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November 24, 2006 – Kokomo, Indiana

Sam gripped his stomach as he hunched over the garbage can.

The remains of his lunch had given way to dry heaves. He was left only with a sick taste on his tongue and the sting of tears in his eyes.

Dean claimed there was a monster here brutalizing children. There were no records of any attacks before the latest kidnappings, yet Dean insisted they’d been occurring for at least twenty years. All signs had said there was nothing here, but Dean had been right.

There was a monster stalking the Sunset View Apartments and the nauseating proof was spread all over the manager’s office desk.

~~~

November 22, 2006 – Little Rock, Arkansas

The air was filled with the drone of conversation, a haze of cigarette smoke and the sharp strikes of billiard balls colliding. Across the table from Sam, Dean victoriously slammed down another empty bottle.

For the last two hours his brother had been knocking back beers, fishing for phone numbers he would never call and meticulously ignoring every word that came out of Sam’s mouth. Dean was having far too much fun being Dean to bother with work.

Admittedly, all the cases Sam had suggested were crap. He was grasping at straws in an attempt to dredge up something legit in what had been a slow month. While his brother was having fun now, if Sam didn’t find a case soon, he would have to suffer the consequences of Dean with too much free time on his hands.

Sam scanned through the online news articles before again stopping to read one to his brother. “There were three missing boats reported in one week on lake...”

“We save lives, Sam, not boats. Unless the boats are loaded with virgins in need.”

Dean had already devoured two dinners’ worth of food and was moving on to the complimentary mini pretzels. After stuffing a handful into his mouth, he made a face and grabbed Sam’s beer to wash them down.

“You’d think with how much this place charges for beer they could afford to buy fresh pretzels,” Dean said.

With a roll of his eyes, Sam returned to his article search. A moment later, something flicked against his forehead, nearly hitting him between the eyes.

Dean smirked. “Bull’s-eye.”

With a quiet growl, Sam looked down to see the pretzel that had fallen to his lap. This was exactly why he had to find a case and fast. He set the pretzel on the table and glared at his brother.

“Dean, will you stop screwing around and listen?”

“As soon as you pull that giant sequoia out of your ass and lighten up.”

It happened in under a second.

One moment, Dean wore a Cheshire cat grin and, in the next, horror washed over his features. The beer bottle Dean had stolen from Sam slipped from his slack fingers.

Sam swept his laptop out of the way and jumped from his seat as the foamy liquid splashed across the small table towards him. With a mumbled apology, Dean used the cocktail napkin with their waitress’s phone number scribbled on it to make a useless attempt at mopping up the flood of beer.

Sam turned around to see what Dean’s eyes were fixed on – it was the corner television mounted behind the bar. All Sam caught was a reporter closing her story next to a faded sign that read Sunset View Apartments.

By the time Sam turned back, Dean had broken into a cold sweat. His movements were uneasy as he yanked his jacket off the back of his chair and clumsily slipped it on. Concern clutched Sam’s chest at the foreign look of quiet panic on Dean’s face.

“Dean, what’s going on?”

When Dean spoke, his voice was tight, his gaze stubbornly shifting everywhere but to Sam. “You wanted a case. I got you one. We’re going to Kokomo.”

They hit the road that night with nothing but unconvincing half truths as the reason for the rush. All Sam knew for certain was that this wasn’t just another case.

~~~

November 23, 2006 – Kokomo, Indiana

When they arrived in town, Dean didn’t want to check with the authorities or talk with the local residents. He wouldn’t even check into a motel. Instead, they went straight to the Sunset View Apartments.

The building was even more rundown than it had looked on the news. It hadn’t likely seen a paint brush since it was built decades earlier. What should’ve been flowerbeds were crowded with knee-high grass. It was the kind of crap place Dad would have left them when they were kids.

Without having to ask for directions, Dean led them straight to the manager’s office. The manager was a slightly round, balding man. He couldn’t have looked more harmless, but by Dean’s exposed apprehension, Sam would have sworn his brother was staring down a room full of demons.

Since the bar, Dean had barely breathed a word. The more questions Sam asked, the more Dean shut down. Sam had stopped asking, but he was going to figure it out. It was one of the many reasons why Sam had blocked his brother’s attempts to ditch him and come here alone.

“I’m Agent Livgren,” Sam told the older man. “And this is Agent Ehart. You’re Mr. Andrew Brown?”

“The one and only. Don’t often get such fine looking company out this way.”

Dean looked like a trapped animal beneath Brown’s lingering gaze. Sam did have to hand it to Dean that the guy was a little creepy with the staring, but they’d dealt with far worse without Dean so much as breaking his grin.

Sam shot his brother an anxious glance when Dean’s hand snaked around to the small of his back. His twitching fingers were hovering frighteningly close to his concealed gun.

It was a ridiculous thought. Sam knew that despite Dean’s erratic behavior, his brother would never waste a man without reason and he sure wouldn’t do it while kids were playing on the playground right outside the office.

Regardless, Sam let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, when Dean’s hand returned to his side. The small relief was short lived. Dean’s posture only stiffened and he stuffed his hands into his pockets to avoid shaking Brown’s hand.

Brown gave a dismissive chuckle and dropped his hand. “I do actually wash them.”

Dean’s lips parted, his eyes dark as he stared at the man. Sam gave him a prompting glare followed by a sharp nudge to his ribs, but Dean remained silent.

“Sorry,” Sam muttered.

“Don’t worry about it,” Brown said with a wave. “My brother had OCD. I don’t take it too personally. Help yourselves to a seat, agents.”

While Sam sat down, Dean remained standing.

“I’ll admit they’re not the cleanest chairs on the planet,” Brown said as he settled down in the chair behind his desk. The man leveled his eyes with Dean and lifted a hairbrush from the top of one of the precarious stacks of papers. He leaned back in the rickety rolling chair and smiled. “So, what can I do for the FBI?”

Dean had acted as if getting here was a matter of life or death, but now that they were here he stood silent, leaving Sam floundering. When Sam looked at him, his brother’s eyes were fixed on a small file cabinet in the back corner of the room.

That was until Brown started idly slapping the back of the wide, wooden brush against the palm of his hand. Dean literally jumped at the sound. Throwing their cover aside, Sam left his chair to stand beside Dean with a hand on his brother’s arm. Dean jerked away, tensing for a fight.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Sam said quietly. “Dean, let’s just go.”

“No.”

Another slap of the brush and the residual fear in Dean’s eyes took on a lethal edge. Sam recognized that look. His brother was revving up to do something monumentally stupid. He gripped Dean’s arm, this time hard enough to bruise because nothing less would slow Dean down.

With his brother momentarily stilled, Sam leaned in to whisper, “Just tell me what’s going on.”

Dean’s only movement was his eyes shifting uneasily between Sam and Brown. With the repetitive slap of Brown’s tapping, the peace only lasted a few seconds before Dean twisted free and shoved past Sam. While Sam stumbled backwards, Brown remained calmly seated at his desk, still thumping the brush.

Reaching over the desk, Dean ripped the brush from the man’s grip and threw it against the far wall. “Where the hell are the Walker kids?”

Brown raised his brow in the direction of the departed brush before leaning back in his chair. “I wish I knew. I’m just thankful you agents have such a passion for this case. It’s always tragic when children are the victims.”

“You son of a bitch.”

Dean’s hand balled into a fist. Sam slid forward as discreetly as possible to grab Dean’s wrist before his brother could actually throw a punch. Brown sat with his hands folded, oblivious to how dangerous the man standing across the desk from him was.

Sam grabbed Dean’s shoulder to haul him from the office. He stopped just short of yanking Dean along when Brown again spoke.

“You have a beautiful face.”

The full intensity of the man’s gaze as it locked on Dean and those simple words did what all Sam’s wresting and pleading couldn’t. Dean froze. Uneasiness replaced anger and Dean’s ragged breaths became shallow.

“Have you ever done any modeling?” Brown asked.

Sam looked to his brother, who remained frighteningly still. “Dean?”

“Funny you should ask,” Dean said. He swallowed as his distant eyes settled on the man behind the desk. His focus fixed so solidly on Brown that Sam might as well not have been in the room. “I did some modeling as a child.”

Sam’s face screwed in confusion, but it was lost in the shiver that ran down his spine as Dean’s expression turned stone-cold. Dean braced himself with his hands set firmly on the desk and leaned in towards the man.

“You’re a photographer aren’t you, Mr. Brown?”

~~~

November 24, 2006 – Kokomo, Indiana

The missing boys turned up. David and Justin Walker, ages seven and ten. Their bodies were found together in a black garbage bag behind the local pizzeria. There wasn’t any apparent physical trauma. They were just gone.

Two more kids dead because of him.

Dean leaned against the peeling paint of the bathroom’s wall. He wrapped his arms tighter around his chest and focused on just taking the next breath.

His brother’s worried shouts still rang in his head as he stared past the water-stained ceiling. He knew he was freaking Sam out. He just didn’t know how not to. It was impossible enough to hold himself together.

This hunt needed to be over and done before Sam caught on that the research mission Dean had sent him on was a load of crap. Once Sam got back to the motel and found Dean’s bed empty he would call in the National Guard.

Sam could never find out.

At the click of the apartment door’s lock, Dean unfolded his arms and raised his gun. Frustration bubbled up when he realized how unsteady his hands were. He was a fully grown man who hunted goddamn monsters for a living and he was shaking. That just pissed him off more.

He didn’t even need a gun to end this. Brown couldn’t hurt him. Not anymore.

It was only the memory of fear that ached through him. It was helplessness that he had lived in this room, on the bed in the next room over. It was the fear that he might miss the shot he should have taken nineteen years ago.

He tensed his grip on the pistol and peered around the corner into the main apartment. The man he was going to kill was in the kitchen putting away groceries.

Dean knew Brown liked frozen Snickers bars and Oscar Mayer wieners. Brown took his coffee with cream and ate frozen waffles every Saturday morning. The only vegetable Brown would touch was corn, and sometimes peas, but never lima beans. He’d made Dean eat those.

His stomach flipped at the memory of the meals he’d eaten at the dining table that Brown’s grocery bags were set out on. Every time he’d been here, Sammy had been alone in their room. The only thing worse than leaving his little brother alone had been imagining Sammy here with him and that was still true.

He just needed this to be over.

~~~

Sam kneeled on the floor manipulating a bent paperclip into the keyhole of the file cabinet. Even after he felt the lock’s mechanism slide aside, his hand hesitated over the drawer’s handle.

There was a big difference between needing to know and wanting to. Sam didn’t want to know what could affect his brother like this, but he also couldn’t let Dean face it alone. If Dean couldn’t tell him, he’d have to find out for himself.

He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to find, but he’d anticipated a lot more than a cabinet stuffed full of mundane hanging folders. Each folder tab was labeled with a carefully scribed name and year. It was nothing out of line for the office of an apartment manager, who had to keep years worth of residents straight and didn’t seem to have a computer.

Sam barely gave the folders a second glance. He reached to push them aside to uncover what was hidden deeper within the cabinet, but froze when one of the labeled names caught his eye.

Dean “Searle” Winchester – 1987

The Searle name was meticulously crossed out, Winchester obviously having been written in later with a different pen. Inside the folder was a fat, manila envelope. The envelope’s corners were bent and the paper grungy from excessive handling.

Sam’s hands were so jittery in his attempt to open the folder that it took a couple of tries to unclasp the metal brad sealing it. Inside, was a generous collection of photos and negatives.

When he knocked the contents out onto the desk, his mind shut down completely.

His gaze first locked on the startling close-up of a terrified, young boy. Sam wanted to pretend not to know how old the freckle-faced kid was as much as he wanted to pretend not to see the tears the child was fighting to hold back in those large, green eyes. But he knew the boy had been eight years old when these photos were taken.

That little boy, which the next photo revealed was splayed naked on a bed and worse in the close-ups that followed, was his big brother.

~~~

Dean’s mind was racing so fast he couldn’t focus on anything. It took a minute for him to realize that the rustling in the kitchen had gone quiet and that he could no longer pinpoint Brown’s location in the apartment.

Dean cursed beneath his breath. He’d thought he’d had all his sides covered, but had forgotten that it wasn’t just a closet door behind him. It was Brown’s darkroom.

Brown had caught Dean the one time he’d slipped in there. He’d been furious. Later, Brown had said he’d just been worried. The chemicals for the photo developing weren’t safe for children. He was just trying to protect him.

A sputter of laughter nearly slipped from Dean’s lips.

Brown had thought it was the shame of the punishment he’d given Dean that had kept him from going back in. But it hadn’t been the pain that had left Dean choking down sobs in Brown’s bathtub. It was what he’d seen in the darkroom.

He’d known all along that Brown had been taking pictures. It was constant with the light setups and the lenses always stuck in his face and the timer Brown used so he could be in the shots, with him. But it was different seeing them.

In the dark, red light of the cramped room, his breaths had nearly been too shallow to suck in the stale air. He’d found himself staring at his own tear-filled eyes. He’d seen what he’d let Brown do to him and suddenly it had been real.

He really was that weak and it really wasn’t just in his head. It was right there on the wall where anyone could see. Where Dad could see.

Revulsion churned inside him at the thought that some of the photos could still be hanging in there now, nineteen years later. Dean had done everything possible to push them from his mind. Mostly it had worked until now, but the voluntary amnesia had also made him forget that the darkroom connected the bedroom to the bathroom.

“You didn’t relock the deadbolt, Agent Ehart.”

The voice was spoken into Dean’s ear, close enough to feel the rush of hot breath that accompanied the words. His eyes went wide as he stumbled back and swung the gun around.

There was no time to squeeze the trigger before he felt the sharp sting of a needle sliding into his jugular. His hand shot up to the injection site, but the syringe had already been pulled away, its contents pumping through his bloodstream.

“Son of a bitch.”

Dean took an unsteady step to the side and braced his hand against the wall. His gun was pulled from his slack grip as his arm became too weak to support him. He leaned his shoulder against the wall, using his numbing hands to slow his descent towards the floor.

Deceptively strong arms caught him, pulling him back against their owner’s chest. His eyelids hung half open as his nostrils were stung with the old, familiar scent of nicotine mingling with Old Spice. Panic stirred in his gut.

One of Brown’s arms constricted around Dean’s throat, making sucking in air more difficult than it already had been. “Does your partner know where you are?”

“Yeah,” Dean rasped. He strained his eyes in an effort to keep them open. “And I know what you are.”

His chest hurt. His heart felt ready to burst straight through his ribs as conscious thought gave way to the instinctual need to flee. Clawing at the grip that held him burnt through his last reserves of energy. His arms fell to his side as his body failed him.

“I thought you might, Dean.”

Clipped, erratic breaths caught in his throat at the sound of his name rolling off Brown’s tongue. His mind shouted to fight, run, scream – anything but just lay there. Instead, his eyelids drooped.

Dean moaned, probably a whimper, as he felt the hand stroking through his hair. Revulsion breached through the panic when a soft kiss ghosted the slope of his cheekbone. Brown’s voice was conversational as he wrapped an arm around Dean’s shoulder, pulling him intimately close.

“I’d always wondered if you’d kept the freckles.”

Dean could feel Brown’s touch, but his body would’t respond to any of his orders to move. He couldn’t even think, couldn’t feel anything but the old fear as the cheap tie around his neck was tugged loose.

“I’ve had a lot of lovers, sweetie, but when your partner said your name, I knew it was you. I could never forget my beautiful crier.”

As the possessive hands tugged off his jacket and slipped beneath his shirt, it was as if he'd never left. Sammy was still sleeping a few rooms down the hall and Mr. Brown was going to take what he wanted one way or another.

~~~

June 18th 1987 – Sunset View Apartments – Kokomo, Indiana

“Sammy, stop throwing that thing around. You’re gonna break something.”

Dean shook his head as he returned to meticulously scraping every last smear of peanut butter from the empty jar, but kept a wary eye on his little brother. Teaching Sammy how to play catch had seemed like a really good idea. It was fun getting to do things with Sammy aside from feed him and make sure he used the potty.

What he hadn’t counted on was how much the coordination of a four year old sucked. That and Sammy wouldn’t put the softball away when they were inside. Dean had tried to take it away, but Sammy pouted and Dean had given it back to him ten seconds later. Now Sammy was tossing it in the air again.

“Wanna go play outside,” Sammy said.

“Yeah, me too.” Dean started shaking cracker boxes in search of one that actually still had crackers in it. “But I’m in the middle of making your lunch and then I gotta go get some groceries.”

“Wanna go now.”

It was the fifth time Sammy had asked to go out in the last three minutes. They’d been cooped up watching cartoons all morning because of the rain. Now the weather had finally cleared and Sammy was officially done with being inside.

“Dude, just put the stupid ball down and give me like two minutes here. You’re hungry, aren’t you?”

Sammy gave an enthusiastic nod.

“Then just chill out.”

Nearly the instant Dean turned to grab the milk from the fridge he heard the crash. He spun around to see the ball rolling across the floor, the room’s ugly glass base lamp shattered all over the place and a stunned look on Sammy’s face.

“Sammy!”

As soon as Dean growled his little brother name, Sammy’s lower lip began to tremble, moisture swelling to his eyes. Dean stomped across the kitchen and back into the main room, kicking the ball on the way to his brother. He looked between the shattered lamp and Sammy’s tears before giving a huff. Dad would kill them, but only if he found out.

Dean walked over to wrap an arm around his brother. “Hey, it’s okay, Sammy. It’s just a stupid lamp.”

Even as Dean reassured his brother, his stomach twisted. Sure, it was just a stupid lamp, but it was a stupid lamp that Dad was going to notice missing unless Dean stole an identical one from one of the other pre-furnished apartments, which was exactly what he was going to have to do.

Before Dean could start picking up the glass, a man’s voice called from the hallway. “Everything okay in there?”

“Yeah, we’re fine,” Dean called back.

“How about you open the door so I can make sure?”

Dean tensed and sent a nervous glance to his little brother. “Really, I got it.”

“Son, I’m Mr. Brown, the manager here, and if I have to call the police, your dad is going to be in some serious trouble.”

That was just what he needed. It was bad enough that he couldn’t keep the furniture in one piece while Dad was away, but if the manager called the police they were totally screwed.

He glanced over his shoulder towards the salt-lined window. Instinct told him to run, but it wouldn’t do anything to stop the police from getting involved. While he and Sammy could get out, Dad would still be in trouble.

“Okay, just a minute,” Dean called back to Mr. Brown before his voice turned quiet. “Sammy, go in the bathroom and lock the door.” Dean dug a container of salt out of his bag and stuffed it into Sammy’s little hands. “Put that down like that game I taught you and don’t come out until I come get you.”

“But Dean...”

“We’re just playing Hide and Seek, but you’re gonna screw it up if you come out early. Go!”

Dean watched to make sure Sammy actually went into the bathroom then scanned the room to confirm the guns were all out of sight before he unlocked the door. When he opened it, the man standing in the hallway looked past Dean into the room.

“Did you break that lamp?” Mr. Brown asked.

“Yes, sir.”

Dean wanted to lie, but it was kind of hard when the evidence was spread over the floor right behind him. Mr. Brown probably wouldn’t buy that a poltergeist had done it.

Mr. Brown gave a disapproving shake of his head. “That’s apartment property.”

“I know, sir. I’m sorry. I’ll pay for it.”

While the words slipped easily from Dean’s tongue, he didn’t actually know how much a lamp cost. There was no way the money Dad had left with him would cover it and still leave them with enough for food until Dad came back.

“That was a very expensive lamp,” Mr. Brown replied. “I’d hate to have to call your father...or CPS to report that two minors have been abandoned here for over a week.”

Panic rushed through Dean. He didn’t really know what CPS was. All he knew was what Dad had said. They were really bad and that if Dean screwed up, they’d take Sammy away.

“We’re not abandoned. You can call my dad if you have to, but...” Dean swallowed nervously. He didn’t want Dad to find out, but disappointing Dad would be way better than losing Sammy.

“I can tell you’re a good boy, Dean.” The man crouched down in front of him. “I’ll make you a deal. I won’t have to tell anyone if I know you’ve learned your lesson. How about you come to my office and we’ll take care of it.”

Dean didn’t want to go to Mr. Brown’s office. Bad things happened in offices, but Dad knowing was worse. He glanced back towards the bathroom before slipping out of the apartment and locking the door behind him.

Mr. Brown took Dean’s hand and kept him close by his side as they walked. The hairs at the nape of Dean’s neck stood on end. While the man talked about the weather, Dean’s gut screamed to run.

He shouldn’t have left Sammy alone.

They walked across the courtyard and past the playground, which was still dripping from the rain. Right behind it, was the door to Mr. Brown’s office.

Dean stayed on alert while the man dug out a set of keys. Mr. Brown let go of his hand when the door was opened, patting Dean’s butt to guide him into the office. Dean shot the man a glare, but bit his lip to keep his mouth shut.

The office was dark with the blinds closed. Dean’s shoulders squared at the sound of Mr. Brown locking the door behind them. The man walked over to the desk and clicked on a lamp before opening the top drawer and pulling out a big hairbrush. He set it on top of the desk and crossed his arms over his chest as he looked down at Dean.

“Have you ever been paddled?”

Dean flinched. Last month he wouldn’t have known what Mr. Brown was asking. Paddles had been for boats and Ping Pong until the last school he’d gone to.

It had sucked worse than most. One stupid argument with a teacher about how he couldn’t stay after school and the jerk principal had Dean in his office telling him he was going to hit him.

It wasn’t right to hit someone for no reason and Dean was supposed to fight if anyone tried to hurt him or Sammy. Or that’s what Dean had thought. So he’d fought Principal Baker and the school called Dad, who had been really pissed off, but not at the school like Dean had thought he would be.

Dad had told Dean to let the man hit him and to stop causing trouble. Even if he didn’t like it, Dean knew the same applied here. He wasn’t going to disappoint Dad again.

His fingers picked at the hemline of his worn shirt and he gave a hesitant nod. “Yes, sir.”

Mr. Brown kneeled in front of him. The man’s face was gentle enough that Dean almost pleaded for a lesser punishment, but he just wanted to get out of here as fast as he could even if it was with a sore butt.

“What’s your name, son?” Dean hung his head lower to try to avoid the man’s eyes, but Mr. Brown grasped his chin and titled his head up. “You have a beautiful face. Don’t hide it.”

Dean tensed so hard his body subtly trembled as Mr. Brown stroked a thumb over his cheek. A large hand ran over Dean’s hair, holding his head in place so he couldn’t turn away. He bit his lip nearly hard enough to draw blood and stared desperately at the locked door behind Mr. Brown.

He wanted to kick the guy in the balls and run back to his brother, but then Mr. Brown would call Dad and he’d just have to come back to the office and get it worse.

Mr. Brown let go of his chin and Dean let himself breathe again. The man stared expectantly at him and Dean reluctantly gave his name, at least the one Dad had told him to use.

“Dean Searle.”

With a satisfied nod, Mr. Brown reached forward and undid the button of Dean’s jeans. Dean wasn’t a baby. He could take off his own pants, but Principal Baker had taught him that it was a really stupid idea to argue with an adult who was already planning to hit him.

“You’re a good boy, Dean. You just need to learn.”

~~~

November 24, 2006 – Kokomo, Indiana

Each impact brought a fresh blossom of pain over an already heated ache. Dean moaned into the pillow beneath him. He wanted to squirm away from the steady slap of hardwood against his tender flesh, but his body wouldn’t move. Even his fingers failed in clutching the sheets beneath him.

He couldn’t open his eyes, but knew where he was by the familiar scent of the sweaty, nicotine-laced sheets. Mr. Brown’s sweat and Marlboro cigarettes. He couldn’t tell the brand by the smell, but it was Mr. Brown’s favorite.

He liked them so much he’d tried to share them with Dean. They’d smelled bad and had made him cough, which Mr. Brown had thought was funny. Dean didn’t know why it was funny, but he knew he was never going to smoke again.

He also knew who loomed over him by the gentle caresses, rough fingers that didn’t belong claiming his skin. The touch soothed the ache in between bringing more pain.

The brush’s sting fell several more times before the makeshift paddle was set down on his bare back. It was hot from the friction of the spanking that left pain radiating up to the small of his back and down to his knees every time he uselessly tried to shift a muscle.

It was the hardest Mr. Brown had ever hit him and Dean didn’t remember what he’d done. He didn't even remember how he'd gotten here. Everything thing was fuzzy, but it didn't matter. He didn't usually know what he'd done and tried not to think about being here.

His only warning that he’d screwed up was Mr. Brown telling him to lay over his lap. Dean knew the screw up wasn’t so much what he’d done, but what he was because it was the same with Dad. Dean could do the exact same thing every day and one day it would be right and the next it would be wrong. Sure, Dad never hit him, but sometimes Dean wished he would.

He couldn’t help a sniffle, but stubbornly buried his tears in the pillow. A chill settled over his skin as Mr. Brown rubbed circles over his shoulder.

“It’s okay to cry,” Mr. Brown said. “I know it hurts, but you still need to learn.”

“Not crying,” Dean mumbled.

He tried to bring his arm up to rub his cheeks dry, but it wouldn’t move. Mr. Brown’s hand came up instead to run through his hair. His hair seemed short. Mr. Brown must have cut it. One more thing he’d have to explain to Dad.

The man leaned down to kiss the top of Dean’s head. “Of course you’re not, sweetie. The strongest boy I ever knew. I should’ve kept you.”

Dean felt himself being rolled. His body limply complied to Mr. Brown’s positioning. He found himself lying on his back, on the bed alone. Mr. Brown must be getting the camera.

Dean spent the nights lying awake beside Sammy, hurting in places he shouldn’t and wishing he could smash that camera into a thousand pieces. He wanted to take Sammy and run. Everyday it got harder to answer Dad’s calls and tell him that everything was okay, even though it wasn’t a lie. Sammy was okay and Dean was going to keep it that way.

He sucked in a breath. It was hard to breathe, like there was something sitting on his chest or the air was just too thick. He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids were too heavy to let him see more than a slit of light. He let them close again. The light made him dizzy.

“Feel sick,” Dean muttered, his lips barely moving.

He felt the mattress dip as Mr. Brown settled back down on the edge of the bed beside him. The man’s hand rubbed over Dean’s churning stomach. It would have been soothing if it was Mom, but it wasn’t and Mr. Brown’s hand didn’t stay at his stomach. It slipped lower.

“No.” Dean tried to shake his head as his legs were parted. “Please I...don’t. I don’t feel good.”

“I have something for you to drink in a few minutes,” Mr. Brown said. “It’ll take away the pain. It was my mistake letting you suffer all these years. I’ve learned my lesson. Now I make sure the children find their way back to God before their beauty is taken.”

Dean didn’t try to make sense of the words. All he could ever do was make sure that Mr. Brown was happy so he choked down a whimper as the man’s hand cupped his balls as casually as if they were his own.

“I could tell you were gonna get big,” Mr. Brown’s thumb absently stroked Dean as he spoke. “But you’re not like the others. You haven’t changed and you never will. Now let’s just get you shaved and—”

Somewhere in the distance, a door was broken in, followed soon by an angry shout. “Get away from him!”

Dad. Fear tightened Dean’s chest. He couldn’t let Dad see him like this, but he couldn’t move to cover himself.

A moment later, Mr. Brown jumped from the bed, leaving him sprawled naked over the covers, waiting for the fallout.

~~~

Once Sam had figured out that Dean wasn’t at the motel, it was easy enough to guess where he had gone. He tried the doorknob to Mr. Brown’s apartment, but didn’t knock when he found it locked. Instead, he took a page from Dean’s book and busted in the door. He kicked it shut behind him.

Only a few steps later, he saw the nightmare he’d feared playing out right in front of him.

Dean lay still on the bed, stripped bare. It was only the agonized tension in his features that told Sam he was still alive. The tight expression, moist cheeks and bit lip were such a direct mirror of the little boy in the photos that Sam felt the air leave his own lungs.

Dean was terrified and the man responsible for it all, the bastard who had done things to his big brother that Sam couldn’t even force himself to put words to, sat casually on the edge of the bed beside him.

Brown’s hand was still between Dean’s legs. He had a razor in the other hand and a canister of shaving cream set on the bed beside him. Nausea again rode up in Sam’s stomach. He swallowed it down and stormed forward, gun cocked.

“Get away from him!” Sam demanded.

Brown startled from the bed when he saw the gun, raising his hands. “All right, Agent, no need for that. This isn’t what it looks like and, unless you have a warrant, you can just show yourself to the door.”

While Brown had gotten up, Dean hadn’t moved. Sam tightened his grip on his pistol. “What did you do?”

There was no blood on the sheets or any obvious sign that Brown had overwhelmed Dean by force. There were no ropes or chains. There was only Dean lying pale and exposed on the bed.

Sam moved close enough to see that his chest was moving, but his breathing was shallow and labored. He did a quick survey of the area and found an empty syringe sitting on the bedside table beneath the lamp. A glass sat next to it filled with a fluorescent green liquid that wasn’t the color of any drink.

Sam’s heart skipped when his fear was confirmed by the bottle of antifreeze on the floor. “How much did you give him?”

“I’d rather not use it at all. The color is unfortunate.” Brown’s tone was casual, as if he was speaking to an old friend. “After I saw Dean’s eyes I thought I might like color.”

Brown glanced over his shoulder to where Dean lay. Sam wanted to shoot the man just for looking at his brother.

“Ethylene glycol makes a fine bath for developing,” Brown continued. “But color just doesn’t have the punch of black and white. By the time I’d found a use for the glycol, the industry had switched to propylene. It’s just not the same.”

Sam didn’t know anything about developing, but he had taken chemistry. As far as Brown was concerned, the inferiority in propylene glycol was its lack of toxicity while it could take as little as three ounces of ethylene glycol to kill Dean. After everything, Dean wasn’t dying like this.

Sam charged forward, grabbing the bottle of antifreeze and shaking it in Brown’s face. “How much of this did you give him?”

“He’s not ready. I just gave him something to relax him, that’s all.” This man was in the middle of killing Dean, and worse, but he still sounded as at ease as he had back in the office. “That crazy brother of mine, he made some friends in the medical field. Sometimes they’re looking for extra cash. I still use the glycol for the children because they don’t mind a sweet drink, but hate needles.”

Brown reached towards the bed stand and took a small injection bottle from it. He held it out to Sam. Sam gave it a wary look before tossing aside the antifreeze and taking the offered bottle. He kept Brown in sight as he scanned the label.

It was a paralytic, not a sedative. If it was really all Brown had given Dean then Dean was still conscious, aware of everything Brown was doing, but unable to move to stop it.

“This is for use with anesthesia.” And euthanasia, but Sam could barely think that, let alone say it. Sam stuffed the bottle into his pocket to free up his hand. “You can’t give this without a ventilator. He’s suffocating!”

“I’m careful with the dosage.”

“Is that how you did it?” Sam asked.

“Did what, Agent?”

“Is that how you got Dean to...?”

He couldn’t say it and not just because Dean could probably hear him. He just couldn’t say aloud what he’d seen laid out in the photos. He just couldn’t understand.

“You think I had to drug him to get him to be with me?” Brown’s tone was indignant. “This is the first time I’ve ever given him anything, but a proper spanking. Dean’s a good boy, always has been.”

Sam’s chest heaved, rage drowning everything else out as Brown’s words settled over him. On the bed, Dean was starting to shift. He was trying to roll onto his side to face away from them and managed to pull his leg far enough over that Sam could see the deep red shade of the back of his thighs.

Brown had done that to Dean now when he was too drugged to defend himself and back when he’d only been a little boy. The brush that lay on the bed beside Dean was the same one from the office and the photos.

Not only was the brush the same, but so was everything else. Nearly twenty years and nothing had changed.

Sam recognized the dining room table from the photos of Dean sitting naked on Brown’s lap while they ate. He saw the kitchen Dean had made those meals in while Brown had stood beside him, violating him. It was the bed Dean had laid on, where Brown had cradled him to his bare chest while his fingers had gone places Sam couldn’t fathom.

Past the bed, was the corner Dean had stood in after Brown beat him. Sam’s mind flashed to pictures of that boy trying to hide himself under the glare of the camera’s lights while the man responsible calmly documented it all.

Sam had looked through every photo. Not because he wanted to or had any right, but because he had to know what Dean would never tell him. And because he just couldn’t believe it. He’d even nearly convinced himself that the boy in the pictures wasn’t really Dean.

The pictures weren’t cheap, faded Polaroids. They were painfully well-focused, black and white 8x10s. It hadn’t only been sarcasm when Dean had asked Brown about being a photographer and, visually, there was no mistaking the identity of the child.

Despite all the evidence, he still hadn’t been able to believe that Dean would’ve gone along with Brown. Dean hadn’t been just some random, defenseless kid.

Things like this couldn’t happen to his brother.

He hadn’t even remembered Dean ever being that young. Dean was always the one he’d looked up to, nearly as big as Dad from the start. He was the one who had protected him and had made him feel safe.

The photos that had shattered his denial were of Dean alone on the bed. He’d been on his hands and knees with the brush in his hand, spanking himself. It was a staged shot, like all rest and Sam had no doubt that Brown had been instructing him for it. The hits had still been real.

Dean’s skin had been marked up in a lot of the photos, but nothing like in the one that showed the aftermath of that shoot. Dean had beat himself far harder than Brown ever had. Sam knew that was his brother. It was Dean punishing himself for what someone else had done to him.

The other piece fell into place when Brown spoke again. The man was tilting his head, examining Sam. “You were the little one he wouldn’t let me see, weren’t you? The one he’d kept me away from.”

It struck Sam like a punch to the gut. He felt sick all over again.

His brother had let himself be raped night after night so the monster wouldn’t come after him. And Sam hadn’t even noticed, not then, and not for the twenty years after that Dean had continued to carry that weight.

Sam looked between glass of antifreeze and his exposed brother, still barely able to move, but trying to cover himself. Most of his backside was visible now. The skin was fiery red, already nearly purple in spots.

Dean whimpered and Sam choked down a sob.

“How about you just put that thing down so we can talk about this?”

Brown’s words pulled Sam back, despair melting into rage. His finger tensed over the trigger and he shook his head, his cold eyes settled on the man. “You were going to kill him. Just like you killed those other boys.”

“Children aren’t like they used to be,” Brown said. “I told Dean to do something and he jumped right to it. Anything I asked and it was just yes, sir, like a good boy should. Now a days? Kids just don’t have that respect that they ought to. They don’t know how to keep quiet and grow up far too fast.”

Brown was human. Technically. Sam was relatively sure of that only because Dean wouldn’t have otherwise gone behind his back to kill the man. If Brown was anything else, Dean would have killed him the moment they’d arrived. Sam would give anything to go back and let Dean do that now.

Brown reached to stroke Dean’s back. His fingers never made contact.

One shot to the heart and the man fell back against the bed stand. He knocked over the glass before slumping to the ground. Deep crimson blossomed over his shirt while the neon antifreeze that had been meant for Dean, dripped from the table onto the jerking body.

Sam stepped over him as the man choked on his own blood. He should’ve tied Brown up and called the police, but he couldn’t do that to his brother. Brown hadn’t been human enough to justify Dean suffering one moment longer.

Sam ran his hand through his hair, trying to steady himself before reaching for his brother. “It’s okay, Dean.”

He checked Dean’s pulse and breathing. Neither were normal, but they weren’t far enough off to subject Dean to a hospital. He just had to get him out of here.

Sam pulled the blankets up to wrap around Dean’s exposed body. He lifted his big brother into his arms. Dean would kick his ass later, but right now Sam didn’t have any other options. He didn’t even know where Dean’s clothes were.

“I’m sorry,” Dean whispered.

The words stopped Sam in his tracks. He looked down at Dean. His brother still hadn’t opened his eyes and was limp in Sam’s arms. Sam didn’t have a chance to ask Dean why before he heard the agitated voices from an accompanying room.

He clutched Dean tighter and rushed him from Brown’s apartment. His boots fell heavy down the hallway before he carried Dean out into the cool night. The car was right outside, not that it would have mattered how far it was. Nothing could make Sam put Dean down until they were somewhere safe.

As soon as he had the door open, he laid Dean in the front passenger seat. He put him on his side to keep his weight off his bruising rear and hated how meaningless the gesture seemed in the face of everything else that had been done.

It was Dean, six feet tall and solid muscle, but as Sam tucked blanket back around his bare shoulders, that wasn’t who he saw lying there. It was the little boy from the photos. The one who had given everything for him.

Sam squeezed Dean’s shoulder before shutting the door and hurrying around to the driver’s side. Dean remained exactly where Sam had positioned him. Sam sent him a worried glance as he fired up engine and pulled out of the parking lot.

If Dean didn’t come around soon, he was going to have to get him to a hospital. Sam checked his pulse before resting his hand back on Dean’s shoulder to let him know he was there.

“Dean? I need you to talk to me.” He gave Dean a gentle shake. “Come on. I need you to wake up.”

“Sorry.”

The word was slurred and barely audible under the roar of the Impala’s engine. Sam was only sure that Dean had said it because it was the same thing he’d said at Brown’s apartment.

“Why?” Sam’s voice was hoarse as he was finally able to ask the question. “Why’re you sorry?”

Dean shifted, but it was too dark for Sam to see if he’d opened his eyes. Dean’s already weak voice cracked. “Dad, I’m sorry…”

Sam didn’t care who Dean thought he was talking to or what ridiculous thing he was apologizing for. The answer was the same.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Sam said. “None of it.”

“Sammy...?”

“Yeah, Dean.”

“Where is he?”

“Brown’s gone.” Dean tried to get up, tangling himself in the blanket. Sam could tell by his breathing that Dean was starting to panic and eased him back down. “Hey, it’s okay. Just relax.”

“Where’s Sammy?” Dean’s voice was still on the edge of panic, still too soft to sound like his brother. “Can’t leave him there.”

Sam clenched his jaw. He want to scream that it didn’t matter, that Dean should have just let Brown have him. It wasn’t worth what Dean had endured. Nothing was.

Sam tightened his grip on his brother while keeping his bleary eyes on the road. “He’s okay, Dean. It’s gonna be okay.”

“Mr. Brown’s really gone?”

“It’s over,” Sam said. “You did good, Dean.”

Dean’s shoulder tensed beneath his touch before he just let go. The force of the sob shook Dean’s entire body.

Sam took the first turn off, grinding the car to a stop on a dead-end gravel road. He sat helplessly, leaning back in the seat, eyes closed, just listening. Praying.

Dean usually kept everything down. Sam had seen him cry before, when things were really bad, but he’d never made a sound. The sounds he was making now, all the louder in the still night, were unlike anything Sam had ever heard from Dean or anyone else.

Someone should’ve been there to save Dean because it was too late to take it back as the tears came so hard that Dean shook against him. Sam fought through his own ragged breaths and pulled Dean closer as his brother clutched the blanket he was wrapped in.

There were so many ways Sam wanted to fix this and nothing he could do aside from hold Dean and pretend he understood.

~~~

November 25, 2006 – Bloomington, Illinois

Dean let the water burn his skin. The showerhead blasted his back while his unsteady hands braced against the shower’s tiles.

He’d used all the shampoo and scrubbed with the last bar of soap until it was a useless sliver. His skin was raw, but he could still smell him. He could still feel him. He could still remember the baths they’d taken together.

That wasn’t why he couldn’t move. All that crap, he’d gotten over it, the best he could. He’d shoved it aside and he’d found a way to live with it.

It wasn’t like it was a big deal. Just some old bastard playing with his dick. It shouldn’t even matter. He didn’t know why it did.

Here he was crying about getting his picture taken when all that should matter was that he hadn’t ended it when he’d had the chance. He didn’t deserve better than what he got. So many kids had gotten hurt because he hadn’t been able to suck it up and deal with it. Because he’d been too weak.

He’d been too scared to face Brown. Too scared to face Dad. Now he was too scared to face Sam.

Dean slammed his fist into the tile. The pain radiated up his arm, but wasn’t enough. He remained beneath the water until it began to chill. Until he was shaking.

Pathetic.

Sam had carried him into the motel room last night, wrapped in a blanket like the baby he was. It meant at least part of what he’d remembered was true. He just wasn’t sure how much of it was and how much Sam had really seen.

It was all muddled in his head. He couldn’t remember what had happened last night and what had happened twenty years go. It didn’t matter outside of anticipating the questions Sam would ask or how his brother would look at him.

At least Dad wasn’t alive to see him.

Dean jumped at the knock on the door. He held his breath, still trembling, forcing it back down.

“Dean?” Sam asked from the other side of the door. “You okay in there?”

He almost laughed.

~~~

Dean came out of the bathroom fully dressed.

He’d been in there long enough that Sam had started to pace the room and had wanted desperately to go in to check on him. But he couldn’t do that. They’d never been big on personal space, but he could only imagine that Dean needed it now.

Dean shuffled across the room, grimacing as denim rubbed over his backside. Sam had offered him other clothes, but Dean had refused them, saying there was no reason he couldn’t just wear his jeans.

That was the closest they’d so far managed to a conversation since Brown’s apartment.

Dean was looking everywhere but at Sam as he made a beeline for his bag. He immediately pulled out a bottle of whiskey.

Dean had been out of it most of the night, jumping between trying to figure out where he was and dry heaving. The drugs had hit his system hard and Sam had spent the better part of the early morning hours trying to stop it from getting worse by wrestling liquor out of Dean’s hands.

While he didn’t want to see Dean drowning himself in whiskey now, the drugs should be out of his system and Sam would be hard-pressed to deny Dean anything.

After a long gulp, Dean threw his bag over his shoulder like he thought he was going somewhere. “So we gonna hit the road or what?”

In an instant, it was as if yesterday had never happened. There was no remaining trace of that exposed fear or desperation. The confused innocence was gone from Dean’s eyes and his voice was again strong and rough. Sam would have thought it had all been a nightmare if he didn’t still have the manila folder peeking out from his bag.

He wanted it to be over. He wanted Dean to be able to just walk out of here and leave it all behind, but he knew that wasn’t what this was. This was Dean shoving that hurt part of himself back down, burying it all the deeper where it would just hurt him all the more.

“Dean, we need to talk.”

“Uh, no, we don’t.” Dean dropped his bag with a huff and glared at Sam. “Look, man, I don’t know what you wanna hear, but I’m telling you, I just don’t remember.”

“That’s crap, Dean. I was there. I saw—“

“Dude, I don’t know what the hell you think you saw. It was just some old perv getting his jollies off on my sweet ass. End of story.”

Sam raised his brow.

Dean paced to the other side of the room. “Okay, so I do remember, but it wasn’t whatever you think it was.”

This isn’t what it looks like.

Brown’s words echoed in his head. The man had been unstable enough that he might have even believed he wasn’t doing anything wrong. Sam didn’t care one way or another, but he was afraid that Dean believed the same and thought that it actually didn’t matter.

Dean stopped so he was standing facing the corner. Sam closed his eyes against the visual that came to mind, but it was still there. Dean standing naked staring at a wall and being forced to touch himself so that no one would touch Sam.

“I saw the photos.”

Sam’s words came out in a rush because he didn’t know how else to say it. He didn’t want to say it at all, but he needed Dean to know that he didn’t have tell him what had happened. He already knew. He just needed Dean to know that it was okay. Not what Brown had done, but that he was okay.

Dean rubbed the back his neck and stayed facing the wall. “From last night? Super.” Dean’s attempt at casual quickly darkened to bitter. “You gonna pin them up?”

“I saw the photos from ’87.”

Dean went stiff. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Sam took the folder from his bag and tossed it onto the bed. Several of the photos slipped out.

Dean as a young boy sitting naked on a bathroom counter with his legs splayed while he brushed his hair. Dean looking in the mirror with a lost, self-loathing expression, not far off from the one he was wearing now. And a close-up portrait with his head bowed and long lashes hooding his moist eyes.

Sam stared at them, caught between trying to convince himself that he hadn’t just imagined this all and wishing desperately that he had.

Dean glanced towards the photos, too. He even walked towards the bed and, for a moment, Sam thought he was actually going to face it, but he only grabbed the bottle again then turned his back. He scrubbed his hand over his face.

“It was just some crap that happened twenty years ago,” Dean said after another slug from the bottle. “Doesn’t matter.”

The dismissive tone only further reared up the anger that Sam had been trying to choke down. It wasn’t actually anger towards Dean, but Dean was the one standing there saying it didn’t matter that a man had spent weeks raping Sam’s big brother.

“How can you say that?” Sam asked, fighting to keep his tone steady.

Dean shrugged. “You had your childhood drama, I had mine. It was three months of hell and then it was over.”

Whatever Sam had been ready to say to Dean, died on his tongue. He’d guessed it had been weeks from the quantity of photos. He hadn’t considered, hadn’t been able to let himself think, that those were just what Brown had chosen as the highlights.

“Three months?”

Dean froze before the bottle could again touch his lips. Dean was readying to recover from the slip, but it was too late.

“Dad left us there for three months?” Sam asked again.

“Dad was there was part of the time. On and off. Just made it worse.” Dean walked back to the far side of the room. “Just forget about it. It’s no big deal.”

“Dean, most people—“

“I’m not most people!”

Dean hurtled the bottle at the wall. It smashed into the striped wallpaper. The little remaining whiskey trailed down from where it had spattered. Dean barely spared it a glance, staring instead off towards the far side of the room.

His chest was heaving, his jaw trembling with how hard he was fighting to keep it steady. Moisture swelled up in his bloodshot eyes, but he stubbornly fought it back as Sam was about to lose his own struggle to keep it together.

“I could’ve stopped it.” The words were quiet, almost as if Dean was speaking to himself. “All of it, but I didn’t do shit. Twenty years and I just let him... All because I didn’t have the balls to...fuck!”

Dean’s fist shot out, drywall cracking beneath the force of his punch. Sam quickly closed the distance between them, not because he cared about the stupid motel room, but because there was already blood on Dean’s knuckles. He wasn’t going to stand by and watch Dean just hurt himself more.

“Dean...”

Dean momentarily calmed, flexing his fist as he stared blankly at the busted wall in front of him. Sam watched Dean’s back for a moment before he reached out to set his hand on Dean’s shoulder.

“Get your goddamn hands off me!”

Sam dodged to escape the blow Dean threw as he spun around. He couldn’t tell by Dean’s guarded expression whether or not his brother knew who he’d been aiming for. Either way, his eyes pleaded an apology before he turned back around.

“Is that why you’re sorry?” Sam asked quietly. “You’re sorry you didn’t stop it...that you didn’t stop Brown from hurting those other kids?”

Dean didn’t look at him, but Sam caught the subtle nod.

“Dean, you were just a little boy.”

“It’s no excuse.”

Sam watched Dean’s shoulders slump. He choked down his rage at Brown for what he’d done to Dean, at Dad, and himself and anyone else who had ever made Dean think he had to be anything but human.

“Those two boys they found in the alley, should they have stopped him?” Sam asked. “And the one before that, is it his fault their dead?”

“Of course not.”

“Then why’s it your fault?”

“Oh, cut the crap!” Dean jumped around to face him. “I wasn’t like those other kids and you know it. Those kids are dead because I couldn’t pull a goddamn trigger!”

Dean shoved past him. Sam’s gaze followed Dean before drifting back to the photos on the bed and the close-up of Dean, nineteen years earlier. Sam walked over and reached for the photo.

His brother had been eight years old, desperate, still just trying to pull it together only four years after Mom. Sam’s thumb traced over one of the tear-stained cheeks. He didn’t want to know what Dean had actually been thinking about life or himself when the photo had been shot. He didn’t want to think about how alone Dean really had been.

“I had a key to his apartment,” Dean said. His voice was blank, distant. “I was supposed to let myself in after school so I could be ready for him, you know?”

Sam nodded as if he had any idea, as if he could ever begin to imagine what it must have been like for Dean to let himself into that bastard’s apartment and strip down day after day, knowing what was coming.

“One night, I went over there. Let myself in. I brought a gun and I stood there with my finger on the trigger and... I couldn’t do it. He was just human and I thought it was just me. I...I didn’t think anyone else would get hurt.”

Sam’s throat tightened as the emotion flooded into Dean’s voice. He was pushing it down, but it was there, steeped with regret. Dean honestly thought he had to justify himself.

Sam opened his mouth to tell Dean how far off the mark he was, but he lost the ability to speak when Dean turned enough towards him that Sam could see his profile. A tear slipped down his cheek, but it was the distance in his eyes and the unease that slipped into his tone that had Sam standing frozen.

“He heard me leaving and he found the gun.” Dean winced. He sounded young again, like he had last night. “I didn’t try again. I should’ve, but it hurt so fucking much and I...I just couldn’t do it.”

“Dean, what did he do?”

Sam grimaced, afraid of what the answer might be. Dean huffed a chuckle that probably would have been a sob if Sam hadn’t been standing there with him.

“Nothing he was willing to take pictures of.” Dean shook his head and wiped his hand over his cheeks. “He didn’t take any pictures for a while.”

Sam felt dizzy, nauseous. Every one of those photos was burned into his memory and every one had made him sicker than the last. It was too much to think that those were only the things Brown had felt comfortable photographing.

“I lived,” Dean said. “But I was afraid he’d decide I wasn’t worth the trouble so I tried everything to...damn it.”

Dean wiped his cheeks again before he looked up, his eyes suddenly locking with Sam’s, searching as if he was trying to decide what he saw there. Sam knew his brother was looking for pity or disgust, but he wouldn’t find either. Sam only felt surer than ever that Dean was the strongest person he’d ever known.

“I tried, Sammy.”

Dean’s words were so earnest, begging to be heard, begging for forgiveness that he didn’t even need. Sam gritted his teeth and nodded. “I know you did.”

“But it wasn’t enough. I mean, I just let him...”

Sam’s blurry eyes fixed back on the photo in his hand. He didn’t bother to wipe away his own tears as he looked up and raised the photo so Dean could see it.

“It was his fault?” Sam asked.

Dean looked away, but Sam didn’t relent. He kept the photo raised where Dean would either have to face it or walk away. Dean’s feet remained planted so Sam insisted further.

“Look at him, Dean.”

Dean finally did look. He clenched his jaw as he stared at the freckled boy. Dean’s expression was neutral, but the emotion couldn’t be hidden from his eyes. Sam knew Dean had been looking back imagining himself as he was now, a lethal hunter, not remembering the third grader who had just been trying to hold it together.

“It wasn’t your fault, Dean. You couldn’t have stopped him.”

“I wanted to keep you safe.” Dean averted his eyes, but didn’t turn away. “Just tell me he really never touched you.”

Sam’s anger and despair surrendered to guilt. “Dean, I don’t even remember that place. No one has ever... You’ve always kept me safe and I never would’ve even thought... I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t want you to be sorry. I just want this to be over.”

~~~

Once they hit the road, they drove for about four hours before Dean pulled over without a word. Sam wasn’t sure if the spot had significance, if Dean was sore from sitting or if the light had just been right.

It was dusk, dark enough that they wouldn’t attract attention, but still light enough that a fire wouldn’t stand out too much in the darkness. The last of the sun warmed the grey sky behind the bare trees.

They were on some back road somewhere in Wisconsin and the late fall air was brisk. The cold hit him when Dean opened the door to step out. Dry leaves crunched under his boots as he walked around to the trunk. The passenger door creaked when Sam followed a moment later.

He stayed back, letting Dean head up the hill ahead of him with the folder in hand. Sam wanted Dean to know he was there for him, but didn’t want him to feel as if he had to keep himself in check. Dean didn’t look back to see where he was so Sam didn’t move closer, leaning against the smooth bark of a tree.

He watched his brother kick an area clear of leaves to expose the dirt below. Dean’s back was to him as he held the folder a moment longer before dropping it to the ground and dosing it with gasoline. Dean flicked his Zippo and crouched down to set light to the folder.

It was swallowed by a flash of flames that silhouetted Dean as he stood staring down at the fire. Even the wind was still, leaving just the sizzling of the photos and their unsteady breaths.

Nothing but smoldering ashes remained before Sam stepped forward. His shoulder brushed against Dean’s as he stood beside his brother. Dean glanced at Sam and gave him a nod that said everything Dean couldn’t.

It was thank you and that he’d done all he could. They’d never talk about it again, Sam was sure of that, but it didn’t really matter because they’d both learned everything they’d needed to know.

Dean kicked cold dirt over the ashes and brushed his hands off on his jeans before turning back towards the car. As he headed down the hill, he looked over his shoulder at Sam.

“So where are you taking to me for dinner?” Dean asked.

Sam snorted. “You’re the one who got us lost out here.”

“We’re not lost. Just enjoying the scenic route.”

“Dean, your idea of scenery is a strip club.”

Sam kicked himself the moment the words left his mouth. The last thing he needed to be bringing up was anything that had to do with sex or taking off clothes. But when he looked up, Dean was just smirking beside the car.

“Damn straight,” Dean said. “Not that you’d know decent scenery if it bit you in the ass.”

Everything about Dean from the dark circles beneath his eyes, to the way he held his body, screamed of exhaustion, but the tension was gone. Dean pulled open the passenger door and tossed the keys to Sam.

Sam just barely fumbled to catch them. He stared down at the keys before questioningly raising his brow to Dean.

As they’d driven here Sam had spent the silence wondering how Dean could ever move past this, but Dean had already been living with it. The only thing that had changed was that the monster was dead and the secret no longer had to be guarded.

“You just gonna stand there or you gonna get me to a big, juicy burger?” Dean asked.

Dean probably was actually starving. Sam was pretty sure his brother hadn’t touched anything but whisky since they’d arrived in Kokomo. There wasn’t much Sam wanted to see more than Dean just enjoying a good meal.

He shook his head as he watched Dean slip back into the Impala. Sam followed a moment later, taking his place in the driver’s seat. Dean nestled down in the seat beside him, resting most of his weight on his hip and leaning his head against the window.

Sam clicked on the headlights. The Impala didn’t make it to the bottom of the hill before Dean’s eyes fell closed. In the pale light, his features were relaxed and his breaths steady.

Sam no longer saw that shattered boy. He only saw his unbreakable big brother.