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.


Part I ◄ ► Part II ◄ ► Part III ◄ ► Part IV ◄ ► Part V ◄ ► Part VI

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