?" He had no idea of how well or how poorly the kid was doing in school.

Dean shrugged. "I am dirt-poor."

"Ah, plead hardship. That works pretty well." Bobby held out the envelope. "Between our shuckin' and jivin', kid, they gonna be paying us for your education."

Grinning, Dean ripped the envelope open. "I love it when a plan comes together."

Bobby nodded, surprised at himself for getting the A-Team reference. "So do I, son. So do I."

Jim was gonna be so proud of him.


chapter four

South Dakota School of Mines & Technology
Rapid City, South Dakota
October 2000

Senior year in college was just as hectic as senior year in high school.

But a hell of a lot more satisfying.

Dean stretched as he made his way through the parking lot. He loved working on his senior mechanical engineering project, but he got so into it that he often forgot about the time and for the second time this week he'd spent six straight hours in the lab without realizing it. Good thing he hadn't had any classes for the rest of the day.

"Why are you doing this to me!"

Dean looked toward the yelling. An open hood. An idiot staring at guts of his car in horror. He shook his head. Laymen should definitely stay out of the operating room. "Problem?" he asked as he altered his route.

"It won't start."

Dean nodded. "Why don't you get in and try to crank it for me? Probably something's just worked loose."

The guy, redheaded as heck, raised a hopeful eyebrow. "You know something about cars?"

"I'm a mech major."

"There is a God!" He bounded into the car and ten minutes later, the engine was purring enthusiastically. "Tim Lovett, sophomore," he told Dean as he shook his hand.

"Dean Winchester, senior."

"Winchester? Wouldn't know anything about guns, would you? Lord knows, if you could help me with that, I think I'd have to marry you."

"What'd ya need to know?"

Light blue eyes widened and Dean was reminded of a ghost-possessed marionette he and his dad had wasted back in the day. "How to shoot the darn things. I'm ROTC and an embarrassment. The colonel's about ready to kick me out."

Dean rubbed the back of his neck. He didn't have time for this, but he was pretty sure he was genetically incapable of not helping someone in need. "I can't make any promises, but I can give you some pointers."

"That's great! How long you been shooting?"

"Five, six."

"Five or six years?"

"Since I was five or six," Dean clarified before he realized what he was saying. Thankfully, Tim looked impressed and not horrified.

"You busy right now? We could go talk to the colonel, get you permission to use the indoor range. There's a lot of security crap, you know?"

College kids and guns? Yeah, he hoped there was a lot of security. He glanced at his watch. Bobby was out making the "geezer rounds" as he called it, checking on some of his older, housebound friends and wouldn't be home until late. "Sure, if you think he's in his office."

"Oh, he's there."

Tim's mouth ran the entire time it took to reach the lieutenant colonel's office. Dean was impressed by his new acquaintance's lung capacity and his knowledge of campus gossip. If a hunt ever came up at the school, he'd know who to go to for the 411.

The colonel insisted on seeing Dean shoot, not only to gauge if he really knew how to handle weapons, but also if he would be teaching Tim bad habits. Dean shrugged and checked the pistol the officer handed to him when they reached the shooting range.

Col. Benton watched him break down the weapon and reassemble it. "You military?"

"No, sir. But my dad's a former Marine. Taught me everything I know about shooting."

An hour later, Dean laid down the rifle he just used. That had been after the colonel had tested him on shotgun. "Anything else, sir?"

"Yes. Who do you shoot for?"

"Sir?"

" What club? Organization? Where do you shoot?"

"My uncle's backyard."

The colonel's jaw dropped. "I have to make calls," he muttered. "At least we have four full years to get you ranked and introduced. Never thought..."

"Sir?" Dean asked, glancing over at Tim to see if he understood what was going on. Tim just gave him a stupid grin which wasn't much of a clue. "Can I help Tim out?"

Col. Burton gave a similar stupid grin. "Son, you're gonna be helping out a lot of people."


Singer Salvage & Auto
Lawrence County, South Dakota
November 2000

"Mr. Singer?"

Bobby eyed the uniformed man on his porch with distrust. "Who wants to know?"

"I'm Lt. Col. Mack Burton, the commanding officer of the ROTC program at M & T."

"Yeah?" Bobby asked, unimpressed.

"I'm here about your nephew, Dean Winchester."

Bobby pushed the door open further, inviting the man in. "He in some kind of trouble?"

"No! Not at all. Your nephew, Mr. Singer, has an incredible gift. But he seems a little reluctant to use it, and I was hoping—"

"Dean's a grown man. He makes his own choices." He indicated the man could sit if he wanted. "What gift ya talkin' 'bout?"

"He has extraordinary hand-eye coordination, which makes him a natural at shooting."

"Yeah, he's good," Bobby replied, wondering if Burton was ever gonna get around to saying what he'd come to say.

Burton looked him dead in the eye. "He's better than good, sir. Get a club behind him, get him entered in the right competitions, and he could be headed for the 2004 Olympics."

Bobby was skeptical. "Some kinda shooting Olympics?"

"The real Olympics, sir—the Summer Games. The shooting competitions don't get the kind of airplay that some of the other sports get, but medals are awarded just the same."

Finally impressed, Bobby cocked an eyebrow. "And you think Dean is capable of that?"

"You know he is."

Bobby cleared his throat. "Well, I'll pass your message on, but as I said before, Dean's a grown man. He makes his own decisions." A lie, but a man like the colonel didn't need to know that.

After he'd shown the colonel to the door, Bobby headed to the computer. He laughed at the amount of time Olympian shooters had to take their shots. Shit. Try wasting all that time when a Wendigo was on your ass. He read on. Pistols. Rifles. Shotguns. Skeet. Hell, Dean could do all that with his right hand tied behind his back and a knife sticking in his gut.

And, yeah, it was a bitch to realize the boy had already been there and done that.

By the time Dean made it home that evening, Bobby had secured some fried chicken and made some candied yams—the only vegetable Dean didn't have to be cajoled into eating.

"Who died?" Dean asked as he eyed the table.

"What?"

"Somebody died or—Don't tell me: Mrs. Kawalsky needs another tune-up. I'm charging her for each feel she cops this time. I swear we need to look into creatures with multiple hands that appear and disappear at will."

"What the hell are you goin' on about, boy?" Bobby set two beers on the table.

Dean glanced at the table again. "You're fattening me up for something."

"Oh." He really hadn't been very subtle, had he? "We, uh, need to talk after supper." He winced when he saw a fleeting glimpse of panic on Dean's face. "It ain't nothing to get het up about—not like I'm gonna tell you I'm pregnant or somethin'."

"Whew! That's a relief," Dean teased, but Bobby could still see the worry in his eyes. "'Cuz that would be one ugly ass baby. Unless, of course, it took after me."

"Of course," Bobby agreed dryly. "You want this chicken or not?"

Feeding Dean was one sure way of getting him to shut up.

"So, what's up?"

They had "retired" to the living room. No cigars and brandy, but the JB was a decent substitute. "A Lt. Col. Burton came to see me today."

Dean looked confused. "What? Why? Oh, no. Not that shit about the Olympics? I told him I wasn't interested. How the hell—I had to give my student I.D. to get access to the shooting range. Guess he ran my info. I'm sorry about this, man. I'll talk to him tomorrow."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why won't you do what he asks?"

A frown. "Shit, Bobby. It's just wasting ammo at stupid targets. I got better things to be doing."

"Like what?"

"Um, like shooting ammo at the big, bad things that go bump in the night."

"What says you can't do both?"

Dean leaped from the sofa. "You can't be serious. I'm already leaving you shorthanded when I go to work for Walechi Racing. Between that and this Olympic thing, I'd never have time for hunting." He turned quickly to Bobby. "Is that what you want? This your way of telling me I 'cloud' your vision, too, that you can't focus with me around?"

Bobby got out of his very comfortable recliner. "Don't be confusing me with your fuckin' daddy, boy. If I didn't want you around, I'd tell you to your face. Understand me?"

"Then what, Bobby?" Dean asked, his frustration so evident. "What do you want from me?"

"It's not about what I want or your dad wants or what the colonel wants. It's about what you want, Dean. When you came home and told me about taking a job designing performance engines for Walechi, I was tickled pink because I could see how excited you were. You wanted it and you got it. That's a good thing, son." He reached out and lightly squeezed Dean's shoulder. "And it was good for me, too, because Walechi is just right down the road. Even if you decide to get your own place, you won't be going far. I like having you around, Dean. I focus just fine with you beside me. Okay?"

Dean took a deep breath. "Okay. So you really think this competitive shooting shit is my kinda thing?"

"You've always had an unhealthy fascination with guns and things that go boom. Thought your daddy was a plumb idjit for giving a six-year-old a gun—'til I saw you shoot. You're a natural, kid. Go for the gold, you know you wanna."

A slow grin. "Yeah, I wanna."

"It's in Athens, you know."

"What?"

"The 2004 Summer Games. Athens, Greece."

Dean paled. "Tell me they have boats to Greece."

Bobby grinned and settled back into his recliner. The first and only time he'd talked Dean into going by plane to a hunt, the boy had muttered the Rituale Romanum the whole way there. They ended up renting a car for the trip back. "Yeah, they do. But that ain't the way you'll be going."

"I thought you said you liked me," Dean whimpered.

"I do; I'll send you off with a bottle of JB for company—and teach you the Greek Orthodox version of the exorcism ritual."

"You're all heart, Bobby."

"Yeah, I am," he agreed with a smirk. His boy was going to the Olympics.


chapter five

John F. Kennedy International Airport
New York, New York
August 2004

Dean hated to fly. He knew that even before that flight with Bobby. Despite doing reasonably well in his physics classes, he just couldn't get his mind to accept the fact that a plane had every "right" to stay up in the air with no strings attached. Yes, plane travel was scientifically valid and the empirical data was indisputable. But being up in the air with no visible support was just something that was always going to shake him to his core. He'd made his peace with that and was determined just to grit his way through the flights he couldn't avoid.

But what he didn't know, until he walked into Terminal 4 of JFK, was that he was capable of hating the airport independently of the plane itself. For most of his life (he wouldn't say all because who knew where his mom had taken him), he'd avoided going into a mall. Everything he'd ever needed was found in second-hand shops, Army/Navy surplus stores and when something specific was needed—Walmart. But stepping into Terminal 4 was like stepping into a retail hell. It may have been a teenager's dream, but it was a hunter's nightmare. Why did people need so much stuff? And what the hell was the stuff to begin with? He'd seen voodoo stalls in New Orleans less cluttered than the walkway he had to stumble through. Never was he so glad to go through Security and confirm he had nothing lethal on him, besides the salt-stuffed travel pillow Bobby had given him.

The gate area was a little better but then he began thinking about his flight and started to pace. Needed to get the blood flowing, right? Air travel could cause—what was that?—DT?—DVT, that was it! Deep Vein Thrombosis. Blood clots. Be a shame to die of a blood clot at twenty-five. Or in a plane crash. Over a big ass ocean.

Dean's thoughts flashed on the top-of-the-line iPod in his bag. Jim had presented it to him when he'd been in Blue Earth for the Fourth of July (the city council loved fireworks in a BIG way. Of course, they also loved the fuckin' Jolly Green Giant, but he'd promised long ago not to hold that against them). "Fill it with soothing music and your spirit will carry you safely over the sea," Jim had said. So Dean loaded up a little bit of Black Sabbath, a taste of Aerosmith, a healthy helping of Metallica, and a main course of Zeppelin. He also invested in earphones that were guaranteed not to leak sound so he could play it loud without bothering whoever he had to sit with. Hopefully, the familiar tunes would keep him from freaking out.

Jim getting him an iPod. It was hard to say who was giddier about this Olympics thing—Bobby or Jim. For four years at least one of them had been at his competitions, silently sizing up his opponents and dismissing them with a glance. They knew nobody was better than their boy, and Dean could sense their fierce pride in him. That could've led him to be arrogant, but each man had a way of letting Dean know that beating a bunch of yahoos in a regimental, directed competition had nothing to do with their world. It was a hobby, nothing more.

And that was why, even though in a few days he was going to be competing against the best in the world, he wasn't the least bit anxious. Although his challengers had become stronger as he made his way through the years of competitions and shows, they hadn't challenged him. He'd instead challenged himself, making sure he got the score he wanted when he wanted it, hitting the target in the corner of his choosing. He really didn't think the best of the world was gonna be much better. And if they were? He'd just go after a perfect score and let the chips fall where they may. He was just there for the chicks.

"Hey, man, they called us to board."

Dean nodded his thanks to the helpful fellow traveler, straightened his shoulders, and hefted his carry-on bag. He could do this. Winchesters could do anything. What would Dad think if he saw him acting like this? Fear could be a good thing, but in this case—when adrenaline and hyperawareness didn't increase your chance of survival—it was just a hindrance and needed to be shoveled to the back of your brain or out your ass.

He was glad for the covered ramp to the plane. The less he could see the better. Glancing at his ticket, he searched for his seat. First class. Not because he was important but because he was in the MAN section—Medicate As Needed. Medical staff armed with Olympic Committee-approved drugs roamed the aisles. Swollen joint? Here's some ice. Allergies? This won't show up in your blood test. Scared to fly? This'll knock you out. And oh, by the way, first class accommodations brought to you by your local drug dealers—er, pharmaceutical companies (Our Drugs Pass Drug Tests—We Hope! ©).

Thank God his dad knew nothing about any of this. Not about his fear of flying. Not about his competitions. Not about his national ranking. Hell, he wasn't even sure if the man knew that he'd gone to college and graduated. The only reason he knew his father still lived was that Pastor Jim always started his conversations by saying, "Your father's fine."

It was hard being a son once removed—or whatever the hell he was.

He found his seat, and as he shoved his bag into the overhead compartment looked at his seatmate who was sprawled in the window seat. "Hell, I thought the basketball team was flying with the go-go girls and champagne," he said to the very long and lanky form.

"I'm on the swim team." The guy gave him a beleaguered smile that said he was tired of having to explain.

"So what do you do? Stand on the platform and just reach across to the other side of the pool?"

Stretch gave a genuine laugh and shoved back a lock of brown hair that apparently wouldn't stay where it was supposed to. Nothing a haircut wouldn't solve. "Haven't heard that one before. What brings you to the crippled end of town?"

Dean shrugged. The guy was going to figure it out when he saw Dean crush the seat arms at takeoff anyway. "Nervous flyer. You?"

"Migraines. I don't get them often, but with the changes in air pressure, Coach wanted to be sure."

Dean settled in and checked his lap belt. "Um, can we talk about something other than air pressure changes?"

Stretch gave him a sympathetic look. Normally, he'd beat that sort of look off a guy's face (he was okay with chicks giving him that look; pity sex was sex, too); however, these were not normal conditions and if it got the dude to stop talking about scary things, well "sympathetic" away.

"So, what part of the world you from, man?" Stretch asked, agreeing to his request.

Dean tried to relax. However, the question didn't take a lot of thought. "South Dakota. You?"

"Home is with my mom in a little town outside of Tucson, a suburb called Oro Valley, but I'm currently at Stanford." He gave Dean the once-over. "You don't look stoned, so I take it you only have problems with long flights?"

"There's such a thing as a short flight?" Dean replied with a shudder.

Stretch gave a confused frown. "You said you were from South Dakota, dude."

"Yeah, and my car is parked in long-term parking here at JFK."

"You drove all the way from—"

"Hell, yeah. And if there was a bridge across the Atlantic, I'd be on it right now." Dean took a deep breath as they started rolling down the tarmac. "Swimming, huh? So what's your specialty?"

"Backstroke and freestyle. I'm not on track to medal in anything, but who knows, right?"

"Life's just a luck of the draw," Dean agreed. He hesitantly glanced out of the window. Stretch pulled the shade.

"What about you? What do you do?"

"I'm on the shooting team."

Stretch looked impressed. "Really? What are you? Military? LEO?"

Dean was glad that there had been enough law enforcement officers involved in the tournaments that he'd been in that he actually knew what LEO stood for. "Actually, I'm a mechanic."

"For real?"

"For real." They had a fancy name for him at work, but that was what he considered himself to be. Under the hood made so much more sense than the rest of his life. "What about you? Plans for after Stanford?"

"Law school, marriage."

So, Stretch was one of those guys, the ones who had their whole lives already mapped out. Too bad, as the master once said, "You can't always get what you want." But Dean gave him an "A" for effort. "Yeah? Got the girl already?"

"Her name's Jess." He fumbled in his pocket for his wallet and that was when Dean realized they were up in the air and the seatbelt sign was off. He took the offered picture gratefully. The blonde smiling back at him was smokin' hot.

"Niiice. What she doing with you?" he said teasingly.

"I wish I knew."

A figure came up behind them in the aisle. "How you doing, Pole?"

"I'm good, Coach."

The coach moved on, maybe looking for another one of his guys.

"Pole? That fits," Dean said with a smirk.

"Short for Polanski. Sam Polanski." Pole held out his hand for a belated introduction.

Dean did the same. "Dean Winchester," he said with a firm grip.


II. Preliminary Heats

chapter six

Boeing 767
Somewhere over the Atlantic

Sam Polanski had had severe migraines since he was four years old. His mom had whisked him off to doctors, therapists, hypnotists, and acupuncturists until he got older and learned how to control the headaches on his own. He recognized his triggers (smoke and grape bubble gum were really bad ones) and could tell when the debilitating pain was threatening to hit.

So the explosion of light and pain and Jackson Pollocky imagery that crashed into his head as soon as his seatmate spoke his name was a quite a shock. He felt his body quaking uncontrollably and the pinpoints of light became cascading fireworks. This was going to be bad. A hand planted itself against his chest and he bucked against it. A tissue came up and pressed against his face. Suffocation? Nosebleed. Shit.

He would have thanked someone when he felt a telltale pinch in his arm, but welcomed darkness descended too fast.

He woke slowly, feeling muzzy-headed from whatever he'd been dosed with. He knew he should be worried about passing the blood test since his first swimming comp was on Day 2, but all he could think about was what the images that had assaulted his brain had finally coalesced into. A stuttering filmstrip with black streaks and ragged tears. A boy. Blond and laughing. A man. Tall and smiling. Fire. Yelling. Crying. "I want Dean!" "I'll take care of you now, son. Your dad and your brother died." "Call me mom." "That's the Big Dipper, Sammy. See how it looks like a cup with a handle." "You listen to Dean while I'm gone, okay? Be a good boy, Sammy." "I'm your mom now." "Here, Sammy, you can have my milk."

Oh, God.

Memories. Dean. Winchester. Daddy. Sammy.

He thought he hated the name Sammy. His mom had called him that once.

The resultant migraine had landed him in the hospital.

"You're supposed to be getting more color in your cheeks, not less."

Sam forced his eyes open. They were sticky, sore. He looked up at a man who was staring down. "What?"

"I'm Dr. Michaels, Sam. Let me get your blood pressure, okay?"

"What happened?" He looked around. He was no longer in the seat beside Dean. "Where am I?"

"On a plane," the doctor said cautiously, then smiled when Sam gave him a dirty look. "Okay, you pass the awareness test. You're in the crew quarters recovering from a kick ass migraine. Must've hit an air pocket or something and knocked your system for a loop."

It was more along the line of "something" and it had knocked his memory for a loop. How the hell had he forgotten about his brother and his father? Why had his mom lied? Why had he believed her when she said they'd died? Yeah, he knew he was adopted. Knew in the back of his head that there had been a life before Arizona. Was that the key to the migraines? Was it the repression of—of what? Of being kidnapped? Stolen? Did Dean and Dad know? Had they searched the country for him? Was there a milk carton out there somewhere with his name and picture?

"Hey! You getting another spike?" the doctor asked anxiously.

"Nah, the medication just leaves me a little fuzzy at first. The pain's just a dull throb. Typical."

"That's good. We're gonna land in London for refueling in a bit. Why don't you stay back here until then?'

Sam nodded. "Can I have some company?"

The doctor snorted. "I don't think the crew would appreciate you fooling around in their quarters."

"Not that kind of company," Sam said quickly, his face coloring. "Just want to talk to a friend on mine. The guy who was sitting next to me earlier. It'll keep me from thinking about my head."

Dr. Michaels agreed and five minutes later, Dean shuffled through the tiny door. "When you said you got migraines you weren't kidding, were ya?"

Sam smiled. "They're usually not quite that dramatic. Sorry 'bout that."

Dean shrugged. "Hey, I haven't thought about being 35,000 feet in the air since you went all floppy." He moved a blood pressure cuff out of the way and sat down. "Until now, that is."

Sam stared at him, having a sudden thought. Was this his Dean Winchester or just someone with the same name? Maybe it was coincidence or karma that this man reminded him that he had a brother (a father, a different life). But maybe this was his brother. He had to know, but he couldn't just come out with, "I'm your brother, the one you forgot about or lost or was lied to about or whatever." No, he needed to be all stealthy about it, do an investigation of the situation. Like he was preparing for a tricky legal case. He had to be both "Law" and "Order". If he could ever get out ER, that is. "Since I'm stuck here for a while, you could distract us both by telling me something about yourself. I mean, you already know about Jess. What about you? Have any family? Girlfriend? Wife? Children?"

"No to the girlfriend, and hell-to-the-no to the wife and children," Dean replied with a cringe. "I think it's sweet you have your bride all picked out, but that's not for me, man."

"So, no family?"

"My dad."

So if this Dean was his Dean, then Dad was still alive. Sam felt a tension relax that he didn't even know he had. "Any brothers and sisters?"

Dean cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Had a brother once... He died."

Died? Really? Had everyone been told the same lie in different forms? Two dead brothers and a dead father—and all alive and kicking. Wow. Forget starring in other shows. He was involved in his own little mini-series.

And, yes, his mom had told him TV would rot his brain, thank you very much for asking.

"You gettin' ready to take another header?"

He jerked his head toward Dean and realized he had a slightly crazed grin on his face and was probably looking a bit spaced out. He was certainly making an impression on his maybe big brother. And it wasn't a good one. "Sorry, man. I used to have a brother, too. Did he get sick or something?" The only mental picture he had of Dean was that of a child. From a child's point of view. Questions were the only was he was going to get the information he needed.

"Fire in a crummy motel outside of El Paso, Texas. My mom died in a fire, too."

Fire. Fire was good. He remembered fire. "Oh, man, I'm so sorry."

"Shit happens." Dean rolled his shoulders like he was tense. "Got an Uncle Bobby."

Uncle Bobby? More flashes. Piles of cars. Hide and Seek. Dogs. A baseball cap?

"I went to stay with him when I went to college. Haven't left yet."

"College?"

"South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Go Hardrockers," he added dryly.

"Hardrockers? Seriously?"

"Seriously."

"Guess being Cardinals ain't so bad," Sam muttered. "Thought you said you were a mechanic?"

"I am. I work on performance engines."

"Cool."

"Yeah, it is. So's my car. A '67 Impala."

"Black," Sam said as another memory appeared. This had to be his Dean. Why else would so many things match?

Dean cocked an eyebrow. "How'd you know that?"

"Um, you look like you'd have a black classic," Sam scrambled to say. There were other things he had to check out before he let Dean in on their shared past. Like his mom's involvement in all this. Was it a kidnapping? Or did she really think his family was dead? And what about the adoption? Was it legal at all? Speaking of legal, could his mom go to jail for this? Should she go to jail for this? What the hell was this anyway? And was there actually a "this" to be worrying about? Might just be one hell of a mix-up with no malicious intent.

Sure.

"What about you, Pole? Got any brothers or sisters, other than the one you used to have?"

"I'm adopted so it's just me and Mom. She wanted to come with me to Athens, but a few years back, she broke her knee and now it won't tolerate these airlines seats for such a long trip. Your dad coming?" Our dad. He was sure of it now.

Dean shook his head. "He doesn't even know I'm on the team." He gave a rueful smile. "I'm not sure he even knows there is an Olympics."

"He doesn't know?"

"I haven't seen him in what? Seven years? I used to call him but like with women, when you get voicemail every time and no one calls you back, you pretty much know you've crashed and—I mean, struck out."

"That sucks." Just what kind of person was his dad?

Dean rubbed at his knee. "I don't blame him. We just—after my brother died, things changed. He didn't trust me and, well, what good is anyone if you can't trust them?"

Sam's pained brain tried to figure it all out. "Your brother died and so your father didn't trust you?"

"I was supposed to be looking after him."

"So this happened recently?" Damn it, no. This had to be his brother.

"Nah, it was a while back. He was four and I was eight."

"Then it couldn't have been your fault," Sam argued, starting to hate a father he could barely remember.

"To-may-to, to-mah-to," Dean sang wearily. "And how the hell did we get into this chick-flick conversation anyway?"

Sam took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His head couldn't take another explosion. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm not exactly listening to what you say, just that you're saying it. A distraction, remember?"

"Yeah. Wanna hear the story about how I became an Olympic-level shooter. It all started in a parking lot and a guy with hair so red, you look around for a bucket of water to put it out..."

Sam closed his eyes and smiled. Yeah, he wasn't sure of how any of this had happened but this was his Dean. Because if there was one thing he remembered clearly was that Dean always told the best stories.


chapter seven

Olympic Village
North of Athens, Greece

"I feel like an idiot."

Sam snorted at his brother. They were alone in the tiny apartment he'd been assigned to, his three swim team roommates having already left. Because he'd had to be checked over by the doctor after they arrived, Sam was running late. "I take it this isn't your usual style of dress?"

Dean folded his arms and glared at him. "Hell, no. The last cap I had on my head was a John Deere one and as awful as that was, this is worse." He eyed the blue cap and red 04 with such extreme disdain that Sam couldn't contain his laughter anymore.

"Dude, it's a hat," he said between gasps.

"And a jacket with short sleeves. How useless is that? And a red shirt. Could it scream target any more than it does? And nobody better say a damn word about my steel-toed boots. I'm keeping my boots, you hear me!" Dean shouted to the world in general before recommencing his pout. "I thought the uniform I had to shoot in was bad, but at least it has a purpose—so they tell me. Although I've been shooting in flannel and jeans forever and never needed any 'protective garments.' Wussies."

"If you're so offended, don't march in the Opening Ceremonies." Dean muttered something and Sam leaned over to hear better. "What was that?"

"I said I promised Bobby and Jim I'd do it and take pictures for them."

"Jim?" The name sounded familiar.

"Pastor Jim. He's an old friend of the family."

Pastor Jim. Wooden church and a white house behind it. Playing marbles on his front porch. The memories were rushing back now, as if a dam had been removed. "Steel-toed boots aside, you're just an old softie," Sam exclaimed, amused to discover that when Dean griped the most, he was trying to hide his more 'fluffier" feelings. "Why if you had to shoot at bunnies instead of targets, I bet you'd never even made it here."

No reply but an improperly positioned finger.

Sam really liked having a brother.

"You doing okay?" Dean eyed him judiciously and scowled at Sam's cap the same as he had his. "Should you be walking around in this heat? Your first competition is the day after tomorrow, right?"

Sam was pleased that Dean remembered when the Men's 200M Freestyle heats were. As soon as the plane had climbed up in the air from their fuel stop in London, there had been air turbulence. Dean hadn't wanted to be sedated so Sam had talked and talked, about his swimming schedule and his courses at Stanford and even some drivel about The Supreme Court. He'd thought Dean had been too scared to really listen, but it seemed he'd underestimated his brother. "I've been cleared for practice tomorrow, so I'm sure it's okay for me to stroll into a stadium tonight and merely wave to the crowd and cameras. And I'm from Arizona. This ain't heat to me."

Dean nodded and adjusted his cap with disgust. "Well, come on then. Time to get this show on the road."


Athens Olympic Sports Complex
Athens, Greece

Three days later, Sam was looking back on the march fondly. At least something had gone right in Athens, because swimming hadn't. Freestyle had sucked. Or more accurately, Sam had sucked at freestyle. He hadn't even survived the first heat. Dean had taken him out to a taverna for a drink, patted him on the back and said he'd do better in the backstroke the day after tomorrow. Sam had rolled his eyes, told his secret brother that as a soothsayer, he shouldn't give up his day job, and slung back the ouzo.

Thankful that his hangover hadn't lasted any longer than it had, Sam was feeling quite confident that he was gonna suck at the backstroke, too, but hey, he'd made it to the Olympics and there were a lot of poor suckers back in the U.S. that were still only dreaming about an opportunity like this. But, lo and behold, Dean apparently was a psychic. Because not only did Sam qualify for the semi-finals in the 200M backstroke, he made it to the final as well. He was in the top eight swimmers of the world. The thing that had him shaking his head for the rest of the day was that he hadn't even noticed how fast he'd been swimming. That morning, during his first heat, right before he slid into the water to get into his starting stance, he'd looked out and seen Dean sitting in the seats, and when Dean saw he had Sam's attention, he'd given him two big thumbs up and an eyebrow waggle. Sam had been laughing when he started the swim and had continued the laugh after he found out he was second in the heat.

Sam had had lunch with his team, talked strategy with the coach, watched some of the other competitions, then walked to the edge of the pool for the semi-final. He scanned the crowd, which was bigger than for the earlier heats, and thought that maybe Dean had left. But no, there he was, raising a large, tacky, foam number one finger.

And Sam laughed his way to a fourth place finish.

After he'd changed into street clothes and ducked all the congratulations of his teammates, he walked out of the Olympic Sports Complex and found Dean shooting the bull with a handful of other athletes. Dean saw him and excused himself. "Well, if it isn't Mr. 'I'm Not On Track For A Medal.' You were smokin' in that pool, man."

"Trust me, that's not my usual competition M.O. Coach says I get too lost in my head when I'm in a competition, too busy psyching myself out or something."

"You seem to have overcome that."

"Because I was laughing at you. Where in the world did you find a foam finger?"

"Gift shop. Gave it to this little kid when I left."

"I was so busy thinking about you, I forgot to get anxious about the swim."

Dean batted his eyelashes. "Oh, baby, that's so sweet."

Sam deliberately shoved his shoulder into him. "You know what I mean, asshole."

Dean rolled his eyes. "Bipolar much?"

"Look, I just wanna say thanks, okay? You had dinner yet?"

A cocked eyebrow. "You offering?"

"Yeah."

"Okay," Dean said with a shrug. "But we won't be out for long. You need to get to bed and dream of sea monkeys or something."

Sam couldn't remember ever laughing so much.

Less than twenty-four hours later, Sam was laughing again. It was time for the final swim and he eagerly searched the nearly capacity crowd for his brother. He finally spotted him waaay up in the stands with three or four women on either side of him. When Dean noticed him this time, Dean gave him a thumbs up. Then he and the girls around him stood and did a horrible Rockettes impersonation, kicks in every direction but the one they were supposed to go. Then Dean held up a sign that said in crooked letters, "Pole Dancers."

Sam wondered if they were sober.

He was still wondering when he touched the wall in the number three position. A bronze. He'd won an Olympic medal!

Sam didn't remember much about the hours after that. Greeks took celebrating seriously and winning an Olympic medal was cause for maximum celebrating. However, he did remember hugging Dean and telling him the medal belonged to him.

"You won it for me, man. You and ya ladies. They here, man?"

Dean had smiled. "'Round here somewhere. Nice girls here in Greece."

"Dude, you're sober," Sam accused.

A shrug. "I never drink forty-eight hours before a hunt—a competition."

"Ahhhh. Blood testes—testica—"

"Something like that. Ready to catch a cab back to the Village?"

"Gonna put me to bed, huh? You a good big brutha, Dean." He gave him another hug.

Dean had just muttered something about him being an affectionate drunk. And the rest just became part of the blur of the night.

But in the morning, he found himself semi-undressed, with water and aspirin beside his bed. And posted across his door was the "Pole Dancers" sign.

It was the hangover that made his eyes water.


chapter eight

Olympic Village
North of Athens, Greece

"So, are we on our way to see your man-crush?"

Sam turned and waited for Rain Summers to catch up with him. He and Rain had been in the same Stanford freshman orientation group and between the facts that they were both pre-law and swimmers, they'd become best friends. When they'd both made the US Olympics team, they'd had a party that left reprimands on their school records. "What are you going on about, Rain?"

"From what I've heard, you and a certain buff member of the Shooting squad have been inseparable since you met on the plane over here. So what? You batting for my team now?" Rain was an out and proud lesbian.

"What? No. It's complicated, Rain. I mean, like, really complicated." He continued to walk, albeit at a slower pace because his normal stride doubled hers. She was right about one thing; he was indeed on his way to catch the bus to the Markopoulo Olympic Shooting Center, which was thirty-seven kilometers away from the Olympic Village, where all the athletes stayed. To say it was quite a commute would be an understatement. But today was Dean's first competition and he was determined to be there for his brother like Dean had been for him. "Besides, it's not like I've been ignoring you. I was at your final last night. Fifth is not bad. The 800M is a long one."

"Yeah, yeah," she said impatiently. "So back to the topic at hand: complicated as in 'my sexuality is taking a hit' or as in...?"

"He's my brother."

Rain stopped him with a tug on his elbow. "Whoa! Brother as in—"

"Same mother, same father." Sam sighed and plopped down on a nearby bench. "I told you I was adopted, right?" Rain nodded and sat beside him. "But I think...I'm pretty sure now that Mom stole me. My father, brother and I were at a motel and there was a fire. Mom rescued me and told me that my family was dead. But they weren't."

"Maybe she assumed they—"

"No. I went down to the internet café last night and pulled up the newspaper records for the time and the area—which I got from Dean. The records say that three people were assumed dead in the fire—the couple who was cooking meth in the room beside ours and a four-year-old boy named Samuel Winchester."

"And you remember being Samuel Winchester."

He nodded. My name is Sammy Winchester. I am four years old. I have the bestest big brother and his name is Dean. He knows everything!

"So you think your mom intentionally amber-alerted you and your real family thought you were Kentucky-fried. What does your potential sib think?"

"I haven't told him."

Rain frowned and scratched at her bare leg. Sam figured she was reacting to the chlorine in the pool. It was different from what they were used to in the pools back in the States. "Is there any particular reason why you're playing all 'mystery of the week' with him?"

"I've asked around. He's a medal contender." He hadn't really had to ask. Someone with Dean's confidence had to be good at what they did. "I don't want to drop all this in his lap and pull his head out of the game, you know? Not after all the help he gave me. It can wait. If he thinks I'm just some lovesick puppy, like you apparently do, at least he hasn't called me on it. But I think he feels our connection, and although he doesn't know what it is, he's content to let me hang around until he can figure it out."

Rain pondered that for a moment. "What about your parents?"

"Mom, my real mom, died in a fire when I was just a baby. Dad's still alive and kicking, but it seems he and Dean have parted ways. Dean seems to think Dad blames him for my death. I hope not." He sighed, then frowned. "God, my mom has some explaining to do. I've called her every night I've been here, and it's been fucking difficult not to bring this up, not to scream at her about why she did this to me, to my family."

"Could she...maybe...Your mom's a social worker, right? Maybe she was trying to protect you or something," Rain offered.

"Yeah, I thought about that. Especially since I think my dad is some kind of asshole. Who blames an eight-year-old for a four-year-old's death? Who the hell leaves an eight-year-old in charge of a four-year-old in the first place?" he huffed. "That's why I don't want to get into this with Mom now, not when I'm not sure of anything. I just wanna go and support Dean like he did me and take the rest of it day by day. That's the only thing I'm sure of—Dean is my brother. It's there in his eyes, his laugh, his smile. I remember them, Rain. I remember him."

Rain bumped his shoulder gently. "Man, when you say complicated, you really mean it, don't you?"

"Yeah. Remind me of this when I'm bitching about having a paper due and an exam on the same day."

"I'm not particularly fond of people who make my problems look petty," she noted dryly.

"Good thing I see my bus coming down the road." He stood and adjusted his athlete ID so that the bus driver could see it clearly.

"Hold up. I'm still coming with you."

"Why?"

She rolled her eyes and sighed. "I'm your friend, you idiot. Just because you annoy me doesn't mean I'm going to let you brood by yourself. Although, I don't know why I'm still your friend, considering how you ditched me at the Opening Ceremonies to stroll in with your brother."

"Rain, I'm sor—"

"Of course, back then I thought he was your new boy toy and, like, who needed a third wheel—especially a lesbian one. Now, I wish I would've barged in. Me walking in on the arm of a hunk like that would've blown a lot of people's minds."

"Hunk? Are you sure you're gay?"

"Even diabetics look at candy every now and then."

"At least you didn't use vegans and meat."

She laughed as they climbed on the bus. "Listen to you, gutter mouth. You sure you aren't batting for my team?"

"I didn't mean—I—" Sam stopped, feeling his face turning red. "I'm not talking to you anymore."

"Yeah, you are," she stated confidently.

And of course he did.


Markopoulo Olympic Shooting Center
South of Athens, Greece

"So what are we watching?" Rain asked as she and Sam sat down.

"Rapid fire pistol. There are five targets 25 meters away and the competitor has to shoot at each target in three different time intervals—eight seconds, six seconds, then four seconds. Scoring is a lot like a dart board—the closer to the center, the more points you get. They add up all the scores and the top six go to the final and all the shots are four seconds."

"Ah, the internet is our friend," Rain said knowingly.

"I didn't want to seem like a complete idiot," Sam said, defending himself. "Tomorrow's competition is even more confusing. It's the three-position rifle. He shoots lying on his stomach, then kneeling, and finally standing. According to Dean, it can be really slow. He says Bobby always brings Sodoku when he watches the rifle competitions."

"Bobby?"

"Our uncle. Dean lives with him."

"Why?"

Sam shrugged. "I don't have all the details yet. I've barely known him for a week."

"But you like him."

"Yeah, I do. He's...fun, but controlled, and I get the impression that it doesn't have a thing to do with him being four years older. I think Dad was hard on him after I supposedly died."

"He looks confident." Rain gestured to the other competitors. "Everyone else seems to be fidgeting, raising and lowering their guns, but he's just standing there."

"He can be incredibly focused and patient. I noticed that when we landed at the airport. Everybody else was going this way and that, trying to find the fastest moving customs line, me included. Then he grabbed my elbow and pointed to a line. We stayed there and got out long before a lot of other people who were on our flight. I asked him how he knew which line and he said he just took a minute to study pattern flow. Pattern flow." Sam just shook his head in disbelief.

"Maybe he's doing the pattern flow thing with the targets," Rain guessed. " And why doesn't he have on one of those shield thingies like everyone else?"

"They're called blinders. They help most people focus on the target. Dean says they're for wusses." Actually Dean said "pansy-assed bitches", but Sam edited it because he didn't want Rain to form an opinion about Dean until after they met. "He says in his world the only thing a blinder would be good for was maybe a distraction, that the things he hunted would be laughing so hard he could shoot them before they recovered."

"He hunts?"

"Apparently big game. Dad and Bobby are hunters, too."

She glanced at him. "You ever go hunting?"

"Yeah. At the flea market with Jess." They both laughed, then sobered as the competition began.

-:- -:- -:-

"Congratulations, man, on making it to the medal round," Sam said as Dean joined him and Rain after qualifying. Dean was in third place, less than two full points behind the leader.

Dean shrugged. "Nothing to it, dude. Who's your friend?" Sam made the introductions and Dean snorted. "Rain Summers. You divorce your parents yet?"

Rain grinned. "It's actually Rainbow Summers."

"It is?" Sam chorused along with Dean.

"And I haven't disowned my parents, but I did turn out to be a lesbian, so maybe they got the message."

"Honey, they named you Rainbow. I think you're the one who got the message," Dean quipped.

Rain looked at Sam. "I like him. He didn't even blink when I said the 'L' word. Aren't you gun-types supposed to be offended that I don't want you?"

"I'm offended by your prejudice. Just because I'm straight..." Dean sniffed dramatically. Then he grinned and Sam had a flashback to he and Dean at one of those "move the crane to choose your prize" machines. He'd wanted that bear so badly, and he'd clapped when Dean got it. And Dean had grinned just like that. "Hey, Earth to Pole. You okay, man?"

Sam startled. "Yeah. Just taking a vacation since you and Rain decided to start your own comedy hour."

"This is what I have to put up with everyday." Rain shoved him slightly.

"You from Stanford, too?"

"Yep. Ran into the biggest goddamn puppy dog during Orientation Week and decided to keep him."

"Pole the Puppy. Nice alliteration there, girl. You a swimmer, too?" he asked, eyeing her athlete's I.D.

Rain nodded. "Breast stroke." She paused, obviously waiting for a response.

"So not going there," Dean murmured.

"Thank God," Sam agreed. "Let's go find something to eat. Oh, you can eat, can't you? I mean, some athletes don't eat right before a comp--"

Dean laughed. "Trust me, I can eat anytime anywhere. There's a taverna near here you have to try. The owner gives free dessert if you clean your plate."

As they left the shooting arena, a woman brushed past Dean. "Very impressive, Dean," she said in a heavily accented voice. "You will come see me be impressive, also?"

"I'll be there, Karina." Dean waved and watched her walk away. She was curvy in a way many American women steadfastly refused. "She rides horses," Dean said breathlessly.

"I bet she does," Rain said in the same breathless tone. "Want some company when you go watch her ride?"

"What was I thinking when I let you two meet?" Sam muttered, pleased as punch that his best friend and his brother were getting along.

"Sam never talks girls with me," Rain said with a pout.

"You got a type?" Dean asked, rolling his eyes at Sam. "I like 'em busty myself."

"Long legs," Rain tossed out and looked questioningly at Sam.

"Um," he said.

He quietly followed the laughing duo out of the building, startled by the joy he was feeling. He hadn't grown up unhappy, but this was way different, deeper and all-encompassing—and totally beyond his vocabulary to describe.

Dean was even more impressive during the final later that day, ending up with a nearly perfect score and the gold medal. Leaving Rain to chat with a guy who was from her hometown of Flint, Michigan, Sam went looking for Dean after the medal ceremony. He found him talking to a reporter.

"How does it feel to win the gold medal?" the reporter asked.

"Feels pretty good." Dean graced the camerawoman with a smile that had her inching just a little closer. He fingered the medal draped around his neck. "Um, this is for my Uncle Bobby. He gave me the courage to try. And I know a certain movie character says there is no try, but Yoda got it wrong. Try is just as important as do because, man, if you don't try, you can't do, you know? I tried and I did. Thanks, Bobby." He tapped his heart in the universal "love ya" sign. The reporter made some closing remarks, thanked Dean and the camerawoman slipped him a piece of paper.

"Shit, man, you hit five bulls-eyes in the time it takes me to blink," Sam gushed as he walked over to Dean. "Shall I bow at your feet? Which aren't in steel-toed shoes, by the way," he teased.

"Damn regulations. At least I could wear my sneakers." Dean reached up to remove the laurel wreath all winners were required to don.

"Friends, Romans, countrymen," Sam intoned.

Dean looked around to make sure there were no reporters nearby. "Fuck you." He grinned and tossed the wreath at Sam.

"All you needed was a toga, man."

"Was I this mean when you got your bronze, dude?"

"Seems I recall something about me looking like a tree and encouraging birds to nest up there."

Dean snickered then kicked him as they walked. Sam stumbled.

"Jerk," he muttered without any steam.

"Bitch."

Sam eyed Dean cautiously. "Tomorrow's your last competition?"

"Yep."

"When you headed back to the States?"

"Delaying the return flight as much as possible. I'm here until the Closing Ceremonies."

"Me, too. Wanna do some sightseeing?"

"Did that throughout the equestrian events. And beach volleyball." Dean paused and widened his eyes dramatically. "Did I tell you I love beach volleyball? It's like mud wrestling, with less mud and more skin."

Sam sighed. "Not that kind of sightseeing. I mean, we're here in Greece. The Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Temple of Zeus—"

Dean threw out an accusing finger. "You're a geek, aren't you? I knew it! You hang out with cool people like Rain, but you're just a geek at heart. Speaking of, why aren't you asking Rain to go sightseeing with you?"

"She's outta here tomorrow. Her sister's getting married so she needs to get home."

"Sister getting married, my ass," Dean charged. "I bet she knows you're a geek and that's why she booking out of here right before geek tourist season."

"Well, if you don't want to go with me—"

"Did I say that? Since this is the only time I'm going to be here, of course I want to see it all. Just gotta run an errand for Bobby first."

"An errand?" They exited the center and headed for the bus stop. There wasn't really much happening this far south of the city.

"Yeah. He sorta collects really old books. A friend up north has something Bobby doesn't trust the mail to handle."

"Up north?" Damn. He'd been looking forward to spending more time with Dean, maybe figure out a way to tell him they were brothers.

"The island of Thassos. It's in the northern Aegean. It's about seven hundred kilometers from here. That's what? Over four hundred miles away, so we're talking more than a day trip because, hell no, I'm not flying. Figured I'd take the train up to Kavala and then the hydrofoil to the island. Hydrofoils sound awesome."

"Don't they call them flying dolphins or something?" Double damn. Two days lost.

"Yeah. It's like the boats have jet skis so they glide over the water really fast. Then once I hit the island, I'm going to rent a motorbike."

"Sounds like fun," Sam said dejectedly.

Dean shrugged and looked at him speculatively. "Be more fun if a friend came with me."

Sam's eyes lit up, then dimmed. "I didn't bring that kind of money with me, man."

Dean grinned. "I did. A graduation gift from Bobby and Jim. I guess I'm like a favored godson or something."

"I'd say more like a spoiled son."

The stunned look that crossed Dean's face surprised Sam. It was obvious to him that Bobby was filling in for their dad. And doing a pretty damn fine job.

"Never considered that." Dean looked torn between confusion and embarrassment. "Anyway, how 'bout it? Game for an adventure? I'm sure we'll pass plenty of places for you to get your geek on. I don't think you can walk a hundred feet in this country and not stumble on something historic. And that'll still give us plenty of time to come back here and visit the local attractions."

"If you're sure." Sam tried not to sound too eager. It wasn't like he was five years old or anything.

"All right." Dean pulled out his cell phone. "Let me call Calandra."

"Who?"

"This chick I met. She's a travel agent. Told her I'd probably have to do a little bit of travel while I was here and she told me she'd set me up real nice."

Sam shook his head. "Is there a woman within twenty miles of here that you don't know? 'Cause don't think I didn't see that camerawoman slip you her number."

"All of us aren't blessed to have a hot chick waiting at home for us, Pole."

Sam blushed, thinking about the conversation he and Jess had had on the phone earlier, when it was still night in California. "So, we're picking up a book for Bobby. And you call me a geek."

"Since I've lived with one—a very cool one, however—for the past seven years, I definitely know one when I see one, wouldn't you agree?"

Sam shrugged. "At least I have a hot chick."

"Means your eventual offspring might have a fighting chance."

"And you're saying 'eventual' as in many years in the future, right?" Sam paled, not even wanting to think about fatherhood. Not when he had doubts about his own father.

Who he had thought was dead.

"You do know safe sex is about more than just preventing disease, right?" Dean asked with a grin.

Sam bopped him on the head with the laurel wreath.


chapter nine

Larissa Railway Station
Athens, Greece

"Oooh, can I have your autograph, Mr. Winchester?" Sam asked in a fake high voice.

"Shut up, Sam."

"Nah, that ain't the way you said it. I think it was more like, 'call me, Dean, honey, and sure, I never turn down a request from hot babes'." This time his voice was lowered to a false bass.

"Dude, what was I supposed to do? Can't tick off the fanbase. Thanks to the basketball team, the U.S. already has an image problem."

"Should've thought about that before winning two—count 'em—two gold medals. Maybe you'll even get a Wheaties box." Sam followed Dean as they boarded the train that would take them to Drama, where they would then take the bus to Kavala, the second largest city in northern Greece. It was a seaport on the Bay of Kavala and across from it was their destination—Thassos Island.

"I shoot guns, Pole. No way in hell I'm getting close to a Wheaties box. The day of the cowboy is long gone. And I'm pretty damn glad of it."

Sam was shocked, although he knew Dean didn't fit any hunter stereotype he knew. The guy didn't have anything against lesbians. He didn't listen to country music—he'd heard enough about that when someone in a taverna had put on Hank Williams. He thought using tobacco products was poor dental hygiene. But guns? The man had to be pro-guns, right? "What? You're not a card-carrying proponent of the Second Amendment?"

"Ninety-nine percent of the current population are morons, dude. Do I want them armed? No."

"But what about self-protection?"

"You don't protect yourself with an automatic assault weapon; you kill, pure and simple. I've been handling guns since I was six years old. I respect what they can do. I know that dead is dead; that the person I shoot will not be in next week's episode without even a scar. I know that to pick up a gun and aim it means that I want something dead. Using a gun is not an acceptable scare tactic. A gun is not a toy. These things were known back in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. If I thought everyone who owned a gun now knew all that, I'd have no problem with the second amendment. But guns have become a fashion accessory these days. And that scares the shit out of me."

"Wow," Sam said quietly as he shoved his backpack into an overhead compartment. "I don't think I'll ever figure you out, man."

"That's what makes me special," Dean replied with a smirk. Because trains remained on the ground, he took the window seat, leaving Sam the aisle and potential leg stretching room.

"Is that what they're calling it now?" The train lurched once as it pulled out of the station. The leg room was inadequate, but not as bad as he expected.

"You better be glad I'm still on the 'not an ugly American' kick."

"Anybody tell your face that?"

Dean rubbed his nose with a certain finger.

Sam ignored him and looked out the window. "You know, from a distance, those woods out there look just like the one where me and my friends hike back in California. I don't know why I assumed everything would look different."

"'Cause when you read about Odysseus and his boys, you picture somewhere exotic or radically different."

Sam smiled. The way Dean thought of common things and ideas was...unique. "But if we were to get out and go up there, they probably would be exotic."

Dean nodded. "Sorta how I felt when I saw my first redwood. Biggest damn thing I ever saw. Felt the same thing when I saw you all sprawled in that airplane seat."

Sam laughed out loud, causing the person in front of him to halfway turn around. "You're comparing me to a redwood? Jeez, Dean, I'm only 6'5"; there are basketball players seven feet tall or more."

"So you're a puny redwood. It's alright, man. Size ain't everything."

Sam kicked at Dean's leg. "So what does that make you?"

"Never was a redwood to begin with, so I'm just an outstanding specimen of my genus."

"What genus is that? The humble tree?" Sam rolled his eyes, then grimaced as an elbow found its way into his side.

The attendant came by and offered them water because apparently not all visitors to the island were dealing well with the heat. Soon enough Sam grew bored again. "Thassos was colonized at an early date by Phoenicians because of its gold mines. Now the mining industry is mostly lead, zinc and marble," he said, apropos of nothing.

"Does Wikipedia know about you?" Dean asked dryly.

"It's also known for its beautiful beaches and exciting nightlife."

"Now we're talking. As soon as we meet up with this Sylvanus Konstantinidis, we're hitting the beaches or the nightlife. You can look at your ruins and temples tomorrow."

"Ruins and temples. Seems like I'm not the only one who's done some research." Sam tried not to sound smug.

"One thing you learn by being a hunter—never go in anywhere blind."

"What does that mean?"

Dean shrugged and adjusted his seat. "Know the topography of the land. Know the weather so you can dress properly. Know what's supposed to be there and what's not. Know what weapons you need and what weapons you might need. Have an exit strategy and a backup exit strategy."

Sam knew his jaw had dropped and didn't care. "What the hell do you hunt?"

"I'd tell ya, but I'd have to kill ya."

Sam started to laugh, then stopped. Dean's statement had been of the cliched secret agent variety, but—but Dean had shown other traits that mimicked a world spy's skills. He could shoot. He was cool under pressure. At the airport, he'd not only been focused, but aware. Even now... "How many people are in this car, Dean?"

"Sixty-five, sixty-six if you count the pregnant lady who looks like she could pop at any minute. Why?"

Sam could feel the tension ratchet up in Dean. He was definitely on alert. "Nothing. Just playing a game with myself—judging how observant I am."

Dean relaxed. "Yeah? What number did you come up with?"

"Fifty-seven," Sam tossed out.

"You were only counting the adults."

"Yeah, I guess." Damn. Who or what the hell was his brother? Spy? Terrorist? A member of a secret sect? "You get out of South Dakota much?"

"By the time I was sixteen I'd been to all of the lower forty-eight states at least twice."

"Wow. That's a lot of traveling. Your dad a salesman or something?"

"Or something. Look, man, I'm just not comfortable discussing my dad, okay?"

"Sorry. Guess I'm just bored," Sam hastened to apologize. "So, do you still travel a lot?"

"Shooting comps have me on the road quite a bit."

"Your employer doesn't mind?"

"Nah. It's good for business. Shooting is very macho and macho sells engines. Probably should be getting money from the advertising department just for making the Shooting team."

"And you still hunt?"

"When I can fit it into my schedule or someone needs backup."

Backup? For a hunt? And now they were going to pick up a "book" from "an old friend." Code words if he'd ever heard any. A militia group maybe? But didn't they advocate gun ownership? Secret government agency? Too "Alias"ish.

Sam had to laugh at his overactive imagination. Where was his copy of "Conspiracy Theories for Dummies" when he needed it? The train was definitely headed to the right place—Drama.

-:- -:- -:-

"Wake up, Pole."

"Huh?" He opened eyes he didn't know were closed. His fellow passengers were starting to stir. "Where are we?"

Dean glanced down at his watch. "About ten minutes out."

"Sorry I crashed on you." He grimaced when his apology was punctuated by a yawn. The party after Dean's second gold had lasted well into the night.

"It's cool. I crashed a bit, too."

Sensing a restlessness in his companion, Sam doubted that. Dean had nursed a single beer all night and hadn't even finished it. What had he said earlier? Something about he didn't drink before a hunt. Was this what the trip was? Was this a hunt? And how dangerous were these hunts? Sam shivered and faked it into another yawn. "Next up a bus, right? Feels like we're on The Amazing Race."

Dean grinned. "Olympics athletes Dean and Sam race around the world for one million dollars, huh? I could go for that."

"Except they find themselves at airports every episode."

"Except for that," Dean agreed.

"Jess is always talking about we should do it."

"Jess and Sam, the Dating Couple?"

"That even sounds boring, doesn't it?" Sam stretched and reached up for his bag.

"Considering we're discussing reality TV and not documentaries, I'd say yeah."

It was an accident that Sam's bag landed rather solidly in Dean's lap.


Thassos Town
Thassos, Greece

"Oh, man, that so made getting on a plane worth it." Dean practically danced down the gangplank as they disembarked from the hydrofoil onto the shore of Thassos Town.

"Admit it, dude. You're an adrenaline junkie." Sam laughed, feeling the rush the same as Dean.

"We need these in America. I'm gonna pack up Bobby and move him to the coast—any coast—and we're gonna start us a hydrofoil business. Better than a junkyard any day."

"Bobby runs a junkyard?"

"Salvage yard," Dean said in a lofty tone, then grinned. "Best workshop ever for an engine designer."

Designer? He'd gone from a simple mechanic to a mechanic on performance engines to a designer. He definitely needed to keep this brother of his talking. Before he could ask a leading question, however, they were interrupted by a curvaceous brunette.

"Dean Winchester?" she purred.

"Yeah, or anything else you'd like to call me," Dean replied smoothly.

"I'm Airlia, Calandra's cousin. I own the bike shop and I have my two best machines waiting for you."

"I'm sure you do." Dean grinned and held out his arm in a gentlemanly fashion. Sam, following behind, could've sworn he heard Airlia coo.

Sam was directed toward a large archaeological site a few blocks over from the bike shop while Dean "got directions" from Airlia. Apparently alcohol was a no on a hunt, but sex was acceptable. As soon as he saw the site, Sam forgot to care about what Dean was doing. It was an ancient agora which had the remains of a court flanked by colonnades that were decorated with statues and altars. He found it fascinating and was snapping photos when Dean joined him nearly an hour later.

"Everyone's real friendly here, aren't they?" Dean began.

Sam just shook his head. "Are you this much of a horndog at home or is this just an international thing?"

"Horndog? I'm just giving the audience what they want, Pole."

"Thought you were trying to erase America's bad image." Sam put away his camera as they started walking back toward the bike shop.

"Go ask Airlia if I left a bad image. I think I represented American men quite spectacularly. Look," he said, pointing to where Airlia was waving and smiling, totally ignoring the customer in front of her. "Dean Winchester—Satisfaction Guaranteed!"

"The size of your ego," Sam said with a snort. "It's a wonder that you hang around with guys with guns all day and haven't been shot. Or have you? Jealous boyfriends? Husbands?"

Dean shook his head. "Never with the marrieds. They...expect too much."

"What? Like settling down? You don't want that? I mean, eventually?"

They reached the two bikes Airlia had left out for them. "What I want doesn't mean a lot, Pole. Ever rode before?"

"Around the block on a friend's." He wanted to ask Dean what he meant about his wants, but he was starting to pick up on his brother’s body language and it was screaming for him to back off. He watched Dean start his bike and followed suit.

"We'll go slow. Good thing there's not much traffic."

"We know where we're going?"

"Airlia was very thorough in her direction giving." With a waggle of his eyebrows, Dean put on his helmet and took off.

Frowning as he stuffed his hair under his helmet, Sam followed.


chapter ten

Outside of Thassos Town
Thassos, Greece

After a few miles on the highway that ran along the perimeter of the island, Sam grew confident on the bike. As he watched the sea to one side of him and the verdant forest on the other, he felt like this was where he was supposed to be—on the road beside his brother.

He followed Dean onto an exit and then on smaller roadways until they stopped in front of a white stone villa that was set back a distance from the street. It was two stories and the second floor, reached by a set of narrow curving stairs, was ringed all around by a wide balcony.

Dean took off his helmet and waited for Sam to do the same. "Before we go in, I need to explain something. Bobby and his friends, well, they're involved in what we nowadays would call a role-playing game. Sorta like old-school Dungeons and Dragons without the board or the cards."

"Is it a sword and sorcery type of thing?"

"More like The Da Vinci Code meets the Scooby gang. Historical secrets and things that go bump in the night. Real intellectual shit. Anyway, they use real props so when they add in a witch's Book of Shadows or something, they actually create it—a virtual world that not so much virtual as it is make-believe. You get what I'm saying?"

"I should expect anything?"

Dean looked relieved. "Yeah, that's it. I just didn't want you thinking Bobby and his crew are freaks. They're just retro-geeks."

Retro-geeks. Good term. "It's fine, man. I played in a Harry Potter RPG once. They can get intense."

"Which character were you?"

Sam coughed. "Hermione Granger," he said quickly and nearly unintelligibly.

Dean nearly bent over double laughing. "I sorta figured you were a big ol' girl, Pole."

"Yeah, one who bitch-slapped the shit outta Draco Malfoy," Sam pointed out.

Dean grinned even wider. "You go, girl!" he cheered heartily.

"Bite me, jerk." Sam stomped off toward the villa.

"Oh, baby, don't be mad," Dean cooed between guffaws as he followed. He'd laughed so hard that by the time they started climbing the stairs to the front door, he was out of breath. "Guess we know ol' Syl ain't handicapped."

Dean rapped authoritatively on the door. The man who opened it had a shock of white hair, a huge moustache, and was most indubitably blind. Where his eyes should've been was just scarred tissue, wrinkled and thick. Sam bit back a snort as Dean shot him a look. He was soooo wrong about ol' Syl.

"Hi, Mr. Konstantinidis, I'm Dean Win—"

"Bobby's boys! Come in, both of you."

"Guess you should've specified what kind of handicap," Sam whispered as they stepped into the much cooler large living room.

Dean gave him the finger.

"Cheater." Wasn't it un-sportsmanlike conduct to make rude gestures in front of the blind?

Their Greek host gestured them toward the sofa. "I didn't know you were bringing your brother, Dean. How are you, Sam?"

Sam was taken aback. How could this man know who he was? And this definitely wasn't the way he wanted Dean to find out. "I'm fine, sir." He gave Dean a look that said, "See? I'm playing along like you asked me to." He hoped it worked.

"Bah! None of this Mr. Konstantinidis and sir business. Bobby is family, so you're family. Call me Syl like the whole island does. So did Bobby tell you why you're here?"

"To pick up a book?"

"A book? He actually called it 'a book'?" Syl said with a sneer. "After we have refreshments, I shall show you 'a book' then."

"We don't—" Dean began.

"Hmph! I can smell the Athens train on you. You rode long and with subhuman food. We shall go out to the balcony and you will refresh your bodies and your souls. Then we will discuss business."

They headed out another door that led to the backside of the house. Sam could only stop and stare. The view was gorgeous. He hadn't realized they were circling up a mountain as they rode toward the house. At this elevation, he could see over the woods and out onto the Aegean. A friend of Jessica's parents had one of those houses built on a cliff and they'd stayed there a few days as house sitters. The view there was nothing compared to this.

"I know you must be thinking this is wasted on a blind man. But I was not always blind and my memory, it is a thing of beauty. I know what you see. I hear the awe in your breathing. Are you not feeling better already? Come, our repast is ready."

Around the corner was a patio group—four chairs and a table that was set for three people. How had—Oh. Syl had already mentioned his heightened sense of smell and hearing. So he'd probably heard the two bikes stopping outside the house. Clever.

"You don't need to—" Dean began protesting again.

"Not a need but a desire, Dean," Syl gently corrected him. "Besides, I owe you. You have filled my pockets quite well these past few days."

"What?" Dean frowned, then smiled. "Oh. You bet on me in the Olympics, didn't you?"

"I did. Down at the taverna, some bet on our fellow countryman out of solidarity. Others bet on the Australian or the German, the two that were leading as you went into the finals. Me—I never changed my bet despite your two-point deficit. I thought to myself that you were pulling a hustle, baiting your opponents into underestimating you, and perhaps leading the ladies to champion an underdog, no?"

Dean chuckled while taking a big bite of his gyros. "Think what you want. A guy's got a right to his secrets."

Sam hoped Dean would remember that once he came clean about their relationship.

Dean waved the sandwich in the air. "This is good. You make it or you got a honey stashed away somewhere?"

Sam caught himself cringing because of Dean's less-than-tactful phrasing, but Syl just let out a great big laugh. "A honey? Is that what they call them now? Yes, I do have a lady friend and no, she did not make the gyros. You will meet Anna because you will be staying at her small inn while you are on the island."

"That's not necessary," Dean said quickly.

"You can stay with me if you like. But it is isolated here and Anna's is next to the new resort. Big swimming pools, little bikinis."

"Well, if you insist," Dean acquiesced graciously.

Horndog. Pure and simple.

After their meal (Sam wasn't sure what to call it; Greeks seemed to eat all day), Syl led them to a spiral staircase that led to the bottom floor of the villa.

"How is your Koine, Dean?" Syl worked on an extensive set of locks on a door just beyond the stairs.

"Better than my modern Greek."

What? Dean knew the version of Greek that was used back in the days of the Roman Empire?

"Bobby schooled you," Syl said knowingly.

"Better safe than sorry," Dean replied with a shrug, then he grinned. "He used flashcards."

Sam wondered if the conversation was part of the game Dean had described. An old school RPG sounded kinda fun. Maybe he'd tell Rain about it when he got home. A lot of her friends were bigger geeks than he was.

"That's got it," Syl exclaimed as the last lock tumbled opened. "In you go. The room's climate-controlled so we mustn't leave the door open long."

They stepped into the room and Sam sucked in the suddenly chilled air, not because it was cold but because of the shelves upon shelves of books the room contained.

"What you're hearing, Syl, is the sound of a geekgasm, which will end in said geek melting into a warm, gooey puddle of bliss. So please, watch your step."

Syl sealed the door. "Well, we practice safe-geeking around here, so grab a pair of gloves before fingering the books. You grab a pair, too, Dean. I want you to see my 'a book.'"

"Am I gonna have to tell Bobby you're not gonna forgive him?"

"Bah. I'm too old to hold grudges for long; I forget them after a while." Syl chuckled. Dean rolled his eyes as he met Sam's over the box of nitrile gloves.

After everyone was properly gloved, Syl gestured to Dean before he took a box from one of the shelves and laid it on the table. "Time to test your knowledge of Koine." Syl stepped back to let Dean open the box.

Sam tried to act like he was interested in the other titles, which he was. He was sure several of the tomes were first editions—unless they were re-creations for the RPG. But would fakes require climate-control? Still, as fascinating as the library was, he was more curious about the book that Dean would be taking with them.

"Let's see," Dean began as he lifted out a sheet of plastic containing...a leaf of papyrus? Or maybe a reasonable facsimile thereof because if it was real, it belonged in a museum and that would mean Dean and his friends were involved in black market relics and...No, Dean had said it was just a game and he had no reason to lie. Unless he actually was smuggling...

"Paul," Dean exclaimed. "This was written by Paul?"

Paul? Sam wracked his brain trying to remember a Paul that could evoke the disbelief he heard in Dean's voice. Paul McCartney maybe? Maybe it was a tell-all about Yoko Ono or something. And, yeah, he hated his mom was such a Beatles fanatic that he actually knew stuff like that. She bawled for days when Linda McCartney died and had even gone up to the vigil that was held in Tucson.

Hell, maybe he should've known his mom was screwy back then.

"It's from when he was imprisoned in Philippi," Syl was explaining to Dean. "Apparently it was hidden in the rubble after the earthquake and one of the guards found it and brought it home to the island."

Prison? Yeah, there'd been a drug charge, right? But was that in Greece? Philippi? Why did that sound familiar, other than reading it in the guide book? Ah, freshman semester. New Testament survey. The book of Philippians. Paul wrote to the church in Phil—Holy shit! That Paul? The Apostle Paul? No fucking way! But that was one of the miracles, right? Paul and Silas were in jail and God sent an earthquake and freed them or something. If they had an actual book of the Bible... Oh, man.

"This is a journal?" Dean said hesitantly, translating aloud as he lifted out more protected pieces of papyrus. "He writes about a dream. No, a vision. It's...This is an exorcism."

Exorcism? Sam almost laughed in his relief. Thank God. This was just part of the stupid game.

"Paul was imprisoned because he'd performed an illegal exorcism outside of Philippi, one on a little girl."

"I hear ya, Syl, but this isn't for some tiddlywinks playing, ordinary demon. This is for 'a darkness of the highest power.' We're talking some major mojo here."

"That's why I want this in Bobby's hands. He, all of you, will need it soon."

Sam watched Dean freeze, then look up at Syl. "You know something? Is Paul not the only one who had a vision?"

Syl nodded. "When I secured this journal, I became extremely arrogant, assured of my favor in the heavens because I had been granted the care of this document. And in my arrogance, I thought to call upon what was not for me to see. As Paul lost his sight, so did I. I did not regain my physical vision, but I was endowed with ethereal sight."

Oh, yeah, they were in fantasy land now. Sam was highly grateful.

"I'll make sure Bobby gets this."

"I know you will, Dean. You are important in the upcoming war."

Dean shrugged. "Learned to shoot for a reason, I guess."

"Guns are necessary in a war. But you and your family are more vital than that."

"My family? Yeah, right, whatever, Syl. Is this good to travel or do I need to rig something?"

"I have a case prepared. If you are going to be visiting the island for a day or more, I suggest you come back here right before you leave. It will be ready for you then."

A few minutes later, they were walking toward their bikes, Syl's directions to Anna's Inn fresh in their minds.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you my brother's name was Sam, too," Dean said as he lifted his helmet. "I didn't think that would matter here in Greece. Thanks for playing along. I didn't want to confuse the old man any further."

"It's okay." Sam tried hard to hide a shiver. He was pretty sure Syl hadn't been confused. For one, he'd called Sam by name before introductions were made. Maybe the exorcism crap had been part of the game, but there was something about Syl that said he hadn't been lying about the ethereal sight stuff. Creepy as hell. "Life certainly isn't ordinary around you."

"I know. I should've petitioned 'Extraordinary' to be my middle name."

Sam laughed and followed his brother down the road.


Anna's Inn
Thassos, Greece

"Up and at 'em, Sammy Sunshine!"

"Wah?" Sam tried to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth, but it was a losing battle. "Lemme sleep."

"No can do. Not gonna listen to you bitch about me keeping you from doing your geekly duty of seeing everything to be seen."

A pillow landed on Sam's head and with a sigh, and a lot of effort, he drew it away from his face. "Is it even mornin'?"

"Sun's up, birds are singing, and Anna's breakfast is wafting through the halls."

Yawning, Sam pulled himself upright. "Didn't we stumble in together in the wee hours of the dawn?" After checking in at Anna's, they'd gone over to the nightclub at the new resort. Once Sam had seen the long line to get in, he'd tried to turn around. But Dean had whipped on a pair of shades and strolled in like he owned the place before the bouncers could even think about turning him away.

"Yep."

"And didn't you drink as much as I did?"

"More. You're a lightweight."

"How come you're so chipper, then?"

"Years of unclean living, Pole. You should try it sometime."

"Yeah, maybe, but not now." He turned as to lay back down.

"Ancient Greece, man. Temples and gates, altars and colonnades, statues and pottery shards. Just beyond the door."

Sam groaned and jerked himself to his feet. "I hate you."

"Aw, you're hurting my feelings, dude. And my eyes. And nose. Go shower, please."

Sam pulled his sleep shirt over his head and tossed it onto Dean. He laughed as Dean's curses followed him to the bathroom down the hall.

By the time he was dressed, he was wide awake and hungry. "Feed me," he called, entering their room and waking Dean up. Pay back was a beautiful thing. Except Dean didn't so much as flinch, much less jump like Sam expected him to. Curiouser and curiouser...

Sam finished his juice and stared at the bright blue sky. "I miss Jess," he said suddenly. He and Dean were eating breakfast out on the terrace of the inn, looking out over the Aegean. Jess would love it here, but she had insisted she didn't want to come with him. She thought it was kind of tacky for a girlfriend to travel with an athlete, especially one expected to live in the dorms with his fellow athletes. "I'm not your blonde bimbo, Sam, and I won't be seen as one," she had declared.

Sam wished she'd spent less time with her grandmother while growing up.

Dean cracked his neck and sighed in ecstasy. "Well, I miss pie—real pie, not meat pie or cheese pie or whatever—so suck it up and let it go, man."

"Excuse me. You're comparing your lack of pie to my missing my girlfriend?"

"Hey, love is love, dude. I love pie. If I could find some decent fruit, I'd go inside and do a hostile takeover of Anna's kitchen and make myself a damn pie."

Sam scoffed loudly. "You know how to make pie?"

"I'm the champion pie maker of Lawrence County, South Dakota. Got the blue ribbon to prove it."

"I don't believe it." He was getting used to Dean's boasting prowess of everything.

"I wouldn't lie about pie. Me and Bobby, we do the bachelor cooking thing, you know? Burgers, steaks, chili, stew—man, I think we've worn out about three slow cookers. We never had to worry much about dessert because the ladies in the neighborhood, well, they seem to believe if they can bake well enough, they'll get a marriage proposal or something. Anyway, 'bout three years after I moved in, there was this big blizzard—kept us pinned in for over a week. And wouldn't you know it, I had a sudden powerful craving for pie. Tried eating some canned fruit, but that didn't cut it.

"So we had this box of biscuit mix and on the back was this recipe for a cobbler. Looked easy enough. I followed the directions but the goody for the pie didn't smell right. I told you I was on the road a lot, right? Well, on the road equals a lot of pie in a lot of different places. I know a good pie just by smelling it. I kept adding spices and shit until it smelled right, then I popped it into the oven. Man, I thought Bobby was gonna ask for my hand in marriage after he tasted it. Hell, almost popped the question to myself. That was some damn good eatin'. After the neighborhood thawed out, I went to one of the ladies who has a crush on Bobby and asked for proper pie-making lessons, you know, a real crust and everything."

"And your blue ribbon?"

Dean sniffed. "Lost a bet to Bobby."

"So is there anything you can't do? In the kitchen, I mean."

"Fry chicken. Just...don't ask, okay? It's not a pretty story."

After purchasing a local guide book, they took off on their bikes and toured the island. Contrary to what Sam expected, Dean was a good companion on the trip. He was respectful at the hallowed sites, outrageous at the boring sites, and curious the rest of the time. By the time they stopped at the small beach that was part of Anna's Inn, they were tired but content with the day's events.

"Today was a good day," Sam said softly.

Dean sat down beside him on the white, compact sand. "Yeah, it was."

"The sea is pretty." Lame, Sam. Get on with it.

"Uh huh."

"You know the Star Wars movies, right?" Of course he did; Dean had quoted Yoda to that reporter. He felt rather than saw Dean nod. Good. He figured they needed darkness for this.

"Loved the first set. The last ones, eh."

"Remember when everyone was freaked the fuck out when Darth Vader told Luke he was his father?" He got another nod in reply. "Dean, I am your brother."


III. Qualifying Rounds

chapter eleven

The Beach At Anna's Inn
Thassos, Greece

Dean shook his head and groaned. "Dude, that's the lamest impersonation I've ever heard. You gotta go deep if you want to sound like James Earl Jones. Pull it up from your diaphragm, man."

Sam sighed and clenched his fist in the sand. "I'm not trying to do an impersonation, Dean. I'm trying to tell you the truth."

Dean tried to figure out what was going on. Sam wasn't making sense. "Does this have something to do with Syl? He's—"

"When I was four, I woke up in a motel room. No one was there but me and a lot of smoke. I went outside to find my brother and my dad, but I couldn't find them. Instead, a woman saw me and carried me to safety. I guess I fell asleep or something because when I woke up, she told me my family was dead and that she was gonna take care of me."

"What kind of freak are you?" Dean stood up and backed away from the man he'd considered a friend. "It's sick to joke about someone's dead brother, you creep." Damn it. What if he wasn't just an ordinary sick fuck, but something supernatural? He had a couple of packs of salt in his pocket, but no other weapons. Shit. Maybe he could make it to Syl's. Blind or no, a hunter was always a hunter. The man had to possess some kind of weapons cache.

"This isn't a joke, man." Dean forced himself to listen to the thing. Maybe it would trip itself up and let spill what it was or what it wanted. "She told me you guys were dead, and I guess I buried Sammy Winchester with you. I was little, Dean. I believed what adults told me. That's what little kids do, you know? I've always known I was adopted but I never thought about who I had been...until you said your name on the plane. It came back then, Dean. All of it."

Shapeshifter, maybe? Nah. There was no Sam Winchester for it to be taking memories from. Demon? Some freaky Greek, Mediterranean, legendary monster? Damn. Where were the flashcards when you needed them? Of course, it probably wasn't local; after all, it was already on the plane in New York. Maybe it was some kind of djinn, leeching onto Dean's guilt about what happened to Sam. The real Sam. Lots of things liked guilt, ate it up like candy. Fuck, he was so out of his league right now. And alone. On a beach. Good killing ground.

"You're not believing a word I say, are you?"

Geez, was the guy—um, the thing—still talking? "Kinda hard to take it all in, Pole. Your name is still Pole, right? Christo." It just looked puzzled at the sound.

"Grace Polanski formally adopted me. She must've forged Dad's death certificate or something. I guess being a social worker came in handy for an illegal adoption."

Grace Polanski. He'd have to remember that name if this thing in front of him wasn't lying. Grace Polanski. Dead bitch. Yeah, got it.

If? Had he just used the word if? This couldn't be his brother. For one thing, he was too tall. Then again, if something was trying to imitate his brother, would it really consider six feet, a hundred inches an acceptable facsimile? And the long hair. No Winchester would run around looking like that.

But what if it was a Winchester who didn't know he was a Winchester?

"Dean! Are you listening to me?" In a word, no. "There's an extensive blood lab at the Olympic Village. We can be tested. I know it's set up for dope testing, but it does DNA, too. To make sure some of the eastern European women are really women, you know? They can do it. I checked before we left. I really am your brother. Ask Syl tomorrow when we go pick up your package. I don't know how the hell he knows, but he does. Think about it, Dean. He knew from the beginning."

Fuckin' psychics. Always with the cryptic shit—double-talking and being all obscure. Fuck 'em. Fuck this. "I'm going for a ride to clear my head. I'll meet you back at the room, okay?"

"Dean."

Damn if the thing didn't have Sam's old whine down. "I'll be back. I won't—I'm not running out on you."

Dean hurried up the beach and onto his motorbike. His first stop was at a jewelry shop. He found what he was looking for quickly—a sterling silver St. Joseph medal with a matching chain suitable for a guy. Then he went to a taverna where he bought a single bottle of beer that he wasn't going to drink. It wasn't like he didn't want to get drunk—hell, if this wasn't a reason there never was one—but this might be a case, and he didn't drink on cases. Ever. He'd seen his dad screw up once because of too much alcohol and it'd taught both of them a lesson. He opened the bottle and poured part of it on the ground. Next, he found a church and broke into it. He scooped up water from the baptismal and made sure the door locked behind him. Finally, he went to an open-all-night internet café at the resort. God, you had to love how convenience ruled the world.

Hours later, he let himself into the room he shared with Sam. He had no answers and a shitload of new questions. He'd started off trying to find out what kind of creature he could be dealing with, but found himself looking into Sam's death instead. From what he could tell, there had been no...biological evidence that Sam had died in the fire. What the fuck had Dad, Bobby, and Jim been thinking? They just let the local authorities tell them Sam was dead? They just let Sam's remains be hauled away with the rubble? Why hadn't they—Fuck!

He sat on his bed and stared at the body sprawled atop of the covers across from him. Could that be his little brother? Had his entire life since he was eight years old been a lie? Had he lived with his father's disappointment, thought himself a failure, not trusted himself all these years for no reason? Had he grieved for seventeen fuckin' years because a selfish bitch had stolen his baby brother? Could the fuckin' heavens hate him that fuckin' much?

And there it was. That little quirk of a lip right before Sam woke. Sammy's waking up, Mommy. Ya got the bottle? Can I help you hold it?... Nah, Dad, Sammy's sound asleep. I'll let you know when to hide your journal.

"Dean?"

Hazel eyes were staring at him in confusion. So fuckin' familiar. "Gotta make an early morning of it, Pole. Make a run to Syl's, return the bikes, catch the hydrofoil, the bus, and then the train."

"Gah, we didn't do all that to get here, did we?" He scrunched his pillow under his head. "Go take your shower. I'll be up by the time you get back."

"Making a crack about my hygiene?"

Sam blinked solemnly at him. "Just noticing you're still wearing yesterday's clothes. You get any sleep?"

Dean got up and grabbed his shaving kit. "That's what train rides are for. Oh, here, take a sip of this." He held out the warm bottle of beer he'd carried around half the night.

"For breakfast?" Sam scowled.

"Humor me."

Sam grabbed the bottle and took a tentative sip. "Blech."

No black eyes. No sulfur. No burning flesh. Hmm. He took the bottle from Sam and tossed it in the trash. "Gotcha something else," he said, digging into his pocket for the small jewelry box.

"Not another bottle of flat beer," Sam muttered, wiping his eyes blearily. Then he felt the weight of the box in his hand and looked down. His eyes widened in shock. "We goin' steady or somethin'?"

"Just open it, asshole."

Sam stared at the pendant, then reached to remove it from the box. "Ouch!"

Dean watched carefully as Sam pricked his finger on the nicked edge of the medal, nicked by Dean's own knife. Sam put his finger in his mouth, but showed no other reaction to the silver. "You okay?"

"Yeah, just scratched myself."

"There's a flaw? I can take it back and—"

"No! It's okay. It's great, actually. But why? You don't believe—"

Dean cut him off with a shrug. "Brothers or not, we're still friends." He grabbed his toiletry kit and headed toward the door. "Don't fall back asleep."

He sat down hard on the closed toilet lid. Could this really be Sammy? Nah. God didn't like him that much (which was okay since vice versa and all that shit). It didn't make sense. Bobby, Jim, Dad. They were all there. Surely, they...

He stood and turned on the water. It was all too much to take in after a sleepless night. He showered quickly and returned to the room where Sam—Pole was up and ready for his own shower. Pole. It'd be okay as long as he thought of him as "Pole". "Maybe Sammy" just wasn't computing at the moment.

An hour later, they were knocking on Syl's door. He met them with flatware and plates. "Set the table while I finish with breakfast."

"Syl, man—" Dean began.

"Anna called. Said you left without breakfast. That is not the way we do things in Greece. You upset her. I do not like my Anna upset. So you will eat here and I will tell her. Then she will not be upset and I will not be disappointed by my impolite American friends, yes?"

Dean just looked at Sam and shrugged. Apparently his world was set on doing its own thing and he was only along for the ride. He had to admit the coffee and pastries made him feel better after his long, restless night. They made small talk about what they'd seen on their tour of the island, then Syl asked him to go downstairs to the library to retrieve the journal. He found the room unlocked and the journal sealed in a protective case and placed inside a coffee table sized recipe book. Ah, just taking home a gift for his aunt/mother/girlfriend. Clever.

He started back outside when he caught part of the conversation Sam and Syl were having. He knew the evils of eavesdropping but did it anyway.

"Maybe I shouldn't have said anything," Sam was saying. "He's been...distant since then. I don't think he believes me, although I can't figure out why he thinks I'd lie. What would be my payoff?"

"In Dean's world, there are many reasons to lie and none of them are good. Take comfort in the fact that if he indeed thought you were lying, we would not be having this conversation."

"You mean he would've left without me?"

"Something like that."

Dean snorted. Hunters didn't run from prey; they ended them.

"I just don't know if it was worth it. He was my friend; maybe I should've just settled for that."

"The young never like this word—patience—but I say it to you anyway. Dean has been granted the gift of instinct. Therefore, he knows the truth; it just takes time for him to accept it. He also has the gift of loyalty. Once he accepts you as his brother, God help those who mean you ill."

"I don't want to be his brother because I want him to protect me. I just...I don't know..."

"Look into your heart, Sam. Being with Dean, are you where you should be?" Syl asked.

Sam paused and Dean could "hear" the smile that appeared below the droopy bangs. "Yes. I'm definitely where I should be."

"Then don't despair the journey. What was, was. Now, you are at what is to be. Rejoice in that, yes?"

"I will," Sam promised.

And it could never be said too often—fuckin' psychics. He pasted a smile on his face and walked out to the balcony. "Auntie Bobby is gonna enjoy this cookbook, Syl."

Syl grinned. "I'm sure she will. It was an honor and a pleasure to meet you Winchesters. And, Dean, thank you for taking such good care of my friend. He will never say it to you, but you are a special joy in Bobby's life."

Dean ducked his head, not comfortable at all with such chick flick conversations. "He's special to me, too. Probably saved me from myself a hundred times over. I'm a 'bad' boy, you know."

"Bah!" Syl stood and crossed unerringly to where Dean stood. "You are sometimes a pussycat who thinks he is a lion and sometimes a lion with the heart of a pussycat, but you are not bad. Don't ever let anyone tell you that—unless it is a lady, no?"

Dean gave the older man a quick hug. "It was an honor and a pleasure to meet you, sir. I'll give Bobby your best."

"You do that, son. And, Sam, take care as well."

"You, too, sir. Thank you for your hospitality."

"It is never hospitality with friends and family. It just is."

Dean was kinda sad as they got on their bikes and left. Syl reminded him a lot of Bobby—even if he was a fuckin' psychic. Bobby, Jim, and Syl were the same kind of hunters, preferring brains to brawn but perfectly capable of kicking ass when the need arose. His dad was just the opposite, perfectly capable of thinking a problem through but finding ass-kicking more enjoyable.

Aw, fuck. His dad. How the hell was he gonna keep John Winchester from killing Sam long enough for him to believe Sam was his son? If his dad were here now, he'd be giving him hell about letting someone get so close to even pretend he was Sam. But Syl was right, not about the silly pussycat/lion thing, but the other. Dean relied heavily on his instincts when he hunted, a prickling sense of what was right and what was unnaturally wrong. Sam wasn't...wrong.

Thankfully, Airlia was off delivering a replacement bike when they reached the shop. He didn't think she would appreciate his distracted manner. He did, however, write her a quick note when he found out his rental fee was less than half the usual.

Eventually, he and Sam were seated on the train for the long trip back to Athens. Dean had expected to sleep the entire way, but he couldn't seem to convince his mind to slow down enough to even slip into a light doze. So much of who he was, who he had become, rested upon the knowledge that Sammy was dead. If that was a lie, his whole life was a lie, and what happened now?

Or did it even make a difference? He was still a mechanic. And a hunter. Maybe it would change his relationship with his dad. And maybe it wouldn't. Sam had a life in California. He had a girl he was thinking about marrying, planning on going to law school. At best, they'd see each other for a major holiday or two each year. Maybe Sam would want him at his wedding. What had Syl told Sam? What was, was. The past couldn't be changed. They had to concentrate on the future and make that work as best they could.

"I'll make an appointment for us." Sam didn't look at him. Instead he fiddled with the medallion Dean had given him. "At the clinic."

Dean nodded, feeling a little guilty that the medallion had been just a test. "With the games winding down, they can probably fit us in pretty early. Shouldn't interfere with our plans to go to Piraeus and the moronic islands." He waited a beat.

"Saronic islands," Sam automatically corrected, then noticed Dean's smirk. "Moron," he chided. "You sure you wanna—?"

"You can be my long-lost daddy for all I care. I'm in Greece, man, and unless they build a bridge across the Atlantic and all the other bodies of water between here and the great State of South Dakota, I ain't comin' back. I'm planning to see all, do all, and live all I can while I'm here."

"Your long-lost daddy?" Sam chuffed happily. "Don't think I don't know the truth—you're addicted to hydrofoils, aren't ya?"

Dean laughed. "Think they'll let me pop the hood and take a look at one of the engines?"

"Sure, man. You'll just be one in the long line of crazy Americans they've had to put up with this summer." Dean felt Sam lose the tension he'd had for most of the ride. "Think I'll take a nap."

With a sigh, Dean released his own tension and felt the weariness of a sleepless night catch up with him. "Right behind ya, dude. Right behind ya."


chapter twelve

Olympic Village
North of Athens, Greece

Dean read the test results that Sam silently handed to him. They'd given blood that morning and thanks to the state-of-the-art testing facility for the Olympics, the results were ready when they returned from their day of exploring. Now they were in the doctor's office and he was reading exactly what he expected to read.

""So, you really are my pain in the ass little brother." He folded the letter back into its envelope. "I was so hoping for a puppy instead." Sam cuffed him on the back of his head. "I was gonna say that at least you were house-trained. Now, I'm not so sure."

The doctor laughed. "I'm glad neither of you seem to be traumatized by the news. We're not staffed to handle such things."

"Not a big surprise, Doc. I haven't seen the brat since he was four years old and except for the sixteen feet he grew, he ain't changed that much."

"You were blonder," Sam retorted in reply to the height dig.

"Is blonder even a word?" Sam subtly gave him the finger. "Sorry, Doc. Apparently my absence during his formative years has been detrimental to his ability to behave in public." He automatically ducked the slap aimed for the back of his head.

The doctor beamed at them. "You are definitely brothers. Was it a custody thing?"

"Something like that," Sam hedged. "Thanks again for being willing to do this for us. I know it's unusual."

"But not as boring as the standard chem tests we've been running for over two weeks. The lab guys were really happy to do something new. And it's nice to give out good news for a change because I can tell this is good news for both of you."

Dean glanced at Sam and nodded. "Yeah, it's been years since I had someone to boss around."

"Um, is there a psych ward around here somewhere?" Sam patted Dean's hand in a soothing manner.

"Go," the doctor ordered with a grin. "Good luck, gentlemen."

They walked out into the warm Greek night. Moths played in the lights of the village and the streets were still full of people.

"Well, now what?" Sam asked as they walked toward a set of benches.

"Argos, Mycenae, and Corinth, right?"

"I'm talking about us, not the tour, Dean."

"Oh." Dean sat and indicated Sam should take the seat beside him. "Tell me about yourself."

Sam rolled his eyes and straddled the bench. "I'm a Taurus."

Dean bopped him on the back of his head. "I'm not trying to date you, you idjit. Besides, I know exactly when your birthday is. I had to miss Sesame Street that day to go see your red, wrinkled ass."

"Sorry to inconvenience you."

"I forgave you the first time you pissed on Dad. Nothing on TV has ever been as funny as that," Dean cackled.

"So I never sprinkled you?"

"Drenched is a better word, and nah. Mom—" God, he hated how his voice always broke on that word—"She taught me how to avoid baptism by Sammy."

"She kept Dad outta the loop?"

Dean shook his head. "Dad could be a hard-headed, not-listening, stubborn bastard when he wanted to be. Which is why I never did get the puppy I wanted instead of you. Did you?"

"Huh?"

"Did you ever get a puppy? Tell me about your childhood, what all I missed. You ever go to Disneyland and crap like that?"

Sam shook his head as if trying to follow Dean's line of questioning. "No dog; Mom's allergic. But my best friend, Mike, had a dog and didn't mind sharing."

"Best friend, huh?"

"Yeah. I met Mike right after...you know. We were inseparable. If I hadn't won a full ride to Stanford, I'd be with him at the University of Arizona right now."

"You still keep in touch?"

"Constant emails."

"Cool. And Disneyland?"

Sam peered at him curiously. "A few times. Probably more than that. Church groups. Youth groups. Seems like every summer someone was headed there. Got to be not so special after a while, you know? But I do remember my second visit because I got to ride The Haunted Mansion attraction. The first time Mom said I was too young. Felt like a big boy when I got to dance with ghosts... When you're young, stuff like that's important."

Dean nodded. "So what'd you do after you got too old for ol' Walt?"

Sam snickered. "Well, we were only an hour or so from the Mexican border. Man, the hours I spent in Nogales. Different laws, different culture..."

"Different women." Dean grinned, remembering some of his trips south of the border.

"Different everything," Sam agreed happily. "Now, what about you? What all did I miss out on?"

"Ding, ding, ding," Dean said, standing up. "Sharing and Caring Hour is officially over for the night. Tune in late tomorrow for On The Road With Dean."

"You promise? Because this has to be a two-way street, man."

"I know, Sammy. I'll tell you everything tomorrow when we get back from touring, everything you want to know and probably some you don't. But now it's time to go hunt down some food. Think we should try McDonald's, get used to food back home?"

"I'm not eating Mickey D's in Greece, Dean."

"Boy, you grew up to be an elitist little bitch, didn't you?" Dean smiled to let Sam know he was kidding.

Sam rolled his eyes. "And you grew up to be a jerk—wait a minute, I think I remember you being a jerk from before, so no growing up there, huh?" Dean just moved his hand to mimic Sam's mouth moving. That garnered a very loud, long sigh and a comment, "And if we're gonna eat non-indigenous food, let's try that French place on the corner."

"French? And watch you eat snails? No thank you, dude."

"At least snails look like snails. Who knows what kind of meat a Big Mac over here has?"

Dean winced. "Fine. Let's go eat Greek."

Sam smiled gleefully. "You have the best ideas, Big Brother."

"Bitch," Dean muttered.

"Jerk," Sam replied.


Olympic Village Perimeter Gate
North of Athens, Greece

"Dean, stand up! Security keeps looking over here!"

Dean knew he was making a spectacle of himself, bent over and laughing hard enough to draw tears, but damn, he hadn't had so much fun in years! Forget winning gold medals; this was the highlight of his trip to Greece. He finally stopped laughing enough to speak. "Oh, Sammy, I didn't know you had it in ya, boy! You're my hero!"

"Oh, stop it! As if you were innocent in the whole thing. You're a bad influence, you know that, right?" Sam walked away, with his head held high.

Dean followed, still snickering. They'd just been let off at the gate to the Village and the tour bus they'd been on all day sped off with squealing wheels, glad to be rid of the two of them.

"Aw, Sammy," he tried to soothe his upset brother, "the bitch deserved it."

Sam slowed down and looked back at Dean with a faint smile. "Yeah, she did. The tour company obviously hired her because she was cute, and not because she actually knew what she was talking about."

"But you did. Man, our fellow Americans were eating it up when you started with your, 'Actually, miss, this particular agora is dated back to...' If looks could kill, you'd be a little greasy spot in Corinth."

"And you were translating Latin and Koine like you lived two thousand years ago. Jesus, dude, I need to get a copy of those flashcards you had."

Dean started laughing again. "What really ticked her off was that we got her tips." Nobody had been as shocked as he when a retired teacher from Wisconsin, traveling with an entire group of retired teachers, came up and handed them an envelope.

"You boys did a fine job today." She patted each of them on the arm, too short to reach their shoulders. "Most informational tour we've had since we got here. I think they figured we stupid Americans wouldn't know right from wrong when it came to Greek history. And I hate to tell them, but perky boobs don't have a thing to do with a perky mind." Dean had snorted loudly at that. "Anyway, all of us decided that you two should have the guide's tip."

"Oh, ma'am, we couldn't—" Sam had begun.

"You can," she'd said firmly. "Besides, most of us are women. And we found you both way cuter than Miss Thing."

That had mortified Sam into a silence that lasted all the way back to Athens.

Dean couldn't keep from giggling—um, manfully chuckling, that is.

"You're pathetic, man." Sam snickered despite himself.

"Wanna use our ill-gotten gain on dinner?"

"How did I know you were gonna say that?"

"You're psychic?"

"No. You're just predictable."

Dean scoffed. "And I'm the only one? Then why do I know you want to spend this money at that place downtown where you can see the lit up Acropolis looking down on you?"

Sam froze, clearly not wanting to lie, but not give Dean the satisfaction of being right. "You're just too damn observant. But since you clearly are not observant enough to know that the place requires reservations—"

"Which we have in two hours. Since it'll take us forever to get there—could they have put the Village any further out?— better scurry along so you can make yourself all pretty." Sam just stared. "Business casual. Ya know what that is, don'tcha?"

An indignant scowl and a flip of a finger assured him that Sam did.

"I'll meet you at your place in twenty minutes. Should I bring flowers?"

Another finger.

"You're turning into a cheap date, princess."

Sam huffed off so fast that Dean couldn't exactly hear what he said as he departed.

As Dean strolled to his room, he remembered why he'd liked being a big brother.


Syntagma Square
Athens, Greece

"Why am I the girl?" Sam hissed as the waiter walked away, after leaving the wine list with Dean.

"One word, Sam—bangs." Dean had thought they were girly way back when Sam was four, but the kid had had such a hissy fit when he or Dad tried to cut them, they'd given up. Looked like his mom had had the same trouble.

Sam shoved the offending pieces of hair back off his face. "Hair prejudice!"

"Yeah. Better call Amnesty International or something," Dean commented dryly.

"You clean up well enough, but your clothes do nothing for you personality," Sam muttered as he picked up his menu. "Aw, man! I didn't even get one with prices."

"You better be glad my etiquette lessons are kicking in or else I'd be rolling in the floor laughing right now," Dean warned casually, not looking up from the wine list.

"Etiquette lessons? Really?"

"My high school guidance counselor."

"Some kind of career prep?"

Dean shrugged. "You could call it that. It was kinda fun, learning how to be 'sociably acceptable.' She had this whole award/punishment thing going on that kept me interested."

"Sounds like a nice lady."

Dean snorted. Ms. T was a borderline pedophile, something he'd only realized when he was in college. As long as her tastes didn't run any younger, she'd be all right. No high school senior would be outing her. But if she went younger, or accidentally found herself with a virgin that had attachment issues, she was going to find herself on the evening news. "Yeah, she taught me a lot of things, helped me get into college." Didn't mean he owed her anything, though. He'd earned every minute of her time.

Dinner went smoothly and Dean had to admit he was impressed by the view of the Acropolis. "You should bring Jess here on your honeymoon."

"She'd love it," Sam agreed. He took his last bite of dessert, then set his fork down to look at Dean. "I think it's gonna take some time for her to get used to being Mrs. Winchester instead of Mrs. Polanski."

Dean dropped his eyes to the wineglass he was holding. The house wine was pretty good, and he was considering getting a few bottles for the guys back at work. Their wives liked giving dinner parties and shit. "You sure you wanna do that?"

"Why wouldn't I? And Dad... How are we gonna do that, by the way? You tell him first or the two of us spring it on him together?"

Quickly swallowing the entire contents of his glass, Dean took his time wiping his mouth. "Um, about that...I was sorta thinking...Well, let's not tell him."


chapter thirteen

Syntagma Square
Athens, Greece

Dean had steeled himself for Sam's possible anger, indignation, or even incredulity. What he hadn't considered was the hurt that appeared in Sam's eyes. Damn.

"No, Sam," he said quickly. "Whatever you're thinking, just...no. it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with...him."

"Him being Dad?" Dean saw the hurt morph into curiosity.

"I'll explain as soon as we get out of here," Dean said quickly, hoping to forestall the questioning.

"Sharing and Caring Hour?"

Dean grinned, pleased that Sam had remembered. "Emphasis on the word 'hour'. By the way, that's the maximum, not the minimum."

Sam scowled, then let his face relax. "I'll take what I can get. So, you ready to leave?"

"In a minute. I had a special request." He motioned to the waiter who brought over two flutes of champagne. "Would've sprung for a full bottle except I hate the crap."

"Then why?" Sam looked at the glasses in amazement.

"Because I thought the situation warranted it," Dean said simply. He raised his glass. "To the Winchester Brothers—reunited and all that shit."

Sam laughed but tapped his glass against Dean's anyway. "Nice one, Dean. Learn that in etiquette class?"

"Let's hear you do better," Dean challenged.

Sam deliberately cleared his voice. "To serendipitous chance—in a field of over ten thousand athletes, we sat beside each other on a plane."

"And thus destiny reasserted itself," Dean concluded. They took a sip of the champagne.

"You believe in destiny?" Sam asked.

Dean shrugged and smirked. "You're the one intoning about serendipitous chance."

"Yeah, maybe I need to rethink some things." Sam held the glass up to the light. "You're right—it's not very good. But I know Jess is gonna want to have it at our reception."

"Yeah, 'cause it's a chick drink."

"If you promise never to say that or anything with the term 'chick' in it in front of Jess, I promise I'll tell her you're allergic to champagne, and I'll put Jack or something in your glass instead," Sam said earnestly.

"So is Jess one of those fem chicks?" Sam dropped his head with a sigh. "What? I happen to like fem chicks. I've never much cared who's in the driver's seat, if you know what I mean. It's all about the destination to me—the journey can be slow, fast, or, you know, toy-filled."

"Oh, God," Sam sobbed. "TMI!"

Dean just laughed. "Besides, Jess is gonna love me. I can cook, wash clothes, and I never leave the toilet seat up."

Sam's eyes widened dramatically. "Never?"

"Never."

"That's, um, that's not natural, is it?"

"It is if you had a two year old brother who fell in one night. Traumatized both me and Dad for life."

Sam bounced his head off the table, rattling the centerpiece. "Is this what I'm gonna have to put up with at the wedding? You telling embarrassing tales about my childhood?"

"You shouldn't have been so entertaining," Dean replied with a beatific smile.

"Can I change 'serendipitous chance' to 'godawful luck'?"

"Nah, man. That would be your haircut—or lack thereof." He ignored the daggers tossed about by Sam's eyes. "So, I'm gonna be invited to your wedding, huh?"

"Best men usually are, Dean."

Dean winced as he swallowed another dreg of the champagne. And this was the good stuff? Blech. "Nah, dude. Mike's gonna be your best man. I'll sit with your mom or something."

"But you're my brother."

"And he's been your best friend for years. I know if the situation was reversed, I'd be pissed if some stranger came to town and shoved me outta the way after putting up with your ass all this time."

"You're so sweet. I'm touched."

"Only in the head," Dean snarked. He drained his glass and wiped his mouth. "Ready to get outta here, bro?"

Dean took a few minutes to arrange a shipment of the house wine to South Dakota—everyone had been advised it was easier to have things shipped rather than trying to carry them back through customs. And the case was surprisingly cheap.

"So?" Sam mused as they walked up the Acropolis. It had been a mutual decision made without words.

"I never had a dog," Dean said, his eyes on his destination. "Living in a series of seedy motels, rusted out single-wides, shanties so shabby that even drug dealers scoffed at them, and of course, squatting in burnt out shells and soon-to-be demolished properties, was not conducive to pet ownership."

"That's how you—we—lived?"

"Yep. That shithole where you supposedly died was just one in a long line of shitholes."

"God."

"He had nothing to do with it I'm sure," Dean said before taking a deep breath. "I also never had a best friend. Twenty-two different schools in nineteen different states sorta nixed the idea of lasting friendship, you know? As for Disneyland? Nope. Almost got to a theme park once—one of the Six Flags. The whole school was going on the last day of the year, completely paid for by a small-town-guy-makes-good type. Of course, Dad had us pack up and leave the day before."

"Fuck, Dean." Sam stopped walking and reached out to grab Dean's arm. "I—I don't know what to say."

Dean shrugged him off and kept walking. "It's okay, man. I'm not telling you this for some belated sympathy and crap. But I want you to know why I'm not mad at your mom anymore. She saved you. She gave you—normal—and that's something you wouldn't have had with us."

"I don't understand," Sam cried softly. "Why did you move so much? Why didn't you have a home? What kinda job let Dad keep running like that?"

"Dad's a hunter, Sam. We followed the game."

"But hunting is seasonal. You couldn't have been doing it three hundred and sixty-five days a year."

"Really? Sorry no one ever told Dad that."

"How the hell did you ever get grades enough to get through high school, much less college?"

Dean laughed. "I never asked if you ever broke a bone."

"Eleventh grade. Broke my wrist playing soccer. Man, my swim coach was pissed."

"Out for like six weeks, huh?"

"Yeah."

"When I was thirteen, Dad and I were hunting. Our prey ran into an abandoned house and we followed. Dad indicated that he'd take the main floor while I went up the stairs to the second. The stairs were pretty stable, but three steps down the hallway, the floor gave out. I fell through to the first floor and then to the basement. My ortho doc to this day can't believe I didn't break my neck or my spine. But that was about all that wasn't broken. I spent eight weeks in traction—because of my age, they really didn't want to put pins in. Then I spent ten months in rehab."

"Shit."

They were getting closer to the ruins of the Parthenon and it was getting more crowded, so Dean led them off the main path. "Dad couldn't give up hunting that long, so he sent me to live with Jim. I had to be home-schooled, and he had this retired couple at his church who'd been missionaries and taught all the starving children in Africa, so you know, what was one starving child in America?"

"You weren't starving for real, were you?" Sam's question was hesitant, as if he were scared of the answer.

Dean tried to give him a reassuring smile. "Hungry sometimes, but not starving. But it was always obvious I wasn't a member of the upper class. Clothes from Salvation Army and its cousins. Shoes a little too well-worn. Most of the time I didn't mind it, but the first day in a new school...Little bastards could and would fuck with your mind . Probably would've ended up hurting one of them if I hadn't had to take that break. Anyway, the Reynolds decided to make it their mission to not only educate me, but to make me like it! Guess they succeeded."

"Your classical background?"

"My what? Oh, you mean the Latin and stuff. Nah, Dad had me learn most of that."

Sam looked shocked, but let it go. "And your Biblical background—what you know about Paul and his travels—that come from Jim and the missionaries?"

"Partially." He didn't want to lie to Sam, but he didn't want to get into the hunting business too much. "I should've known you'd geek out over my education." He smiled to let Sam know he didn't mind.

They stood back and looked at the ancient structure. Tomorrow, they would tour the Acropolis properly, go to the museum, visit all the sites. But tonight, they just wanted to see.

"I don't understand," Sam said after a few moments of silence.

"Understand what?"

"Why you don't want Dad to know I'm alive."

Fuck. He'd hoped his sad tale would make it obvious. "Dad's sick, Sam. He's got an obsession and it's going to destroy him. I hated him when he basically threw me away, but now I'm grateful. He would've taken me down with him. And back in the day, I would've gladly gone with him. I thought I owed him—for losing you."

"You say you haven't heard from him in seven years?"

"He insisted I do my senior of high school in one place. Got us an apartment in Waterloo, Iowa. He hunted most of the time, but showed up enough that no one thought I was an unaccompanied minor. On my eighteenth birthday, he appeared, handed me the keys to the Impala and the lease to the apartment, then left. Haven't seen him since."

"Harsh, man."

Dean shrugged. "The one truth I got from college is that he's sick. He can't—he can't help himself. I don't want his...madness to ruin your life like it almost ruined mine."

"And that's it?" Sam asked speculatively. "That's the full reason why you don't want us to meet?"

Dean stiffened. "What are you getting at?"

"Dean, I'm your brother. That means whatever you tell me is sacrosanct, okay? I can keep a secret, even from Jess, if I have to. Just tell me the truth."

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

"The hunting bullshit, man. It's not animals, or not just animals. Animals don't lead you into abandoned houses or laugh if you have on blinders. And you don't need exit strategies or backup on normal hunts."

"Damn. I talked that much?"

"No, man, you ain't said shit. This is me putting together pieces you let slip. And don't tell me this is just part of Dad's 'madness,' because he's not the only hunter. You hunt, Bobby hunts, and I bet Syl was a hunter back in the day, too. Still not sure if the RPG is the truth or just more of your bullshit. Just cut the crap, man!" Sam's voice was a harsh whisper in the warm night.

Dean ran a hand across his face. Anger had been his first reaction and he'd wanted to yell in Sam's face—"We hunt demons, damn it! Is that enough truth for ya!"—but Sam had escaped all the craziness and Dean just wanted to preserve his innocence for as long as possible.

He turned away from the historical site to look down to the city below. If just a view from a hill brought about such a sense of wonder and power, no wonder the Greek believed gods resided on mountains. And why demons were left to look up.

"What is it, Dean?" Sam pleaded. "Are you in some kind of assassins guild or something?"

Dean choked back a laugh. "An assassins guild? Sure, why not? I'm a member of the League of Extraordinary Assassins."

"Fuck you," Sam spat bitterly.

Shit. The kid was serious about this. "Look, Sam, I'm just trying to protect you, okay? I could tell you what we hunt, why we hunt, and the good that comes from hunting what we do. But it would seriously fuck up your whole world order—and no, I'm not exaggerating. What we do is dirty, dangerous, and most of the time, not strictly legal. But we don't do it out of want or desire, but totally out of necessity."

"What are you saying?"

"Dad's obsessed with getting Mom's killer. Our hunts are about stopping killers."

"You are assassins!"

"No! The difference between us and assassins is the real secret, Sam. It's what I'm protecting you from."

"I'm not a kid!" Sam hissed.

"No, but I was when I learned. I made my first kill when I was eleven, Sammy. That's a wound that will never completely heal. I don't want that for you—not at twenty, not at forty. But you're right; you're a man and it's your choice. I'll tell you the truth—if you really want me to. But take it from me, you don't want to know. Nothing will be the same after you find out. Your life with Jess won't be the same. You won't sleep well at night. You'll have trouble focusing during the day. You won't be doing yourself any favors if you ask this of me. There are reasons there are hunters like me, and there are reasons why no one knows we exist. Think about it, Sam. Think hard."

It was Sam's turn to stare off in the distance and Dean waited patiently, hoping beyond hope that his little brother would heed the warning. Dean wasn't ashamed of being a hunter, and like he'd told Sam, hunting was a necessity. But he wouldn't wish the life on his worst enemy, much less his own brother.

"My memories of you are sorta lacquered over, softened and mellowed by nostalgia," Sam began, his head slightly canted as he looked at Dean. "But I can't say the same thing about the past two weeks. I've seen you, Dean, not the fuzzy big brother in my past. I've watched you flirt, occasionally get shot down, and shrug it off. I watched you in competition, totally ignoring the nerves and tension around you. I told you something you were totally unprepared to hear, and you quietly walked out and came back in with this great gift." He gripped the St. Joseph medal that apparently never left his neck. "You don't rattle easily. You aren't into big drama. You're not a 'woe is me' pessimist. So I have to think, have to believe when you come this close to begging me not to go down this path, warning me of the dangers of the truth, that you have good reasons for it—maybe a lifetime of reasons, huh?"

"Yeah, man."

Sam nodded. "Then...we'll let it rest for now. I'm not a kid, which means I'm old enough to know there are things I'd probably be better off not knowing. And I'll trust you to tell me when or if I need to be told."

Dean grimaced. "That's a lot of trust, Sammy."

"Dad's the one who lost faith in you, Dean. Not me. Never me."

Dean felt like crying, relieved and saddened and proud all at the same time. A breeze rippled through the air and he rubbed his eyes like a bit of grit had blown into them. Did he have the right to keep Dad away from his son? Did he have the right to deny Sam a father? What if they met and Dad didn't even try to convince Sam to fight demons with him? What if he just clapped Sam on the back and said, "Am I invited to the wedding, son?" What if Dean's imagination was the drama queen? Maybe Dad would be so excited and overjoyed that he had his baby boy back that he'd give up looking for the demon that killed Mom.

And maybe Bobby farted lilac-scented rainbows.

Thinking of... "I want to tell Bobby and Jim."

"They won't tell Dad?" Sam asked worriedly.

"Nah. I've told them plenty of things that never got back to Dad."

Sam went all doe-eyed and smiled at him.

Dean shivered uncomfortably. "What?"

"Thought you said you didn't have a best friend. Sounds like you have two."

Dean thought about it for a long moment, then shrugged. "Guess I was wrong, huh?"

"Guess so. And I've already told Rain about you."

Dean's eyes widened. "That's why she was so into me while she was here. Thought maybe she was changing her allegiance or something."

"Over you?" Sam snorted.

"Hey, man, I am made of awesome. Never discount that."

Sam laughed and they turned to walk back down the hill. "So, Dad's taken care of. Our friends are taken care of. Now, what about my mom? Any suggestions?"

"Other than a Thank You card?"

Sam stopped their progress with a halting hand on Dean's arm. "You might've forgiven her; I haven't."

"Sam..."

"No, Dean. She made me think my family was dead. She made you think I was dead. I don't need to go to law school to know the definition of mental anguish or the penalties for kidnapping a minor and taking him across state lines. Or what about falsifying juvenile records and arranging an illegal adoption. Mom's in this deep, and I don't know if I want her to get out of it."

Dean could feel Sam's anger tremble down through his hand. "Chill, dude, we're not prosecuting anyone. If you want to be pissed, be pissed—"

"Thanks for your permission."

Ah, may the real drama queen step forward? He started walking again. "Sam. We can't go after your mom and leave Dad out of it at the same time. The two missions are counter-productive of each other. If you want to give her the cold shoulder or do one of Dad's numbers and kick her totally out of your life, that's up to you. But let me tell you something—getting tossed aside hurts, man."

"But she—"

"Did wrong for the right reasons. Been there. Done that. She hurt you. I get that—"

"No, her real sin was hurting you. She lied and I got a nice life out of it. You, on the other hand, got the shit end of the stick. It's not fair and she needs to pay!"

"She's already paid—you said it yourself, she gave you a nice life. Debt paid in full, in my opinion."

"I think we're gonna have to agree to disagree on this one," Sam finally said.

"Whatever lets you sleep at night." Dean glanced at his watch. "Speaking of..."

"Yeah, guess it's time to go back to the Village. We're good though, right, man?"

"Solid," Dean vowed. "But there's one more thing, Sam, and this is important, really important."

"You have to promise to tell me if something—strange happens, okay? The minute it happens."

Sam frowned. "What do you mean by strange?"

"Weird. Out of place. The things that make you take a second glance, that worry your mind afterwards, the ones that make you give a little laugh and say, 'no way, dude.' I need to know that you'll tell me if and when something like that happens. It doesn't matter how briefly you experience it, how no one noticed but you, how it could've been a bad light bulb, the beer you drank, a passing airplane..." Dean caught Sam's forearm and squeezed it, not hard enough to bruise but enough to be felt. "Promise me you'll call me immediately. I won't laugh. I won't call you a wuss. I won't do anything but listen, okay?"

"Dean, this isn't making any sense."

"Exactly. If it doesn't make any sense, you need to let me know."

He watched Sam struggle with what he was asking, but even with his desire to keep Sam innocent, he couldn't let him be vulnerable. He was gonna swing by Sam and Jess's apartment and make sure protection was in place—salt at the windows and doors, some sigils painted in clear latex, maybe a blessing or two. But he needed Sam's help. He needed Sam to tell him if the supernatural sought him out.

With an exasperated sigh, Sam nodded. "Okay, man. If the refrigerator ticks in the middle of the night, I'll give you a call."

"I'm serious about this, Sam." And sounding like a raving lunatic.

Sam closed his eyes and Dean watched his nostrils flare as he absorbed the request. "Yeah, Dean. I don't understand, but, yeah. I promise."

Dean didn't realize how hard his heart was beating until he heard Sam agree. He was relieved and saddened at the same time. Sam was going to be on his guard, alert for things he'd have readily dismissed before. Dean had already taken some of Sam's innocence, and he'd only been his brother for less than a week.

As they walked down to the bus stop, Dean wondered if finding his family was the blessing Sam thought it was.


chapter fourteen

En route from the Olympic Village to
Syntagma Square
Athens, Greece

"So we should finish up the tour by four and that'll give us plenty of time to shop, right?"

Dean sat on the bus and eyed the passing cars longingly. Man, would he be glad to get back to his baby. "Shop?"

"Yeah. There's a shipping station downtown. They even box the stuff for you," Sam said knowledgeably. "Of course, if you already have stuff back in your room that you need to ship, there's a station back at the Village."

"Um, I already had the wine shipped out."

"But what about your gifts for Bobby, Jim, and your other friends?"

Dean stopped looking at the cars and turned to his brother. "What gifts? I'm supposed to buy gifts?"

Sam snorted with a grimace. "Since I'm your brother I have the right to say this: you have the social skills of a gnat."

"The ladies happen to like my social skills, thank you very much," Dean replied defensively.

Another snort. "They probably think your cluelessness is cute. Didn't any of them ask you to bring them something back?"

Dean tried to think back. The weeks before he left were kinda hectic. He'd done a couple of hunts with Bobby because he didn't want the man hunting alone while he was gone. "Well, Rachel at work told me to bring her back something pretty. I got her a pendant at the same place I got your St. Joseph medallion." The rest of the moochers at the office had just threatened him if he didn't bring them something back.

"See? She knows you're pathetic and that's why she was specific in her request."

"Bobby didn't ask for nothing. Neither did Jim."

"They're not supposed to ask. You're just supposed to know," Sam said smugly. "What in the world did your etiquette teacher teach you?"

That an orgasm is the gift that keeps on giving. "How do you know all this shit?"

Sam shrugged. "From Mom, I guess, and Jess, too. It's like this; you buy someone a gift to let them know you were thinking about them even though you were far away."

Oh. It was a girl thing. Which meant you had to know a girl to learn it, and except for Ms. T, there'd been no long-term girl in his life—except for the four years he'd had his mom. She would've taught him that, bringing him home gifts if she had to go out of town. Damn, Sam was lucky.

Okay. Gift-shopping. He could do that. Where was the local equivalent of Walmart? Or better yet, wasn't there a shop they'd passed last night that had T-shirts and stuff? Maybe he'd get Bobby a cool pair of shades to wear with his trucker cap.

"And it has to be a gift that matters, that said you put thought into it. Even the most expensive gift can't top a well-thought out one. A gift to match the individual you're gonna give it to, Mom always says."

Dean sank lower into the bus seat. Where was a handy ghost or poltergeist when you needed one? Wait a minute. A gun! Bobby loved weapons, right?

And so did Homeland Security.

Damn.

"You aren't tired of sightseeing, are you?" Sam asked. "Because we can do something else if—"

"Nah. I still have some room left on my last memory card, so I'm up to capture all the ancient Greek footsteps in their posterity. Or something like that."

"Then why the long face?"

Dean rolled his eyes. "Dude, I'm trying to do that well-thinking out thing you just told me to do."

"Looks painful," Sam said with a snicker.

"If we weren't on a bus full of people, I'd show you painful."

Sam just stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes.

Dean couldn't help but laugh.

He paid attention during the tour, but Dean reserved one quarter of his brain to figuring out what to get the two men who—who were the fathers his never was. Jim would probably appreciate something "churchy." He was truly a man of faith, not just some fire and brimstone spouting freak who got off on bullying the general population to seeing things his way. If any of those guys ever saw a real demon, they'd probably piss themselves.

So, some religious artifact for Jim. Check.

Now, Bobby. Bobby, with his good ol' boy facade. Bobby, who he'd put money on in a "smart tournament" between him and tenured professors from Harvard, Yale, and Cambridge. Damn man was so smart he made Dean's head hurt just with general conversation. Bobby was gonna be tickled pink over Syl's book. No way Dean was ever gonna top that. So maybe he should just go for the stupid, something to remind Bobby that he lived with an idiot—like he needed a reminder. One of those trucker hats that said, "My Son Went To Athens And All I Got Was This Ugly-Ass Hat"? Or maybe one of those nudie pens—turn it over and the girl on the barrel loses her clothes...

"I didn't mean for you to freak out over this gifting thing."

Dean was startled to hear Sam so close to him. The last thing he remembered was his brother heading over to confirm something about some vase or statue or whatever. "I'm not freaking, man. I'm just...shifting into a gear I've never used," he hesitantly explained.

"You're definitely a mechanic," Sam said and Dean frowned at him. "You know, the engine reference you just made? Never mind. So, ready to go shopping? We passed this store with—"

Dean held up his hand to stop him. "I think we should shop separately because you have to buy girly things and I don't." And he wanted to call Syl to see if there was a certain type of "specialty" store in the area.

"Not like I'm gonna buy underwear or something," Sam pouted. "But, okay, man. Meet you at the corner in a couple of hours."

"Um, better look for me in the taverna because, seriously, I'm gonna be through in half an hour at most." Hopefully, the local House of Hoodoo Voodoo or whatever was nearby and not in another one of Athens famous neighborhoods.

"Whatever, man." Sam waved and started to walk away purposefully.

"Hey, wait up," Dean called. "Gimme your medallion."

"Why?" Sam asked, grasping it tightly.

"Wanna get it fixed. Get that nick smoothed out."

"It's okay. I don't scratch myself anymore."

"You want Jess to scratch herself? Or are not gonna have her that close to you?" Dean added with a smirk. Damn kid was highly territorial, wasn't he?

"Okay." Sam reluctantly pulled the chain over his head. "I want it back, you know."

"Yeah, yeah. I'm not an Indian giver."

"You know that's racist, right?"

Dean just flipped him the bird and sauntered away. He had an idea about the medallion and wanted to see if he could get it done. After his shopping of course. He whipped out his cell phone and gave a quick call to Syl, silently thanking a hunter friend of his for tricking out the cell for international use. Hell, knowing Ash, he could probably call the moon—and get an answer. Minutes later, he was ducking into alleys and going around corners until he came to a small, unassuming, door labeled "Books and Other Antiquities." Yep. This was the right place.

Old books smell the same everywhere, Dean thought as he entered the store. There was a few customers who looked up as he entered, then back down to whatever junk, um, treasures they'd found. He made his way to the counter where an old-fashioned cash register sat. However, the register was far younger than the woman sitting on a stool next to it.

He pasted on the smile that got him pie-crust making lessons. "Excuse me, miss, but my friend Syl said—" Eyes the color of the sky on a clear blue day caught his and he stopped mid-question.

"Syl sent you?" she asked firmly.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Theo!" A fifty-ish old man came hobbling over. "I need to take this young man into the other room. Mind the register."

"Yes, Mama."

The woman motioned for Dean to follow her. "My baby boy," she explained. "Born right here in the store. Perhaps that is why I cannot get him married and out of here."

Dean remained silent because, hey, what do you say to information like that?

"So, you are a hunter." They went through a door and started down a narrow, but long staircase.

"Yes, ma'am."

They stopped in front of a brick wall. "From America."

"Yes." He tried not show his awe when she pressed on a brick and the entire wall opened up to reveal a poorly lit cavern. A huge mother actually, but partitioned into narrow rows by so many shelves that the word catacombs bounced around his head. It was like in a sci-fi movie where they kept DNA samples or cloned/alien embryos of everyone on the planet. And yeah, he had to stop watching DVDs with Bobby.

"What are you hunting? Did it come with the Americans visiting our city? Is it weapons you need? Herbs? Protection amulets?"

She stopped at a stone counter that looked remarkably like an altar—the kind that took live sacrifices. Yeah, waaay too many movies. Dean cleared his throat. "Um, I'm not on a hunt. I'm just looking for...gifts?"

"Gifts for hunters?" She looked surprised and Dean cursed his brother for giving him the idea. "The person or persons must be special to you."

"They are my—mentors." He had to search for the word but knew it was true as soon as he said it. "One is a minister at a church. I hoped to get him something that will help to protect his sanctuary."

She nodded. "I am Ismeme. It will be an honor to help you honor those whom you hold dear. So many hunters these days are caught up in the enemy instead of the friend. In the time before, hunters were a brotherhood, a united force. Today? Not so much." She smiled up at him and once again he was struck by the strange blue of her eyes. "Your soul is very well-defined, young man, bright with sharp edges. Are you sure you are a hunter?"

"Since I was a child, ma'am."

"Ismeme." He nodded. "You are the Winchester boy," she said with certainty.

It'd been a long time since a woman shocked him so much. "I—Yes, I am. Did Syl mention I was in town?"

She shrugged and glanced at several rows of shelves before choosing a particular aisle. "Stay here. I will be but a moment." Ismeme returned a few minutes later with a very dusty box clutched in her hand. She plopped it onto the altar—um, counter and after a lot of coughing, she wrangled the top off and showed Dean the tarnished silver cross inside. "Blessed by three Greek popes, three Archbishops of Athens, and three Archbishops of Constantinople. Thrice blessed thricely. This will serve your friend well?"

Dean nodded and wondered about the hit to his credit card. The cross had to be old—the last Greek pope was in the what, eighth century? He smiled; apparently something he'd heard on one of the tours had stuck. Anyway, old tended to be the same as expensive. Jim was definitely worth it, but he might have to do a gig at the NRA to pay off some of the debt. The Association paid speakers well, it was just that some of the local members were assholes of the highest order. Handling dicks with guns was a finessed skill he usually reserved for getting info for a hunt, not for cash.

However, Jim was worth it.

Yeah, he was gonna be muttering that for quite some time.

"Jim will put it to good use. Thank you."

"And your other friend? What do you wish for him?"

"I've possibly spent everything I have on this present, so..." he replied honestly.

She nodded. "Quite true, if I was selling for profit. But the items in this room are tools to be wielded by artisans, not baubles for the rich to look at and covet. You and your friends will make proper use of all that you purchase. This is what I require of my special customers, not their life savings."

"This special customer thanks you."

"We are at war, son. The troops must be supported. So, your other friend?"

"Super smart, but with an equal helping of common sense." He had to add that last part, because he'd known a smart hunter or two who didn't know to come in out of the rain. Those were the hunters you left in a safe place while you did the actual hunt.

"Ah, I have just the thing." Ismeme went further into the shadowy abyss of shelves, emerging a good five minutes later with another dusty box. "He is very smart, you say?"

"Yes."

"So a mystery will appeal to him." She pried off the cardboard lid. Under a layer of yellowed wrapping paper was—a rock. "In the late eleventh century one of our youth participated in the First Crusade. We do not know if he was a formal member of the Knights Templar or just their servant, but according to the letters that made it to his parents, he lived with them as they occupied the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. How he came to die, we do not know, but after his death arrived a final letter along with this rock. He implied that it was key to the end times and needed to be kept safe."

"A rock?" Dean asked skeptically.

Ismeme reached into a pocket and pulled out a magnifying glass. "There are symbols etched onto the stone, but they match no known ancient language. Perhaps it is the language of the angels or the demons. The best of Greek hunter-scholars have studied this, only to have it come back into my possession again un-deciphered and useless. Perhaps the answer lies not here but in your America. The beginning of the world may have begun on this side of the world, but the oracles point to your side as the ending."

"Oracles? You haven't upgraded to psychics?" he asked cheekily, trying to hide his nervousness. End times talk had always creeped him out. Day-to-day fighting evil was one thing; envisioning an apocalypse, and the end of all he knew, was something totally different.

"Are you too young to know the words Microsoft ME?"

Dean shook his head. "No, ma'am, and point taken." Upgrading wasn't always for the better. Hey, wait a minute! What did an elderly chick who used a manual cash register know about Microsoft? He peered closer at the storekeeper. Was she fuzzy around the edges? Damn, he hated glamours. "This old world act for the tourists or just hunters in general?"

Those weird blue eyes widened, then she smiled and shrugged. "Hunters like—no, trust—in things traditional, so we provide it for them. But everything we sell is one-hundred percent authentic. So is this cave. Hollowed out of hallowed ground. Safe as it gets."

"So, how old are you?"

"Thirty-one."

Dean leaned closer across the counter. Perhaps it was Ms. T's influence, but he liked older women. "And your son upstairs?"

"My father. He really was born in the store. To my grandmother, who actually looks just like this. Although, with a bit more of a tan—she retired to Crete and runs a boat rental shop."

"Cool. And is your name really Ismeme?"

"It is."

"And are you married, Ismeme?" He could hear Bobby warning him about fooling around with witches; women could be vindictive enough without having special powers. And there was that incident in Sault Ste. Marie that neither of them ever spoke of... Still, he bet she was a babe. He had a sixth sense about things like that.

"I am not."

Dean grinned, then frowned. "Hell, I'm heading home tomorrow. And it's my last night with Sam."

"Your brother," she said as she wrapped the rock in its paper.

"Yeah." Dean froze and took a step back, his body adjusting to a defensive pose. "How do you know that?" he demanded. "Syl doesn't strike me as the type to spread around personal business."

Ismeme waved her hand and suddenly Dean saw the real woman. Medium height, olive skin, dark hair in a long, thick braid. Wide lips. The same disturbing eyes. And definitely hot. "Oracles retire when their replacement is ready. Grandmother was on the first boat out of here as soon as I could control my Sight."

"So you're an oracle and a witch?"

"Witch? Oh, you mean Grandmother's face? Something a friend taught me after I got hit on by so many hunters."

"Sorry," Dean said with a shrug.

Ismeme smiled. "Hunting is a dying art here in Greece. Our ghosts are old, our time in the spotlight of gods and demons long past. America will be the battleground, the modern era Armageddon, so the young—and eligible—saunter off to your country. If what was left looked like you, I wouldn't bother with a glamour. Besides, you didn't even wait until I took off the glamour to make your move, so I am not offended, Dean Winchester."

A country full of psychics. Fuckin' great. Must be due to inbreeding or something. "So, an oracle, huh? Where's your temple?"

She laughed and shook her head. "The perks of this job have gone downhill, damn it. I would've been better off staying in college and getting my degree."

"Why didn't you?"

"You get noticed when you go into a trance in the middle of a conversation. Especially if you're a psychology major."

"That sucks."

"It did, but I've adjusted. The wisdom of old age and all."

"Yeah, you're decrepit all right," he agreed, grinning at the silliness of it. "Bet you have to watch moving those hips, huh? Wouldn't want one of them to break at an inopportune moment or anything." The grin turned into a leer.

"You are incorrigible." Ismeme laughed and blushed. "Better be glad you're cute."

"You dirty old lady," he accused mockingly. He patted his pocket. "Oh, before I forget, do you know where I can get this fixed?" He drew out Sam's medallion.

Her nose wrinkled as she eyed the piece. "Where did you get that? Did someone in Athens sell you that junk? If they charged you anything, it was too much. Quick, tell me. I need to report them. We were so afraid the dregs of our businesses would take advantage of the tourists."

"Geez, it's not that bad, Ismeme. And I got it in Thassos."

"Yes, it does have that 'island quality.'"

He sighed. It wasn't like it was a diamond ring or something. "All I needed it for was the silver."

"Oh, you want me to melt it down into bullets?"

Her eager tone made him roll his eyes. "Seriously, it just has a nick that needs to be fixed and I'd like it engraved."

She sniffed in disdain and reached out her hand. "If you insist—" She froze as their hands touched.

Dean watched in fascination as her eyes went from blue to crystal clear, the pupils just tiny pinholes in the centers. He wondered if he should yell for her dad or just let her ride it out and make sure she didn't fall and hit her head. Before he could decide, she was back. Her eyes returned to their odd blue and she took a deep breath.

"That—was unusual." She dropped the medallion into her apron pocket. "I am an oracle, not a psychic. Touch usually does not come into play. I apologize."

Dean shrugged. Bees buzzed, birds sang, and psychics did freaky shit. Why would oracles be any different?

"You can ask if you like."

It took him a second to figure out she was asking if he wanted to know what she had 'seen'. Bobby was friends with a couple of psychics—one of them, Pam Barnes, was really hot—and he'd learned that if it didn't have to do with a case, knowing the future just wasn't worth knowing. "Okay," he said slowly. "So, do your eyes do that when you have sex?"

Her mouth dropped in shock. "You are either incredibly single-minded or incredibly resigned to your fate."

"God grant me the serenity..." he began.

"You're in Alcoholics Anonymous?"

"God, no. I just don't put too much store into prophecy and shit, no offense to your skills or anything. But if I can't change it, it's just knowledge I can do without. And fate is rarely changeable."

"Resigned to your fate then," she affirmed. "But may I give you a piece of advice?"

"Hit me with it," he offered. Advice he could handle.

"Love your brother."

Shit. She'd seen something about Sam? What? No. it's just be something else he'd have to keep from the kid. He pasted on a smile. "Easiest piece of advice I've ever had to follow. That's what this medallion is about."

Ismeme frowned again and sighed. "What do you want it to say?" He told her and she nodded. "Come by in the morning and all will be ready. If you are satisfied with how your items are cleaned and packed, I will ship them for you."

"Is that safe? I mean, these are one-of-a-kind items."

"My friend taught me another spell. I have never lost an item to the postal system."

So maybe witchcraft wasn't all bad. "Thanks, Ismeme."

"You're welcome. And, Dean Winchester?"

"Yeah?"

"If you come by early enough maybe you will get the answer to your question."

For a moment Dean was puzzled, then he remembered the question about her eyes. He lifted a surprised eyebrow.

She just grinned and restored her glamour.


chapter fifteen

Olympic Stadium
Athens, Greece

Dean slouched back against the bench he was sitting on, knees apart, eyes hidden behind shades. Just because he had to wear the damn U.S. Olympic uniform didn't mean he couldn't be cool. He was definitely burning the thing as soon as he got back to the States.

"So, all I had to do was follow the spatters of drool and they led straight to you." Sam sat down beside him and kicked Dean's legs together. "Dude, don't you get enough action without all the advertising?"

"There is no such thing as enough action," Dean drawled.

"You know, I'm glad I met you. Now I know the type I'm not letting within a hundred feet of my daughter, when I have one."

"Aw, Sammy, you ain't gotta worry about that—Uncle Dean, the gold medal-winning sharpshooter, will make sure your baby gal is safe from harm."

Sam laughed. "Any baby girl I have is gonna wrap both of us around her little finger and you know it."

"You might be a pushover—"

"Did you take enough pictures for Bobby and Jim?" Sam interrupted with a smirk.

"Asshole." Dean sighed indulgently. "Not the way to talk to someone bearing gifts." He smiled at the light that appeared in Sam's eyes. God, he'd missed that.

"You got my St. Joseph's medal!" As soon as Dean dragged it out of his pocket, Sam was grabbing for it. "Hey! This isn't the same one."

"Yeah, I got bitched out about that. According to the shop owner, the first one I gave you was a piece of shit not deemed worthy enough to represent the jewelry industry of the great country that is Greece."

Sam frowned. "What?"

"Hell if I know. Anyway, when I went to pick it up this morning, she handed me this one—" he reached into his pocket again—"and a matching one. Said they belonged to priests who were brothers or some such shit. We were upgraded, dude."

"O-kay." Sam started to pull it over his head, then stopped. "It's engraved?"

Dean shrugged. "I had it done—you know, just in case it gets ripped off and you have to identify it in a pawn shop or something."

Sam rolled his eyes. "It's in Koine?" Dean nodded. "What does it say?"

"'Ever brothers.'"

Sam sniffed. "And yours?"

"Says the same."

Sam blinked rapidly and looked away. "Cool."

This time it was Dean who rolled his eyes at his little "sister." He slipped the duplicate medal around his neck, noticing the weight and feel of it. Ismeme claimed the medals belonged to two priests who'd been killed for their beliefs while wearing them, thus sanctifying the symbols in the blood of martyrs. Top of the line mumbo jumbo, hoodoo, whatever. Powerful shit no matter what you called it. As Winchesters, he and Sam needed all the help they could get. "Never take it off, Sammy?"

"Yeah. You, too?"

"Yeah." Dean rubbed his suddenly itching nose, then snorted. Who the hell was he fooling? "Since the Winchester sisters are through playing with their 'My Little Ponies' or whatever, let's go do something manly—have a burping contest or a goddamn lying contest about the biggest fish we've ever caught."

Sam laughed and slumped back against the bench. "I've been marlin fishing."

"No shit? I've heard they're big ass things."

"Some are over a thousand pounds."

"Fuck, that's big! You catch one that big?"

"Nah, man. I was with my roommate and his dad. I think the biggest we hauled in was about 150 pounds." He stretched his hands out to approximate the size.

Dean shuddered. "Still too big for me. When I have nightmares about getting crushed by a fish, I'll be sure to give you a call."

Sam hiccuped (or laughed)."What about you? What's your biggest catch?"

"Since I've never been fishing, I have no idea." Well, not fishing for fish. There had been a water wraith up in Michigan...

Sam sat up and looked at him earnestly. "Geez, man, we gotta fix that. Come out to Cali and we'll rent us a boat and go out into the bay. I have no idea what's out there, but I see fishermen so there's got to be something."

"Eager to hang out with your big brother, are you?" Dean tried for nonchalance and had to stop himself from wincing when he heard just a hint of need in the question. Pathetic.

"Hell, yes!" Sam nearly shouted. "You seem to have it in that thick head of yours that being taken away from you, from my family, was just the best thing ever. But it wasn't. There's a reason why I suppressed the memories, Dean. I woke up one day to find a hole in my world, a gaping wound where you and Dad used to be. There were days when I just couldn't do anything. I'd sit in my room and just stare, maybe subconsciously looking for you or something. Mom would have to bribe me just to come out of my room. My migraines. The more I talk to you, the more I realize my triggers had to do with you. I couldn't tolerate being called Sammy or the smell of grape bubblegum. What's your favorite flavor of bubblegum, Dean?"

"Grape," he whispered.

"There was a part of me left back at that motel and I've just now found it. Do I want to hang out with my big brother? Hell, Dean, if you ask, I'd probably move to fuckin' South Dakota with you, okay?"

Dean was so glad he had on shades. "Nah, Jess is a California chick if I ever saw one. I'll come visit. Maybe do some fishing and shit."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. We can drive around in my awesome car and you can tell all your envious neighbors about your really cool brother."

"Really cool, modest brother," Sam amended with a grin. "Who bakes pies."

"Damn skippy," Dean agreed, matching Sam's grin.


Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport
Spata, Greece

"It sucks we're not flying back together."

Dean shrugged. "The drug company giveth and the drug company gets rid of its test rats. Experiment over, clean out the cages."

Sam snorted. "You're so philosophical. Ever think of doing a book?"

"Book? I was thinking more like Dr. Phil."

"Or Dr. Ruth."

"My own sex show!" Dean grinned and adjusted his backpack. Syl's book was damn heavy. At least it'd made it through customs without a problem. "It'd have to be cable, of course. With live models and everything."

"You're one sick dude, man."

"It was your idea."

Instead of Sam replying to that, he asked, "This isn't the end, is it?" Dean stared at him in horror. "Of our relationship, Dean, not life," he explained as soon as he caught on.

"Dude, don't mention the words 'the end' to a nervous flyer about to climb aboard a plane for ten fuckin' hours." Shit. He really didn't need that. "And what are you talking about? Did we not have a discussion about fishing and crap?"

"Yeah, but..." Sam shifted uncomfortably in a plastic chair that was much too small for him. "Seventeen years, Dean."

Dean sighed. "I know, Sam. But this time we're not two little kids depending on what adults have told us. I have your home address, your campus address, your email address, and your cell phone number. You have all my numbers and Bobby's as well. No more disappearing acts for either of us, man. I have my little brother back. Come hell or high water, nothing's separating us again."

A tiny nod. "And we have our medallions to remind us of that, right?"

"Damn right." Dean scratched at the back of his head. "Listen, I know this is coming a little late, but I'm sorry I left you in that motel room all alone, okay? And I'm doubly sorry that I didn't think to question the facts of your death, especially when I got older. I just—" Sam was giving him the same look of horror he'd just given Sam. "What?"

"What the fuck did Dad do to you to make you feel this guilty over something that you have no business feeling guilty over? You think I should feel guilty because I believed Mom when she said you all were dead?"

"No, but you were just a kid, Sammy—"

"And so were you. Eight, Dean. Look over there." There was a family with three kids. One of the boys looked like he could be eight—maybe they could see him better if he ever looked up from the game console he was bent over. "If his kid sister—" She was sitting in the seat beside him, having a conversation with one of the Olympic mascot dolls— "went missing, would you blame him? No. And that's who you were, Dean, a kid, just like me. Climb out of the pit of ashes Dad buried you in, rip off the sackcloth, and then tell Dad to go flog himself with that cat-o-nine-tails he stuck in your hand."

"Wow," Dean said uneasily. "Quite the wordsmith, aren't you?"

"Dean."

"Yeah, yeah. I'll stop with the self-flagellation if you stop with the 'he's gonna forget me's. If I didn't forget you when I thought you were dead, I'm not gonna forget you now. I'm gonna be in contact with you so much that Jess is gonna get jealous and wonder if I'm your brother or your boy-on-the-side. Text messages, emails, inappropriately timed phone calls, the whole shebang."

Sam smiled and relaxed. "So? Labor Day?"

Dean shook his head. "Sadly, you and I will be doing the same thing that weekend, but in different places."

"What d'ya mean?"

"The rubber chicken circuit. All those lovely people who were gracious Olympic sponsors? They're gonna want their pound of flesh. So when you get back, everybody from the local Y to the Chamber of Commerce to the Boy Scouts are gonna be calling you up so you can relate your 'tale of triumph through hard work and dedication to your sport.' Unfortunately, they will be probably feed you and you'll have to pretend it's your best meal ever."

Sam's forehead wrinkled. "How do you know this? I thought this was your first Olympics."

"People talk, man."

Sam sat quietly for a few minutes. "Thanksgiving?"

"What do you and Jess usually do for the holidays? Celebrate them together? Where she from, by the way?"

"Anaheim. Spent her high school summers working at Disneyland. Not so happiest place on Earth to hear her tell it." Sam gave a dopey smile and Dean gave up his last doubt about telling Dad about Sam. The kid was in love and had a real decent chance of having a normal life. He couldn't let Dad take that from him. He just couldn't.

"You wanna come to South Dakota for Christmas? Bobby'll wanna meet you. And Jim, too. Maybe he can fly out after giving Christmas mass. We got plenty of room."

"Shouldn't you ask Bobby first?"

Dean thought about it and smiled. No, he didn't. It was his home. If he asked, the man would just bop him on the head and call him an idjit for wasting his breath on the question. "It's fine, not like I'm organizing an orgy or something."

"Dean!" Sam sounded scandalized.

"Come for Christmas. There might even be snow and Bobby gets a kick out of decorating the house so much that our neighbors—five miles down the road—complain about the light pollution. Hell, I'll even put up with Mrs. Kawalsky's roving hands and talk her into cooking us a turkey."

"What? Turkey's in the same category as fried chicken, Mr. Chef?" Sam teased.

"That's Mr. Pastry Chef, remember? I'm serious about this, Sam. Have Christmas with me."

"Okay." Sam threw back his head and laughed. "Okay. Christmas in South Dakota. We have a plan, dude."

"Great. And in the meantime—" Dean held up his hand in the universal phone sign—"keep in touch."

"Will do." Sam groaned as his flight was called. "I guess this is goodbye for now."

Dean shook his head. "No. No goodbyes. Just 'see ya, dude's."

Sam got to his feet and hefted his carry-on pack. Dean stood, too. "See ya, dude," he said softly.

Dean grabbed him in an awkward one arm embrace. "See ya."

As Dean settled back into the seat to wait for his own flight, he wasn't even thinking about the long hours he was about to spend in the air. His mind was firmly set on how he'd gone to Athens with gold on his mind—and ended up with much, much more.


IV. Semifinals

chapter sixteen

Tucson International Airport
Tucson, Arizona

Sam resisted the urge to stretch and pop his neck as he made his way through the narrow walkway connecting the hell on earth—sorry—plane he'd just left and the airport. Considering he'd been traveling for sixteen straight hours, he was sure the pop would be loud enough to alert security. As if his journey hadn't been scheduled to be long enough, he'd hurried in Newark to make his flight to Arizona, only to sit on the tarmac for ninety minutes waiting out a storm and the subsequent air back-ups. He was tired...and dreading meeting up with his mom.

"Hey, Pole!"

He grinned as he saw his best friend waiting at the end of the ramp. He should've known Mike was around by the giggling he'd heard from the high school cheerleaders ahead of him who were coming home from a competition. (And how did he know that? The whole freakin' plane knew it and everything they'd done wrong or right during the competition, hence the hell on earth comparison.) Mike Monroe attracted giggles from girls of all ages—and sometimes something a bit more adult and/or pornographic. Mike, as one modeling agent had said, was exotic. He'd inherited his mother's Native American copper complexion and his dad's chiseled features and piecing blue eyes. He could probably be making a fortune in the fashion industry by now, but instead he was staying true to his dream of becoming a middle school teacher. Mr. Phillips, their Algebra I teacher, had left a lasting impression on a boy whose parents were going through a divorce.

"Mike! Thought your little camping buddies had left you buried in a shallow grave somewhere." Mike had spent the summer as a camp counselor. His emails had been full of all the horrors he'd suffered.

"I clawed my way out just to get here in time to pick you up. Be grateful."

"Oh, I am." Any delay in seeing his mother was welcome. "How'd you get this arduous task?"

"Your mom thought you sounded funny on the phone and sent me to put you in a good mood. So who pissed in your cornflakes, Mr. Bronze Medal?"

The problem with having a best friend was that you were completely transparent in his presence. That's the kinda thing that happened when you spent a lifetime plotting with someone. If their parents knew half the things they'd done, especially in those "tween" years, they both would've been shipped off to a monastery or military school or something. "Thunderstorms, fourteen Hilary Duff wannabees, jetlag—just pick any or all," he said as they headed toward baggage pick-up.

Mike stopped their progress and focused his eyes on Sam's face. "Nah. This is something deeper. Something happen in Athens?"

"Yeah." Sam continued stomping his way toward his luggage. Athens had definitely been an eye-opener.

Mike sighed as he trailed along. "You might as well spill, man. You know you're gonna eventually."

Mike had cried with him the first time he'd been stung by a bee. They'd had literal pissing contests. They'd ditched their dates to their first middle school dance and played on their Gameboys in the bathroom. He'd shown Mike his first pubic hair and when Mike suspected he'd contracted an STD, Sam had gone with him to the free clinic two counties over. Mike was right; he was only delaying the inevitable. "Let's get out of here first, okay?"

They were in Mike's silver Tahoe and on the highway before Sam spoke. "I met a guy in Athens, well, actually on the plane to Athens."

Mike shot him a glance. "Something you tryin' to tell me?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "Yes, I had a passionate man affair and now I want you," he deadpanned. "The guy I met is my brother, you idiot."

Mike was quiet as he changed lanes. Then he took a quick glance at Sam. "You don't have a brother."

"Remember, man? I told you I was adopted. I've always known I had a brother and a dad before."

"The operative term being 'had.'"

"Except it was the wrong operative term." Sam slouched down in his seat. "Mom lied. She kidnapped me and forged the adoption papers. So that's the 'piss in my cornflakes.' Happy now?"

Mike was silent for several miles and Sam knew his friend was trying to figure out a good way to call him a liar without, you know, actually calling him one. Sam decided to help him out. "We had a blood test done. And I checked into the reported deaths of my brother and dad. No one died back then except a couple cooking meth."

"Your dad's alive, too?"

"Yeah."

"And you think Mom Grace..."

"She did."

"Then why wasn't your family looking for you? Never saw your face peering back to me over my morning cereal."

"Look, a meth lab exploded next to the room I was in. I wandered out before the explosion, Mom picked me up, and the firemen told my family I was so much dust and ash. They've been mourning me as long as I've been mourning them."

"You were in a room by yourself?"

Sam didn't like the accusatory tone. "I never said my dad was father of the year."

"So...Mom Grace saved you."

Mike sounded a little relieved and Sam could understand that. He and Mike considered both of their houses home and Grace was like another parent to Mike. He'd had a couple weeks to come to terms with what she'd done. Mike was just getting slapped in the face with it. If he wanted to side with Grace at first, that was okay. "You could look at it that way. But by doing so, she condemned my brother to whatever she thought I was suffering. That's why I'm mad, Mike. What she did to my brother is unforgivable."

"If he's all that, then why the hell were you in a room by yourself?" Mike countered.

"Jesus Christ! He was eight years old. How fuckin' responsible were we at that age, huh? Wasn't that about the time we got lost in downtown Tucson and stood crying our eyes out in the police station?" Sam stared out the window at the high mountains in the distance. What was it about Dean that made everyone accuse him? And Mike hadn't even met him yet. "He was eight and our dad blamed him for my death. For what it's worth, he thinks Mom saved me, too. But the cost was too high, dude. He lived a life you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, then Dad cut him out of his life when he was eighteen. Just walked out and left him alone while he was still in high school. Mom took me and Dean paid dearly for that."

Mike was quiet for a long time and Sam knew he was processing the situation, weighing what he'd been told against what he knew about Grace, the woman who had given him after-school snacks and become a refuge when his parents were divorcing. Sam knew Mike was also empathizing with Dean, trying to wrap his head around a child being blamed for so heinous a crime as the death of a brother. "So, what was he doing in Athens?"

"He was on the shooting team. Mike, he won two golds.

"He a cop or something?"

"He designs performance engines, drives a mint '67 Chevy Impala and would give you a run for the money in the babe magnet department. Oh, and he paid for both of us to go on a trip to northern Greece and one of the Aegean islands. We rented motorbikes and rode hydrofoils which are boats on jet-skis. And let me tell you about this tour we went on—"

"You're gushing."

"What?" Sam felt his cheeks start to burn. He was sounding like a little girl having her first crush. "Oh, God. I'm sorry. You don't wanna hear all this, do you?"

Mike rolled his eyes. "Of course I do. I just wanted to point out to you that you're gushing. It'll be easier to tease you about later on if you actually realize what you're doing."

Sam laughed. "Bite me."

"Maybe later after I hear more about the incredible—you never did say his name."

"Dean," Sam answered softly. "Dean Winchester, my big brother."


The Polanski Residence
Oro Valley, Arizona

Sam stood on the walk in front of his—no, Grace Polanski's house. It was a typical Southwestern design with a flat roof and faux adobe siding. The garage door was down but he knew the old Subaru was inside. His mom was home. Patiently waiting for him.

He sighed. It'd been a good idea for him to spend the night with Mike. Talking about Dean without having to be on the defensive, without the anger, had calmed him down. He no longer wanted Grace crucified and wearing the letter K for Kidnapper. He'd settle for a calm, grown-up parting of the ways. Legally, there was nothing he could do without involving John Winchester. Morally, there was nothing Grace could do to "undo" what was done. Although he knew Dean would prefer if he just totally forgave her, Sam couldn't do that. Dean—Dean was blinded by the idea of "mom" and couldn't see how she'd damaged him, even while saving Sam.

He let himself into the house. "Mom?"

"Sam? That you?" Grace Polanski called from the direction of the laundry room.

"Unless you've kidnapped some other kid to call you mom," he mumbled. "Yeah, it's me," he said a bit more louder.

Grace came into the living room, a wicker hamper in one hand. She was slightly plump and once upon a time her hair had been brown but the grayer she got, the lighter her hair became after "salon day." But she had a kind face and a smile that made everyone feel good.

Guess successful serial killers and kidnappers had something in common.

"Sam! You're finally home!" She reached out for her customary hug and near kiss.

Sam stepped back. "I just stopped by to pick up a couple of things. Mike'll be back in an hour or so to take me to the airport."

"What? You just got home, honey. You have to tell me all about Athens and I want you to come down to the center and talk to the kids." His mom had retired last year and now worked part-time at a youth center. He wondered what they'd think about her kidnapping tendencies. "Do you have your medal or is that something that you just get a fake of at the time and the real thing comes in the mail? How was your flight? Looks like you ate okay in Greece. Could trim your hair a bit. Your phone calls were a bit stingy on the info, so tell me all about your trip. I taped all your swims that they showed on TV. What were you laughing at so hard during your last one? Surprised you had enough air to actually make it up the pool and back. Are you hungry? Or did you and Mike go to the Pancake Hut as usual? Fifty different kinds of syrup and one kind of pancake."

Sam started to smile. The Pancake Hut had been around forever and yeah, that was its standard menu, beloved by the kindergarten crowd and beyond. Of course, now it had all kinds of coffee and bagels, too. Then he remembered he wasn't here to socialize. "I don't have time for this, Mom. I have to get back to school. Classes start in a couple days. Want to get situated, you know?"

Grace frowned and put the hamper down. "What's going on, Sam? When you left, you hadn't planned on going back so soon. Something happen with Jess?"

"Jess is fine. Jess and I are fine."

"But for some reason, you and I are not."

Sam recognized the look in her eyes and knew he wasn't gonna be able to leave with just an "I'll talk to you later." I tried, Dean. "I'm tired, Mom, all jetlagged and everything. And I have to get on another plane. So can we just—"

"Sam."

"Don't, Mom."

She sucked on her top lip. "Apparently spending the night with Mike didn't help, did it?"

"Actually, it did."

"Really? It seems to me I'm getting the same cold vibe I got from you on the phone. What? Are you upset that I didn't come with you? Did everyone else have a cheering section and you didn't? I'm sorry, honey."

Sam snorted. "I had a cheering section. Best one ever."

She tilted her head to the side and looked up at him. "What does that mean?"

He shrugged.

"Sam Polanski, I don't know what's going on in that head of yours but we can't get any where if you won't talk to me." She patted her foot impatiently and that. Just. Ticked. Him. Off.

"Sure, let's talk," he said dryly. "Let's start with old business, Mom. According to a 1987 newspaper, only three people died in a motel fire on the outskirts of El Paso: a couple of really incompetent drug makers and a little kid named Samuel Winchester. Interestingly enough, there was no mention of a John or a Dean Winchester being found dead anywhere."

Grace paled. "You've been looking into your past? Oh, honey, you know that's not good for you."

Oh, that was rich. "I think you have that backwards. It's not good for you, is it?"

Her eyes widened and color rapidly flooded back into her face. "What are you saying? You know you get migraines, Sam. The psychologists—"

"That was awfully convenient, wasn't it? Couldn't talk about my past because it hurt me. No embarrassing questions that you couldn't answer. No extra prying because it would only hurt Sam."

"What's wrong with you, honey? You're not making any sense."

She knew exactly what he was saying. "I'm not an orphan, am I, Mom? I never was an orphan. You stole me! You took me from my family and you made me think they were dead!"

"I thought—"

"Don't you dare lie to me! You knew they weren't dead!"

"But they should've been!" Grace cried out with a stamp of her foot. "Leaving a little boy alone in a motel on the worst end of town like that. I could've been a child molester or a—"

"Kidnapper?" Sam snarled.

She took a deep breath and swiped at the tears rolling down her cheeks. "Listen, Sam. I did it to protect you. You were so little, so innocent. They didn't love you, and I knew I could. I kept you safe. I gave you a happy childhood. Look at you, honey. You're in college. An Olympic athlete. One day you're going to be a great lawyer. I gave you the foundation for that, a foundation you wouldn't have gotten living in hell holes with your family."

Sam laughed. Dean had lived in those same hell holes and he'd gone to college. He was an Olympic athlete. He designed performance engines. And speaking of Dean... "How nice of you to be so kind and generous, saving and protecting my future and all, but what about my brother? Why didn't you save him? Why didn't you protect him?"

"Why do you care about some snot-nosed teenager who didn't hang around to look after his little brother?" she quizzed.

Sam wanted to yank his hair out by the roots at her self-righteousness. Like she knew all the answers. She didn't know anything. "Who told you that? Who told you my brother was a teenager?"

"No one had to tell me. I've seen it so often—"

"My brother was eight years old."

A hand flew up to her chest. "No. Your brother was a teenager. An irresponsible teenager who left his precious charge alone."

Sam laughed so hard he had to sit down. He sank onto the sofa and dropped his face into his hands, trying to regain some control. How could someone so stupid be such a criminal mastermind? How could someone so inept manage to keep a kidnapping a secret for seventeen years? "You never looked into anything, did you? Instead of confronting what you'd done, you just created a whole scenario based on whatever would make you look like the good guy. It soothed your conscience, didn't it? A fabricated tale of an abusive father and a careless, self-absorbed teen. Was my mother a junkie who abandoned us? Or did she die tragically giving birth to me? Come on, Grace. Give me the Lifetime movie plot of my life. Then let me tell you the truth."

She sat in the rocker across from him, a little jiggle of her leg the only evidence of her anxiety. "Yes, Sam. Tell me your version of the truth."

He glared at her. "The truth, Grace, pure and simple. You might be right about my dad. From what I've heard, he wasn't so great in the dad department. But, you see, that's why I'm so mad at you right now. Forget the fact that you took me. What really pisses me off is that you left my brother behind. You thought I was living in danger and you left him there in the thick of it? You made him think he was responsible for my death. Worse, my dad agreed with him. And because of that, whatever hell he was living in before you swept in on your good witch broom? It doubled, okay? So don't give me your bullshit about saving the young and innocent. You left an eight-year-old to bear the guilt of your sin!" he roared.

Grace jumped, the chair shuddering on its rockers. "Where are you getting all this, Sam? Did you hire a private detective? Is that what you did with the money I gave you for your apartment? You know they lie, create stories in order to get more money from you."

Sam shook his head and wrapped his hand around the St. Joseph's medallion Dean had given him. "Why would I need to hire another liar when I have you, Mom?"

She flinched as if she'd been slapped. "Whatever mis-truths I've—"

"Lies, Mom. Don't try to pretty them up. See, I didn't need a private detective. I got what I needed straight from the horse's mouth. Let me tell you this funny, ironic, maybe even fortuitous story. Remember I told you that the plane was going to layover in New York? Well, someone got on the plane and sat beside me. A fellow athlete. A good-looking guy. College graduate even. I told him my name, and he told me he was Dean Winchester."

"Oh, no."

"Oh, yes," he said calmly. "So look at what you saved me from, Mom. How does that fit into your little fairytale? Puts a dent into your justifiable rescue, doesn't it? You kidnapped a child because you wanted to. You committed a felony—taking me across state lines makes it a federal crime, doesn't it? You lied to me, to your friends, to your job, not because you were being a good person, but because you wanted a child." He stood and walked over to the bottom of the staircase. "I hope you enjoyed these carefree years of motherhood, because they end as of today. You don't have a son. I don't have a mom. My mom died in a fire when I was six months old. How's that for irony, huh?" He turned toward the stairs.

"Hold it, mister. You've told me your truths and now you're going to listen to mine," she said flatly.

"Why should I?"

"Maybe because of all the times I gave you a chance when you made a mistake?"

Damn. She had a point. "Give it your best shot," he said with a shrug. Maybe she had a point, but he wasn't going to make it easy.

"I may not have been totally rational that day." He snorted and she glared at him. "There was a case here and even though I wasn't personally involved, my office was. Four kids were taken from their parents because of suspected abuse and drug use. The grandparents had money. They got a lawyer to pretty everything up and the kids were given back to their parents. That morning, the police called us. The dad had put a bullet through everyone's head, including his own.

"It hurt, Sam. We had all those pretty babies safe and then they were dead. I got in my car and didn't care where I was headed. I just drove. When I stopped to get gas, I found a bottle of painkillers in my glove compartment. I'd taken them off one of my charges. She was holding them for a friend, but if the school officials had found them... Anyway, there was a bottle of pills and when I went to pay for the gas, I bought a fifth of something." Grace shook her head. "It was so important at the time and now I can't even remember what it was. I saw this crappy motel and pulled in. Just as I was heading to the office, I thought I smelled smoke and I looked around the corner. There you were, face all tear-streaked. You were in footie pajamas, Sam. And I thought to myself, I can save him. I can save one. And I did."

"So you never saw Dean or Dad. You just assumed that because I was alone, someone had left me."

"Yes."

He scratched his head. "I'm not sure if your truth helped at all."

She shrugged. "You won't find any method to my madness, son, because it was madness."

"And afterwards? When the madness had left you?"

"I was never going to give you back. You weren't going to end up with a bullet in your brain like the others."

Sam gave a quick nod, then bounded up the stairs and packed his things. He took childhood tokens Mike and other friends had given him over the years, his high school yearbooks, clothes. Whatever Grace Polanski had presented to him, he left behind. Maybe she'd find another kid to steal and he'd like them...

She was waiting at the bottom of the stairs when he descended. He had managed to cram everything into two duffels he hadn't used since summer camp right after seventh grade. He hefted both bags to one hand and walked around her to open the door.

"I know you don't believe it, but I did it for you, Sam. It was all for you."

He waved at Mike who'd just driven up, then turned back briefly. "My brother Dean believes you. If someone comes to your door one day riding in a classic black Impala, let him in. He's probably your biggest fan. But I'm not, Grace. I know you spent seventeen years trying to make it up to me, and I appreciate that. But when I think of my brother, of what he suffered because of what you did...I can't forget. I can't forgive. Not now anyway. Maybe some day."

He closed the door behind him.

Mike didn't say anything as he crammed his gear into the back and slipped into the passenger's seat. The silence continued as they took the highway to the airport. But he could feel his friend's disapproval, and it was a weight he didn't want to bear. "You still don't get it, do you? You think I'm being too hard on her."

"Aren't you?"

Sam sighed and tried to think like Mike thought. Maybe... "You remember when I first told you about my dad and brother? That they were dead?" A quick nod. "Remember why I told you?"

"Tyler Harwood."

Tyler had introduced most of their second grade class to their first real world tragedy. While they were at a skating party celebrating another classmate's birthday, Tyler's family had been in an auto accident. Everyone had died. A totally shattered Tyler had to go live with his grandparents in Utah. They never saw him again, but they'd never forget his cry when the cops took him aside.

"I was Tyler, man. And it was all a lie."

Sam watched Mike's grip tighten around the steering wheel and was still watching as the fingers relaxed one by one. "Yeah, maybe I get it," Mike admitted. "But I can't hate her, dude. I just can't."

"I hear ya," Sam whispered. He didn't like his mom at the moment and he still held onto his righteous anger. But...it wasn't hatred he was feeling when he looked at her or listened to her speak. Disappointment? Betrayal? Bitterness? A thousand times yes. Hatred? He kept searching, but he just couldn't summon it. "So, we good?" he asked as Mike pulled the car into the drop-off lane at the airport.

"Always, brother. I'm still allowed to call you that, right?"

Sam grinned. "I think Dean would kick your ass if you didn't."

Mike laughed. "I'm either gonna love this dude or hate his guts."

Sam bumped his fist against Mike's. "It's gonna be love. When it comes to brothers, I have great taste. Talk to you soon, okay?"

As he stood in line, waiting check in, Sam thought about what he'd said. He'd had nothing to do with choosing his "brothers." It was all pure chance, and he mumbled a thank you to whoever/whatever was looking after him. Despite what his mom had done, he was a lucky bastard.

And a grateful one as well.


chapter seventeen

St. Theresa Community Church Parsonage
Blue Earth, Minnesota

Jim Murphy was just adding the last touches to his sermon when he heard a truck pull into his driveway. Tucking the pages into a folder, he hurried to the front of the parsonage, knowing his visitor would be impatient and unkind to his poor door.

Bam!

Right on time. "Hold your horses, Robert Singer! I'm coming!" He opened the door and his best friend walked in without so much as a word. "I'm fine. And you?" he asked with fake politeness.

"Considering I just talked to you an hour ago, I figured you're still breathing and all." Bobby slung his bag down beside the sofa. "How are you, Pastor? Lovely weather we're havin'. Nice day for tea, yeah?"

Jim gave up. "You're impossible. The Lord said there is hope in all things. Then He went and created you."

"Told you long ago He was fickle. So glad you're starting to see the truth."

Jim sighed. "So what's this all about? Why did Dean insist on meeting you here?"

"You know as much as I do, Jim. Something happened in Greece. I could tell just by the tone of his phone calls, ya know?"

"I got the same feeling. But it didn't seem like something bad," Jim mused. "He sounded...happy."

"But jittery. Think maybe he done upped and married some gal?"

"Dean?" Jim frowned and motioned Bobby toward the kitchen. "He's not exactly the marrying kind. Believe me, I've been trying to get him to stop 'sampling the milk before buying the cow' for years now."

"I know. But if he done knocked her up..."

"He was in Greece for two weeks; even in today's world, that's a little quick to ascertain a pregnancy."

"'Ascertain a—you been to one of those conferences, ain't ya? Where you learn to deal with the 'day-to-day realities of pastoring a modern congregation' or some such crap."

Jim turned to put water in the coffee maker. Bobby knew him just a little too well. "Maybe he's decided to give up hunting. That would be something he'd want to discuss with both of us."

"And maybe he's gonna give up sex and booze, too." Bobby lifted his hat for a satisfying scratch. "I bet whatever it is, is a doozy. Dean's not one for faking the high drama and he hates it when we worry about him. For him to call and ask me to come down here...Shit, Jim, I'm too old for this."

"The lament of every parent."

"But Dean's not every boy."

"No, he's not." Jim filled two mugs and placed them on table before grabbing a plate of brownies a parishioner had dropped off. "He's not attempting to drive straight through, is he? That's at least twenty hours and he has to have jetlag."

"Durn fool thought about it, but I told him if he wrapped his car around a guardrail or a tree or something, I wasn't gonna help him get the dents out." Bobby gave a grim grin. "Last I heard, he was gonna hold up round about Akron."

"Still a twelve hour drive after that."

Bobby picked up a brownie and sniffed it. "Boy actually relaxes behind the wheel like he was at a spa. More at home there, I guess, than anywhere else."

"Except your place."

Bobby shrugged. "Pup followed me home. What was I suppose to do?"

"You still sticking to that story after all these years?"

"Yep. Better than admitting home feels more like home with him there, like it was waiting on him, you know?"

"A match made in heaven." Jim's lips curved in amusement, just as he ducked a flying brownie.

-:- -:- -:-

Jim heard the creak of the old Impala's door and joined Bobby on the porch. Dean looked physically fine, and no, he didn't want to think about how many times he hadn't been able to say that throughout the years. Psychological health wasn't clear because Dean's eyes were hidden behind shades. The sun was setting and the boy had been driving west, so the shades could be just an aid. But so often they'd been used when Dean's defenses were down...

"The golden boy returns." Bobby leaned casually against one of the retaining posts of the porch. But Jim knew he was doing his own silent evaluation and looked over to see if Bobby had seen anything he hadn't. A small shake of his head. Ah, well. Dean never had made things easy.

"Isn't that the errand you sent me on, old man? 'Go get them gold medals, boy, and don't play around doin' it.' I hear and obey." Dean bounded up the stairs, a backpack slung across one shoulder. Jim smiled in recognition. It was the same one he'd given Dean when he'd started college. The old thing should've been tossed years ago.

"Except you did play around," Bobby accused. "Third place going into the finals. Started to worry that your nerves might be getting to ya, then I said, nah, he's just assin' around."

"The betting went higher, didn't it?"

Bobby just sneered at him. "I knew there was something different about the house for the past two weeks—it was idjit free."

Dean threw his head back and laughed, then he grinned at Jim. "At least you missed me, didn't you, Jim?"

"Every minute of every day," Jim said sweetly.

"Suck up," Bobby muttered, before angling his head toward the door. "Git on inside and tell us why I had to drive all the way down here for this welcome home party."

Dean went inside and Jim saw that he immediately noticed the new curtains Mrs. Sample had donated to the house. A true hunter, Jim thought proudly, noticed every change in his surroundings—no matter how innocuous.

Dean grabbed a dining table chair and straddled it. "First I need you to swear you won't tell Dad a word of what I'm about to tell you."

"When the hell have I ever told your daddy shit about you?"

While Jim felt like echoing Bobby's retort, he decided to go with a more traditional response. "I promise, Dean. Your secrets will always be safe with me."

Dean nodded solemnly. "I met someone on the plane to Athens."

Jim shared a glance with Bobby, then glanced at Dean's hand. The only ring on his fingers was the one he'd won in a pool game his freshman year of college. So, no marriage. That was good. Still left pregnancy, though.

"His name is Sam."

His? Jim watched Bobby's jaw drop, then realized his own mouth was dry from hanging open. Oh. Well, that had been covered at the summer conference, too. He'd listened and taken notes because he had a feeling about a couple of his members, but he'd never considered he'd be having the discussion with his own boy—and Dean was as much his son as he was John's and Bobby's.

After closing his mouth, he firmly opened it to reassure Dean that he was loved no matter what. And that was when he saw the smirk on Dean's face. He knew then that whatever was going to come out during the conversation, it wasn't going to be Dean.

"Huh?" Bobby still had a glazed expression, but it soon faded as he, too, took in Dean's expression. "What you up to, boy? Who's this Sam?"

"His adopted name is Sam Polanski, but he was born with the name of Samuel Winchester."

"Aw, shit," Bobby cursed. "Did you kill it? What was it? A shapeshifter? Doppleganger?"

Jim scooted his chair closer to Dean, wanting him to know they were there for him. "I know how hard it is, killing something that looks like a child, especially a child you knew."

" I said Christo and it didn't even flinch. I gave it holy water and it told me the beer was flat. It scratched itself on silver and said, 'ouch.'"

Jim frowned, noticing how Dean's shoulders were squared. He was on the defensive. "What are you trying to tell us, Dean?"

"He told me the story of a little boy who smelled smoke and wandered outside his motel room. He also told me of a woman by the name of Grace Polanski who found him there and took him somewhere 'safe.' He fell asleep and when he woke up, Grace told him his father and brother were dead but she would take care of him. He grew up in Oro Valley and now attends Stanford University."

"Dean," Bobby began.

"We had blood tests done."

"Son, we were there," Jim said carefully.

"Yeah, about that." Dean's gaze hardened. "Wanna tell me how Sammy's corpse looked? His blackened bones? The physical evidence that he died in that fire?"

"The fire was hot." Jim remembered how it still raged after he finally arrived on the scene. "The chemicals kept fueling it. There were explosions...not just the one that tossed you into the wall. According to the firemen—"

"When have either of you ever listened to the authorities!"

"When it's about the damned remains of a child we loved!" Bobby shouted back. "You think we were looking forward to finding pieces of Sammy, maybe seeing his skull grinning up at us?"

Dean took a deep breath and Jim watched as the anger drained out of him. "Yeah, I get that. But if you had looked, you wouldn't have found anything. He was probably halfway to Arizona by then."

"Boy, you know—"

"If you can't believe me, maybe you'll believe your old bud Syl."

Bobby paled and pushed back his cap. "What?"

"Syl knew even before I did. Called Sam my brother from the moment we stepped on his porch."

"You took the kid to see Syl?"

Dean took a second to crack his neck and Jim knew how tired he was from the long drive. To be here already, he couldn't have laid over in Akron very long. But after a relieved sigh, Dean began telling them about traveling around with Sam and their adventures. Under the exhaustion, he saw the peace Dean had gained by having his brother back among the living, being part of his life. If this was real, it was an actual true miracle.

"Oh, I have a picture right here." Dean retrieved the backpack and slipped out a photo and a scrap of paper.

"Damn, he's a big one," Bobby said with a low whistle. The picture was of the two boys standing in front of the Olympic stadium.

"Yeah. If something was gonna pretend to be my brother, it wouldn't go so big, would it?"

"I thought he was going to be tall," Jim whispered. Then he cleared his throat. "You can see John in him, though. Speaking of, your father still has the same cell number."

Dean shrugged. "We're not telling him."

"Whoa, boy," Bobby said. "You think this through?"

"Sam's in college at Stanford. Full scholarship." Jim heard the pride in his voice. "He's got plans for law school and a girlfriend he's planning on marrying. The standard two-point-five kids down the road, big house with a yard... How long you think that future would last if Dad found out about him?"

Jim understood where Dean was coming from. John had a tendency to steamroll into personal situations instead of employing the stealth methods he used during hunts, but... "Your father loved Sam as much as you did, Dean. Should he be denied this joy, this miracle?"

"If he's gonna screw it up, then yeah."

Jim looked at Bobby to help him out. His old friend just glared back. "I ain't got nuthin', Jim. You know John Winchester the same as I do. He'll give the boy a hug, then hand him a .45 and a jug of holy water." Bobby flicked his eyes to Dean. "You tell him anything about what we do?"

Dean snorted and smiled. "He thinks we're some kind of secret society of assassins."

"Huh?"

"Well, going to see Syl didn't help. Your book? Ended up being a journal written by Paul—you know, the one from Tarsus?"

"Really?" Both he and Bobby spoke at the same time.

Dean hung his head. "Geeks. I'm surrounded by geeks. Anyway, that coupled with a few mentions of hunts and Dad's obsession with Mom's killer, and the kid somehow came up with the idea that we're part of an ancient assassins' guild. Guess in a way, he's right."

"Boy, ain't nuthin' ever simple with you, is it? I send you to Greece for a couple of medals and you come home with an epistle from Paul and a baby brother. What the hell you gonna bring me from China?'

"You think I'm gettin' on another plane, old man?"

"Hell, yeah. Think of all the hot chicks you can pick up with a bunch of gold medals dangling 'round your neck."

"Don't encourage him, Bobby," Jim warned uselessly. Although he'd never known Dean to disrespect any woman, the sheer number of notches on his bedpost was troubling.

"Sorry to offend your sensibilities, pastor," Bobby replied dryly. "Think I'll go pick us up a couple of pizzas, a six-pack for me and the boy, and a nice sodee pop for you."

Ah, no one made Jim miss his pre-pastor years like Bobby Singer. A quick finger flip. A pithy four-letter reply. The Lord would probably forgive him if he regressed for a moment, but no, he'd given up childish things.

Yeah, he'd keep telling himself that.

"Tell Syl I said hey." Dean had read Bobby as easily as Jim had. He'd bring back the provisions, but not until after a lengthy call to Greece. "And here." The scrap of paper was held out. "Sam's address, social security number, blood type. Should give you somewhere to start."

"You think you're smart, dontcha?" Bobby snatched the paper and crumpled it into his pocket before he stomped out of the house.

"You look tired," Jim said as he stood. "You know where your room is. I'll be back before Bobby returns."

"Where are you headed?"

"Over to the sanctuary. I think a prayer of thanksgiving is in order. The return of your brother is a blessing that shouldn't be ignored."

Dean stood, too. "Want some company?"

Jim smiled, no, he grinned. Two miracles in one day. "I'd be delighted, Dean." Yes, he still had doubts about not telling John about his youngest son's existence. But those worries could wait.

It was time to thank heaven for the gifts he'd received.

-:- -:- -:-

"How is he?"

"Dead to the world. Probably the best night sleep he's had in two weeks. He never sleeps worth a damn away from home." Bobby grabbed a beer from the refrigerator. "Makes you wonder if he got any rest at all on the road with John."

"What did Sylvanus have to say?" Jim took a sip of his tea. Even in the heat of summer, nothing soothed like hot tea. And tonight he definitely needed soothing.

"Ain't got no doubt that the boy is Sam Winchester. Said shame on us for not trusting Dean to know his brother. Hell, shame on us period for not making sure Sam was dead. Wasn't like us a'tall to shy away from identifying the remains. What got into us, Jim?"

Jim stared into his tea. "I think it was worry, worry for our two friends who we were sure were alive and in trouble. Dean was so fragile and John..."

"Well, I'm thinking we were just being big ol' pussies."

"Bobby!"

"Call a spade a spade, pastor. If we'd known Sammy wasn't there, we could've started looking for him."

Jim shook his head. "And we would've looked in the wrong direction. We never would've considered anything human had him."

"Now that, sadly to say, is the truth." Bobby lifted his cap to give his head a good scratch. "Got some feelers out on that woman, Grace Polanski."

"You've been a busy little beaver, haven't you?" Jim said with a smirk. Bobby cared so much and always tried to hide it behind "takin' care of the practicalities."

"'Bout time somebody did something. And, hey, don't think I missed you gettin' your panties all in a twist about keeping this from John," Bobby pointed out.

"You think it's right?" Jim asked bluntly.

"I think them boys are doing what's right for them. You think if John finds out about that boy he'll let him keep the life he's got?"

"He let Dean go."

"Wrong. He kicked Dean out. There's a difference."

"He let Dean go to keep him safe," Jim argued. It was wrong the way John had done it, but love made even the strongest man weak.

"And he'll drag this boy in to do the same thing."

"What's done in the dark will come to the light," Jim warned. He saw an explosion in the near future and he didn't know if he and Bobby could possibly pick up all the pieces afterwards, like they had with Dean.

"Yeah, yeah. And maybe them boys need a while in the dark, just so they can stand in the light. I just get this feeling that the two of them, given time, can stand up to anything together—John, evil, whatever. Look how fate's working to get them paired up again. Meeting on a plane on the way to the Olympics. Had to be your God in that, Jimmy. You gonna work against him?"

Jim finished his tea and stood to place the mug in the sink. "I'm not going to lie. If John asks me directly if Sam alive, I'll tell him."

"Splittin' them Biblical hairs. Gotta love you preachers."

Jim patted Bobby on the back as he passed by him. "Cut the lights behind you. I'm off to bed."

"We let 'em down once, Jim," Bobby said softly, staring off into the distance. "We can't let it happen again."

Jim paused in the doorway, wondering if Bobby was seeing the smoldering ruins of the motel like he was. "We won't, old friend. I promise you, we won't."


chapter eighteen

Rapid City Regional Airport
Rapid City, South Dakota
December 2004

"Man, this ain't Athens," Sam called as he stepped into the small airport. When he'd seen the size of the plane he had to change to in Denver, he knew not to expect much.

"Well, look a it this way," Dean replied with a grin, "if you have to catch a connecting flight, take three paces and say hey to your new pilot. Actually, with the length of your legs, just turn around."

"Cute." They did the one-arm, bump shoulders type hug.

"Speaking of cute, what happened to your better-looking half? You didn't say much on the phone other than she couldn't make it. I didn't scare her off, did I?"

Sam laughed. Dean had stayed with him and Jess for a week in November while he was installing a couple of race car engines in Redwood City. Since then, Jess hadn't stopped talking about Dean. He'd be jealous if it wasn't for the fact he couldn't stop talking about him, either. "Dude, you're like her idol or something. I caught her googling your name right after you left and there's at least half a dozen women in Palo Alto just waiting to catch sight of this perfect man that Jess keeps talking about."

"Ah, so she's running in fear of succumbing to my devastating charm."

"Actually, no. Her mom's sick."

"Oh. Sorry to hear that. Got any luggage?" Sam indicated the bag on his shoulder. "You could've gone with her, you know. Be there in her time of need and all that."

"It's really okay, Dean." They walked toward the exit in unison. Sam was always surprised when Dean matched him step for step. He'd noticed it first in Athens. Usually Sam had to slow up when he was with someone, go to three-quarters or half pace. But never with Dean. "Jess is glad I have somewhere else to be because her mother would be uncomfortable with me there. It's a 'female problem'." They both shuddered.

"You know, I have nothing against the transsexuals or transgendered or whatever the hell they're being called this week, but God as my witness, I'm not trading my balls for anything," Dean avowed.

"I hear ya, bro."

They kept the conversation light as they made their way to the car and got on the road. Sam had "met" the Impala in California and although he wouldn't admit it aloud, it was like finding another family member. Of course, he blamed it all on Dean, who crooned to the car as if it were his perfect mate.

"You talk to your mom recently?"

Another reason Dean was Jess's idol. It seemed Sam was right; Dean had swung through Oro Valley to kvetch with Grace about ungrateful kids or something. To hear Dean tell it, Grace was a wreck, barely hanging on. Although he knew he was being manipulated, Sam had broken down and called Grace. He was still angry with her, but hearing how she had apologized to Dean for leaving him behind, he thought a phone call wouldn't be out of place. Jess was thrilled beyond belief.

"I'm planning on calling her again Christmas morning."

Dean smiled. "That's nice."

If there'd been any smugness in Dean's tone, Sam would've hit the roof. But all he heard was simple joy. Dean was truly happy that he was communicating with Grace again. How could you rail against something like that? "So, what's on the agenda? Mt. Rushmore and..."

Dean tried to look horrified. "What? You're expecting me to entertain you?"

Sam laughed. "Well, I can sit on the sofa and whine all the time if you like."

"That sounds familiar—when you weren't chasing one of Bobby's puppies around or getting me into trouble."

"Me? I was a sweet little kid."

"Yeah, sweet like saccharine. All sweet until the aftertaste."

They argued goodnaturedly as they drove. Sam had no idea of whether he'd really done all the things Dean claimed he had, but he had a good time defending his younger self all the same.

"Look familiar?"

Sam looked up and saw the Singer Salvage & Auto sign. Things flashed in his mind, but it wasn't painful like before. "I think so. Did we spend a lot of time here?"

Dean shrugged. "Depends on your definition of 'a lot.' Here and Jim's place were the only ones we stayed at more than once." He turned onto the paved drive. "This used to be gravel and you'd always grin like we were on a park ride or something. First thing I did when I got my first paycheck was have it paved. My baby ain't nobody's rollercoaster."

"You know your affection for this car is unnatural?" Sam teased.

"Don't listen to him, baby," Dean crooned, patting the steering wheel gently. "He's from California—they're a little weird out there. Too much sunshine, I think."

"I'm not the one with the fried brain."

"It's not his fault I dropped him on his head when he was little," Dean whispered to the car. "Too much baby oil, Dad said."

Sam punched him lightly on the shoulder. "That's for my childhood trauma, jerk."

"Don't bruise the merchandise, bitch." They pulled in beside a truck that appeared to have left its good years far behind. Dean got out and bounded up the stairs. Sam moved a bit more slowly.

"Why is it so cold?" he asked with a shiver that he didn't have to fake.

"Um, South Dakota, winter, take your pick."

Sam resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "It wasn't this cold back at the airport."

"Because of Rapid City's location in the Black Hills, it gets weird weather inversions, warmer in the winter, and downright stifling in the summer." He shrugged. "You get used to it. You can borrow one of my jackets if you get too cold." He opened the door and stood back to let Sam enter.

"You ain't got to talk to Dean to know the truth, Bodine—you're a durn fool!" A man in a trucker cap stood in the entryway, yelling into a telephone. He then held it out to Dean. "One of your idjits. Do something about it."

Dean sighed and grabbed the phone, placing his hand over the mouthpiece. "Bobby, Sam. Sam, Bobby," he said quickly before putting the phone up to his ear. "What's going on, Trev?"

Bobby indicated with a tilt of his head that Sam should follow him. They went through a doorway into the living room. "Durn youngins think us ol' farts do things the traditional way 'cause we stuck in a rut, not because the traditional way actually works."

Sam nodded because he didn't know what else to do. "This happen a lot?" So did this "hunting" gig consist of, like, knights and pages or masters and apprentices? Dean was right; it was an RPG.

"Nah. Some of them want to get uppity now and again, but your brother's good at keeping them under control."

"He follows tradition?"

Bobby laughed. "Not hardly. But he's what I like to call, an informed idjit. He knows tradition and experimentally branches off from it on occasion, but never so far off that he can't get back on track if his new and improved version doesn't work."

Sam warmed at the respect he heard in the man's voice. He wasn't sure of the particulars, but he was pretty sure what Dean and the others did was dangerous. He'd seen more than a few interesting scars on Dean when his brother was changing clothes. Whatever he hunted, apparently sometimes hunted back. But if Bobby, one of the two men Dean respected most in the world, thought Dean more than capable, well, it was a big relief.

"Listen to me, Trevor Bodine!" Dean's yell interrupted any other thought Sam was going to have. "If you step one foot out of that motel room before I get there, I'm gonna beat you to within an inch of your life. Then I'm gonna wait for you to heal and do it all over again. You got me, Trev?" The phone slammed into its base. Dean ran a hand across his face, then looked sheepishly at Sam. "Um—"

"A friend in trouble. I get it, dude," Sam said, making a rescue of his own. "Go."

"I'll be back before you get up in the morning, Mr. Pacific Time," Dean said.

"Why is he bein' so pigheaded?" Bobby asked with a frown. "Trevor can usually be talked down from his stupidity."

"The Unholy Trio, Bobby." The what? Dean must have seen his confusion. "Walker, Kubrick, and Creedy—three hunters who do everything in the name of Jesus. Creeps don't care who gets hurt because they're doing 'the will of God.' Proof positive there ain't no God, else he would've come down here and slapped the holy shit right out of 'em a long time ago."

"They nearby?" Bobby asked with a tone that made Sam shiver. Gone was the good ol' boy hick. This person sounded dangerous.

"Nah, they ain't that stupid, man; you told 'em what you'd do if they set foot around here. They're phoning it in to Trev. He's such a tool."

"Which usually works in our favor," Bobby admitted reluctantly. "You fixed up for this?"

Dean gave a smirk. "When am I ever not ready to rock–n–roll?"

"Then get yer ass to rollin'. It'll be dark soon and Trevor may lose patience."

"If he has, I swear the next thing I'm hunting is Gordon Walker and his Jesus posse."

Sam couldn't help but smile at the term. But humor aside, hunting was certainly turning out to be more complicated that he'd thought. Hierarchies and territories, and from some of the markings he'd seen on the walls, symbols. Just like the gangs he'd studied in Urban Anthropology. So Bobby was an OG and Dean his lieutenant?

"Enough flappin' of yer gums. Get goin', boy." The easy-going hick returned and Sam felt himself relax.

Dean came over and gave him a hug. "See you in the morning, Sammy. Don't let Bobby McGruff over there give ya any lip. If he does, just play keep-away with his hat."

"I'm gonna play keep-away with your ass if you don't get movin'."

Dean grinned and bounded down the steps. In a few seconds the Impala engine was gunned and the car was flying down the drive.

"So that's why he paved the drive," Sam murmured.

"Damn showy peacock."

"He'll be okay, right?"

"Dean was purt' near born hunting. He'll be fine. Nobody I trust in the field better."

Sam leaned up against one of the porch's posts. "Not even our dad?"

Bobby settled down on a metal glider that, despite its rusty appearance, rocked silently back and forth. "Your daddy's a good hunter, one of the best. But that's because he focuses totally on the hunt. That works for the hunt, but not for anybody who happens to be in the field with him. Your brother, on the other hand, is always aware of not only who's with him, but that person's strengths and limitations as well. Jim and me, well, we think that Dean's always looking out for that little brother that's supposed to be tagging along behind him."

Sam folded himself onto the top step, looking out over the salvage yard. For what it was, it seemed kept up. Bobby seemed well adapted at holding things together. "My death messed him up, didn't it?"

"Messed up anybody who knew you, boy. But yeah, your brother took it hard."

"And my dad?"

"Shook him to his core. Considered it a major failure, right up there with your mama's death."

Sam was suddenly glad Dean had been called away. There was stuff he needed to know but didn't want to ask Dean about. Even though Dean claimed he'd moved on, what Dad did to him still hurt, still haunted him. "So if it was his failure, why did he blame Dean?"

The glider stopped moving. "He never blamed Dean—"

He whipped his head around. "But—"

Bobby leaned forward, reaching out to him without touching. "If you ever meet up with your dad, you're gonna find his communication skills, as Dean would put it, suck. He got so wrapped up in his own grief that his head got stuck up his ass and Dean was left a confused, sad little boy. Jim and me tried to help, but John packed up as soon as Dean was outta the hospital and they hit the road."

Sam took a moment to digest that, to picture little boy Dean slumped in the Impala, hurting in silence. "So why did he abandon him in Iowa?"

"Dean tell you that John's a bit on the obsessive side?"

Sam snorted. "Something like that."

"Well, the boy ain't lying. But what he doesn't understand is that John has two obsessions—one is getting his wife's killer and the other is protecting his boys. Once he lost you, he figured he had to try twice as hard to protect Dean. First, he made him into a hunter—and you see how well Dean took to that. John was proud of him, Sam, still is in fact. And then, when John started closing in on what took away Mary, he sent Dean running in the opposite direction. Best thing he ever did for him, in my opinion."

"Really?"

"Really. Dean doted on John, never would've left him voluntarily. That means you'd never have found him because he wouldn't be the Dean you know, wouldn't be the Dean who went to the Olympics. He'd have been just another hunter scraping by on scraps and scams."

"But you had just as much to do with that as Dad," Sam argued. "You went and got him, gave him a place to stay, gave him something to work toward. Thank you for that, Bobby." Maybe he was starting to see why Dean could forgive Grace Polanski so easily.

"Hmph. Don't need no thankin'."

"So what do you think of our decision not to tell Dad about me?" He knew it was a loaded question, and he didn't want Dean to have to deal with Bobby's disappointment.

"Y'all are grown men."

"Meaning you don't agree," Sam said flatly.

"Meaning don't put words in my mouth, boy. Now, when I heard about what your daddy had done, I kicked him off my property and haven't invited him back since. So don't be thinking there's some old fart conspiracy going on, wantin' you to make up with John. Jim's got problems with it, but that's comin' from a moral point of view; he's worried about your souls. Personally, I just want you boys to stay in accord on this. Don't want anything to come between you when you just found each other again."

In other words, he wanted Dean to be happy. "You really care about him, don't you?"

"Here I was thinkin' you weren't as big an idjit as your brother."

Sam grinned, getting used to the grumpiness that masked true emotion in the older man. "Sorry to question your devotion to Dean, man."

Bobby shook his head, conveying disgust. "If you're really sorry, you'll make it up to me by letting us go in the house to finish conversatin'. My rear done grown numb with cold and I 'spect your blue balls ain't got nuthin' to do with missing your girl."

Sam burst out laughing, then groaned as he stood. So that's what chilled to the bone meant. "Are all South Dakotans as outspoken as you and Dean?"

"Last time somebody said that, I think the word they used was 'rude' instead of 'outspoken.'" Bobby chuckled as he walked inside and held the door open for Sam.

"Well, I like it."

Bobby patted him on the shoulder. "You always did, boy."

chapter nineteen

Singer Salvage & Auto
Lawrence County, South Dakota

Sam sat straight up in the bed he'd been given. What the—? He held still for a moment, trying to figure out what had woken him. Aha! A door closing downstairs. He reached for his cell phone to check the time: 4:47 a.m. Was Dean back? He pulled on his socks, because the floor was really cold, and started out of his room.

"Boy, you are a mess!"

Bobby's soft yell stopped Sam at the top of the stairs.

"Nuthin' you can't handle, Bobby." Dean's voice was hushed and...breathless? "Just stitch me up, yeah? And be quiet about it. Don't want Sam wakin' up."

Sam took a step back.

"Like he ain't gonna see that trail of blood you got running from you? Shit, Dean, what the hell happened? Jesus, look at the knot on your head. You concussed, boy?"

"A little bit. Maybe."

"Means I can't give you anything while I sew you up."

"When has that ever stopped either one of us?"

"I'm gonna get the first aid kit, then I'm gonna ask you again—what the hell happened—and you better give me a straight answer or else I'm leaving and returning with four heads decorating the back window of my truck."

"Ya gettin' bloodthirsty in your old age, man."

There was silence for a moment, then, "Let me help you outta that shirt. Well, this gets binned, don't it."

"Knew there was a reason I shopped at Walmart."

"Here, bite down on this since you're so set on not waking your brother. And this holy water's gonna sting like a bitch."

Holy water? What the hell? And Bobby was right; it stung because Dean breathed soft groans for way too long.

"Ya still with me?"

"Not goin' anywhere, Bobby."

"Clawed you good. How the hell did ya drive back here?"

Clawed?

"Told Sam I'd be back."

"Yeah, and driving your car into a tree would've been keeping your promise. You shoulda called, you ijdit. And you still haven't told me what happened."

"You know what happened. Trev had bad intel from his new buddies and he screwed up."

"So what hospital is he in?"

Silence.

"You stupid bastard."

"He's got a little girl."

"I want you to listen to me good, Dean. I've been dreading like hell the thought of one day having to tell John Winchester that his son is dead. I am not—listen to me, boy, then you can pass out—I am not telling your brother that. Do you hear me?"

"I hear ya, Bobby. I'm sorry, man. I just..."

"Yeah, you always 'just.' I'm gonna sew you up now, so feel free to let go. You're home now, you're safe."

Sam slid down the wall and tried to make sense of all he'd heard. Holy water. Claws. Holy water. Claws. Holy water. Claws. He stifled a giggle. Sounded like the blurb to one of those stupid scifi movies. Werewolves or something.

"Paul was imprisoned because he'd performed an illegal exorcism outside of Philippi, one on a little girl."

"I hear ya, Syl, but this isn't for some tiddlywinks playing, ordinary demon. This is for 'a darkness of the highest power.' We're talking some major mojo here."

Sam blinked hard as he flashed back to the conversation between Dean and Syl in the climate-controlled room. Exorcisms. Holy water. The Jesus posse. What were these people? Actual Knights Templar? But Dean was an atheist. He'd said so right before he left. So what was... He rubbed at his temples, trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle that was missing too many pieces.

"He's out, so maybe you wanna come down here and help me get him to bed," Bobby called out casually.

He scrambled to his feet and started down the stairs. "How did you know I was there?"

Bobby shrugged. "My house."

Dean was face down on the sofa, bandages on his left shoulder blade a startling white against his lightly tanned back. Bobby had taken time to clean up while he was freaking out upstairs, he saw. No bloody rags. No medical kit. "He gonna be okay?"

"Yep. He'll feel like shit tomorrow, but he's a fast healer. Next day, he won't be slowed down a bit."

Bobby seemed so confident that Sam knew this was not a one-time occurrence. "He told me in Athens that I didn't want to know what you guys hunted."

"Yeah?" Bobby gestured for him to grab Dean's legs.

"I think I still don't want to know."

"Good 'cause I wasn't about to tell ya." Bobby gathered Dean's upper body. "Help me get him to my room. Ain't 'bout to lug his sorry ass up the stairs to his own."

"Where are you gonna sleep?" Damn, his brother was heavier than he looked.

"Got a recliner in my room that he gave me a few years back. Comfortable damn thing. Done fell asleep in it many a night. Besides, I'm gonna have to wake him up every so often with that knot on his head."

Sam nodded, then concentrated on not dropping Dean as they navigated through the house. When his brother was finally situated on the bed, covers laid delicately across the bandages, he finally voiced the first question that had dogged his brain at the top of the stairs. "You don't have a hospital in these parts?"

Bobby surreptitiously felt Dean's forehead. "Those things you don't wanna know? The hospital would."

Oh. Right. "Is there anything you need me to do? Run to the drug store or something?"

Bobby turned from Dean and patted Sam on the back like he was the injured one. "We're fine, boy. Go on back to bed. And while you're there, think of some reason why you and Dean can't go running around tomorrow. Durn fool's gonna act like he ain't hurting, but he will be."

It seemed too simple, but if that was all Bobby wanted... "I can do that. So, I'll see you in the morning then."

He slowly made his way back to bed, his logical mind having trouble sorting through what seemed illogical, but also inescapably true. He could, if he really tried, convince himself that Dean had been clawed by a bobcat, mountain lion type of thing. The holy water? A regional, redneck all-purpose remedy. Fit in with the junkyard owner, trucker cap-wearing, almost Southern drawl that Bobby had going on. No stranger than baptizing in a river or saying grace over food.

Yeah, he could sell it to himself, but it would be bought "as is." It's validity papers didn't exist. There was no warranty. In fact, it was being sold in a dark alley on a back street. It was bogus, a Rolax watch masquerading as a Rolex. There had been no mountain lion. The holy water was more than just the cracker version of peroxide. Syl had known who he was without a word. Paul's exorcism had nothing to do with a role-playing game. Hunters weren't hunting serial killers. Or, at least, human serial killers.

I could tell you what we hunt, why we hunt, and the good that comes from hunting what we do. But it would seriously fuck up your whole world order—and no, I'm not exaggerating.

No shit, Dean.

Of course, there was another explanation. Everyone here was crazy. But that didn't explain the claw marks, did it? Nor did it explain the feeling that he'd always had, that what Dean was hiding was big and shocking and terribly important, as in "history of the world" important. And something that needed holy water to combat it, well, yeah, that would do it.

"Oh, Jess, baby, I do miss you, but I'm glad you're not here. Maybe I wish I wasn't here."

But he didn't mean that. It was kind of a relief to have something to fit into the massive spaces around Dean, the holes that followed him, disturbed the peace he knew he should feel in his brother's presence. Dean finally..made sense.

He slept, confident in that, if not anything else.

-:- -:- -:-

Sam woke to the smell of coffee. He grabbed a quick shower, then headed downstairs. Bobby was sitting in the living room, a newspaper spread out before him. "Coffee's in the pot, eggs and sausage in the oven." That was followed by a grunt and the turning of a page.

So, not a morning person. Sam took the hint and went into the kitchen. Plate, silverware, a mug, and a glass was set out on the table. Not exactly room service but welcoming nonetheless. Not sure of the protocol, he ate at the small table before joining Bobby again. "How is he this morning?"

Bobby handed over the parts of the paper he'd already read. "Pissed but sleeping."

Sam really didn't care about what was happening in South Dakota, but, hey, the comics looked familiar. "Pissed because you won't let him get up?"

"Pissed because he had a slight fever so I shot him full of antibiotics." Bobby laid down the section he was reading and earnestly looked at Sam. "Something you should know about your brother—his body despises every antibiotic known to mankind. There will be a guaranteed hour of vomiting and diarrhea, so set up the bathroom with plenty of tissue and a trashcan with a real good plastic liner. He'll curse you, complain that he's dyin', then he'll sleep and when he wakes up, he'll be on his way to fine."

"Sounds like an, um, incident my freshman year," Sam murmured, wondering when it had become a fond memory as opposed to the worst night of his life.

"Yeah, I've heard freshman year can be a bitch. I was older so there wasn't much I hadn't done by then."

Bobby went to college? Wow. He hadn't even considered the thought. Just when he thought he'd outgrown the whole "judging the book by its cover" stupidity... "And Dean's freshman year?"

Bobby shrugged. "Wasn't much he hadn't done either. He just had trouble adjusting to the 'long-termness' of college , I think. Except for that last year of high school, he hadn't hung 'round anywhere for more than a few weeks, maybe a month, at a time. I think seeing the same people semester after semester freaked him out." He gave the same little chuckle Jess's dad had when he'd told of her memorable attempt to play Mary in a church pageant. It was probably the same one his mom used when she talked about Sam's brief stint in the marching band.

Sam thought back to the order Bobby had issued last night—uh, this morning. "So I won't have to come up with some story to keep him home today?"

Bobby rolled his eyes and picked up the paper again. "Yeah, right. If you ain't thought of it yet, better get to thinkin'."

Sam yawned after he finished the paper. He didn't want to act bored, but...

"Boy, me and Dean had a deal." Bobby had obviously noticed his poor attempt at hiding his boredom. "He was to play host—and let me tell you, he had plenty planned for you and your gal—and all I had to do was sit and look purty, so don't be lookin' at me for entertainment. However, according to Dean and Syl, you find books interesting and books I got. So my advice to you, Mr. Ants In Ya Pants, is if you see something you wanna read, grab it. Who knows? You might find something that'll help you next semester."

Sam snorted. "How about something on the History of European Law, Medieval to Contemporary?"

Bobby scratched his beard for a second. "Try over by the window."

Sam did as he was told and his jaw dropped to the floor. In front of him were texts and books that he'd have to get special permission to view at school. What the hell were they doing in this dusty house? Even Syl had a climate-controlled room. "Wow," was the only thing he managed to say.

"Guess you see something useful, huh? Help yourself. And if that don't keep you, the TV remote is somewhere in the near vicinity. The outside is for smoking, exploring, or cussin' out your sorry excuse for a host. There's a dog out there somewhere, but Dean done spoiled him so bad, he's liable to lick you to death 'stead of bitin'." Bobby stood and stretched. "I got some work to do back in my office. If you need something, yell. In an hour or so, Dean's gonna come out looking for you, loud and pretending he's one hundred percent. Good luck cuttin' through the bullshit."

Sam looked up from one of the books he'd grabbed. "You do suck as a host, Bobby, but at least the 'sit and look purty' thing is workin' for you."

"Did I tell you 'bout the time somebody asked me if Bobby was my sugar daddy?"


chapter twenty

Singer Salvage & Auto
Lawrence County, South Dakota

Sam whipped his head around when he heard his brother's raspy drawl. "Dean?" Dean propped himself up against the door jamb, leaning against his good shoulder, pale and tired-looking.

"Like I wouldn't have better taste than a fool who's up and walkin' 'round when he still should be in bed," Bobby said, shaking his head. "Let me make ya some breakfast. That you're gonna eat," he added, hardening his voice.

"Nag, nag," Dean muttered as he crossed to the sofa. "See? That's why I told the guy he had it backwards—I work hard every day just to keep Bobby in the manner in which he's become accustomed. Cotton boxers and trucker caps don't grow on trees, you know."

"Keep it up, joker, and I'll buy one of them thong things and hang it wet out on the porch the next time one of your friends drop by," Bobby replied as he passed by on his way to the kitchen.

"See, Sammy? That's how you play hardball 'round here. Just go straight for the most evil thing you can think of." Dean scrubbed at his eyes. "Nightmares for days. Thanks, Bobby!" he yelled.

"You're welcome!"

Sam laughed and carried his book to a comfortably padded chair. "You okay, man?"

Dean grinned and pulled himself up straighter. "Hell, yeah. Sorry for sleeping in, but I got in late."

So Bobby was right; Dean was going to act like he hadn't been hurt. "Your friend okay?"

"Yeah, not a scratch on 'im."

Because they're all on you, Sam thought bitterly. "Why don't we stay in today and you can catch up on your sleep?"

Dean gave him a cocky grin. "Let me eat breakfast, because I'll never hear the end of it otherwise, grab a shower, and I'll be good to go."

Damn, he was making it difficult. "Um, well, you see, I was checking out the weather on my cell phone and it said it was gonna be ten degrees warmer tomorrow. I'd really appreciate those ten degrees, bro."

Dean rolled his eyes but nodded. "Desert Boy," he scoffed lightly. "No prob, dude. Maybe we can talk Bobby into playing charades or something. I think that'd be awesome!"

"Dean, what's the number one rule 'round here?" Bobby asked as he nearly dropped a plate in Dean's lap. Well, there went the question of whether it was okay to eat outside the kitchen.

Dean paled, then glanced up at Bobby with the most penitent expression Sam had ever seen on his brother's face. "Never piss off the cook." Bobby nodded and Dean hung his head. "Sorry, man."

Bobby patted him on his uninjured shoulder. "I knew you would be. Eat up, now. Sam, I'll have lunch ready in a few."

Sam waited until Bobby left the room before he turned to his brother. "What the hell was that about?"

Dean raised his eyebrows at him. "Do you know how many ways a cook could fuck you up, man?"

"You mean, like, spitting in the food?"

"Spit ain't nothing compared to other bodily fluids, cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, or poisons."

Sam started to laugh because, hey, melodramatic much? Then he noticed Dean was completely serious. "C'mon, man. You're at home." Bobby wouldn't hurt Dean for anything.

"When I was growing up, home-cooking meant Chef Boyardee and generic peanut butter. The majority of meals I got came from diners and truck stops. I learned to smile at waitresses, nod to the cooks in the back, and tip more than a lousy fifteen-percent."

"But this isn't a truck stop," Sam argued.

"But I'm still on the road a lot, dude. I can't be slipping and shit."

Sam thought that knowing—well, at least having some idea—what Dean hunted was awful enough, but, God, the way Dean lived, the things he'd had to learn just to survive... "So, should I leave Bobby a tip?" he tried to joke.

"I'll just give you a bill when you leave." Bobby thrust a sandwich in his direction. The old guy was pure stealth. "You seen Dean's 'photo albums' yet?"

"They're not my albums," Dean whined. He turned toward Sam to explain. "See, Jim had me do a slide show for his church. I figured that was gonna happen; that's why I didn't mind all those religious sites on the tours."

"Paul's travels," Sam murmured. He'd thought it was because of the diary Syl had given him.

"Yeah, so then one of the Sunday School classes—"

"The one with all the teenage girls," Bobby interrupted to say.

"They decided to take my photos and do—what do they call it?"

"Scrapbooking," Bobby said with glee. "They have little Olympic stickers and everything."

Dean gave Sam a pleading look. "I had to accept 'em, Sam."

"And give 'em hugs and jaw kisses. Some of 'em probably haven't washed their faces since." Bobby was out and out chuckling now.

Sam had a hard time not joining him when he saw the glittered stick-on letters and heard Dean's sigh.

-:- -:- -:-

Sam squinted up at the South Dakota afternoon sun. It had "light" down pat, but he wished it was a bit more on the ball with "warmth." After a hint from Bobby, he'd told Dean he was going out on the porch to call Jess, although he knew she was at the doctor's office with her mother and didn't want to be bothered. But Bobby had wanted to check Dean's injuries and that meant Sam had to conveniently leave the house.

Despite the "cuteness" of the albums, Dean had taken some great shots in Greece, and Sam couldn't wait to show them to Jess and his mom. His mom. Wow. Watching Dean and Bobby interact had him...longing for home. It wasn't okay what she had done, but maybe Dean wasn't quite as screwed in the deal as Sam had first thought. Bobby was great—a little rough around the edges, but exactly what Dean needed. Grace Polanski was a good mom, when she wasn't kidnapping anybody, but she probably would've had trouble handling Dean. Dean more than likely had edges even when he was eight.

Sam looked toward the edge of the drive when something glinted in the sun. An approaching car—no, a taxi. Maybe someone was coming to pick up a car Bobby had worked on? A man with a neat beard and gray-streaked hair climbed out of the taxi and slung an overnight bag on his shoulder before paying. Was this—"Pastor Jim?"

The man called a thank you to the driver, then turned to Sam smiling. "Hello, Sammy Winchester." He climbed the stairs and pulled Sam into a hug without hesitation. "It's good having you back with us, son."

"I thought you weren't coming until Christmas Eve," Sam said.

"Me, too," Bobby said dryly from the door. "What are you doing here, Jim? I just talked to you this morning."

"While Deacon Adler was with me. He heard Dean was hurt and the next thing I knew, my assistant was telling me he was going to take care of everything and the Deacon Board was handing me a ticket for South Dakota."

Bobby snorted. "Your congregation ain't never gonna forgive me for taking Dean in, are they? Don't trust me with the boy one bit."

"He's been a part of them ever since that year he spent with me. They just worry a lot. And you keep him away during the holidays."

"Keep him away? He's a grown-ass man," Bobby protested.

"Who sprained an ankle last Christmas?"

"Yeah, right, I did that on purpose."

"And last Easter? The hunt to Ft. Lauderdale? During Spring Break?"

Bobby sighed and scratched at his beard. "Fine. We'll be at your house next Christmas."

"And Sam here is my witness. Right, Sam?"

Sam was shocked they even remembered he was there. It was like they were an amicably divorced couple, with Bobby being the custodial parent and Jim arguing for better visitation rights. Note to self—avoid any law that will find you in Family Court. "Sure, Jim."

"You and Jess are, of course, will be expected."

He nodded before realizing he better speak to Jess first. Her soon-to-be in-laws were multiplying at an exponential rate.

"Be careful of snakes when you get there," Bobby muttered with a pained look.

"What are you taking about?" Jim asked with a frown.

"That deacon of yours tried to bribe Dean with a scholarship from the church the first year he moved here. I'm just trying to warn the boy."

"Deacon Adler is just convinced that Dean is a perfect candidate for the seminary." Jim held a straight face for a second, then he and Bobby burst into laughter.

"The boy can don a mean halo when it suits him,'" Bobby said when he got his laughing under control. "Well, c'mon in the house, old man."

Sam followed them as they talked about Dean's injuries, Jim offering advice and Bobby arguing that this was Dean they were talking about, not somebody with a lick of self-preservation. And Jim was saying Dean was just fine to which Bobby replied, "'Course he is, you idjit."

So, maybe not so amicable.

Yeah, Dean had made out fine in the family department.

And, yeah, he so missed his mom.

-:- -:- -:-

"Happy Christmas Eve, Mom...Yeah, I'm doing alright, you? Knew you'd be busy volunteering tomorrow, so I thought...Yeah, I know I don't need an excuse to call you....Went to Mt. Rushmore yesterday...Even bigger...He's fine...She's fine, too. Talked to her last night...So listen, Mom, um, you got any plans for New Year's?...I was thinking about, you know, coming home for a couple of days...Yeah, okay. See you then. Gotta go pick up a turkey...Sure, I'll let you know when to pick me up at the airport. Talk to you later. 'Bye, Mom."

Sam clicked the cell phone closed and dropped his head back against the sofa.

"That's a good thing you're doing, Sam."

Sam looked around to see Jim standing in the doorway. "You sound like Dean." He tilted his head to let the man know he was welcome to sit. "And being here with Dean's family—"

"We're your family, too, Sam. You were just a baby when I first met you, barely walking and holding on to Dean for dear life. I remember you fell and for the longest moment you just sat there, trying to decide if you wanted to cry or not. Then Dean said, 'Up, Sammy,' and you just tugged on his pants leg until you got to your feet again, squealing something that only he could understand. You two were quite the pair."

Sam laughed. "In Bobby's version, we were quite the terror."

Jim smiled. "You were that at times, too." He took a deep breath and placed a hand on Sam's knee. "I just want to apologize, son."

Sam was puzzled. "For what?"

"For not making sure you were...gone. Dean was in the hospital. Your father was devastated. They both depended on me and Bobby to handle what they couldn't. But we were closer to the situation than we allowed ourselves to believe. Your 'death' broke something in us and we...we just slipped up."

"You couldn't have known or even suspected," Sam said softly. "I've gone over it in my head a thousand times, Jim. A building exploded. The cops, the firemen, they all told you there was no hope. In all the confusion, no one would've remembered seeing a kid and a woman. She wasn't even a guest of the motel, so there was no record of her, no reason to know she'd been there at all. What happened...just happened."

Jim patted his knee. "Are you telling me it was God's will, Sam?"

Sam shrugged. "You're closer to Him than I am."

"Perhaps, son, perhaps."

-:- -:- -:-

"Amen," Jim said as he finished grace. Their Christmas dinner was spread before them and Sam had to admit that Mrs. Kawalsky, whose hands he'd stopped by mentioning his girlfriend, cooked a great-looking turkey. And yes, Dean could definitely cook. The potatoes were fluffy and the biscuits just melted in your mouth. Jim had kicked them all out the kitchen while he made his "secret recipe" stuffing and Bobby had surprised everyone by making a cranberry salad instead of just opening a can.

"Now, I think," Jim continued, "we should all say what we're grateful for."

"It ain't Thanksgiving, Jim," Bobby pointed out as he stood to carve the turkey.

"Well, since we couldn't all be together at that time," Jim said pointedly, and Sam wondered where Dean and Bobby had been then.

"Fine. I'm thankful for everyone around the table, 'cept one," Bobby growled, glaring at his obvious exception.

"And I'm grateful for all around this table, even the grumpy ones," Jim replied benevolently.

Dean moved his plate over and bounced his head lightly off the tablecloth.

Sam snickered and said, "I'm grateful to the Olympic Committee for choosing me as a representative. If I hadn't gone, I wouldn't have found my brother and a whole family I didn't remember."

Dean straightened and pulled his napkin onto his lap. "I'm just grateful," he mumbled. "Just really, really grateful—period. Let's eat."

And because everyone was in agreement, they did.


V. Medal Rounds

chapter twenty-one

Aurora Cemetery
Aurora, Nevada
November 2005

Dean tapped the last bit of dirt in place and wiped his sweating forehead. He was in a cemetery in a bona fide ghost town, so yeah, his back was killing him from all the salt-and-burns. Tourism. In a town where the dead were thirty-three percent murderers, thirty-three percent murder victims, and the other third just being plain mean.

Money wasn't the root of all evil; it was just the root of all stupid.

He peered up at the sun. Mid-morning, but despite his sweating, the air was still cool. He'd been at this for nearly twelve hours. A couple of guys had come out here on motorbikes and tried to steal a headstone that had been featured on a newscast about the ghost town. They'd ended up shooting each other—with bullets that were handmade back at the turn of the century. Now, the authorities came up with the idea that the two had found the bullets in one of the crumbling buildings which made a lot of sense. However, two dead men and no gun hadn't. So he had done his research and found who he needed to torch. The ghost was good at manipulating the gun he'd been buried with, but was no match for a seasoned hunter.

However, during Dean's research, he'd found at least a dozen others who set off his internal EMF. Instead of risking the death of other tourists and relic hunters, he worked through the night, taking care of all the sets of bones that gave him the willies. Hopefully, his instincts were right and he would never have to return to Aurora, Nevada.

But there was one good thing about Aurora; it was just three miles from the California border. Just three hundred and fifty miles from Sam. It wasn't like he hadn't seen the kid in a while. There had been graduation back in May. And Sam and Jess had watched him compete at the nationals. Dean had cheered Sam on during one of his meets. So no, it wasn't like he was missing his brother...but he was. Back to the motel for a quick shower and nap and he could be in Palo Alto by the time Sam's law classes ended for the day.

Dean set the now empty gasoline can in the back of the four-wheel drive SUV he'd rented, because there was no way in hell he was ruining his baby on the rut-infested, is-that-a-pothole-or-the-freakin'-stargate wagon trails that wound through the area. He grabbed his jacket and pulled down the back gate. Just as he slipped into the jacket, his phone vibrated. He grinned at the name that appeared on the screen. "Sam! Just thinkin' about you, bro. What's up, man?"

"Hey, Dean. Um...About that promise you, uh, had me make? About weird things happening?"

Dean's heart pounded in his chest. No. Not now. Not ever. He took a deep breath to make sure his voice didn't waver. "What about it, Sammy?"

"I—I—God, this is stupid, Dean."

No, what was stupid was the way his hand was trembling. "It's okay, dude. You can talk to me."

"I had—I had a dream. Have had it for the past few nights."

Repetitive dreams. Not good. "What's the dream about?"

"Jess." The way he said it made Dean shiver.

"Something bad happens to Jess?" Dean guessed when Sam remained silent.

"She's pinned to the ceiling," Sam whispered. "She's pinned to the ceiling and bleeding and then she bursts into flame."

Dean found himself lowering the phone and slumping against the corner of the hood, his legs all rubbery and incapable of holding his weight. Twenty-two years ago, he'd seen the same thing. In reality, not dreams. He'd never told anyone that he'd seen past his dad, that he'd seen his mom on the ceiling, her white nightgown bloody, her eyes wide and frightened. He'd never told Dad or Bobby or Jim. Maybe Dad had told Bobby or Jim and they had—no, they wouldn't have told Sam a thing. Sam was seeing this. Sam was dreaming this. And it had to be for a reason. It had to mean something.

Pull yourself together, asshole.

He raised the phone back into place. "Sam, listen to me." He jerked open the door and slid behind the wheel. "I'm just three miles from the California border. I can be at your place just after dark. I need for you and Jess to stay in, okay?" The apartment was protected. It had to be protected. As soon as he hung up, he was going to call Bobby, see if there was something else he could do or have Sam do.

"Dean, what's going on? What's happening, man? It was just a stupid dream, right?"

"Probably. But I'm gonna check some things out just to be sure. Just hang tight, Sammy. And call me back if something else happens." He cranked the vehicle and started down the so-called road.

"What kinda something else?"

"Like you start seeing things that happen in the dream but you ain't dreaming." Shit. He was starting to sound like a fruitcake. "I'm gonna check in every half hour, okay?"

"I'm in class, man."

"You're both on campus?" Plenty of people. Maybe safe until the place started emptying out. "Okay, but no sneaking off to dark places to make out."

"We live together, Dean. We do stuff like that at home."

Good. At least Sam was sounding like he wasn't on the edge of panicking. "Fine. Go home and do stuff like that as soon as possible. Call me when you get out of class." He hit a gigantic pothole and cursed as his head hit the ceiling. Juggling the cell phone, he jerked his seatbelt into place.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, just not on the interstate."

"Where are you?"

"Aurora, Nevada."

"Never heard of it."

"Neither has anyone else for a very long time." He slowed down, knowing it was useless to try for any speed until he got to the main road. "Don't forget to call."

"I won't. See ya, Dean."

"See ya, Sam."

Dean made the final "leap" from the trail to the real road and floored the gas pedal. Now, as Feud would say, Sam's cigar might just be a cigar. But the problem with that was Freud wasn't a Winchester. And Winchester cigars ended up being submarines powered by witchcraft or a crew of pedaling werewolves.

He hit a speed dial number on his phone. "Bobby? I think we might have a problem."

-:- -:- -:-

Dean moved along at a good speed until he hit Modesto. An accident on the interstate had traffic backed up on the smaller roads. He'd talked to Sam three times, Bobby twice. Sam said everything seemed normal and after the last call, told Dean to call him when he reached town because he and Jess were gonna be "busy" for a while. Dean had laughed, made a few off-color jokes and got the phone slammed in his ear. That was the most fun he'd had all day.

Bobby tried to sound convincing when he said the dream didn't mean anything, but he'd gone over the list of things Dean had done to protect his brother and made sure Dean had the proper ordnance in his rental. There had been some muttering about storm patterns but when Dean had asked for clarification, he received a sharp "Nevermind," and he'd let it go. If it was important, Bobby would eventually tell him.

Finally traffic cleared and Dean pulled out his cell phone. "Zip it up, Sammy," he said to his brother's voice mail. "I'm less than an hour out and I don't want you to offend my delicate sensibilities by showing me something I don't wanna see." He snickered and hung up.

Turning up the music, he began to sing along. The SUV was equipped with satellite radio (as if paying for radio was gonna catch on) and he could get a decent rock station. Which was about the only thing he liked about the vehicle. It was far too quiet. His "baby" talked to him as they rolled along, her engine purring or growling, a ping or squeak here and there. It made him feel less alone, a part of a team. This behemoth just kept him more isolated. He'd be glad when he got it back to the parking garage at the Reno airport and picked up his car...his partner.

As he neared the street Sam's apartment was on, he frowned and sat up straight behind the wheel. There was an odd glow to the sky and he shivered, despite having cut off the air conditioning and cruising with rolled down windows. Getting closer, he saw that the odd glow came from fire engines and cop cars.

Fuck.

Leaving the engine running, he jumped out of the SUV and barreled his way to the cordon that surrounded Sam's building. "What's going on?" he asked, grabbing the elbow of a uniformed officer.

"Sir, you need to step back," the man replied wearily.

"And you need to tell me what's going on," Dean insisted, trying his best to keep his voice tempered. He knew how to work with law enforcement. He knew the right words, the right tone, to get cooperation. But this was Sam's building and because his apartment was on the other side he couldn't tell if he was okay. "My brother lives here. I need to know, man. I just need to know."

"Sir, —"

"Dean!"

Dean turned at the sound of his name and saw Evan Somebody loping toward him. Evan was one of Sam's neighbors. Dean instantly dismissed the cop. "Evan! Where's Sam and Jess?"

"Sam's at the hospital." Dean paled and Evan quickly added. "Just slight burns and smoke inhalation. Some guy just showed up and yanked him outta the apartment just in time."

"Jess with him?"

This time it was Evan who paled. "I'm sorry, man. Jess...Jess didn't make it."

His heart sorta skipped, then began pounding. "What d'ya mean?"

"She—she didn't make it. The fire—it was their apartment. Some older dude dragged Sam out but Jess...from the way Sam was yelling, Jess was already gone."

Gone? Dean sagged against a nearby tree. He saw his mom burning on the ceiling and then she was replaced by Jess. God, this couldn't be happening! "What hospital, Evan? How long has he been there?" There, unprotected from whatever the hell this was.

Evan shrugged. "The paramedics left maybe twenty minutes ago? He looked okay, though—they were giving him oxygen but he was breathing pretty good."

"What hospital?" Dean asked again, struggling not to "kill the messenger." Evan was a good guy; he was a car nut, always asking questions about the Impala when Dean visited. And he was here, telling Dean what he needed to know.

"The University's. If you can drop me off at my girlfriend's, I can get you just about there." Dean nodded and the guy followed him, letting out a, "Aw, man, you sold out?" when he saw the SUV.

"Please," Dean scoffed. "This is just a rental because I had a job in rough terrain and I wasn't risking my baby's undercarriage." Everyone knew he was a mechanic who worked on rich guys' fast cars. And rich guys were often eccentric and lived in out of the way places.

"Good. With everything that's gone wrong tonight, I don't think I could take it if you went all yuppie on me."

"Your place suffer any damage? Anybody else hurt?" Damn, these should've been questions he'd already asked. He needed to get his head in the game because this was a hunt. Fuck. What had he done? Was this his fault because he had kept the truth from Sam, the truth about what he hunted, the truth about their family? Because he hadn't wanted to share Sam with John, hadn't wanted to see his father shatter Sam's innocence the way he had his? Was Sam being punished because of his brother's sins?

"It was just Jess and Sam's place, but the firemen aren't gonna let us back in for a while, I'm sure. I'll just crash at Tina's tonight and check back tomorrow."

Dean startled out of his introspection. "Yeah, good plan. And thanks for the 411. Thought I was gonna have to beat it outta that cop."

"My girlfriend says my mouth's so big that I should be called the town crier. By the way, you or Sam gimme a call when...when plans are made and I'll get the word out, okay?" Evan nervously pushed back a lock of dark hair that had fallen into his eyes.

Plans. Funeral plans. Not a wedding. Or birth announcement. Or any of those happy things like graduations and anniversaries and promotions. Jess wouldn't have any of those celebrations. Jess would have nothing.

Because he had fucked up.

"Yeah, we'll call. Gotta get with Jess's folks and...we'll let you know."

He dropped Evan off in front of an apartment building that looked eerily just like the one he'd left behind, the one with Jess's ashes on the floor. Because if Jess was like Mom... He didn't realize he was crying until a tear splashed across his knuckles which were tightly wrapped around the steering wheel. Man, he had to get this under control, be strong for Sam because Sam was going to need him. Or Sam was going to kick him out on his ass for not warning him, for not preparing him, for leaving Jess unprotected, although Dean had done everything he'd known to do.

Just as he was turning into ER parking, his phone rang and he looked down to see Bobby's name. "It's too late, man. It's already fucked to shit," he said, not wanting to hear what he could have done. "Sam's in the hospital and Jess...Jess is dead."

"Aw, damn," Bobby drawled through the phone. "Where are you?"

"Hospital parking lot."

"So, you're not drivin'?"

Shit. That didn't sound good. "No, I'm not driving."

"Gotta a call from that deacon guy? Adler? Jim's been attacked."

"What? How bad is it, Bobby?"

"He was conscious when they found him. Told 'em to tell me Dean's cross saved him."

"My—the cross from Greece?"

"Yeah. I don't know the details, but I'm about to head out. Got lucky and managed to get a seat on the last flight out tonight. I'll call ya when I land in Minneapolis and pick up my rental."

Dean banged his fist against the solid glass of the SUV's window. "This is an assault, isn't it? The bastards planned this."

"Sounds like. That's why I'm getting to Jim as fast as I can. You do the same with Sam and watch your brother's back."

Dean pinched the bridge of his nose. "Who's watching yours?"

"Since that cross of yours is so special, I figured maybe my rock is, too. At any rate, I can always bash 'em in the head with it. Make sure Sam still has his medallion, and I know damn well you have yours on. I don't know where you got this shit from, but I'm thinkin' it's damn powerful."

Thank you, Ismeme, Dean thought, making it a prayer. "Be careful, Bobby, and get yourself and Jim back to your safe room as soon as possible."

"I'm on it. Damn shame about Jess. She was a real sweet girl."

Bobby and Jim had come out for Sam's graduation. Jess had charmed both of them. "Yeah, she was. I'm startin' to think we Winchesters might be cursed."

"Just startin' to think?"

Dean gave a sad laugh. "Yeah, well, I mean maybe there's another component to the curse, other than just generally fuckin' up our lives; maybe we aren't meant to have women in our lives—not long term anyway."

"Well, considerin' your track record, you ain't got to worry about that, d'ya? Besides, unless Jim's hiding more than a double chin under that collar of his, his attack sorta negates that theory of yours."

"Next time I talk to Jim I'll tell him how concerned you are about what's under his collar." And yeah, Bobby had a point.

"You do that, kid. I'm here at the airport so I'll talk to you later, alright? Watch'ya back, you hear me?"

"You do the same, old man." Dean sighed and slid his phone back into his pocket. So. This was a hunt. Only they were the ones being hunted. That meant he had to hope Sam was as okay as Evan thought; they needed to get somewhere safe and defendable. He squared his shoulders and left the car. Sam was waiting.

He squinted when he reached the bright lights highlighting the automatic hospital doors. A headache threatened but he couldn't worry about that now.

"Dean!" He turned and saw Rain running up to him from the parking lot. She pulled him into a quick hug. "You got here fast," she said, panting a little.

"I was already on the way."

"I know. Sam said you were coming."

"He tells you when I'm coming for a visit?" It wasn't that big of an event; he popped in whenever he was on the west coast.

"Well, Wednesday is our hump-day get together. We usually meet at Pop's Pub and bitch about the first of the week and make plans for the weekend."

"Evan part of the 'we'?" Which would explain why he was hanging around the building waiting on him.

"Yeah. Sam asked if we could just move it 'til tomorrow sod he could drag you along."

Was that another way he'd screwed up? If Sam and Jess had been at the pub instead of home...No, if this was a coordinated demon attack, then there would've been a whole pub full of dead people instead of just Jess.

"Dean?"

Rain was giving him a concerned look and he gave her a half-smile. "C'mon, let's ask about Sam." He led her to the main desk in the ER. "Hey, um, the paramedics just brought in Sam Polanski? He was in an apartment fire."

"And you are?"

"His brother, Dean Winchester."

The attendant keyed in his name. "Yes, you're on his HIPAA form. And you are?" The woman stared at Rain.

"My fiancee," Dean said smoothly. "If you could just tell us where my brother is?"

She gave them directions to a trauma room and buzzed open the door that led to the ER proper.

"Fiancee, huh?" Rain asked as they checked which way the room numbers were running. "Well, at least if I have to put up with dick, I got one with a pretty face."

"Rain, dahlin', you say the sweetest things." They quieted as they neared Sam's small space. His brother lay on an angled table with an oxygen mask on, his eyes were closed, his face red as if sunburned. His hands were wrapped and curled against his chest.

He looked so damn young.

"Oh, Sam." Rain's soft moan was apparently loud enough for Sam to hear and his eyes slowly opened.

Dean stepped forward. "Hey, kiddo." He didn't touch him because he wasn't sure where he was burned.

Sam reached awkwardly for the mask and Dean plucked it out of the way for him. "Jess?" he whispered roughly.

Dean felt his eyes filling, but he did nothing to hide them as he shook his head.

Sam's silent crying broke his heart.


chapter twenty-two

Suite Stay Inn
Palo Alto, California

Dean sat on the sofa, reading the free copy of USA TODAY that came with the suite. Supposedly he was reading the sports section, but his concentration was shot. Probably not enough sleep in the last forty-eight hours—nearly none in fact—but his restlessness was also due to the knowledge that demons were after his family. Before, demons were just abstract, evil beings. Yeah, they had killed his mom, but what did you expect from evil beings?

Bobby had called after talking to a concussed and bruised, but otherwise okay, Jim. Jim said that a young lady with short blonde hair had walked into his church and when he went to address her, her eyes had turned black. He'd been so shocked that a demon could walk into a church, he'd just stood there while she talked to him.

"Sorry about this, padre," she'd said in a conversational tone. "But I have a message to deliver and you're going to be the messenger-—well, your dead body that is."

Her words broke him out of his paralysis and he began edging toward the baptismal font. "What's the message and why am I involved?"

The demon had inspected her nails as she talked. "You have lousy taste in friends, padre. The Winchesters. They're toxic, poisonous. The message is simple: befriend them and die." She frowned as she found a chip in her polish.

Using the distraction, Jim had tossed the bowl of sanctified water on her. She'd screeched and he'd taken off for his office and weapons cache. Suddenly, he found himself flying through the air and crashing into the office wall that held the thrice-blessed cross. He'd blacked out and when he came to—and he wasn't quite sure about this due to the concussion—the cross was in his arms and it was projecting an image of itself onto the demon. The demon had spit out black smoke which the projection absorbed and the apparently de-possessed young woman collapsed. Choir members coming for practice had found both of them.

So. Not just abstract, evil beings, but evil beings who hated Winchesters. What did that mean? Had Dad done something in the years he'd been on his own? Or did it go further back, back to his mom? Why the hell were they on Hell's hit list?

"Hey."

Dean put down the paper he wasn't reading and looked at Sam, who leaned against the door that separated the living room and bedroom of the suite. "Hey, bro. Whatcha doin' outta bed, man? I promised the doc you'd rest if he sprung ya." The doctor had wanted to keep Sam under observation for the rest of the night. But Sam hadn't wanted to stay, and Dean was worried about protection at the hospital. So he'd done a hurried blessing on the suite while Rain stayed with Sam, then collected his brother in the wee hours of the morning.

The hospital staff wasn't happy.

"Where's Rain?" Sam asked, sitting carefully beside Dean. Dean knew from experience that having no useful hands could be a bitch.

"At the airport picking up your mom."

"Then we have time to talk."

"Or take a shower," Dean said, waving his hands in front of his nose. "I got you some of those living gloves things that come up to your elbow. Did'ya know they come in pink, and in size extra- big ass? Top 'em with a rubber band and you'll be good to go."

Sam leaned back against the cushions, his legs spreading wide. "You really want to talk about what happened with other people around?"

"What happened? Sam, it was an accident, a freak—"

"My girlfriend ending up on the ceiling in a ring of fire was no accident, Dean!" Sam awkwardly rubbed at his face. "I know, Dean. I know what you do."

"What?"

"I woke up when you got back from the hunt at Christmas. I overheard you and Bobby—claws, holy water, and so on."

Well, damn. "What is it that you think you know?" he asked carefully.

"By the time I got back to school, I'd convinced myself that I'd been sleepwalking or something and hadn't heard what I heard. Then you'd call and tell me where you were and I'd hit the computer, checking the town's newspapers. Everywhere you went, Dean, there were reports of strange animal attacks, exsanguinations, and other weird crap. That's what you do, isn't it? That's what you hunt—these things that belong in the horror section of the video store?"

Dean looked at the still too red cheeks, the wide eyes that had seen too much...and he couldn't lie. "Yeah, Sammy, that's what I hunt."

Sam let out a long breath and Dean couldn't tell whether it was from relief or sorrow. "And Jess?"

"Was killed by a demon."

"Demon as in denizen of hell demon?"

"Denizen?" Dean rolled his eyes. "Easy to tell I'm in a college town."

"Don't try to deflect me, man."

"Fine. Demon as in the fire-and-brimstone type, yes."

"Holy—"

"Nothing holy about it, dude."

Sam just gaped at him for a long moment. "Why? Why Jess? Does it have a thing for women? Are you gonna hunt it? Can I come?"

The eagerness in his brother's questions concerned him. He didn't need another obsessed Winchester on his hands; he hadn't fared so well with the first one. "Slow up, Sammy. There's stuff we need to talk about that's gonna take a while, so this is not the time."

"Bobby can—"

Dean shook his head. "Bobby's got his own worries. Jess wasn't the only one attacked last night. Jim's in the hospital."

"What are you doing here then?" Sam asked quickly. "Shouldn't you be—"

Dean held up a hand to silence him. "Bobby's got Jim's back and I have yours."

Sam nodded. "You and Bobby, you make a good team. Was Jim—burned?"

Dean could tell Sam was seeing Jess on the ceiling and hurried to explain. "Don't know what they were planning for him." He raised and eyebrow and looked at his brother. "You saved him."

"Me?"

"Yeah. You were the one that said I had to take home gifts and it was Jim's gift that saved him—a cross that somehow exorcised the demon."

Sam smiled, then went back to looking sad. "Maybe I should've picked one of those up for myself."

And now it was time to come clean of his sins. "Not your fault, Sammy, but mine. If I hadn't insisted on keeping you in the dark...You trusted me and I let you down."

Sam's hazel eyes blinked at him. "And if I had known, what could I have done that you didn't do? A while back I was studying for an exam and I got frustrated and sorta hung upside down from the sofa. Imagine my surprise when the light seemed to highlight pictures painted on the wall. Looked up those 'pictures', Dean. Sigils and runes, protection spells... That's why I didn't question you when you told me to stay in last night. I knew you'd made the apartment into some sort of sanctuary."

"Wow. You're not at Stanford just for your looks, are you?" Dean was impressed at how much Sam had figured out on his own.

"I've had a lot of time to think since last night."

Dean shook his head. "I told Rain you were just faking sleep. Don't do that again, okay? If you can't sleep, just tell me. I can fling some bullshit that's guaranteed to knock you out or, at the least, I can nod in the correct places if you wanna talk. Not like I listen to you anyway." Because of his hands, the sofa pillow Sam threw at him missed by a mile.

There was a knock at the door and even though he was expecting Rain and Grace, Dean nevertheless looked through the peephole—and saw a couple he'd never seen before. He put his hand on the pistol stuck down the back of his jeans. It had silver bullets, not exactly effective against demons, but maybe it would give him time to reach the paintball rifle he had stashed under the sofa; the paintballs were filled with blessed oil instead of the usual colorful mix. They stung like a bitch when they hit and unlike holy water, had to be washed off. A face shot was the most effective.

After checking the salt line, he opened the door, leaving the security guard in place. "Yes?" he asked neutrally.

"We're looking for Sam Polanski," the man said.

"Dean, let 'em in," Sam called, coming up behind him. "They're Jess's parents."

Dean shut the door and disengaged the brass guard before opening the door and ushering the Moores through. At first he was on edge because he was worried they might blame Sam for their daughter's death. But when the three of them came together for a group hug, he relaxed and faded into the background.

Rain and Grace showed up soon afterward, followed by friends and school officials. Dean, completely out of his element, made himself useful by playing barista, major domo, and answering service. When he heard there was going to be a private ceremony at the cemetery in the morning, followed by a memorial service at Stanford Memorial Church, he hastily dragged Rain into the quiet hotel hallway.

"Got any friends with a secret hankering to be a fashion designer?" he asked.

"Somehow I don't think this is the beginning of a gay joke," she said, leaning aback against the wall. "What do you need with a fashion designer?"

"Not a fashion designer per se, but someone who can take measurements. Sam and I are gonna need suits by morning. Instead of parading him to a store, I thought it'd be easier if someone took our measurements and did the shopping for us."

"You know, you're pretty bright for a guy who shoots guns as a hobby." She smiled and pulled out her cell phone. "And, being gay, of course I know a wannabe fashion designer or two—and, hey, I get to say that because I'm part of the crowd. Got it?"

"Got it. You're a bossy fiancee, aren't you?"

"Oh, puddin', you know you like it that way." They were both laughing as her friend answered the phone.

-:- -:- -:-

Dean didn't have a lot of experience with funerals. Sure, hunters died, but a little salt, a little accelerant, and a nearby bar was about the extent of his knowledge of funeral practices. So he found himself uncomfortable as the remains of Jess were laid to rest. It was a warm, sunny day but the funeral was "invitation only" which meant only a handful of people. The only time Dean didn't wish he was somewhere else was when Sam sagged against him as the coffin was lowered with a squeaky winch. After the funeral, Dean slipped the burial crew a ten and told them to invest in several cans of WD40.

The crowded, student-attended memorial service was nearer to what he was used to. The service was more upbeat than the burial, a celebration and appreciation of Jess, but the "meet and greet" following it was too chaotic for him, especially when he had to be on the lookout for demons. Thankfully, Sam was surrounded by friends and Dean got a chance to patrol the crowd. He had to admit it was a nice church and Jess's friends really were friends. And best of all, Jessica's parents had sprung for a catered lunch.

Dean was careful in eating, not wanting to mess up his new suit. Rain's friend—a raging flamer, Rain explained with an evil grin—knew his stuff. Aside from the feel he'd copped when taking the measurements—no touching was necessary to tell whether he dressed left or right—both suits fit perfectly and looked way more expensive than they actually were.

"I wanna get outta here," Sam whispered in his ear.

"What about your mom?"

"Rain's gonna see that she gets back to the hotel. Apparently she and Mom have bonded. Making me rethink why Mom never married."

Dean raised an eyebrow. "You think she's pervin' on Rain?"

"Nah, man. But maybe she can be more herself or something, I dunno."

A shrug. "Maybe Rain should take her up to San Francisco for the weekend, let her get her freak on with the other team."

Sam squeezed his eyes shut. "Oh, God. That's just a picture...ugh! She's my mom, dude."

Dean laughed at his success. Sam was no longer thinking about his loss. "She might be old, but she still has needs."

Sam stuck his fingers in his ears. "I'm not listening to you. Ever again."

Dean patted him on the shoulder. "C'mon, you repressed prude. Say your goodbyes and let's get the hell outta here."

Thirty minutes later, they pulled into the hotel's parking lot. Dean noted that Sam didn't move to get out, so he just sat quietly with him in the dark, waiting for his brother to finish whatever it was he was doing.

"I don't want to think," Sam finally said, rubbing his hands across his knees.

Dean understood that. "Is there a bar around here that you don't associate with Jess?"

"The Pine Zone," Sam said softly. "A roughneck kinda place. Went with the guys a time or two. They have pool tables."

"Ah, my kinda place. Let's go upstairs, put on some jeans and go. We'll even take a cab so we don't have to worry about which one of us has to be the designated driver."

"See? That's why I'm glad we found each other. Can't picture my mom offering to go get drunk with me."

"I don't know about that," Dean said with a wicked grin. "Take her to a titty bar and—" He winced at the sock in the arm. Before he could retaliate, Sam was out of the car.

Dean was rounding the back of the SUV when he heard someone call out. "Sam Polanski? I don't know if you remember me—"

Dean froze, then sagged against the tailgate.

"You're the guy who pulled me out of the apartment!"

"Yeah. Sorry to hear about your girl. I just wanted to check and see how you were doing," the voice said.

Dean loved poker, and although the song in that crappy Kenny Rogers movie (stupid one-horse, one-channel town in Bumfuck, Iowa) sucked as bad as the movie, the guy had the right of it—you had to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. It was time that Dean folded. So he stood and completed his journey around the SUV.

"My name is—" the voice continued.

"John Winchester," Dean completed, coming to stand beside his brother. He gave the new player a nod. "Hey, Dad."


Chapter twenty-three

Suite Stay Inn Parking Lot
Palo Alto, California

Sam didn't know who to look at, so he just dragged his jaw across the ground as he gaped from father to brother and back again. Father. John Fuckin' Winchester in the flesh. He'd been saved by his dad. Wasn't that a bitch?

"Dean?" John asked, clearly thrown off-balanced. "What are you doing here, son?"

"The same as you, I suspect," Dean drawled. "But not for the same reason."

John frowned and there was a jump in his jaw. Sam could see the moment he decided to ignore Dean. "Sorry, Sam. This is my son, Dean. He and I haven't seen each other in—"

"Eight years. He knows the drill, Dad. I've been catching him up."

Sam turned quickly to Dean and Dean nodded. So, they were going to come clean. Sam returned the nod. Now that he knew the truth about hunting, there was no reason to keep their secret any longer.

"Catching him...Dean, what's going on?" John was visibly confused and definitely not liking it.

"Dad, I want you to meet Sam Polanski, who was born Samuel Winchester."

Sam didn't understand Dean moving to stand in front of him until he noticed the gun John now had pointed in his direction.

"Put it away, Dad. It's Sam, for real."

"What else could I be?" Sam asked curiously.

"Shapeshifter," Dean answered.

"Doppleganger," John tossed out.

"Skin-walker," Dean countered.

"Metamorph," John challenged.

Sam was definitely going to bring up this exchange the next time Dean accused him of being a geek. "Okay, guys, I get it. I'm not any of those things."

"I know, Sammy," Dean said. "And he knows I would've checked for all that. This is your son, Dad, my brother. If you can't take my word for it, take Bobby's and Jim's."

John took a step back, sliding the gun back into his pants. "What the hell?"

"Sam wasn't in the room when it exploded. He left when he smelled smoke. A woman came by and scooped him up. He's been living in Arizona, thinking he was adopted."

"What?"

"It's true, Dad," Sam said, refusing to be hurt when the man flinched. "I was told that you and Dean were dead. I kinda repressed it all until I met Dean on our flight to Athens."

"Athens?"

"Yeah, the Olympics."

John cut his eyes over to Dean. "What piece of tail had you following her all the way to Greece?" he asked scornfully.

Okay. Now he was starting to get some of the looks he'd received when he'd asked Bobby and Jim about his dad. They'd both tried to be diplomatic, but their eyes gave them away. John was a jerk. Only Dean had been honest enough to tell him the truth.

Dean refused to be baited. "We had a blood test done. He's my brother. If you want to have one done, I don't think Sam would mind."

"Nah, I don't mind," Sam said quickly. "We can set up something at the hospital or—"

John held up his hand to silence him. "The Olympics were last year. Why the hell am I just finding out about this?" His question was directed squarely at Dean. "You could've found me if you wanted to."

"Yeah, well, I didn't want to."

For a tall man, with a sturdy build, John moved fast. His fist was contacting Dean's jaw before Sam even knew he'd moved. It was a solid punch. Dean seemed to go with it, then turned and shoved John against the SUV, his forearm flying up to press against his father's throat. "I'm not a seventeen-year-old you can push around anymore," Dean grunted out. "If you wanted to keep control of me, you shouldn't have tossed me away."

"I didn't—" John started.

"You did."

"Well, I guess you got me back, huh? You don't tell me about Sam—my son, goddamn you—and apparently you got rid of the Impala. What happened? One girl too many accuse you of driving something old enough to be owned by your mother? And you couldn't have that mess with your rep, right? Forget that it's true; it was your mother's car as much as it was mine. But forget your mother! You just had to get back at me. That right, boy?"

Dean glared at John for a second, then stepped back with a curse. "Sorry, Sam. Seems I still have daddy issues."

"Understandable," Sam said agreeably. Before he could ask Dean if he was all right, Dean's phone rang.

Dean looked at the screen. "It's Bobby."

Sam nodded. "I'm cool here, man." Dean stalked off to the corner of the parking lot, leaving Sam alone with their dad. "All the stories about you are true, then," he said conversationally.

"What stories are those?" John pulled himself away from the SUV, twisting his neck as if removing a crick.

"That you are an asshole."

John gave a little laugh. "Got a mouth on you, don't ya?"

Sam yanked his tie loose. "I call 'em as I see 'em. I thought Dean might've been exaggerating; I was wrong."

"So that's why neither of you came looking for me, to tell me my dead son was alive and well?" John took a charging step toward him. "I'm your father, boy! I deserved to know!"

"So you could give me the kiss-off like you did Dean?" Sam refused to take a step back. This son of a bitch threw his brother away to go run off on some vendetta. If he and Jess had had a child, he would never—

"I was trying to protect him!"

"And he was protecting me!"

John deflated. "From me?" He rubbed his jaw nervously.

Sam ran a hand through his hair. "From you. From your obsession."

"My obsession?" John laughed. "My obsession is what killed your girl."

"I know."

"Well, if I had known," John said mockingly, "maybe I could've protected you."

If he didn't think John would fell him with one blow, causing Dean to commit patricide, Sam would've swung for John's jaw. "So what are you saying? You knew something was after me and Jess, but because you didn't know I was your son, you didn't do your best to stop it?"

"Fuck! That's not what I'm saying."

"Then what are you saying? I was protected to the best of the combined knowledge of Dean, Bobby, and Jim. You think you're better than they are, that you know more than they do?"

"I think none of them are your father!" John rubbed his hand over his short beard. "None of you had the right to keep this from me. None of you."

Sam shrugged. Dean had been so adamant about keeping John in the dark and it turned out his brother was right. This guy was pissing him off. He was over eighteen. It was his right. Before he could tell his dad just that, Dean came loping back toward them.

"We gotta roll, Sam. Bobby wants us home, now."

"I have school—"

Dean shook his head. "Talked to your faculty advisor at the memorial. She says you get an automatic pass for the semester. She expects you to sit the rest of the year out and hopefully return in January."

He wasn't sure how he felt about that, but the idea of going to anytime soon wasn't appealing either. "Okay. Gotta call Mom, though. And Rain. And Evan." He pulled out his cell and started pressing buttons as he walked toward the hotel.

"You wanna come, be back here in an hour," he heard Dean telling their dad. "If not, have a good life."

His brother beat him to the door.

-:- -:- -:-

Dean's cell phone rang as soon as they started up the off-ramp for the Reno-Tahoe Airport. Sam looked into the side mirror at the black truck that had followed them since they'd left Palo Alto. Although it was late, he could see the phone cradled against the driver's jaw. "It's him," he said unnecessarily.

"I know. Answer it and tell him we're picking up an old friend."

Sam grimaced as he put the phone back on the seat. "That went well," he said dryly.

Dean apparently wasn't going to cut their dad any slack. "Be prepared for many more 'well' moments like that. He can be irritating when he wants to be and he always seems to want to be."

"This is gonna be uncomfortable, isn't it?" This visit to Bobby's place was definitely not going to be as fun as the last.

Dean gave him a quick glance. "I'm sorry about this, bro. I know you don't need any more stress, but he is one of the best hunters out there, and we're probably gonna need him."

"If he can get us Jess's killer, I don't care what kind of jerk he is."

"Don't."

Sam whipped his head around toward Dean. "What?"

"I know you're grieving..." Dean sighed and tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. "This is how he started, okay? I don't want you heading down that same road. I know this is too soon, I know you're still caught up in what happened, but...I want you to think about what I'm saying. Maybe not now, but later on—"

"When I've forgotten about Jess?" Sam asked bitterly. How dare Dean compare him to the asshole behind them. He was nothing like him. Nothing.

"You'll never forget about Jess, the same way Dad and I will never forget Mom," Dean said softly. "Call and tell him to wait in front of the parking deck and we'll be out in a minute."

Dean flashed the attendant a receipt and said he was just there to pick up his car. The attendant waved him through and a couple of levels later, they pulled up behind the Impala. "Here," Dean dangled keys in front of him. "Follow me to the rental place, okay? It's really close by so your hands should be okay for that short distance."

Sam got out and stretched while Dean returned the SUV. The black truck rolled up smoothly beside him. "He was in rough territory for a hunt and was afraid it'd damage her undercarriage," he explained, wanting his father to feel bad about accusing Dean of getting rid of the car. "And for the record," he added as he saw Dean walking toward them, "I won a bronze medal at the Olympics. He, however, won two golds. Everything go all right?" he asked Dean.

"Fine. Had to pay for the extra mileage, but it wasn't bad. Gimme the keys." Sam reluctantly handed them over and moved to the passenger's side. "We're gonna be stopping near Salt Lake City," Dean told John. "Catch a few hours of sleep."

"I'm good and you boys can switch off," John replied, obviously not wanting to stop.

Dean shook his head. "The kid buried the woman he wanted to marry this morning. He's gonna sleep in a bed tonight." Dean got in the car before John could reply.

"You don't have to," Sam said as Dean started the car. It had just sounded like a engine when Sam cranked it; it seemed to purr for Dean. "I probably won't sleep anyway."

"The only person who's had less sleep than you in the past seventy-two hours is me. We're stopping."

They did and oddly enough, Sam slept.

-:- -:- -:-

It was late evening when they pulled into the salvage yard. The front porch light was on and Bobby and Jim ambled outside as the Impala rolled into its customary parking spot. The black truck parked behind them.

Jim was at his door by the time Sam opened it. "I'm so sorry about Jessica." He pulled him into a strong hug.

Then there was a grip on his shoulder. "She was a fine gal," Bobby said. "We're sorry we couldn't be there."

Sam just nodded, too overcome to say anything for a moment. Dean had given him familial male bonds he hadn't even known he needed. "I'm just glad you guys are okay," he finally managed to get out. "We were worried about you."

Bobby snorted. "No little blonde thing's gonna take us out. We're too seasoned."

"Old," Dean countered from the other side of the car.

"Keep it up and I'll see if the dogs like the chicken Jim fried up for you," Bobby fired back. Then he regarded Dean with a hard stare. "How you holdin' up, boy?"

Dean gave a shrug. "Fine, now that I'm home."

"And I'm fine, too," John said dryly, standing next to his truck. "Thanks for the warm welcome."

"Ya ain't shot, are ya? Then I wouldn't be complainin'." Bobby adjusted his cap and headed for the house. "You know where your room is Sam. John can have the sofa."

Jim was slightly more gracious. "It's good to see you, John."

"Wish I could say the same, like I would've if someone would have called me to tell me that my son was alive," John spat out. "What does your Good Book say about keeping a father away from his son?"

"We all have our sins, John. I am fully prepared to pay for mine. Are you?" Jim patted Sam on the shoulder. "Come along, son. My chicken's getting cold."

Sam decided right then and there that if he ever became a lawyer, he wanted to be just like Jim—quietly forceful.

After dinner they gathered to talk shop. Sam sat quietly in a corner chair, content to observe because he was clearly out of his element.

"It's obvious we're not dealing with run of the mill, worker demons. These sons of bitches are top tier," Bobby said, after Dean reiterated all the preparations he'd made at Sam's apartment. "They can walk across a salt line and into a sanctuary. If it wasn't for these knickknacks Dean brought back from Greece we'd be up shit creek without a roll of tissue."

Jim crinkled his nose at Bobby's vivid description. 'Where did you pick these up again, Dean?"

"At a shop Syl suggested."

"Was there anything of note about the shop owner or the person who sold you these items?"

Sam watched in amazement as Dean fidgeted. "She, um, she was an oracle."

Bobby frowned. "What did you pay her?"

"What she asked for. It wasn't nearly enough, but it's what she asked for."

"I'm not talking about money, ya idjit. Oracles usually want something for their prophesies, a tribute of some kind."

"I didn't get a prophesy," Dean insisted. "I didn't even know she was an oracle. I just went in to get gifts. I told her a little about you guys—how you, Jim, are religious and you, Bobby, are smart. She came back with the cross and the rock on her own. The only reason I knew something was up was because she knew my name and shit. Figured she was just another psychic—thanks for the heads up on Syl, by the way. She's the one who told me she was an oracle, but I'm still not sure about that."

"Why?"

"Because gods are supposed to speak through oracles, right? But she didn't act freaky until we touched."

"Define 'freaky,'" John demanded.

"Her eyes became crystal clear, like water in a glass, and she sorta checked out for a moment or two."

"What did she see?"

"I didn't ask, Dad."

"You didn't ask?"

Dean took a deep breath. "No, I didn't ask. So she gave me a piece of advice—love your brother. Told her she didn't have to worry about that."

Sam saw some of the intensity in his father that Dean had warned him about earlier. "What happened after that?"

"She told me to come back the following morning."

"And?"

"She gave me the two St. Joseph medallions. She didn't charge me for them."

"And?"

Dean glared at John. "And I slept with her."

John stood up and paced the room before slamming a fist against the door jamb. "Goddamn it, Dean! What the hell were you thinking?"

"You'd do well to watch your tone in my house," Bobby said from his chair.

John ignored him. "She told you she was an oracle, a conduit of a god and you still slept with her? Do you do everything your dick tells you to?"

Dean leapt to his feet. "The lady asked me, Dad. Neither of us was forced into it."

"You sure of that, son?" John's words were razor sharp. "Sure she didn't mojo you into her bed?"

"For what purpose?" Dean sounded utterly frustrated.

"She's a supernatural freak, Dean? Who the fuck knows why?"

Sam didn't like the defeated look on Dean's face and decided to help his brother out. "Actually, I think the whole point of this conversation was to point out that the 'supernatural freak' saved our asses. So, thank you, Dean. If hitting that saved Jim, I know there are at least three people in this room who are grateful that you did." Dean gave him a glance that said thanks and Sam nodded, angry once again that his mom had left Dean with no one to watch his back all those years. It definitely took two people to handle John Winchester.

"You boys have had a long past few days," Jim said, rising to his feet. "We all have. So I suggest we get a good night's sleep and start fresh in the morning."

Everyone agreed except John, who was still giving them impatient looks as Sam trailed Dean up the stairs. "You okay?" Sam asked as Dean turned to enter his room directly across from Sam's.

Dean dropped his head against his door. "He yanks my strings and I dance for him, Sammy. Eight years or eighty, nothing's gonna change."

"You're wrong; there have been changes. It's just not you and him in some dinky motel room now. You're in your own home with me, Jim, and Bobby to watch your back."

"Same goes for you, man. Get to know him if you want; apparently the universe outvoted me on that one. But don't let him talk you into anything. Don't let his obsession spark one in you." Dean's eyes bore into his. "Revenge is a neat idea but as a lifestyle, it sucks."

Sam knew Dean was worried by the similarities in the tragedies he and John had suffered. Briefly, he wondered what would've happened if John had had a brother that was as adamant as Dean about the wrongful lure of vengeance. Would their dad had stayed in Lawrence and raised them in a normal way? Would he have grown up with a dad and a brother instead of a mom? Would they have not known about the supernatural?

"I promise I'm not about to become an apostle to the Gospel of John Winchester. Now get some sleep. You're getting bags under your eyes." His brother's one finger salute chased him out the door.

Sam stripped down to a tee and boxers, but found he couldn't sleep. For one thing, he was having time zone issues and for another, his mind just wouldn't settle down. It flittered from Jess to the actuality of fairy tales and monster movies, and then to meeting his father. Too many distractions for one tired brain.

He got dressed again and headed outside. Although it was November, it was still a little mild for South Dakota. Maybe looking at the wide expanse of sky without the light pollution he was used to would quiet his mind. But when he got to the porch, he found it occupied.

"Sorry, sir, I didn't mean to disturb you," he said as he started to turn around.

"No, it's fine, son," John said. He was dressed similarly to Sam—jeans, tee and a button-down overshirt. "Son," John continued with a shake of his head. "I never thought—God, it's good to know you exist, Sammy. Can I..." He held out his arms.

Sam walked into his father's embrace and was shocked by how hard it hit him. His memories of his dad weren't as clear as those he had about Dean. But there was a weird "rightness" about being enfolded in John's arms.

"They had no right," John muttered. "I should've been told. Damn them all."

Sam pulled away. "Keep your damning to yourself, dude. It wasn't about you, you know. They were trying to protect me."

"From me?" John hissed. "There are a lot of things they should've kept you protected from, but I'm not one of them."

"Dean—"

"You're a law student, right?" John said quickly, interrupting him. "Then you should know Dean is what they call a hostile witness."

"He has every right to be hostile," Sam pointed out. He took another step back. "You cut him off cold when he was eighteen. He lost Mom when he was four, me when he was eight, and you ten years later. At least me and Mom he could chalk up to fate, but you? You left him by choice. I'd be bitter, too."

John growled and raked his fingers through his hair. "I did it to protect him. I was on the trail of the demon that took Mary. I'd already lost you. I couldn't bear to lose Dean."

Sam snorted. "And yet you lost him anyway." How could John Winchester be such a great hunter when he had the communication skills of a dead fly? "Did it ever occur to you that he couldn't read your mind? That he didn't know you were protecting him? That he figured you kicked him out because you still blamed him for my death?"

"I never blamed him," John said sharply. "That was all on me, son. All of it."

"Yeah, it was. But you never told him that either, did you? God, no wonder he didn't want me to have anything to do with you. A tree stump communicates better than you do!" Sam stomped toward the door.

"No, don't go," John called. "Please," he added softly when Sam placed his hand on the door.

Sam sighed, torn between wanting to punish John for his poor parenting skills and having the opportunity to learn more about his father. "I'm gonna be honest with you; I can't do this if you don't try to work it out with, Dean. You have to promise me that you'll talk to Dean, that you'll explain—in actual words—why you did what you did. You've tortured him long enough."

John laughed, a small smile thinning his lips. "I'd forgotten how protective you were of each other. I didn't know little people could fight the way you two did—bitching each other out, giving each other the cold shoulder, or mastering the silent treatment like you were decades older than you were—but, damn, if I ever got on one of your asses about something, you guys became a united front. You even bit me once because I was yelling at Dean. Milk teeth, my ass. Those things hurt."

Sam laughed too. Considering his father's occupation, he was probably the smallest thing that had ever bitten John and the man was complaining. "Just tell me you'll talk to Dean."

"I will, Sammy, if you promise me to call me dad. I remember when you told me you were too old to call me daddy, that you were a big boy and big boys said dad, just like Dean said." John sat down on the metal rocker. "You always believed Dean was right. Guess that's why you went along with his plan to keep me in the dark about you being alive. Do you know how much that hurts?"

Yeah, thanks to his mom, he did. Betrayal was a bitch. But when it came down to John and Dean there was a question of who betrayed whom first. That's why he wanted them to talk, to work it out, because he was going to stick with Dean no matter what and if that meant keeping John at arm's length, he would. "You hurt Dean first."

"And that makes it all right, that makes it acceptable to keep you away from me? It's selfish, that's what it is," John said, banging his fist against a porch support.

"More selfish than you putting the hunt ahead of your family?"

"I hunt for my family!"

"You ever wonder why you're the only one who believes that?" Sam shot back. He snatched at his hair in frustration. He yanks my strings and I dance for him, Sammy. Eight years or eighty, nothing's gonna change. Dean had sounded so tired, beaten. John was an asshole, but Dean needed—something—from him. Closure, acceptance, something. "Talk to Dean, Dad," he said again.

John sighed, his shoulders slumping. "I will, son. Now, why don't you tell me about yourself. I saw Bobby's little shrine in there so I know Dean won his awards in Shooting. Big surprise there, huh? But what's your sport?"

Sam leaned against the porch rail, looking up at the sky. Big sky country? Nah. That was Montana. "Swimming."

"That a big deal where you come from?"

"Arizona and yeah, it was a major sport there."

"That's where she took you to live?"

"My mom?" Sam figured he better stop contemplating the stars and focus. John Winchester wasn't likely to be as enamored of Grace Polanski as Dean was. "Look, you need to leave her out of this. She knows what she did was wrong, and she and I have made our peace."

"She kidnapped you, Sam." Even in the darkness, Sam could tell John was gritting his teeth.

"Yeah, she did. But she had her reasons."

"To take away someone's child?"

Sam sat astride an ancient wooden chair and faced his father. "She was a social worker and a judge had just given back some children to their parents. The father killed them shortly afterwards. So it's understandable that she freaked when she saw a little kid wandering around on his own."

"Understandable." John spat out the word like he'd swallowed a bug. "Dean understand?"

"Dean's grateful to her for getting me out of the life I had."

"Huh." John leaned his head back against the seat. "So, according to him, his childhood was so fucked up that being kidnapped was a better alternative? Wow. I certainly made an impression on the kid, didn't I?"

Sam wisely kept his mouth shut.

"Why did you go with her?"

Sam gaped at John. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Then he saw the sad, wary look in his father's eyes. Oh. He thought maybe Sam wanted to go, wanted to leave his family for something better. "I was four, Dad, and I had a choice between a kindly woman and a raging fire. I knew I shouldn't leave without you or Dean, but the one thing I knew about my mom, my real mom, was that she died in a fire. I didn't want to die. It was just that simple."

John nodded, scratching distractedly at his beard. "Did you have a dog?"

Sam had to bite his lip to keep from laughing loud enough to wake the whole house. Both John and Dean considered dog ownership the capstone of a wonderful childhood. See? They did have something in common.

The sky was lightening by the time he filled John in on his life and as he slipped into bed, almost too drowsy to see, he realized that while Dean had filled the gaping hole in his life, there had a been a few cracks that were now caulked closed thanks to his dad. He fell asleep missing Jess as usual, but feeling a little less broken.


Chapter 24

Singer Salvage & Auto
Lawrence County, South Dakota

Dean was getting dressed when the knock came on his door. He'd had his morning run already and the nice hot shower afterwards had just hit the spot. "Enter," he called out.

Sam walked in and Dean mentally calculated how much sleep he'd gotten. It was nearing dawn by the time he'd come back inside and gone to bed. "Mornin', bro," he said, slipping a tee over his head.

"Morning, Dean."

"Sleep all right?" he asked when Sam quietly sat on the bed. When Sam looked up at him, he knew that look. At two, Sam had learned that look could get him anything he wanted. At three, he was abusing the hell out of it.

"I slept fine. Um, I need you to do me a favor."

There it was. "What d'ya need, Sammy?"

"You to talk with Dad."

Dean jerked his watchband so tight that he had to undo it and start again. "Been drinkin' the Kool-Aid, man?"

Sam shook his head. "I'm not buying into his bullshit, Dean, trust me. But until you get some kind of closure, you're gonna stay in his thrall, keep dancing to his tune. It's time for you to climb out from under the yoke, dude."

Dean wanted to argue that talking wasn't gonna help. But, God, it couldn't hurt. He wasn't seventeen anymore, but damn if he wasn't acting like he was. Maybe it was time to get the monkey off his back—the bitch had been riding it long enough. "Yeah, okay. But you gotta do something for me."

"What?"

"You gotta train with me, starting in the morning."

Sam's eyes narrowed. "Train? I already have a training regimen. Swimmer, remember?"

"Not that kinda training." He made a note to himself that Sam was a little on the slow side in the mornings. Or maybe it was just his lack of sleep.

"Oh." A frown. "I thought you didn't want me hunting."

"I don't want you to hunt. But that's not gonna stop something from hunting you." Dean watched as the thought circulated through Sam's brain. Definitely more sleep was called for.

"Okay. You have a deal." Sam held out his hand for a shake. Dean smiled softly, remembering when they used to pinky swear.

Breakfast was the usual fix your plate, eat wherever, and clean up behind yourself affair. When he saw John washing his coffee mug, Dean tapped his father on the arm. "C'mon, Dad. Let's go for a drive."

"Subtle, Dean," he heard Sam hiss. Which Dean ignored because the deal said nothing about being subtle. He didn't ignore Bobby and Jim's curious looks and gave them a shrug as an answer.

Halfway to the car, Dean tossed John the keys to the Impala.

"She sounds different," John said as he smoothly turned the ignition.

"Rebuilt the engine a few years back. A class project."

"Saw your diploma on Bobby's wall."

Dean shrugged. Who knew Bobby would be so sentimental? "Geeks like paper around them. Doesn't matter," he added, answering John's silent question of which way they should head as they reached the main road.

He refused to reach for the radio as they cruised along the road even though the silence was so deafening he could've sworn he heard crickets in the backseat. If his dad had something to say, he wasn't going to help him out.

"I'm sorry," John said as Dean was contemplating Silas Kline's windmill farm. The array was the talk of the county—and not in a good way.

"For what?" Theoretically the "farm" was a good idea. Cheap, green energy was the way of the future. But it was just so surreal out there in the middle of nowhere.

"Everything."

Dean flicked his eyes over to John. "That covers a lot of ground, Dad."

John nodded and Dean noticed the whitening of the knuckles around the steering wheel. "Guess I should start at the beginning. I'm sorry you thought I blamed you for Sammy's death."

Dean blinked and wondered about the pain in his hand. Oh. His fist was clenched so tight that even his short fingernails were digging into his palm. "Thought? What part of years of being unable to look at me without contempt, every order bracketed with 'because you took Sammy away so he isn't here to do it,' every action on a hunt scrutinized because, hey, you got your brother killed so yeah, you're a screw-up—what part of that did I misunderstand?" The words exploded from him, tired of being bottled up and stuck in the corner.

John's fingers unfurled to tap nervously on the steering wheel. "The contempt was for myself," he admitted and Dean tried not to hear reluctance in his voice. "The orders, the scrutiny was because I'd screwed up already and lost one son and I wasn't going the risk the other." He risked taking his eyes off the road for one minute to look at Dean. "You have to know how much I love you, how much I value your life."

"I have to know?" Dean gave a bitter laugh and shook his head, wishing he hadn't been so generous with his car. Having his hands around the steering wheel would've settled him, kept him from feeling like he wanted to jump out of his own skin. "What I have to know is that you gave me the car and didn't let the screen door hit ya on the way out. Oh, and I think there was an envelope with severance pay, wasn't there? For services rendered and shit like that." How dare his dad just gloss over walking out on him? He was sorry? That meant less than nothing.

John's eyes were firmly back on the road. "My last hunt, the one right before your birthday...I got a lead on the demon that killed your mother. Kids had a tendency to disappear when he came around. I couldn't—Dean, I was so afraid for you. I knew you'd follow me into the fight and—Don't you see? I didn't have a choice."

"Stop the car." He wasn't going to be sick in his car. She'd had worse, but no. Not in his car and not in front of John. "Stop the fucking car!" he repeated when John kept driving.

There was a scenic parking spot ahead where tourist could stop and see Mt. Rushmore in the distance. John pulled over and Dean jumped out of the car. For a moment he thought he was going to lose it, but he fought the nausea. So much of who he was, what he'd become, what he would be, was defined by that moment, the moment when his dad had given up on him, when he became a burden his own father discarded without a backward glance.

"I was gonna kill myself, you bastard," he said hoarsely, staring at the overlook but knowing John was standing on the other side of the car. "I had it all planned. Was gonna wait 'til after graduation. Didn't want to put the other students through all that grief counseling bullshit." And he didn't want Ms. T feeling all guilty and remorseful. Despite the whole underage sex thing, she'd been good to him.

"Why?" John's voice was broken and Dean could barely understand him.

Dean turned and saw his reflection in the car window, silently mocking. "What did I have to live for, Dad? I'd killed my brother. I was useless to you, something you barely tolerated or worse, a reminder of what I'd taken away from you, a neon sign that your baby boy was gone and all you had was this fuck-up you didn't trust to wipe his own ass." Dean turned so he couldn't see himself, couldn't see the tears rolling freely down his face. He'd never spoken any of this aloud, never really admitted to himself that he'd actually considered suicide.

He felt his father's arms around him even before he realized the man had moved. "Don't you know," John muttered against his ear. "Don't you know if you'd done that, I would've been right behind you? You and your brother were the only thing that kept me tethered to this world. When we lost him, I wrapped myself around you and held on for dear life. It was my fault, Dean, my fault that Sammy was dead. I left a baby to babysit. I was so caught up in being an avenging husband that I ignored being a father. I couldn't look at you because I was ashamed, son, ashamed and disappointed in myself."

Dean allowed himself to relax in John's embrace for a moment, remembering times long past when this was a daily event. When he would rush from his mother's arms into his father's. When tickles brought a smile to his face. When night meant the same bed and mornings meant the same ceiling. Then he pushed away and wiped ineffectively at his tears. "If you didn't hate me, if I didn't disgust you, why did you stay away? I know Jim told you I was staying at Bobby's. If it was Bobby's threat you were worried about, we could've arranged a meet at the Roadhouse or along a highway somewhere."

John slid to the ground, his back against the Impala, his legs splayed as if he had no control over them. "Iowa wasn't the first time I left you, Dean. When you got hurt and had to live with Jim? I planned on leaving you there. Had papers drawn up and everything. I made that decision while I sat beside you in that house, waiting on the ambulance, waiting to see if you were going to live. You were so...broken and all I could see were the ashes of the motel in El Paso, the burnt wood of our house in Lawrence. I wanted you safe, and I knew Jim would take care of you."

Dean slid down beside John. There was practically no traffic on the road and the car blocked them from view anyway. No way for anyone to wonder why two grown men were sitting on the ground crying like little girls who'd lost their Barbie dolls. He tried to put his thoughts into some kind of order but they bounced around, bubbles in the winds of his brain. Yeah, he was confused, but not really. He sorta got it. He'd heard people suggesting from the moment his mom died that John should leave his children somewhere far away from hunting, somewhere stable, somewhere suitable. But it took John fourteen years to agree to finally do something about it? No, he'd thought about it five years earlier. That made sense, too. Who the hell knew if he was going to ever walk again or be able to hunt after his accident? Still— "But you came and got me. What made you change your mind?"

John chuckled and placed his hand on Dean's knee. "I saw you. You came running out to the car—running when I wasn't sure you were even gonna walk again—and that was it. I couldn't leave without you." His dad sighed and wiped a hand across his face. "That's why I didn't check in on you this time, Dean. That's why I didn't know about college or your spot on the Olympic team. You were with Bobby and Jim, far away from the yellow-eyed bastard that killed your mom. You were safe. I wanted you to stay that way. I couldn't see you. I couldn't hear about you. I'm weak, son. One breach, and I wouldn't have been able to stay away."

With a nod, Dean signaled he understood. Why he hadn't figured it out before, why he hadn't known that John had panicked, that John was running scared when he left him back in Iowa. It was so clear now, but he'd been in shock back then and later on (hell, up till now), he'd been too angry to question, to wonder. God, what his dad had done was fucked up, but oh, so human. It was typical human nature to consider yourself the center of the universe, and both John and he were guilty of that. He'd convinced himself that John hated him while John had apparently convinced himself that Dean could read his mind and see the self-loathing. Dysfunctional didn't even begin to cover the two of them.

And the only thing that made them realize the problem was the return of their real center of the universe—Sam. And, boy, was he gonna be a smug bastard when they got back. Thinking of Sam... He had to make this clear to John. "This is as involved in this shit that Sam gets, Dad. I'm gonna teach him how to take care of himself—protective rituals, a few defensive moves—and that's it. Hunting is not gonna become his life."

John stiffened beside him. "Isn't that his choice?"

"No." John quirked an eyebrow at him. "Not now anyway. Seriously, Dad. You were in his position. You were faced with the knowledge that demons not only existed but one had killed the woman you loved. Don'tcha think you might've benefited by having someone who loved you, a brother or someone, tell you to stop and think for a moment, to consider your options, to not run blindly into a situation that you don't know anything about? I'm sorry, and I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but I'm not gonna let my brother live your life."

John eyed him speculatively. "So Sam was right; I fucked up your childhood so badly that you think his getting kidnapped was a better alternative."

"So this right now is all honesty, right? No sugarcoating, no 'I don't wanna hurt your feelings' crap, right?" He didn't want this coming back to bite him on the ass.

"Yeah. No gloves. Lay it on me, Dean."

"When I was actually living it, childhood wasn't that bad, Dad. You kept us fed and clothed and most of the time there was a roof over our heads—even if it was the Impala's roof." He gave John a shoulder nudge, showing that he didn't really mind that. "But looking back on it, seeing and hearing what childhood was supposed to be like..."

"I get a big 'F', right?"

"Nah. You didn't beat us or starve us or keep us locked up in cages, so that gets you at least a 'C'."

John shook his head. "'C' is average and life with me wasn't average, Dean."

"Yeah, but you got extra credit points for naming peanut M&Ms a power food."

"High protein, high carbs—what's not to love?" John said with a smirk. "So, you say us and we, but what about after Sammy was gone? Do I still get a 'C'?"

Dean shrugged. "What went on after that, it wasn't all your fault. I was pretty screwed up, you know. I wasn't very vocal about what I needed."

"And I never bothered to ask," John said, his voice low and sad. "I told Mary I'd be a shitty dad, but she said she'd be around to help. Without her, I guess I reverted, huh?"

"I survived."

"Barely."

Dean shivered as he thought about how close he'd come to committing suicide. If Bobby hadn't come to check on him...If he'd gone through with his plan, he never would've gotten to see Sammy again. And that would've been the real tragedy. "Barely only matters in horseshoes and darts, Dad. Survival is just what it is."

John picked at a hole in his jeans. "So you got shit and Sammy got normal, huh?"

"House, best friend, school activities, Disneyland..."

"You okay with that? You don't, like, resent him for being kidnapped, do you?"

Dean bumped his head back against the Impala. "You really are a fuckin' idiot, you know that, right?"

"Yeah, I know. You always wanted the best for him."

"I still do, Dad. That's why you won't be taking him out to hunt with you. I think you and me have come to some kind of peace, yeah?" John nodded. "Don't blow it by fighting me on this."

"Or else you're gonna keep me from him, like you've done since you found out he was still alive?" John asked bitterly. "How long are you gonna punish me, Dean?"

Dean shook his head and laughed without any humor. "Hate to tell you this, but punishing you never entered my mind. I kept Sam from you for his sake. To me, you were—are—a major threat to him, hell, a major threat to me. Your world's a nasty place with no redeeming qualities, save being with family."

John scrubbed his face with his hand. "Putting it all out there, aren't you, son?"

"It's the way it's got to be between us, man. We don't do well assing around, expecting each other to do a mind meld or something. From now on, we shoot straight from the hip and learn to roll with the hits. Sound like a plan?"

John shrugged. "Jim's been an influence on you."

"I could do worse." Dean picked up a handful of gravel and worried it through his fingers.

"Like me? There's a question for your plan, Dean. Do you even like me?"

Dean cupped a bigger piece of gravel in his hand, then tossed it as far as he could. "I like you better now than a half hour ago."

John snorted. "Well, that's honest."

"Well, you should be happy that Sam likes you."

"He doesn't even know me," John complained, then snorted again as Dean gave him a look. "Walked dead into that one, didn't I?"

Dean just raised an eyebrow. Any correlation between liking John and knowing John was something he wasn't gonna touch with a fifty-foot pole. There was honesty and then there was just useless cruelty. "But you should know that liking has nothing to do with loving, Dad. Even in those dark days in Waterloo, I loved you. I still do."

"Ditto."

Dean dusted the dirt from his hands. "If we're gonna start quoting Ghost, it's time for us to haul ass home, dude."

"What ghost?"

Checking to be sure his dad wasn't yanking his chain, Dean just shook his head, not about to admit to what drivel he'd watched just to get some. Women had fetishes he wouldn't even begin to understand; he just did as asked and waited for his reward. "We're straight on Sammy, right?"

John threw up his hands. "He's all yours, Dean. He always was."

Dean gave a sharp nod. Of course Sam was his. Which was why his kidnapping would always be Dean's fault. But he wasn't ready to share that with John just yet. " I don't know about yours, but my ass is about froze. Ready to go back?"

"Sure, if you give me a hand up."

Dean got to his feet and reached down for his dad. "So sad when our heroes get old," he tsked.

"Older is wiser."

"Yeah, if that's what your Geritol® is tellin' ya..."

"Maybe it's telling me to kick your ass—once I get the kinks out," John added with a grin as he cracked his back. They were both laughing as they got back in the car.

"Shooting is a high-paying gig?" John asked conversationally as he U-turned back on the highway.

Dean scoffed. "Not hardly. Except for some speaker fees and a few low-end endorsements, it's not much."

"But that place we stopped at in Salt Lake, it wasn't cheap and you got two rooms without even asking me."

"It's one of my usual stops, so I didn't want you busting out with one of your 'special' cards, man." He gave a shrug. "I don't do so bad at my day job."

"Day job? What? You hunt, shoot, and have steady employment?"

It wasn't that much of a stretch. "I work for Walechi Racing."

"A driver?"

"Under the hood, man."

John gave an exaggerated sniff. "Following in my footsteps, after all. I'm touched."

"Only in the head, dude."

Light conversation dominated the drive back. As they pulled into the salvage yard, Dean noticed how John's thumb was caressing the steering wheel. He knew what the Impala meant to the man, what it meant to their family. "You wanna take her out for a spin on your own?" John nodded carefully. "Be back in an hour."

"I will."

Dean let himself into the house and frowned when he found Sam alone in the living room. "I thought everybody would be hanging around to see if Dad and I came back bloody."

"You didn't, did you?" Sam asked anxiously. "Where is Dad?"

Dean shrugged. "Some ravine out on Highway 85."

"Dean!" Sam started to shove past him.

"Relax, dude!" Dean said, shoving him back. "I gave him some alone time with the car."

"Oh." Sam stepped back and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Sorry. So it went—okay?"

"Yeah, we aired our differences in a manly manner and came to an understanding." Only the car knew about the tears and she wasn't talking. "So where are Frick and Frack? Up on the roof with sniper rifles in case Dad came back without me?"

Sam pushed back his bangs and gave a small huff. "Actually, I'm not really sure where they are." He flopped on the sofa and sighed. "Okay, we were discussing that rock you gave Bobby. I asked had he tried putting it in water like Harry Potter did during the Tri-Wizard tournament—it's nice to know Harry Potter is standard reading material for hunters, by the way—and Bobby said he'd tried that, even holy water. So then Jim said maybe he should try water with Dead Sea salt because of the region where the rock came from. And then, he sorta froze and looked at Bobby and Bobby looked at him, and the next thing I know they're going out the door saying something about seeing a man about a lamb."

"Seeing a man about a lamb? What the he—" Dean stopped as a bulb popped on in his head. "That's one thing we never thought about. C'mon, Sam, we need to be ready when they get back."

"Get back from where?"

"From seeing a man about a lamb, of course." He grinned as Sam scowled. "Can you read Latin, man?" Sam shook his head. "Guess that means you wash while I chant."

What a lovely bitchface his brother had, Dean thought, as Sam dipped the silver bowl in the holy water, gently tipped the water out along the sides as Dean instructed. Dean read another line from the book he was holding and sprinkled a pinch of salt into the water. Then he added a long, thin silver knife to the mix. In the end, he took the bowl from Sam and dried it with a linen cloth. The knife followed.

"So you know what's going on then?" Sam asked finished.

"Think so. But you can never have too many purified bowls anyway."

"Is that what we did?"

"That's what we did." Rocks crunched outside and Dean rushed to the back door to see Bobby's truck pulling around the house. The truck bed contained Jim and a bleating, shaking lamb. "Um, you're not one of those PETA nuts, are you?" he asked Sam who was looming behind him.

Sam stared at the animal. "Why do I think that's an honest-to-God sacrificial lamb?"

"Because it is." Dean stepped out onto the porch. "We're doing the old school religion thing, which makes sense since this is an old school religious artifact." He looked back at his brother. "You're not gonna hurl, are you?"

Dean watched his face scrunch up as he figured out the 'old school' comment. When his eyes lit up, Dean knew he'd got it. "Washed in the blood of the lamb? That's what we're going for, right?"

"Your Stanford is showing again," Dean teased. "And before you ask, we have to mimic what conditions would've been like when the stone was created, forged, whatever. So, no, we couldn't just buy blood from a slaughterhouse. It needs to be fresh, warm from the sacrifice."

"Do the three of you share one brain or what?" Sam asked as he followed Dean out to the truck. "You got all that out of 'seeing a man about a lamb'?"

"Ah, young one," Dean said in a fake Oriental accent, "you will soon discover that anticipating one's master's wishes results in less slaps upon one's sacred head." He gave a quick grin and pulled down the back gate of the truck. "All hail the mighty shepherd!"

Jim's return gesture was not very pastorly.

"Didn't see ya car out front," Bobby said as he climbed down from the cab.

"She and Dad needed some alone time. I have the knife and the bowl ready."

"What did you do the reading from?" Jim asked as he urged the lamb out of the truck.

"The Vulgate."

"Good choice. And since the items are now attuned to your voice, you'll need to do the reading during the ritual."

"Aw, Jim, I wanted to be the one who, you know, got to snick," Dean whined.

"That's slightly bloodthirsty, isn't it, Dean?" Sam frowned, looking at the lamb as it took in its surroundings.

Dean rolled his eyes. "I don't remember you turning your nose up at the lamb gyros and souvlaki when we were in Greece. For some reason, I don't think the lamb on your plate committed suicide."

"Don't let him fool you, Sam." Jim closed the back gate on the truck. "Dean uses bravado to cover his more tender feelings."

"Tell that to Brother Thompson," Dean challenged.

Jim laughed. "Dean was the only fourteen-year-old who didn't cringe when Brother Thompson demonstrated the castration of his cattle. That still bothers the good rancher to this day."

"4-H Club, good times." Dean liked the animal part really well, the farming part not so much. Growing vegetables was about as fun as eating them.

"Well, if you ladies are through reminiscing over cookies and tea, can we get this show on the road?" Bobby rumbled, sniffing at the lamb who was nibbling at the little grass left in the yard.

"Bitchy, isn't he?" Dean commented as he started into the house.

"That time of the month," Jim agreed drolly.

Dean pushed Sam ahead of him into the house so he could laugh as loudly as he wanted to.

-:- -:- -:-

Bobby bent over the bowl containing the warm blood and the Templar stone. "We're gettin' something."

"What's it say?" Dean had started to worry that it wasn't going to work.

"It's in Aramaic. Jim, you're better at it than I am."

Jim reached in his shirt pocket for his reading glasses. John, who had returned just as they were beginning the sacrifice, laughed at the action and got a glare for his efforts. "The Lord God is the one true Lord. We shall—"

"Just get to the good part," John said.

Jim frowned and Bobby shrugged. With a grumpy-sounding sigh, Jim's eyes searched through the words. "'Anoint your weapons with this sacrifice and they will defeat the enemies of our Lord God.' That 'good' enough for you, John?"

"Best sermon I ever heard from you, preacher."

Dean laughed at the size of Sam's eyes when he saw the secret compartment in the Impala's trunk. They got bigger when he witnessed John's weapons cache. Then when Bobby started hauling out his armory—granted, he had to anoint twice as many weapons because he was going to have to share with Jim—Dean hit Sam square between the shoulders just to make sure his brother was still breathing. Surprisingly enough, even after blood touched all their weapons, there was still some left.

"Sorta like the two fish and five loaves of bread, huh?" Dean pointed out. Although he wasn't a great believer in miracles, he recognized the fact that sometimes things couldn't be explained. Like how the script on the rock became a legible language simply because it was dipped in blood. It was certainly something he wasn't gonna spend a lot of time thinking about.

"The Lord always finds a way," Jim agreed. He peered into the bowl, then flipped open the Vulgate that Dean had read from earlier. "I wonder... We're not weapons, per se, but everyone take off their shirts. I don't know if it'll work, but it can't hurt."

"Thinkin' it'll keep us from getting' possessed?" Bobby asked, shrugging out of his flannel shirt. "Never much liked the idea of a demon ridin' me."

"I think we should do the boys first," John said, not moving to undress. "Just in case your magical elixir decides to run out."

"That's not—" Dean started.

"Good idea. Knew you had to have at least one, John."

Dean poked Bobby with his elbow to get him to ease up a little on his dad. Of course, Bobby had a right to feel whatever he wanted to feel. The man had literally held him together after Iowa. From his shameless "I wanna go on a factory tour" to his bogus paperwork that gave him in-state tuition and scholarships, Bobby had earned his sense of indignation and Dean would never forget that. Still, he'd found his own peace with John and hoped that Bobby would, too. Truth be known, it was kinda liberating.

Dean stood still as Jim drew designs on his chest and back. It tickled at first, but as Jim chanted, the blood grew warm and suddenly it felt as if he'd been hit by a taser. He staggered but didn't fall. Hands reached out everywhere to steady him. "Packin' quite a punch there, Pastor."

"You okay?"

"I'm fine, Sammy. Just be prepared for a jolt, all right?"

"All right."

It happened with each one of them, Jim getting the same as Bobby performed the blessing on him.

Bobby's old grandfather clock twanged midnight as they stared at each other, wondering what they'd done and would it aid them in their fight. Then Sam's stomach gurgled and everyone broke out in laughter.

"What? I'm a growing boy," Sam said in defense of himself.

"I'm not and I'm hungry, too," John said. "How 'bout lamb chops? Think there's some fresh ones out back." He didn't even try to duck the pillows and cushions thrown in his direction.

"There's some lasagna in the freezer," Bobby admitted reluctantly.

"Mrs. Urber's Oldsmobile?" It was a '75 and generally a piece of shit. But she loved it and brought food whenever it needed their tender care.

"Yeah. I'll put it in the microwave." Bobby turned to head into the kitchen.

"Grab the book and c'mon, Sammy." Dean picked up the silver bowl that still had a trace of blood in it.

"What's up, man?"

Dean just shook his head and headed outside. There, he stopped on the porch and looked out onto the driveway. The Impala sat there, gleaming in the bright reflection of the cusp of winter moon. "We have one more Winchester to bless," he said softly and headed down the steps.

As he and Sam went through the ritual they'd heard so many times that night, Dean was aware his father was on the porch watching them.

And it felt good.


VI. Winners' Platform

chapter twenty-five

Singer Salvage & Auto
Lawrence County, South Dakota
December 2005

The slap triggered something in Sam Polanski that he didn't know he had. Maybe it was something that belonged solely to Sam Winchester. It was dark and scary and bubbled free like a laugh escaping during the somber ceremony of a wake.

Up until that point, the fight had been merely about getting through the exercise with minimal physical damage. Weave. Duck. Jab. Retreat. No one handicapped. No one with an advantage. But the tag on the face, the utter "fuck you"ness of it, sank low into his soul, burning as it traveled, igniting a trail that led to a pool, a bitter, rank well that Sam had always ignored.

Once the bubbles broke the surface tension, the pool jetted up through him, exploding outward in a flurry of incendiary punches. No retreat. Just hit, hit, hit. And without breaking a sweat, his opponent was down. Victory was just a breastbone crunch away.

"Easy, tiger," his opponent crooned and Sam blinked down at his brother.

"Dean?"

Before another blink, he was the one on the ground and Dean was perched on top of him. "This is why you have to go for the kill, Sam. Nine times out of ten, whatever you're fighting's gonna be stronger and faster than you. You have to be smarter. When you get them down, keep them there. End them without hesitation or they will end you."

Panic set in then, the memory of the darkness combined with the revelation that he'd forgotten he was sparring with Dean, that he'd lost himself in the fight, that he could've ended his brother. "Shit, Dean, I could've—"

Dean released him and sat back, easily balancing on the balls of his feet. "No, you couldn't have. And that's what you need to trust—give everything to me. I can take it. I can control it. You can only hurt me if I allow it."

"Bullshit."

Dean shook his head. "I'm not saying I can't be hurt; I'm saying you can't hurt me. You aren't good enough. Now don't take that as an affront to your masculinity," he added, stopping Sam from the quick reply he was planning. "It's just that I've been at this since I was five."

"Yeah, right, man. Dad sparred with you when you were barely beyond being a toddler." Dean was always quick to point out how young he'd been when he started everything, but come on. There was no such thing as a baby fight club.

"Actually, your jack-in-the-box was my sparring partner."

Sam scrambled up to his elbows. "I didn't hit you in the head, did I?" He'd been so lost in the adrenaline rush he wasn't sure what he'd done.

"Dad had this game he liked me to play. I had to anticipate when the stupid little clown was gonna pop up and pop the lid back down before it scared you and made you cry. Eye-hand coordination, Sammy. Act/react. Quite brilliant, actually. I didn't figure out what was going on until after I spent an afternoon at a local fair playing Whack-A-Mole for two hours."

"I thought you had..." Made up with Dad? Forgiven him for all the shit he put you through? Sam wanted to lean back and whack his head against the ground. Had he really trivialized Dean's past like that?

"Relax, I'm not taking a dig at Dad. Without his help, I wouldn't be made of the awesome sauce that I am." Dean grinned and struck a pose.

"Awesome sauce? What's that? Something like arsenic?" Sam said, adding an eyeroll for effect.

"Aw, aren't you cute? Little brother jealous of big brother. I'm kinda glad we didn't grow up together. All the constant devotion would've taken a toll on me." Dean sighed dramatically.

"I'll give you constant devotion," Sam replied, rolling over and reaching for Dean's nearby ankle. Before he could grab it, however, his cell phone rang. He looked over to Bobby's back porch where both their phones resided—after an incident back at the beginning of his training had shown them the wisdom of putting breakables far away from their training site.

Since Dean was closer to being on his feet than Sam, he loped over to the porch and grabbed the phone. "It's Rain," he said, reading the screen. He pressed the talk button. "Hey, darlin'. You're speaking to your one twu luv. What's that? No, I'm not a walking, talking Heath toffee bar."

Sam listened to them joke around, always marveling at how well the two of them still got along. Maybe his brother was made of awesome sauce. He'd put up with training him for over a month with very little visible improvement. He could, at least, load the shotgun now, but hitting his target was still an iffy proposition. He was, however, in the best shape he'd ever been in. Olympic training had nothing on supernatural battle readiness. And he had it easy. He'd watched Dean and their dad push each other much harder, and hadn't detected a single pulled punch. Sam had been kinda glad when Dad left to track down some creature whose name he couldn't pronounce. Dad had checked in after that hunt and subsequent ones as well but he hadn't spent more than one contiguous night at the salvage yard.

Mid-November Bobby drove Jim back home and when he'd returned, the three of them had fallen into a routine; during the day while Dean was at work, Bobby had schooled Sam with books way heavier than law books and then he and Dean worked out in the evenings. The combination of learning something new and the set schedule distracted him enough that he only thought of Jess in flashes. It was a relief.

Sam had wanted to be with his mom at Thanksgiving and Dean had driven him to Arizona. Mike and Dean had finally come face to face and while it wasn't the instant chemistry that it was between Dean and Rain, the two guys had managed to get along. It had helped that Mike had fallen in love with the pie Dean had made.

And that was another thing Dean hadn't exaggerated about; he made damn good pie.

"Hey, Daydream Believer, head's up!"

Sam caught the phone by instinct, then stared at Dean. "Did you just quote a Monkees song?"

"Hell no," Dean sputtered. "Hey, Bobby!" he yelled as he headed into the house. "What have I told you about playing your sixties crap too loud? It's invaded my head!"

Sam laughed and settled in for evil enjoyment as he narrated the incident to Rain.

-:- -:- -:-

"Howdy, Sammy."

Sam stared at the stocky man in front of him. Wherever they were, they were outside and it was cold. There was no artificial light, but the moon was full and as the man turned he could see his eyes were yellow. He tried to remember if Bobby and Dean had told him about anything with yellow eyes, but found himself in the middle of a brain freeze.

"Didn't that bitch who stole you teach you any manners?"

"Um, hello?" Who was this? Where was he? Was he dreaming?

The man touched his tongue to his upper lip as if tasting his words. "Weak, Sammy. You know, you had a very promising start. That John Winchester, hell of a drill instructor. When he had your brother hitting bullseyes at the tender age of six, I said, yes! This man will get my soldier ready for me. So I went on to other things, content to know you were in good hands. Then I returned to find a student athlete instead of a warrior. Oh, the disappointment, my boy, the utter sadness I felt. But I still like you. That's why I'm giving you this heads up."

Dreaming. He had to be dreaming. Dean was just across the hall. Bobby was downstairs. He looked around, trying to figure out why his mind had brought him to a place he didn't know. Was that a bell? With an engraving? How freaky. And the buildings he could make out. An Old West movie set? There was a snapping sound at his ear and he jerked back. The guy/thing stood close to him with his fingers next to his head.

"Pay attention, Sammy. Sheez, kids these days and their attention deficit disorders."

"I'm dreaming, right?" Sam asked, focusing harder now. "Are you my Id or something?"

"I'll show you what I am."

The fingers snapped again and Sam found himself in a room. Not a room, a nursery. There was a baby cooing in a crib. A man stood over him and a woman entered the room. "John?"

Sam looked quickly from the woman to the baby to the being next to him.

"Yeah, that's you. Cute kid, huh? And that's your mom, your real mom." Sam reached out toward her. His hand was batted away. "Sorry, Sammy, this is just a hi-def instant replay. Enjoy the show."

"Is he hungry?" Mom asked.

"Shh," the man replied.

"Okay." Mom shuffled out of the room.

The man over the crib turned and Sam saw the yellow in his eyes. "You're a demon," he whispered.

"Why, yes, I am, Sam. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, are you? Now, look at what's happening." The demon deliberately slowed his speech and Sam flushed angrily. Maybe he was on the short bus of demonology but it wasn't because he was slow; he was just a late learner.

But he obeyed and watched as the demon over the crib sliced his own wrist with his nail and drip the blood onto Baby Sam's mouth.

Twenty-two year old Sam cringed in horror. "What the hell are you doing to me?"

His demon grinned. "Better than mother's milk."

"Does this mean I have demon blood in me?" The demon laughed. "Answer me!"

Before the demon could say anything, Sam's mom rushed back in the room. The demon over the crib turned and she could see his yellow eyes. "It's you," she said in a hushed voice.

"She knew you?"

His mom started to walk forward but the demon from the past pressed her against the wall and inched her upward until she was against the ceiling.

Jessica! "No!" Sam wailed. "No!"

Sam sat up quickly, panting in his bed in his room across from his brother's. Without giving it a thought, he took off and slammed into Dean's room.

"What?" Dean was awake instantly, a knife in his hand. "Sam?" The bedside lamp flickered on.

Sam plopped down on the mattress and Dean pulled the knife back so he wouldn't get cut. "Oh, man. What a dream," he sighed.

The knife disappeared beneath the pillow. "Nightmare?"

Sam nodded and pulled his feet up on the bed. "It seemed so real. I was somewhere else and there was this—demon with me."

"Demon?" Dean pulled back the covers. It was a king-size bed. And it was cold. Sam obediently slipped in beside him.

"He had yellow eyes." Dean stilled beside him and Sam paused for a minute to study him closely. "I thought you said most of them had black eyes."

Dean cleared his throat uncomfortably. "They do. So, what happened in your dream?"

Sam relaxed against the headboard. "As I said we were somewhere else."

"What did you see? Any identifying markers?"

"It was a dream, Dean."

"Okay. What else?"

"He was mad that Mom had stolen me, said when he'd left he was sure Dad was gonna make a soldier out of me, like he had you."

"A soldier?" The lamp clicked off.

"Yeah. But he said he still liked me and that's why he was giving me a heads up."

"About what?"

Sam raised his hands to rub at his temples. "I don't know. Because then, he snapped his fingers and we were in the past. I was—I was in my nursery the night Mom died."

"Fuck." Dean's hand fell against his shoulder.

"He was there. The yellow-eyed demon. In the past, I mean. He stood over my crib and he..." Sam stopped and gave an incredulous laugh. "He slit his wrist and fed me a couple of drops of his blood. How fucked up is that, man? Hell of a nightmare, huh?"

"Did Mom try to stop him? Is that why he..."

Sam turned toward him even though they couldn't see each other. "She knew him, Dean. She looked at him and said, 'It's you.' Then she was on the ceiling like Jess...and that's when I woke up—and ran over here like I was still four years old."

The hand on his shoulder turned into pats. "It's okay, Sammy. Think you can sleep now?"

"Yeah, man. I'll just—" He turned back the covers.

"You're here now, dude. Just go to sleep. And don't kick me or you'll find your ass on the floor. Capische?"

Sam slid down between the sheets and let a yawn overtake him. "Thanks, Dean."

-:- -:- -:-

The light of morning was awkward. Not just because he'd crawled into bed with his big brother, but said brother was now dressed and sitting on the bed staring at him.

"Good morning, Sam. I brought coffee."

So he'd not only slept in his brother's bed, he'd overslept in it. "God, I'm sorry about this, Dean. I'll be out of your way in just—" He stopped as Dean held out the mug.

"Trust me, Sam, you're gonna need this coffee."

Sam sat up and reached for the mug. He didn't like the way Dean was looking, a mixture of sad, determined and sympathetic. "What's going on?"

Dean picked at the blanket for a few seconds before he squared his shoulders and looked directly at Sam. "The demon who killed Mom...had yellow eyes. There's a very good chance that you didn't just have a nightmare last night. You had a vision."

"What!" Sam almost spilled the coffee as his arm jerked in indignation. "I don't have visions. It was a nightmare, pure and simple."

"And the dreams you had about Jess?"

Dean's voice was oh, so soft and Sam hated him for it. "Fuck you for using that against me."

"I'm not using it against you, bro. I'm just pointing out this isn't your first ride on this merry-go-round. You need to face it so we can move on."

"Move on?" Sam sipped the coffee to disguise the shaking of his hands. "Move on to what? According to you I'm a freak. How am I supposed to move on from that? My God, Dean! If this is all true, then I have demon blood in me. Am I gonna get yellow eyes? Will you hunt me now? "

A hand shot out and wrapped itself around his wrist. "Get a hold of yourself, Sam! Nobody's hunting anyone. No matter who or what you are, you are my brother. You might not know what that means, but I do, okay? I lost you once, and I'll be damned if that's gonna happen again. So just shut the hell up about hunting you and focus!"

Sam gulped down the rest of the coffee. "Focus on what?"

"What you saw with your, um, Jedi powers."

Sam handed him the empty mug and laughed nervously. "Jedi powers? You're tripping, dude."

"Use the force, Luke."

"At least you're not calling me Anakin."

Dean waved a dismissing hand. "Anakin was a whiny bitch with too much power and too much attitude. He was only cool when he grew up to be James Earl Jones."

If he hadn't already loved his brother, he would've fallen right then. "Um, I thought you said you hadn't watched the last Star Wars movies?"

"I didn't say I didn't watch them; I just didn't enjoy them."

He had friends that would agree. "So, what do you need from me, Dean? How can I my powers for good?"

"You said you were somewhere else. Tell me what you saw."

Dean didn't have a notepad or anything, but Sam could tell he was preparing to take mental notes. "Um, it was night. We were outside."

"Okay. Could you see the sky?"

"There was a full moon. But the stars...they just looked like stars, man."

Dean nodded slowly. "Was there anything around you? Were you in the woods, on a grassy plain, or someplace more civilized?"

Sam flashed to the buildings he'd seen. "It was more like a movie lot, dude. Old buildings like in a western."

Dean scoffed. "I can tell you come from California. There are a lot of places like that still around, dude. Most of them are ghost towns, but they exist."

Sam just scowled back. "There was something else. A big metal bell. Something was engraved on it."

"A metal bell? You mean like the Liberty Be—Oh!" Dean leapt off the bed. "Back in a sec, Sammy."

Sam took the few minutes Dean was gone to go over to his room and get dressed. It was hard talking about demons in your jammies.

"This it?" Dean was shoving a big book in his direction almost before he entered the room.

Sam took the tome and stared at the black and white grainy picture. "Yeah, that's the bell. How'd you do that?"

"Ghost towns are sorta a specialty around here."

Of course they were. It was still kinda hard to wrap his mind around the idea that things that went bump in the dark actually existed, even after Jess and now this weird visitation by a supposed demon. "Where was this taken?"

"Cold Oak, South Dakota. A town so haunted, all the living said, 'It's yours,' and took off to parts unknown. Okay, so now we know where and when."

A ghost town. How utterly fitting. "When?"

"The full moon. If it's this month, that's the fifteenth."

"You shoulda been a cop."

Dean took the book and frowned at him. "What?"

"You shoulda been a cop. Look, you just interrogated me with a skill that would make real detectives jealous as hell, pulling answers outta me that I didn't even know were there. Then you've assembled those answers into something that makes total, logical sense."

Dean just shrugged and headed back out the door. "Cops get a serial killer maybe once in their careers. Most of what I deal with are nothing but serial killers."

"So, just another part of that awesome sauce you got going on, huh?" Sam asked, trailing behind like a faithful puppy. He knew it both annoyed and pleased Dean.

"Baby brothers," he said with an aggrieved sigh and Sam knew that he could be the biggest freak on the face of the planet and it wouldn't matter to Dean.

And since he dreamed again that night, that was a good thing to know.

"Hiya, Sammy," the demon said with a large, welcoming grin. "Didya sleep well in big brother's arms last night? Ya know, that's frowned upon in some states."

"Fuck you." Sam scanned the area to make sure he was in the same place. Yeah, there was the bell.

"Considering we share the same blood, I'm pretty sure that's frowned upon, too. Not one for living the righteous life, are you, boy? Well, since you're probably eager to get back to your brother's bed, I'll keep tonight's session short. Here ya go, buddy."

Sam caught the balled up piece of fabric and unfurled it. It was a kerchief, a square piece of cloth that looked vaguely familiar. There was a picture of Earth cracking open with fire and blood spilling out. Around the picture were words: Outwit, Outplay, Outlive—Survival. Great. He'd probably found the only demon who liked reality TV. Then again, given the roster of reality shows and how their viewing numbers didn't slip like other shows...it might not be such an anomaly.

"Just remember you're not the only contestant, Sammy. And some of my other kids, well, they can be a little bloodthirsty. Oh, and avoid Lily's touch—sucks the life right out of ya. Be seein' ya soon, champ. Give Dean my love—while you're givin' him yours." With a leer, the demon winked out.

Sam woke in his bed. He thought about not running across the hall, remembering what the demon had implied. But you know what? Fuck letting a demon dictate his actions. The only concession he made was that he walked instead of ran. "Dean! I talked to the demon again!"

"What didya learn?"

No knife tonight, and the light was already on, which meant Dean had been waiting for him. He was doubly glad he hadn't lay staring at his ceiling all night, waiting until morning like a big boy. "He gave me a Survivor buff." Jess had loved the show, making them popcorn every Thursday night and curling up barefoot on the sofa. She had pretty feet, the nails always painted...

"So it's a contest? Winner gets...?"

"To live."

"And be the demon's top soldier."

"Which I don't have to worry about since I suck at fighting." Sam flopped onto Dean's bed.

"You don't suck. You have an incredibly long reach, speed, and agility. Don't let them get inside and you'll be fine. Besides, on Survivor, the contestants are pretty much equal, so hopefully you'll only be fighting humans."

Gee, only humans. Hurray. "So how long have you been this disgusting optimist?" He ducked the pillow aimed at his head.

"I'm not an optimist; I'm a pragmatist. I just wish..."

The silence dragged on for a few seconds before Sam got tired of it. "You wish what?"

"That we knew whether the fight was gonna be real or in your head."

"In my head? How would that work?"

"The same way you visit with him. How fake does it seem?"

Now that he knew it was still South Dakota, the temperature seemed right. The ground was firm beneath his feet. The breeze had brushed against the hairs on his arms. "Not fake at all. So this may not be a real fight?"

"Oh, it'll be real and if you lose, you'll probably be real dead, too."

Sam groaned and buried his face in the pillow Dean had thrown at him. "Did you go to cheerleading school to become this encouraging?"

The bed bobbed as Dean got up and dipped again when he returned a few seconds later. "Here."

Sam raised his head and squinted at the thing stuck in his face. "That's a knife."

"Ooh, can you identify forks, too?"

Okay, it was a dumb comment. He looked at it closer. It wasn't Dean's usual bedmate. This blade was thin, wickedly sharp, and dull in color. "Iron, right?"

"Exactly. And blessed. I want you to study it, then keep it on you at all times—even when you're in bed."

"Study it?" Um, they'd just gone through the "it's a knife" conversation.

Dean gave him an "you're an idiot" look. "I want you to be able to re-create it in your mind. Make it as real as you are."

Oh...Oh! "So I can take it into the Matrix with me."

"Quick thinking there, Neo."

"It's 3:30 in the morning, dude. Any thinking at this time is quick."

"I thought college kids partied all night and still made it to their eight o'clocks."

Not the ones who put in at least three hours of swim practice every day. "Media hype. Of course, it might've been different for you Hardrockers."

Dean hefted the knife and flipped it in his hand. "Between werewolves and salt-and-burns, I had my share of late nights."

"You hunted while you were in school? I thought it was more of a summer thing."

"It didn't happen often, but I couldn't let Bobby go without back-up."

Bobby, or whatever screw-up who needed him like that asshole Trev last Christmas. Last Christmas. Jess was alive, the supernatural didn't exist...

"You're studying the blade, right? Not falling asleep?"

Sam forced his eyes wide open. "Studying."

"Right." Dean gave a chuckle of disbelief. "In case you're actually gonna be at Cold Oak, I told everyone to meet us there the fifteenth, the night of the full moon."

"Everyone?" Bobby was away on a hunt with Jim; since the attack Jim hadn't been "allowed" to hunt on his own.

"Dad's down in Oklahoma but he'll be there on time."

Dad. An enigma wrapped up in a puzzle and tied with a WTF bow. Man, he could feel the love from the guy, but it was so intense. He was so intense. His mom had often asked where he got his ability to focus from; now he knew.

"'Night, Sam."

What? He looked around. The light was out and he was tucked under the covers. How the hell had that happened? Guess brothers were handy to have around. Still, he couldn't just let Dean get away with it. "Jess used to rub m'belly."

Dean rolled over and farted.

Sam laughed and fell soundly asleep.


U.S. Highway 14A
Lawrence County, South Dakota

Sam ran at a gentle lope beside his brother. They had spent the morning refining his knife-fighting skills and were now taking a rather long run. Sam had asked earlier why Dean had given him a knife instead of a gun.

"Think you can re-create a gun in your mind? The firing mechanism? The formation of the bullet itself?" Sam had looked at the knife in his hand. Blade. Handle. Sharp sides. Yep. Way easier. "Besides, if you don't go into the Matrix, a knife is easier to hide if you get frisked. Just strap it to your inner thigh and you're golden," Dean continued.

"Inner thigh? I'm not a girl," Sam had declared indignantly.

"No, you're a guy. And guys as a rule don't wanna go anywhere near another guy's junk. So, unless you happen to get a frisker who's gay for sasquatches, your knife won't be found."

"You need a break?"

Sam came out of his memories to see his brother was running backwards ahead of him. "Just giving your stubby legs a breather," he said, stretching out his stride to catch up. Dean's legs were shorter, but he had stamina.

"I don't need—"

Sam's head quickly turned to the side when Dean's words were cut off. Instead of being beside him, Dean was flying through the air and crashing into one of the pines that lined the road. He took one step in his direction, then felt a presence behind him. Before he could turn, something hit him. He felt himself falling and the world around him went black.

When consciousness returned, he was lying flat on his back and out of the corner of his eye, he saw a bell.

chapter twenty-six

U.S. Highway 14A
Lawrence County, South Dakota

Dean had woke up face down in the dirt enough to know it was never a good thing. Especially when there was a tree root beneath his nose which meant there was a good chance there was a tree nearby and said tree was probably the reason he was on the ground.

He groaned and slowly accessed the damage. Concussion, but not bad. A cracked rib. Legs and arms were good, though. What the hell had he been hunting? A Wendigo? He looked down at his ratty Hardrocker sweatshirt, track pants, and running shoes. Wait a minute. These weren't the right clothes. He hunted in layers and jeans—better protection against claws and teeth and splinters. Steel-toed boots. This was more his train—

Sam! Ignoring his aching body, he forced himself up to his knees. "Sam!" No answer. Had he gone for help? No, his brother would've at least checked him out and not left him crumpled at the base of the tree. That meant—

Picking himself up, he hobbled to the edge of the road where the grass had been scraped away during construction. Their footprints. Damn, Sam had big feet. Crossed over by tire treads. Two other sets of prints. Work boots and dress shoes. And—he bent down to make sure—sulfur. Fuck. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. "Bobby, they got 'im. The sonuvabitches got 'im."

"When? How?"

Dean glanced down at his watch. "Maybe half an hour ago. We were out doing a run. Must've been laying in wait for us."

"Us? You alright, boy?"

"Yeah. Just my usual close-up with the nearest tree."

"Uh huh. You say this happened about a half an hour ago?"

"Yeah."

"That how long were you out?"

Damn. There went his usual play of not revealing how badly he was hurt—as if that plan ever succeeded with Bobby. "Yeah," he admitted reluctantly.

"Shit, boy. That's a damn concussion and you know it. Where are you?"

"My usual route along the 14A. Where are you?"

"Just outside Sioux Falls."

"Jim with ya?"

"What d'ya think?"

"I think we'll get to Cold Oak about the same time. I'm about six miles out, so I need to haul ass to get to my car. Call Dad for me?"

"You got a concussion, you idjit. Don't even think about—"

"I'll call you when I'm on the road. Gotta go." Dean hung up quickly before Bobby could start a rant. Yeah, he had a concussion and a cracked—okay, maybe two cracked ribs, but the demon and his pals had his brother; no way he was waiting around for someone to pick him up, take him to the ER, wipe his ass, or whatever else Bobby wanted done before he could go to Cold Oak.

The first feet yards of his run he felt like a drunk trying to toe the line in front of an unimpressed traffic officer. But despite his pounding head and really angry ribs, he soon fell into a slow, but steady rhythm. As he headed for home, he thought about Sam's training, hoping it was enough for him to survive long enough for them to get to him. He'd started with Sam's strengths—his long limbs and powerful legs. Swimming made him a hell of a kicker. His roundhouse kick, when it connected, could easily break bones or snap a neck if the jaw was hit at the right angle. They'd worked long hours on kicking (and its variation—stomping) and in throwing a punch that landed solidly with the full force of Sam's gargantuan frame.

However, Sam's weaknesses were big ones: he sucked at taking a punch, he gave his anger too much control, and he lacked the killer instinct. Pain mattered a great deal to Sam and after taking a hit, it took him too many seconds adjust and react. Like earlier in the week. He'd reeled from a simple slap and in a real fight, Dean would've had him out of the game before Sam knew what hit him. Then to compound the problem, Sam's anger had come out to play. He'd hit without purpose, losing track of his opponent. Never ever forget who or what you were up against. A sure of way of getting yourself killed.

As for his third weakness, that was why Dean had been hoping for the Matrix scenario. Killing a mental construct was morally a slam dunk. Didn't matter if the person ended up dead in real life because at the moment you killed him, he wasn't real. Fighting in the real world, killing in the real world, was messy and visceral and clashed with morality and conscience. He really, really had his doubts that Sam would be able to seal the deal when the time came.

The house that had become home appeared in the distance, giving Dean the impetus to get just a little more speed out of his ailing body. He bypassed the inviting sofa and pulled himself up the stairs, everything jarring more now that he'd slowed down. He quickly washed off, losing the dirt without paying attention to the injuries, and dressed in appropriate fiend-fighting wear. Thankful that the Impala's weapons cache had already been prepared for the trip, and her gas tank filled, he sped out of town. Due to saving the county sheriff from a poltergeist back in 2001, he nor Bobby had to worry about the law slowing them down.

His phone rang just as he was about to call Bobby and Jim to let them know he was on the way. He looked at the call ID. Dad. Shit. "Bobby call you?" he asked as soon as he hit the talk button.

"What the hell happened, Dean? How'd you let them take your brother?"

Dean took a deep breath. His father was worried. Worried John equaled Asshole John. He knew that. He'd always known that. But he didn't have to take it. "Well, gee, Dad. They offered me pie for him and you know how I loves me some pie."

"Too bad your brain isn't as smart as your mouth."

"Meaning?"

"Bobby says you were ambushed. Another word for that is 'unprepared.' You're the hunter here, Dean, not Sam."

So they were back to that. Should've known Dad had been lying about not blaming him for Sam's 'death'. "Yeah, I suck as a big brother. I get it, Dad. See ya at the rendezvous."

He clicked off and then keyed in Bobby's number before John could call him back and bitch about being hung up on. "Hey, Bobby, I'm on my way to y'all."

"And?" Bobby demanded.

"And what?"

"Why does it sound like you're counting the hairs on a snake's belly?"

That low, huh? He usually covered better than that. "Just talked to Dad. He blames me for losing Sammy again."

Silence. After five seconds of it, Dean realized what he'd done. "Bobby, it's okay, man. I know he has issues, okay? I'm not taking it personally. Lettin' it roll off like water on a duck's back. You listenin', dude?" More silence, even though he could tell the line was still open. "Put Jim on, Bobby. Just quietly hand the phone over, okay?"

"Hello, Dean."

Ah, Jim. The only calm, sensible "parent" he had. "Can, you, um, keep Bobby from attacking my dad when you meet up? I was running my mouth and—"

"I heard. Bobby doesn't know how to get his phone off of speaker phone mode after accidentally putting it on."

"Oh. Well, I'm really okay with what Dad said, Just needed to vent, that's all."

"Of course, you did, son. Don't worry about it. I'll make sure Bobby leaves John alone."

Dean relaxed and slumped a little behind the wheel, settling in for the drive. "I owe you one, man."

"All right. So how are you feeling?"

They chatted for a few minutes before hanging up. Dean fell into the zen state he always reached while behind the wheel of his baby and before he knew it, he was coming up on the empty parking lot of an abandoned bait shop, the rendezvous point right before the outskirts of Cold Oak. Bobby's Chevelle was there, along with John's truck. Good, the gang was all there.

"So, anyone wanna let me in on the plan?" he asked as he got out of the Impala. He was sure that the three veteran hunters had already scouted the area and devised a foolproof plan of attack. No one said anything and he took a moment to study the three men before him. Bobby was sitting on the hood of his car. Jim was leaning against the passenger door, his elbows on the roof. John was sitting in his truck—a coldpack pressed against one jaw. Damn it. "Bobby!"

Bobby just smirked. "Don't be yellin' at me, boy. Jim wouldn't let me near the jackass."

That meant—"Jim!" He looked at the pastor in shock.

Jim just flexed his fist, which Dean could now see was a little swollen, and shrugged. "I did what you asked. So, you owe me one, right?"

Dean shook his head. "Can't take you guys anywhere." He turned toward his father. "Still busy trying the patience of saints, I see."

John gave a weak smile. "Not my fault they rile so easily." He tossed the cold pack into the passenger's seat and got out of the truck. "About earlier. I didn't mean to imply—" Two clearing throats behind them interrupted John and he glared over Dean's shoulder. "I didn't mean to say you were at fault, Dean. What happened would've happened even if I'd been there."

Dean fought the urge to snort. So, if even the great John Winchester couldn't save you, you couldn't be saved? And they said he had an ego. "Fine, Dad, whatever. Can we get on with the plan now?"

Jim motioned them over to the Chevelle where he'd laid out computer printouts.

"Matt and Tim still keeping you computer savvy, I see," Dean commented. The two teens in Jim's congregation were tech geeks who were determined that their pastor not be left languishing in the Stone Age.

"Yes, they shared the joys of Google Earth with me and then a few extra places that aren't exactly strictly legal, bless their hearts. So here's the layout of Cold Oak. Pretty compact area. Except we have one problem. A flood back in the nineties took out the bridge on the other side of town which means there's only one way in and one way out."

Dean nodded. Automatic trap like the one-horse mountain passes back in the old west. "So what's our workaround?"

Crickets chirped.

Okay. Enough was enough. "Are we on a hunt here," Dean barked, frustration deepening his voice, "or just having a girls night out, ladies?"

"One goes in through the woods while the other three spring the trap," Jim said quietly.

"And the problem is?" Since no one was answering, he made a guess. "Everyone wants to be the one going in, right?"

"Not quite, Mr. Know-It-All," Bobby spat out. "Jim and me think it should be you. You're the one training Sam. You know what he can do. You can anticipate his actions. With any of the rest of us, it'll be like trying to get out with a civilian. You can use Sam as a partner."

"So. What. Is. The. Problem?" Another question he could answer himself. "So, Dad, still not trusting me, huh?" It was expected, so why did it hurt so much?

John balled his fists on the Chevelle's roof. "What's so wrong with not wanting to have both my sons in the hands of the demon who killed my wife?"

And that right there was the reason why Dean had forgiven John for dumping him in Iowa. He knew that beneath, beside, along with the obsession of finding THE demon, there was a father who loved his boys just as obsessively. The love made John human and with humans you got flaws. "There's nothing wrong with that, Dad," Dean said, reaching out to squeeze John's shoulder. "But I am the best man for this particular job and that's what matters at this moment. For once, just trust me, Dad. Please."

John wrapped Dean in a tight hug and Dean felt a kiss fall against his hair. This was the dad he remembered from before—before Sammy was lost, before Mom... John let him go and took a half-step back with a subtle sniff.

"Let's do this," John said. "Everyone get outfitted, then, Dean, I want you in the back of my truck. There's a trapdoor there and you can slide out undetected. Bobby, you lead with the Chevelle and Jim, you'll be on our six in the Impala. We'll move in as far as we can, then I'll give Dean the signal. Go outfit up and we roll in five."

Dean smiled at how much John hadn't changed. Once his dad made his mind up, he was ready to take charge and kick ass. No dithering, dillydallying, or delaying. No wonder Marines took the lead in most battles. "What about the demon sensor grid?" Demons could sense humans in their area.

Bobby tossed a small sack in his direction. A hex bag. "Keep that on ya and you'll stay under the radar."

Dean nodded and he made his way to the Impala's trunk. Opening the weapons compartment, he strapped a pistol to his left ankle and a knife to his right. Two guns went into his waistband—the Desert Eagle because he figured he was gonna need the extra knock-down power and Sam's favorite Taurus. A couple of flashlights were secured as well. Finished, he walked over to the truck and his dad.

He looked at the gun that John was slipping into the back waist of his pants. "Old school Colt? Never seen that one before." It hadn't been among the ones that had been blessed in November.

"A friend left it to me."

Ah. Wills were a good thing. It'd probably be worthless going up against a demon, but who said everything laying in wait was a demon. Maybe it was a good idea to use the anointed bullets sparingly. But he'd made his choices and his dad was closing his weapons box. He'd just have to make do with what he had. He pulled himself over the side of the truck and looked around for the secret hatch. As soon as he found it, he was covered with a dusty tarp. "Gee, thanks, Dad," he said after his coughing spell finished.

'You used to love hiding under blankets."

"I was three, Dad."

John just laughed and Dean heard him get into the truck and the back window slide open. "Hear me okay?"

"Better question is 'can you breathe okay?'" Dean said, then emphasized his words with a sneeze. "Damn, did you fight a dust devil with this thing?"

Another laugh from his father. "If you can bitch, you can breathe. We're getting ready to pull out."

Dean estimated they'd gone about three miles when he felt the truck lurch to a stop. "What the –" he heard John say.

"Dad?"

"This is your stop, son." Dean reached down for the hatch. "Go get your brother, kiddo."

"I will."

Dean slipped down to the road and rolled out from under the truck. He kept low until he reached the woods and finally hid behind a tree to look out. Blocking the road was a a roiling mass of...smoke? No, not smoke. Demons. Body-less demons, that swarmed around each other like an infestation of maggots. It made his skin crawl and he really wanted to go back and help the other three men, but he knew what his mission was and stayed the course.

Without looking back again, he headed deeper into the woods.


chapter twenty-seven

Middle Of Main Street
Cold Oak, South Dakota

As defensive postures go, this sucks.

Sam was scrambling to his feet looking around for his brother before he realized Dean's voice was in his head. Okay, he could work with that. Because if he couldn't, then that would mean he was on his own and he didn't know enough to be on his own. So...

"Talk to me, Dean."

"Name's not Dean, dude."

He swiveled on his heel and saw an average guy—maybe shorter than average, but to Sam most folks were short so he was never sure where the line was drawn. The guy was in a hoodie and his pupils were big. Wait a minute. Was he stoned? "Are you stoned?"

Instead of asking questions that really matter.

Thanks, Dean. Maybe he should call him Obi Wan Dean.

I'm flattered, padawan.

""I was in the privacy of my van in Oklahoma, enjoying the quality company of my favorite bong when I was taken; so, yes, my state may be less than legal. And speaking of, you aren't carrying anything, are you?"

Anything? Sam shifted and felt the weight of the knife on his thigh. Could the guy tell he was armed?

Anything as in illegal substances, Sammy.

Obi Wan Dean had the nerve to sigh. Yeah, well, he didn't have any experiences in crap like this, okay?

He's a stoner. How hard can it be?

"Sorry." Sam shrugged and gave the guy a wicked smile. "I'm staying with my brother for the holidays and he's really straitlaced."

Obi Dean howled with laughter.

The guy tried to look sober. "Yeah, I got a mean brother, too."

"He always preaching 'just say no'?" Sam hazarded.

"Nah. He makes people do bad things, then kills 'em."

Oookay. So outta his league now. Help, Obi!

"Who's the new guy, Andy?"

Enough was enough. How had—he counted quickly—three other people sneaked up on him? This was reality, right? Two females and a male. One of the women had asked the question. She was brunette and looked to be about his age. Actually, they all looked to be his age. "How old are you?"

"Rude, aren't you?" the blonde chick asked.

Smooth, Sammy.

Shut up, Obi. It was bad enough Dean's influence had him calling her the blonde chick. Jess would have his ass for being so sexist. Except... "I'm sorry. I have a tendency to stick my foot in my mouth when I'm anxious and since I don't know what's going on, I'm definitely on the anxious side. I was running with my brother and...and now I'm here." He hunched over just a bit, trying to look defenseless and lost. Oh, who was he kidding? He was defenseless and lost. "Does anyone know what's happening? Is this all of us? I'm Sam, by the way, and I'm a student at Stanford," he said quickly, trying to make amends.

"I'm Ava," the brunette said. "And, it's okay. We're all a little awkward here." She gave a nervous chuckle. "I'm twenty-two and a secretary from Peoria. And I definitely don't have a clue about how I got here or anything."

"I'm Andy," the stoner said. "I'm twenty-two, too. Oh, and I can make people do anything I want them to do so I don't have to work or anything."

After sneering at Andy, the tall black guy dressed in camouflage spoke next. "I'm Jake and I'm twenty-two like the rest of y'all. The last thing I remember is heading to the airport. I was supposed to ship out to Afghanistan—" he locked at his watch—"seventeen hours ago. I'm in deep shit, guys."

"We all are," Sam agreed. Then he turned to the final person, who rolled her eyes at them.

"This isn't some stupid camp or sleepover," she snarled. "I doubt we're gonna sing songs or braid each other's hair. Besides, I wouldn't be any good at it because these hands," she held them up for inspection, "can kill ya."

Ava took a step back, Andy looked fascinated, Jake snorted disbelief, and Sam remembered what the demon had told him. Her name was apparently Lily. Best not to act like he knew more than they did. "Well, my brother has said on occasion that my hair is long enough to braid, but I agree that it's not something we probably want to do. It'd help a lot of you gave us your name, though. Unless you want to be called 'Blonde Chick'?"

She bristled and gave him a chilly look. "Lily, age twenty-two, hailing from San Diego, and extremely tired of you lame people. I'm getting out of here."

Sam shook his head. "You can't leave. There are miles of woods between here and anywhere else, and it's getting dark fast."

Jake looked at him suspiciously. "How do you know there are miles of woods?"

Lie, padawan.

"I did a...a paper in high school about ghost towns and I recognize the bell. This place is the most haunted of all ghost towns."

Another nervous laugh escaped from Ava. "Ghost towns? Wow, and I thought I was sad. Are you saying this place is haunted?" She looked around as if something was going to jump out and say "Boo!"

"There are no such things as ghosts. Right, Sam?" Andy shifted uneasily.

Obi decided not to help. "I just did the research, man."

"This is whacked," Jake said, disgust clear in his tone. "Woods or no woods, I'm getting the hell out of here. I—" His jerked his head to the side. "What was that?"

Everybody looked in the same direction. "What was what?" Sam demanded.

Jake rubbed at his eyes. "I thought I saw—" He shook his head.

"You're playing with us, right, man?" Andy said. "We get it. Ain't no such thing as ghosts. Just bad trips, right?"

"I—" Jake stopped again, then took off running toward one of the abandoned buildings lining the street.

"Jake, wait!" Sam scurried after him. By the time he reached the correct doorway, Jake was pinned in the far corner by what appeared to be a ragged child with...talons? Reacting quickly, Sam scanned the room and saw a rusty iron poker leaning in the corner. He picked it up and took a swing at the threatening figure. The creature dissipated on contact.

"What the fu—" Jake stared at the empty space, wide eyed and breathing hard. "Was that a ghost?"

Sam shrugged, not because he was keeping quiet, but because he really wasn't sure. Could've been a ghost or maybe some kind of demon.

"What did you do to it?" Andy asked, standing in the doorway.

"Iron. My research for the paper said that supernatural things don't like iron. And salt. Think there's some salt around here?"

"Me and the girls can go look," Andy volunteered. He looked behind him and called out. "Ava? Lily?"

Neither answered. The guys all looked at each other and ran into the street. "Ava! Lily!" the three yelled.

Jake made a hand motion that Sam figured out meant he was going one way and Sam and Andy should go in the other direction. Before they separated ten yards there was a scream. Racing around one of the buildings, they saw a water tower—and from it hung a limp body. Lily.

Ava screamed again. She was standing in front of an open door. "Is she—" she asked hoarsely.

Jake found a metal bucket and stood on it. "Yeah," he said, his hand on her neck.

"Ava, what happened?" Sam glanced down at his watch, trying to figure out how far Dean was behind him. He remembered Dean had been tossed into a tree, but he was an expert at being tossed. Said that was the reason he didn't like to fly; in his experience the landings were all a bitch. But he could land without major injury, land and get up to fight the good fight. Dean was on his way. Sam was sure of it.

"We thought you guys were just fooling around, trying to scare us. We went in search of a little girl's room. There's a kinda bathroom in here." She pointed to the room behind her. "I was just gone for a few minutes."

"Neck's broken," Jake said. "Wasn't done by this lame-ass noose either."

"So hanging her is just a scare tactic, huh?" Sam reasoned.

"Well, it's working," Andy said, rubbing his arms. "This is really harshing my mellow, dude."

"You are just a waste of space, aren't you?" Jake spat out.

Andy's eyes flared with anger and Sam sought to diffuse the situation because Jake looked like he could really kick Andy's ass. "Andy, why don't you and Ava go look for the salt? Jake and I'll go see if we can find some more iron."

"Salt?"

Sam nodded to Ava. "If you lay a line across the window sills and the doorways, spirits can't cross."

"Cool. C'mon, Andy," Ava urged, tugging on his arm. "And you can tell me if you boys really did see something."

"I gotta go to Afghanistan to defend freedom for people like that little shit?" Jake huffed as Ava and Andy walked away.

"Your choice, dude." Sam was not about to start in on his thoughts about the military because Jake looked like he could kick his ass, too. "I'm gonna go in and check on this 'kinda bathroom' Ava found. Give me a minute, yeah?"

"Knock yourself out. That looks like some kinda barn or something up ahead. I'm gonna check it out."

"Okay. Meet you there."

Sam went through the doors Ava had exited, then looked back to make sure Jake was gone. Pulling down the track pants, he removed the knife from his thigh and stuck it in his waistband for easier access. If something or someone was starting to kill, he wanted to be prepared.

If? You think blonde chick not only broke her own neck but strung herself up as well?

Such keen commentary from Obi Dean. He made sure his jacket covered the knife, then headed toward the nearly collapsing barn. He walked in and saw Jake easily breaking the iron spoke out of an old wagon wheel.

"Andy's not the only one with a special talent, is he?"

Jake jerked around, the spoke coming up defensively. Sam made a mental note that apparently it was easy for them to sneak up on each other. Part of the game?

"Would you believe the iron's rusted?" Jake tried gamely. Sam just looked at him because, really? Such a lame excuse didn't deserve a reply. "Okay. This just happened, like, a month ago, man. I was in the motor pool killing time with a friend when suddenly the car he was working under started to slip. Something went wrong with the hydraulic lift. Anyway, I just ran forward and held the car up until he was safe. We wrote it off as an adrenaline thing, but... I can bench-press eight hundred pounds."

Shit. Really. Shit. He was supposed to take out Superman. They hadn't covered that in training.

Yeah, we did, man. Remember what I said about fighting supernatural sons of bitches? They're gonna be faster and stronger, but not smarter.

Uh huh.

And you have a knife.

Now that was a good point. Still, no reason to make enemies just yet.

Now that's called being smarter, padawan.

Shut it, Obi Dean. "I take it you haven't shared this with the others?"

"Nah. That Andy guy can be all happy about being a freak, but not me."

"Cool. I get it. Might come in handy when we're trying to get out of this place." Sam gave him a reassuring smile.

"So what's your talent?"

"Death dreams."

Jake shook his head. "That's jacked, man. I haven't appeared in any of them, have I?" he asked belatedly.

"I can honestly say I've never seen you before today."

Jake looked relieved. "Let's go rescue the deadweight before that ghost-thing gets them." He picked up the iron rod he'd secured and led the way down the street. Sam wondered if it was the military training that made Jake always take the lead. He'd seen the same thing in Dad.

They met Ava on the street. "Hey, guys, we found some salt. I left Andy drawing the lines like you said while I went hunting for some more."

"Good. We'll have a secured room before nightfall. Nice work," Sam praised.

"And in the morning we can get out of here?" Ava asked.

"That's the plan."

"Okay. Andy's here in this building. It still has doors and everything."

They walked through the door and stopped. Andy lay on the floor, his abdomen a bloody mess. Sam fought to control his stomach when he realized he could see Andy's intestines.

"Andy!" Ava cried before slamming her face into Sam's chest and sobbing madly.

Jake gave him a look that said, "Better you than me, man," and held up the rod. "Iron works, right? Think I'm gonna go hunt that thing, leave you to take care of stuff up in here."

"Coward," Sam mouthed in his direction. The bastard just shrugged and backed out the door. Sam awkwardly patted Ava's back, frowning as he felt wetness sink through his tee shirt. At least Jess used tissues when they watched chick flicks.

Not that he made it a habit to watch chick flicks with her.

Focus on the job, Sammy.

Andy was dead. Lily was dead. Ava was falling apart. Jake was freakin' Superman. What was there to focus on?

Look around you, man. What's wrong with this picture?

Well, it certainly wasn't Survivor. It was more like Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. They were all getting picked off one by one. But it was going so fast. Why?

Hang on, help is on its way. I'll be there as fast as I can.

What? Why was Obi Dean singing a Little River Band song? One of his mom's favorites, but—Oh. The demon was picking up the pace because he knew Dean was coming—Dean, Dad, Bobby, and Jim. That was enough to put a crimp in anyone's plans.

What's wrong with the fuckin' picture, dude?

Sam scanned the room. The salt was down in huge heaps so how had the ghost or whatever managed to get in? He squinted at the window. There was a break in the salt line. A deliberate break made by dragging a finger through it. What the hell?

He shoved and pried until Ava was standing away from him. "Sam? What's wrong? Oh, God, look at your shirt. I'm so sorry."

"You think Andy was suicidal?" he asked, carefully trying to circle the room. At the moment Ava was between him and the door. That wasn't a good position to be in.

"What? You mean because he was missing his bong? What makes you think that?" Her eyes narrowed just a little.

"Because someone broke this salt line and if it wasn't him..."

Ava wiped her eyes and grinned. "Funny how a secretarial school graduate had a Stanford student going for a while. Not quite as smart as you think you are, are you?"

"That thing killed Lily and Andy, and you're what? Controlling it?"

"It's not a thing; it's an Acheri demon. Makes a nice pet." She sneered at him. "If you have the power to control it." The window opened and the demon slid through the broken seal. "Too bad you'll never have that power."

"Too bad you're a cocky bitch," Jake said as he came in behind her. With a gesture that was just too easy, he snapped her neck. Ava's body dropped to the floor with a thud that echoed through the thin boards. Jake took a step back and assessed Sam from head to toe. "You know, when I first saw you, I knew it would come down to the two of us. Thought the other three would be easy. Guess I have to thank you for outing this girl and Fido."

Fight smart, Sammy.

He needed to get out of the room. He needed space to maneuver, to keep out of reach. "So does that earn me at least a five second head start?" he asked, hoping to play on the soldier's sense of fairness, just in case he had one.

Jake shrugged. "Whatever. I'll count to ten, then I'm coming after you. Nothing personal, man, just survival, you know?"

Sam gave a sharp nod, then moved around Jake and out the door. Apparently the demon had given everyone the same speech. Going a few yards, he stopped to look around. Where should he go? Should he pull the knife?

Don't show your hand before you have to, Sam. Knives are up close and personal. Flash it if you think it might make your opponent back off. Keep it a surprise if he's gonna come after your ass anyway.

Dark had fallen quickly. In the gloom, Sam made out the remains of a corral. Empty. The ground was a little uneven with clumps of grass and dirt which he hoped would keep Jake off-balance. At least, there were no sides of buildings for Jake to smash him into. He leaped over a broken railing just as Jake stepped outside.

"Thought you were gonna hide." Jake took his time as he walked toward the corral.

"Maybe my powers require me to be outside."

"What?"

Sam silently cheered himself for coming up with that one. Now Jake would be looking for something to happen. He'd be distracted, wary, waiting for some outside influence. It could create a window of opportunity during the fight. A small, brief window. But, hopefully, it would be enough to make a difference.

"What are you waiting for, Jake? Gotta wait for your master to whisper instructions in your ear? Or is Jake the Strongman afraid he might step in old horse shit out here? I heard that bitches always worry about their shoes," Sam taunted, channeling his brother. Or maybe it was just his inner Winchester. He braced himself as Jake charged at him. He was a Winchester, damn it. If his dad and Dean could go up against legendary monsters and fantastical creatures, he could do this.

He easily dodged Jake's blow and followed with one of his own. Jake looked like he barely felt it, while Sam's fist felt broken. That was so not good. Because he was contemplating his hand, he was too slow to react when Jake's fist took another shot at him. He sailed through the air and landed with a thud that reverberated through his entire body. So, yeah, Dean definitely had reasons not to like flying.

Keep your head in the game, Sam. Use your legs. They're fifty-fuckin' feet long for a reason, dude.

Jake approached and Sam kicked out. Jake stumbled back and Sam, feeling more secure, kicked him again, the hit landing solidly against Jake's gut. Jake scrambled backward, an arm bent protectively across his abdomen.

Sam took the opportunity to get to his feet. Ignoring the pain in his jaw and fist, he kicked again and again until Jake found out how it felt to fly. And land. He was surprised when Jake didn't immediately get to his feet.

Careful, Sammy.

Sam agreed with Obi Dean and approached cautiously, pulling the knife as he moved. He kicked lightly at Jake's feet. The man shifted a little and Sam saw he'd landed on a rock and knocked himself out. Now what? Could he hide in the dark until Dean and the others arrived?

When you get them down, keep them there. End them without hesitation or they will end you.

But Jake was just as human as he was. Surely, he could tie him up or—

Or he could sneak up behind you and finish the job.

Sam looked at the knife in his hand.

Then it'd be open season on me, Dad, Bobby, Jim... Is that what you want, Sam? Would it be easier on your conscience to have my death on it instead of Jake's?

Low blow.

Sam's fingers curled around the knife's handle.

Do you trust me, Sam?

He did. He'd only known his brother for a little over a year, but he trusted him implicitly. More than anyone. It didn't make much sense. Mike was his oldest friend. He had been thinking marriage with Jess. His mom had shattered his trust with the whole kidnapping thing, but still...even without that he would've trusted Dean more. He was starting to think he'd trusted Dean on sight. Why had he spilled his guts to a stranger on a plane, talking about Jess and everything? So a thousand times yes, he trusted Dean.

Then kill him.

Sam sighted the place where Jake's heart lay.

Do it, Sam.

The knife slid in easier than he'd expected. Jake gasped, then sighed. It was a quiet sound, peaceful even. But it tore Sam apart, rattled his soul so badly that he started shaking.

"I—I k—k—killed him, Dean," he stuttered out.

"Good job, Sammy."

Sam opened his burning eyes to see Dean jogging toward him, gun held competently in his hand. "Dean?" he asked just to make sure his brother was actually there.

"Anyone else around here?"

Sam turned back and stared at the knife hilt. "He was the last one. I killed him," he said again.

"Was he gonna kill you?"

Sam nodded.

Dean gripped his shoulder, then released him. "Then you did what you had to do. I'm proud of you."

"I'm not."

Dean knelt beside him and reached for Jake's neck. He gave a grim smile of satisfaction. "Were there others?"

"This girl, Ava, killed two, Jake killed her, and I..." Sam wiped at his eyes. "They were my age. I think maybe the demon fed them blood, too. They had powers. Like me."

"But they weren't like you."

"Yes, they were."

"No, they weren't."

Sam's eyes left the knife to stare stubbornly at Dean. "Yes, they were."

"No, they weren't. They didn't have an awesome brother like me."

Sam stared at him incredulously, then burst out laughing. Dean's hand fell on his shoulder again and squeezed comfortingly. Sam leaned into the grip and tried to hold it together long enough to get the fuck out of there. "Can we go?"

Dean nodded and drew out another gun, the one Sam favored. "Just in case," he said as he handed Sam the weapon.

Sam took it and stood, reaching out a hand to help Dean up. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Sammy the Slayer," a voice said behind him. "You did it, champ. I'm proud of ya!"

Sam looked at Dean's pissed face and turned slowly to look into yellow eyes.


chapter twenty-eight

Main Street
Cold Oak, South Dakota

Dean thought he knew anger. Knew it in the feelings he'd had for John. The initial reaction to finding out Sam had been kidnapped. At the idiot who'd tried to jump a river in a car with one of his engines. But seeing that yellow-eyed sonuvabitch standing behind his baby brother let him know that he'd never felt true, red-inducing anger before. "Get away from him!" he shouted, pulling his gun.

"Now, now, Dean, don't be jealous. I'm proud of you, too. What would our boy be if it wasn't for your teaching. In just over a month, you took a pathetic little boy and turned him into a man killer. We wouldn't be here without ya, Deano. Bravo, kid!"

What do you want?" Sam was proud of the fact that his voice steady as he tried shifting enough to give Dean a clear shot.

"Um, world peace? Nah. To go to Disneyland? Already rode Walt, who cares about his other rides. Hmm? What do I want? Maybe for you to put away that gun, Deano. It can't hurt me and you don't want Daddy blaming you for shooting Sammy, do ya? He already blames you for everything else."

"Fuck you."

"Tsk, tsk. Everything is sex with you boys, isn't it? Should've known with those cute little matching necklaces you have." He reached down and grabbed Sam's medallion. He dropped it immediately, smoke coming from his hand. "Where do you get these wonderful toys?"

Dean rolled his eyes at the misquote from the first Batman movie. "What do you do? Watch cable all night?"

The demon shrugged. "This meatsuit's a janitor; what d'ya expect?"

"Better material."

"Ha ha ha. You're a real piece of work, Deano. That's why I have your brother in my clutches and not you. See? What I want? Your daddy has."

Dean wasn't surprised to hear the Impala roaring up the street just then. This demon seemed to like a good show. "So, you're gonna hold my brother hostage for something my dad has? You really think that'll work?"

"Of course, it will, Deano, because I'm holding Sammy hostage, not you. We all know Johnnie wouldn't bother to spit on you if you were on fire. But for Sam, he'd cut open a vein to dampen the blaze." Yellow eyes looked at him with fake pity. "Poor Dean: first born, second best."

"Leave my brother alone!" Sam spun and raised his gun.

The demon laughed and waved a hand. Sam was slammed into Dean, knocking Dean to the ground. His brother continued moving until he slammed into the railing around the corral. Before Dean could react, thanks to his previous damaged ribs, he too was flung around until he landed not too gently against a post. He tried to get up but found himself frozen in place. His head could move, though, and he turned to glare at the demon who was between him and Sam. Then he had to close his eyes because of the sudden brightness of car lights. When he opened them, he could see his dad walking toward them.

"Boys?"

"They're a little indisposed right now, Johnnie. I'll do the talking if you don't mind," the demon drawled.

"So talk."

"So you're a 'wham, bam, thank you ma'am' kinda guy, huh, Johnnie? Foreplay's just for the bitches? I can respect that, meet you on mutual ground. Here's the deal: I have something you want—these two wonderfully talented sons—and you have something I want."

John reached around to his back and pulled out the old-fashioned Colt Dean had seen earlier and aimed it at the demon. "You mean this old thing?"

"Cute, John. And I mean this old thing."

Dean gasped as something pushed hard against his breastbone. The pressure left as quickly as it'd come. Great, he thought, as he tried not to cry out. Some things never changed; John Winchester pissed something off and it retaliated by hurting him. Back in the day, he'd figured he deserved whatever pain because Sam was dead. Now, he was just pissed at his dad.

"Hurt him again and we'll see what's fact and what's mere legend about this gun," John threatened.

"I can kill both of them before the bullet reaches me. This isn't the O.K. corral, pardner. The white hats aren't gonna win because we both know there aren't any white hats involved, Johnnie. Well, maybe poor Sammy who was brought up as the All-American kid," the demon said, his disgust evident. "But your other boy, nothing white about him, is there, John, thanks to you. Teaching him to kill when he was just a child. How tragic. Then he sells himself to a pervert, a child molester, Johnnie, just so he can pretend someone cares. When he winds up in hell with you, you can point him out and proudly say, 'I did that.' You're a man after my own heart, John Winchester." The demon smiled and gave a shallow bow.

Dean could see that the demon's words had shaken John and he wished he could speak, could tell his dad that the supposed pervert was just a female school counselor, that he'd been seventeen, that there'd been no selling involved. Just a lot of convenient sex and her assistance in getting him into college.

"If I give you the gun, do you promise to let them go, without any additional damage?" John bargained.

"Can they really be damaged any more? One kidnapped and never looked for. Not even a milk carton for your youngest, John? And did you tell your eldest about the time you showed up at a hunt he was on, saw that precious black car of his, and drove away? Didn't even check to see that he had the hunt under control. Could've been in that house dying, and you just kept on rollin'. Ah, the love between a father and his son. Makes me shed a tear, Johnnie boy."

John gave an exaggerated yawn. "You're starting to bore me. We gonna do this or what?" He uncocked the Colt's hammer and turned it around in his hand.

Dean stiffened, or would have if he were capable of getting any stiffer. His dad caving? Nah. That wasn't right. No, not caving. Planning something. He cut his glance over to Sam, hoping his eyes were telling his brother to get ready. Sam's eyes narrowed in confusion, then widened with understanding. Both turned their gazes back to their father.

"I'm just gonna toss it over and then you're gonna disappear, okay?" John said casually.

"Whatever you say, Johnnie." The demon was very agreeable to the plan.

John threw the gun, not a gentle toss, but hard and fast. The missile flew right at the demon and he had to dodge in order to get out of its way. In the second he dodged, he lost his control over his two hostages. Dean, realizing he was free to move, lifted the gun that was still in his hand, sighted his target, and pulled the trigger. He heard other gunfire and a quick scan showed that Sam and their dad had also made a shot.

The demon was the paralyzed one now as the blessed bullets tore through his body. A second later, tendrils of dark smoke oozed out of the holes, hovered in the air for a second, then disintegrated into ash before the wind scattered them. The human body that remained toppled to the ground.

"Dean!" Sam scrambled over to his side. "How bad are you hurt, man?"

Dean tried to take a deep breath and instantly regretted it. Bruised sternum, then. He felt it gingerly. No shifting. No cracks. "I'm good. Or will be. Nothing 911 worthy," he added, seeing the concern in Sam's eyes. He looked over to where John was examining the corpse. "He dead?"

"Oh, yeah. Guess that rock of yours wasn't pure bullshit after all. But, Dean, we need to talk. I hit the sonuvabitch in the heart. Sammy got him through the back. Center mass shots just like you're supposed to take. Yours got him in the back of the head and came through his forehead. What the hell were you thinking, taking a risky shot like that?" John asked angrily.

"Wasn't risky if he could make it," Sam pointed out heatedly. "Your son could be dying and all you can do is bitch about a perfect shot?"

"Dying?" John left the body and jogged over to Dean's side. "You doing all right, kiddo?"

"I'm fine, Dad. Just a little bruised. Where are Bobby and Jim? Are they okay?"

John nodded. "They're watching our six at the edge of town."

"What the hell was that thing blocking the road?' Dean asked as John took his wrist for a pulse check.

"Demons without meatsuits. Bobby and Jim are cleaning up the rest of them. I came on in to give you some backup while they secured the area." He pulled a knife out of his pocket and in a flash had Dean's shirt sliced down the center.

"Hey!" Dean protested.

He was ignored as his dad palpitated the area. "Take a deep breath," he ordered. Dean tried, but the pain kept him from complying. John frowned. "Sammy, get me the med kit from the car."

Before Dean could reiterate that he was fine, the Chevelle and the truck came driving up. "We heard gunfire," Bobby explained, shotgun in hand.

"Demon," John explained, angling his head toward the body. "Sam, the med kit?"

"I got one." Jim pulled a kit from Bobby's car. "What happened, Dean?"

"I ran my mouth and Dean paid for it," John answered quickly. "Some kind of invisible punch to the chest?"

"More like a ton-sized boulder pressed against it." Dean gave up the idea they were just gonna leave him alone.

"Pressure injury rather than impact," Jim diagnosed. He pulled out a stethoscope and Dean remembered the man had been a medic in the Marines. "Breathe for me."

While Dean suffered through the exam, he could hear Sam talking with John and Bobby.

"Why did he want the gun, Dad?" Sam asked.

"It's just a story—a legend, really. Back in 1835, when Halley's Comet was overhead, the same night those men died at the Alamo, they say Samuel Colt made a gun—a special gun. He made it for a hunter—a man like us, only on horseback. The story goes he made thirteen bullets. This hunter used the gun a half dozen times before he disappeared, the gun along with him. The legend said this gun could kill anything."

"By anything you mean anything supernatural?"

"It must be true since the demon wanted the gun so badly."

"How'd you get it?" Bobby asked.

"Daniel Elkins. Don't know how he got his hands on it, but he did and I persuaded him to give it to me."

"Yeah, I've seen your version of persuasion, John. These two the only bodies we gotta take care of?" Bobby asked.

Dean realized he'd forgotten about the dead soldier. The one who'd tried to kill Sam. The one Sam had killed.

"There—" Sam stopped to clear his throat. "There are three more. Kids my age. I can show you where they are."

"Sam," Dean croaked, surprised by how raspy he sounded.

Sam turned and kneeled down beside him.. "It's okay, Dean. I can handle it. How is he, Jim?"

"His sternum's just bruised, I think, but that's just as painful and as dangerous as a break. But if the demon just pressed here in the center of his chest, I don't understand why a couple of his ribs feel a bit wobbly."

"The tree," Dean muttered. Everyone looked around, searching for a tree. "From before," he explained reluctantly. "When Sam was taken."

"You hit your head," Bobby accused.

"Yeah...and maybe cracked a couple of ribs."

"Fuckin' idjit," Bobby cursed before stomping off a distance.

Jim gave one of those sighs that made Dean feel guilty as hell. He hated those sighs. "Well, I'm gonna wrap you up, son, because I just don't trust you to take it as easy as you should. Understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Pierre's not that far away," Sam offered. "I could take him to an ER, say he fell off a ladder or something?"

Dean silently pleaded with Jim and finally the older man shook his head. "Nothing they can do for him that we can't at the moment. But I'm gonna keep an eye on those ribs, his blood pressure and his breathing. We'll get him help if he needs it, I promise you, Sam."

"Maybe I should switch majors and go to med school instead," Sam murmured.

"Nah. I break the law way more than bones." Dean hoped he'd managed to keep the pain out of his voice this time.

"How we gonna do this?" Bobby asked impatiently, giving Dean the stink eye.

"A salt-and-burn should do it," John answered.

Sam frowned in disagreement (Dean was slowly getting adept at reading Sam's faces again). "But...What about their families, Dad? They should know their kids aren't coming back."

"It's kind of you to worry about their families," John said gently, while sparing Dean a glance that said, See, I'm trying. "But these people were used by a demon and we don't want them to be used anymore."

"Couldn't we send them their ID in the mail or something?"

"And have an investigation started? Sam, we can't—"

"I have an idea," Dean interrupted, because although his lungs didn't want to work properly, his brain was doing quite well. "Sam, you and Dad go round them up and bring them back here. Roll 'em for their ID, jewelry, whatever while you're at it. Bobby, look in the Impala's trunk. I have some cans of spray paint rolling around back there..."

"Dean," John began.

"It'll be okay, Dad. Trust me." And, yeah, he knew he trapped his dad with that one. John sighed and moved off with Sam.

Jim took out a blood pressure cuff and unfolded it. "So now that we don't have an audience, how are you really feeling?"

"I've had worse."

"Not what I asked."

Dean rolled his eyes toward heaven, asking for help. Of course, none was forthcoming. "Anything that moves my chest is bad," he admitted reluctantly. "Therefore, breathing is bad. But I'm a stubborn bastard who's gonna do it anyway."

"Good answer." Jim slipped the cuff around his upper arm and inflated it until it pinched like a mother. "Doesn't appear to be any lethal damage done. But you're restricted from hunting for at least six weeks."

"Six—Jim!"

"Keep it up and we'll make it two months even. And don't think Bobby won't enforce it."

Hell, he wasn't stupid; when Jim and Bobby double-teamed him, he always came out on the losing side. And Dean wasn't about to push an already unstable situation. With Bobby being in the fine mood he was because Dean hadn't told him about his ribs, his housemate was already planning a long list of chores he could do from the sofa, long list of boring chores like darning socks or translating some old text that ended up being a rice recipe instead of a supernatural fixit. "Fine. Most of the time I'll be with Sam anyway, getting him through Christmas and setting up new living quarters in Palo Alto."

"As long as you let him do the heavy lifting."

"There are names I could call you," Dean threatened softly.

"I've always been partial to Benevolent One, but Magnificent One works, too."

Dean started to laugh, then grabbed his chest. "Not nice, Jim. Not nice at all."

"Behave." He pulled out a packet of pills. "Bobby, bring a bottle of water!"

Bobby came over, hands full with water and two cans of fluorescent spray paint. "When did I become everyone's danged servant?" he grumbled. "How ya doin', kid?"

"He's on six week restriction," Jim answered before Dean could.

"Just in time for holiday baking. Got that county potluck thing comin' up."

"So civic-minded, Bobby. I must've rubbed off on you." Jim handed Dean the pain medication.

"Gotta keep a good cover. Nobody would suspect us of grave desecration or being experts on demons—not those sweet men who rescue kittens from trees and participant in local activities."

"Kittens from trees. Really." Jim looked at them in disbelief.

"Werewolf chased one up a tree, didn't he, Dean? Cat came down when we filled the evil sonuvabitch with silver. Sounds like a rescue to me," Bobby reasoned. "Now what am I supposed to do with this paint?"

"Devil's Trap with the pentagram," Dean said. "Big one right here on the ground. Doesn't have to be accurate. Just enough to fool the civilians."

"Ah, gonna blame this on devil worshipers. The law's always reluctant with that. 'Fraid of what they might find out. Set each body in a pentacle, bury their ID in an obvious hole next to 'em like an offering... Pain always did make you think, boy."

"Don't get any ideas 'bout that, old man," Dean warned with a glare.

"Stop irritating my patient and do as you're told," Jim said sternly. Bobby moved away with a mutter. "So, what do you think that cost me? A bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue, perhaps?"

"If you're lucky." Dean had given up on figuring out how Jim and Bobby worked out their differences. It was a ritualistic puzzle of interlocking IOU's and bribes. But it worked for the two of them so Dean didn't complain or ask for explanations. "So how'd you get rid of that big ass ball of demons?"

"Well, we started off by saying that exorcism that Paul wrote. Pretty powerful stuff, but we noticed some of the demons were breaking away before we could finish it. So I got out that cross of yours and—"

"Wait a minute. You carry that thing around like a Leatherman pocket tool?" Dean tried to snort but his chest wouldn't let him.

Jim handed him the bottle of water. "As I was saying, I got out the cross and tossed it into the gathering. It started burning them—"

"Same thing happened to the yellow-eyed sonuvabitch when he tried to take Sam's medallion."

"Yes, it seems it was most fortuitous for us that you 'hooked up' with your oracle friend."

And yeah, it hurt, but Dean had to laugh at Jim's expression. "It hurt, didn't it, Pastor, to compliment me on an out of wedlock act of fornication?"

Jim rolled his eyes. "I have never been that regimental or judgmental, Dean Winchester. I just—worry about you, that's all."

"I'm careful, dude."

Jim looked at him, eyes warm with concern. "Perhaps too careful—with your heart."

"I'm not the only one in this posse without a woman, Jim," Dean pointed out uncomfortably. Did he trust women with his heart? Maybe. And maybe he wasn't gonna get close enough to one to find out. "Damn. What the hell did you give me, man? It's making my thoughts go all gooey."

Jim brushed a hand across the top of his head. "Since it would be unfair of me to take advantage of you being all 'gooey,' we'll have this discussion later, all right? Maybe get a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue of our own."

"Sure, Jim," Dean agreed, confident that he could drink Jim under the table long before any deeply-embedded secrets could spill out. However, he didn't like the smile Jim gave him in return.

Maybe he needed to talk to Bobby first.

Before he could retract his agreement, Sam and John returned with the first body. John reluctantly accepted the beauty of Dean's plan and soon all the bodies were put in position and their ID placed nearby.

"John, Sam, get Dean over to the car before you start pouring accelerant. He doesn't need to be inhaling chemicals in his condition," Jim ordered.

"I don't remember him being this bossy," John muttered as he helped Dean to his feet.

"It's the medic in him," Dean explained. "Bobby tangled with a bunyip once. I was running and fetching for days."

With his brother on one side and his father on the other, Dean started across the field. He stopped as they came upon the body the yellow-eyed demon had worn. The exit wound gaped darkly on his forehead. "That was for our mom, you son of a bitch." He wanted to give the body a parting kick, but knew how much that would hurt. He'd just have to settle with seeing its ass burn up. Besides, kicking it would probably end up messily; the body was quickly deteriorating without the demon's essence.

They tried to put him in the back of the car, but Dean insisted on the shotgun seat. "I breathe better sitting up," he told them.

"Fine." John looked at Sam. "The keys are in the ignition. Drive down to the end of the street. Keep him out of the smoke." Dean wanted to protest, but he knew John was also protecting Sam—watching and smelling bodies burn could be pretty awful if you weren't used to it. "And, Dean, don't think we're not gonna talk about what the demon said."

Fuck. "Demons like to warp the truth, Dad. There was sex but completely mutual, and I was only underage for a few months."

John just patted his knee and closed the door. "Like I said, we'll talk. Get him outta here, Sammy."

Who'd come up with that wonderful honesty plan with his dad? Oh, yeah. Sometimes he ran his mouth way too much. "Don't get used to driving my car," he bitched as Sam drove away from the corral. And yeah, take your own stupidity out on Sam. "Pick one out at Bobby's and we'll get it fixed up for you," he added in apology.

"You don't have to give me a car, man. I can get a used—"

"No brother of mine is gonna drive some factory-made piece of shit that won't make it to the Palo Alto city limits, much less all the way to South Dakota and back. And turn this car around so I can at least see the glow from that son of a bitch. Better than a fuckin' sunrise, man." And speaking of... "Little Brother, there comes a time when a man must learn the things that a man oughtta know."

Sam rolled his eyes at the words. "And what should a man know, Big Brother?"

"The difference between a full moon and a waxing gibbous moon. That up yonder," he pointed at the moon which was quite high in the sky now, "is a waxing gibbous moon, so noted because it isn't actually full yet."

Sam squinted out the windshield. "Oh, I see what you mean. My bad."

Dean shook his head in disgust. "Remind me never to go on a werewolf hunt with you."

"Definitely not a problem." Sam grinned before slumping behind the steering wheel and settling in, his legs splaying wide in order to fit in the small space. "So what are you and Dad gonna do now?"

Dean shrugged. Although that was the end of the demon who'd killed his mother, it wasn't the end of the evil that went bump in the night. And after all these years, they mattered as much to him as the yellow-eyed demon did. "Same thing we do every night, Pinky."

"The end of an era and nothing changes?"

"Not for me, man." Dean smiled softly at the light that was growing fainter. "The real change came in August of 2004. This—this is just closure."

Sam nodded, a finger reaching up to his face to either worry a frown or scratch an itch. "When I got on that plane back then, Dean, all I could dream about was winning an Olympic medal. Didn't even know there was something greater to dream about."

"What will you dream of now? Was this closure for you as well? Not that you're gonna forget Jess, but..."

"There are so many questions that remain. Like why did I get the demon blood? Why did he kill Jess? Was all this just to get hold of the gun because it could kill him? Seems to me if he was afraid of the gun, he could've just avoided it or something. He's dead, and I'm glad of that, but he had answers that we won't get now." Sam threw his head back against the seat. "I'm happy. I'm sad. Hell, man, I'm all over the place. Think Jim's got any Prozac in that bag of his?"

"When I get like that, I head to the garage and lose myself in doing what I know how to do. That's what's gonna get you through, too. Go back to school, get lost in all those heavy law books, and the next thing you know, you'll have regained your path."

Sam gave a small chuckle. "My brother, the zen master."

"What can I say? Painkillers always send me into a higher orbit."

"So, does that mean you won't hit me if I say something?" Sam turned his head toward Dean and gave him a soft smile.

"Oh, God. As soon as I learned you lived in California, I knew this moment was coming. Fine, share with me, Sam." Dean sighed dramatically, then frowned when his body didn't appreciate the gesture.

Sam leaned over and dropped his head lightly against Dean's shoulder. "You're my brother and I love you. But it's not only that: I like you. I couldn't have made it this past month without you. You have been my rock, my touchstone and if I ever lost you again, I think I'd lose myself."

Dean lowered his head against Sam's. "I always wanted a little sister." He gave a shallow laugh. "Yeah, you better be glad I'm in a pharmaceutical haze, dude. Love you, too," he murmured.

Relaxed in his car with his brother at his side where he belonged, all the people he loved with in yelling distance, and the menace he'd chased his whole life currently turning to charcoal, Dean succumbed to the drugs and fell asleep, a smile crossing his lips briefly before they became slack with slumber.


epilogue

U.S. Olympic Trials
Qwest Center
Omaha, Nebraska
July 2008

"Watch out, China, the Brothers Winchester are gonna kick your ass!" Dean shouted as he walked out to the Impala with Sam, who'd just secured a spot on the 2008 Olympic Swim Team. Dean had qualified in Shotgun weeks before.

"You know I'm retiring after this, right?" Sam said, dodging a crying kid being dragged by his mom.

"Aw, you can't retire, man. Bobby has errands set up for us for the next three Olympics. He has entirely too many friends in exotic places." He popped open the trunk and Sam tossed his bag inside. Then Dean pulled out a cardboard shoebox and handed it to Sam.

Sam opened the box and grinned. "Flashcards! In Mandarin? Bobby was a Boy Scout in a former life, wasn't he?"

"You're lucky—I got Cantonese."

"Another book to pick up?" Sam was already excitedly flipping through the cards.

"Something about a white dragon. I'm hoping he means a figurine." He popped an eyebrow in Sam's direction.

Sam looked up from the cards and frowned. Then his eyes widened. "You don't think..."

Dean shrugged. "Ya never know with Bobby." He closed the trunk and slid into the driver's seat.

Sam got into the passenger's side a little more slowly. "Any idea of what repels a dragon?"

"Not a clue."

"Never a dull moment around you guys, is there?" Sam carefully put the lid back on the box he held on his lap.

Dean gave him a bright smile as an answer. "Speaking of dull, what are you gonna do when you retire from swimming? Head back out to Cali or down to Arizona? I know your mom would like you closer."

Sam ran a hand through his hair, which he'd cut short because of the swim cap. "Don't know, man. Damon offered to cut me in as a partner." Damon Shuckman was the lawyer Sam worked for in Rapid City. After he'd graduated, he needed a job that would give him time for practice and meets. As long as he got his assignments done, clerk-work mostly but he'd seconded in the courtroom once or twice, Shuckman didn't care about his hours.

"That enough of a challenge for you?" Dean didn't want to discourage Sam from staying in South Dakota, but he knew his brother liked to be pushed to his limits. Shuckman was a working man's lawyer. His clients consisted mostly of small town dirty laundry: weekend drunks, the occasional workman's comp case, foreclosures, and single moms in search of deadbeat dads.

"Surprisingly, yes," Sam answered as Dean pointed the car northwest on the highway. "I like working with people, not corporations or millionaires. I feel like I'm helping, that I'm making a difference. Wonder where I get that from?"

Dean smiled. Saving people from the bad in the world. That was the family business. John still hunted full-time, although he stopped by the salvage yard more and more. He'd even shown up at a couple of shooting comps, mostly to bitch and point out Dean's competitors' faults. He'd attended three of Sammy's meets, trying not to look painfully bored (Dean knew the feeling; when Sam wasn't swimming, he really didn't care).

Dean also continued to hunt and help newer hunters, which included Sam on occasion (Sam kicked ass at research). Bobby and Jim were still in the game, managing to awe Dean with their knowledge and skill. Saving people. Athens 2004. Beijing 2008. South Dakota and the US—anytime. Didn't matter where they were or when they were. His family always gave their best.

Gold medallists each and every one of them.

Yeah, he could be excited about being in China with Sam. A shiny medal around his neck, the two of them making their way through the ancient land on some freaky scavenger hunt for Bobby... That would be a fun adventure. But the Olympics didn't really matter. The medals were just basically trinkets.

"We could try hypnotism."

Dean risked taking his eyes off the road to look at Sam. "What?"

"For your fear of flying."

"Oh, hell no!"

"C'mon, Dean. I know this guy..."

Dean argued fondly with his brother as the Impala ate up the road that led toward home. Gold? Just a color to him; he'd already won the treasure of a lifetime.

The End


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