Grace kicked at a ball of snow and sent the hard core skittering across the street while she stood there and watched, her hands buried in her pockets, her mind in turmoil. "Demons," she muttered. "Deals and demons." Then she glanced toward the sky. "So I suppose you're up there too, aren't you?" she growled and made a face, then snorted. She closed her eyes and let the once again biting cold nip at her for a bit before she pulled the hood of her parka up and tightened the strings. "What the hell am I supposed to do with all this?" she muttered to herself.

She had walked all the way to the end of the street and now stood facing it. She could see her house from there and she kept thinking about these two young men staying with her, those two with their incredible stories and their aching likeness to her brother and it raised a lump in her throat. In general she wanted to bawl her eyes out, but Grace wasn't the soppy kind. She never had been. She had cried when John had left and she had cried bitterly when her husband and son had died, but she wasn't one to shed tears unless it was absolutely necessary.

She paced back and forth a bit at the end of the street, trying to keep warm, then stopped again and stared ahead of herself. "Demons," she muttered again. "If there are demons at play, where the hell is the cavalry?" She again glanced up at the sky, her eyes dark and stormy. "Where the hell are you when we need you? I always thought your non-involvement policy sucked out loud, you know that?"

She snorted again and shook her head. "I don't believe in God," she told herself. "I don't. I see no reason to believe in something that allows that to happen." Again she snorted. "God works in mysterious ways," she snarled, repeating a Sunday school teacher's words to her when she had been a child and had worried about the state of the world and her family. "Screw you. That's all I can say. Screw you. For anything or anyone to allow this to happen ..."

Angrily, she scrubbed a gloved hand over her face and hissed with annoyance at the tear she had shed. "You're so not worth it, you know that? Nobody should bow before you, you selfish bastard. If you let them take him ..."

She hammered her boot into a snowdrift, scattering the snow everywhere, then stopped and pressed a hand against her brow while closing her eyes. "How could you leave them, John?" she whispered and sniffed. "God dammit."

But she couldn't blame her brother for this. According to Sam's tale, John had given up his life to save Dean. Her father would never have done that. He would have left him to die, washed his hands of him and moved on. John had loved his boys and that was evident in the way those two stuck together. But Dean was as hollow as Sam was full. Sam with all his emotions and fearlessness when it came to them. But Dean ... he was hollow in a way that made her ache for him. He was afraid in a way that only a Winchester could be. And only a Winchester could see it too. To the outside world he looked whole, content, happy about what he did. But all Grace had to do was look into his eyes and see the vast emptiness there. It was like staring at an ice field on the North Pole. Nothing but cold snow and ice. No life, no hope, no love but for what he felt for his brother. Everything he had was invested in Sam. Everything. And he had taken it so far that he was going to lay down his life and suffer for an eternity just so that Sam could live.

She stared at the house, saw nothing but shadows and darkness. How could John have asked Dean to kill Sam if he couldn't save him? What the hell kind of thing was that to put on his son's shoulders? Hadn't John seen the fear in Dean? Had he been so blinded by the evil that had corrupted his life that he had not been able to see how much Dean needed him?

Everything made sense now even while it was madness and the deepest darkest fairytales ever told. Some part of her had always known that this was out there, that things were hiding in the dark corners of the world. Where else would fairytales come from? Every tale ever told had roots in reality and humans were so damned good at blindfolding themselves, to not see what was out there.

She swallowed, briefly closed her eyes. Somehow, she needed to try and rectify what had gone wrong for these boys. Somehow, that was her job now. But she had no idea how.

"Pull yourself together," she muttered. "Get back in there and talk to them." Her main mission would be to get Dean to open up. If he was in any way like his father, then she knew how. If he wasn't ... well, she'd have to make it up as she went along.

***

Dean knew he needed to talk to Sam, but he was still too pissed off at him for revealing the sordid facts of their lives to Grace. It scared the shit out of him that they had found her and now might lose her, all because they came across as raving lunatics to her. The woman didn't even believe in God. Why the hell would she believe in this then?

If he could have, he would have been up and pacing. Hell, if he could have, he would have been at the nearest bar, drinking himself into a stupor. But he couldn't do that because he couldn't walk. And that pissed him off on a whole new level.

He scrubbed both hands over his face, stared at the computer screen for a moment, then sent a look out the window. Still too much snow and his damned leg was still in a cast and it was driving him nuts. He couldn't do any of the things he normally would, couldn't go out and get drunk, couldn't find a girl without his aunt having to arrange a frigging play date for him. That was so damned messed up that he couldn't even contain it.

"Dean."

He froze, then sent a glance toward the doorway and grimaced. He wanted to say something, wanted to smile and put her at ease, wanted to tell her it was all a frigging joke, Sam was off his rocker and had a weird sense of humor at times, never mind him, but he could tell that wouldn't fly. She knew when he was lying, just like dad had, and he knew by now not to lie to her. She didn't like it and the more they got to know each other, the more likely it was that she would tear him down at some point for doing it. And he hated fighting with family.

"Come downstairs," she suggested.

He blinked. This was it, wasn't it? She wanted to have a heart-to-heart with them both, wanted to let them know what she thought of all this and he figured he knew where this was heading. "Sam can drive now," he said instead of acknowledging it. "We'll be out of your hair by morning." Hell, they could leave right now if she wanted them to. He started shutting down his feelings, pulling shutters, closing doors, locking locks.

"What?" She sounded startled and he stopped dead internally. "Why would you want to leave?"

He frowned, glanced at her, focused on her. "I thought ..." He trailed off, suddenly realized that the look she was giving him wasn't the serious we've-got-to-talk kind. It was something else, something he didn't really recognize right now.

She pulled one corner of her mouth into a lopsided imitation of dad's grin, the one Dean had seen so few times over the years that seeing it now almost broke his heart. "I'm not going to throw you out, Dean," she said. "I just thought we'd be more comfortable downstairs."

"For what?" Stupid question, really. It was obvious that she wanted to talk, but he wasn't really sure about her plan right now. She was like dad, but yet so different. There was more to her than there had been to dad, at least the later-years-dad. Something stirred in him, a memory from early childhood, the look in dad's eyes when he looked at mom, the grin when she made fun of him. That was what Grace was. The ghost of Christmas past, he thought and almost laughed. It would have sounded crazy because he felt a little crazy right now.

"Sam's gone to bed," she said. "I have a bottle of whiskey downstairs, a bucket of ice and two glasses. I thought we could have a drink together and just talk. Like friends." She watched him for a reaction. "We are friends, aren't we?"

This was a bit surreal to him. That feeling of crazy didn't really go away, but it didn't feel so bad suddenly. "Not a good idea, drinking on an empty stomach," he said, grabbed the crutches and struggled to his feet. "Sam's gone to bed?" That was weird. It wasn't even three p.m. yet.

"Guess he was tired," she said. "He might get up later. I think telling me everything pretty much wore him out."

Yeah, or me stomping on him afterward, he thought and dropped his gaze to the floor. He almost expected her to attach a 'the poor dear' to the end of that sentence and fought back the urge to chuckle manically at that. His anger and subsequent fear was translating into something he couldn't control and he wasn't so sure it was a good idea to get drunk around her right now. Dad had done this to him once, after Sam had left for Stanford. He'd gotten him good and toasted and had listened to him go on and on about everything that bothered him. It had helped Dean, but it hadn't helped dad at all because he had thrown some pretty horrific allegations at dad that night. It had never been mentioned again and Dean had avoided getting drunk around dad while he was in that sort of mood from thereon in.

"I can make some sandwiches," she suggested and stepped aside to let him through the doorway. "Or something more substantial. I think there's still some spaghetti left."

He muttered an okay and made his way down the stairs, his chest sore, his leg sorer, his psyche downright aching, and he wondered how the hell she could know him so well. Was he that much like dad?

He sank onto the couch downstairs, sent a glance over at the closed door to the guestroom and wondered if Sam had told her how to do this. Then again, Sam didn't know how to do this. He had never taken advantage of Dean's state of mind when he was drunk enough to let his defenses drop.

They ate in silence because he didn't know what to say and she didn't push. Not yet, at least. Then she poured him a glass of Johnny Walker Blue – expensive stuff – and handed him the glass before pouring herself one as well. She made a face, didn't immediately take a sip.

"You don't like whiskey, do you?" he asked, noting her reaction.

She arched an eyebrow, watched him for a moment. "Not really. I'm more a G&T type of girl," she said with a smile.

He couldn't help a smile of his own at her referring to herself as a girl. "Why don't you get one of those, then?"

She shrugged, got up to get what she needed for her drink and brought a tall glass, shoved the other glass with the whiskey over to him. "I'm sure you can handle that one for me?"

"Not something I'd imagine doing, having a drink with my aunt," he confessed and smirked. The fear was ebbing away. She had already said twice that she wasn't going to kick them out. She had thought about things and she was still calm about it, hadn't started yelling and didn't look scared. She probably still thought they were nuts, though.

She grinned at his words. "Well ... up until recently you didn't even know you had an aunt," she said and took a sip of her drink, then smiled contentedly. "I don't drink alone," she added. "It's against my religion." It was a joke. She didn't believe, after all.

It was obvious that she knew what to say most of the time. She spoke a hell of a lot more than dad ever had. "Did he talk much?" he asked and stared down into the amber liquid while tilting the glass a little.

"Your father?" she asked and he nodded. "Sometimes. Most times he wouldn't open his damned trap, but when he had something on his mind you couldn't shut him up. He was always butting heads with our father, of course. They were so mismatched, those two. Our father didn't understand John and I don't think John understood him either."

"So they fought a lot?" he asked and glanced at her.

"Yeah, all the time. John became defiant at age five." She snorted, smiled vaguely and shook her head. "No was the first word he learned. And he used that plenty over the years."

Bitter-sweet memories rippled through him. 'Dad is a super-hero.' He remembered telling Sam that. Sam hadn't believe him, but that was okay, because Dean had believed. At that time, dad had been a super-hero to him. Hell, that impression hadn't worn off until Sam had left them. He emptied the glass in one go, relished the hot burn of the whiskey going down. Suddenly he wasn't afraid of what he would say if he got drunk enough. He wanted to get drunk, wanted to reach that point where he could open up and spill the beans.

She handed him the second glass, took the first one and put it on the coffee table. "Why would you think that I would kick you out?" she asked.

'Not yet,' he thought, but she had already asked and he couldn't just ignore it. "Because of what Sam told you," he said without looking at her.

"So, Sam tells me what's bothering him, what's got him all twisted up inside, and you think I would kick you both out for that?" She sounded a little sad right now. "Did John throw Sam out for telling him the truth about Stanford?"

"No, dad reacted to a situation that was outside of his control and he didn't like being out of control. Sam leaving was the worst possible scenario for him. He couldn't look out for Sam if Sam wasn't around," he said and wondered if one shot of whiskey was enough to make him talk these days. Hell, he didn't even feel buzzed yet. "Sam said he was leaving, dad told him not to, Sam insisted, so dad got pissed off at him for disobeying a direct order. In the heat of the moment, he said things he shouldn't have. He didn't mean it."

"And you ran interference between them?"

The question made him start, then glance at her with a slight frown on his brow. How did she know that? Or had Sam told her that too? "Someone had to keep a cool head. Those two were like powder kegs when they got going." He shrugged it off, pretended it was nothing, but the memory still stung.

She nodded. "So did I," she said and smiled at the memory. There was a bitter-sweet quality to her smile. "Ran interference between John and our father, I mean. It was always about getting John out of the house before he blew up. I didn't too much care about my father's feelings, to be honest. I was more concerned about him throwing John to the curb."

He took a sip of whiskey, didn't swallow immediately. It burned, but in a good way. It felt warm and right and it drew a trail of fire down his throat when he did swallow. "Your dad was pretty messed up, wasn't he?"

"Religion does that to you," she agreed. "His parents were harsh people, deeply religious. It all had to go by the good book or not at all. Nobody stepped a foot outside the boundaries, nobody overstepped the lines. If you did, you'd end up in Hell. I don't know how many times our father said that. And mom ..."

"You never called him dad, did you?" He glanced at her. It wasn't a surprise that his dad's parents had been religious. Many people were. But it sounded like old man Winchester had installed a pretty big dose of anti-religion in his son. How was that for ironic, considering how dad's life had ended?

"No," Grace said and took a sip of her drink, the ice cubes clanging lightly against the sides of the glass. "He didn't deserve that title."

"Dad did," Dean said and sighed, then emptied the glass and beckoned for more. She poured him another two fingers and he wondered if she would be okay with it if he emptied the damned bottle. He'd be sick like hell in the morning, but that was okay with him right now. "He was messed up too, by everything that happened, but he cared about us in his own weird way."

"I'm sure he did. John was always a passionate guy. And I can see his influence in you both," she said.

He smirked. "That bad, huh?" he asked. "Yeah, dad was passionate. Even when obsessed about finding that demon, he was passionate."

"Dean ... he laid down his life for you."

'Oh god, here we go,' he thought, raised the glass and pressed it against his brow while closing his eyes. 'I'm not ready for this. I can't handle this on top of everything else.' A surge of panic rippled through him. He couldn't leave, couldn't get out if he needed to.

"I don't think he would have wanted you to do the same for Sam." Her words were quiet and they burned like the alcohol did, but this was not a good burn. This was a hand-on-a-hotplate burn and he grimaced at the imagined agony. "Is there no way out of it?"

He shook his head lightly, lowered the glass and watched the whiskey for a moment. "No, there isn't," he confirmed, then drained the glass again and set it down on his cast.

"It just seems ... such a waste," she muttered. She too was staring into space, her glass forgotten in her hand. Then she grabbed the bottle of Johnny Walker and poured him another glass.

"It's not a waste if Sammy gets to live and ... maybe be happy." The buzz was getting there, tingling through him, numbing the soreness, making him relax a little. It was easy to tune out the death sentence when he felt this way.

He felt her eyes on him, felt acutely how this affected her, and he took a deep swallow of the whiskey, because he didn't want to know, didn't want pity or remorse or whatever else she could dish out. When her hand slid into his hair, her fingers trailing backward, he froze. It was a mother's touch, a need to connect physically, and it called up memories of mom, things he had forgotten. And, damn, but didn't that just hurt like a bitch. He fought down the surge of emotion, wanted to crack a joke and repair his defenses, but he had too much alcohol in him right now to draw back successfully. "It's all about Sam, isn't it?" she asked quietly. "For you. There's nothing more important than Sam."

Well, at least she got that part of it. He swallowed, nodded once, while she kept stroking him like a damned dog, then cupped her hand against the side of his head, and before he knew what he was doing, he leaned into that touch, because even though it hurt, it felt good too. It felt familiar, soothing in a way that raised a lump in his throat.

"Sam is terrified of losing you, Dean," she nearly whispered.

He drained the glass again, set it back down on his cast and kept staring intently at it. "He'll survive." It was harsh, cold even, everything he didn't feel, but some part of him was convinced that Sam would manage, that he could deal with this on a level Dean never could.

"He'll have to live with the knowledge of you going to Hell for him, Dean. How is that surviving? You think he can just ignore that? Pretend it never happened and just go on living?" She was a bit reproachful now and part of him wanted to tell her to shut up. He had thought about that, had considered the agony that was part of that knowledge. He'd lived through it for a year and it had messed him up. And now he was going to do the same to Sam.

He shifted the glass, beckoned for more, and she gave it to him. She wasn't angry with him, she was sad and that was almost worse. "He's got you now," he said and tried for a smile that felt anything but right.

"I'm not you. I can't replace you," she said and set the bottle back on the coffee table. "We don't have history together."

"But you can have," he tried.

"Dean ..." She considered her words for a moment, slipped a hand onto his shoulder. "To Sam, you're irreplaceable. You're his brother, his big brother no less. There's nobody in this world who can take your place. Not now, not ever. The knowledge of where you're going is killing him inside. He's terrified. And yes, he talked to me about it, but to both of you I'm a virtual stranger, Dean. He is far out to talk to me about that, about anything that's this important to him."

"I know." It was a confession he hadn't intended to let slip, but he did anyway. "I know he's upset. But ... what was I supposed to do?" He shook his head, a part of him wanting desperately to shut up right now because he was about to gush like a damned geyser, could feel the floodgates opening and knew he couldn't control it once it was out there. "I had one job and I messed it up. Protect Sammy. And I didn't. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to go on living after that?"

She took a deep breath and he wondered if she was tearing up, didn't really want to look at her if she was because that might just break him in two. "I know that feeling," she said quietly. Her voice was even, painfully calm. She wasn't tearing up, but it made her sad just the same. "But sometimes ... you just gotta let go. Sam is not your job, Dean, he's your brother. You're not supposed to die for your brother. You're not supposed to go to Hell for him." She breathed deeply again, maybe a way to steady herself, maybe just the way she was when emotions ran deep. He couldn't tell. "You've protected him since you were four. But Sam's a big boy now. He can look out for himself."

He snorted, shook his head. "No, no he can't," he disagreed. "He always gets in trouble. Always. If we're not together ..." He stopped, realized what she had done and blinked almost sluggishly at the glass in his hand.

"He lived without you for four years at Stanford, Dean. And despite how it ended, that worked out fairly well, didn't it?" she asked.

"That was an illusion. His visions kicked in when he was twenty-one. The demon killed his girlfriend because he dared to reach for normal. They're not gonna let him off the hook, Grace," he said and finally turned his head to face her, to meet her eyes. "I brought him back because I can't live without him. But they're never gonna back down. They're never gonna leave him alone. And ... he can't go that road alone. He needs someone around. He needs you."

"No, he needs you, Dean," she disagreed. "There must be a way to get you out of that deal. Someone else could take your place, maybe?"

He stared at her, knew what she was saying, and shook his head. "No," he whispered, shook his head again. "No way. Forget about that. It's not doable." He didn't know if it was, but had a feeling that no amount of negotiation would change the demon's mind. Besides, nobody else was going to pay for his mistakes. No way. Especially not her.

***

Sam hadn't exactly gone to bed. He was just lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling while trying to stop his mind. He was all kinds of pissed off at Dean right now, but he was also hurt by Dean's response.

Grace had suggested she take a time-out with Dean and that he give them room for it, which Sam had willingly agreed to because he really didn't want to talk to Dean right now. In part, he understood where Dean was coming from, but mostly he saw it as dad's rules that Dean was still blindly following and it made him angry. He couldn't help it.

He folded his hands behind his head and closed his eyes, thought that instead of this he should have been upstairs, doing research, trying to find a way out for his brother, but he had sort of promised Grace he wouldn't come out until she gave the all-clear and she most certainly hadn't done that yet.

And then his phone rang. With a sigh, he sat up, pulled it out of his pocket and eyed the display. No caller id. He answered it with a somewhat terse, "Yeah."

The line stuttered and crackled like a bonfire.

"Hello?" he tried.

All he got as a reply was more static and then the line went dead. He frowned a little, shrugged and dropped the phone on the bedside table, then dropped back down on the bed, wishing he'd grabbed a book, then glanced at his watch.

He could hear their voices on the other side of the door, just not what they were saying. Actually, he couldn't hear them anymore. They'd been at it for close to two hours and it actually amazed him that Dean had stuck around that long, listening or talking or whatever he was doing. Grace seemed to have much of the same influence on him that dad had, which was probably why Dean didn't tell her to go to hell and leave him alone. His brother was freaked out, no doubt about that. Sam just wished he would stop taking it out on those around him and just talk about it already. All that macho-bullshit about being strong and big-boys-don't-cry always made him want to throw up.

So what if Dean called him emo-boy and made fun of his ability to actually relate to others. Sam didn't see that as a bad thing, not since Jess had convinced him it wasn't. She'd loved to talk to him, they'd discussed things that had made other guys look at him weird, and all he had been able to do was smile at their ignorance because he, as opposed to most guys he had ever known, actually understood were women were coming from.

He sighed, scrubbed both hands over his face and yawned just when there was a knock on the door. Unlike dad, Grace had the decency to knock before barging in. "Yeah?" he called and propped himself up on his elbows.

The door opened a little and Grace stuck her head in. "Hey," she said with a smile. "You hungry?"

"A little," he confessed and sat up. "How's it going?"

"Well, if dead drunk and snoring on the couch is a breakthrough, then we've had one," she said. "He talked a lot," she added and stepped inside, closing the door behind her. "He's sorry he snapped at you."

Sam made a face. "He'd better tell me himself, you know. He's so damned constipated when it comes to feelings. Like it's a bad thing or something," he said, pulled his legs off the bed and propped his elbows on his knees.

"Well, he seems to think it's a bad thing. I think he's afraid he won't be able to handle it all if he lets it out. Give him time," she suggested.

Sam eyed her sadly. "He doesn't have time, Grace. He has less than five months. I need to find a way out of this for him."

"I'm sure you will," she said, well aware that she knew next to nothing about all of this. She sat down on Dean's bed, facing him. "It's a royal mess you boys are in here, you know that?"

With a silent nod, he acknowledged her words. "I know," he said. "I'm surprised you believe all this so easily."

"Oh, Sam, it's anything but easy. Trust me on that one," she said with a rueful smile. "I'm not really sure what I believe. I'm not sure what leg to stand on, to be honest. But ... I've always sort of believed that there was more between heaven and earth than you could see. It's just ... some of this is hard to swallow, you know?"

He nodded. He did know. That was why he'd never told Jess about any of this, why he'd never wanted to tell her. He had wanted to protect her from the truth, yes, but he had also been scared out of his mind that she would dump him like yesterday's garbage if he flat out told her what he'd done before he'd come to Stanford. "It's not easy," he said. "I get that. Thanks for trying, though. I wish I could tell you that it's all a big joke, but it's not."

"I've reached that conclusion myself. I'm just still on the fence about it. It takes time to adjust to something like this. It's kind of substantial information up there with 'is there a God' and all that jazz." She smirked a little helplessly. "Is there?"

Sam frowned. "What? A god?" he asked and she nodded. "I don't know," he admitted. "Logic dictates that there has to be something in opposition to all the evil we see, but ... so far ... we haven't met it. Whatever it might be. And if it's out there ... well ..." He shrugged lightly, halfheartedly. "It doesn't seem to care a whole lot about us, does it?"

Grace pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Maybe it's different than what we expect. Maybe that's why we don't ... see it. Because we're not looking in the right places," she suggested, then rose and held a hand out to him. "Come on. Let's discuss the wonders of the universe over a bit of dinner," she added.

He took her hand and rose. "Okay," he agreed and followed her out of the room and into the kitchen.