Rating: PG-13


Chapter 8 – Gaze

Music's the only thing that makes sense anymore, man. Play it loud enough, keeps the demons at bay…

- JoJo, "Across the Universe"

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

-WB Yeats, "The Second Coming"

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It was something about the eyes. They looked too human and yet not human enough. They stared at him with an unsettling mixture of sadness and curiosity. He wanted to demand that the eyes close, that they stop staring, that they look away.

But they continued to gaze at nothing.

Watching them, his body grew tight. His lungs seemed to hitch, curling inside of his chest in protection. The eyes themselves were beautiful; the emptiness framed by dark purpose inside of them was devastating. He was both drawn to them and repulsed by them. They didn't waver, they didn't blink, they didn't reflect.

He couldn't help but wonder what they were waiting for.

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Dean was aware of his hands.

It was an odd sensation, and one he'd never really spoken of to anyone, but where breathing seemed to simply happen, and blinking was an afterthought, walking was natural, and wetting dry lips was just something he did, he was constantly conscious of his hands. Where they were, what they were doing, as if they were not an extension of him, but a situation he had to control.

"You going to look at me or what?"

John's voice was startling in its suddenness, but not unexpected. Many times since his father's death, Dean had heard him when he closed his eyes, seen him as he drifted in the gray moment between waking and sleeping.

Dean felt his father's gaze, but continued to stare at his hands. There was blood on them.

Dried, stained, old, new.

"I'm waiting," John said.

"For what?" Dean heard the sullen resignation in his voice.

"For you to look at me, Son."

With a monumental effort, Dean lifted his head. The room they were in was small, and he couldn't see the corners for the shadows. John stood against one wall, Dean against the opposite wall.

And they stared at each other.

Dean matched his father's stoic expression, leaking nothing from his eyes, showing nothing in the lines on his face. His hands were heavy at his sides and he wanted to curl his fingers against his palms, catch the drops of blood that fell from his fingertips to splash with a deafening cadence against the floor.

"You got something to say?" John's voice was as he remembered. Challenging and gruff with an odd undertone of care that could only be heard if he were listening for it.

Dean lifted a shoulder. "Doesn't really matter, does it?"

"Yeah? Why's that?"

"'Cause I'm dreaming. You're not real. I'm basically talking to myself." He knew he was dreaming. He… he had to be dreaming.

"You sure about that, are you?" The corner of his dad's mouth pulled up in the tiniest of grins as if he were watching Dean learn a new skill.

Dean felt a flicker of hope tinged with panic at the thought that he might be wrong. He might not be dreaming. He looked down at his hands again. The blood was fresh. He turned his palms up and lifted his hands waist-high. The dark, sticky wet climbed his forearm, fingers of blood tracking the outside path of his veins until it reached his mid-section.

And blossomed in a swath of red across his belly.

"Oh, God," Dean breathed.

"Look at me, Son."

"Stay with me, Dean."

Sam's voice startled him and Dean jerked his head up and around. The room began to grow lighter around him. He could see a bit further into the corners.

"Sam?" He called.

"Sam's not here, Dean."

"I heard him."

John shook his head. "It's just us."

"Dammit, open your eyes, Dean."

"There—" Dean turned around. Shadows. Nothing. "Did you hear that?"

"Look at me, Dean."

Cautiously, acutely aware of the tingling in his fingers, the tightness in his chest, Dean turned, blinking in surprise to see his father inches from his face. For one heart-stopping moment, Dean couldn't meet John's eyes, wanting—needing—to see the stern, warm brown of his dad's irises, afraid of the echo of yellow he could still feel there.

John's voice softened. "Keep your eyes up, Son."

Dean swallowed, forcing himself to stare at his dad, forcing himself to see what only John could show him. He watched as his dad's face softened, his eyes seeming to appear larger in his face. For a moment, he caught a glimpse of youth, of freedom, of salvation. In that glance, a surge of strength shot through Dean, tripping on pain in its path and leaving a heat-trail of love in its wake.

"Please, Dean, please…I'm sorry…I'm so sorry…"

"What's he sorry for?" Dean asked, puzzled. He felt his hands begin to tremble, but couldn't look away from John's eyes. A warm, wet sensation spread across his belly and began to soak into his jeans.

"Who?"

"Sam," Dean said.

John smiled. "What do you want him to be sorry for?"

At that, Dean drew back. "What's that supposed to mean?"

John lifted an arm and Dean tore his eyes from his father's face to watch his hand move slowly through the air, parting the lingering shadows around them and rest on his shoulder. A quick, searing pain shot through him just under John's hand. Dean curled his fingers in, listening as blood seeped through his fingers to drip on the floor.

The room grew brighter.

"It means what you think it means," John said cryptically.

"You're not doing this to me, man. I won't let you."

"He's mad," Dean breathed in realization.

"Sam is?"

Dean nodded. "What am I doing to him?"

John squeezed his shoulder and Dean gasped at the pain that caused.

"You're leaving him."

The words seemed to fall from John's beard-framed lips to take form in mid-air before striking against Dean's ears.

"The hell I am," Dean retorted, trying to step back, away from John and the icy truth of his statement. Without warning, pain stabbed him in the belly. Knives under the skin, slashing without wounds, piercing without exposure. He lost his breath, pressing his blood-covered hand against his middle. "What the fuck…"

"Dean."

"Holy Christ, just… gimme a minute, Dad…"

He began to pant, desperate for air, working to expand his lungs and hoping that would soothe his body enough so that it stopped trying to turn him inside out.

"Hang on to me, man, just hang on, okay? I'm gonna help you…"

"Sam—"

"I told you, Dean. He's not here."

"I can hear him!" Dean protested, wrenching away from John's hand, crying out when the warmth of that touch left him with a burning cold brand of a bullet.

Frowning, John turned his back to Dean and crossed the room in a careful, heel-toe, heel-toe gait. Gasping, holding his belly, bent from the pain, Dean stared at this motion with confusion. It was as if John were marking the space between them. Keeping stock of distance.

"Dad," Dean asked cautiously, determination winning over waning balance. "Where are we?"

John looked at him over his shoulder, and Dean felt the room suddenly glow. He squinted his eyes against the glare. The light seared, intense in its brilliance. It felt comforting and frightening—both powerful and overpowering at once.

"You don't know?" John asked.

Dean looked around, his lashes shielding his eyes from the intense light. The corners of the room were visible to him now, and what was hidden there made him blink in surprise; chills of realization with a painful heat chaser climbed his arms.

One corner was filled with weapons: shotguns, pistols, knives, flares, salt, herbs, journals, Bibles, exorcism rites. Everything he'd ever needed or could ever need to fight his war, to keep the people he loved, and the people he'd never met, safe.

Frowning, Dean shifted his eyes to the opposite corner and saw a graffiti-covered wall with names, hundreds of names, some faded, some brighter, some circled, some crossed out. All women's names. Women he'd known, women he'd wanted to know, women he'd touched, women who had touched him. Women who had burned him, women he'd burned. One he had loved, one he'd always remember, one that got under his skin, one that he'd forgotten.

Swallowing, almost afraid to see, Dean pivoted to look behind him. To his left was a corner filled with a collage of pictures and words. Pictures of people he vaguely remembered, people he'd never met, lyrics to songs that drew him through the night, notes of thanks and pleas for help, eyes and mouths and tears and smiles and hands…so many hands. Grasping his, reaching for his, pushing at his, holding his.

Dean felt a tremble in his chest as he slowly turned to look into the last corner. In it, stood Sam.

"I thought you said he wasn't here," Dean choked out, not sure where his father stood inside the light, but aware that he was still there.

"This isn't Sam," John informed him. "This is your purpose."

"Looks a helluva lot like Sam to me," Dean grunted, bending to try to shift some of the knives away from his tender flesh. Knives he couldn't see. Knives that were killing him.

"This is you, Dean," John said. "All of this is you."

"We're…inside…me?" Dean gasped, turning to face his father in the glare.

"In a way," John shrugged.

"Don't 'certain point of view' me, here, Obi-Wan," Dean snarled.

"Okay, that's it, Dean, that's it, keep breathing, okay? Just keep breathing. I'm not letting go, I swear. I promise, Dean."

Dean shook with the fear in Sam's voice.

"What do you want him to be sorry for, Dean?" John asked him again.

"Nothing!" Dean staggered a bit, one hand searching behind him for a wall, for support. "He's got nothing to be sorry for."

"You sure about that?"

"Oh, this is fuckin' great," Dean sobbed, finding the wall. Leaning. "You wait until you're dead and a figment of my imagination before you decide to care what I think?"

John stepped forward, blocking out some of the light, easing the glare, comforting Dean with his closeness. "I'm not in your imagination, Dean. And what makes you think I never cared what you thought?"

"Maybe because you never asked me?"

"I'm asking you now," John said softly and the sound curled around Dean's ears, making him want to lean into it. Making him give in. Making him confess.

"I want him to be sorry that he left me," Dean whispered.

"Left you?"

"I told him, Dad," Dean panted, feeling the blood leak through his fingers. Feeling the room tilt around him. "I told him what you made me promise."

John simply watched him, his eyes growing warmer.

"I freakin' begged him to give me some time… to give me time to think." He was slipping, hand slapped against the wall, leaving a smear of blood as he searched for purchase. "And the first chance he had… he left."

"Pissed you off, did it?"

Dean met his father's eyes, sweat rolling from his forehead to tremble on the edge of his lashes. "It…scared me."

"Why?"

"Why? Because how the hell can I watch out for him if I don't know where he is?"

"You can't be everywhere, Dean."

"You self-righteous sonuvabitch," Dean growled, fury surging strength into vanishing limps. He leaned forward. "You are in hell because of me, Dad."

John lifted an eyebrow.

"Dean! Hey…hey, c'mon, come back, hey, no no no, you come back, you hear me? You hear me, Dean?"

Dean flinched at the desperation in Sam's voice, instinctively looking into the corner where his Sam stood, silently watching him, hazel eyes innocent, face unlined, lips relaxed into an open smile, dimples peeking out. The dichotomy of what he heard and what he saw made him dizzy with a truth he couldn't wrap his mind around.

"You're in hell because of me," Dean repeated. "You gave up everything for me."

"And?"

"How can I do less for Sam?"

"You are his brother, Dean," John said softly. "Not his savior."

Anger making his eyes burn, Dean stepped forward, oblivious of blood, oblivious of pain, oblivious of the growing intensity of the light around them. He reached his stained hands out, grasping the lapels of his father's worn, familiar jacket and shoved him back against the wall with strength born of need for validation.

"I am!" He bellowed. "I am because you made me!"

John's placid face regarded him calmly.

"All my life," Dean continued to roar, "you told me to watch out for Sammy. Last thing you said to me…"

"You feel this, Dean? I'm hanging on. I'm hanging on because of you."

Dean shook his head, spinning with the sound of Sam's voice.

"Last thing you said to me was to watch out for Sammy… you told me I might have to kill him, Dad. Kill him."

John nodded, saying nothing.

"Why?"

John smiled sadly.

"You believed in me, Dean. You never let go, not once. You always knew…even when I hurt you, you always knew. Just like with Dad. Just like then. You knew he couldn't let…that thing…kill you… So you gotta hang on, okay?"

"Why, Dad?" Dean whispered on a strangled sob, his fingers weakening in their grip.

"Because I knew you would find a way, Son," John whispered back.

"Find a way to what? To do what you couldn't?" Dean railed.

John's eyes were sad.

Dean dropped his burning eyes to his bloody knuckles. "Whose blood is on my hands, Dad?"

John closed his eyes.

"It's not mine, is it?"

"No, Dean."

"Yours?"

"No."

Dean swallowed, feeling his eyes fill. "Sam's?" His voice cracked.

"Not yet."

Relief left him weak.

He released John's jacket and with it all sense of balance. Falling to his knees in front of his father, Dean bowed his head, hands resting on his thighs, palms up, blood mocking him. The light surged, blossoming bright enough to cancel out all else, dazzling his eyes.

"Dean," John's voice was a command.

Dean jerked, swaying on his knees.

"Look at me, Son."

Dean tried to raise his heavy eyes, tried to lift his head. "So tired."

"Look at me."

John's order left no room for argument. Dean tipped his head up, meeting the suddenly gentle eyes of his father.

"You have a job to do," John reminded him. "You want that blood gone? You do. Your. Job. Now, open your eyes."

"What?" Dean blinked, confused, hot, chilled, suddenly hurting everywhere. The knives were relentless. Breath left him. His body burned, froze, shook, shattered.

The room faded quickly, as if a focus on a camera were being twisted tight, dropping him down a swiftly narrowing shaft with shadows flanking him and chewing at his heels. Helplessly he flung his hands out to the side to stop his plummet and was met with the soft, warm flesh of another reaching hand. One that wrapped strong fingers around his wrist.

"Dad?" His voice hurt his ears.

"Hey! Hey, man."

"Where's…" I was dreaming… it was a dream…

Sam's voice was close, his breath dusting across Dean's face. "Open your eyes, Dean."

Dean worked to obey, Sam's voice blending with John's, Sam's touch feeling like his dad's, Sam's weight heavy. The calloused palm ran unconsciously along Dean's fever-hot forearm, ending at his wrist, just shy of his hand.

Rolling his eyes under his lids, Dean fought against the tide of weariness. The room was blurry and unfamiliar. He was lying down, covered up, and there were odd clicks and beeps somewhere nearby. Vaguely, he felt the pressing closeness of curtains and sheets, but he ignored them all to find Sam's face.

"That you, Sammy?" he rasped.

"Yeah," Sam sniffed, his tongue darting to the corner of his mouth to catch an errant tear. "It's me."

"Happened?" His mouth felt as if it were filled with cotton and his body was blessedly numb, floating several inches above awareness.

"You beat it, that's what happened."

"The ikea?"

Sam's laugh was soft and slightly wet. "Yeah, the ikea. And the fever."

"Thas good."

"Hey, don't close your eyes yet, okay?"

"'kay."

"I'm sorry, Dean."

"Stop sayin' that, Sammy."

"I just… I want you to know…"

"S'okay, Sammy. S'okay."

"You sure?" Sam's voice trembled, and Dean saw the years fall away as his brother stared at him, saw the boy peering out of the eyes in the man before him. Saw the innocence that Sam lost along the way, the gift that his brother truly was.

"Yer m'purpose…" Dean slurred.

"That so?"

"Mmhmm."

"Dean?"

"Hmm?"

"Hang on to me, okay?"

"I won't let go, Sammy," Dean allowed his eyes to slide closed.

"I mean it."

"I know."

And darkness was a welcome friend.

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Abe sat in the stiff, high-backed chair next to Dean's bed, having allowed Sam to slump into the recliner on the other side of the room once Dean fell into a peaceful, fever-free sleep. The boy's soft snoring was testimony of the arduous journey his body and spirit had taken in the last few days. His fight to keep his brother present, keep his brother in the game, had exhausted Sam past all capacity for vigilance and had Abe not pushed him into the chair, Sam would have been a heap on the floor.

Closing his eyes on a sigh, Abe couldn't stop his mind from replaying the last several hours like a spliced movie reel. Claire's eyes, too empty, too full, gazing vacantly at the huddled forms of brothers too spent to move, too moved to speak.

Things had happened almost too quickly. He'd felt as if he were watching himself move, hovering on the outskirts of the action. Bobby had left Maggie sitting on the floor, seemingly recognizing something in the sudden stiffness of Sam's shoulders as they shielded his warrior brother that Abe hadn't seen.

Approaching cautiously, Bobby had stepped between Lobo and Dean, visibly wary of the bared teeth and impressive rolling growl emanating from the animal. As Abe watched, Bobby tipped Dean's head back from Sam's shoulder, checked his pupils, looked at the seeping belly wound, then cursed. Putting a hand on Sam's shoulder, Bobby barked an order to Maggie to get the truck ready, they were going to the hospital.

Stunned, Abe had asked if they should call an ambulance.

"You ready to explain all this?" Bobby had jerked his head to the eviscerated body in the far corner and Abe was instantly reminded that though the danger was past, this trial was far from over.

Sam had moved as if in a daze, not taking his eyes from his brother's pale, limp form as Bobby shifted Dean to a recumbent position, trying to assess the damage the hunter had done to himself fighting the battle against the ikiryoh. Uncertain how to help, Abe carried the catatonic Claire to the bed of the truck, laying her inside on the blankets Maggie had prepared. He'd turned to see Sam and Bobby carrying Dean between them, unresponsive, and eerily still.

Laying him next to Claire had felt both wrong and right. They were the bookends to this story—the beginning and the end, drawing the rest of them together through their struggle. Dean's head had lolled to the side, his forehead resting against Claire's shoulder in the rocking motion of the truck. Claire had simply stared, lost inside herself.

The emergency staff at the hospital hadn't asked questions past the explanation of camping, river, wound, infection, and Bobby had hovered close, watching the battle Dean continued to wage with his brother at his side. Claire had been taken away, few words exchanged beyond found her wandering. Maggie had waited for them in the hallway, Abe the liaison between the suffering inside the ER, and the suffering in the waiting room.

Abe leaned forward, dropping his warm face into his wide hands, covering his eyes. It had been close. Too close. Blood loss had led to shock, infection had led to fever, and a weakened body had been pushed to limits beyond many a man's measure.

But Sam had been relentless in his faith. Abe looked up at the sleeping boy through his fingers. He'd not budged from Dean's side, coaxing, demanding, ordering, pleading. When Dean's pulse plummeted, Sam's voice brought it back up. When Dean thrashed in a fevered panic, Sam's hands held him steady.

Abe had seen it before. He'd seen these brothers pull each other from the brink before. And if he kept up this life, he knew he would see it again. The warrior that was Dean would fight to the bloody end to protect the gift that was Sam. But Sam's will was nothing to be countered. His ferocious faith in his brother rivaled many a zealot and Abe found himself pitying the forces that sought to tear these two apart.

"Dad?" Dean mumbled for the third time that hour.

Abe rubbed his fingers over his lips, resting his eyes on the pale, bruised face. Asleep, Dean looked much younger than his years or experiences. The scars Abe had seen running rivers of memory over Dean's young body told stories that no one his age should be able to recount. His eyes, when open, could freeze or warm, seduce or repel, and they aged him in ways Abe couldn't fathom.

But as he watched Dean now, Abe saw a boy. A wounded, lonely boy, in need of his father, in need of reassurance, in need of strength.

Dean shifted slightly on the bed and Abe straightened, watching closer. Heavy, dark-shadowed eyes blinked upwards and Abe caught his breath, watching as the blurry cobwebs of a dream slipped silently to the wayside, and focus turned sharp on surroundings.

"Abe?"

"Hey," Abe smiled.

"Where the hell are we?" Dean asked, his voice sandpaper rough from disuse and war.

"Hospital."

"Shit," Dean closed his eyes again.

"Sam and Bobby made sure you were covered," Abe assured him.

"Where's Sam?"

"Right over there," Abe nodded to the other side of the bed.

Dean turned his head slowly, his short, light-brown hair rustling against the coarse threads of the hospital pillow case. "Sleepyhead."

"He's had a long night," Abe offered.

"Yeah," Dean looked back at him, blinking slowly. "How's Lobo?"

Abe shook his head. "I don't know. We had to leave him behind."

"Dammit," Dean cursed. "He was hurt, Abe."

"I know."

Dean coughed slightly, flinching at the pull on his midsection, a hand sliding to protect it. "Find him, okay?"

"I will."

"What about Bobby?"

"Outside with Maggie," Abe replied. "We've been taking shifts, but," he looked again at Sam, "you brother wouldn't leave."

Dean winced, lifting the sheets to peer down at his wound. Abe watched as he reached down to hitch up the hospital gown, then shifted his eyes away as Dean bared his mid-section.

"Damn," Dean whispered.

Abe knew he was seeing a tube draining the infection away from the puncture wound, semi-saturated gauze covering the hole.

"It wasn't good," Abe informed him. "Better now, though."

"I don't…remember," Dean confessed, dropping his head back, letting the sheet fall to cover his legs once more. "It's all mixed up with some… random dream of my Dad."

"You fought valiantly," Abe complimented him, "and you beat the evil, but at a serious cost to yourself."

Dean shrugged silently.

"That isn't something you should ignore," Abe admonished. "You are the only thing that stands between your brother and real darkness."

Dean frowned, sliding his eyes to the side, searing Abe with disapproval. "Sam's not gonna go darkside."

"Not if you're there for him."

"Well, I didn't go anywhere," Dean grumbled tiredly.

"Not this time," Abe informed him.

Dean closed his eyes. "I can't be everywhere," he said softly.

"No," Abe agreed, "but you're here, now. You're here for Sam. You're here for you."

"Me?" Dean opened one eye, raising his eyebrow.

Abe nodded, seeing, finally, where the crux of forgiveness lay. Not in Dean freeing Sam from his guilt for hurting him. Not in Dean freeing Sam from anything. Not even in Sam allowing the understanding that he hadn't been in control of his actions.

Forgiveness lay in Dean. For Dean.

"You didn't let him down, you know," Abe said.

Dean looked away, not at Sam, not at Abe, but somewhere into the middle distance where nothing could touch him and the thick mask of indifference could shift quickly and easily into place protecting the raw vulnerability of his heart.

"You didn't," Abe pressed. "You are keeping your promise."

"To who?" Dean whispered.

"To Sam," Abe asserted. "You are protecting him just as you said you would."

"What if I made a different promise," Dean asked. "A promise to someone else."

"Your dad?"

Dean was silent.

"I remember what you said, Dean. You said he told you that you might have to kill Sam." Abe sighed, leaning his elbows forward on his knees. "He left you no context, no parameters. He simply said please. Please protect my son. Please do what I could not. Please make right what has gone so terribly wrong."

Abe watched Dean's throat work, his lips tighten, his eyes glisten, but he remained silent.

"Until the day comes when you are unable to stand," Abe predicted, the image of Dean facing off the ikiryoh as his battered body trembled with defiance burned into the backs of his eyes, "against the darkness that threatens your purpose, you will continue to fight."

"You sure about that?"

"As I am about anything," Abe nodded.

"We almost quit this fight," Dean informed him, his eyes now resting on Sam's slumped form. "We almost walked away."

Surprised, Abe sat back. "What changed your minds?"

"Bobby, you," Dean lifted a shoulder, his head sliding sideways on the pillow to rest in a dent. "Hell… we don't know anything else, man."

Sam mumbled incoherently in his sleep, his brows bouncing comically as he carried on a conversation with his subconscious. His fingers twitched as if he were moving his hands rapidly in his dreams.

Dean smiled. "He used to sleepwalk," he said. "I'd find him in the closet or the bathroom… sometimes at the top of the stairs. That's why I always sleep near the door. He got over it, but… I didn't."

"You're a good brother, Dean," Abe said.

"Yeah, maybe."

Abe watched Dean's eyes drift, then pop open, still watching Sam. "Rest."

Somewhere below his resistance, need won out and Dean slipped into oblivion, his face turned toward his brother, his hand resting on his belly, the beep of the monitors offering a steady backdrop of reassurance.

And Abe watched over him.

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"It is the evening of the day, I sit and watch the children play, smiling faces I can see, but not for me. I sit and watch, as tears go by."

The voice was rich, deep…familiar. He wanted to roll into it, wanted to burrow inside of it, wanted to hold it, tighter, keep it closer.

"My riches can't buy everything. I want to hear the children sing. All I hear is the sound of rain falling on the ground. I sit and watch as tears go by."

It was his dad's voice. His dad sang to him when he was sick. Was he sick? No… no Dean was sick. Dean had fought so hard, had saved him, saved them…

"Sam."

So tired. He wanted to hear the voice again.

"Sam, wake up."

Sam blinked. Youthful confusion from a dreamscape of safety and memory began to fade as reality brushed against his sleep-warm face. He rubbed a clumsy hand against his eyes, bringing the room into focus.

Bobby stood in front of him, the white curtains pulled around Dean's bed framing the world-weary hunter like the wings of an angel. Sam felt Bobby tap the toe of his boot once more, just to be sure he was really awake.

"Bobby?"

"Need your help, boy."

"Dean?" Sam sat up straighter, looking around.

"He's okay," Bobby assured him. "He's asleep."

Sam's bleary eyes found his brother, laying still, IV tubes connected to his right arm, bandages peeking out from under his hospital gown at his shoulder.

"He's okay?" Sam asked, needing reassurance that he hadn't slept through a pivotal moment, hadn't missed something he needed to hold on to.

"He's gonna be," Bobby said gruffly. "With some rest. Your brother is one tough kid."

"I know," Sam leaned forward, elbows on the edge of Dean's bed, his face in his hands. Images like slides from a View Master flashed behind his eyes.

Tough didn't begin to describe the stature of the brother he'd been looking up to his whole life. Strong got close. Loyal was in the mix, as was reckless, rebellious, stubborn…

"Sam," Bobby rested a hand on Sam's shoulder. "You need to come with me."

"Leave him?" Sam looked up, unable to mask the plea in his eyes as expertly as his brother so often could.

"He'll be okay for a bit," Bobby promised. "We still got some trouble back at the bar—need your help to hide the Impala."

Sam wanted to grip the sheets in tight fists and plant his feet stubbornly. "I don't know, Bobby…"

"Go, Sam." A voice like river gravel startled Sam. He looked over at Dean, surprised to see a slit of green peeking out from between barely parted lashes.

"You're awake?"

"Sorta," Dean rolled his head, pain folding a line between his brows. "Feel like hammered shit."

"Look like it, too," Sam grinned.

"Not possible," Dean sighed, closing his eyes. "Go with Bobby."

"You sure, Dean?" Trying not to sound five. Trying not to need to be close.

"What am I going to do, Sam?" Dean asked, eyes still closed.

"Uh, try to leave, maybe," Sam pointed out.

Dean's grin was quick. "Not much of a danger in that," he assured his brother. "Can barely keep m'eyes open."

"Abe's waiting in the truck," Bobby told them. "We gotta get some things in place to keep Maggie out of trouble with all of this."

"Figured," Dean said. "Bobby."

"Yeah," Bobby looked at Dean.

"Where's Claire?"

"She's here," Bobby said. "Psyche ward someplace."

"She talking?"

"Not sure," Bobby answered. "They haven't let us see her all night."

"'Kay."

"I'll take care of the car, Dean," Sam stood, resting his fingertips on Dean's leg.

"You better," Dean opened his eyes slightly to fold his brother in. "Or I'll have your ass."

"Uh-huh," Sam smirked, following Bobby out of the room, pausing at the doorway to look back. Dean was once more asleep, but his mouth relaxed in a small smile.

Sam shortened his stride to keep in step with Bobby as they made their way out of the hospital. He hummed unconsciously to a beat in his head, his thoughts on Dean, on what waited for them at the safe house, on getting his brother out of there, of going home

"Didn't know you were a Stones fan," Bobby commented as he pushed against the metal cross bar on the hospital exit door.

Sam pulled up short, pausing mid-hum, then followed Bobby outside. "Yeah," he grinned slightly. "Me neither."

The morning was wet. Sunlight clung in wet droplets from the trees around the hospital, from the rear-view mirror of the truck, running along the curbs and edges of the road. Sam felt as if the world had been crying since they arrived in Plummer, Minnesota. Rain had constantly saturated the hunt, leaving impressions of the experience like footprints in the mud of his weary mind.

He climbed into the truck next to Abe, Maggie sitting quietly between Abe and Bobby, and stared out through the raindrop-splattered window. An odd pull began in his chest, as if the turning wheels drawing him away from Dean were stretching a string to the point of snapping.

He hadn't realized how close the hospital was to the Hideout. The ride in the back of the truck last night had felt like it had taken eons, each tremor and cry of Dean's pain-wracked body slamming into him with the frustrated helplessness of one doomed to simply watch. He'd remembered hanging on to Dean's hot, limp hand as though releasing it would mean giving up, and he was damned if he was going to ever give up on his brother.

"Uh, Bobby?" Sam sat up straighter, looking more intently through the window.

"I see it," Bobby growled.

Lights flashed, red and blue and brilliant white, silently in front of Maggie's house.

"How'd they find out?" Abe wondered aloud. "Unless…"

"Lloyd," Sam guessed, venom in his voice at the feel of the name in his mouth. "Sal said he ran into him in town. He must've convinced the cops to come check out the alien that killed his friend Jones."

"Well, fuck me sideways," Maggie breathed. "No way we're going to be able to explain all this."

"It's not over 'till the fat lady sings," Bobby stated, rotating the wheel of the truck roughly down the road just north of Maggie's house. "Right, Sam?"

"I don't hear a fat lady." Sam gripped the door frame to keep from falling against Abe.

"You got an idea?" Abe asked.

"Maggie, your house is a wreck, but there's no body there," Bobby said, turning left at a break in an old fence line and bouncing the foursome in the truck around like billiard balls on a break. "I say Sam and I go in to the safe house, clear out the weapons, hide my truck and the Impala, you and Abe go into the bar and wait there with… with Yeats."

"Just… wait for the cops?" Maggie asked, voice shaking from the force of Abe's truck jarring across the rutted land.

"They're going to make their way down to the bar," Bobby said.

"What do we say?" Abe asked.

"Tell 'em that you don't know what happened. You're lucky to be alive," Bobby replied. "They're going to have too many bodies on their hands as it is, and there is no evidence that you did any of it."

"Bobby—" Sam broke in.

"We move fast enough," Bobby said, slamming on the breaks behind the bar, out of sight from the two police cruisers up on the hill, "you and Dean will never have been here."

The foursome exploded from the truck, bodies bent on action, faces dark with purpose. Sam followed Bobby into the safe house, grimacing at the stench from Sal's body, empathizing immediately with Maggie and Abe and what they would encounter in the bar.

Accustomed to clearing out and leaving no trail, Sam made quick work of gathering their weapons and supplies, tugging Dean's knife from the floorboard where it had been lodged since the day before, erasing all evidence of their visit, except—

"Bobby, there's a lot of blood here," he whispered. Dean's, Sal's, Lobo's. Too much to hide.

"Bring the sheets and bandages with us," Bobby said. "We'll burn them later. The rest… hell, unless this little town has a forensic team, it could all have come from him." Bobby jerked his head toward Sal's body.

"What if they hear the car?" Sam asked, anxiously as he dropped the bags into the trunk.

Bobby ran a hand over his mouth, eyes darting as he searched his mind quickly for a solution. As if produced as the product of silent prayer, the shrill whistle of a train sounded in the distance. Sam met Bobby's blue eyes and answered his grin with a flash of dimples. As one, they moved to their vehicles, counting quietly until the train crossed the tracks just outside of the safe house and when the whistle blew again, Sam fired up the Impala.

Dean's music filled the interior of the car, and the tight pang in Sam's chest twisted sharply, causing him to catch his breath.

"Never opened myself this way. Life is ours, we live it our way. All these words I don't just say, and nothing else matters…"

Lips ticking up in an automatic smile, Sam reached for the volume before he shifted gears, bringing Dean closer to him through the lyrics of the song.

"Trust I seek and I find in you. Every day for us something new. Open mind for a different view, and nothing else matters…"

Pressing his palm flat on the wheel, Sam spun the big black car in an arch and followed Bobby's hidden truck back through the muddy field and up the back of the large hill, splashing wet, dirty water up over the finish, bottoming out twice and gritting his teeth until he was able to feel the back wheels once more on the road. Bobby led him to a cluster of trees nearly a mile from the bar and there they hid both vehicles from the inquisitive eyes of the local police.

"Dean's gonna kill me," Sam said, closing the door and looking at the mess covering Dean's beloved car.

"Eh," Bobby waved a hand at him. "Just think about what he'd do if they towed her to the impound."

Sam shot a look at him. "Don't even kid about that, Bobby."

"C'mon," Bobby started down the road. "We still got work to do."

www

Abe knew that leaving Dean behind at the hospital was one of the hardest things Sam had had to do that morning. He'd hated it, but he did it. Because it was what had to be done, and if Abe learned anything from these brothers, it was that they did what had to be done. He held that close to him as he followed Maggie into the Hideout.

The cloistered air reeked of death, of darkness, of despair. His friend had died here. He felt Maggie's determination tremble through the air as she stalwartly crossed the dimly lit room and stood before Yeats' body.

Abe was afraid to look at him. He'd seen head wounds before. He'd seen death. But the last days had taken him to a place inside that he was afraid he wouldn't come back from if he saw much more.

"He never told me he loved me, you know," Maggie said suddenly, startling Abe as her smoky voice sliced through the deafening silence.

"Yeats?" Abe asked, confused, still standing in the doorway.

"He saved me. He slept with me. And he let me tell him."

Abe nodded quietly. Bobby.

"But Yeats…" Maggie's voice tangled against tears at the base of her throat. "Yeats told me. Every day. In little odd ways. The way he'd always walk the perimeter before I closed. Or told me about his past. The way he… the way he stayed," she said on a sob.

Abe stepped up behind her, resting a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"He didn't deserve this," she whispered, her voice growing hard. She turned to look at Abe over her shoulder. "But neither did Claire."

Abe simply nodded.

"How is it possible to want vengeance and feel pity at the same time?" Maggie asked.

Abe looked down, helpless in his own confliction.

"Hold it right there!"

The authoritative bark startled them and Abe released Maggie, turning to face one of the two policemen with his hands up.

"What the hell is going on here?"

Abe opened his mouth, stepping forward.

"It came in the night," Maggie whispered, her voice fragile, her words broken. Abe froze.

"What did?" The policeman kept his gun on Abe, motioning with his head to his partner.

"I don't know," Maggie said. "But it killed—"

"Aw, fuck. Aw, shit on a stick, Bryant," exclaimed the cop who had moved further into the bar and found Jones' body. "Something… something tore through this guy."

Abe glanced over, watching as the young cop pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, his throat working.

"Can you tell what it was?"

"Ain't no alien monster."

Abe met Maggie's eyes for a fraction of a second before he looked back at the cop.

"We… we think it was an animal," he offered. "There's… another body… in the house out back."

"What about this guy?" The cop looked down at Yeats.

"He's my—" Maggie swallowed. "My friend. I think he… found them."

The sickly cop crouched over Yeats' pale, still form. "Got a bullet wound here, Bryant. Half his fuckin' face is gone."

"You shoot him?" Bryant demanded of Abe.

"No!" Abe answered automatically, hands raised again in reaction to the gun pointed his way.

"He did it himself," Maggie whispered again. "He did it himself."

The room grew quiet.

"We need to call this in," Bryant told them. "Get these bodies to the coroner. Someone's gonna want to question you two."

"Leave him," Maggie looked down at Yeats.

"Ma'am—"

"Please," Maggie said. "You can see it was suicide. Leave him to me."

"Isn't up to us, ma'am."

"No?"

Abe lowered his heads as Maggie stepped forward. Her eyes were flinty in the wan light.

"Who is it up to, then?"

"Well, there are protocols and paperwork—"

"That man was my friend. He had no one else. I'll take care of him." Her words were a barricade that none of the men in the room attempted to cross.

"We'll be back," Bryant stated.

As the cops backed out of the bar, heading toward the safe house, Maggie crouched beside Yeats.

"Maggie—" Abe started.

"His name," she said softly, brushing a sturdy, blunt-fingered hand over the top of Yeats' head. "Was Francis Duffy McCullough. He was 58 years old. He was a soldier. He was a fighter." She looked up at Abe, tears swimming in her bright green eyes. "He lived a hard life and made hard choices. He rarely spoke. He loved W.B. Yeats."

She turned back to Yeats' body, tears falling on the edge of the dead man's blue-tinged lips.

"And he was my friend," she finished.

Abe, knowing a eulogy when he heard one, stepped quietly away and left Maggie to her grief.

www

This time when Dean woke, it was with sudden, complete clarity and awareness. There was no gradual shift from oblivion, no peaceful roll out of the arms of rest. It was simply nothing and then everything. Commotion. Light, sound, texture.

Smell.

That acrid, antiseptic smell of bleach, ammonia, and disease that clung to hospitals and turned his stomach inside out. He hated even investigating in hospitals, let alone residing in one too long.

Almost immediately, he was aware of the presence of someone else in the room. Someone not Sam. Someone new. Pressing his hands flat on either side of his hips, Dean pushed himself up in the bed, wincing at the burn across the sensitive area of his stomach.

A nurse was moving around the end of his bed. A male nurse. Dean grimaced.

"You ready to get this out?" The middle-aged, pleasant-eyed man asked him.

"What's that?" Dean asked, surprised that his voice sounded so normal. His tongue felt twice its normal size. His lips were dry and cracking.

"Your catheter."

Dean felt his face heat up. "God, yes," he replied. Until the man had said something, he hadn't even been aware of the offending tube's existence.

"Gonna pinch a bit," the nurse commented, moving the sheets down and Dean's hospital gown up in that disinterested I see all this and more every day pal motion that intimidated the hell out of him.

"Ya think?" Dean fired back. He sucked in his breath, pinning his eyes to the ceiling as he felt the latex against his lower abdomen, then the quick burn and pull as the catheter was removed.

The sheets were lowered and Dean let out the air he'd been holding.

"How's your pain?"

"Okay."

The nurse raised a brow. "One to ten?"

"Uh… four," Dean lied.

"Can't help you if you don't tell me the truth," the nurse told him.

Dean simply leveled his eyes on the man, allowing him to check his blood pressure and temperature.

"122 over 82. Good. Temp's still a bit elevated, but that's to be expected with the infection you've been fighting."

"When can I get out of here?" Dean asked, his eyes darting to the door.

"Not up to me, kid," the nurse said, rolling the blood pressure cuff up and stuffing it into his rolling cart. "You still have an open wound, you know."

Dean tipped the sheets up. "They gonna pull that tube out?"

"Soon enough," the nurse replied. "Don't want that infection to come back, do you?"

"Not especially."

The nurse started to leave and Dean caught his attention. "Hey, man, uh, can I get some… pants?"

"Going somewhere?" The nurse replied.

"Just thought I'd… walk around a bit," Dean replied.

The nurse stared at him a moment. "Well, it's good to get you moving. Keep the packing over that tube. The gauze will absorb the—"

"Dude, I don't need details."

"Just take it easy," the nurse admonished with a shake of his head.

"Scouts honor," Dean lifted his hands to show his pledge.

Two hours, several cups of water, a visit to the restroom, and one pair of pants later, Sam still hadn't returned and Dean was restless. Still tethered to the IV pump that sent fluids and antibiotics into his ravaged system, Dean pulled the cord from the wall and made his way to the hallway, finding the directory just outside of the elevator.

"Psychiatrics, sixth floor," he intoned. "Right, so all the crazies who jump will actually kill themselves…"

He slid into the elevator, avoiding eye contact, and rode to the sixth floor. By the time he exited the elevator, though, he was leaning heavily on his IV stand, surprised by how weary his body became with just that simple act. He made his way slowly to the nurse's station.

"Hi," he greeted the forty-something woman sitting behind a computer screen, looking as if a sharp stick in the eye would be preferable to what she was currently doing. "Can you tell me what room Claire, uh…"

The woman raised a painted-on eyebrow, waiting.

"You know, she, uh," Dean ticked the warmth of his smile up to his eyes. "She never told me her last name."

"Drove her crazy, did you?" The woman asked, lips pursed in disapproval.

"Not exactly," Dean said. "Listen, she was brought in here the same time as me, and I just want to make sure she's okay."

"Honey, no one in this ward is okay."

Dean sighed, looking down, then lifted dangerous eyes. "She's Asian, dark eyes, small build, came in last night."

"I can't just give out room numbers."

Frustrated, Dean turned his back to the desk. Maybe this was a bad idea…

"…catatonic. Just stares, barely blinks. It's as if there's no one inside anymore."

Dean's ears perked up, catching wind of the voice and direction. He looked to his right and saw a heavy-set man in a white lab coat standing outside of a room, talking to another man who was frowning as he cleaned his glasses.

"And you say she was just dropped off? No family?" Dr. Glasses commented, sliding the spectacles back onto the bridge of his hawk-like nose.

"So it appears," Dr. Heavy took his arm and led him further down the hall, away from Dean.

Pushing off the counter, Dean headed toward the room the two doctors had just exited, relieved to find the door partly open. Quietly, he pushed through, wheeling his IV pole in behind him, and crossed to the bed.

Claire lay still, staring at the ceiling, unblinking. Her clothes had been removed and replaced by a white hospital gown, her wrists and ankles were strapped to the bed. Dean blinked at the way the harsh overhead light illuminated her scar, turning it almost purple against her translucent skin.

There weren't any chairs in the room; apparently patients in the psyche ward didn't receive many visitors. Dean leaned a hip against the bed, his belly burning from the exercise. He watched Claire's face, momentarily fascinated by the absolute vacancy of expression.

"Don't know why I'm here, really," he said, just to erase the quiet of the room, fill his ears with something besides the pounding of his own heart. "You kinda confuse the hell out of me."

For a moment, Dean thought of Gordon Walker. Of Lenore. Of black becoming gray and white fading to black. Of all he'd known to be true turning inside out with one promise. One loss. The absence of one person in his life.

"It sucks out loud what happened to you," Dean said, pushing out his bottom lip. "Can't say as I blame you for wanting to get back at those guys. Something like that happened to me…don't know what I'd do."

He looked down, running his thumb along the silver bar along the side of her bed. It was cool under the pad of his thumb.

"But…I couldn't let you kill my brother," he said softly. "Even if you never meant for that…thing to get in him. It did." Dean paused, turning his hand over and staring at the fine white scars on the back of it. "And I couldn't let that happen."

"You think I am the devil." Her voice was shocking. It was the sound of a bee trapped against glass, as if she were dragging air roughly against her vocal cords even as she spoke.

He'd heard that sound before.

"No," he answered. She continued to stare at the ceiling.

"You think I am evil," she said, and he shivered, sliding a hand across his belly. "You hate what I am. Hate that I hurt you."

"You didn't hurt me, Claire," Dean said. "Sal did."

"You resent my freedom. You wish you could be like me."

"Uh…" Dean's brows met across his nose and he tipped his head to the side. "Not…really."

"You want to punish those who hurt you. And I was able to."

Dean went suddenly cold as realization struck him. Claire wasn't speaking to him. Claire wasn't speaking at all. He moved cautiously to the side of the bed, leaning forward to look into Claire's eyes.

And gasped.

An image stared out at him. An image of a scarred, frightened girl, crouched inside of herself. Claire's face shifted slightly so that the image was hidden from him and her dark eyes met his. Her lips curled slightly in an empty smile.

The shattered voice spoke again. "You think I am the devil."

"What if I do?" Dean whispered.

The smile widened. "You'd be right."

www

"Longest freakin' mile in Minnesota," Sam complained.

"You gonna shut your pie hole or you gonna make me do it for you?" Bobby groused.

"Had to go and park all the way back there, didn't you?"

"You always this much of a pain in the ass, or are you just filling in for Dean?"

"Listen, old man—"

"Who you calling old, Too Tall?"

They stopped in the center of the road, facing each other, panting a bit from exertion, worn thin on high-stress and no sleep. Sam heard the whine a fraction of a second before Bobby's eyes widened.

"Holy… it's that wolf," Bobby whispered.

Sam whipped around. Lobo was moving toward them, out of the cluster of trees, limping slowly, lips curling around the whimper of sound that should have been a growl, but was lost in weakness.

"Oh, God," Sam exclaimed and moved toward the wounded animal, unthinking.

"Sam, wait!" Bobby cautioned.

Lobo snapped when Sam came too close, too fast. His teeth were bared, lips flinching upwards. The hairs that weren't matted with blood stood high on his back and his ears went flat against his head, stopped Sam short.

"Easy," Sam soothed. "Easy, boy. I know I'm not Dean, but… I'm not gonna hurt you." Sam eased forward steady hand out, careful not to meet the wolf-dog's gaze. "Just… just take it easy, Lobo."

Sam succeeded in getting close enough to rest the back of his hand against Lobo's muzzle, and visibly relaxed when the animal picked its ears up. Gently running one hand down the wolf's neck as Lobo licked tentatively at his other, Sam lay the hairs back down with a wide swath, finding the wound with one stroke. Lobo yelped, but Sam continued his litany of comfort.

"Bobby," Sam said softly, "this looks like a bullet wound."

"When was he hit?" Bobby asked from the edge of the road.

"Maggie said when Yeats and Claire were fighting," Sam said, looking up. "Do you think… I mean, is it possible that Yeats was shooting at Lobo to keep him from Claire and was… I don't know, hit by a ricochet or something?"

Bobby ran a hand over his beard, tugging at the coarse hairs. "Suppose it's possible… but I thought… Maggie said Yeats was already down when Lobo went for Claire."

"She could have been wrong… it's a lot to take in, y'know."

Sam crouched, wrapping his arms on either side of the wounded wolf.

"What the hell are you doing?" Bobby asked.

"Taking him with us," Sam grunted lifting the animal into his arms, staggering a little under the weight.

"You're gonna carry him back?" Bobby asked, disbelief plain in his voice.

"Yeah," Sam stepped back onto the road, thankful when Lobo didn't struggle.

"You didn't even want to walk it yourself—"

"Bobby," Sam hushed him. "This is Dean's talisman. I'm not leaving him behind."

Bobby looked at Sam a moment, seeing perhaps a junkyard and the broken body of the Impala between them.

"Okay," Bobby sighed. "Let me know if he gets heavy."

"If?"

www

He wasn't going to make it back. He may as well sit down in the elevator and wait for the doors to open and some kindly doctor or nurse to scoop him up on a gurney and wheel him into oblivion. His body trembled, his belly burned, his eyes ached.

And he was completely freaked out beyond rational thought.

When the doors opened, and Sam stood on the other side, a frantic look in his eyes, Dean nearly fell forward with relief.

"Where the hell were you?" They said in unison.

"Me?" Echoed again.

Sam stopped, his lips a thin line, his eyes unamused.

"Nice bitchface, Sammy," Dean wheezed.

"C'mon, you freakin' stubborn ass," Sam took Dean's arm, carefully sliding it over his shoulder and helping him wheel the IV pole back to his room.

A bed never looked so good. Using Sam as balance, Dean gingerly sat on the edge of the bed, rolling onto his untethered arm and panting as he lay back on the bed.

"Happy, Walker McWalkerson?" Sam lifted an eyebrow. "Scared the shit out of me when I got here and you were gone. Plus, you missed your dose of pain meds."

"Call 'em back," Dean panted.

"Ought to let you suffer," Sam grumbled, picking up the call button. "Where the hell were you, anyway?"

Dean licked his dry lips, fumbling for the plastic cup and drinking deeply. "Man, this sucks out loud."

"Dean."

"I just needed to… get out of here for a bit," Dean said. "You weren't back yet, so…"

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that," Sam sighed.

"What took you so long?" Dean asked, closing his eyes as a wave of pain rocked him.

"Uh… I had to move the Impala."

Dean lifted a brow.

"She's okay, but… she needs a bath."

"Sam…"

"But I found Lobo!" Sam interrupted, immediately redeeming himself.

Dean started to sit up, hissing in pain as his wound physically stopped him. "Sonofabitch," he gasped. "No more belly wounds."

"I'll put that on our contract," Sam said, grinning as he sat on the chair Abe had vacated earlier that morning.

"Well?"

"Well, what?"

Dean rolled his eyes. "Lobo, dude. Is he okay?"

"I think he was shot," Sam said, rushing to finish when Dean paled. "But he's going to be okay. I got him back to Abe. That man knows his stuff. He had him cleaned and stitched before I headed back here with Bobby."

"Bobby's here?"

"Yeah," Sam tossed a look over his shoulder. "He, uh… I think he's avoiding Maggie. Said he could handle the insurance stuff for us."

"What about… y'know, back at the bar," Dean asked, eyeing the door. Pressing his hand carefully against his belly, avoiding the tube positioned to drain out the infection, Dean growled, "They making a fresh batch of the stuff or what?"

"Take it easy," Sam soothed. "They'll be here. Stuff's still kind of a mess back at the bar, but we're covered."

"Not really us I'm worried about," Dean said softly.

"Yeah, I know," Sam answered as a nurse appeared with Dean's pain medication, injecting it into the IV.

When they were alone once more, Sam sighed, settling back into the chair. "You're probably safer here for awhile," he said, as if anticipating Dean's question.

"What about you?"

"I'll stay with you."

"What, sleep in the chair?" Dean scoffed.

"Why not? Slept in worse places," Sam reminded him.

"True."

"Hey, Sam?"

"Yeah?"

"I went up to see Claire," Dean said.

Sam sat forward. "And?"

"It's, uh… it's in her," Dean ran a hand over his lips. "It's like she's gone."

"Not our fault, Dean," Sam said quickly, his voice hard. "We had a job to do."

"Did we?" Dean looked at him. "I mean… we kinda stumbled into this one… and if it weren't for that sonuvabitch Sal and his buddies… we might not have been here when Claire—"

"Doesn't matter," Sam shook his head once. "We were here, it happened. That's life, man."

"Screwed up life," Dean sighed, leaning his head back, letting his eyes fall closed for a moment. Sam sounded so…certain. As if he'd thought about it and decided on an answer to a question Dean hadn't thought to ask. Sam is not going to go darkside… "Can't help but think if…"

"What?" Sam prompted when Dean paused.

"Well, if Yeats had just… What if he'd done one thing differently…"

"We can't live our lives around what if, though, Dean," Sam said. "I mean, what if I'd killed Dad in the cabin?"

Dean jerked, looking at Sam, stunned. Sam's face was stone, his eyes brimming.

"You don't think I wonder about that? Every day?" The tears balanced on the edge of Sam's lashes glinted in the harsh light of the hospital room. "What if I'd killed him? Killed that demon right then. I mean… Dad's dead anyway, right? And we're still fighting that thing. And you… you had to promise Dad… promise me…"

Dean tried to speak. But his breath had left him.

"You had to make a promise that's killing you slowly each day," Sam said, one tear slipping past his lashes and bouncing down a stubbled cheek.

"No, Sammy," Dean shook his head, his strangled voice as certain as Sam's had been earlier. "It's not."

"Dean—"

"It's not because my promise was to save you." Dean's voice grew stronger as he began to believe his own words. "I told him I'd watch out for you. Take care of you. Just like always."

Sam huffed out a small laugh, looking down and shaking his head. Dean watched him run the thumb of one hand in a circle on the inside of his opposite hand. Sam's hands… Dean looked down at his own, remembering vividly the way blood had poured from invisible wounds, slicking his fingers with the possibility of death.

"Hey, Sam, promise me something," Dean asked, still gazing at his hands.

"Sure, anything."

"Don't take off on me, okay?"

"Dean, I didn't know—"

"I'm not talking about Texas," Dean looked over at him, working to shield his eyes, feeling himself fail. "I'm talking about when you went to Peoria."

"Oh," Sam looked down again, licking his lips. "I was… I needed to know. This whole… this idea that I'm something… different it's just too—"

"You're not different," Dean asserted. "You're my pain in the ass little brother."

Sam lifted his eyes. "Who has visions."

Dean shrugged.

"And can move stuff with his mind."

"Oh, jeeze, one time," Dean rolled his eyes. "Not like you're a friggin' Halliwell."

Sam smirked.

"What?" Dean demanded innocently. "I told you daytime TV sucks."

"Thanks, Dean," Sam said softly.

Dean smiled at him, still for a moment, allowing the quiet connection between them to weave, hold, touch even as they remained apart.

"Go make yourself useful and find me something decent to eat in this joint," Dean demanded, pulling his eyes away from Sam's. "I'm starving."

"You're gonna be asleep the minute I leave," Sam observed, apparently not having missed the slow, weighted blinks of his brother's green eyes.

"So, I'll have something to wake up to," Dean yawned. "Don't be long."

"I won't," Sam promised.

www

Three days, four hours, and 27 minutes after their harrowing ride to the hospital in the back of Abe's truck, Sam was walking alongside a pouting Dean as an orderly wheeled him outside of the hospital to Bobby's waiting truck.

"Where's the Impala?" Dean immediately asked, as Sam had known he would.

"Back at Maggie's," Sam replied, smiling his thanks to the orderly and reaching for Dean's hand.

"I got it," Dean lightly smacked Sam's hand away. "Coulda walked down here on my own, you know."

"Whatever you say, Dean," Sam placated, hovering his hands close to his brother's back as Dean reached up to haul himself inside the cab with a grunt of effort.

"Hey, Bobby," Dean greeted, sighing as he settled himself between Bobby and Sam. "You our driver for the day?"

"Don't get used to it," Bobby grumbled.

"Gotta say," Dean glanced at Sam with a practiced smirk, then back to Bobby. "I'm surprised you're still hanging around."

"Why's that?" Bobby asked, easing the truck out onto the road.

"Well… 'cause of Maggie," Dean said.

Bobby frowned. "Yeah, well," he sighed. "Might be time to clear the air on a few things."

Dean folded his lips down in appreciation. "Very mature."

"Don't you start," Bobby snapped. "I been getting it in spades from your brother."

"Yeah?" Dean glanced at Sam and smiled. Sam grinned back, silent. "Well, good. Gotta keep you sharp, old man."

At that, Sam barked out a laugh.

"Man," Dean sighed, laying his head back on the seat. "I'm ready to go home."

"You aren't going anywhere for awhile," Sam said.

"What? Why?" Dean brought his head up sharply, wincing as the move tugged at his still-healing belly.

"Why?" Sam narrowed his eyes at his stubborn brother. "Because you still have packing in your wound, because you're weak from fever, and because…" Sam sighed. "Because the Impala's not ready for the road."

"Sam…"

"I'll take care of it," Sam assured him.

"What did you do?"

"Hey, ease up," Bobby snapped. "He kept her from the impound, didn't he?"

"Jesus, Bobby, don't even kid about that stuff," Dean breathed.

"You two will stay up at Maggie's place until Dean can travel," Bobby said.

"What about the cops?" Dean asked.

"They won't be back," Sam assured him. "Not for awhile anyway. They're on a hunt for a mad mountain lion or something."

"Not gonna get Lobo are they?" Dean asked, brows pulled together in worry.

"Christ, you and that dog," Sam muttered, his dimples flashing.

"What?" Dean returned, innocently. "I'm just asking."

"Where are you going to stay, Bobby?" Sam asked. Dean turned to look at the driver, interest piqued.

"I'll, uh… I'll stay at the safe house."

"Not with Maggie?"

"Boys," Bobby sighed. "There's something you need to learn about women and hunting, if you haven't already." He glanced over at them. "They don't mix. You can't love one and do the other, or do one and love the other. Just ain't that easy."

Dean looked down, turning his hands over in his lap, quiet. Sam watched his brother a moment, then stared out of the window, thoughts on a fading memory of a blonde beauty with the devil's smile and the feather-light touch of an angel.

"They always worry you won't come back, and they always need more than you think you can give."

"So, we're all we got, that what you're saying?" Sam asked sullenly. "No chance for something in the future?"

Bobby shook his head, turning into Maggie's driveway. "Nah, not saying that at all. Just saying that there are sacrifices, and both of you have to be willing to make 'em. But she'll end up making the most. And no one can live like that for long."

"You going to make it up to her?" Dean asked.

"Not sure I can," Bobby confessed, turning off the truck, then lifted his eyes to see Maggie standing on the porch, waiting for them. "'Specially with the way things are now." He looked over at the brothers, his eyes full of obligation and hiding a well of love.

"Might be worth a shot," Dean shrugged. "Never know."

Bobby shrugged, opening the door and sliding out. Sam reached back to help Dean, keeping silent when Dean let him. They moved toward the porch, looking up at Maggie with caution in their eyes.

"Welcome back, Dean," she said softly. "Good to see some color in your face."

"Thanks."

"I set you up in the downstairs guest room. Sam you can go upstairs if you want."

"That's okay, Maggie," Sam said, his hand on Dean's elbow.

"Figured as much," Maggie tilted her head to Bobby, not looking directly at him. "Need your help with some… with Yeats."

"We, uh, doing it tonight?" Bobby asked.

Maggie nodded, then turned to head back into the house.

Dean looked at Sam. "Doing what?"

"Funeral," Sam said.

"Ah."

Sam helped Dean to their room, seeing that Maggie had truly anticipated his decision to stay close to Dean and made up two twin beds on the opposite sides of the room, their duffels on the floor in between. Dean eased into bed, using his elbows to lay back and closed his eyes on a sigh.

Sam sat on the opposite bed, hands between his knees, watching his brother.

"That you?"

"Huh?" Sam brought his eyes into focus at Dean's voice.

"Are you humming?"

Sam paused, thinking, realizing that a song from what felt like a forgotten dream was tickling the back of his throat. "You said Dad always did for me."

Dean turned his head on the pillow, drawing his left leg up to tent his knee. "Yeah, he did. When you were sick. It calmed you down."

Sam simply smiled, and continued to hum.

"Stones, huh?" Dean commented.

"Don't ask."

Night came too swiftly. Dean stood next to him in the dark, but Sam felt very alone. Yeats' body was wrapped, resting on a pyre. Maggie stood at his feet with a torch, Bobby at his head with the eyes of a lost man. Abe stood on the other side of Dean, quiet and solemn.

"Life is a crazy mess sometimes," Maggie spoke up, startling Sam. "We spend so many days, months… hell years being angry at someone for not fitting into our idea of what they needed to be and… we waste all that time."

Sam caught his breath, memories of another funeral pyre, another night, welling inside, and wafting over him.

"Yeats would have hated seeing us all standing around here. Woulda hated seeing tears. He… he was a tough bastard," Maggie continued. "But, I guess we all have our breaking points."

Sam swallowed, then felt the weight of his brother's shoulder resting solidly against his arm. He looked over, concerned, then realized that Dean wasn't weak. He was offering him strength. Grateful, needing the connection, Sam leaned subtly back, accepting the help.

Maggie shoved the torch into the pyre, igniting the lighter fluid and wood.

"I'm not ready to break," she said. "And I'm done wasting time."

As Sam watched, she moved around the pyre, the orange flames illuminating her short blonde hair like a halo, her eyes glinting like the sparks of embers that drifted skyward and died in the cool air of night. Stepping up to Bobby, Maggie reached out, pulled his left hand from his jacket pocket, gripped it tightly, then turned and started for the house, pulling Bobby along behind her, shock clear on his face.

The remaining trio stood silently, dumbstruck.

"Many people think," Abe said softly after a moment, "that if you take your own life, you are denied the peace promised in Heaven. However, if you sacrifice your life, you are given a place of honor."

"So," Dean said, his voice low, gruff. "Which do you think Yeats will get?"

Abe turned to look at the brothers. "I think his life was a sacrifice," he said. "I think death was his peace."

He looked down for a moment, then moved off into the darkness.

"He ever confuse the hell out of you?" Dean asked after a moment.

Sam huffed out a quick, surprised laugh. "Yeah."

"I know what you're thinking, Sam," Dean said.

"I thought I was the psychic one."

"We're always going to miss him," Dean leaned away from Sam, reaching up to brace a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Right?"

Sam looked down, running his tongue over his lip. "Yeah."

They stayed until the fire had burned to coals and the heated glow turned their faces from human to feral in the dancing shadows. They stayed to watch over Yeats. They stayed, because it was what had to be done.

www

The sun warmed his upturned face as the wind teased his too-long hair. He needed a cut, but was happy to have been able to shave the last few days. There was only so much stubble his face could handle before he wanted to scratch it off.

Leaning against the white-washed post of Maggie's front porch, Dean absently stroked the soft fur behind Lobo's ears, the big dog's head resting comfortably on Dean's thigh. Lobo sighed sleepily in contentment. Dean carefully ran his hand along the animal's side, marveling at the way his torn, bloody body was healing.

"Kind of a matched pair, huh?" Dean said softly.

Just that morning he'd removed the packing from the still-open wound in his belly, cursing loudly and imaginatively as the saturated gauze stung and tugged at the healing meat of his abdomen. The gauze he placed over the shrinking hole would continue to soak up drainage for several days, but he could already see and feel a marked improvement.

He tired a lot easier than he would like, but Maggie was enjoying caring for him. And Sam wouldn't let him out of his sight for more than five minutes. Having Bobby up at the house helped that. Dean wondered how long that would last, but contented himself with seeing a smile on his old friend's face for the first time since they'd broke in on him looking for John.

"Wounds are healing well," a voice commented from his right.

Dean looked over at Abe. "Him or me?"

"Both," Abe smiled.

"You going somewhere?" Dean frowned. "You're all… dressed up."

Gone was the red flannel and T-shirt. Gone was the sensible braid. Gone was the silver earring. Abe wore a black suede jacket, fringes decorated in small beads. His long black hair was loose, flowing down his back with three large white feathers fixed in various positions framing his face and at the back of his head.

He still wore his jeans and boots, but he simply felt different to Dean.

"I've made a decision," Abe said.

Dean felt his stomach drop slightly. "Yeah?"

"I'm going to return to my people."

"Okay…" Dean commented, not quite understanding.

Abe looked at the ground, then slowly lifted his eyes to regard the hazy, sun-drenched horizon. "When I left, it was for me. I couldn't let go of the idea that there were other…creatures…like the wendigos out there. That I might be able to do something about it. That I could…" he glanced at Dean. "Could be a hero."

"You are a hero, man," Dean assured him.

Abe shook his head. "No," he said. "I am simply a man. I wanted to be more. But I saw the reality of your life this time like I hadn't experienced it before." Abe reached over and twisted the silver bangle around his wrist. "I lost someone very dear to me," he said. "She was my light. My last and best reason for living."

Dean watched him, silent, rubbing Lobo's ears.

"After that, I simply…existed. Until I met you two. I wanted a piece of the life you led, the devotion I saw, the connection I witnessed. The closeness between you two was…"

A low rumble caught their attention, and Dean turned to look toward the empty area and watched as Sam pulled the filthy Impala next to the house.

"Son of a bitch!" Dean yelped in outrage, surging painfully to his feet as Sam climbed out of the mud-caked vehicle with a creak of metal. "What the hell did you do to my car?"

Lobo likewise scrambled to his feet.

"Wait!" Sam held up his hands as if not sure who was more threatening, the wolf or Dean. "Before you go all Goodfellas on me, I'm just about to clean it up."

"You sure as hell better."

"Untwist your boxers already," Sam frowned, reaching between his shoulder blades and pulling his T-shirt off, sun already reflecting off of the beads of sweat on his shoulders. "I got the bucket of suds right here."

"And wax?" Dean demanded, slowly resettling himself on the porch step. Lobo instantly resettled himself next to Dean, resting a head on Dean's leg and nuzzling Dean's hand to encourage him to resume his petting.

"Yes, your Highness," Sam muttered, opening the passenger door and tossing his T-shirt inside.

"So, yeah, like I was saying about your closeness…" Abe grinned.

Dean chuckled slightly. "Man, you can't live with your brother in your pocket and not snap at each other once in awhile. I'm honestly surprised we don't do it more often."

Dean tipped his head against the post, watching as Sam turned the keys to the first position on the car, ejected the Metallica tape from the player and began to spin the knob. The door behind Dean banged and he looked over to see Bobby step out, tucking in his shirt.

"Dude, seriously!" Dean frowned good-naturedly. "It's like ten in the morning!"

Bobby adjusted his hat. "What's your point?"

Dean bit the inside of his cheek. "I mean…already?"

Bobby worked his lips into a smirk of satisfaction. "Still."

Dean pressed his hand against this stomach as he laughed, his muscles still tender.

"What's that brother of yours up to?" Bobby asked, tilting his head as ZZ Top wafted across the lot.

"When you wake up in the morning and the light is hurt your head, the first thing you do when you get up out of bed, is hit that streets a-runnin' and try to beat the masses, and go get yourself some cheap sunglasses. Oh yeah!"

"Giving the baby a bath," Dean said.

"Does a bath have to be so damn loud?"

"Hey," Dean laughed. "I were you, I'd stop complaining and get in on the action."

"Oh, good point," Bobby headed down the stairs as Sam cranked the volume, closed the door and slid a towel under the car to begin pulling the tufts of earth free from the undercarriage.

"He's killing me," Dean shook his head, watching.

Abe smiled, sitting down next to Dean, resting a hand on Lobo's side. "I have to leave," Abe said.

"I figured," Dean answered, feeling an odd sensation of loneliness at the thought.

"I have to make atonement for some things that I turned my back on."

Dean nodded, silently wishing he could do the same, knowing that if he said the words aloud, Abe would never understand.

"I thought I wanted what you had, Dean Winchester," Abe looked down at his fingers as they sifted through Lobo's thick fur. "I never truly realized what you've sacrificed to get it."

The crazy burst of electricity dancing a beat through the air as Angus worked the strings of a guitar pulled Dean's eyes toward the car and Sam standing, clad only in jeans, spraying off the dust and mud with his thumb pressed over the end of the hose.

"I was caught In the middle of a railroad track. I looked 'round, And I knew there was no turning back. My mind raced and I thought what could I do? And I knew there was no help, no help from you. Sound of the drums. Beatin' in my heart. The thunder of guns! Tore me apart. You've been - thunderstruck!"

"Y'know," Dean said, his eyes on his brother as Sam listened to Dean's music, washed Dean's car, "when I was growing up, I wondered what other kids did when they went home to the same place every night. I wondered what it felt like to… to just not know that this stuff was out there."

He looked down at Lobo for a moment as Sam played air guitar on the garden hose.

"When my dad made me promise to, uh, to watch out for Sammy," he looked back up at his brother who was now negotiating with Bobby for help washing the Impala in exchange for turning the sudsy water onto Bobby's truck. "I never thought anything of it. It's just what I did. But…"

Dean smiled, years of war and struggle falling away with the worn, barroom voice sliding through the air and making Sam pause with a soap-filled sponge in his hand to turn and meet Dean's eyes.

"Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy. Out in the back seat of my '60 Chevy. Workin' on mysteries without any clues. Workin' on our night moves. Tryin' to make some front page drive-in news. Workin' on our night moves…"

"But?" Abe prompted.

"I realized that if Dad hadn't raised us like he did—a life on the run, always fighting something, never knowing when or where our next meal was coming from—then his asking what he did… it would have phased me. It would have been a sacrifice, y'know?"

He saw Abe nod sagely out of the corners of his eyes, his eyes on Sam's sad smile of a memory he'd been told about but could never experience for himself.

"We are who we were meant to be," Abe said. "I am not a hunter. Not in the way you are. It's my purpose to save people in other ways, I suppose."

"You do alright," Dean grinned. "I mean… it's twice now I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you."

"I simply crossed your path," Abe shrugged.

Familiar harmony broke across Dean's ears and he lifted his head.

"Carry on my wayward son. There'll be peace when you are done. Lay your weary head to rest. Don't you cry no more."

"I better check to make sure he gets her rinsed good," Dean said, lifting Lobo's head from his lap and pushed himself stiffly to his feet. Taking two hesitant steps from the porch, Dean paused, turning.

"Hey, Abe?"

Abe looked up at him, his hand resting contentedly on the dog's side.

"I want you to, uh…" Dean swallowed. "I want you to take him."

Abe frowned. "Lobo?"

Dean nodded. "I can't take him… not in the way we live. And he's not well enough to be out there on his own."

"He's a wild thing, Dean," Abe protested. "And besides… he was meant for you."

Dean looked down at his hands. Clean, scarred, devoid of blood. "He did what he was supposed to for me. Maybe he needs someone to watch out for him, now."

Abe looked at the wolf and Lobo raised his head, solemnly regarding the Ojibwa in return.

"I'll protect him as if he were my own," Abe promised.

"Well, he is yours," Dean said. "He doesn't belong to me."

Lobo looked over at Dean.

Abe smiled. "I wouldn't be so sure."

Dean looked down, a secret smile playing on his lips, then made his way over to Sam.

"Masquerading as a man with a reason. My charade is the event of the season. And if I claim to be a wise man. It surely means that I don't know."

"What are you doing over here?" Sam asked, soap perched in a point at the end of his nose.

"Helping," Dean said. "You missed a spot."

"Jerk," Sam grinned, flicking the hose up quickly to splash Dean's face with icy water.

Dean blinked the droplets from his lashes, his lips tipping up in a genuine grin. "Bitch."

Sam handed him a towel and pointed him toward the trunk. "Don't push it," he admonished. "I'm not carrying your ass inside."

"Fine, fine. You're so bossy," Dean grumbled with a smile, running the towel slowly over the clean, black metal.

The sun tilted at a gentle angle in the mid-morning sky, heat filtered by a breeze and illuminated all below with a soft light that held hope and purpose, breaking through the shadowed corners and drifting easily over the gray at the edges of their sight.

It was a moment that could not last, but Dean knew he'd hold it close when darkness returned as it inevitably would. He would think back on the light bathing his brother in a cloak of lost innocence, his home glittering and clean, and his hands, rhythmically circling all in a blueprint of protection.

"Carry on my wayward son. There'll be peace when you are done. Lay your weary head to rest. Don't you cry no more."