Sam rooted through his own duffle in search of a pair of clean socks and had to give up on it. Even before they'd come to Grace's, doing laundry had been looming at the horizon and they had never gotten around to it. Of course, for the first week or so it hadn't really mattered anyway. But now it did and Sam was actually grossed out by the fact that he had no clean clothes left. He frowned down at his bare feet, then shifted his attention to Dean's duffle. With a bit of luck ... He made a face, glanced at the door while balling a fist with his left hand repeatedly, then decided to chance it.

He opened Dean's duffle and rooted through it for a moment, looking for clean socks he was fairly certain he wouldn't find, and stopped short when he spotted Dean's journal. He stared at it for a moment, then glanced at the door before picking it up. The idea that Dean would use it for anything other than jotting down clues to their various jobs was downright ridiculous, but Sam couldn't help his curiosity. He sent another glance over one shoulder, ready to throw the journal back into the duffle and pretend to look for clean socks again if Dean should show up, and then opened the journal. Fortunately, Dean couldn't move without making noise right now, which gave Sam pretty much free reign on this.

He flipped through the pages and couldn't help smirking at the chaos his brother represented. But even though the journal at first glance seemed chaotic, there was still order to it. A post-it stuck out from one of the rear pages and he flipped to that spot, wondering if Dean had marked it for any specific reason. What came after the post-it was what caught his attention and then nearly made him drop the journal. It wasn't just a journal. It was a damned diary, he realized.

The first few pages contained odd observations, scrawled down in his brother's nearly unreadable handwriting, but after a few pages it became more personal, dove more into what Dean was thinking about various things.

I can't believe he did that. Dumbass. It's like he wants to get shot or something. How the hell am I supposed to keep him safe if he keeps running off like that. Jeez.

Sam frowned and skimmed further down the page.

... he fucking poked a damned finger into my damned shoulder. I can't believe he did that! I know it wasn't him, but man, that expression ... it'll take me a while to get over that one. Shit! I slugged him for it and it wasn't his fault, but man that hurt. I thought I was gonna throw up.

He sucked in a breath, held it for a moment while the guilt washed over him yet again. He didn't remember doing that to Dean, but he knew he had. He'd had blood on his hands and Dean's pain had been very obvious.

It felt like he was invading Dean's privacy here and in general he was, but he felt the need to read more. It would give him insight into his brother's mind like nothing he'd ever tried before and it was just too damned tantalizing. He leafed a few pages ahead.

Man, I'm scared. There! I said it. What the hell do I do with it? I haven't got a fucking clue. My life is spiraling down the drain, I'm going to Hell and that's it? Gotta keep my game face on here. I can't let Sammy know how freaked I really am. He's having a hard enough time with this already. Damn, I wish he didn't know. I wish he wasn't so hell-bent on breaking the damned deal. He'll get himself killed. I can't live with that. Not again. I'd rather go to Hell.

Sam swallowed hard. His palms had gone clammy and the small hairs on the back of his neck stood on edge. This was a look into his brother's darkest fears and it killed him inside that Dean was this freaked out. He knew he was scared, could feel it in the brutal denial Dean threw up whenever Sam wanted to talk about the deal or how to break it, but this ... this was hard to read. But it gave him insight and he needed that right now, needed to know how much this affected his brother. 'More than I thought,' he thought to himself. 'Damn him for hiding this.' He skipped a few paragraphs ahead.

We've got an aunt. Well, fuck me sideways. Who would have known? I'm really beginning to think that dad did all this crap on purpose. Why the hell wouldn't he tell us about Grace? Stupid, selfish bastard. That said, I kinda get it too. Weird. I like Grace. She's ... spunky. A bit like dad and Sammy rolled into one. She's a bit of a pest too. I think her and Sam are very alike. He takes after our aunt. That sounds so weird. I know mom had an uncle. The guy put up a headstone for her. But I don't remember ever seeing the guy. Sucks out loud, having family that wants nothing to do with you. Shit, I'm glad we found Grace, no matter how fucking big a coincidence it is. Doesn't matter. As long as Sam has someone who gives a crap when I'm ...

Sam stopped reading, closed the journal and stuffed it back into the duffle and gave up on the socks while fighting back tears. Dean thought it was all about finding a replacement for him so Sam wouldn't be alone when he was gone and now that he had, Dean wasn't going to be eager to find a solution any more. And it broke Sam's heart how low an opinion his brother had of himself. Suddenly, he wanted to be gone from here. No matter how much he loved Grace already, she would never be a replacement for Dean.

He turned around and came to a full stop when he became aware that Grace was standing in the doorway, a stack of clean clothes in her arms. She stared at him, her expression unreadable. "Sam?" she asked. "What's wrong?"

At first he had no idea how she could possibly know what he was thinking, but then he became aware of the exterior signs and quickly wiped away the stray tear. And suddenly it was just all too much for him to handle. He couldn't wrap his mind around the fact that his brother was going to be gone in five months, that his soul would be burning in Hell. He fought the tide of emotions, but couldn't and finally dropped down on the edge of his bed, propped his elbows on his knees and leaned his face into his hands.

He heard the door click shut and wondered if Grace had left him to cry his eyes out on his own, but then the bed gave next to him and she slipped an arm around his back. "Sam, what's wrong?" she repeated quietly, her hand drawing circles on his back. And it made him feel even worse, but he couldn't stop. And Grace did what any mother would do, she wrapped her arms around him, pulled him into a hearty embrace and let him cry.

It took a while before he managed to get it under control again and when he finally could, he told her everything. He told her about dad's warning about him, about the crazy life they were living, about how he had tried to get a slice of normal and had only managed to get Jess killed, how dad had given his soul for Dean's life and how Dean had now done the same for Sam and he needed so desperately to find a way out, to break this deal so that Dean wouldn't be gone in five months and Sam would have to live with the knowledge that he burned in Hell because of him.

When he was done talking, he just sat there, back hunched, elbows on knees, his head down, his hands clasped between his knees, and waited for the inevitable refusal to believe. And all the while Grace still had a hand on his back, had never withdrawn the physical support, and it gave him hope that she wouldn't think he was completely nuts.

"Deals," she finally muttered. "You're not going to make one to stop him from going to Hell, are you?"

He shook his head. "No, there is no deal that will get him out of this," he confessed and sniffed, wiping the back of one hand against his nose. Grace handed him a tissue.

"But if there was, would you make it?" She sounded concerned, uneasy, sad.

Sam blinked down at the tissue in his hands while he unfolded and refolded it repeatedly. "What's the point? He's so overprotective that he would continue the circle into eternity. He wouldn't let me do it. And I can't hide something like that from him." He couldn't look at her right now, felt stupid and whiny-assed and had no idea how she related to people who had breakdowns like this. So far, she hadn't chastised him for it though.

"John must have been desperate to start this insanity," she said quietly.

Sam frowned, then finally glanced at her. He had never really considered his father's act as being desperate. "Dean was ... dying," he said quietly as if that explained everything.

"And all because of that damned demon," she muttered, then sighed heavily. "God, this is messed up," she added and shook her head lightly.

"That's one way of putting it," he agreed, then grabbed her hand when she rose. "Grace, you can't tell Dean I told you," he begged. "Please. He'll kill me."

"Doubtful, considering how far he's gone to keep you alive, sweetie," she said with a sad smile and briefly cupped a hand against his cheek. "All these secrets between you, Sam, they're not healthy."

Her touch burned him. It was everything he had ever wanted, that understanding, that comfort, the fact that he could talk to someone who wouldn't shoot him down with sarcasm and listen to him instead of brushing him off, but now that he had it, now that she offered it, it hurt. "I know," he agreed and dropped his gaze to the floor, his eyes burning. "I don't want them either, but ... Dean ... he thinks he needs to protect me. Dad did the same with both of us and it didn't work."

She wrapped her hand around his and gave it a squeeze. "I understand that compulsion, Sam, but ... you were the one who got you out of this last mess, after all. I think you're quite capable of handling yourself. Maybe you should talk to Dean about this?"

He smiled bitterly at that suggestion. "He won't listen," he said and shook his head.

"Well, maybe he'll listen to me," she suggested.

"He only ever listened to dad," Sam said and scrunched up his face at the memory. "But dad wouldn't have been trying to talk sense to him about this. He would have been right there with him, taking the lead. Dad wouldn't have listened either."

"He would have listened to me," Grace said and there was such conviction in her voice that he couldn't help a smile. "He was my little brother, after all."

"Where is Dean right now?" he asked and glanced at the closed door.

"Upstairs, using the computer," Grace said.

Sam nodded and rose. He needed to rectify the way he looked; undoubtedly the signs would be enough for Dean to get suspicious. Then he spotted the pile of clothes Grace had left on Dean's bed and arched an eyebrow. "You didn't have to do that," he said, noting that these were their clothes, not hers.

"I was doing laundry anyway," she brushed it off. "No skin off my nose," she added with a smile. "Go splash some water on your face. You're all puffy."

He smirked self-consciously and left the room to do so.

***

Grace sank back down on the edge of Sam's bed and stared at the doorway, her mind reeling. Demons and deals and people she loved hell-bound? What the hell was wrong with this picture? She still wasn't entirely sold on the whole demon thing and now Sam told her that Dean would be dead in five months, that his soul would be in Hell, and all because Dean couldn't live without his little brother? And her own brother had started this circle of destruction, had sold his soul for his son and actually gone to Hell, only to come out again a year later for one final stab at the evil that had consumed his life, only to end up going ... where?

She scrubbed both hands over her face, pushed her hair back and closed her eyes. A month ago, her life had been normal. Now she didn't even know what the hell normal meant any more. How could things change so fast? Why hadn't John told the boys about her? Why hadn't he ever tried to contact her?

Too many questions, too much information. She couldn't digest it all in one go and settled for not responding rather than outright denial. How could she deny this? They couldn't both be crazy, could they? Maybe it was a mental illness that had plagued her family over the years. He father could have suffered from it, after all. Insanity.

She sighed, rose again and left the room. Things needed to be squared out. Someone needed to tell her that this was insane before she lost it herself.

On a mission, she took the stairs two at a time and stepped into the office. Dean glanced at her, then did a double-take and she wondered if her expression really looked that serious.

"Something wrong?" he asked, his tone on the cautious side. He couldn't run anywhere and she had the distinct impression that he was the type to either attack or walk out if there was something he didn't want to talk about. Well, he could just bring it on.

"You sold your soul?" There was no better defense than offence in her opinion and Grace had never believed in beating around the bush.

The slow blink this earned her was almost comical. His expression didn't change. He just stared at her. "Huh?"

"Don't 'huh' me. You sold your soul for your brother?" she demanded and folded her arms over her chest.

"Uh ..." He cleared his throat and looked away, his gaze snapping back to the computer screen. She could see that he was thinking about what to say, what to tell her, and she swore she was gonna slap him upside the head if he lied to her about this. "Sam told you, huh?" he finally said, eased back in the chair and grimaced. He was still in pain, was healing far slower than Sam.

"Yes, he did. Because he desperately needed to talk about it, to get it all out without any contrite, stupid comments about being whiny and wimpy," Grace countered, unable to keep the edge out of her voice. She was angry. Not at him, but at the whole thing, at having been given a part of her family back she'd never known she had, only to find out that part of it would be gone within the year again. She dropped her gaze too for a moment, stared at the floor in front of her feet, then looked up again to find him staring at her. "Why do you do that to him? Why don't you listen to what he has to say? You think it makes him tougher, being snubbed like that? You think it makes life easier for Sam to be treated like he's an idiot when he's so clearly not one?"

He wiped a hand over his lips, kept staring at the screen, and she saw his gesture for what it was. He was uneasy about her newfound knowledge and there was something on his mind in that regard that he was fighting not to let out. "It's just the way we talk to each other," he said after a moment, his tone almost dead.

She snorted, letting him know that an explanation like that was not acceptable and he actually flinched, still unwilling to look at her. "Would you say the same to John right now? Because, I can assure you, Dean, no matter what hardships have rallied to change my brother over the years, this would not be something he would want for you. For either of you."

His jaw tightened, the muscles there bunching up. "I did what I had to do," he growled, his tone suddenly angry. "He's my brother, my responsibility. What else could I have done?"

She could follow him there, could understand that when presented with a way to reverse a death, it was too easy to grab onto that and use it. She was glad she hadn't known about that when her husband and son had died or she might have taken the same path. Hell, she would give her soul for one more day with them. It changed her attitude, her reaction to what had at first struck her as an incredibly stupid thing to do. But it also brought something else to the forefront of her mind, something she had actually noticed before without being consciously aware of it. Sam was more than a brother to Dean. They were closer than brothers. "No, what else could you have done," she agreed quietly and looked up to meet his eyes. He looked surprised, like he couldn't believe she agreed with him. "I understand. I think it sucks out loud, but I understand."

For a long moment he just stared at her, disbelief and something else she couldn't identify in his eyes. It could be fear, but she wasn't a hundred percent certain about that. "Would you have done the same to save your son?" he asked, his tone almost timid now, not something she expected was heard in his voice a lot.

"If I had known about it at the time ... most likely," she agreed, pulled up a chair and sat down on it. "Seeing as I don't believe in either heaven or hell, that sort of makes it an easy choice. But ... I guess we all become believers when we're on the threshold of death." She eyed him, noted how his gaze skirted away from hers, that he looked like he was barely holding it together.

Then he met her eyes so suddenly, she was the one to flinch. But she didn't look away. "You have to be there for him when ..." It was a plea, a request, almost an order. 'You're family. You have to be there'.

"Is there no way out of it?" she asked, not willing to accept inevitability. Death was the only unavoidable thing in life. The rest was up to chance and cleverness.

The look in his eyes grew distant. He looked suddenly pale, tired, older than his years. "I don't think so. There's a ... clause." He blinked, a slow fire smoldering in his gaze while he stared at something she couldn't see. "If I do anything to get out of the deal ... Sam drops dead and the deal is off." He focused on her and his gaze was wounded, so full of pain that she cringed inwardly. "I can't do that again. I can't watch him die. I'd rather go to Hell."

"There must be another option. A way out. Some ... loophole in the rules. There are always loopholes," she tried.

"It's iron-clad. She knew what she was doing, that crossroad demon. She's been doing it for centuries. All holes are plugged." He snorted a halfhearted laugh, joyless and painful.

"I don't accept that," Grace said. "Isn't there someone who can help you? Someone who can break the deal without involving either of you?"

Dean shook his head. "I don't want to risk it," he muttered. "I can't."

She backed down, figured if she pushed more he would either get angry or break down, and since she wanted to cause neither right now, she left it alone for now. "Sam mentioned that John told you to ..." She trailed off, couldn't imagine that her brother would ever say that to anyone, let alone to his own son. It wasn't a burden you put on others, not if you cared.

The wounded look intensified and he looked away, hid his eyes from her. He felt betrayed by his father and Grace felt anger rise in her like a tidal wave.

"Why?" she asked. "Why would he ask you to do something like that?"

He was conflicted, on the verge of saying something he felt he shouldn't. She could tell by the way he held himself, by the way he avoided looking at her.

Again she backed down, not willing to push him any more right now. She knew by now that he wouldn't open up himself, that if she wanted more from him, she would have to sit on him until he opened his mouth, but she wasn't willing to test the still growing bonds between them. This was all still too new and she was still too uncertain about the whole thing to really push her will through.

***

Grace rose, paused a moment as if she wanted to say something, then left the room again. And all Dean could do was to just sit there and wait. For what was something he couldn't define. Maybe for the anger inside to subside or the I'm-so-pissed-off-I-could-scream to go away? He was on a slow burn right now, which was growing stronger by the minute, and it had to come out at some point and he knew where it was aimed when it finally did. In part he hoped that Sam stayed far away from him until he had this under control, because – dammit all to Hell – if Sam turned up now, he would chew him out big time.

Before he could decide which way he was going, Grace suddenly came back in. "Dean ..." She eyed him, something about her posture telling him that she was far from done with him, and he generally got the same feeling about her that dad had always provoked in him. The urge to duck his head when he'd done something wrong and the surging sensation in his stomach that made him feel almost physically ill. He didn't want to disappoint her and he was terrified that she would throw them out and tell them to stay gone. Sam needed a base, needed someone to hold onto once he was gone, and Grace was it. Family was the most important and she had all the qualifications to become a replacement parent for his brother. Not that Sam really needed that, but he needed someone to turn to, someone who understood him and Grace seemed to understand him just fine, considering the talks they'd already had. "Would you please talk to me?"

She sounded sad, not angry, not condemning, and he focused on her. "You don't believe this," he said, suddenly feeling very tired. It was mostly the fear of losing what was hard won that got to him. Admitting what they did had been tough, but having Sam tell her everything ... Dean didn't know if he could handle it if she turned them down.

"What?" she asked and sat back down on the chair she had pulled over before.

"Demons. You don't believe in demons. You don't believe what we tell you," he said and snorted. "Why should you? You haven't seen anything that proves it. You don't know what's out there. Most people wouldn't believe. Why should you? I mean ... it's not like you know us or anything. Birth certificates can be faked. I should know. I've done it."

"Dean, stop," Grace said as she leaned forward and grabbed a hold of his arm. "Just stop," she repeated when he opened his mouth to go on. "Is that what you're worried about? That I don't believe you?"

"No, of course not. But ..." He stalled, couldn't for the life of him figure a way to go on without sounding like a complete lunatic, and that fateful conversation he'd had with Cassie it seemed a million years ago jumped back up and slapped him in the face. Don't get attached, it seemed to scream at him. You'll only get hurt.

She sighed, but didn't remove her hand. He glanced down at it, at the warmth she radiated, and fought hard to remain in control of himself. Yeah, he was scared. He wasn't worried, he was downright scared. Hell, when push came to shove, he was terrified. He just couldn't let that out there, because if he did, he wouldn't know how to reel it back in, wouldn't know how to package all those feelings back into that cramped little space he stored them in right now. "I grant you that taking all this in ... it's a big mouthful to swallow. And no ... essentially ... I don't know what you're talking about. But I have a fairly good imagination and it's not doing me any favors right now, I can tell you that much." She shifted, seemed briefly to want to let go, but then didn't. Instead she tightened her grip on his arm. "I can't even begin to imagine what you two have been up against. And ... I must admit that I ... it sounds insane to me. I've lived my whole life denying faith in anything supernatural. And now you tell me that all that is ... real?"

He couldn't even convince himself to nod right now. Any movement would trigger something, so he settled for staring down at her hand on his arm while fighting every and all urges to reciprocate by grabbing her hand. He so desperately needed someone to hold onto, someone who could tell him what to do. What he needed most of all was dad and Grace was as close to that as he could get right now.

"In part I hope I never see what you have seen," she said quietly. "It scares the crap out of me, just thinking about this. But I guess I'm going to have to see it to believe, won't I?" She pulled closer, reached out and grabbed his chin, forced him to raise his head and meet her eyes. "Whatever it is, you're both family and I'm not going to jeopardize that because I'm freaked out by what you tell me, Dean. I'm not going to kick you two to the curb because I don't like what you say. And I don't give a damn about birth certificates. All I have to do is look at Sam and I see John. All I have to do is watch you in action and I see your dad. There is no doubt in my mind that you are who you claim to be. And why would you lie about this? What would be the point?"

He was getting good at staring at her. It seemed to be the only thing he could do right now, stare at her. The slow burn turned into a consuming flame and it overshadowed the fear and fed the anger. "He had no right to tell you," he said, pulled his chin out of her grip and turned his head away. "He shouldn't have told you." He wanted to shut up, wanted to stop being angry and accept the helping hand she was holding out to him, figuratively speaking. But he was scared too, scared stiff of losing her if he allowed himself to acknowledge her for what she was.

Grace sighed, released his arm and sat back. He instantly regretted it, that she had let go. The separation was nearly painful, nearly made him panic, but he kept a firm grip on himself, on his feelings, and stared into the space between the screen and the wall instead. "Well, he did. And you can't take it back once it's out there," she said. "I'm gonna go for a walk. I need to think this through," she added and rose. "Don't get angry at Sam. He needed to talk and you don't talk to him." It sounded like an accusation and he almost asked her butt out, but settled for a halfhearted sneer when she left the room.

He listened to her going downstairs, heard the low murmur of voices and knew she was filling Sam in. 'Stay down there, Sam. I'm warning you,' he thought and closed his eyes, let his head drop back against the high back of the chair, drew in a deep breath and tried to steady himself. He needed more time to sort through this, to come up with a game plan on how to handle Grace.

Then the front door opened and closed and silence settled on the house for a moment. His chest hurt, his heart was beating too fast, and he wanted to hit something so bad, he balled his right hand into a fist and pressed it down on the arm of the chair.

"Hey Dean."

'Shit,' he thought, opened his eyes and focused on his brother. He couldn't keep the anger out of his eyes. "You told her," he said, his tone tight, his temper flaring.

Sam made a face, looked unhappy, even a bit nervous. "Yeah ... I ... she has a right to know, Dean." He shifted gears in mid-sentence, went from nervous and apologetic to devil-may-care and it pissed Dean off for some reason.

"You told her everything," he pressed out, pushed the chair back, tipped his cast-encased leg down from the stool it had been resting on, grabbed his crutches and struggled to his feet.

Sam remained by the door, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slightly hunched and for all intents and purposes, he looked like he hadn't been sporting a cast recently.

"Are you fucking nuts?" Dean demanded. The anger was rippling through him, making it hard for him to see reason. But the anger was a thin veil over the fear, over the decision Grace would come to while out on her walk. He could hear it now. 'I've thought about it and you need help. You're both insane. I want you out of here. Now.' "Did it ever occur to you how she might respond to that?" he snapped and tightened his grip around the handles on the crutches. "She's family and now she thinks we're completely insane. How do you think that's gonna affect her decision to let us stay here, huh?"

"Dean ... I ..." Sam tried, but Dean wasn't going to let him finish.

"Save it," he snapped. "Just for once, just keep your fucking trap shut, Sam." He snorted angrily. "Of course, there's probably nothing left to spill, is there? You told her everything, didn't you? What the hell is the matter with you?"

Sam's lack of anger in response to this told Dean clearly that Sam had expected this reaction from him and it poured fuel on the fire that was consuming him right now. It was Sam's luck that Dean was in no condition to take a swing at him or he would have.

"God dammit, Sam," he snarled.

Whatever response he had expected, Sam turning around and leaving with tears in his eyes wasn't it. It took the wind out of his sails and he blinked at the door opening for a moment, while trying to determine how the hell he was going to respond to this. He drew in a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then released it slowly again. His heartbeat slowed down while his anger deflated and gave way to the fear again. He dropped his head and just stood there for a moment, then made a face and returned to the chair. He really felt the overwhelming urge to shoot something right now and could do nothing more than just sit there and stare ahead of himself while feeling like a complete ass.